We lived in Beijing for three years when my older children were little. When we moved there and took our first long flight (and I mean l000000ng flight – it was 14 hours from Dulles to Beijing), our two oldest were three and two.
I was pregnant with sweet baby #3 and facing a 14 hour plane ride on my own with said two and three year old (my husband went a month early to get things set up and get started at work).
I was pretty darn scared. I’m not quite sure if I was more scared of living overseas in a country where I barely spoke the language or of that first flight. Probably the flight, if I’m honest. As it turns out, both of those things went reasonably well.
The kids did fairly well on that first overseas flight, I survived and we ended up taking that 14 hour flight or similarly long ones many times over the three years that we called Beijing home. It actually started to be pretty much a non issue for us, as I learned the best ways to prepare and as my kids got used to it (I know this sounds unbelievable, but they did get used to it).
We were able to take some pretty awesome vacations in those three years, in addition to several trips back to the US. With these experiences under my belt, here are my tips if you are facing a long flight with kids.
1. DIRECT FLIGHTS ARE BEST
I know this isn’t always possible, but I have found that it’s easier on everyone if you can just do the thing once. Even if you have to pay a little more, it’s definitely going to be worth it.
One line to wait in to board the place, one seat assignment to find, once to get your bag unloaded and settled under the seat, one takeoff where you have to turn off your electronics, one descent and landing where you have to shut off your electronics again, one time to gather your stuff and repack your bags and get everyone off the plane.
During our long flights and as we added kids to the mix (our third baby was born while we lived in China, but I gave birth to her in the US so that was another flight back to NC and then at 2 months, a flight back to Beijing), the hardest part was often getting everything on and off the plane, especially when I was alone with the kids.
I mean, this mama’s two arms can only hold so many bags and babies at the same time. On one of those trips, we were actually routed through San Francisco and had our long flight split up into two segments.
It was much harder on me and the kids to have that happen. Everything was disrupted and it was almost like we couldn’t get settled into the flight, knowing halfway through we were going to have to get off the plane and redo the painful process. Direct flights, if possible are best.
2. AIRCRAFT WITH HEADREST TV’S
Here’s another tip that you may not have any control over, but it’s worth looking into, especially if you have a longer flight ahead of you. Before buying a ticket, call the airlines and inquire about the in flight entertainment options on the particular aircraft you think you’ll be on.
Find flights with aircraft that have personal screens in the back of the headrests. Trust me on this one. It’s a game changer. The time we were routed through San Francisco, those planes didn’t have personal tv’s for each seat.
That was one of the more challenging parts of that flying day. Whatever was playing on the big shared screens was not particularly kid friendly, and my kids couldn’t really see the screens that well. It was not a great situation.
If you find out that this will be the situation on your travel day, I would definitely find a tablet or other electronic option to bring along (one per kid, if possible!) with saved or downloaded movies and bring some extra toys or books. Just know that you’re going to need some extra options to keep those kiddos entertained.
3. KIDS’ CARRY ONS
When we fly, I try to pack all of our stuff together in big suitcases instead of packing individual bags for each child. That being said, I definitely always pack a carry on for each kid.
I make it small and light enough for them to be able to carry it on their own through the airport to cut down on what I need to fit into my own carry on. I pack these a day or two in advance of our flight and hide them from the kids until we arrive at the airport. They then wear or carry them.
They’re not actually allowed to open their bags or peek inside until we’re on the plane, so what I’ve packed stays fresh and new until we’re on our way. I always try to pack as many surprises in as I can. Pay attention to weight – soft cover books are good along with those mini coloring packs that only cost a dollar or two at Walmart or Target.
I also try to save those mini crayon boxes that are passed out at restaurants to throw in their bags – nothing to worry about if they get lost and I can throw them away without a second thought after out flight. Post it notes are great too.
We bought the preschool size backpacks from Pottery Barn Kids for our first overseas flight and they ended up being well worth the money. The quality is great but more importantly, the clasps on the outside of the bag were used to snap in the kids’ stuffed animals on the outside of the bag.
This was great because no one had to fit their bulky little comfort item inside their bag and it was easily accessible as we were getting settled in on the plane. Especially good if you have kids who are apprehensive about flying.
In the winter, I also usually snapped in a blanket or extra sweatshirt for each kid to make sure they stayed comfortable on our long flight. Those backpacks are well worth their higher price, in my opinion.
4. MY CARRY ON
I always use a backpack as my carry on and I make sure it can fit under the seat in front of me. I’ve found it can be very difficult if you put it in the overhead compartment and there’s a screaming two year old, wanting whatever it is that you have in your bag.
The people around you are not going to appreciate this turn of events. Make things easier on yourself by keeping your bag close and accessible at all times. Sure, you may be sacrificing some of your own legroom and comfort but trust me on this one.
Try to pick a backpack with lots of exterior pockets and inside dividers to make it easy to stash stuff and find it all quickly I always dedicated most of the room in my carry on to stuff for the kids. This includes diapers (more on this below), extra clothes and as many books, notebooks and backup snacks that would reasonably fit.
5. BRING LITTLE TOYS AND GAMES
Although we didn’t have these when we flew, I would definitely recommend bringing a tablet or two along, preloaded with a couple of shows and games that the kids already know how to play. If your kids are on the younger side and don’t completely understand how to play the game, this may create more frustration in a situation where you need each child to entertain themselves.
Other toys that are great to pack are those mini coloring packs as I mentioned above, stickers with extra paper to stick them onto, and small dolls or action figures, especially those that come with a few accessories to play with. I don’t recommend legos – keeping up with all the small pieces will make you lose your mind. Don’t ask me how I know this.
And I’ve found that a small pack of play-doh can actually be a great thing for the kids to play with on the tray table. I’ve even seen playdoh sold in small travel packs, which are resealable and come with a couple of little cookie cutters to play with. Of course, this could also become a nightmare, depending on the child.
So, you know your children and should be able to guess what they can handle. Those Melissa and Doug water painting pads can be great too. Basically I tried to stock up on as many cheap, little toys that I could fit into their little bags.
I also packed a few things in my bag that I could pass over when the kids started getting restless. Small sticker books, pieces of cardstock, even pipe cleaners will entertain. I always tried to start stocking up on these kinds of things a couple of weeks before our trip so I wasn’t stressed out, going from store to store trying to find anything that might work.
The dollar store can be your best friend here. There’s lots of options there for small, cheap, entertaining toys and coloring books there. And it’s quite easy on the wallet, right?
6. BRING SNACKS, LOTS OF THEM
I always made room in both my carry on and their carry ons for plenty of snacks. Way more than you think you’ll need. First of all, many times you won’t get fed on flights. I also like to go worst case scenario in preparing for these situations, so food is always at the top of that list of needs just in case.
If it’s a long flight, you’ll likely have food served, but mostly my kids weren’t touching that stuff. I actually found these miniature metal lunchboxes at the Disney Store before our first flight and used this to keep their food in, in their little backpacks.
It kept it all together and nothing got squished. A small tupperware container is going to do the same for you, so don’t go searching all over for that. I had at least double that amount of food in my own backpack.
I let them be in charge of their own little food cache and pick out what they wanted to eat when they said they were hungry. I always tried to pack fun snacks that we didn’t eat often. Nutrition went mostly out the window and there was much more sugar involved than we usually try to eat – we go into straight up survival mode!
I always packed fruit snacks, squeezy applesauce, small boxes of cereal, even pop tarts (I was desperate) and granola bars. I usually stuck those mini boxes of raisins into the outside pockets of their backpacks. String cheese is a great idea too, along with the most nutritious granola bar you can find.
I basically planned that the snacks would be the only things that my children would eat, so I tried to find fun treats but also things that pack a nutritional punch. I also admit that candy works really well, in a pinch. Especially when the kids are barely hanging on.
I had to buy a bag of m&m’s at the airport once to help tame the wild animals. It was about $8 for that one bag of candy, if I remember correctly but well worth it. My two kids were on the brink of losing it, so we passed the flight time by handing them little m&m’s, one at a time. They got us through about an hour.
I learned after that and started packing a couple of bags of candy in my own bag in case of emergencies. I have a friend who swears by little dum dums – those tiny suckers for flights with kids, but every time we’ve done that, the kids and their seats just end up covered in a sticky film.
Depending on the age of your kids, this might work for you. The advice here is bring food. Lots of it. End of story.
7. HEADPHONES FOR THE KIDS
One of the smartest purchases I made was kid sized headphones before a big flight. These can be used on the tablets or phones you’ll bring but they also worked great for us in the headrest tv set that we had on our plane.
Don’t depend on the headphones that the airline provides. Not only will it not fit little children, but it’s usually pretty uncomfortable. There are so many cute choices for headphones that your kids will want to wear.
Do keep in mind you might need to practice having your kid wear them a few weeks before your trip so they are used to watching their shows this way. This is mostly for those toddlers that will not understand why the entire plane doesn’t want to hear her Dora show. Trust me on this one.
8. DIAPERS/CHANGE OF CLOTHES
When trying to get ready for our first long flight I read advice somewhere that said to bring one diaper for every hour you’ll be flying. For some reason, that stuck with me. I certainly never needed anywhere close to that amount of diapers but it did feel nice knowing I was over prepared in that area.
I rolled those diapers up, making them as small as possible and stashing them all over the place, from the kids’ backpacks to my own. Obviously, don’t forget the wipes. Again, bring more than you think you’ll need. As moms we all know that baby wipes can actually be used for all kinds of kid messes.
For the children, I would also bring a complete change of clothes, including underwear if applicable. This change of clothes went into their bags so I needed it to be as small as possible. First, I would choose clothes that weren’t too bulky in the first place (no jeans for sure, think leggings and a tshirt) and then I would fold them and place them together in a gallon zip lock bag (one per child).
Get all the air out, seal the top and then roll them into the tightest roll you can. Use rubberbands to secure the roll and then they’re ready to go. It’s amazing to think of how much I really could pack into those little backpacks.
I also packed some clothes to change into for me. Not a full outfit, just a top. I tried to wear blue jeans on the bottoms because I knew in the event there was a big spill, it’s not usually super obvious when you’re wearing jeans. I didn’t want to make room for a full outfit for me and this worked.
And, I never actually used the extra clothes I packed for myself. The kids definitely did. No surprise there, right?
9. STICK TO OLD TIMEZONE
This is really only going to apply to those flying really far. The time difference when flying to China from the east coast of the US was 12 hours. That was pretty daunting, but we survived it. We did notice that often the airlines and even passengers around us were trying to get on the new timezone as soon as the plane took off.
This is a nice thought, but not something I would advise when traveling that far with kids. Remember you’re in straight up survival mode. Your only goal is to get through the flight with minimal casualties.
You may want to kill your kids, the passengers sitting nearby and/or the flight attendants at various times on a longer flight. Try not to do any of that. You can worry about adjusting to the new timezone when in the comfort of your own space and not surrounded by 350 strangers who already kind of hate you because you brought kids on their flight.
Part of my gameplan was to leave my kids be, if they were content. For me, this meant allowing my son to watch movies well past the time that he would’ve been asleep at home. It worked. He was happy and quiet. He finally drifted off when he was ready and without a fuss.
For my daughter, she was much happier to go to sleep closer to her regular bedtime, which I loved. Be flexible and just do whatever works.
10. CONSIDER BRINGING YOUR CHILD’S CARSEAT ALONG
This is not usually a very popular idea, since most people are trying to minimize the amount of stuff they need to bring on a trip. I can tell you that I brought two carseats on that first trip to China when I flew by myself. I had my hands full, no doubt.
If I remember correctly, I had a double stroller, two carseats, two smaller backpacks, my bigger backpack and about 7 suitcases. It was kind of a joke but I managed and if I was doing that again with kids of that age, I’d do it again.
I needed them to be strapped in. I needed them to be able to sleep, and I knew they could in their carseats because they had done it often in the car. I wondered if their little bodies would be able to get comfortable in the regular airline seat.
I also felt much more comfortable with them strapped in, in case I fell asleep or had to take myself or just one of them to the bathroom. It’s just something to consider. It also meant that we could safely buckle them in the car as soon as we arrived.
While I certainly can’t recommend either of these because I’m not a doctor and I’ve never read anything from any authority on the subject that said they are for sure safe for kids, I can tell you we used both from time to time with some success, (separately though and not at the same time).
Honestly, I think in many ways it’s better without anything in their systems that might make them feel weird or off. As long as you’re prepared with the tips above, you should be able to keep them mostly entertained and happy.
Definitely bring whatever comfort item, whether it’s a blankie or a stuffed animal so they can go to sleep when they need to and I think you’ll survive just fine. If you are planning on using this or some other medication/supplement, ask your family doctor to be safe.
The only other thing I’ll say is that you should try it out before you’re on your trip. Dealing with an unplanned side effect is much easier in the comfort of your own home and not in the middle of your trip. Our oldest got Benadryl on one of her earliest trips and it actually had the opposite effect – she wouldn’t sleep and cried alot. And I do mean alot.
It was not pretty and I learned a lesson there.
Taking a long trip that includes airplane travel with kids is not always my idea of a good time, but we had some amazing family adventures because we weren’t afraid to suffer through those longer flights.
Prepare as best you can, be flexible and roll with the punches. You got this mama! Add any tips you’d add to my list in the comments. I’m interested to read them, for sure. And have a great trip, wherever your plans are going to take you!