How to Survive a Long Haul Plane Journey with Toddlers

21 Feb 2019

Everyone seems to have disaster stories about air travel with their little ones which, combined with a number of horror films set on aeroplanes, instantly makes us consider the Worst Case Scenario as we debate our family holidays abroad. But don’t fret! After nearly fifty flights with my little terrors – I mean, angels – here are some tried and tested coping strategies...

They’ll cry!

Yup, little ones express themselves emotionally – and so they should. Adopt a healthy mind-set – you and your family deserve to be on that flight as much as the child-free honeymooners or be-suited business travellers. Some hand out goody bags to those seated nearby as a way of apologising in advance, but personally I like to have a few one-liners up my sleeve just in case someone (foolishly!) approaches me mid-tantrum: ‘We were all babies once,’ ‘it’s her only way of communicating right now,’ ‘I’m not worried about it so you needn’t be either but thank you for your concern.’ Those honeymooners may well be in your situation a few years from now and they’ll remember your courageous, un-apologetic parenting.

Won’t they be bored?

I love finding age-appropriate books about aeroplanes, from the i-spy airport range to the Usborne ‘Look inside an airport’ book – 50 flaps, loads of facts and things to watch out for on their holiday – remember this is an big part of the adventure for them so prepare them in advance and make it exciting. If your luggage allowance includes their own ‘personal bag’, consider letting them pack their own favourite toys, pens, stories (Mr Men books are small but lengthy – perfect), plus a new present for the trip. Our son played with a new toy bin lorry for several hours on the way to Zimbabwe aged 1 and I love the ‘keep em quiet’ bags you can order online – pre-packed with surprise treats, based on the child’s age and gender and length of flight.

They need so much STUFF!

Organisation is key, and I’m a personal champion of the humble sandwich bag. Bottles, dummies, pyjamas, toothbrushes, toys, snacks and the dreaded Liquids Bag – lay out everything you know you’ll need, then take out things you don’t really need, and organise into colour-labelled sandwich bags, packed in the order in which you’ll need them. If they’re awaiting take-off, get the Book Bag out and spot things on the runway from their plane stories. If they start to get grouchy mid-flight, pull out the Snack Bag. Much better than searching for a bruised banana in the bottom of your rucksack or not being able to find THE teddy in time to fend off a tantrum. Write how many lego men should be in the Toy Bag and count them back in each time.

What about The Routine?

If you can, plan flights that include meals or nap times – that will divide up your time nicely and give you some structure. Write down your ideal timings for snacks and naps, alongside what time this will be at your destination, and then compromise between the two to ease your children into the new timezone. If you need to make up bottles, plan when and where you can get hot water. Cabin crew are usually happy to offer fridge and microwave facilities and you can take liquids over 100ml for babies and children. Just don’t open a pressurized bottle after take-off if you want to avoid showering the lady sat next to you in baby milk.

They won’t sit still!

I can’t help you there. They don’t. Tag team the aisle-stumble with your partner if possible, and remember they can’t actually run away 33,000 feet in the air. Our little ones have baby headphones (which have a handy volume limit to keep their ears safe), which plug into the telly or their tablets, which are pre-loaded with films and games I know they’ll sit still for, at least for a few minutes.

They won’t sleep on a plane…

If you’re travelling overnight, book seats on the front row and request a bassinet for the under-twos. Consider bringing their own pillow/teddy/comforter as a sleep cue and include your usual sleep-time routines – pyjamas, toothbrush, stories. I used to put our baby in her usual sleeping bag – you can get travel ones that allow you to pass the seatbelt through it in the bassinet. Tell them when the plane puts on their ‘night-night’ lights everyone goes to sleep. If possible, allow yourselves a rest day when you arrive or when you get back. I also take inflatable footrests; they pack down very small and light, and you can blow them up to be the same height as your child’s seat so they can stretch out while they sleep.

I’ll spend the whole time picking things up off the floor

Argh, so true. I used to constantly be picking up tiny toys and bags of pretzels until I bought travel trays – what a genius idea! They fold down flat and come in their own drawstring bag, and fit onto the tray table on a plane (and car, train, waiting rooms…), giving your child more space to lay out their toys, a large wipe clean area for drawing, puzzles, games and snack time. They have stiff edges so nothing falls off and handy pockets to keep everything safe! I will never travel without mine again. I recently took my two by myself on a twelve hour plane journey and they were so satisfied with their travel trays, new pens, favourite snacks and Mickey Mouse on their screens that I could sit back and finish a film in peace. Bingo!

Set your expectations fairly and don’t be afraid to celebrate the small wins – cut yourself some slack, keep positive and remember you will get there, you will survive and no one else will ever think your child’s cry is as loud as you do.


Feeling inspired to book your next family adventure? Speak to our Travel Experts today about tailor making a trip to suit your clan.


You might also like:

The Kids’ Guide to the Best Caribbean Hotels

7 Reasons You and Your Children will Love Sri Lanka

Nikki Soddy

Nikki Soddy is a primary school teacher from Surrey. She is recently home from a round the world trip with her young family (@backpackingbabies).