Surviving International Travel With Kids

by Laura Potts
Originally Published: 
A silhouette of two people and a kid at the airport dragging their luggage

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!

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