International Travel with Children: Surviving In Flight and On the Ground

I’m sharing a few more tips and tricks, based on my own experience, about how to best survive long international trips with children. Last week I shared some of the things I am doing now (three months in advance) to prepare for my solo trip to Australia with two kids in tow, as well as some of my favorite travel toys, books and activities to keep them entertained. Today’s post is focused on the making it through flight and long waits during layovers with you sanity in tact.

Surviving in the air

So now you’re all packed and you managed to get the kids out the door and to the airport about 2 hours before your flight. You even made it through security with all the necessary documents and passports – and without leaving one of them on the photocopier at your office over 20 miles away from airport. (True story that ended well thanks to a very kind co-worker and a speedy courier).

While a lot of the hard work is over at this point, you have about 22 hours in the air and another 8 hours in layovers looming before finally reach your destination. Here are the things my husband and I do every time we travel to try and make sure those many, many (many) hours are as stress-free as possible.

1. Don’t settle when it comes to seat allocation

Never consider your seating arrangement absolutely final until you are safely buckled for takeoff and all tray tables are in their fixed position. The seats that you get when you purchase your ticket do not have to be the seats you end up with. In fact, I begin negotiating for better seats from the moment I book them on line and I don’t stop until I am satisfied that we have the best arrangement for our family – even if that means talking to the person at check in, at the boarding gate, the flight attendants on the plane and your fellow passengers.

This is what I aim for:

  • Everyone seated together – I know it should be obvious but we have, in the past, been seated across the aisle from one another or where one parent is sitting in front.
  • Zone Defense – For a family of four, the airplane configuration will help you determine your best options for seating. For example, if the plane has rows of three seats each, then you may be better off choosing two sets of two seats together.
  • The bulkhead – especially important for families traveling with infants as some international airlines offer a bassinet that hangs from the bulkhead. These bassinets can be used for children up until the age of two (although 12 months is probably most appropriate) and will give you somewhere to put the baby while you eat your dinner or even catch a few moments of sleep. The bulkhead also offers a little more legroom, although placing your child on the floor to sleep is not allowed (I’ve tried).
  • Special upgrades – Sadly, our budget doesn’t allow an upgrade to business class and most airlines no longer offer the surprise upgrade at the gate – especially for families traveling with small children. Although it did happen once on a flight home from Australia with Thomas as a baby. Fond memories…  This time, I’m looking forward to trying out the new Air New Zealand Sky Couch  which will allow us to spread out across three seats and, hopefully, get a little more sleep. I’ll let you know how it goes.
  • Check the car seat – Car seats take up a lot of valuable space in economy seating and limit your options for moving around. I recommend checking it with baggage or, better yet, renting one at the destination.

2. Organize on board and keep the essentials in reach

The first thing I do when I get on board the aircraft is make the kids sit down while I organize our belongings. Kids backpacks with essential books, toys etc. and my camera bag go under the seats in front for easy access. The larger carryon is put in the overhead bins and reserved for things we’ll only need to access on the ground. Here are the items I put in the seat pockets for easy reach:

  • A couple of kids books and activities to keep them occupied during taxi and takeoff.
  • My kindle and a magazine (because you can’t read the Kindle during takeoff).
  • Bottles of water
  • Gum for ear popping
  • Headphone for myself and the kids (in case you’re allowed to watch TV during takeoff)
  • A few snacks to get us through the beginning of the flight because you know they’re going to complain about being hungry as soon as the seat belt sign goes on.

If you have a baby, then I highly recommend purchasing a compact changing pad/diaper carrier. That way you can store 3 or 4 diapers and some wipes in the seat pocket and  access your diaper bag only when you need to re-stock. I used one similar to this for both boys and it was easily one of my best, and most-used, baby purchases.

3. Let some (but not all) of the rules slide

Our kids have a fairly limited TV-watching schedule at home. During the week we limit them to about 30 minutes a day. We allow a little more on weekends but, still, we have limits.

While we’re flying over the Pacific, however, these limits pretty much go out the window. My goal during this time is to keep everyone happy and comfortable and if that means more in flight entertainment then so be it. Thankfully, the international airlines we choose to fly with provide us each with a TV of our own so I’m not forced to watch endless episodes of Blue’s Clues. Definitely worth spending a few extra dollars on airfare.

Of course we still limit TV viewing to an extent so it doesn’t interfere with critical sleeping time and I will take time out to read books and play games but, let’s face it, when you’re forced to sit in your seat for 14 hours, TV is the best form of entertainment for a couple of energetic boys. I also make sure I reinforce at every possible moment that this is a special rule for the aeroplane and that everything will go back to normal after we leave the airport.

The one rule I do continue to enforce whether we’re in the air on on the ground at home, is a limit on sugar. It goes without saying that you do not want to hop your kids up on sugar right before you’re about to board a plane.

Oh, one more thing. Some people recommend taking along Benadryl or some other  medication that may help your child sleep while in flight. Word of warning. Samuel was given Benadryl after an allergic reaction when he was a baby and it had the exact opposite effect. He was wound up for hours. I, personally, don’t think the benefits of medication are worth the risk.

Surviving the Layover

Unless you’re traveling to and from hub locations like LAX and Sydney, it can be almost guaranteed that you’ll have a layover or two – or three in our case. Maintaining your sanity during a layover is just as critical as it is in the air. Here are a couple of things we do to help make 6 hours in LAX move just a little more quickly.

1. Find a place to hunker down and create a home

It’s incredibly tempting to walk leisurely through the airport and check out some of the shops, especially when you have many hours between flights. Instead, Kei and I have developed a habit of heading directly to the gate for our next flight. On our way there, we’ll pay close attention to food options, bathroom locations and any areas that might serve well as our home base for the next few hours. Since I’ll be alone with the children this time, I’ll make sure we include a bathroom break because packing up a bunch of toys and books so you can take your child to the potty is something you want to as few times as possible.

When we’ve found a relatively comfortable area to call home, we set up a perimeter. Somewhere next to a wall is good – even better if it’s a window with a view out to the aeroplanes – and make sure you’re next to an electrical outlet. If possible, we move seats around and create our own little play area to keep children and toys contained. Another thing we do is establish rules so the kids know how far they can venture.

2. Look for a place to play

Many airports have awakened to the fact that kids often travel with their parents and (shock!) might want somewhere to spend their time doing something that doesn’t involve climbing over seats (and other passengers) in the boarding area or pulling items off shelves in the bookstore. If possible, look for a map of the airport online before you begin your journey so you know where these special places will be in relation to your transfer gate. If you find that the play area is immediately next to your gate, then go out and buy a lottery ticket because luck is definitely on your side.

Vancouver, BC airport has a fantastic play area and TVs with children's programming scattered all over the place.

3. Pace yourself and try to keep the kids awake

I’ll be traveling alone this time so I won’t have the option of taking a catnap during our layover. Instead, I’ll be doing all I can to entertain the kids and keep them awake while we’re on the ground so there will be a greater chance that they’ll sleep on the plane. My strategy involves a constant rotation of activities, including encouraging them to play with their toys, watching a movie or playing a game on the iPad, reading them a book or two, coloring and drawing and, when we’ve reached the point of boredom and frayed nerves, bringing out a surprise toy or book. Every couple of hours I’ll pack up our gear and take them for a walk to get them moving, grab something to eat and visit the bathroom. then we’ll rinse and repeat until we’re finally able to board the plane again. The key is to ensure we have as few “I’m bored”‘s as possible.

The San Francisco International airport has a mini aquarium AND an airline museum. One of the better places to be stranded with children.

Remember – Not everything is in your control.

As much as you try to pre-plan and organize and entertain, there are some things that are bound to happen that will be completely out of your control – both good and bad. Over the past few years we’ve experienced delayed flights, cancelled flights, being refused boarding, an unexpected upgrade, lost luggage, an extremely long wait on the tarmac after landing, wonderful flight attendants, grumpy flight attendants, crabby fellow passengers, wonderfully helpful people, great airports and crappy airports.

The one thing that remained constant during each of these situations is that we came  prepared for anything – spare clothes in the carryon, extra toys to keep the kids happy, the ability to smile through the trauma of not being able to board the plane (OK, maybe not that last one). Each of these situations, as bad as they were at the time, would have been a whole lot worse if we hadn’t planned ahead.

Is there anything else you’d like to know about traveling with small children? Anything I haven’t covered here and in my previous posts on this topic? Have some tips of your own that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments.

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