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How to Ace Long-Haul Flights with Young Kids

by Brook Wilkinson | February 25, 2016

When I decided to take my four-year-old son to Asia, the trans-Pacific flight loomed large in my mind. How would we get through 18 hours on a plane?

I needn’t have been so worried about the flight; while there were a few tough moments, we passed the time surprisingly easily. Flying that distance with a baby or toddler would have been much more trying, but by four years old, kids are better able to entertain themselves, and to adhere to expectations of good behavior. So, aside from advising fellow parents not to let a long flight derail their travel plans, here’s what I learned:

Treat the flight as a highlight of the trip, not a chore. Most of us have forgotten the romance of air travel—and for good reason. Kids, however, are primed to find the idea of soaring through clouds and landing in a new part of the world—in the middle of a new day, even—downright magical. Present the flight as a fun adventure. Tell your kids how lucky they are to get to sleep overnight on the plane; bring pajamas and any other portable parts of their bedtime routine.

kid asleep in airplane seat

For a better chance of having more space, I always book window and aisle seats at the back of the plane. Photo: Ryan Damm

Strategize for more space. I always book window and aisle seats at the back of the plane, leaving the seat between two of us open. These aft middle seats become the least desirable and often go unfilled, giving us more room to stretch out. If another passenger claims the seat, we simply trade them one of our window or aisle spots.

kid in airport pushing luggage cart

Get to the airport early so you can find ways to burn off your child’s energy. Photo: Ryan Damm

Burn off some energy. Before a long flight, get to the airport extra-early so that your kids will have ample time to run around before boarding. Find an empty gate and set up an obstacle course using the chairs, garbage cans, and whatever else you can find. The more ya-yas you get out on the ground, the fewer you’ll have to deal with in the air. 

Establish ground rules. Explain to your kid what constitutes proper plane etiquette. Don’t expect them to automatically know not to speak loudly, rest their feet on the seat in front of them, or take off their seatbelt during turbulence. Balance this with positives: They alone can control the window shade or armrest, for instance.

Don’t act as activity director on the plane. On previous flights, I’ve lugged along a huge bag of toys and activities, most of which go unused. This time, I gave my son unlimited use of the seat-back entertainment system and an iPad (a boon for him, since screen time is very limited at home). This allowed me to be well rested for the trip ahead, and it also trained him to be a much more pleasant flying companion.

kid looking out airplane window

Flights don’t have to be a chore: Kids are primed to find the idea of soaring through clouds downright magical. Photo: Ryan Damm

Test before takeoff. I kept my son’s new iPad a surprise until we boarded the plane—a huge mistake, once I realized that several of the movies I thought I’d loaded onto it weren’t working, and many of his favorite apps now had new purchase requirements. Next time, I’ll road test any new devices first.

Bring lots of food. No one likes airplane food, least of all picky kids. My son refused to even uncover one “kids’ meal” that was served to him, based on the odors emanating from under the tinfoil. Bring enough food to keep your kids satiated throughout the flight; The best flight advice I got from Andrea Ross, the Trusted Travel Expert for Southeast Asia who designed my kid-friendly Asia trip, was to pack instant noodles in a cup, to which the flight attendants will happily add water for a hot meal.

What are your tricks for surviving a long flight with children?


Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

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