Travel Advice: Tips for long-haul flights with a young toddler

A few years ago, when I was pregnant, my brother was telling me about the holiday he and his wife and toddler son had just had in the Canary Islands. While the holiday was great, he was quick to tell me how hard the four hour flight was. At 18 months my nephew had a very limited attention span, couldn't watch a movie for longer than two minutes and needed fairly constant entertaining. He was also too excited about being on a plane for him to even take his nap. In short, it was a long, hard and tiring flight for my brother and his wife. 

"Basically, don't ever do a long plane journey around the age of 18 months," he said to me.

I've always remember this conversation and advice. But for some reason, I chose to completely ignore it when my partner and I booked flights to go to Australia when our boy would be just a week off turning 18 months.

Well done us.

In our defence the dates were not our choosing (my mother-in-law had already booked her flight at the idea was for a big family reunion) but regardless it was happening and we had about five months to prepare and panic for a 24 hour journey to Sydney, including a 1.5 hour layover in Singapore.

Before I go any further, I need to add that the following is probably not advice for budget travellers or those looking to save lots of money flying with their family. Every penny absolutely counts, however, as far as we're concerned we think spending money on making a long, tiring journey more comfortable is fairly important and we're lucky enough to be able to afford to do so. I'm thrifty in a lot of ways, but long-haul travel is never going to be one of them...

In the run up to the flight I asked anyone and everyone for their tips in how to entertain a child on a long flight, or more specifically how my partner and I could survive a potentially very awake 24 hours. So below, is a combination of tips others told me, and what I also experienced.

Tips for flying long-haul with an (active!) 18-month-old

Lower your expectations

My partner and I believe the number one reason we walked away from our journey thinking "That wasn't so bad..." was because we had extremely low expectations. We were expecting the worst; no sleep, no downtime for either of us, several tantrums (by all of us!), walking up and down the aisle following our very active toddler for 20 out of 24 hours. We fully expected to feel exhausted at the other end, and we talked a lot about the other things that could go wrong - delays, turbulence, a poor selection of movies (kidding) and after we were sat on the runway at Schiphol we even prepared ourselves for missing our connection at Singapore (luckily that wasn't the case). I'm usually not one to advocate "thinking negatively" about anything but there is a difference between having high expectations and having low expectations for something, and mentally preparing yourself for either. For us, having low expectations meant we walked onto that first plane ready for battle rather than a breeze, which was no bad thing, and while it was no breeze, it wasn't a bloody battle either.

If you can afford it, choose a good airline

We are very fortunate that we could afford our favourite airline, Singapore Airlines, and that we could make the journey via Singapore, where my very good friend lives and where we would make a two-day stop on the way back. They also happen to have one of the best reputations for service and a very decent economy class. This paid off in many ways because we had space, good in-flight systems (with lots of kids shows) and the staff were generally fantastic.

The other thing is, I personally feel the more you pay, the more you can expect and ask for. Singapore also had cow's milk, baby food and formula available to us if we needed it, not to mention a lot of other snacks that may or may not have been suitable for my boy but I gave them to him anyway because... SURVIVAL!!

If you can afford it, buy your child their own seat

This was another tip someone told me about before Baby Bird was born, but I remembered it and unlike my brother's advice - I took it!! Of course this is not an option for some, and we feel very fortunate that we can afford this, but when we broke down the cost per hour (!) of having our boy in his own seat, we realised it worked out as around 30 Eur an hour, which seemed like an absolute bargain. It also meant that we had our own section of three chairs all together and we sat with BB in the middle of us so he wasn't kicking or climbing over anyone else. Although our boy wasn't a tall 18 months, and he still spent a lot of time on our laps, just having that extra space was 100% worth it.

Pack painkillers (for all!)

My hand luggage used to include a book or two, my iPod and maybe my laptop. Now, I only pack one very important thing for myself - paracetamol. The rest of my hand luggage consists of everything that Baby Bird needs, plus a pair of headphones for me just on the off chance that he falls asleep long enough for me to listen to a song or two. And yes, I popped those paracteamol somewhere over Pakistan before handing them over to my partner too.

Needless to add, I also had paractamol for Baby Bird and this also came in handy when he was overtired and possibly had some teething pain. It certainly helped calm him for a few hours when we were close to the end of our journey.

Have a lightweight scarf or sarong that you can use for...many different things

An essential for me to travel with for a long time, I used a sarong as an extra blanket for BB when it got cold, and as a makeshift cover over his chair when he was sleeping. We also used it to play peekaboo and he played with it for a few minutes by himself, covering up his toys and then trying to find them again. This may have only lasted a few minutes, but any game he can play by himself is a win as far as I'm concerned!

Have a mountain of snacks

While most airlines will have baby-friendly snacks, it's worth packing the ones you know your little one likes best, and even better if they're things that they can take their time eating like raisins or chopped up grapes.

Don't use trigger words/actions

Prior to going on our flight we were saying how worried we were about BB's behaviour affecting other passengers. "He doesn't take well to us saying no," my partner explained to a friend. "Then don't say no," was his response. It hit me how obvious this is. It doesn't mean "Don't discipline your child" but rather it means don't say or do things that you know are going to provoke a post-apocalyptic reaction, because nothing good can come out of meltdown in a metal tube at 30,000 feet. It was hard work changing our instinctive reaction to say "no" but we did pretty well by removing problems, distracting Baby Bird, or just moving him away from what he was doing, we managed to avoid too many meltdowns.

Limit screen time in the weeks before the flight

While Baby Bird is no stranger to TV - how else does anyone cook a meal or brush their teeth in the morning with children, I ask you!!?!? - he has never actually played games on an iPad or even a phone before, mostly because we don't use an iPad and we try to keep our phones out of everyone's sight when we're all together. Maybe this played to our advantage because when we then gave him an iPad a few hours into the flight, and played a few episodes of Pingu or played Shape Sorter with him, we were lucky enough to get a good twenty or so minutes of him occupying himself. Anyone with a busy 18 month old like our boy will know this is a result!

Bring "new" toys and hold them back 

A month or so before our flight, we removed a few toys and kept them out of his sight. We also bought some new books for him and didn't let him see them until he was on the plane. We then staggered what he played with so there was nearly always something "new" for him to use. Someone also suggested wrapping toys up so kiddies can kill some time unwrapping them - she suggested foil for minimal waste - but I didn't have time to do this.

The best toys for our flight were...

We found Baby Bird loved his new books (with flaps or fold-out pages), sticker books (I bought two like this but one was enough for each long-haul journey - these were arguably our best buy - he was very happy playing with these on and off for hours), doing brief spurts of colouring (supervised!), a couple of cars/trains, and a handful of Duplo bricks. He also liked putting all pencils and paper back in the "pencil case" I'd bought for him, and playing with the zip. He wasn't too keen on the Post-it notes that lots of people suggested but I can see for some other babies they would be very successful.

Have all their usual kit for going to bed... but don't force them to go to sleep

Another friend said to us that we should be lead by Baby Bird regarding when or if he wants to sleep. Considering we were going to the other side of the world and dramatically changing timezones, our schedule was already out of the window so we did indeed leave it up to him. She also said that one of the worst things you can do is actively try to put your little one to sleep. We've all seen those parents walking up and down the aisle rocking or gently shaking a little one to sleep, and I've got to admit, it doesn't look fun. So we agreed to not do that. Instead we have BB what he needed to go to sleep when he was starting to look tired - his cuddly toy, a sleepsack, maybe even a bottle - and then we left it up to him. While he only slept 4-5 hours out of the available 24 (and not all in one stint, of course!), we didn't have any battles about going to sleep. I should also add that he slept better on our second flight and on later flights in our holiday, I think this was because he had learnt that his chair and the plane was a safe place to sleep, so give your little one time to get used to being on a plane.
Consider a JetKids BedBox

Sleeping leads me to JetKids BedBox. I can't remember where I first saw the photo of a toddler sleeping peacefully on a plane chair thanks to one of these BedBox contraptions, but I was of course very, very intrigued. Designed by a former pilot, it's a rolling "box" that has a roll-up mattress inside, and a top that can be elevated to be the same height as the seat and this then creates a flatbed for your little one to sleep on... but actually what was best for us, was that this blocked the footwell area in front of BB's seat so he couldn't keep going down under the seat (which he likes to do!). While the "flatbed" didn't stay in place all the time, and a little wriggling by Baby Bird meant that it moved quite a bit (and the sides were actually rather redundant), and as I said, he didn't sleep for hours and hours on end, we definitely found this maximised the "play area" Baby Bird had and stopped him climbing down and potentially away! For us, it was a worthy investment and one we'll definitely use again.

Have something else to worry about!

In the weeks running up to our flight, we were in the middle of looking for a new place to live, knowing that upon our return from our holiday, we would only have 2-3 weeks to find an apartment and move (i.e. mission impossible!). After a few let downs and a busy three weeks of seeing new houses almost every day, we found a place we liked on the Monday before we left for Australia, and then signed all the paperwork just two days before our flight left. While this isn't what I would recommend to anybody, having something (arguably much more important) to think (and worry!) about definitely helped me to not dwell too much on the potential horror that would be our 24-hour journey.

At the end of the day, although it may feel like it at the time, you will not be trapped on that plane with a screaming toddler forever. It may take thirteen or fourteen hours (or longer) but you will get off the plane and I have never heard of a little one crying for that long and in his early months BB could go for a LOOOOOOOONNNNG time. There was a family with a very unhappy boy on our first flight (which rightly or wrongly made us feel a lot better about BB!) but the world didn't end, and the look of relief on his parents faces as they got off the plane (and he was finally asleep - of course!) was priceless as they smugly told us their journey was ending in Singapore, and it was our turn to feel a little concerned. 

Agree "time out" conditions with your partner

My partner and I are not very good at calming each other down in stressful situations. It's just not what we're good at. We're almost comedic in how we actually stress each other out more, but knowing this we agreed that we would have to try and not let our stress exacerbate the situation. Also, it would be crazy for both of us to be "on" the whole journey, so we agreed in advance how we would try to avoid extra stress and guarantee each other a bit of "down-time". For us, we said that if Baby Bird "kicked off" only one of us would try to calm him (rather than overwhelm him or end up disagreeing among ourselves about what to do) and that we could each watch one movie (Lord of the Rings Trilogy not included!) and we would let each other know when we were feeling overwhelmed or tired. Much to my surprise this actually worked and we "tagged out" a fairly equal number of times.

Have something to look forward to at the other end...

This was easy for us on our way to Australia - sunshine, cold beers, quality time with the family, BB meeting his twin cousins for the first time - but on the way back, we were sensible/lazy and each made sure we had a day off before going back to work. As it happened we didn't really feel we needed to collapse in the heap we expected, but it was nice knowing we had some time to battle through the jetlag before work began again.

I hope this helps - fellow travelling parents, please do leave your advice in the comments... I can only imagine what it's like travelling with more than one kiddo... That's another article for another day far in the future!

Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before settling down with her Australian partner and having a baby boy in July 2015. She collects vintage clothes, loves 70s disco music and writes stories that move you.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter and Google +

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