There’s no getting around it: international flights with kids can be a challenge. The good news is that a little advance planning can make navigating the flight a lot simpler.
We’ve taken our kids on long-haul flights from North America to Hong Kong, from Mexico to Europe, and from Canada to the Caribbean. Our kids are now ten and seven, but we’ve flown with them from the time they were in diapers.
Here are 10 of our best tips for making your next international flight with kids easier.
Get some exercise before you fly
International flights mean a lot of time cooped up in a small space. If you can, get some physical activity with your little one before you fly. It can be as simple as a brisk walk or a little in place calisthenics. If your muscles are in need of a rest anyway, sitting for eight or more hours won’t seem as confining.
Limit the electronics
We find that our kids are better behaved if we limit electronic use to the end of the flight, or for those times when they’re starting to melt down.
Bring a change of clothes
Our kids (or even one of us adults) invariably manage to spill something nearly every long flight. Having a change of clothes for the kids (and one for us, too) has saved us from wet, uncomfortable stretches. Also bring a light jacket or socks if they’ll fit in your carry-on, as planes sometimes crank up the air conditioning to uncomfortable temperatures.
Bring baby wipes and a cup with a re-sealable lid
Kids are messy. Baby wipes are indispensable when on an airplane with kids. Ask the flight attendant nicely, and they’ll be happy to fill up your kids’ sippy cup instead of handing out those easily-to-spill drink cups.
Bring your own snacks
Even if your airline serves meals, there’s no guarantee your kids will like what’s served. Airlines also run out of specific meals and snacks all the time. We like to bring raisins, Cheerios and Goldfish crackers, and avoid messy snacks like chocolate. Little squeezable fruit pouches work well for a lot of parents, but don’t bring whole fruit as it will likely be confiscated at customs or security. Also be mindful of nuts as many people have allergies.
Bring some small toys or games
Small stuffed animals, little action figures, and thin, lightweight books are almost always a hit. Don’t bring balls or anything that rolls; these are a nightmare to find when they roll up the aisle or under a seat. Also on our never-bring list are cheap stickers that won’t peel off, loud toys like whistles, and Play-Doh and Silly Putty (for smaller kids who make a big mess). We sometimes wrap an inexpensive new toy and promise it to the kids for good behaviour on the flight.
Get some sleep
If your flight is during your child’s normal bedtime, encourage your little one to sleep on the plane. Try to bring as much of your home bedtime routine to the plane as possible to help, whether that’s reading a book, singing a bedtime song, or bringing a favorite stuffy or blanket.
Bring your own entertainment
Don’t count on the airline’s in-flight entertainment systems to keep your kids occupied. Some flights still don’t have in-flight systems, and even if your plane is supposed to have an entertainment system, there’s always a chance that the airline switches planes, or that your in-flight entertainment system is broken. Make sure you bring along a device with a good battery (iPads are great), as many planes still don’t have in-plane charging stations. Don’t forget the earphones!
Try to see things from their perspective
It’s easy to get impatient when your kids are dragging their little feel boarding the plane, or whining in the line at customs. Flying can be overwhelming for little kids, with all the new sights and sounds, and adult expectations. Put yourself in their shoes, slow down a little, and it’ll be a less stressful time for everyone. We spend a lot of one-on-one time with our kids when flying. They love the attention, it reduces their stress levels, and everyone has a better flight.
Get your travel documents are in order
Check with your destination country to make sure that you have the correct travel documents, including visas and passport information. Kids, even babies, need their own passport to travel internationally, and many countries require a passport that doesn’t expire in the next six months. If you share custody of your child, bring along a notarized consent letter from the other parent that gives you permission to travel. If your child is adopted, bring along your adoption papers, and be prepared for extra scrutiny if your child has a different last name or a different racial background than you.
Help your child’s ears equalize when landing
I see a lot of kids suffering from pain in their ears due to pressure changes on airplanes. Kids have tiny ear canals, and they’re less able to equalize pressure, so they’re especially vulnerable to severe ear pain (and possibly burst ear drums) from air pressure changes on landing. For older kids, gum and lollipops work wonders. You can also get them to hold their nostrils gently shut, close their mouths, and gently blow their noses. For babies, give a baby bottle with milk or formula, offer breast milk, or give the baby a soother as soon as the plane reduces altitude to equalize changes in air pressure.
Micki Kosman writes about travel, tech, family and fun with her husband Charles on their blog, The Barefoot Nomad. Follow along for expert travel tips, tech help, and inspiration for your family travel all in one helpful, quirky space.