flying with kids - top 5 tips

Getting settled into our seats after early
 boarding, when Ben was in the easy
"naps 11 times a day" phase.
Boarding a flight to or from Kenya, there are always a lot of European and American vacationers, usually young adults, no kids. There is a large percentage of businessmen, often African or south Asian. And there are always several families.

When they call for boarding of families and anyone who needs extra help, you can see the child-free passengers anxiously tallying up the number of small children who will be on this flight, praying that they will not get stuck near them.

Long flights are tough enough without cranky kids. And parenting cranky kids in public is tough enough without being trapped in very tight quarters with hundreds of grumpy strangers.

So what do you do? Some say the only solution is to not fly with kids. But for those of us whose families straddle two continents, that's not an option. Wherever we live, we'll always be flying (for a long time) to see the other half of our family. Our trip is 3 flights: 2 long hauls and 1 short one. Mombasa-Nairobi-Europe-Texas. From initial take-off to final landing, it's 24-26 hours, if we're lucky, plus we have a couple of hours in the car to get to the airport, hours waiting at the first airport, then immigration and customs, and driving home or to our destination on the other side. All told, we will be traveling at least 30 hours. And yet, we always get compliments from fellow passengers about how well our boys handle flying. Our methods must work pretty well.

Here are my top tips for surviving flights with kids, without going crazy yourself, and without getting death threats from your fellow passengers.
Nate watching planes while we waited
for a flight to Nairobi to take off.

1. Discipline.
Have some, but break some rules, too. If you let your kids get away with anything in your own home, they are not going to magically behave on a 9 hour flight. If your kids misbehave, you will have your regular disciplining techniques at your disposal.
On the other hand, you may have a "max 30 minutes of screen time" or an "eat 5 bites of veggies" rule at home, but when you're flying, loosen up on those kind of rules. If you're consistent with your home rules at home and consistent with loosening them up while flying, your kids will get it, and they will appreciate getting to break the rules on the flight. Breaking rules is fun, and doubly so when Mom says, "Let's break the rules!"
2. Snacks. 
Especially if you have toddlers, preschoolers, or picky eaters pack enough snacks that they will still have enough to eat if they refuse to eat airplane food. Airplane food is not good. We eat it because it's conveniently brought to us, we need to eat something, and it's so cute the way everything is packaged in its own little compartment.
Picky ones are not fooled by such things. Your fellow passengers will appreciate you not letting your kid be The Angry Hungry One. And it will be easier on you, too!
3. Divide and conquer.
If the kids in your party outnumber the adults, this will be harder, but you can find a way to divide them and change it up if needed. Flying with 2 boys, Rodgers takes one of them, and I take the other. If they start getting antsy, we can switch to make things more interesting, but we each have a kid, and our goal is to keep said kid happy.
Normally, I'd say that a kid shouldn't be entertained every minute of the day, but this is not a normal day. This is a long-haul flight. If the kid is occupied intentionally (as opposed to occupied with abusing passengers around you), everyone's happy.
4. Activities.
Nate looking at the BIIIIIIG airplane
in Amsterdam
I've heard a rule of thumb: "give your kid something new every hour of the flight." If you're flying for 6 hours, that could work, but not in our case. That is too many hours, and what are they going to do with 24 new things?! And how will I carry them?!
Hopefully they will be sleeping for at least 12 hours. Then, there are movies on the plane - movies we haven't seen! Nate still remembers that we first watched Madagascar 3 and Happy Feet on the airplane on our last trip to Texas. He is looking forward to new movies.
I don't buy new toys or new kindle apps for the trip, but I do get them a new coloring or activity book. I bring the kindle and let them take some small toys - a favorite car, something that has lights and plays music, quiet bag activities. It's enough.
5. Coping with jet-lagged kids.
Three things: eat at the right times, don't nap for too long, and don't going to bed too early at night. We don't prepare for jet-lag days before the trip or anything like that. We are tired for the first few days in our new location (even staying in one time zone, that kind of trip takes a lot out of you), but we don't find ourselves waking up at odd hours during the night.
We let the boys sleep as much as they want during the flight, but Rodgers and I eat every time they serve food on the plane. We may not really have an appetite, but those little meals, served close together, somehow reset our internal clocks via our tummies (surely this is Science?).
Once we arrive, we don't let the boys nap longer than 3 hours. We put them to bed for the night no more than 1 hour early. They need extra rest, but left to their own devices, they would sleep noon-6 pm and 8 pm-4 am and never fully adjust to the new time zone. They're back to normal after 3 or 4 days. 
It's hard. It's long and tiring. Exhausting really. Exhaustion which leads to delirium. But it's only 1 day (or 1 and a quarter for the 30 hour trips). You can survive for a day. And you will probably be so tired you won't remember all of it. Maybe it went terrible, but you don't care because you don't even remember!

Bonus tips:
It's easier to travel with a pre-mobile infant than a toddler. A baby that naps 11 times a day and doesn't need to move around is a plus.
Potty trained kids are easier to travel with, too, but not newly potty trained kids. If they are newly potty trained, make sure they are wearing disposable clothes in case they poop their pants at IAH while you're waiting for your flight to board. Well, actually, they poop their pants while running with you to the bathroom because you both know there's a narrow window between "I need to poop" and actually pooping. Not that this happened to me or anything. 
For me, one of the most disorienting thing about crossing time zones like this is not knowing what time it is. When we leave, I reset my watch to the time at our destination. Our "from" time is of no use to me anymore. If not for our layover, this would be enough, but we have to make our connection in the "middle" time zone. I write down our flight numbers and times in the local time and in our "to" time zone. This way, when we're departing at 10 am, I know that it's 4 am in our "to" time zone, and I'm mentally prepared for the day.


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