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Are We There Yet? 10 Tips for Surviving Long Haul Flights With Kids

Oct. 18, 2018
11 min read
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There's flying with kids and then there is surviving long-haul flying with kids. Any amount of time in a small enclosed tube flying through the sky with little ones can be a challenge. However, the challenge is quite different on a two- or three-hour flight than on one that requires up to 18 hours of flying, such as what's necessary on the world's current longest route that stretches 9,500 miles from New York to Singapore. Think about everything you have done in the last 18 hours — likely sleeping, going to work, taking the kids places, cooking, eating, working out, watching TV, etc. Now imagine spending that entire amount of time sitting in an airplane seat next to your kid(s).

Even if you don't choose to fly on the world's longest route with your kids, you may still find yourself on a long-haul route at some point. No matter how many times you have flown on a flight of six hours or less with kids, once you get toward 12 hours or more, it is a bit of a different ballgame. An iPad and a movie can do the trick for many kids on a domestic flight, but you are going to need to dig deeper into that bag of tricks once your travel radius expands.

To help you survive long-haul flights with your kids, we gathered the top 10 tips from our own TPG Family contributors as well from the TPG Family Facebook Group. And no, none of the tips involve surviving by having that third glass of wine, giving your kids sleeping meds (talk to your doc about that one) or never leaving home. You can do this and, as always, we're here to help.

Fly at Night

A flight lasting 12+ hours will include some daytime hours no matter what you do. But, whenever possible, try to schedule a chunk of your long-haul flight at night. Even if your child only sleeps for five or six hours during the "night," that still gets you thousands of miles closer to your destination. When we fly to Europe, the ideal flight for us leaves in the evening around 7pm or 8pm. Most likely there will be an hour or two of meal service after takeoff with the lights on, and then the flight is lights-out until close to landing.

It's All About the Empty Middle Seat

Mom of two, Angelina Aucello, tells TPG that after successfully flying with two little kids for almost 24 hours from New York to Singapore (via Japan) in economy, she became much more confident about long-haul family travel. Her No. 1 tip is that "empty middle seats are everything!"

She recommends stalking the seat map up until an hour before departure to try and secure some extra wiggle room. For traveling families of four like hers, Aucello recommend booking the aisle and the window seat of rows directly behind each other and pray that the middle stays open. You can then designate one parent to one kid for the duration of the flight. (This also helps with sibling rivalry such as fighting over snacks, activities, etc.) For sleeping, the kids slept more soundly once they were able to stretch out an lay down across the seats.

Photo courtesy of Angelina Aucello

Another traveling mom of two, Terry Ward, similarly says that, "The wisest thing you can do when traveling with young kids on long-haul flights is to give yourself the luxury of traveling in low season." Her children are not yet school aged, so she recommends doing your long-haul travel after school starts in the fall, when you're far more likely to find wide-open planes and plenty of room to stretch out without paying for an extra seat for a lap infant.

Pack Those Snacks — Really

I'll admit to not always packing very many snacks for my kids when we travel on a two- or three-hour flight. However, long-haul flying is a different ballgame and you need to pack like you are going into the wilderness. That doesn't mean packing the kitchen sink, but it does mean strategically bringing things that will keep your kids full and happy.

Aucello reminds us that airplane food (especially in economy) on long-haul flights isn’t the most appetizing, so it’s critical to bring an overload of snacks in case your child refuses to eat (or is asleep) during meal service. She also recommends sneaking in a few "treats" to remind them that flying is a special occasion and to help reward them for their "best behavior."

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Power Up

We probably don't have to tell you to be sure all electronic gadgets are fully charged, but even a fully charged battery won't last more than a few hours. Not every seat has working in-flight charging capabilities, so packing a backup charger is a very good idea.

Walk the Aisles

When TPG Senior Miles and Points writer JT Genter recently flew on the world's longest flight from Singapore to New York, he logged almost 2.5 miles of walking during his 18 hours on the plane. He did this in part to reduce his chances of developing a blood clot (as has happened to another TPG staffer). Even if children aren't an especially high-risk category for deep vein thrombosis, they still need to stretch their legs, so walk those aisles, especially during daytime hours when meals are not being served.

(Photo by Demkat/Getty Images)

In fact, get your kids moving in the airport as much as possible before ever getting on the flight so that at least your first few hours aren't too restless. If you can find a play area in your departure airport, be sure and use it!

Play area at JFK's T5

BYO Blind Bags

Any family with kids who watches shows on YouTube has probably heard of a "blind bag." But in case you have missed the trend, a blind bag is a toy package where you don't know exactly what is inside. You can pick up blind bags for all sorts of toy collections at a place like Target, but you can also create your own blind bags with a trip to the dollar store or even garage sales. Even otherwise unimpressive trinkets can be as good as gold when you have thousands of miles still to fly.

Photo by Karen Akpan / The Mom Trotter

When packing some goodies for the flight, consider good old-fashioned coloring books and crayons — preferably the triangle ones that don't roll off the tray tables.

Changes of Clothes (for Everyone)

This is not unique to long-haul flying, but it is especially important for lengthy trips. Do not, and I repeat, do not board a long-haul flight without an easily accessible quick change of clothes for every member of the family. I recommend getting large clear Ziploc bags and putting a complete (labeled) change of clothes for each person into a unique baggie. This makes them quick to grab and the baggie can double as isolation for any dirty clothes that need to be contained. While you are at it, pack some "air sickness bags" and wipes within easy reach, too.

Splurge Miles for the Good Seats

This is The Points Guy, and if there is ever a time to splurge your points and miles, it is for the good seats on long-haul flights. Imagine your family of four flying in this Qatar Airways Qsuites arrangement as opposed to just praying for an empty middle in the back of economy.

Qatar Airways Qsuite
Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

Admittedly, getting four (or more) business class or better seats on long-haul flights at the saver award level is ... tough. However, tough is not the same thing as impossible. The trick is often looking early, looking often and paying attention (aka, getting lucky). We have seen six business class saver awards available on the previously mentioned Singapore Airlines' longest flight, lie-flat business class saver awards to Australia for up to nine people and, most recently, up to eight lie-flat seats in Delta One to Hawaii for 37,500 Virgin Atlantic miles each way.

While your time in the sky with little kids in the "good seats" may not be as relaxing as you might hope, it is still probably much more comfortable than sitting in the back.

If business class or better isn't in the cards, consider something like the Air New Zealand Skycouch.

Air New Zealand Skycouch (Photo by Emily McNutt / The Points Guy)

Use a Car Seat or Bassinet

With young travelers, a regular old airplane seat may not be the best bet for hours upon hours of flying. Several families in the TPG Family Facebook Group recommend the use of a car seat for younger kids for more comfortable long-haul flying. If your traveling companion is a baby, you will probably want to reserve the bassinet seats, so call to secure those the moment you book your ticket as they are in limited supply.

Look to Foreign Air Carriers

Facts are facts and international carriers can often be a more family-friendly way to fly on a long-haul flight than a US carrier. Etihad has Flying Nannies. EVA has the Hello Kitty plane, as well as child meals for not only children but also for infants and toddlers. Lufthansa has a cute child's menu and small toys or coloring books and even child amenity kits on some flights from Germany for those in business or first class.

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images for Sanrio)

You won't find those sort of things available from US air carriers, so choose your airline wisely. Some international air carriers also allow the use of products such as the BedBox, which is another alternative to business class.

The BedBox is allowed on some international airlines (Photo courtesy of BedBox)

Last but far from least, the most important thing to pack is truly a good and flexible attitude. Surviving a long-haul flight with kids may not always be pretty, but as long as you can remain calm and adjust to their ever-changing needs, all will be OK. You may have to deal with some on-the-ground jet lag, but that's a small price to pay to experience some of the world's wonders with your family along to share in the experience.

Now it's your turn — how does your family survive long-haul flights with kids?

Featured image by Getty Images/Westend61