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Long Haul Flights With Kids

Other people seem to do it well, why can’t you?  Looking forward to a long haul flight with kids is like looking forward to childbirth. However, with a little preparation and the right mindset you can manage it and even enjoy your yourself. 

by Emma Wilson

The Mind is A Powerful Thing

You’ve got an amazing holiday booked overseas to the snow, a tropical island or somewhere adventure -filled. The tickets are paid for, the insurance is bought and the frenzied holiday packing begins. Yet you can’t shake that feeling of dread every time you envision the flight. Every conversation between now and the upcoming holiday is fraught with worry and panic about your strategy or lack thereof.


Relax !

There is no need for panic. Be pragmatic, don’t agonise about it for weeks, you’re stretching out the negatives. Remember Mark Twain famously said “I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Manage your expectations. Think of long haul travel in as much that it will all be over within 24 hours. All you can do is put your strategies in place and show up on the day. No epidurals required.

Managing Expectations Begins With the Adults

If you’re travelling with other adults (such as the father of the children) it is worth having ‘the conversation’ prior to travel about managing expectations so issues are not perceived as personal attacks if raised inflight. Your partner might not realise watching seven movies in a row on the way to Europe while you deal with the children might have you fantasising about divorce and all those movies you’re going to watch when he has the kids every second weekend.

Decide beforehand on your ‘tired and cranky strategy’.

Discuss the need to take turns to eat meals while the other holds the baby. Plan to take turns walking the aisles if your little ones are active. In many cases once you put your strategies in place the reality feels more like than teamwork than a chore. High fives optional.

You also need to discuss which of you has sleep priority on the flight if one adult needs their wits about them to drive a hire car upon arrival. Speaking from experience, if you’re the adult who allowed your partner to sleep on your shoulder assuming they are the driver it is high stress driving on the other side of the road, one eye open doing 300 micro sleeps from Los Angeles airport to Las Vegas. When you assume you make an’ ass of u and me’ as the saying goes.  

Travel Documents

Merge your travel documents into one document wallet so one adult is in charge of all the passports, insurance information and tickets. Fill out your immigration cards at home, get your green Australian immigration cards from a travel agent or get a relative or friend travelling before your scheduled trip to grab some extra forms. Every little thing you can do prior to your trip takes an additional edge off. Check your passport has 6 months validity on it, check visas for the country of destination (The USA requires ESTA forms filled out and paid for online prior to travel) and make sure you have one or two black pens that work in your travel wallet.

Your Carry On Baggage

If the global hub of Dubai is any gauge of travel fashion the wheelie carry on suitcase serves as number one cabin luggage of choice. Check with your airline what the baggage allowance is so you don’t get caught with an oversized bag and end up  stuffing everything into plastic bags. You may want to go without an actual handbag if you’re loaded up with toddlers and babies. You may choose to put a lightweight handbag inside your checked baggage for use at your destination.  

Rethink if you really need your usual wallet that carries your library and supermarket cards from home and you can also allocate one adult as the ‘payer’ on this trip to save on cards. Many travel wallets have allocated pockets for credit cards and travel pouches that can be tucked inside shirts. 

In terms of reading material, a magazine works well as it’s is lightweight and can be thrown away. E-readers such as kindles can be more convenient than regular books and can store many titles at once. If you get anything read on the flight you’re doing well!


It is tricky going from an Australian summer to a North American winter or vice versa. Jeans or pants that can be worn with a lovely light cashmere jacket on the flight are handy and look great. Where possible go without a belt and make sure you are wearing easy slip on shoes as security will make you take these off multiple times if you have connecting flights, and it’s easy to leave something behind if you require 70 pairs of eyes on your children. Make it easy on yourself and reduce all your extras. Travelling with your favourite shoes and accessories is the next chapter of life, this chapter is all about keeping things simple. Kids can be dressed in easy to change, soft clothing. Some tights or longer pants are good to have on hand when the cabin gets cool. If you’ve got a toddler who might wet their pants when asleep consider putting them in a sleep nappy. 


Food and Drink 

You have to think like an Olympic Swimmer and watch what you consume on the flight. Watch you don't drink too much alcohol so you won't be dehydrated and extra cranky at your destination, and it's also a fine balance keeping your water consumption up for hydration, but not so much that you're always at the toilet, especially traveling alone with babies.

Long haul flight strategies can be divided into 3 age groups

Older children

If you are a parent who limits screen time in your home, suspend rules here. Think of the plane like a kid screen time bonanza. Ipads, iPod touch, airplane movies, you name it. Let them leave you in peace and you might get some shut eye. Word them up about the merits of regular stretching near the toilet areas, getting their own water refills and snacks and keeping their travel journals up to date then give them some space. Good games for older children (6 and up) are mini versions of tic tac toe, travel chess, snakes and ladders, chinese checkers, hangman, rubix cubes, guess who (card game versions), uno, puzzles or brain teasers where they have to agonise for hours over something.

If they don’t have anyone to play with encourage them to make friends with other bored desperate children in the seats around them. If you have younger children travelling with you make sure the older ones know prior to the trip that it will be their job to assist you with them (drinking water, childminding while you go to the bathroom, playtime). Bribe them if you have to. Long haul travel is not the time or the place for the moral high ground. It's survival of the fittest up there.

Don't be afraid to ask other travellers to swap seats if your family is not seated in the same row and check the rear of the plane for extra seats so you can spread out a little at sleep time.

Age 3 to 5

If you have any say in your holiday destination a three hour plane trip (Fiji for example) is the maximum you’ll get out of your low cortisol levels and the plane being an amusement for this age group. However, there are benefits for travelling with kids this age. They can sit and watch movies, play with phone apps, colour in, stay in their seat and interact with toys. Make sure your phone battery is fully charged. Don’t fall into the trap of ladening yourself with too many toys and treats from home. Start with your carry on luggage devoid of toys and purchase a few things at the airport just prior to the flight but don’t let them see what you’ve bought. In this way you can be like a magician, pulling a couple of new things out, one at a time while the novelty is fresh. You can get a couple of hours out of each item if you choose wisely, depending on your child’s preferences. Games, puzzles, drawing books or small toys are all good. Allow the novelty of the plane to run out first. Then your go-to strategies are the colouring in and the movies before the newly purchased items. Research your airlines first and make sure there are inflight movies, and if there are no movies, then bring a portable DVD player or load up your ipads.. My tendency is to say bring one video enabled device and set of headphones per small child, if you value your sanity. They are reasonably inexpensive (from $50 up) and save on fights if you have one child who likes Dora and Barbie and another who prefers Avengers and Transformers.   


Babies and Toddlers  

Walking babies (age 9 months to age 3) are dealt with a little differently to babies 0-9 months below. This is the trickiest age and if you’ve got older children and read the tips of utilising the older siblings to help you it will take the edge off the difficult aspects.

Put yourself in the mindset that your children will be your activity during the flight. All those times at home when you’re distracted have now evaporated, it's the perfect chance to teach them songs, words, tell them stories, point things out, peekaboo games or just plain interact with them. They'll lap up the one-on-one time.

Routine Disruption

There is no point agonising over the disruption of routine for young children. They will be either over-excited or extremely fatigued by the day’s travel already. Let them sleep and put some eye shades and ear plugs on yourself and attempt to get some sleep with them on your lap. Bring a shawl in your carry on luggage for the purpose of draping it over your shoulder to block out light if they try to sleep or using it as a shield for feeding instead of lighter muslin wraps.

Everything in life is about managing expectations, so when toddlers are awake they will probably want to walk. Realise you are in for some laps around the plane and go with it. Let them be like the proverbial puppy dog and sniff everything and look at everything. It may help wear them out for a good sleep. Dignity plays no part on a long haul flight with toddlers so befriend other travellers if it means a snippet of scintillating conversation while you walk the aisles on your 20th time around the plane, recruit hosties who fawn over your children and spirit them away for 10 minutes so you can sit with your eyepatch and do a meditation, ignore any eye-rolling travellers who give you the evil eye if your child is noisy, you’ll never see them again.

If your toddler is ill or upset they may scream blue murder for hours. That’s worse case scenario. Make sure you’ve got panadol or nurofen or any medication they need. Murphy’s law dictates they won’t have a fever all year but will spike a temperature or have a new tooth coming through in the middle of a long haul flight. All you can do is walk the aisles to spread the disturbance around. You’ll be amazed how compassionate people can be, don’t knock back any offers of help. Don’t forget to pack your child’s comfort item or dummy, everything around them is strange enough without their special blankie to help them fall asleep.

Managing the Toilet

Toilet trips are good for a change of scenery with children. If you travel alone you have to sit them on your lap for your turn and put the change table down if you need to do up zippers or buttons. Once again, it's better to eliminate the belt. Pants that don't have zippers or buttons are even better for this reason.

Meal Times

When the food comes around feed your toddler first to minimise food and drink spills and try to hand back the consumed tray as soon as you can so you don’t feel hemmed in by half eaten yoghurt. Ask the hosties for a clean cloth if you get food all down your front, don’t suffer in silence. Remind yourself that you are going somewhere fun and keep it all in perspective.

If your child eats airline food or an airline version of baby food (generally Heinz jars are supplied) great, otherwise plan to bring a little food. Organic baby jars, squeezy yoghurt, muesli bars, organic popcorn packets, dehydrated fruit pieces or mini sultana boxes are all good and can be used as an activity to stretch out the time.  

Take just a few nappies on board as almost all airlines have spare nappies if you run out ( call them before the travel day to check but I've never had a problem) and bring just a small packet of wipes, not the jumbo size for luggage weight logistics. You can purchase more at your destination. 

Babies 0-walking

In my opinion this (along with age 3 and over) is an excellent window of opportunity to travel when they can’t actually walk. Always request the bassinet seat, even if you don’t use the actual bassinet for sleep as this is the closest you are likely to get to business class in terms of legroom and priority feeding. Again, suspend all expectations of routine, it only takes a couple of days either side of the trip for Australia to Europe to get back into a routine, less if the timezones are not as opposite. I don’t have a political stance either way or another for breastfeeding babies or giving them the bottle, but both have their perks for long haul travel. Breast feeding babies can be fed whenever they like, which segues nicely into the destination time zone. They can be feed as the plane ascends and descends, which is good prevention for ears popping with the altitude. If you’re worried about breast feeding them to sleep, it’s a handy technique for travel time and only takes a day or two once you’re home to train them out of it. Pack nipple cream such as Lansinoh if you’re anticipating lots of breast feeds. Bottle fed babies can do the same with water in the bottle, even just chewing on the teat is good to get their jaw going and if they swallow water intentionally or inadvertently it helps their ears pop with the air pressure. If they cry from air pressure it's not a bad thing as their open mouth may help pop the ears or you can try to get them to eat something so they swallow.

You sleeping when they sleep is important, or if you can’t sleep at least close your eyes and do meditations or visualisations so your body relaxes ready for their waking hours. Wearing Baby Bjorns or other baby carriers are great for letting babies sleep on your chest and keeping your hands free. If anyone wants to hold the baby, let them unless they look like someone recently released from prison.

Activities-wise, toys that don’t make too loud a noise are good choices. Old toys and books that can be left behind are particularly good. Murphy’s Law will dictate it’s those final couple of hours after they've exhausted themselves that the babies sleep ' like logs'. You just want to get off the plane when it lands so if you’ve brought along old toys it won’t matter if you leave them behind under the seat . Better than the brand new toy they just received for Christmas. It’s a bit hard to bend down to check belongings if they’ve finally crashed out on your lap and you'd rather not disturb them.

Preparation Ninja

Take enough baby formula with you for the flight, an extra bottle, enough dummies and the correct bottle teats so any uncomfortable moments aren't due to something you should have packed. It's worth looking on online travel forums prior to your trip about the availability of items you consider crucial, so you don't spend the whole flight stressing, such as availability of your particular baby formula brand in Japan, or swim nappies in Bali (that's a NO, travellers). Plan your airport exit strategy prior to the trip by working out shuttle buses, taxis or public transport and if you're picking up a hire car make sure you've paid and booked baby seats and they're already fitted into the car. Double check that country’s definition of a baby seat as some countries in Asia consider our preschool booster seat to be a baby seat when Australians do not.

Don't be daunted, when the trip is long over and you have amazing photos, great memories and a shark's tooth on a necklace you will be so glad you did it. The flight details fade but the sense of adventure will stay with you for a lifetime



Comments on this post (3)

  • Jul 25, 2015

    Love your articles Emma, excellent tips and attitude to go with it! You’re right on so many levels, it’s all just a part of the adventure but love your ideas for at least minimising the pain!

    — Emily

  • Jul 24, 2015

    Not sure my family look like that first image! Here’s hoping.

    — Lisa

  • Jul 24, 2015

    Good job Hickory Hill and Emma Wison. Next stop Europe with my four children. I will let you know how it goes!

    — Louise

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