How To Survive Long Flights And Travel With Kids
I live in California and both of my brothers and brother-in-law live on the east coast, so traveling with kids across the country is a must. The first time I traveled with a child, I flew alone with my then-two year old. My younger son flew for the first time when he was seven months old. This summer, I traveled by plane alone with both boys, ages 3 and 7. I know a thing or two about airplane survival with kids.
It isn’t easy keeping young children contained in an airplane seat, but with proper planning and plenty of entertainment, it can be manageable. And if it isn’t, it is just one day of your life. That’s what I remind myself when I’m going through a particularly difficult parenting day. I have had good flights with the boys and I’ve had challenging flights.
When you travel with kids, it is truly all about survival. Your regular parenting rules go out the window. The goal is to keep the kids contained and entertained without losing your mind or disturbing your fellow travelers.
Before I get into my air travel tips, I’ll share a bad experience with you. Everyone likes to share war stories, right? When my youngest was around 20 months old, we flew to the east coast for his cousin’s first birthday. I will preface by saying, my youngest has always been a strong-willed child and has really put our parenting to the test. By contrast, his older brother has always been quiet and patient and incredibly well-behaved.
For the entire 5.5 hour flight, my youngest tortured his brother. He ripped everything my oldest tried to play with out of his hands. He stood behind him to choke him. He pulled his brother’s hair. I spent the entire flight acting like a referee and trying to protect my older son. The worst part was, I had to make him hand everything over to his brother because whenever he didn’t, his brother would scream, which was disruptive to everyone around us. I was sweaty and disheveled by the time our flight arrived.
At the end of the flight, the woman behind us tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I just want you to know that your older son is a saint. He is such a patient, kind boy.” I felt so proud of my big boy, yet so sad for him. He was 6 at the time!
That story is to say that no matter how much you prepare and get organized, your kids may not cooperate. You will survive. It is one day – one difficult day, but still, one day.
Tips for Flying with Kids
I am a master packer. Before kids, I used to travel on business at least two weeks a month. I got packing down to a science at that time. Even before excessive baggage fees, my preference was to travel with a carry-on so that I wouldn’t have to waste time waiting on my suitcase or risk my suitcase not arriving.
I now opt to check our bags since I need to keep my hands free. I also need to travel with more stuff now that I have kids. I usually wear the same thing all day but my kids are messy and sometimes need a wardrobe change two or three times in a day.
Each kid gets their own backpack with their own entertainment. I’m not really a fan of tablets, particularly for my younger son, but you can bet that they each have a tablet on flights. My oldest has a hand-me-down iPad that belonged to my husband and we got a great deal on a Kindle Fire (on sale for $47) for my youngest and bought a super strong case to protect it. We load the tablets with a few of their favorite cartoons and since they don’t get much tablet time at home, they are thrilled to get them on the flight.
In addition to screens, I pack a few light books, coloring books, crayons and simple puzzles for my youngest. I also make “monster kits” that include a bunch of different shaped construction paper, glue sticks and silly eyeballs so that we can make monsters.
My oldest son isn’t interested in coloring anymore, so I pack a few books, activity books and some of his small superhero figures. I also make each boy their own Lego lunchbox kit so that they can play on the flight and in the hotel. The three year old doesn’t really play with the Legos on the plane, but if he doesn’t have one and his brother does, it will be war. I’m sure you know how this goes!
I don’t try to get all of our stuff from point A to point B in a carry-on, however, I do make sure the essentials are with us at all times. In addition to the usual necessities like diapers, wipes (pre-potty training) and sippy cups, other carry-on essentials for young children include:
- Two changes of clothes for each kid
- Toothbrushes and toothpaste
- Pajamas (in case the checked bag doesn’t make it
- Their guys (that’s what my kids call their nighttime stuffed animals)
- Their pillows (they each have a small toddler pillow that they sleep with)
Snacks for Kid-Friendly Travel
My youngest is a really picky eater. I was never a mom who traveled with snacks because my older son ate everything but I have learned to pack foods that Chris will eat when we’re out and about.
I used to buy food at the gate and take it on the plane and leave it at that. Recently, Los Angeles International Airport has upgraded some terminals and many of the fast food restaurants are gone. My 7 year old may do OK with a turkey and avocado sandwich on rosemary bread but there is no way my 3 year old would eat that!
To compensate, I bring a bunch of snacks that I know he will eat. Some of our favorites are: granola bars, raisins, fruit puree pouches, mini Babybel cheeses, goldfish crackers and animal crackers. No, this isn’t the healthiest meal in the world, but it needs to pack easy and not go bad on a long flight.
Travel Tips For When You Arrive At Your Destination
My husband and I always joke that the second night is the scary night of travel. The first night, everyone’s tired from the flight and we all fall asleep easily. On the second night, we usually either get room service or bring take-out to our hotel room because they boys are overtired and cranky and there is no way we can dine in a restaurant.
Be flexible when you’re traveling with your kids. Try to stick to a routine that is close to what you have at home. For us, we stay on west coast time when we are on the east coast and gradually move our sleep schedule to match the time change. We don’t make plans early in the day so that we can ease into the time change. If you have that luxury, I highly recommend it.
Schedule downtime in the hotel. It can be hard to travel to a fun destination and not be on the go every minute of the day. Just remember, your kids are little. They’re not used to being on the go all the time. You have a bag full of entertainment and tablets with their favorite shows, so staying in your hotel room for a bit shouldn’t be too painful.
Take their cues. Every time we’ve ignored our kids’ cues, we’ve regretted it. Don’t make that mistake.
If you have a hotel room with a mini fridge, use it. Stock up on some perishables like string cheese, yogurt, milk and fruit. My kids do much better if they have a small snack before we even head down to breakfast. They’re used to eating immediately after they wake up so waiting for 30 minutes or more for breakfast is way too much to expect of them.
Enjoy your trip! Even if your kids are beasts and it is tough, you’re making the memories. They won’t remember the annoyances and even though you will, it will just be a funny story.