One of the barriers to overseas family travel is the terror parents feel at the prospect of a long flight with their children. The benefits of travel, to both the individual family members and the family as a whole, should far outweigh your fear of the time spent reaching your destination. With patience, planning, deep breathing, and a beverage or two from the in-flight service, long flights are surprisingly survivable.
Here are 7 tips to getting through a long flight with your sanity (and family) intact:
Take Advantage of the Kindness of Strangers
When the flight attendant offers crayons and a coloring book or extra snacks, say yes. Agree to anything and everything they offer. If a seatmate asks if they can help in any way, think about it for a moment before you mutter the knee-jerk “no, thank you.” My daughter once struck up a conversation with a neighbor at the beginning of a flight. My inclination was to cut it short, because I knew my daughter would talk her ear off. It turned out the woman was a talker, too, and genuinely enjoyed the exchange with my then 7-year-old. They chatted each other up the entire flight, and I sat back and relaxed.
If you’re not going it alone, use tag-team parenting to get through the trip. Switch off responsibilities every hour or two. When more than one child is in the picture, switch which parent deals with which kid. Not only does this keep the situation from getting stale, but you might find that you actually have quality one-on-one time with your child. If you’re the only adult in charge of your brood, be sure to make full use of tip #1.
Every child needs to have good, working headphones. Don’t rely on the freebies that the airline hands out. Prepare ahead of time and make sure your children have snug, high quality, comfortable headphones. If you have more than one child and plan on making use of entertainment from a laptop, make sure you have a headphone splitter. You might want to travel with a backup splitter, as these can be easily lost. Headphones and splitters are worth the minor investment.
It seems counterintuitive, but international flights are easier than domestic flights for my family of 4. Long flights offer more space and more services, including individual screens with hundreds of movies. Maybe at home you wouldn’t let your child watch 5 movies back-to-back. The rules are different on a plane. This is when you want your child to embark on a movie marathon. If your little princess wants to watch Frozen on a continuous loop, just put those fantastic headphones on her and “Let It Go.”
You don’t want to get your children hopped up on sugar, but a little treat every now and then goes a long way. The key is to keep them a surprise. If your child knows you’ve got an M&M stash, he’s going to be whining for them. Dole out a little reward every now and then for good behavior. If your child is at an age where she understands the situation, let her know that she’s not allowed to ask for the treats, but that there might be one coming every so often if she’s well mannered. Bribery is a powerful thing.
Something Old, Something New
Take along that worn but beloved blankie for comfort, but also bring something new. Try to pick a toy or book that your child has not yet experienced, but also one that they won’t get bored with quickly. On a flight from Atlanta to Madrid, we brought two, giant Calvin & Hobbes anthologies we’d checked out from the library. Our daughters were Garfield lovers, but had never experienced Calvin & Hobbes before. The comics entertained them for hours, not only on the plane, but also through many long car rides during 6 weeks in Spain.
When the going gets tough, the treats aren’t working, and you’re dealing with a temper tantrum or diaper blowout, remember the big picture. Traveling with children can be an amazing experience. By showing your kids the world, you foster the development of compassion, teach them cultural appreciation, expose them to new languages, and broaden their minds. You make priceless memories. You’ll get through it and it will all be worth it. And if you need to, it’s okay to hit up the beverage cart.