Enduring 20 Plus Hours of Air Travel with a Toddler (Oh Yes, and a Baby)


Air travel done right: Logan on a flight to Bali at 10 months old

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.

44 thoughts on “Enduring 20 Plus Hours of Air Travel with a Toddler (Oh Yes, and a Baby)

  1. Ana Gaby says:

    I loved this!!! This is perfect and I’m with you on every single one. I will have to try out the recommended toys on our next long-haul! Now that Josh started walking I dread the next flight with two toddlers in tow!!!!

    • lobrau says:

      Hi Charlie!

      Thanks! We did have a couple of meltdowns about a year and half ago on the route from DC to Bangkok . . it was no fun. I think we’ve learned to avoid travelling such long distances with one year olds due to that experience. They just can’t be stationary or keep their attention on something for that long. Ha ha!

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      Hi! You are most welcome to quote my posts. In fact, I would be happy if you did! Great seeing your adventures in Japan and Thailand. This is such an amazing part of the world. Glad to see you are enjoying it!

  3. ScaredMom says:

    I just came across ur article searching for entertaining a 22month old on his first international travel…
    Did u carry carseats for ur kids? My son is tiny compared to average kids here in US, we are Asian Indians. Could you strap ur toddler in without a lot of padding? Thankfully, i will be travelling with my hubby otherwise a cross-atlantic trip with a toddler, carryon, diaper bag, carseat…i am sure i will drop the ball somewhere….any more do’s and don’ts?

    • Loren says:

      Hi there! We have tried both bringing the car seat and leaving it behind. We found we liked it better without the car seat in tow, because it takes up so much room on the plane and is so heavy to carry around. We were able to strap our kids in when they needed to be strapped in and sometimes we found multiple seats for them to lay across when there were a few empty seats available on the flight. They’ve also slept on us quite a bit. The key is to get them so to sleep if you can – it doesn’t really matter where they do it :). Definitely bring toys and games with you, as well as snacks. Good luck!

      • Dara says:

        We are planning to fly DC-BKK with a two year old and have the carseat question as well – I know she will not need it/tolerate it on the plane, so we plan to check it under the plane. But I guess I still have some concerns about using it when we arrive. Did you use the carseat in taxis? It’s been a while since I’ve visited my extended family in Thailand, but if I recall not all vehicles have seatbelts. I would love it if you can elaborate on your experience!

      • Loren says:

        Hi Dara. Great to hear you will be visiting BKK soon! We had the same issue when we arrived and sometimes we had to pull over 10 taxis before we found one with a working seat belt to which we could latch the car seat (we had a four month old at the time). It was a major hassle! If you are planning on long trips or trips on the highway while you are here, I would recommend using a car service (if you email me privately at toddlejoy@gmail.com I can give you some recommendations) that you can call for the longer rides (the car services definitely have seat belts and good drivers). For short hops around town, use the sky train, walk or take a taxi around the block, if you are comfortable with it. I hope this helps! We also did not use our car seat on the plane. We found it was big, bulky and useless! Please let me know if you need anything else.

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      So sorry to hear that your comment was deleted. It is so frustrating when things like that happen! Thanks so much for stopping by and for the compliment. So glad you enjoy reading Toddle Joy!

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      Thank you so much for your comment! This was my first blog and WordPress has been easy to use! I went with a paid theme so I could have some formatting options. There are a lot of themes out there, so make sure to research first based on what kind of site you would like to set up (photography, travel writing, etc) and then go from there. Good luck!

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  11. Jennifer (aka Hint Mama) says:

    Love the idea of using the cocktail straw for an in-flight magazine game. I’m also a fan of what I call the “kid-friendly airplane cocktail” (i.e. apple juice in a cup with a lid and a cocktail straw) – it provides at least 20 minutes of toddler entertainment, forever in toddler airplane time. I’ll add your game idea to my bag of tricks for when the juice runs out:) More on that here: http://hintmama.com/2014/03/21/todays-hint-a-kid-friendly-airplane-cocktail/

  12. Emily Babcock says:

    Loren, thank you so much for sharing this helpful and entertaining information! I’m about to embark on a 14 hour non-stop airplane ride to S. Korea with my 2 year old and 3 year old. Luckily, my husband will be with us, but I’ve been having anxiety over the journey for a month now. We’re leaving day after tomorrow and I’m still more concerned with our journey than our actual arrival and stay in Korea! We’ll be there for 6 months, thanks to the US Army. Anyway, thank you very much for your endearing advice.

    • Loren says:

      Hi Emily! Of course – I hope the advice helps in-flight! We now have three (ages 4, 2 and 10 months) and flew from Thailand to Washington, DC when they were 3, 2, and 4 months old this past summer. It went better than expected. The 3 year old will be able to watch movies — just make sure you have kid-sized ear phones (with the appropriate type of plug-in jack) for the 3 and 2 year old so that the airline-provided ones don’t keep falling off their ears. Sending easy breezy travel vibes your way — and enjoy South Korea!

      • Emily Babcock says:

        Oh wow!!! That’s amazing! Traveling with three little ones to Thailand! You’ve just given me a much needed confidence boost. Plus, three under the age of 5 makes you a super hero in my eyes. I’ll absolutely grab the headphones. I know I considered them a while back, but I definitely would have forgotten in my state of lunacy right now. I’m literally running errands tomorrow to prep for this journey. Thank you so much!!

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