As the season of holidays and travelling is coming up for the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, I thought I would share this text I wrote a few years ago (at pascaleparadis.org) about top tips when travelling with children.
Sitting on our flight Melbourne to Los Angeles (July 2016) and thought I would jot down a few points…my persistent mistakes and some helpful ideas!
It is the first time we leave Australia. We are travelling from Melbourne to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to New York, New York to Montreal…a long journey…We have done much shorter journeys over the last 13 years such as London to Montreal, but recently our migration has meant that we are much further away. We did London, Abu Dhabi, Melbourne last time, this time it is a little longer with an extra stop. We are also flying going east which means that we will live the same day twice!
Children got packing yesterday, although they were particularly excited and somehow difficult to manage, I was pretty impressed with their packing skills. I thought to myself that perhaps, over the years, I have given them some good tips and they are now able to pack without thinking about it…it has just become natural…First flights with an infant or a young child are pretty daunting, as children grow older, they learn what to expect, prepare and live on the plane, again it becomes routine…Here are some top tips, tips we have experienced over the years and feel are working well.
Involving the children in packing their bag
I have always packed the children’s cabin luggage and suitcase with them, up to the age of 8-9. Now, we are at a stage where the older two pack all their luggage alone and I check it afterwards to add any items they forgot. In the packing stage, I give them some small and measurable tasks such as “pack 7 pair of pants”. It was beautiful yesterday to see my daughter helping our 3 years old pack his cabin luggage. She knew exactly what to bring, what to think about and what he would need. Involving them means that they know what they have in their luggage for when they get on the plane and during the holiday or at their destination. This really helps them being independent.
Basic essentials in hand luggage
We have experienced a number of situations over the years, lost luggage, delayed flights, delayed or cancelled connection, children being sick on us, spilling food or drinks on us. When experiencing cancellations or delays, we had to stay in a hotel for the night until the next flight. I always pack a t-shirt, some underwear and some basic essentials in my bag and the children’s bag such as a toothbrush and under 100ml basic products so that we are prepared for different situations. I am still luggage less after four days at our destination, my extra t-shirt has been particularly welcomed!
Preparing for a carousel of activities:
Preparing for diverse activities helps when planning the cabin bags and informs my few next points. The journey can be long so the idea of having different and diverse activities helps the children feel stimulated as well as feeling they are passing time having fun. The carousel idea is that you present one activity, this activity lasts around 10-20 minutes, complete the activity when the child is still interested, but when you can see interest is going down slightly, put it away, bring another activity out. Alternate activities, re-introduce earlier activities, also include eating, toilet and self-care, sleeping.
Electronic devices such as DS, Ipad and tablets:
We always bring these. The evolution of this technology has changed our lives. We upload some television programmes and games before travelling. This helps when waiting or for long journeys. It provides an alternative activity/station to the ones available on the flight such as movies, games on the screen, eating, sleeping.
The cabin bag: Books, a bag of little people, colouring pencils, a colouring book, a sticker book
These ‘toys’ are particularly helpful for children 2-7 years old. Many children I know absolutely love ‘sticker books’. A bag of little people also helps bringing diversity to the carousel of activities available to a more imaginative play, a very welcomed change.
Talking about the journey ahead
Reading a book about airports and planes with a young child can help them develop the language related to airports and the journey. I never tell the children (2-7 years old) too long in advance our itinerary and plan to travel so that they do not create weeks of anticipation and expectations. When they become a bit older, I tend to have it on the calendar so that they know when it comes, can prepare, ask questions. I suppose there is a transition here to be made between the younger children becoming able to talk about it and anticipate the event without too much excitement. Telling the children too much in advance make and create lots of feelings and then behaviours that are tricky to manage in the run up of the event. Really everyone wants their sleep and continue the routines as much as possible until the event. Less disruptions will help cope with the journey.
Living on a plane: Snacks, Eating, Sleeping
As my oldest two are older now, I have not thought about bringing snacks for a while. Really I should because it can take a while to be served the first meal on the plane. Really we have needed it. Some flight companies are better than others at providing child friendly foods so having a little reserve of little snacks can help complement the meals. Some sweeties and chewing gums can help children when taking off and landing. It helps stimulate the swallowing reflexes and clear their ears. Similarly, for infants, I have found it very helpful to feed (bottle or breast) them during take off and landing for the same reasons.
For late flights such as leaving Montreal at 7 to 10pm arriving in London at 7am, over the years, we decided to feed the children before we get on the plane and just completely ignore service, buckle our seatbelt over our blankets, so that we all get a night sleep straight as we get on the plane.
Our routines have changed now that we do very long haul flights. For flights to and from Australia to the Northern Hemisphere, we have found that we just need to sleep, eat and relax as much as possible. There is plenty of time to settle in the flight, watch films and sleep. It is important that the children feel relaxed as much as possible so that the journey feels pleasant enough. When they are relaxed and at ease on the flight, it helps them stay on their seat and enjoy their ‘seat environment’ instead of feeling they need to explore the plane.
Establish routines and encourage positive behaviours and manners
Children need to learn the routines of a long flight and the need to relax, take it easy. For the first few journeys, this may take a little more help by talking to them about the routines, model the routines, encourage them to observe others. Soon enough, children realise what to do. I also insist on implementing positive behaviours such as respecting other people’s seat (not kicking the seat in front of them). I also encourage them to be independent. There is not much that can happen on a place so I encourage them to go to the toilet on their own, ask for help independently if they need to.
When travelling as a family, it becomes easier to establish ‘a seat environment’ where children feel they can move, play together, invade each other’s places if needed. I remember travelling with one child on my own and being particularly conscious of disturbing others around me, with cries, or space. Now that we travel 5 of us, we tend to set up a space where the children feel comfortable. We allow them to sleep close to each other, lifting arm rests, and lying down on seats, etc. Basically, they now use the space in their own way, respecting others around, and this helps them feel settle during the flight.
As parents, we relay each other in supporting the younger children, allowing one parent to sleep. We also find it helpful to settle everyone and then sleep when the children sleep.
In airports, flights and during the journey, we encourage children to look at their surrounding, talk about what they see and observe, identify similarities and differences with previous flights and airports. We also encourage them to observe others, think about others’ behaviours so that they feel more confident about being a competent traveller. For example, in the last few flights we experienced, my daughter insisted on going to the toilet when everyone is waiting in line to exit the plane, but this created chaos as she tried to move around the aisles. We discussed best times for going to the toilet, i.e. as they announce preparation for landing, usually half an hour before landing.
There is no doubt that after a long journey, there is a recovery period. Over the years, we have found that the easiest way to recover is to get into the routines of the final destination as soon as possible, such as respecting activities and time of sleeping and eating patterns of the time zone. Having social activities organised in the country of destination also help get back into the routine. We have also enjoyed journeys ending in the evening which means that when arriving at the final destination, it is night time, and after some wind down time, everyone goes to bed for a good night sleep.
There is also a need to expect some disruptions to bodily routines, feeling hungry and feeling sleepy at odd times of the day. Children may feel the jet lag and experience disrupted or shorter sleep patterns. Although difficult, we have found that establishing some ‘after flights’ routines also help. For example, when children get up very early, we tend to insist that this time is a quiet time with low key television and a light breakfast. I insist in helping children understand that ‘it is not fun time’ because it is too early for that. As parents, we relay each other in getting up early when needed, or going for a light nap in the afternoon.
Over time, families adjust to travelling and develop strategies to cope with these adventures. It is important to keep an open mind, try different strategies and be positive about all these global adventures…it is a particularly enriching gift to give to the children.