If you live abroad with your family, there’s almost no way to avoid one of the most exhausting expat experiences: long international flights with children. Even adults find these hauls grueling, so attempting them with small, smelly, stir-crazy little kids requires another level of stamina and some good preparation.
First of all, if you are making that kind of journey with children for the first time, make sure you get advice from the right people. The experiences of your friends and co-workers who have traveled long flights without kids or who have taken their kids on short hops are useless to you. That is like taking advice about how to survive prison from someone who was stuck in driving school for an afternoon.
Don’t worry: I am no such rookie. Some parents teach their kids to floss and tie their shoes. I teach my kids how to pack a tight carry-on and smile at the passport control officer. I have flown three of the top 10 longest flights in the world with children and have lived (sometimes barely) to tell the tale. I’ve had good flights and bad flights, and one flight from Johannesburg to Dubai with my toddler that was so terrible I turned around and went back to Africa rather than continue on any farther.
So here are my top 10 tips to help you learn from my mistakes and survive the flight with your kids and your sanity intact:
1. Roll up your sleeves. As the saying goes, it’s not a vacation with kids, it’s a trip. Along the same lines, an international flight with small children isn’t a trip, it’s a job, and you will be working the whole time. Leave your Kindle in the suitcase and don’t waste your money on a magazine. During my last overnight flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta, I pounded an endless path down a darkened aisle of sleeping passengers with an infant so wide awake he could have piloted the plane himself. At one point I caught the glance of a seasoned flight attendant still working the room too and exchanged a look with her that said: how’s your shift going? Of course, she was getting paid. Since you will be putting in a long day of work and then some, don’t punch your clock until you have to. Those announcements that parents with small children can board first? Ignore them and board last. No need to add an extra 40 minutes to the flight from hell.
2. Get your upper body in shape. It will be a long day or two of hauling bags and kids and lifting much more weight than you should. On our most recent trip back from the U.S., we had eight large suitcases packed with all the new clothes, shoes, and bags of corn tortillas we could cram in, each one clocking in at the exact maximum weight of 50 pounds. Forget the Insanity Workout: you haven’t felt the burn until you’ve heaved a few of those bad boys out of the rental SUV with just your forearms and then hoisted your 40-pound preschooler up to your neck for the world’s ugliest jog to catch your plane.
3. Leave your inner germaphobe at home. After our most recent flight back from Africa, we were standing dazed and disheveled at the desk in Atlanta to get our passports stamped when we heard an expression of alarm from the normally stoic customs officer. “Ma’am. That’s very dirty ma’am. Literally thousands of hands have touched that today.” I looked down to see my baby chewing on the counter, smacking away like it was Christmas. I hadn’t noticed because my daughter had chosen that moment to rip the nursing blanket away from her little brother and fashion herself a sari, twirling around the terminal and demanding styling tips from the crowd. But even if you avoid every counter and diligently disinfect every armrest, you can’t do anything about the germs circulating in the cabin. So turn down your Clorox wipes obsession a notch and just hope there’s plenty of sunshine and vitamin C at your final destination. Your kids are going to be exposed to every bug from Jacksonville to Jakarta and there’s not much you can do about it.
4. Pack light but right. If you are expecting the “goody bag” for young guests that some airlines hand out to entertain your kid, you have a rude awakening ahead. My 18-month-old once grabbed one of those and hurled it across the cabin like it was on fire (she was startled by a tiny stuffed animal with a monster face). This is no time to wing it: more care and attention goes into the packing of the diaper bag and my daughter’s activity backpack than was spent writing the final chapter of my dissertation. God forbid you forget the baby’s socks or pack an iPad that isn’t carrying a 100% battery charge. I usually also have enough snacks to power up an entire crew team rowing for Olympic gold. Don’t forget changes of clothes, either. On one long trip when my daughter was two, I meticulously packed not one, but four different outfits for her, anticipating all manner of messy disasters. One hour into our 40-hour trip, she threw up all over me, and that’s when I realized I hadn’t packed any extra clothes for myself.
5. Grin and bear it. It’s going to be a long day (or three), so you’d best start off with a cheerful attitude. Slapping on a smile and sweet tone for all airport personnel doesn’t hurt and may gain you entrance into the coveted pre-screened line at security, where you don’t have to take off your shoes or haul laptops out of carry-on luggage while heralding your dawdling preschooler through the metal detector. You’ll need your charm again once onboard to get the flight attendants on your side. They’re the ones with the extra blankets, pretzels, and the ability to look the other way when you make an elaborate tent over your seats or “forget” the baby’s carseat in the aisle for 20 minutes while reorganizing your set-up. They also have the bottled water stockpile, and nothing says thirsty like a nursing mother in a bone-dry airplane cabin on a 16-hour flight.
6. Have a system. If you don’t have your passports, tickets, permits, birth certificates, and that first love letter you received from Jimmy Earley in eighth grade (or whatever other piece of obscure paperwork you might need for travel through three different countries) easily accessible and in the exact order needed to present them to authorities, you will be lost. Our documents always go in the same little folder and are always carried by the same person in the same bag so we know where they are at all times. After 24-plus hours without sleep, certain things need to be automatic. At the end of the day, those documents are the only thing you really need to get where you are going.
7. Don’t pander. I am not one of those parents who pack bribe bags of candy for the entire section of my cabin as a preemptive apology for any disturbances my children are going to make on the flight. I figure if you are bunking it in our section for the equivalent of two entire work days back-to-back, it’s going to take more than a lollipop and a witty note to make you feel good about the bad seating lottery you just drew. Every adult on the plane either had kids, or will have kids, and was a kid themselves. I will do my best to keep things quiet, but in order for the human race to continue, we all just have to deal, okay?
8. Repeat the mantra: you will never see any of these passengers again. I used to be one of those people who felt guilty about putting my seat back and cringed when my tray table accidentally made a noisy thwap to disturb my neighbor. Bringing babies on an airplane blows all of those concerns out of the water and guarantees you are the bad guy keeping your seatmate from enjoying Ted 2 and their tiny bottle of wine. Rather than feel bad about that fact for the entire flight, save your energy for where it can be of use: in fashioning a charming forest creature out of a discarded cocktail pick to entertain your child and take 45 more seconds off your total trip clock.
9. Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Some moments will lull you into a false sense of security that everything’s going okay and maybe you should just pull out your SkyRest pillow for a little snooze while the kids are doing fine. That’s a universal cue for a diaper blowout of immense proportions from one child while the other throws a fit about the heel of her sock being in the wrong place. You’re in it for the long haul, so keep your eye on the prize: which in your case is the “FlightMap” on the seat in front of you with the tiny airplane hovering over the ocean. Do not be discouraged when you feel like you have put in a full day’s work only to realize that just 17 minutes have passed. There will be good stretches too, hills in your journey that slope downwards, and this flight is a race you will finish. After all, you have no choice.
10. Sometimes, just don’t go. It’s okay to take the easy way out and stay put once in a while. Especially during those take-no-prisoners years under age three, a trip back home may not be worth it. Instead, schedule a few extra Skype sessions with the grandparents, teach your kids the Star-Spangled Banner so they can feel more American for a few minutes, and spend a fraction of the plane ticket money on a nice road trip exploring a lesser-known spot in your new country. Then, when you peacefully drift off to sleep in a real room in a big bed in the same time zone, send a silent benediction to all those bleary-eyed parents at that very moment hurtling across the skies above while hunched in a lavatory singing the Daniel Tiger theme song for the 19th time to their captive infant praying for sleep while an irate flight attendant pounds on the door. We’ll need it.
This post first ran as an expat blog post in the Wall Street Journal on September 23, 2015.