One of the biggest things I hear from parents about getting ready to travel on a long flight with kids is how to keep them occupied. No one wants to be the parent on the plane with the crying kid or kid who won’t stop playing with the tray table in front of them.
Now, first, to speak some truth to all my fellow parents out there:
You have every right to travel with your child. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for bringing a kid on a plane, or that that child might not be a perfect angel. We were ALL kids once! So, while I don’t encourage people to get defensive with passengers who might give us a few looks, I want you to remember that you’re doing your best, and the only way to help kids learn to become better travelers is to actually travel with them.
That said, there are a few pro tips I can share that have helped us with our kids, who have been traveling across the US and world since they were five months old. Some of them are related to packing, and some are related to the time on the plane itself.
Packing Stage 1: The Setup
I have a packing spreadsheet…does this really surprise anyone?
The packing spreadsheet serves several purposes:
First, it helps me have one standard list that I can add to and update as needed for each trip. When I know how long we’ll be gone, what we’re doing, and the type of climate, I update this for each kid depending on the number of days, weather, etc. It also has special categories for certain types of trips (Disney, camping, etc).
Second, the spreadsheet allows me to empower the kids to do the first pass of packing themselves. Once I have it updated, I print out a copy for each kid so they can take the first pass (but we always do a scan after the one time Porter said he brought everything and then had no pants).
In case you are wondering, this works remarkably well, and we’ve been using this since they were five and eight years old. As soon as they can read and count, they should be able to help in some way. They’ve gotten better at this over the years, and can pretty much pack themselves now.
The best way to set everyone up for success with the spreadsheet method is to start early! I usually bring suitcases up the weekend prior (or about a week in advance, whichever comes first), and then we make sure to do laundry as close to the departure date as possible. There are usually lots of items that can be packed in advance, which saves you time in the 24-48 hours prior to leaving the house.
Packing Stage 2: Into the Suitcase
Now, all the items you’ve laid out have to get in to suitcases. Team Hensel is adamant about being a “carry-ons only family.” We rarely check bags, mostly to guard against bags getting lost or damaged, and also just so we can travel light. No one likes lugging heavy suitcases around or re-packing heavy suitcases every time you change locations.
Full disclosure: sometimes this just isn’t possible, especially if you have really littles and are bringing a lot of extra gear, but I think it’s more feasible for many of us that we might think!
Our strategy is to plan to pack for a week. First, set out your outfits in advance to see what can be mixed/matched. Then, plan for a place to be able to do laundry (like an airbnb or VRBO). Some bed & breakfasts will also do laundry for you at little or no charge.
One item we’ve started bringing along is a small first aid kit. It’s best to have a smattering of things here, but for sure have band-aids and a small tube of antiseptic cream (like Neosporin) and Benadryl. Yes, they are additional liquids, but you’ll be glad you had something when your kid falls down the stairs at the Sydney Opera house within 10 minutes of your first day in Australia (hypothetically…) and needs five band-aids.
If you have little kid gear, such as booster/car seats and strollers, I find it’s easier to travel with our own stuff rather than rent. Not only do you save money, but you can check them for free and gate check strollers. I always look up the restrictions in the place we’re going, but often, I’d rather err on the extra safe side. I’m no longer an expert for traveling with kids under five, but there are so many options out there now to help kids move through an airport efficiently: if you have specific questions, let me know (I have a great in with a parents group in the UK now!).
Packing Stage 3: Tech and Personal Items
If I could give you two pieces of advice – it’s a tablet and snacks. Just being real. For more, read on.
For technology, we have decided to not battle screen time while on planes (within reason). We let our kids have as many movies or games as they’d like when we’re on a plane, unless it’s time for them to actually sleep. While in transit in the airport or hanging out in a lounge, we try to have them move and get their wiggles out.
For your reference, we found that their attention span for movies and games on tablets started around age four or five, so prior to that Doug and I didn’t really pack any activities for ourselves on the plane – it was a lot of new activities, books, snacks, and anything to keep them occupied for the duration of the flight. Those were some dark times, but I do remember 10-month-old Riley being delighted by a plastic cup and a napkin for a flight from Minneapolis to San Francisco!
Now that they are older, I have Doug sit with each kid a few days ahead of time and get their tablets prepped with games, movies, etc. so they know how to access them and have everything they need beforehand. It’s bitten us a few times when things aren’t downloaded or the kids don’t know how to find any of the things they want. Then, plug it in and make sure it is fully charged! Don’t forget to pack charging cords in each bag, too. Often, they can charge items on the plane now so nothing goes dead halfway through the trip.
Next, I pack them each a gallon zip lock bag with their own snacks (so I don’t have to keep reaching through my own bag every time they each want something). Inevitably, someone eats most of their snacks on the first half of the trip. By buying snacks in advance, we also save ourselves time and money by not shelling out ridiculous sums of money for things we could have bought in advance at Costco (or stopping and standing in a line).
Other things I always include are a small blanket and/or stuffed animal so they have something to snuggle (and it sort of gets them in sleep mode for overnight flights). We have them pack a change of clothes, a few books each, a water bottle, headphones, and I always bring a few small games that are easy to play/transport in case technology fails (Uno, Go Fish, etc).
For the aforementioned overnight flights, I have started bringing melatonin gummies – I’ve found it helps them sleep (but talk to your MD beforehand), and they get excited whenever they get anything that looks remotely like a snack.
That’s it – I put them all in each of the kids’ school backpacks (and I’d test them out ahead of time so it’s not too heavy for them to carry).
When we get on the plane, we alternate who is sitting next to the kids on each flight. A common seat configuration is three and three these days, so one person gets to blissfully sit on their own while the other helps the kids.
Trust me, y’all, it does get easier as they get older, and you WILL get back to the day when you can actually read, watch a movie, or do a crossword.
Now, you’re ready to rock your next trip! I’d love to hear your comments – what have you tried that works well for your family? I think we can all learn from each other, so let me know what you never leave home without!
May the force be with you.