Just after my kids' first and fourth birthdays, my family embarked upon a year-long stint as expats in Hong Kong. While that transitional phase of moving from New York to Asia had my head spinning for a number of reasons, the first challenge — and perhaps the one that was stressing me out the most — was the idea of a (gulp) 16-hour flight with two small children.
But we survived it.
Several times over the course of the year, in fact. Most all of the friends we've made in Hong Kong are seasoned experts in globetrotting with little ones, so we've picked up a few travel pointers along the way. The flight may never be the most fun part of the trip, but once you've landed at your destination, it's always worth the journey.
Here's what's worked for my family's travels and what you need to know if you're embarking on a similar trip with your family.
It's a marathon, not a sprint.
One thing that I always find helpful is to mentally divide the flight into smaller chunks of time — say, two- to three-hour intervals. Small victories! My "itinerary" for my kids will usually go something like this:
- Get settled/check out the plane/take out a few favorite toys to play with
- Have a meal/snack
- Watch a movie/show
- Wake up and have a snack and drink
- Open up a new toy and play for a bit/walk around the plane
- Play iPad games
- And. . . repeat
Another thing to remember is that airplanes are exciting for kids, so focus on trying to stay positive and turning it into an adventure for them. In turn, it will help your own attitude, too.
In addition to a small stash of their favorite travel-friendly toys, wrap up some new goodies, too. Stickers, activity books, little wind-up toys . . . there's no need to go overboard, but doling out something new every few hours keeps things interesting (and, let's be honest, it helps to have a bribe on hand). Spot It!, Melissa & Doug Water Wow!, and these little magnetic tins are some of my kids' favorite on-board activities. In the snack department, I never leave the ground without a stash of YumEarth organic lollipops — they're somewhat guilt-free, and they last a lot longer than most treats. Another thing I've learned the tough way is to bring two changes of clothes for each child (if they're still in the baby/toddler phase) and an extra shirt for yourself. Just in case.
Kid-ify your seat.
It's tough for anyone to get comfortable in an airplane seat for an extended period of time, but it's even trickier to do when your legs don't come close to reaching the ground. Fly Legsup and 1st Class Kid both make products that more or less turn your economy seat into a full bed. I just purchased the 1st Class Kid pillows for my own kids, which came highly recommended.
Don't board that plane without ensuring that your devices are at 100 percent battery life — and make sure your chargers are handy. I've found that a lot of planes have outlets below the armrest, but it's not something I count on. Screen time rules go out the door at 35,000 feet.
To set the tone for sleep, I always pack PJs for my kids to change into (not to wear onto the plane). Once they start to show signs of sleepiness, I'll take them into the bathroom to change, get comfortable back at our seats, read a couple of books, and hopefully all get some rest.
All good things come to an end.
Another "state of mind" tip — last Summer, when I was polling every American expat living in Hong Kong I could talk to for their flight advice, the theme of "Just remember, it's a finite amount of time" came up again and again. It's obvious, and it may feel like an eternity when you're four hours in with 12 hours (12!) to go, but you've got this. And remember, a glass (er, plastic cup) of wine is just a flight attendant buzz away.