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7 tips for surviving a long-haul flight with kids

It’s a good thing that I usually rush into our travel plans without thinking too hard about how we’re going to get where we’re going. If I didn’t, the long-haul flight would probably scare me off every time. We’ve experienced flight delays, lost baggage, and even an ash cloud that stranded us unexpectedly in London for 10 days, but every single trip we’ve taken has been well worth the stress of getting on that plane. Planning helps, and the flights usually go better in reality than I imagine they will as I’m stuffing that final snack into my carry-on bag.


Here are my best tips for surviving a long-haul flight:

Worry about jet lag on arrival
You’ll see lots of expert advice on how to best avoid jet lag at your destination. Most of it involves getting your child on local time before you leave. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you should ignore it. Who wants a grumpy, sleep-deprived child on a plane? Instead, focus on making sure your child is either calm and well-rested for a morning flight or drowsy for a nighttime flight. For an afternoon departure, try to get lots of daytime exercise, and get your child ready to nap on the plane. With any luck, the soothing engine noise will ensure an extra-long nap. Here are some tips for helping your child sleep on a plane.

Pack a busy bag
Virtually every guide to flying with kids recommends that you pack a busy bag, but here are a few critical tips that they usually leave out. 1) Pack any new toys in your own bag so that you control how quickly they get opened. 2) Even if the only thing your child really likes is cars, pack a variety of activities. For instance, include a few cars, a car-themed workbook and a game or puzzle that involves cars. 3) Don’t forget to use what you find around you before you break into your secret stash of new toys. Need a few tips on what to pack? Here’s my guide to packing an airplane busy bag.

Bring your own meals
Sure, they’ll serve meals in-flight. But here’s the problem — kids are extra picky when they’re in the midst of a tiring day, so they’ll probably reject airplane food. True, some airlines promise kid-friendly meals, but they’re usually loaded with so many sugary treats that I remove most of the food before passing them to my kids. Pack your own filling, protein-rich (i.e. sleep-inducing) foods like sunbutter sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, roasted chicken and string cheese. Dried fruit is a great snack because it’s non-perishable and takes a while to eat. Wendy Perrin recommends Z-bars because they're low in sugar.

Minimize your bags
There’s a temptation to throw everything you might need into your carry-on bag, but think carefully about each item. The more you have to carry, the more likely you are to forget something, and the more tired you’ll be at your destination. Your children’s busy bags should attach to or stow inside your own carry-ons. I recommend a large backpack for mom and dad and a stroller. If you need one more bag, make it a roll-aboard. Plan for last-minute purchases by bringing along an empty collapsible shopping bag (like the Chico bag) and a couple of carabiners to attach any stray items.

Run, run, run
Before you board your plane, take advantage of every opportunity for exercise. We hire a sitter to take the kids outside or to a playground as we pack everything in the car and close up the house. Once at the airport, find any empty gate area to run relay races or encourage your kids to have a jumping contest (that’s a great way to practice counting, too). You might see a few dirty looks, but it’s well worth it in order to get those pre-flight wiggles out.

Avoid dehydration
Nursing moms and young children are at more risk of dehydration than healthy adults. Bring along a few bottles of water and offer water to your child often, taking a drink yourself each time. On a related note, bring more diapers than you think you’d normally need.

Work with jet lag
Expect a few sleepless nights at your destination, but if your child is a good sleeper at home, they’ll probably adjust more quickly than you think. Keep in mind that hunger often causes wakefulness, and feed your child milk or a protein-rich snack as soon as they wake. You might be able to soothe them back to sleep with a snack, some quiet singing and a snuggle, but don’t push it — if your child really does need to be awake at night, you might as well roll with it. You can make jet lag work for you by visiting museums or nice restaraunts while your child has an extra long nap in the stroller. Mom and dad should take turns at night to make sure everyone gets enough rest, and consider a daytime nap or early bedtime if needed.

Don't expect perfection
Some things will go awry, and your child might not behave perfectly at every moment, but try not to let the flight dictate the tone of your entire trip. Have fun with the dramas if you can. When things get really tricky, I like to pretend I'm a contestant on "The Amazing Race."

This article, "7 tips for surviving a long-haul flight with kids," originally appeared in Conde Nast Traveler.

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