11 Tips for Surviving Plane Travel with Kids
Last Friday, we left New York and landed in Singapore roughly 22 hours later. By the time we arrived at our hotel and settled in, we had traveled for 24 hours straight with four kids under 8.
No, it wasn’t easy, but I lived to tell the tale.
I've traveled frequently as a mom (with various amounts of kids in tow from infancy on), and our current journey abroad inspired me to gather my thoughts on resilient plane travel. It’s taken many years and trips to hone my skills, but these days, I travel with my sanity in tact (most of the time).
Here are 11 survival tips from a well-traveled mom of four:
1. Lighten your load. The more crap you are lugging around, the more you have to worry about. No, your kids don’t need a whole bag of games and books for the journey. You might be amazed by how a plane seatbelt transforms into an entertaining toy (at least at the toddler age). For the older ones, I have fairly strict rules about screen time in my house, so my kids are always happy to binge on electronics during plane rides and therefore are quiet! Regarding clothing, packing light takes extra thought, but I would rather do the hard work ahead of time so I am not stressed about our "stuff" while we are away. With every kid I have had, my packing has thinned out more.
2. Pack carryon.
Continuing on with the less is more theme, I am pro-carryon. Yes, this means more airport juggling, but carryon with kids is never going to be light anyway. Furthermore, if you've ever lost a bag with kids clothing, you will know how hard it is to replace on the fly. Preserve the brain cells it takes to decide what needs to go in carryon "just in case" and save the checked bag fee by getting your kids rolling bags. They can pull their clothing and put the rest of their crap in school backpacks. Yes, they will initially complain about this, but chalk it up to a lesson in responsibility, ignore their whining (they will get used to it), and reap the reward of skipping baggage claim chaos at the end of a long trip.
3. Surprise the kids. The past few trips I’ve made it a point to swing through Michael’s and grab a few small art crafts from the $1-$5 section for the ride. I toss these inexpensive treasures into plastic bags along with a few favorite snacks and a pack of gum, then sneak it into their backpacks. The kids look forward to discovering their bag of surprises when we get on the plane, and I notice this sets a more positive flight tone.
4. Be gritty. My girlfriend who lived abroad and traveled frequently with small children told me, "When you are on a 16 hour flight and happen to run out of diapers, you’ve got no choice but to deal.” Her warning reminded me it would take grit to endure a trip to Asia with four kids. Indeed, I had to persevere when Rose broke out in an alarming rash mid flight. I gave her a dose of Benadryl, which alleviated the rash, but a paradox reaction to the medication transformed her into a sleep deprived maniac. While wrangling my wild toddler, I thought of my girlfriend who survived many intense flights before me and soldiered on.
5. Hone your acting skills. We are a family of 6, which means it's not easy to find seats together on a plane. The airlines really don’t care that your four-year-old is in a seat five rows back, so you are left begging fellow passengers to switch. Unless you happen upon a rare understanding individual, the only way you are getting a window-loving diva to trade for an aisle so you can be with your kid is to lay it on thick, “Sweetie, the barf bag is right there. I’ll try my hardest to come help you when you start getting sick.” #workslikeacharm
6. Choose Kindness. During one arduous trip a few years back, I am totally guilty of telling a particularly hostile woman that her dirty looks and sneers wouldn’t shut my kid up. I am always mindful of my children and the disruptions they create, but sometimes it's completely out of my control (ear drum stuff can and will inspire an entire flight of crying). Generally, I make it a point to say, “I’m sorry” profusely, to ward off unnecessary hostility. At the very least, kindness always makes me feel better about myself.
7. Hydrate. A very practical tip here, but the more water I drink, the better off I am. I start drinking extra the night before, and continue hydrating throughout the flight. I also keep face and hand cream accessible and frequently apply. This little act of self-care makes me feel somewhat more human when schlepping cranky kids for hours on end. Then, I always look a tad bit better when we emerge at our destination.
8. Have a mantra. I first heard “This too shall pass” many years ago in Bikram yoga. While it once sustained me through an intense posture in a hot room, it now carries me through the hardest moments of motherhood. Traveling with kids is arduous, but like sleep deprivation during infancy, the struggle won’t last forever. You will make it to your destination eventually, and my impermanence mantra always helps me keep my negativity in check.
9. Laugh. As we were debarking the plane this past trip, we were all so travel weary, we were literally tripping over our feet. My four-year-old Henry was melting and refusing to carry his bag (no, the carryon thing doesn’t work seamlessly, but I stand firm behind my claim that it's worth the struggle). About 3/4 to our destination, we picked up a cart. It took us five minutes to shuffle everything around and get moving again. Then, we made it about ten feet before we were told we had to leave the cart before proceeding. Initially, I think we all wanted to cry, but someone started laughing, and that positive emotion spread like wildfire through my clan. Our shared moment of laughter is what gave us the boost we needed to shuffle our bags around yet again, and schlepp our way to the airport exit.
10. Practice self-compassion. Take it easy on yourself! Somewhere along our years of travel, I learned to embrace my imperfection. Instead of wrestling guilt when I fail to hold it together 100% of the time, I set the intention of modeling forgiveness. I said, “I am sorry for yelling. Mommy is really tired too” quite a few times this past week.
11. Savor. Generally if you are traveling with kids, it’s vacation related, and you are spending more time together as a family, right? Yes, it is much easier to be home. In fact, if it wasn’t for my more adventurous husband, I would have never wanted to leave the house with little kids. Now, I look back at our vacation photos and the memories we have made together -- I am incredibly blessed and grateful.
PS – My bonus trip for international travelers is to take pictures of your passports just incase they are lost or stolen. Then, those photos in the timeline of your phone makes the process of filling out those pesky customs forms much easier!