How to travel long distances with little ones (and not go insane)

by Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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?

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  1. I too like the comment referencing the other people on the plane. We are planning a trip and I’ve wondered about “others”. Thank you for the reassuring advice.

    Our little one recently took a road trip to visit Grandma. He typically is a good sleeper however not in the car. He never sleeps in the car more that 30-40 minutes. So when he got tired he couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact he could simply…go to sleep. Instead he said the following “Sleep papa baby crib” (the crib he sleeps in when he’s at his Papa’s house.

    He said this loudly, softly, fast, slow. Pretty much any way he could think of. Unfortunately he said this 148 times! It was during his traveling mantra I started to think, how flying will be for the family and the “others” on the plane.

    We’ll do our best, he’ll do his best and we’ll smile to our neighbors.

    Thanks again for the tips.

  2. My mom always had little gifts for us to open during different key moments of the flight (after buckling our seatbelt, during a layover, after the meal, etc.). They were always little things that would help to pass the time the next few hours, and just knowing they were coming helped us stay on our best behavior… Well, at least for the most part. :0) I do this now with my three little boys, but I don’t wrap the gifts because of security.

  3. Honestly, I don’t get this. I’ve tried so hard to figure out why people feel they need some sort of guidance on taking kids on a plane, but I just can’t. I mean – just take the kids and do it. As parents, you know perfectly well what to do.

    When our twins were young we lived in Ethiopia, but traveled back to the USA at least once a year to visit family. That was a 35-hour journey each way with layovers. I can honestly say it was never a problem – any more so than before our boys were born.

    As you wrote, we made sure we had snacks and toys with us, we let the boys watch TV (this was before the days of personal TVs on planes, but they watched the movies on the big general screen). We got up and walked around the plane a time or two. Or two hundred, as the case may be.

    But I never felt like I needed any body to give me tips or hints or suggestions or whatever to do it.

    Kids are GREAT travelers! Our sons are now 14 and they’ve been around the world plenty of times. They’ve visited something like 25 or 30 countries and they’ve even ridden bicycled from Alaska to Argentina. We’ve never had the attitude that we couldn’t do something with kids. We just did it.

    If I had one suggestion for parents it’s this: don’t be scared. Just do it.

  4. Great comments!
    My tips:
    For international flights, we’ve often experienced delays and had to stay overnight somewhere en route. So we pack for an extra day–lightly of course. But definitely enough diapers to get through an entire additional 24 hours.
    Pack a small gift/treasure for each leg and let kids know that they will get a treat after the plane has reached cruising altitude. Going through security and boarding is a tough haul for little ones, and they are more likely to make the extra effort when they know a reward is coming. These gifts have to be small and easy to pack. Our kids like little plastic figurines, Wikki Stix, sticker books with scenes, funny keychains, toy cars.
    Bring along empty water bottles and fill them after passing through security. Drink lots of fluids and make sure that the kids do too.
    DVD players are great–they really saved my sanity many times during long trips. But they are heavy and once I forgot to pack the DVDs! I recently acquired an iPad and I think that will be easier to travel with.
    Snacks are important for the journey but also for getting through the jetlag at your destination. A bag of pretzels will be invaluable when it’s 3am and you’re stuck in a Bangkok hotel room with a couple of very hungry kids.
    Don’t make any assumptions about using your strollers in transit or even using a baggage cart at your destination. Pack lightly so that you can manage your luggage yourself. That is the most difficult issue about traveling with kids. When traveling alone with an infant, I always took a baby carrier (bjorn or Ergo), a backpack as a carry-on, an umbrella stroller and one suitcase. I could manage all of that myself.
    Happy Travels!

  5. Hi Tsh, thank you for all of your helpful tips and seems you’re right because I’m usually hard to take a sleep when travel across multiple time zones and in so many cases, I just take my diary, reading it to kill the time :(

  6. Thx soooo much for all the tips, hopefully they will be of some use when we take our 13 month old on his very first long haul flight in two weeks!!

  7. Great article! Funny, helpful and entertaining!
    I LOLed at the pic and the caption :)

  8. Hi,
    I just came across this blog and am glad there are moms who take care of their young children.
    What does a grandfather do when the moms do not do anything about their screaming, kicking chidren in an airplane flight.
    I love children. have 7 grandchildren and enjoy them. With that said am I supposed to sit back and enjoy gettin kicked on the back of my seat, constantly hear screaming in my ear for the next 5 hours of my flight while the mother ignores their childs actions and my pleads for peace. Her children are her responsibility. I respect that she has had problems many times with them that have left her haggered but why should I suffer also.

  9. Hallo ik ben zo opgewonden ik vond je blog pagina, ik echt van je vinden door een ongeluk, terwijl ik op zoek was op Yahoo voor iets anders, Hoe dan ook ik ben hier nu en wil alleen maar zeggen dat je bedanken voor een fantastische post en een all round plezierige blog (Ik hou ook van het thema / design), ik heb geen tijd om door alles te lezen op het moment, maar ik heb het boek-gemarkeerd en voegde ook uw RSS-feeds, dus als ik tijd heb zal ik terug zijn om te lezen nog veel meer, alstublieft ga zo door fantastisch werk.

  10. Hei Olen niin innoissani löysin blogisi sivun, todella löysin sinut vahingossa, kun hain Yahoo jotain muuta, Anyways olen täällä nyt, ja haluaisin vain kiittää teitä fantastinen virkaan ja ympärillä nautittavaa blogi (Rakastan myös teema / muotoilu), minulla ei ole aikaa lukea läpi kaikkia tällä hetkellä, mutta minulla on arvo-merkintä on myös lisännyt RSS-syötteitä, joten kun minulla on aikaa palaan lukemaan paljon, älä pysyä suurenmoista työtä.

  11. Great advice. We’re about to embark on a 14 hour flight with a 2 year old and a 4 year old, so this couldn’t have come at a better time for me.



  12. Im not sure if my 2 years old doughter will travel in aircraft for 3 hours. Im afraid that it could be a little bit of hell. I wonder if I should try or not.

  13. Thanks to everyone who shared their ideas! I’ve been doing a lot of reading about traveling with small children as I’ll be traveling from the US to Tanzania, East Africa, next month with my then 11-month-old twins. I have to manage the first leg of the trip alone, but will then meet up with my mother and sister to help on the two longer overseas flights. Daddy is already there and will greet us upon our arrival.

    I’ve traveled alone with the twins three times domestically and always found that people were willing to help out–often they offered to help before I even had a chance to ask.

  14. I wrote about this, too~ and sure wish I’d had the ability to do more research online before we began traveling with our kids long ago!
    Thanks for sharing your ideas and I love your blog!

  15. These are some great ideas! We’ve traveled across the country a couple of times with small children, and it’s no easy feat. These are some great tips, and great encouragement on how to make the most of what could be a challenging situation. Thanks for the great post!

  16. Our family just relocated from Florida to Alaska. The flight was long, but our 11-month-old daughter did very well. Making the 11 hour flight will become a regular part of our life when we go back to visit my family.

  17. Nice post. All the advice you have given is good advice. Some airlines have special packs, movies, programmes and electronic games on screen for children but it all depends on who you are travelling with.

  18. I respect that she has had problems many times with them that have left her haggered but why should I suffer also.

  19. avatar
    Duncan Faber says:

    Here’s a tip for traveling with kids. Audiobooks and lots of them! You can fill up your iPod at lots of sites, but we found one where you an download original children’s stories for free. Original is the key word here. How many times can I possible listen to Little Red Riding Hood?! Anyway, here’s the link if anyone is interested. http://www.twirlygirlshop.com/stories-for-kids. Also, chewing gum! Hope this helps.

  20. I totally agree with the advice you gave! We’ve lived overseas (Turkey and Jordan so far, we’re on our way to Malaysia this summer) for five years now, since my oldest son was 9 weeks old. Most of our flights have included a trans-atlantic leg, and our kids (now 5, 3, and 1) have grown up with international travel being the norm as well. We do pretty much all the things you mentioned, #1 and #2 are especially important for me to remind myself of.

    At home my kids don’t usually watch TV/movies during the week, but on flights we bring a portable DVD player, an iPad, and an old iPhone that’s now basically an iPod touch, all loaded with their favorite shows and movies. My kids generally prefer to watch their favorite shows when traveling rather than watching new things, so this works better for us than relying on in-flight entertainment.

    Our last trip, a month ago, I also made the two older boys (3 and 5) an “art bag.” I bought a few packs of stickers, some new small markers, a couple small pads of paper and some “Cars” coloring pages, as well as a small necklace-making kit. Both of the kids spent a couple of hours (cumulative, not consecutive) making up stories with the stickers and coloring in the pictures. They loved having their own bag and had a lot of fun just looking through it to see what was in there.

    With snacks, I’ve found that variety is key. Little bags of several different snacks is more effective in distracting my kids than a big bag of one thing. I saved little odds and ends of things for a month before our trip – a fun size pack of M&Ms, a few mini marshmallows, a small bag of pretzels, the end of a bag of Cheerios, and made a few small bags using the snack size baggies. Each baggie had mostly healthy stuff (raisins, nuts, pretzels, crackers, Cheerios) and a few treats (three mini marshmallows, a few chocolate chips, or a couple of M&Ms). I could pull out a new baggie as needed, and it was always something different. These were life-savers when we were standing in the security lines.

    For the baby (who was 11 months old when we made our last trip) I found the key was to let go of any expectation that he would take a long nap and just, as you mentioned, sleep whenever he did. During our 20+ hour trip, he took three or four one-hour naps, and whenever he fell asleep I did too. I’ve found that a stretchy wrap like a Moby or SleepyWrap works great until the baby hits about 12 pounds. After that I prefer a two-shoulder structured carrier like an Ergo since carrying a baby in a one-shoulder carrier like a sling really hurts after a few hours.

    I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always had my husband with me on the long trips, so we can do a sort of zone defense. On this last trip, he took point on the two older kids and I took the baby. We could relieve each other as needed, but having that division of labor established in advance helped.

  21. Wow! I am so overwhelmed that there are so many moms like myself. We are in the process of moving to Sydney which is approx an 18 hour flight. 4 hours Chicago to LA then 14 to Sydney. I have flown back and forth twice getting ready for the move and also talking to moms if I see they have young ones on the flight. I do have to say my anxieties have been almost completely eliminated with all of these wonderful tips (except for the grandpa one). My one question, which may seem obvious, but can’t quite figure it out, how do you put a three year old to sleep on those reclining seats? My husbands company won’t pay for 2 first class tickets so we are in economy plus. My son likes to sleep on his tummy with his bum in the air. Has anyone seen or heard of some type of “bed” that can go on the seat. I’m thinking no because technically he’s supposed to have his seatbelt on. This is my tricky situation. I appreciate any positive suggestions:-)

  22. Great advice, although 2 and 4 works well for me. I’m not a parent and a father yet but I do travel often times with nieces and nephews for a family vacation. I tried to ignore all their rants, especially my nephews. There was that time that I almost give up when he force me to play racing cars on the plane. Good thing he loves playing video games so I made him calm for a bit and he plays on my PSP. Kids will always be kids!

  23. avatar
    NicoleG09 says:

    I always get dirty looks when I bring my sons car seat on the plane but it is a real life saver because he can’t help but fall asleep in it and he’s comfortable so when he is awake he’s still happy.

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  25. Thanks for finally talking about >How to travel long distances with little ones (and not go insane) | The Art of Simple <Loved it!

  26. Article très cultivant !!!

  27. J’ai comme l’impression que ce post va aller sur mon blog

  28. I like the idea of special travelling toys, it gives the little ones something specific to look forward to! Fantastic post.

  29. avatar
    HealthyGirl says:

    I just had a disturbing conversation with my brother and I need advice, especially since I am not a parent myself. My sister-in-law is pregnant with their first child. My brother and I were talking about traveling and it seems that my sister-in-law’s father would not allow her, her sister or his wife any fluids before and during long road trips (13+ hrs) in order to minimize bathroom stops. He would literally give them hard candy to suck on during the trip but no fluids. I am not sure at what age this was instituted. My sister-in-law has already told my brother that they will be traveling the same way with their kids because this method works. I KNOW it is up to my brother to stand up and disagree but I am really concerned about this since he seems to agree with her. This way of thinking seems so extreme, controlling and unnecessary. I can understand the reasoning for not flooding your child with fluids so that you have to stop every 5 minutes but how can it be healthy to withhold liquids and then give them sugar to suck on instead??? I am concerned for my future niece or nephew and any other kids they may have…can this be psychologically damaging? Am I overreacting? Am I just trying to exert control on future situations that aren’t really my business?

  30. I appreciate that you”parent your kids” even when you are traveling. I wish other parents did the same.

  31. I seem to get more guff from other passengers on lower budget airlines when flying with kids than when flying regular priced airlines. One time a crabby woman on a budget flight asked me if I’ve ever heard of the phase “children should be seen and not heard” when my son giggled at a cartoon he was watching (with headphones). I was shocked, but I suspect she doesn’t fly much & may have inflated expectations on what her experience would be like.

  32. Love the part about not worrying about others. Some people will be miserable no matter who they’re flying around! If you have control over your kids, no one is going to make a big fuss.

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