Whatever the mode of transport, traveling with children is often no picnic. The long-haul flight (five hours or more) offers up a special brand of hell, a smorgasbord of meltdowns, impromptu maladies and indiscriminate peevishness. I don’t blame them. Being caged like the class gerbil for hours can be tedious. They can’t seem to help upchucking on you and whining. A carefully plotted parental playbook can help.
As a parent and travel writer who has crisscrossed the globe with her children for nearly a decade, I can confirm that keeping the whining at bay is just one part of the defensive strategy. Protecting your family against germs — we’ve had too many flight-induced illnesses to count — and preparing for multiple meals and snacks, not to mention all of the gear that must be schlepped, make up the offense. By anticipating the wild-card scenarios that can unfold at 32,000 feet, parents can exert some control over a topsy-turvy situation.
Food and Drink
It’s a mistake to assume that your flight will provide meals and snacks, even an international one. Preparing for the lowest rung of service means that lackluster offerings will have less of an impact on your family’s well-being. So, plot your nourishment carefully.
Put child-size servings in convenient flip-top snack cups like Oxo Tot or Skip Hop. For older children and adults, bring two meals — well-wrapped sandwiches or entrees in Tupperware (with your own plastic utensils). Have a cache of easy-to-transport snacks (granola bars, nuts and dried fruit, single serving chips, squeezable apple sauce, grapes, carrots and cheese sticks). Put all of these items inside a gallon-size zip-lock bag to stay organized and contain spillage.
Remember that juice and milk cannot be brought through security (and may not be available on board). Buy them once you have passed through the Transportation Security Administration’s checkpoint and pour contents into sippy cups and bottles before boarding the flight. Make sure to account for flight delays with sustenance.
Studies by the Federal Aviation Administration have shown that viruses can lurk on airline surfaces for as long as seven days. How can you keep your family healthy? You can try by stuffing your carry-on with germ-avoidance products. Portable anti-bacterial wipes are mandatory. Use them to disinfect tray tables, armrests and seat belts. Avoid direct contact with the bathroom sink, the toilet flush and door handles by using either a paper towel or tissue paper.
Table toppers, disposable adhesive place mats, can be slicked over the grimy tray table (where travelers have been known to change diapers) for a clean play and eating surface. Another essential: disposable potty covers — individually wrapped wide sheaths that serve as a hygienic barrier between your child and the petri dish of a public toilet seat. For diaper changing (in the bathroom, please) or the floor beneath your seat (where toddlers love to sit and play), use quilted disposable multiuse pads (also great for feeding and burping).
Dry, recirculated air is another land mine. On long flights, dehydrated nasal passages can become cracked, inviting germs in for an unwanted play date. To prevent this, dab the inside of the nose with Aquaphor before the trip and use a saline spray during the flight. For optimal sleeping, a pillow is a good idea. Slip a disposable cover over the airline pillow to make it sanitary. Or, bring neck pillows from home.
Expecting your child to sleep for the majority of a long-haul flight? That may happen. But woe to the parents whose master plan for a 10-hour flight features one coloring book. Nourishment aside, keeping children occupied should be a priority. Of course, the iPad is an opiate for kids of all ages. So don’t offer it up until you really need it. For little ones, kick off the trip with interactive entertainment: reusable sticker books, Kid O Glow in the Dark Magnatab (children “draw” with a stylus over magnetic beads to create images) and mess-free activity sets like Crayola Color Wonder and Melissa and Doug Water Wow! Reveal Pads.
Another resource for 5- to 7-year-olds? Leapfrog’s Leapstart, a tablet-like learning system that presents STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills as interactive games. Many tweens are into crafts. Consider do-it-yourself jewelry and art-making kits from Rainbow Loom and Alex Toys or a model building kit. Magic show kits as well as Perplexors and Extreme Dot to Dot activity books will engage children for a spell. The whole family can giggle through a few rounds of Would You Rather or play Scrabble. Don’t overlook the oldies, a great book for starters. The Rubik’s Cube and a deck of playing cards are also classic attention grabbers.
When the kvetching starts, it’s time for the iPad. Be sure to download movies and games before the flight (you’ll need Wi-Fi) along with a few surprise apps to encourage good behavior. Audiobooks are another way to while away the time. Even if earbuds are distributed on your flights, the standard size may be too big for children and fall out. Pure Sound Labs makes some with studio-grade volume monitoring specifically for children. Bring a jack splitter so you can watch or listen along with your child.
It is good idea to travel with a lightweight pouch stocked with products to address ear pressure, cuts, allergies, mystery rashes, headaches and upset stomachs (nothing over 3 ounces, per TSA rules). Here’s what you need: fever reducer, children’s antihistamine like Benadryl, cortisone cream to soothe rashes and itching, a children’s antacid, triple antibiotic ointment, eye drops, bandages and earplugs that offer child-specific sizes like Mack’s silicone earplugs to alleviate cabin pressure. Also, always bring prescription medications for yourself and the children in your carry-on in case your luggage is lost.
Stockpile a few items that your child covets (and usually cannot have) and use them as high-altitude bargaining chips. The ability to reach into your bag and produce a tantrum-busting object — a small toy, a coloring book with fruit-scented pencils, stickers, a new app or movie that you had conveniently downloaded on your phone, a homemade IOU coupon for a visit to Dave & Buster’s — is a powerful weapon. Often better than a toy are forbidden foods. Doughnuts, chocolate and whatever treats you routinely ban from the cupboard can miraculously defuse an escalating situation.
Gear and Gizmos
Every element of a long flight must be premeditated: safety, meals, hydration, sleep, potty visits, entertainment and all of the gizmos associated with these actions. For infants, an ergonomic baby carrier or sling can make a multihour journey more comfortable (think walking the aisles endlessly with baby). Is a car seat required on the plane? It’s a personal decision. Children can fly as a lap child until they are 2 years old. But, this can be uncomfortable.
Jessica Hartshorn, senior editor at Fit Pregnancy and Baby and Parents magazines, recommended a portable infant car seat like the Doona, a lightweight stroller that transforms into a wheelable infant car seat for children weighing from 4 to 35 pounds. In place of a car seat, children between 22 and 44 pounds can use a belt and buckle harness system. The Child Aviation Restraint System is the first and only FAA-approved version.
To ferry children through the terminal (and for travel in general), Hartshorn favors the 9-pound GB Pockit stroller (suitable for ages 6 months to 4 years), which folds up and can slip under the foot space in front of your seat. Even if your flight has outlets on board, do not forget an extra external power source. Better safe than sorry.
The Multitasking Diaper Bag
For the youngest travelers, a well-stocked diaper bag is a must. Checklist: Diapers (plan for the flight plus two hours); wipes (plus plastic bags to store the soiled ones); pacifiers (extras for when the first three are lost); two outfit changes (because accidents happen); formula or breast milk kept cool with portable ice packs; sippy cups; a changing pad; bottles; waterproof bibs; blankets and teething gear.
Portable baby books and toys — the kind with push buttons, lift-the-flap, touch-and-feel and nesting elements — should be stuffed in a gallon-size food storage bag. To house all of these things, make sure the diaper bag is durable with multiple compartments to maximize efficiency. Look for one with insulated exterior pockets (Ju-Ju Be has one) to keep bottles hot or cold. In addition to the diaper bag, parents will need a carryall for their own gear. For men, a sturdy backpack is ideal. For women, the roomy and thoughtfully proportioned Bartaile Nylux C12 has adjustable straps that can be worn as a backpack, cross-body or tote.
Tips and Tricks
At least one week before departure, make a checklist and start packing. Waiting until the last minute leads to blunders and omissions.
Ear congestion is a challenge for younger children. Dr. Jennifer L. Young, a pediatrician,recommended that babies breast feed, drink from the bottle or use a pacifier during ascent and descent. “The act of suction helps to keep babies’ Eustachian tubes open, which keeps the pressure between the cabin and the inner ear equalized,” she said.
Young suggested that toddlers drink from a sippy cup, suck on a lollipop or blow bubbles into a cup of water to help create pressure equilibrium. Children 5 and older can achieve the same effect by chewing gum.
If a child’s ears become clogged on the descent, Young suggested the following: Have the child hold his nose and, with mouth closed, gently blow through the plugged nose. This forces air through the Eustachian tubes and will open the blockage.
Analgesic ear drops can also help with pain, but always check with your pediatrician first.
To offer a sense of responsibility (and give parents less to carry) have children wheel their own mini-suitcase filled with books, toys, anti-bacterial wipes and a treat or two to be earned for good behavior. Flight 001’s Seat Pak can be suspended from a tray table hook for easy access to bribery material. To encourage sleep, bring an eye mask for children to block out the cabin light.
Hauling gear and carrying children can ignite back pain. Tennis balls — placed at the shoulder blade and the small of your back on the airplane seat — can offer an ideal DIY massage. Heatwraps like Thermacare can also relieve muscle pain.
If your family is not seated together or in a last row, ExpertFlyer.com, a website that keeps real-time tabs on airline seating maps, may help. After booking tickets, set a seat alert (each one is 99 cents) for specific seats together on the Expertflyer website. If any seats open up, you will be notified by email. People do change their plans. One traveler’s maneuver could elevate your long-haul flight into something resembling travel heaven.