I've Survived 14 Transatlantic Flights With Kids, And You Can Too

It will be a window-licking, drink-spilling, shriek-stifling rumpus. Be prepared.

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airplane with kids
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When my two-year-old son projectile vomited an M&M rainbow onto the neck of the passenger in front of us at the end of a 10-hour transatlantic flight, my husband and I, floundering with wipes and apologies, eventually offered to Venmo the man. This is international travel with small children: you may end up offering to Venmo someone for his neck. The kind man declined. While you might be thinking decline is the star of that sentence–man, were we ready for an initial descent–it isn’t. The star is kind, which, as it turns out, most people are.

One of the best ways to create kind humans is to travel with children, to show them new faces and foods and sights and sounds that open their little minds and hearts to a bigger world. To do that, you’ll have to survive the flight. It will be a window-licking, drink-spilling, shriek-stifling rumpus, until a precious head finally rests on your arm and the seatbelt sign dings at the precise moment your bladder can wait no longer.

So far, I’ve done 14 transatlantic flights — you bet I’m counting – with kids ranging in age from 10 weeks to 6 years. I married an immigrant whose entire family lives abroad, a family with whom we want our children to be close, if not always physically. So we eat the cost, board the planes, and feel–among other things–grateful every time we land on the other side of the pond. There have been moments of bliss. I have watched my child marvel at the sight a sunrise over the ocean from the air. There has also been horror, like when that child’s baby brother developed a double ear infection mid-flight and refused to be stationary, compelling me to walk the aisles, dodging elbows for 5 hours, or maybe 5 days. I’ve blacked out the details.

I have however, remembered some things that could help a few others. Here are my top five tips for long flights with kids. Don’t worry – I’m not going to tell you that the most important thing to bring is your sense of humor, even though it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

1. Try to be the last people on the plane

It will go against every urge, but wait to board. If it stresses you out, send your partner on ahead to secure some overhead space, but you’ve got to let those little legs run wild for the last few minutes that they can.

By letting the entire flight board, you can save almost an hour of time in the seats (in the hot, bright, stationary plane). I’ve had more than one gate agent watch us do this and declare it genius. Also, what a treat for the guy who thought he was on an empty row, and right before the boarding door closes… surprise!

2. Grab an extra one of those blue blankets

Flight attendants are really cool about giving you as many as you need. Take one and spread it on the floor at your feet. When toys and snacks fall, they won’t be contaminated. In the vein of sanitation, I like to wipe down everything–armrests, tray tables, window shades–as soon as I sit down, just because you know something will get licked.

3. Keep your bedtime routine

On overnight flights, we simulate the bedtime routine that we stick to religiously at home. After the kids have eaten and you know they are exhausted–but not too early, because then they’ll wake up in the middle of the ocean–change into pajamas, go brush teeth in the airplane bathroom, read a story, pull out the lovies, and tuck them into their upright faux leather seats.

4. Bring presents

Pack toys that they have not seen before. There are so many good plane toy options (WaterWow, magnetic puzzles, sticker books), but the key is novelty.

If you’ve really got a wild hair, wrap them. Like presents. Wrap the Dollar Tree race car and the coloring pad: the unwrapping is an activity in itself (we will take every second we can kill), it makes it all more exciting, and then, the wrapping paper can be its own entertainment. Ripping a hunk of wrapping paper into tiny pieces once occupied my toddler for the entire duration of an airplane meal (chicken, not pasta).

5. Pack 35,000 snacks

Pack ten times as many snacks as you would need for the same amount of time at sea level. Ten times. And don’t forget the novelty rule, either: Go wild with the good stuff they don’t normally have.

Hidden in your arsenal should be the largest lollipop you can find. It needs to be, specifically, a lollipop. (For heaven’s sake, be sure you have as many of these as you have kids). If that lollipop takes 20 minutes to eat, you’ve got 20 minutes to breathe, meditate, maybe even enjoy a little in-flight entertainment.

Who am I kidding, though–you know you’ll spend it looking at pictures of them on your phone. And when the empty lollipop stick goes flying, you’ll be ready to go, because that plane is going to land, and the even-better pictures are waiting. You got this.

Hampton Williams Hofer lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes and raises babies. Her work has appeared in Flying South, Walter Magazine, Architectural Digest, and Food 52, among others. Family aside, her great loves are a South Carolina beach, a Roger Federer backhand, a Charlottesville lawn, and–most of all–a good story.

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