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

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?

top photo source
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.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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:-)

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

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

  13. 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?

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

  15. 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.

  16. We are about to get on 13 hour flight with a 6 years old and 4.5 . Thanks for all the great tips got them iPad minis and lots of snake coloring book , play dough , little pillows and blankets . Hoping it will go by fast and easy . The problem is that I have a hard time sleeping anywhere but my bed… And I will not be feeling too well without sleep 😊

  17. This information is really amazing and informative .thanks a lot for sharing it I m desperately looking forward for the next post from you

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