We just returned a week or two ago from a visit back to Canada, flying with our three and six year old boys. Long-haul travel is tiring at the best of times, but long flights with young children can be particularly exhausting. Kids aren't naturally inclined to sit still for hours at a time, and if your kids are anything like mine, their behaviour doesn't improve the more tired they get.
Kids are unpredictable, but a little advance planning and organization can help things run more smoothly on long travel days. The better prepared you are, the better chance there is of your children behaving during the flight. There are no guarantees, so be flexible and stay calm. Remember, no matter how much your child may cry or kick up a fuss, there's an adult somewhere who has behaved worse on a flight.
Tips for Long Haul Flights with Young Children
1- Tire them out before you board the plane.
It may seem counter-intuitive to get kids worked up before boarding a flight, but tiring them out before they get on a plane where they will be expected to sit still for hours is actually a solid strategy. One you've passed security, there's often more than an hour or two to wait before boarding. Rather than sitting in the designated boarding area the whole time, try walking them through the terminal, take them for a bite to eat, or do a bit of window shopping. Some airports have children's play areas in the airport, so it is a good idea to do some legwork before you arrive to find out what options are available.
2- Keep them fed and watered
This may sound like a no-brainer, but the truth is we often underfeed kids on travel days. It's easy to lose track of time, particularly when the day is already busy to begin with. Between packing, travel to the airport, check-in, and then crossing security, it's often already been several hours since the last time a child had anything to eat by the time they hit the airport lounge.
Bringing along snacks is a great idea, particularly since airport food can be overpriced and not always the healthiest options. Fruit, veggie sticks and hummus, crackers and cheese, sandwiches, yogurt or fruit puree, and mixed nuts and seeds are all great options for pre-boarding snacks. Stocking up on sugary snacks won't help their behaviour or keep them feeling full for long. Salty snacks will dehydrate them and make them overly thirsty. We pack a small lunchbox of snacks that we take with us to the airport. We also keep a small meal for our gluten free son in case the airline forgets his meal, which has happened more than once before.
More importantly, be sure to keep kids hydrated. Air travel is very dehydrating, and keeping kids hydrated is key to keeping them from getting cranky during the flight. That means plenty of water both before and during the flight. Yes, it may make your kids have to go to the bathroom more often, but getting up and walking them around a bit on a plane can also help to keep them happy. Kids often don't recognize signs of dehydration and get cranky or angry because they are uncomfortable, but don't quite no why. Buy a bottle of water after clearing security and make sure they take a sip or two every 15 minutes or so, or bring along an expandable water bottle that lies flat when empty and can be refilled. You can see it attached to my son's backpack in the photo at the bottom of the post.
3- Make sure they're comfortable
When dressing my kids for travel, I dress them for the mode of transportation and the time of day more than for the destination. Children's clothing is small- pack an outfit for them to change into at the destination if it's important. I make sure that I pack bulky items like jackets and boots in checked luggage to save room on the flight, and often pack a spare outfit in a carry-on in case of accidents or emergencies. If it's a night flight, my youngest wears his most comfortable pajamas. The key is to set the mood, which should be relaxed and comfortable. Changing into pj's is also a signal to children that it's time to sleep.
I also recommend packing a small travel pillow or blanket in a carry-on, or a stuffed animal if that's important to your child, particularly on long flights. It's comforting for children to have something to hold on to, and a plush, soft blanket will encourage relaxation and even sleep far more than a scratchy airline one. My six year old thinks the eye masks and ear plugs offered in Premium Economy are the best things ever, and they help him to sleep on flights. Whatever works.
4- Entertain them with something new
When we pack our kids' carry-on bags (they each get their own small bag they can carry by themselves) we pack them with a mix of old and new items. The kids get to pick out a few favourite small items to bring on board, and then we pack a few new things they haven't seen before. Nothing extravagant, just new to them. Discount store items such as toy cars, art packs, stamps/stickers, colouring books, cards, etc. all work well. The key is to let the kids play with their own items first, and save the surprised for when they start to get antsy. for toddlers with less coordination, toys that have magnets or that can be placed in a small box will prevent toys from rolling off the tray table and becoming a hassle.
Depending on the age and attention span of your child, a tablet can be a good investment. Our six year old can usually entertain himself with the in-flight entertainment system, but our youngest is pickier. He watches minimal television and so only knows a few cartoons. Downloading a few episodes of a favourite show or having a few games available are a good idea. Some airlines have iPads available for rent in-flight for a minimal fee, which can be an inexpensive way to keep kids happy.
5- Consider an upgrade
Most people think of upgrades and automatically think of business/first class. In my opinion, business class isn't always a great option for young children. First, it can be prohibitively expensive and children aren't necessarily going to benefit from all the upgrades. If the seats are organized in individual pods, it can mean that children are expected to sit unaccompanied for take-off and landing, as well as any time the seat belt sign is on. It also limits opportunities for comforting or helping children with their needs. It may be great for older kids, but I think my three year old would be overwhelmed.
Fortunately, there is a new class of travel available on many airlines called Premium Economy. A bit of a cross between Business and Economy, it offers priority boarding and baggage handling, bigger seats with more legroom, improved meals, and more. We first flew it in 2014 when traveling from Toronto, Canada to Nice, France, and most recently flew Premium Economy from Toronto to Paris. The cost is typically a few hundred dollars more per ticket than an economy ticket but much less than a business class one. Worth every penny in my opinion. To read about our first experience flying Premium Economy, check out my post on Flying Air Canada's Premium Economy.
6- Pack a simplified first aid kit
My youngest son has motion sickness, which is less of a problem on flights than in cars or on trains, but can flare up in turbulence or on rough landings. We always bring along a motion-sickness medication that we administer before take-off. I also purchase travel packs of vomit bags that seal tight in case of accidents. Also great if a child gets a stomach bug while travelling. In addition we keep baby wipes, tissues, bandages, hand cream, throat lozenges, and a pain killer/fever medication. It sounds like a lot to carry, but it's really not. We buy travel size versions and place them all in one small kit that we keep handy in one of our carry-on bags. Hand sanitizer probably isn't a bad idea either!
If your child still has accidents at night on occasion, packing a pull-up for overnight flights can be a good idea and provide peace of mind against accidents. For younger toddlers, I also recommend disposable bibs for easy clean up.
7- Car Seats and Harnesses
Did you know that certain approved brands of car seats are allowed on airplanes? If you're heading to a destination and dragging your car seat along with you, consider taking it on the airplane for use with very young children. I've found that it helps keep children more comfortable on long flights, for a few reasons. If a child is used to being strapped into a car seat, it provides them with a sense of security. Second, a car seat is more comfortable for a child than a plane seat. It molds to their body, and provides support for their neck and head, making it easier to fall asleep. Finally, the car seat sits them up higher, allowing them to see more, including out the window (a car seat must be used in a window seat on a plane.) Check the stickers on your car seat, there should be something stating that it has been approved for use on aircraft.
Harnesses are a great alternative. There is a brand of harness that is approved for use with children, and I've used it with my youngest. There is an age where kids can sit in a seat on their own, but have trouble with sliding down on the seat. A harness can keep them seated upright and give them that feeling of security. It also provides better protection in the case of a hard landing. The CARES Harness is the one we used, and it was small to carry and easy to use.
8- Take it in stride
We've all read those articles complaining about young children on flights that disrupt other passengers, or know people who complain about the screaming child on their last flight and worry that our kids might have a meltdown. You know what? They might. It happens. Some people will give you dirty looks and others will step up to help and isn't that pretty much how it goes with all things in life?
My kids are usually pretty good on flights because they've traveled a lot and know the drill, but that's not always the case. Sometimes they aren't feeling well, or they're overtired, or the flight was delayed or they're on the second leg of a ridiculously long voyage and they lose their cool. The important thing is that you don't lose yours. Berating a young child who is melting down because you're embarrassed in front of other passengers won't help calm your child down any faster.
An overwhelmed child needs to be calmed and reassured, so I suggest tuning out your fellow passengers and summoning up some patience and understanding. It's not always easy, but soothing a shrieking child is usually more effective in a closed space than scolding one and causing even more tears. As I like to remind people, adults can also be disruptive passengers. Drunken, belligerent passengers who verbally abuse flight attendants, people who try to smoke in the bathrooms or who get into altercations with passengers and crew- none of those have been children. So cut your kids a break during what can be a long, boring flight and smile sweetly at that person giving you the stink eye when your child shrieks for the umpteenth time despite your every effort to keep them happy and quiet. You're trying your best and your kids are adjusting to an unfamiliar situation. There are bound to be a few rough patches along the way.
I frequently field questions from people who want to travel long distances with their young children but are afraid to do so because of the flights. While it's true that confining a young child to a seat for hours is nobody's idea of a great time, it doesn't have to be an absolute disaster. Kids just want to be comfortable, fed, and entertained (much like adults) and are often very adaptable. We personally prefer flying long haul overnight, because although it's harder on us as adults, our kids are likely to sleep on the flight, meaning fewer hours of trying to keep them entertained and quiet.
Travel has been an incredibly enriching experience for my children, and although getting there hasn't always been our favourite part of the journey, remember that it is only a small part of the overall experience. Happy travels!