Surviving a 23 Hour Overseas Travel Day With Two Little Kids
I've always wondered how I would actually do if I was traveling on long flights with really young kids and we started to hit real delays, one of them got sick, bags got lost, etc. I've given advice to others about those sort of situations, but truthfully most of my flights with kids have been pretty uneventful. Some of that has been dumb luck, and a lot has been because I keep most of our flights nonstop and no more than about 3 hours. I'd rather have lots of small wins than one big fat failure.
But, this past week we rolled the dice and ventured farther with our one year old than we ever did with our first daughter when she was this young. By the end of it all, I think I finally really earned my "flying family wings", as we hit all of the problems mentioned above and then some. We (thank goodness) didn't experience any true disasters or life threatening situations or anything serious like that, but we experienced our fair share of air travel hurdles, and I got to learn how we would really do in those situations when we are all exhausted and yet have to keep entertaining our one year old within the confines of an airplane seat.
I have lots I will be sharing about our week in the United Kingdom in the very near future, but I want to start the story at the ending because the cute pictures of Baby S crawling in front of a hundreds of years old buildings or Little C posing with statues have to be kept in context. It isn't all tea and scones when you haul a young family across the ocean and back (though sometimes it is!). Some of it isn't fun. The flights are one of those times.
Before I go further I want to highlight the obvious that there are far bigger problems in the world than a delay holding a one-year-old while sitting in business class, clearly. We are beyond fortunate to have the chance to take two healthy little girls to Europe at all. However, if this is how you choose to spend your extra time and money then you just need to be sure you are ready for things if they go smoothly, and not as smoothly.
We knew flying back home to the US from Europe wouldn't be fun. It never really is.
We knew we would would be tired and would have our equally (or more) tired six year old and just-turned-one-year-old with us. Grandma was on a different flight home, so there was no emergency back-up help to call upon if all heck broke loose. We had not only our long flight from London - Houston to contend with, but we also had to position to London from Edinburgh earlier that morning. There are no nonstop flights from Edinburgh to Houston, so we had to take two flights to get home no matter what we did. I hate doing this as connections just set you up for trouble, but we didn't really have a choice.
In the end, it wasn't that bad. In the middle of it, it kinda sorta sucked.
It was close to 23 hours of travel door to door with about 23 minutes of sleep in-between. We started at the Edinburgh Airport with a very long and non-moving check-in line, and then a relatively long departure delay that turned our three-ish hour connection at Heathrow into a sprint that our bags ultimately didn't make. We then made our flight home from London with few minutes to spare, only to then sit on the tarmac at our remote gate for two extra hours while they went through a very, very, very lengthy process to offload a passenger deemed "medically unfit for travel"... then we had to wait for their bags to join them. It. took. for. ever. It felt even longer.
In a normal world a two hour delay on the tarmac stinks. With a one-year-old on your lap, several hours of travel already behind you, and a good 9+ hours of flying still ahead of you it really, really stinks.
Just like on the outbound trip, Baby S decided mom's lap was the best seating arrangement for about 90% of the flight time. It would have been nice to divide the duties a bit more with Dad to have a few more minutes to recharge, but you have to go with what the baby wants with dozens and dozens of other passengers within earshot.
So, other than a few 10-15 minute breaks while she played with Josh, her and I went through a never-ending rotation of nursing, eating bites of bread, banana, peas, etc, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse binge watching one 23 minute episode at a time, playing with sister or other toys, walking the cabin, bouncing in the galley, and attempting (and usually failing) to get her to sleep.
Eventually, about 2/3 of the way into the flight, she finally slept for about 90 minutes on me, but we spent the rest of the flight going through a nonstop rotation of those activities mentioned above.
I wanted to cry (or maybe did cry?!) a bit when the in-flight progress screen showed we still had 5 hours of flying left. At that point over the ocean, we had already been on the plane for about 6 hours thanks to the initial delay, not to mention all the travel earlier that day before that point. I was tired and I didn't really know how I was going to stay conscious and be able to keep her happy for many more hours.
Thankfully, it was around then that I just sort of entered "the zone" where I stopped really looking at where we were and how much longer we had to go, and just stayed in the constant rotation of what Baby S needed next to stay as calm as possible. Thankfully, she was so tired around then that she sort of gave up...meaning, she didn't sleep as much as I wished she would, but she became much more snuggly. As long as I had some distraction to offer her, she was okay. She was sort of out of it, and I think she was just resigned to the fact that there wasn't anything better available than what was right in front of her.
I should mention that the six year old rock star traveler slept peacefully through half the flight and came oh-so-close to loosing her first tooth on the Dreamliner across the ocean...instead it finally came out later that night. I thought that was pretty cool and most appropriate for our Little C.
Anyway, upon landing in Houston we had more delays of about 45 minutes or so before we were allowed off the plane as the jet bridge didn't work, or something like that. The poor Captain made so many apologies for delays that I lost track of what it was exactly causing the delay at that point. Again, an extra unexpected 45 minute wait to get off a flight is never fun. After a two hour delay on the front end, nine hours of flying, and a beyond tired one year old on your lap, it really wasn't fun.
Eventually it was over. Well, the flight was over. Next up were fun tasks like getting the gate checked stroller, going through customs, getting our checked bags, getting our car parked in the cheap shuttle lots since it was a long trip, etc. Oh, and did I mention the 23 hours of travel with two kids?
Thankfully the customs process was very fast and painless and we were still in the zone of just doing whatever we needed to next to get home as quickly as possible.
After landing we found out our bags didn't make the connection via a text from British Airways, and that we needed to go to the baggage office to sort out delivery details and such. Sounds simple, only there is no marked British Airways baggage office in Houston. After asking many people and finding our way to an unmarked office that I think many airlines share, we were told by someone that the BA staff had left for the day. What?!
Honestly, we were done for the day ourselves and just headed home.
We finally crawled into bed about 10:30 PM Houston time, which is just one hour shy of the 5:30AM Scotland time that our day had started. Most thankfully, everyone slept peacefully for eight full hours.
In the end, our flight landed two hours delayed...once more hour and we probably would have been due some serious cash payouts thanks to the EU regulations surrounding delayed and cancelled flights. I couldn't remember the exact delay cut-off in-flight, but I knew we were getting close, so kept that in the back of my mind to cheer me up when I was feeling verrry tired.
My advice for others traveling in a similar fashion with little kids is to avoid looking at the flight progress map as much as you can. Just try to get into the groove of rotating through available activities and keep going as long as you have to and remember how fortunate you are to be able to head off on trips like this with your kids. Hopefully you have someone to trade off with, at least for a while. I knew eventually it would all be over, and it was. I knew eventually I would decide it was all worth it, and after a good night's sleep, I did.
Having business class seats so we were relatively comfortable during all of this made a huge difference. It was one of the key factors in making this tolerable, as it would have been much less fun to deal with dragging delays with a lap baby in a tiny seat. If you don't want to spring for business class, at least consider economy plus type seats with some additional legroom if you plan to have a lap kiddo along for the ride.
Business class seats and getting in "the zone" helped, but the number one reason I put this flight in our success category despite the delays and exhaustion is that we stayed calm instead of getting worked up from exhaustion only to make our own situation worse. We could have spun ourselves up only to end up worse off, and thankfully we kept our cool. This really was the key to success and my #1 recommendation when flying with (or without) little ones. You can't make the plane go faster or the delay disappear in a tiny tube, but you can keep your cool.
I've flown on many other trips with my kids while they were young, but we usually do 2-3 hour nonstop flights and have been lucky in avoiding big delays or cancellations on previous trips. This time we had to deal with long haul travel, jetlag, time zone issues, connections, pretty big delays, missing bags, and more, and still came out okay.
I truly know we are beyond lucky to have the opportunity to travel at all with our kids, much less to Europe and back in business class, so our exhaustion from this is a #firstworldproblem indeed. That said, it is an issue many of us reading this site share, so I wanted to share our story of "surviving" our first really long travel day with two kids. We made it home safely and our bags joined us two days later. It wasn't all fun and champagne, but I'd do it again. In fact, I'm dreaming up our next European destinations already.
But first, now that you have a taste of what a 23 hour travel day with two kids is like, I can't wait to relive the really fun parts of the trip to London and Scotland over the coming days and weeks!