Surviving Long-haul Flights With Kids

Long-haul air travel tends to come as part and parcel of the expat experience, but what happens when kids come along.  Are you prepared to start travelling long-haul with little ones in tow?

As an Aussie expat living in London for many years and now the UAE, I have made the transition from solo flyer, to couple, then kids. I have certainly had my share of long-haul and ultra long-haul experiences over the years and learnt a thing or two about travelling with babies and children—mostly about patience and bodily fluids.

I have never really enjoyed the actual flying bit of flying to new places, but overcoming your fear of flying with children will really open the world up to you and remove some of that feeling of isolation that raising a family abroad can bring.

I always believe the best way to make your flight more comfortable is to fly up the pointy end of the plane, but if this isn’t possible, follow these 10 Commandments for a more pleasant journey with your kids.

1. Thou shalt plan, plan, plan 

No more seat of your pants stuff, travellers. This is survival of the fittest. Pick your flight times carefully, book the best seating, book bassinets, check what your luggage limits are, book your kids’ meals in advance of your flight, pack thoughtfully  and give yourself plenty of time to arrive at the airport and check-in.

2. Thou shalt have a seating strategy

I love an upgrade as much as the next passenger, but failing this, it’s likely to be cattle class—so which seating combination do I want? Regardless of what you may think you’ve booked, the airline can always change this at check-in. The earlier you arrive at the airport, the more flexibility the ground staff have in moving passengers around to meet your needs, be it sitting together, splitting your group into two rows, taking a spare seat between you or bagging the coveted bulkhead with the bassinet and leg room. As your children (and family size) grow, you will find your seating needs might change from one year to the next.

3. Thou shalt exhaust thy offspring before flight 

Kids have a lot of energy and it needs burning. For this reason, morning flights can be tough. If you’ve woken them up and gone straight to the airport all their beans are slowly building up inside and likely to explode by the time you get to the plane. As much as you can, let them run, climb and exhaust themselves before you board—sacrifice sipping on your latte in the lounge for some serious active time. You’ll thank me for it later.

4. Thou shalt travel through the night 

I honestly believe this has been one of our greatest success factors in tackling long-haul. By being tired before boarding you significantly increase the chances of sleep during at least the first half of the flight. Be warned, it can result in some children being overtired when they board and so the screeching commences along with ear pressure on take-off and you’re unable to do anything but clutch this wretched ball of fury. But remember, this too shall pass.

Give them the sleep cues before boarding, changed nappies if needed, put pyjamas on, bring favourite lovies and blankets, and set the scene for sleep before the plane takes off. If there is fussing it will not last forever, but you will maximise your chances of a restful flight while the cabin is dimmed.

5. Thou shalt befriend the cabin crew 

Even if your fellow passengers detest you, always be friendly to the staff. They can make seating changes happen; they will remove the toilet lock to get your desperate toddler in; they will hold your baby while you pee or when you’ve hit wits’ end. For the next 12 hours, treat them like your nearest and only friend and they will hopefully take mercy. Note, I am not suggesting you should use them as a babysitting service, but if you’re polite they will take mercy on your plight.

6. Thou shalt recognise the signs 

Kids usually become irritable due to tiredness, boredom or hunger, so what can you do to placate these before they arise? Plan naps, bring activities, and bring snacks. Don’t rely on in-flight entertainment systems and plane meals alone to keep kids occupied, and be prepared to get involved with them rather than trying to tune them out.

7. Thou shalt save some surprises 

Our kids know they will get their iPads after boarding and we build up to the magic moment they can have them, making sure there’s something new and engaging loaded on to them.  Likewise, I always pack some new sticker and colouring books.   Sure, you can wrap up these little surprises, but I can’t even find the time to wrap birthday presents—just make sure it’s something new and exciting, or a treat they aren’t normally allowed at home. Save some for later in the flight when boredom hits or when they reach a milestone point in the flight—just be careful of over-packing.

8. Thou shalt teach respect 

It is our job as parents to teach our children the rules and etiquette of air travel (basically sit still, quietly entertain yourself and endure!). Some absolute basics children should learn early on include (i) no kicking the seat in front (ii) don’t throw things (iii) use your inside voice (iv) jumping over chairs is not acceptable and (v) lying naked starfish in the aisle is out of the question!

Just because you are at your wits’ end and sick and tired of the judgmental stares you are getting in the back of your head from every carefree unattached traveler within an eight row radius, don’t let yourself collapse in a heap of self pity. In return, I expect my fellow passengers to respect my child; cabin pressure can hurt their ears and they will occasionally cry, they will be a little fidgety and they do need to pee frequently. We all need to do our bit in the air on the manners front.

9. Thou shalt cuddle and reassure

If your child hasn’t flown before they may have anxieties, fear the unfamiliar location or become frustrated at the situation. Your attention and a cuddle can do the trick to calm them down. Putting your headphones on and hoping it will simply drown out the noise is tempting, but is not the answer. Kids crave attention, cuddles and reassurance, so don’t deny them these.

10. Thou shalt not judge the drugger

I will state for the record I have never and have no intention of giving my children any antihistamine-based medicine to promote sleep. I know some parents swear by it and I can completely understand why. This is up there with the Formula vs Boob and Stay-at-home Mum vs Working Mum debates that haunt mummy forums the world over. I have a few more facts on my website if you are interested in entering the debate further, but until you find yourself in this situation at 30,000 feet with no escape and a fading sense of hope, DO NOT JUDGE your fellow travellers’ decisions.

Every flight we take brings a new experience. Just when we pass one phase, another child enters the next one, bringing a new set of challenges to overcome. And just when we get the balance right, I’m guessing we’ll be starting to pay for full price tickets!

Expat Essentials | Flying With Children | Baby Globetrotters | Expat Blogs
(Image credit: Keri Hedrick)

All during May BabyGlobetrotters.Net is exploring the world of flying with kids. Come by for more great advice, from flying while pregnant to which airlines have the most family-friendly policies.

Are there any commandments you swear by when travelling long haul? Have you discovered the holy grail of family air travel? 


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