Several of you have asked me for advice on traveling internationally with small children – not the vacationing, trip-planning stuff, the actual moving from Point A to Point B stuff. I’m surprised I’ve yet to write about the nitty-gritty behind long, international flights, seeing as we deal with this several times a year.
So today, I’m biting the bullet and sharing my thoughts.
My five-year-old daughter has been to eight different countries so far, and our two-year-old son was born in a country different than his passport. For our kids, traveling internationally is second nature, and they don’t really understand its uniqueness. In their short lives, it’s all they know, really, so they don’t get excited about flying in a big airplane, or dinking with the TV screens embedded into the seats in front of them.
But that doesn’t make the prospect of long flights necessarily easy. It takes about a total of 26 hours to travel from our home abroad to where we visit stateside. That’s painful with two kids who never sleep en route.
We’ve found tips and techniques that work well for us, so when we do have to deal with moving from Point A to Point B, we’ve learned how to jump in, experience the pain, and move our clan around as smoothly as possible.
1. Throw “normal” out the window.
Usually, our kids drink almost exclusively water, they get to watch one TV show a day, and they have set nap and quiet times. Not so when we’re in travel mode. For everyone’s sanity, it works well to hold your daily priorities with a loose grip and have a more “go with the flow” attitude, especially on flights longer than six hours.
Our kids can order apple juice when the flight attendant asks what they’d like. They’re allowed to watch the myriad of shows on the kids channel on the TV in front of them. They get iPod time. And they understand that this is a special treat; mom and dad haven’t lost their minds and are now operating in Lord of the Flies mode. They get that when we’re settled back down, we’re back to business as usual.
Of course, we still hold fast to values that really do matter to us — they can’t watch just anything, they still drink plenty of water, and they’re still not allowed a sugary treat without having first eaten a decent meal. It’s all in moderation.
Do what works, but don’t resort to this. Photo by Ma1974
2. Don’t worry about those around you.
When it comes to your family’s flight companions, I’ve found they can be grouped into two categories — people who understand and are sympathetic to your plight, and people who do care but shouldn’t.
It’s on the forefront of my mind all the time when we fly, but for our sanity, my husband and I have learned that we can’t control how people react to us; we can only control our attitudes.
So we smile at our neighbors. We apologize for rowdiness or talkativeness in a not-guilty way. We respectfully keep our space as neat as possible, and we remind our kids the necessity of physical and audible boundaries. We parent our kids, even when we fly.
But at the end of the day, there will be eye-rollers and scoffers, annoyed to be sitting near a family with small children. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Be as pleasant as possible, but if they still choose to be the victim of your circumstances, that’s their issue and not yours. This season is short. Flying with little kids is difficult. And you can count your blessings when you sit next to an empathetic grandmother or a fellow mom in the trenches.
The best thing you can do? Remember what it’s like in 10 or 20 years, and show the same grace when you’re seated next to parents with littles.
3. Bring snacks.
Feeding times are unpredictable on long flights, and you never really know when the flight attendant will come around with the next meal. That, and you never know your child’s reaction to the next meal. Our kids don’t eat well on planes.
We bring nuts, raisins, crackers, and granola bars on long trips, and it keeps our kids full when you have no real way to feed them a decent meal. We also bring our water bottles, and fill them as soon as we’re past the security gates.
Photo by Alberto P. Veiga
4. Have special “traveling toys.”
There are a few items we break out only on long flights. For our five-year-old, journals with colored pencils, sticker books, and a book of games (connect the dotes, mazes, and the like) go over well. For our two-year-old, we reveal a loved Matchbox car or a gadget (like a calculator) after we’ve settled in for awhile. And family-friendly airlines such as Lufthansa also often have special toys for their little customers.
5. Sleep when they sleep.
It’s just like they say when you have a newborn, right? When you travel across multiple time zones, your body clocks are all off. Kids will not sleep when they’re “supposed” to, and if they’re our kids, they may not sleep at all. So when we do see the eyelids droop and the wiggling fade, my husband and I take advantage of those blessed moments and sleep. It may only last an hour, so we jump on those occasions like white on rice. You’re exhausted, and you need to pace yourself as much as your kids.
I know there are quite a few of you living abroad, or who travel long distances as a family. What advice would you add to the list?