Let me start by saying that I am certainly not the authoritative source on how to create the world’s best behaved, patient, sleepy children for hours of international air travel. However, with a few long flights under our belt and no major meltdowns on the 50 hours of air travel we endured over the past five weeks, I feel as though we have had some mild success that we can pass on. God knows I scoured through many ‘a website desperate for tips on international travel with toddlers before we embarked on our Christmas holiday vacation; which, by the way, looked something like this:
Bangkok -> Tokyo -> Washington, D.C. (two weeks rest) -> Chicago -> Grand Rapids, MI (two weeks rest) -> Chicago -> Los Angeles (three days rest) -> Tokyo -> Bangkok
(and yes, we are crazy).
Crammed in United’s economy class seating three rows from the back on a 747 and not even assigned in the same row (thank you, United, for seating my seven month old in a row by herself), here is what made the trip bearable for our toddler, and in return, us:
1. Plane pep talk. About a month before our trip, I talked to Logan almost every night about our upcoming journey, what we would do, who we would see, and most importantly, what we could and should do on the plane. We’d eat on the plane, sleep on the plane, play on the plane, and watch as many movies as he wanted on the plane. Did I mention we’d sleep on the plane? A lot.
2. A bag of wrapped goodies, doled out slowly. This is an old trick that we learned from many parents. A couple of weeks before the big flight, head out to a toy store, the dollar store, Michael’s or anywhere, really, and buy small, inexpensive, and time-consuming toys for the trip. Wrap them and hide them from your toddler until the day of the flight. During air travel, dole them out slowly. Unwrapping will buy you at least 30 seconds to a minute depending on the age and dexterity of your toddler (and we all know any extra minute that a toddler is busy on a flight is like gold). In order of success, these made the best plane toys for our two-year old: Melissa and Doug On The Go Color Blast Artwork, Usborne reusable sticker books, long-winded paperback Dr. Seuss books, travel etch-a-sketch, 50 Things to Spot at the Airport. And the worst? Matchbox cars (why did I think this was a good idea) and anything with multiple markers and/or crayons. Model clay was a fun activity when we could put tray tables down.
3. Snacks, snacks, and more snacks. Bring loads of snacks. And definitely mix in some forbidden ones with the healthy ones . . . like M&Ms, Pocky sticks, lollipops, and chocolate milk. It’s bribery, but sometimes you will need those enticing snacks to keep a toddler quiet during take-off and landing. And really, no parent should be above bribery when faced with 20 plus hours of international travel with a toddler.
4. An iPad full of toddler entertainment options. I know there are a gazillion apps out there now to keep toddlers occupied, but we went a different route, loading every five-minute Thomas the Train episode imaginable on the iPad for our toddler’s viewing pleasure. We also loaded some Disney cartoons and a few Disney movies. Since Logan is not quite two and a half, shorter shows work much better for him than full-length feature films. Tray table down, iPad in place, earphones on (well, half-way at least), and sometimes we’d have almost 45 minutes of uninterrupted bliss.
5. Aisles are your friends. No one (well, except curmudgeonly United flight attendants) expect toddlers to stay seated for 13 hours. So how do you allow your a toddler to expel his/her overwhelming amount of energy? Use the aisles. When the seatbelt sign is off and there are no beverage carts moving up and down the aisles, let them loose. Expect your toddler to run so fast that he/she will make it past business, into first, and to the cockpit door before you can make it half way down the aisle. Ours did several times. You might think that people will get annoyed by a toddler running up and down the aisles, but most people on our flights enjoyed the additional entertainment.
6. Several changes of clothes. Ahh, yes. One of your carry-ons will probably be completely devoted to several changes of clothes, diapers, and wipes when you travel with a toddler and a baby. This is necessary because of all of the spitting up, spilled drinks (this happens every time the beverage cart comes around and your toddler gets his hands on one of those wide-mouthed plastic cups), poops, pees, and sticky snacks. Three changes of clothes/child seemed to be the magic number.
7. Good neighbors. And to get this, you just have to be lucky. We were unlucky on one flight where an older gentleman refused to move to the aisle in front of us so that the four of us could sit together. Our revenge? He got to sit next to Logan during the seven hour flight.
8. Code share is key. We are true Americans and love American things, however when we have the option to fly a code share flight operated by an Asian airline (Al Nippon Airways, Thai Airways, Singapore Airways), we do it. Our return flight from LA to Tokyo was a United flight operated by ANA. And it was magical. More leg room, better changing tables, cleaner planes, excellent service, toys for the kids courtesy of the airline, good meals, toddler cups with lids and straws . . . must I go on?
9. Meds. And before you jump to conclusions, no I am not going to advocate that you should drug your toddler with Benadryl to get him to sleep (although, there were times when I thought this would be a nice option, but then the ethical part of it just kept slapping me in the face). We always carry infant and toddler acetaminophen and ibuprofen onboard, as well as a thermometer and Pedialyte. You never know when a fever is going to pop up on a long flight.
10. Gates = Freedom. Now is where those matchbox and pull-back cars come in handy. Although I shudder at the thought of just how dirty airport floors are, we let Logan play as much as he wanted at the gate with his cars. And play he did. It was another great way to expel energy on the long journey. Another great thing about gates? The things going on outside with catering trucks, de-icing trucks, luggage trucks, re-fueling trucks, passenger buses, planes, captains and co-pilots, cockpits, etc. was a phenomenal time-occupier. Thank you, Chicago O’Hare, for delivering fully in this respect.
And what made the trip bearable for our seven-month old, and thus, us? Well, due to past experience, we have sworn off long flights with babies that have just begun to crawl or walk and/or cannot understand any measure of reasoning; so honestly, avoid long trips between the ages of nine months and two years. Seriously, folks, long flights are MUCH MUCH easier when a baby is still immobile. Moms, if you are nursing your infant, bring your support pillow, strap it around your waist, nurse on take-off and landing and pretty much the whole flight in between and you are good to go. A nursing child is a happy child. At least in our experience. Oh, and in general, babies hate the bright lights and small, uncomfortable changing tables in airplane lavatories. Short of changing a child on the seats — which is kind of gross for other passengers, but offers more room for you and the child — there is not much more you can do to make this experience more pleasant. Another general rule of thumb is that as soon as your baby falls asleep while nursing after take-off, the flight attendants will talk very loudly in the PA system, turn on the bright lights, and come around with food carts to serve the first meal. Your infant will surely wake up. When he/she does, the good news is that the simplest of items usually keep them entertained mid-flight. Try an empty plastic cup, a spoon, a straw, the in-flight magazine (identifying animals in the magazine can be a fun activity), the safety card in the seat back pocket. All of that entertainment and they’ll be ready to doze off again.
Business and bulkheads are a nirvana that we haven’t yet reached. When we do, we’ll let you know how that goes. In the meantime, we hope that some part of our experience will make a part of your journey more bearable.
P.S. – If your toddler rolls off a set of seats in flight while sleeping when you, your spouse, and your infant are all sleeping, he/she will be a tad confused by what happened, but will likely climb back up on the seats and return to sleeping. Not that we let this happen to our toddler. Purely a hypothetical.