International Travel with Young Children: How To.
I recognized the scene and acted accordingly. First the stocky man in the navy suit stepped aside and two others joined him. Then a woman in similar clothing with sensible heels and a short skirt approached as well. They milled about for a bit but there was no mistaking the next stage. I positioned myself about 20 feet from their group, popped my daughter out of her stroller and collapsed it with one hand. I swung her diaper bag onto my shoulder and grabbed her left hand with my right. Then the announcement by the man in the navy suit, “Anyone who needs a little extra time for boarding, including those with young children, can board now.” Bam! I put the tickets in my daughter’s free hand (so she could help, and also because she is two and it’s adorable and I love to charm the airline staff). First to board. I drop the stroller at the aircraft door (already collapsed means it only takes a second and saves the drama at the entrance with people breathing down my neck). And onto the plane. Huge, cheery smile to the flight attendants. “Good morning!” I declare regardless of how good or shit it has actually been. Then I direct my daughter down the aisle to our two seats. Me by the window (where I simply explain to her that it is a rule that no 2-year-olds are allowed to sit by the window). I shove her diaper bag and my carry on under the seats in front of us (spare me the stress of the overhead bin. You can have it). And hand her an iPad preloaded with BubbleGuppies. I order a glass of Champagne, hand her her water bottle, already filled, and sit back to text my husband that we are on the flight and ready to go.
I know the looks of the passers by. The older women, nostalgic and sweet, cock their heads and give her a warm smile. The younger travellers, less experienced, have no idea the fury a 2-year-old can cause on a flight so they walk by, oblivious. Then, then dangerous ones: The 35-55 year olds. These are the ones that don’t like me one single bit. The ones that have enough miles to upgrade to Premium Economy but not enough for First. They are angry that they are travelling. Angry that I am travelling. Angry that they aren’t in First Class. They don’t like the person in front of them. Don’t like the space in the overhead bins and they really, really, don’t like sharing a flight with a 2-year old.
I’ve learned so much over the years. I used to go out of my way to make promises. “Don’t worry! He’s an amazing traveller.” Or laugh nervously, “I’m sure this isn’t what you want right now, but she’ll be great.” but then I learned about the jinx and I don’t say that anymore. Our 2-year-old took her 39th flight on her 2nd birthday but I offered no assurances. I simply avoided eye contact with all but flight attendants and the older women and spent 9 hours anticipating every move she’d make and being prepared to absorb her energy into my own. I’m like a ninja warrior in the air.
In the end it was a quiet flight and as I deplaned I gave her kisses and cuddles and whispered thanks to the gods.
With three children who have each averaged 18 flights a year, and extra pages in our passports, it is unsurprising that I am often asked for travel tips. What might be surprising is that I don’t offer them. Every family is different and what works for us works for us because it fits into our existing schedule. We live and die by routines, manners and teaching our children to be self reliant and tidy. I have learned that that is not a unifying trait among families with children and if you don’t teach your children to be respectful of other people’s space in day-to-day life there is little chance you will be able to teach them to do so at 30,000 feet in the air. But there are a few universal things I have figured out after 3 children and so very many air miles and so there are a few things I am happy to share.
1. Travel Buddies.
I got this idea from a former nanny who travelled with quadruplet infants from New Orleans to Ireland. It is, and I do not exaggerate, genius. The concept is this: Assign a child to an adult and that pairing remains from the time you close the door of your home behind you, signaling departure, until you close the door of your hotel room behind you, signaling arrival. Each carer then is responsible for one child and one child only. They know when the child eats, drinks, uses the bathroom. Whether they need their emergency outfit. A walk around the plane. A time-out. There is no playing one adult off of another. There are no second opinions. This is the single best thing you can do for yourself as a traveling parent.
2. Dress nicely. All of you.
Unless you are jogging from your arrival airport to your hotel there is no reason to wear sports kit on the airplane. Boys should wear slacks, nice jeans or tailored shorts. Girls should wear comfortable dresses with leggings. Your children act better when the they are dressed better and they are treated better as well. This isn’t about money. You can find nice travel clothing at Saks Fifth Avenue and at Old Navy Outlet. Here. I made you a Pinterest board with travel outfits for kids.
3. Preorder children’s meals from the airline.
If you are travelling internationally airlines almost always have the option of preordering a child’s meal. This going to be the stuff you don’t want them to eat at home: Burgers. Chicken nuggets. Plain pasta. But on a flight this is genius. That said, if they don’t eat a full meal, don’t stress. Keep them happy in healthy snacks all day on a travel day. Yoghurt sticks, fruit, cucumbers, celery, crackers, water. Come prepared with these things and if all they do is snack all day long that’s really okay.
4. Pack your checked bags with emergency goods.
Pack a nappy, wipes, a favourite snack and an extra outfit all held in a plastic shopping bag set neatly set at the top of your checked bag before you zip it closed. Do this so that if all goes horribly wrong and you land with a starving child with a soaking wet nappy and filthy outfit, you can quickly and easily grab the plastic bag out of your luggage, change and feed her in the airport bathroom without waiting to get to your hotel.
Whether it is the former or the latter is completely within your control. Seize that power. Limit yourself to what you really need. One for you and one for the child(ren). Pack everything you need…but nothing more than that. And that is the real key. You aren’t going on a trek through Siberia, you are going to be in the air for a few hours. You need a carry on bag that is comfortable and practical. I recommend the MZ Wallace bag above beyond all others. I currently use it for a travel carry on and it also acts as an excellent camera bag with the addition of a $12 padded insert from Amazon.com.
Here is what you want to put in it:
- Emergency outfit packed in a quart size plastic zip bag (emergency outfits should take up the least amount of space possible. Tights and a casual dress for girls, jeans and a long sleeve polo shirt for boys. No underwear. No socks. This is “emergency” not “style change” . For 2 and under, a second emergency outfit packed in a quart size plastic zip bag (Same rules as above apply)
- 3 nappy sets packed in a quart size plastic zip bag. Each set should contain 8 wet wipes placed into a nappy sac which the nappy is then folded around. This means you only need to grab one nappy when you are headed to the restroom because it contains your wipes and the disposal bag ready to go.
- Add another set of the above if your flight is over 5 hours or if your child is under 24 months.
- 5 packs of mushy baby food / smoothies packed into a quart size plastic zip bag – ensure these are under 100ml.
- 1 quart size plastic zip bag containing a few packs of healthy and hard-wearing snacks. Cucumbers, cooked penne pasta, celery.
- 1 water bottle that will not leak when turned upside down and lost for 3 hours. Test this.
- The fluffy blanket that she sleeps with at home. Wash it before you travel.
- A fully charged iPad loaded with a few favorite cartoons and the USB charger for it.
In a separate tote bag
- Really nice quality lotion that can be used for face or hands. Kiehl’s creme de corps for instance or L’occitane hand creme.
- Light lip gloss
- A healthy snack (chopped celery is a great one)
- Stylish, warm wrap that can be washed (something like this is perfect or this).
- iPad (charged up and preloaded with kids programs)
- iPhone (charged up and preloaded with kids programs)
- Mophie (external battery) + appropriate wires
- A single magazine and a thin notebook with a pen (no more than this)
- Note also that once children are about 20 months old, they can carry their own backpacks. This is both adorable and useful and also gives your little one something to be so proud of. Of course they need to be tiny and light, like this one:
- 1 small book
- 1 small notebook and colors
- 1 small stuffed animal
- 2 small snacks
6. Repeat after me: iPads are not the devil.
I was on a flight a year ago and before takeoff the pilot walked through the plane introducing himself to everyone. About half-way back he noticed that there were loads of families and loads of kids on electronic devices. He theatrically rolled his eyes and said, “Look at all of these iPads. In my day we’d have been reading a book. Can you imagine? Do you kids even know what books are?” Spare me. Without those devices for those kids he wouldn’t have walked through the back of the plane because he’d have been locked up in the cabin counting down the seconds to take off so he would be closer to setting down the aluminum tube full of screaming children. As soon as our children hit two-years-old we got them iPads for travel but the key was that the iPads were ONLY for travel. You could ignore every bit of advice I’ve got and if you follow that one thing you could put your child on a 20 hour flight to Sydney and you would hear from them only landing. Now we did the travel-only thing because we travelled so frequently (if it wasn’t in the air it was a train journey or a car trip) so that worked for us but I understand that it doesn’t work for everyone. If your kids are already on iPads all of the time consider adding new movies and new games and maybe taking them away for a few days leading up to the trip. And if you are opposed to your child having their own iPad as young as that consider appropriating a decommissioned iPhone for them – wipe it, remove the SIM and connect to wi-fi and add games, movies etc… to it.
Very lastly: Don’t let anyone bully you.
On my daughter’s 32nd flight she cried for an hour. I could not get her to stop and I tried everything. EVERYTHING. I finally just took a deep breath and focused on Powers and how upset she must be to be crying so much. Until I realised a woman 3 rows ahead of me and across the aisle kept turning around, pointedly, and glaring at me and sighing loudly. I would look down each time she did or exaggerate what I was doing to try to placate my daughter and it was unnatural and weird and felt bad to me and to my daughter. Finally I leaned out into the aisle and locked eyes with the woman, “I am so sorry,” I said, from the bottom of my heart and drawing strength from reserves I didn’t know I had. “If if makes you feel any better I promise it is louder where I am than where you are and I promise I am trying absolutely everything to make her stop.” I wasn’t ugly at all, I was just matter of fact and speaking the truth. I drew strength from those facts and those things were both true. The woman sort of sputtered and gasped and turned around and a mom behind her looked at me with a huge smile that made my day.
Travelling with children may not always be easy but it is nearly always worth it. I hope this helps you in some small (or large way). And really, reach out if you have any questions! I can always write a follow up to this. I own the website you know.