Top ten tips for surviving long-haul flights with kids

Please excuse this break from our regularly scheduled program… Granada is coming next, promise.

I typically avoid writing about my kids or kids in general, but I just came across this picture from our last flight and it inspired me to write this post.

Flying Solo wine-2

Oh this made me chuckle.  If only I had been flying solo!  We had a 4 am start time that morning and were about half way through our 14 hour journey when the flight attendant handed me this bottle of wine.  I remember taking a sip, closing my eyes while trying to remember those blissful pre-kid flights…. and then was playfully smacked on the cheek back to reality by my 18 month old.  Yes, that’s her sippy cup in the background. Her two brothers were there next to me as well.  I certainly was not flying solo.

I’ve noticed on mom discussion forums that the topic of how to make flights with kids more bearable comes up a lot.  This is one area of parenting where I have a fair amount of experience, as do most parents who live in Dubai.  We travel by plane with the kids… a lot. It definitely comes with the territory of expat life in the Gulf.

Even when we lived in the US before we moved here, we had family in Europe who we took the boys to see when they were babies. When we moved to Dubai, they were 2 and 3 years old.  I took that first 15 hour flight alone with them. (If you want to get nostalgic, it’s actually the subject of my first post ever on this blog.)  I’ve done the transatlantic flight a few times alone since then, most recently over the summer with all three, and of course many other flights with my wing man (hubby) along. Is it my favorite way to spend 24 hours? Definitely not.  But just remember, it’s sorta like child-birth.  It might be toe curlingly, teeth grittingly awful for many, many hours, but it can’t last forever.  And honestly, I’ve never regretted it.  Don’t let having to travel with kids deter you from going places. When you’re eating gelato on the Spanish Steps in Rome, who’s going to remember a bout of loud crying on the flight? When you’re hugging your mom for the first time in six months, does the annoyed passenger who gave you the evil eye really matter? Of course not!  And anyway, most times you’ll get off the flight and think, “Well, that wasn’t that bad.”

So if anyone’s out there looking for some suggestions, I’ve listed a few below.  None of them are earth-shattering revelations, but maybe you’ll find an idea or two that might make the trip a bit easier.

First, some general observations:

Traveling with 0-6 month olds:  Enjoy their non-verbal, not too mobile company and pretend they are not there while they rest in the bassinet.  They might cry at times, but as far as kids go – this is an easy stage.

Traveling with 7 month olds-2 year olds:  One word: hell.  This is by far the toughest stage. New-found mobility and desire for independence coupled with a non-existent attention  span makes the confines of your row very boring (or downright maddening, depending on his/her temperament) for little ones of this age.  If you want to splurge, consider buying a ticket for the little tot.  Incidentally, I’ve never done that and have lived to tell the tale.

Traveling with 2-4 year olds: Not terrible, but not stress-free either.  They will still need a lot of help with things and will get irritable, but at least Dora or an iPad game will hold their interest for longer than 2 minutes and they will keep headphones in place.

Traveling with 5 year olds and up: Still prone to spill things (see #4 on the list) but super manageable.  You’re on the road to watching a movie all the way through again!

And one last thing:  Minor inconveniences or discomforts that normally wouldn’t matter can send an over-tired child into a tantrum.  You know what makes your kid tick (or ticked off) so keep this in mind when packing your carry-ons.

So without further ado, here is my list:

1) Bring a baby carrier if traveling with a baby under 2 years old.  For some silly reason, many airlines will not give your stroller back at the plane when you disembark.  (Emirates does have complimentary strollers to use, otherwise, you’ll be reunited with your stroller at baggage claim.) You then find yourself carrying a grumpy 25 pound child through what feels like endless miles of airport halls and while waiting in lines. 25 pounds quickly begins to feel like 50 pounds. It’s so much easier to negotiate the airport, not to mention it’s less exhausting, if you can stick that baby in a sling or harness.  They can also be useful on the flight to soothe a fussy infant.

2) Take care of before-the-flight tasks: 1) change the baby’s diaper and send older children to the bathroom immediately before boarding 2) let the kids run around to burn a little energy 3) If you’re traveling alone with a lap baby: eat a hearty meal.  In my opinion, it’s just not worth having the tray down for what seems like f-o-r-e-v-e-r to try to eat on the plane while holding a grabby baby.  If it’s a really long flight, bring granola bars or grab some fruit or bread rolls from the flight attendant.

3) Limit toys and other in-flight entertainment.  Don’t bother with a backpack full of different toys and gadgets.  It just ends up on the floor after a few minutes and makes for more stuff to carry.  For 2 years and older, I opt for electronic entertainment. This is not the time to work on that New Year’s resolution of reducing screen time.  I always put a few new games on an iTouch that they see for the first time on travel day.  Works like a charm.  Consider buying kid-sized headphones because nothing is more annoying than readjusting falling headphones over and over again.  Pack one or two other small entertainment options.  I usually bring colors and a new coloring book.  For use on the plane, look for the triangular-shaped crayons like these so they don’t roll off the tray.  For the under two group, I bring a couple of books (new ones they haven’t seen before; lift-the-flap books and sticker books are a hit) and a small bag of random household items. (Things that are not a choking hazard, obviously, and things you don’t mind losing. I haven’t had measuring spoons in months because I left them on a plane.)  I have found that “real” toys that are small enough to bring on the plane just don’t hold their attention long enough.  They will spend most of their time playing with the remote control anyway.

4) Take extra clothes.  Yes, they are bulky and take up lots of space, but essential for all kids, even older ones.  Those flimsy plastic cups they use on flights are just begging to be knocked over. Pack the thinnest options possible.  I bring two changes of clothes for the diaper-wearing passengers.  If you are a super-folder and can squeeze it in, bring a shirt for yourself too if traveling with a baby.  An empty plastic or large ziplock bag also comes in handy so you can wrap wet or soiled clothes.

5) Bring the sleep buddies.  When your child is having a meltdown because they are exhausted, it’s always reassuring to them to see their lovie.   Just make sure to collect all lovies before leaving.  For babies, if you don’t already, start singing the same lullaby every time you put him/her down to sleep (naps and night-time) for a couple of weeks before the trip.  On the plane, they will probably resist going to sleep, but at least if they hear the song while cuddling their lovie, it’s a cue that sleep should be happening.

6) Bring an assortment of snacks.  Some people say “Keep it healthy.”  I say, “Keep them happy.”  Sure, healthy snacks are great, but if a bag of M&Ms is going to give me 5 minutes of peace and derail an impending meltdown whereas raisins will just end up on the floor, I choose candy. (Within reason, of course.  I don’t want to make them nauseated, either.)  I also like to make flying seem like fun so I like packing things that are a special treat.  If your kid is a raisin fanatic, though, by all means, pack what they like.  If you fly Emirates, don’t bother bringing these because they provide a great snack pack for kids.  For babies, bring the usuals.  I prefer small pieces that take a long time to eat, like cheerios or goldfish.  Bring a variety.

7) Keep them hydrated.  Encourage them to drink water to keep headaches at bay, even if they say they are not thirsty.  Maybe it’s just my kids, but all three of them get red itchy skin during long flights all over their bodies, but especially on their face and around their lips.  If you really want to be on your A-game, bring a small tube of lotion and a lip/face balm like this one.

8) Pack your own necessities in your pockets.  For me it’s eye drops, pain reliever and lip gloss.  When you’re holding a sleeping baby but your contacts are glued to your eyeballs, the last thing you want to do is disturb the baby to rummage through a bag.

9) Treat ear pain. Lately I have been using ear plugs with great success. Get the wax kind that cover the entire ear like these.  Also try gum (for the older kids obviously) and a pain reliever.

10) Ignore people around you.  Letting those dirty looks bother you only makes you anxious which inevitably will rub off on the kids.  Don’t let your children act like little untamed animals, but if they have a moment of fussiness or crying, just focus on getting them settled.

There you have it – lessons learned from umpteen hours flying with the six and under crowd.  If you have any more tips, please leave them in the comments section.


About Lynda

Longhorns and Camels is a blog about exploring Dubai from the perspective of an expat from Texas. It features stories about living in Dubai including descriptions of local culture and popular activities in the region. It also includes photography of the UAE and other countries abroad. It has been recommended by several well-known guides for expatriates: InterNations, ExpatWoman and Expat Focus.
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8 Responses to Top ten tips for surviving long-haul flights with kids

  1. Kristen says:

    I’m literally basing our possible 3rd child on flying. Right now entering the Hell stage with #2. It may scare me enough to keep it to a family of 4. Great blog!

  2. Diana says:

    MY FAVORITE QUOTE: Some people say “Keep it healthy.” I say, “Keep them happy.”

    ha, ha, ha….perfect…I am with you on that one…..and that bottle of wine is HILARIOUS!!!!

  3. Mitzie Mee says:

    That’s some really good advice! i wish all parents would read this post! I’m afraid to admit that I might be the grumpy fellow passenger, but hey, next time I’ll bring some M&M’s and triangular crayons to give to the screaming kids on my flight:)

    • Ha! I’m sure that would be greatly appreciated! 🙂 I know – screaming kids on flights are annoying to all parties involved. Although I think I’ve learned to tune it out b/c if it’s not my kid – I barely even hear it! 😉

  4. Stephanie says:

    Searching for advices on flying long haul with my 7 months old and came across your blog, I will be flying from Hong Kong to UK – total 16 hours!!!!!!! GREAT! I Will be travelling myself and I’m already super nervous. Great blog! Gives me some hope that it is indeed do-able but knowing that it will be HELL is something i am not looking forward to.

    • Lynda says:

      Hi Stephanie – thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I’m sorry – that is a horrendously long flight! But yes – it’s definitely do-able. Sorry I grouped your little sweetie into the hell phase (ha ha!) but you know what – every baby is different and every flight is different – maybe he/she will sleep a lot and it will be a breeze. Not sure if I mentioned this in the post (and I’m sure you’ve thought of this already) but bring some easily accessible antibacterial wipes – esp if your baby is crawling but also b/c he/she will almost certainly be grabbing everything. Best of luck to you! Would love to hear how it goes. I hope some of my tips help make things a bit easier.

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