Surviving International Travel With Kids

Do you know what’s better than flying with a baby or small child? Flying with a baby and a small child. On a longhaul flight, say, over an ocean and between continents. When you’re actually petrified of flying. That, my friends, is the best thing EVER.

Oh, you don’t believe me? Well, congratulations, you’ve discovered my first tip for taking an international flight with small children: Denial. If you dread flying and yet air travel is the only way to go, you don’t really have a choice… do you?

Even if you don’t hate flying, getting on a plane – for any distance – with small children is all about denial. Denial of that movie you’d really like to watch. Denial of that adult beverage that will either get spilled or gulped down so quickly you won’t make the most of the $14 it cost. Denial of the chance to sit still, maybe take a nap like in the good old days (and here is where sedatives are definitely denied), denial of relaxation in any form.

Domestic travel is befuddling enough, what with security, luggage pick-up, finding the right gate, remembering to unpack your switchblade and pepper spray (Kidding! You’ll just wish you had those things when some irritable 20-year-old guy is assigned to sit next to you).

But international travel is downright bewildering. The different rules. The different languages. Remembering whether it’s month-then-day or day-then-month when the customs agent asks your birth date. Trying to mime “Duct tape?” or “Children’s antihistamine?” to duty-free employees whose first language is not English.

But none of these things should put you off global travel. Why should you miss out on seeing some of the planet’s most fascinating sites just because you’re no longer a swinging singleton? Pack up those kiddos and get them out in the world! The earlier they get accustomed to air travel, the easier and more exciting they’ll find it. Plus, until they’re 2 years old, you won’t have to pay for a separate seat for them – bargain!

Before you go, though, think of somewhere that’s at least partially suitable for the kids or else you will hate the whole trip and they will hate you. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see the Great Pyramids, but even if Cairo wasn’t heading toward civil war, a developing nation is not the place to take your kids on their first international foray. Leave that for their second adventure.

Stick to somewhere safe, at least the first time. Maybe this means re-enacting Paddington Bear’s trip to London or booking a package deal to child-friendly Spain. Or take a tour of Scandinavia, where everyone speaks better English than your high school lit teacher.

You could even base your trip on the most family orientated airports. My top pick is Amsterdam’s Schiphol, with a kids’ play area, a dimly lit quiet room with cots and other baby supplies, and pot cafes galore (Again, kidding. Though the city itself is great for kids and they won’t get a contact high).

Getting through a flight with kids is all about damage control. Remember the days before you had kids? As soon as a parent with Cheerios in her hair or a baby carrier strapped to his chest came down that aisle, you wanted to bolt faster than a drunk 18-year-old when the police crashed the party. Well, now you’re that parent. And you will be acutely aware of doing anything – absolutely anything – to avoid upsetting your fellow travelers.

This is partly because you will need them. At least one of them, if you are traveling without any help. You will want to scope out the nearest nice old lady or kindly college student type and befriend them. Pay them compliments. Big up what an easy baby/toddler/preschooler you have and how much they love traveling. Lie. Lie like you’ve never lied before, because these people will save your bacon when you – or one of your other children – need to rush to the toilet.

And you will need to rush to the toilet. On one of my many trip home to Michigan from Europe (where I now live), my older son was newly potty trained and the younger one was a 1-year-old in diapers. Of the 16-hour journey between the UK-Amsterdam-Detroit, I sat down for approximately 3 ½ minutes. Including takeoff and landing.

Here’s another thing: normal rules don’t apply. Kids aren’t allowed fruit juice? Forget it – just keep them hydrated by any means necessary. Candy’s a no-no? Oh no it isn’t if it keeps them happy (although you might want to reserve this until the very end of the flight, to reduce any sugar-high mayhem). Too much screen time will turn their eyes square? C’mon. You know you’d zone out in front of a film for the entire flight if you had the option. Kids won’t do this, so make the most of it while they will sit still.

Most of all, try to go into it with a good attitude (and a bag full of books, toys, bribery food, whatever) and think how much fun it’ll be when you get there. And if, like me, you actually hate flying, this is worth remembering: you will be so busy entertaining your kids, it will go by in a flash.

So buy a guidebook, book those flights and grab the first grandmotherly looking passenger you see at the gate. Happy traveling!

About the writer

Laura Potts is a writer and editor living the American dream - in rural England. Before moving across the pond in 2005, she was a staff reporter for Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press, and she now writes on behalf of Subscription Save, based in the UK. She frequently flies across the Atlantic with her young kids and a huge stack of sticker books.

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Lily 4 months ago

The thing is I’m soooo looking forward to go to Thailand with the little one, but the long flight with layovers and everything makes me keep postponing it… God, I think we’ll be a while before setting foot on a plane with her, she is just a very, very, very active kid.

KingsBridge Travel 7 months ago

Have you always wanted to go on a river cruise but was afraid to do so with family? Well have no fear because cruise ships now have accommodations for families to travel together! Tauck extended its popular Bridges tours for families to river cruising. Uniworld also has several itineraries and dates specifically for families. These are great cruises made for families to travel the world. Check out more information about River Cruises on our blog:

Alicia 9 months ago

Life is short and I want my kids to experience other cultures, thus we have been traveling abroad for the last 2.5 years. The struggles of travel (my last one-way trip included 2 buses, 3 planes, 3 countries all in 30 action-packed hours) as a single mom with 3 kids, are all forgotten when my five year-old tells an Ecuadorian (in Spanish) that her name is Britta, but they call me “Suca”! So cute, as she is a little blonde sweetheart!
Tips: Even potty trained kids can wear pull-ups, have your documents in order, don’t be afraid to ask for help and know that in many countries the bonus of traveling with kids is that you get to go to the front of the line!!!

chill 1 year ago

Oh where do I start? I’ve been traveling overseas almost every year with my 2 kids since they were babies. My husband is from Spain, so it certainly wasn’t for pleasure (although the wine helped as long as I wasn’t breastfeeding).
We took the oldest when she was 9 months old, and once I realized what a royal pain it was to travel with bottles and a breast pump (she was drinking 100% breast milk which I was pumping, along with jarred food), I resolved never to do that again. Fortunately, she was a really calm baby so we got through it 30 minutes at a time for 9 long hours. She stayed in her car seat most of the time, which she was comfortable in. Other than feeding her during takeoff so that her ears didn’t hurt, there isn’t much else to do.

Then we went when she was 2 years old and I was 6 months pregnant. We were able to use frequent flyer miles to get business class tickets (much easier to do 11 years ago), which I’m sure made many wince, but it was nice to have the extra space. She was a fairly calm toddler also, and a couple of new toys kept her happy for hours (even though I was worn out keeping her occupied and seated). I did not have to resort to candy, and the juice kept her happy because we don’t normally have juice. You have to know your child because I bought some new toys that I knew she’d love and she loved books too, so she was fine for hours. The biggest problem was changing a toddler diaper in that tiny bathroom.

My biggest challenge came with traveling with 2 children, ages 13 months and 3 1/2 years. (Note that after that first time, I refused to travel with a baby under 1 year. After 1 year, they can handle a sippy cup and there was no breast pump to lug around as they were drinking cow milk. I know many breast feed past 1 year, but that was my limit for both babies and it made it easier for travel.) Again, I brought new toys and books and snacks, and I kept telling myself, “I can do this for 20 minutes” over and over until 9 hours went by.

Since then, it’s been so much easier. Every seat now has its own screen and movies (I don’t think they did in the first couple of trips, but I could be wrong. I’ve mostly blocked those memories out because it was a big, sweaty blur.) and my kids are now seasoned travelers. They are now ages 11 and 8, and a 9 hour plane ride is normal. I can also take them on 12 hour drives without DVD players and there is no complaining of “I’m bored”. Granted, we don’t regularly watch TV or play video games at home, so watching movies on the plane or playing their DS for hours is a treat that they will happily do for hours on a trip. I’ll also buy new thick books that they’ll read over and over, and I will sometimes buy a new video game if I feel they’re getting bored of their old ones. In general, you have to know your kids, but I strongly advise keeping their expectations very low normally so that when they get a treat on a trip, then it will keep them happy for a while. (I never understood why some parents have DVDs playing in the minivan during trips around town… let them be okay with looking out the window sometimes, for goodness sake!)

Marie 1 year ago

To be fair, all international flights I’ve ever been on have free alcohol.

Abandoning Pretense 2 years ago

We went to Peru last summer. Let’s just say it will be QUITE a while before we go again.

Roshni Aamom 2 years ago

As a seasoned international traveler, I can’t quite explain what a nightmare it is to travel with a hyperactive toddler and/or mewling infant. The insanity of it is that my husband and I did it more than once! It gets a bit better when they’re old enough to sit through at least a one hour movie….a one hour respite out of the 40 odd hours! 😀