A seasoned traveling mom offers detailed practical tips for getting there with the fewest meltdowns.
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. The kids 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.
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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 checkpoint and pour contents into sippy cups and bottles before boarding the flight. Make sure to account for flight delays with sustenance.
Germ warfare: 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.
Entertainment: 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 such as 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.
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 such as 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.
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.
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.
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.