Flying internationally with children

As promised, I thought I would share a few tips for flying with young children. We recently survived an international trip with three kids in tow and lots and lots of luggage. I repeat…lots of luggage. (We moved here for three years and didn’t ship anything so it was all with us.)

I was very pleased with how most things went, but there were, of course, a couple of things that I would do differently. Please also check Mama Smiles post on flying with children. She recently flew by herself with four kids, including an infant, so she has lots of good tips.

Bring a comfort item. Only one.

Our kids, like most, have their special loveys, but they also have a blanket and other “secondary” loveys that invariably are extremely important when you leave on any type of extended trip. We made it clear days before the trip that we would pack all their special things, but only one was going on the plane with us. When it was time to sleep these items were absolutely essential.

Pack minimal hand luggage.

We failed on this. I knew not to over-pack activities for the kids, but we were trying to maximize our luggage space so we took a couple of suitcases as carry-on so that we would not have to pay for (yet another) extra check-in baggage. While it did help get our stuff overseas inexpensively, it was a nightmare when we were going through Heathrow airport in London. Remember, you’ll likely end up carrying luggage and children, so plan accordingly.

Pack some activities, but not too much.

This goes with the previous point, but it bears separate mention. I think it is easy to think, “the more the better.” It’s not. Not only does that mean you have to carry more stuff, but you children probably won’t need it. The fascination with airports, planes, drinks coming down the aisle, on-board entertainment, etc, give them plenty to do.

I chose to pack one “I spy” type book for each of the older kids, and a small surprise toy that I knew would keep them busy in each of their bags. They really didn’t even look at the toy until very late in the trip, but then it did come in very handy as a diversion. If you have babies, don’t bring much. They will be just as happy with a magazine from the seat pocket in front of you as any toy. Save your space for extra diapers.

Prepare your children for the trip.

This is invaluable, especially if you have particularly sensitive children. Something like putting their backpack on the security belt can be traumatic to some children, so prep them as much as possible.

In the weeks leading up to our departure, Stefan watched the recent BBC documentary about the Heathrow airpot. This was absolutely fascinating for all of us! (Episode one, two, three, and four at these links) These would be fascinating for anybody who likes airplanes whether you are traveling soon or not. He learned about every aspect of flying from the flight control tower, to the luggage carriers, fuel tanks, how they paint the planes, and so much more. He learned about how weather effects the plane and lots of other cool stuff. This gave him specific things to look for in the airport. He watched out the window and was looking for all the different vehicles to see if they were doing their job. Not only did this make him much more engaged in the entire flight experience, but it was quite educational. We all learned quite a bit.

For Olivia, we just tried to prep her step by step. This didn’t go off as smoothly as I would have liked, but she really did quite well except for one episode in the Heathrow airport when a security person handled her a bit roughly and did a pat down on her. They did this even after I explained that she had problems with sensory processing, and to please not pat her down. Oh well, some things you can’t prepare for, and we all lived through it…

Know your airplane and what is available.

Flying these days is so much easier because you can go online and find out exactly what plane you will be on, and what that plane has available. We flew Virgin Atlantic and had a wonderful experience with them. We knew before going on the trip that each seat would have its own TV screen, so we planned our “activities” accordingly. You can also check which movies are being shown on the kids channel so you have some idea what to expect.

In addition, the airline offered special meals for kids. This is something we had to pre-order (for free of course), so if we hadn’t gone on the website to find out we would have never known. As it was, the kids got a much better meal than the typical airline fair, and therefore ate much better. It was definitely worth the extra few minutes to call and make that order.

Brian also kept track online of which seats were taken and was able to “hand-pick” how we were seated, and we had a pretty good idea of how full the airplane was going to be. Internet is a great help. Use it.

Pack snacks.

In situations like international travel, it’s time to let go of the snacking rules you might typically have at home. Their bodies are completely thrown off by time zone changes and lack of sleep. Sometimes a snack is the best option. These also get used up, so your bags will get lighter as they get eaten.

These came in handy when kids were cranky, but I was also very grateful to have them when our transfer in London proved a little more difficult than planned. We had thought we would have plenty of time to stop and eat breakfast, but as it turned out the whole security/immigration process took an exceptionally long time and we barely made it to our gate in time. With no time to stop for food ,and starving children, snacks in my hand luggage were gold. We also arrived in Scotland right at lunch time, but our shuttle driver was waiting for us to drive us the hour drive to St Andrews. Again, no time to stop and eat, so the snacks were a must.

Be sure to bring suckers (or “lollies” as they say here) to help with popping ears on take-offs and landings. If you are nursing a baby, try to nurse during those times as it really helps their ears.

Pack extra outfits in your hand luggage. And lots of wipes.

We didn’t end up needing this, but it is always best to be prepared. It’s a long trip so you need to be prepared for spills and messes, or, worse, puking. We had a complete extra outfit for all five of us. We didn’t use it, but we were prepared just in case.

We did, however, go through an exorbitant amount of baby wipes. Wiping hands and faces is much easier with a wipe than getting to a bathroom every time you need it.

Plan for bonding.

When I traveled alone in college, I used to enjoy picking out a book to read on the flight. Or picking out my own movie. That isn’t my stage anymore and it’s best not to expect it. I didn’t even plan to read a single word and it’s a good thing because I didn’t. Plan for this to be a fun bonding, memory making experience with your family, or you will constantly be frustrated.

When the kids get tired and cranky, make up a silly game. Play “I spy” or pictionary with a pencil and post-it notes to pass the time and have fun with your kids in the process. Don’t waste the time with constant, “be quiet,” “stop moving,” and any other orders you could dish out. They’re probably trying. So come up with a silly way to try to keep everyone smiling and happy.

While we had a few minor bumps, most of the trip went off very smoothly.

Keep your attitude cheerful and happy and it will go along way in helping your kids remain cheerful as well!

What are your most successful tips for traveling with young children?


  1. Excellent tips – I agree with all of them!

    Thank you so much for linking to my post, too – made my day!

  2. Great, Johanna! I agree and wish I had had YOU along when mine were little–but then, you were little too. Wouldn’t have worked.

    My other suggestion, which I know you did, is to have people pray for your travels. I truly believe from experience that the Good Lord makes a huge difference for us. He enables us to do what needs to be done, eases pain and sickness, and helps little kids make it.

    Excellent article. I’m going to share it with Roxana, so she will be ready. :o)

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