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A Mom’s Guide to Surviving Long Flights With Kids

An experienced long-distance traveler shares her top 10 tips to ensure peaceful trips with kids

Published on: March 28, 2024

mom and son looking at a tablet on an airplane

With spring break coming up and summer vacation on the horizon, airplane travel is on my mind, and subsequently, so are concerns about how to keep my dynamic toddler and energetic preschooler relaxed and occupied on long flights. As a frequent international and cross-country traveler, I have used every trick in the book to make flying with my kids less stressful, more palatable and — dare I say — even fun.

If you’ve got a trip in your future, here are my 10 tips any parent can use to have a smooth long-distance flight with the kids.

1. Rest and hydrate.

Starting at least three days before your scheduled departure, make sure your kids (and you) get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. This will not only boost your immunity, but it also will replenish your energy reserves and give you the much-needed ability to calmly navigate your kids’ emotions on the plane. 

2. Talk about the upcoming flight.

Prep your children by explaining what to expect at the airport and on the airplane. Richard Scarry’s “A Day at the Airport” is a valuable resource for my family. We read it repeatedly leading up to a trip and even pack it in our carry-on. At the airport and on the plane, my kids excitedly point out objects from the book such as food carts, the air traffic control tower, the plane’s propellers and more. The bonus? It’s a great game to play whether you’re waiting to board or sitting in your seats.

3. Involve your children in the process.

My advice? Invite your kids to help make a plan to keep them entertained on the flight. They’ll feel invested and empowered. Ask them what they’d like to do on the plane, and help them put together an activity kit: a small backpack they can pack and be responsible for.

If possible, take them shopping to buy small and/or inexpensive activities and treats such as mini crayons, notepads, pencils, a box of Play-Doh or mini Legos to fill the backpack. Pro tip: To ensure longer attention spans and greater enthusiasm, only access the backpack’s contents on the plane.

4. Pack your travel tote or diaper bag mindfully.

I have found that a light and compact travel tote/diaper bag is critical. It should be easy to lug around and fit under the seat in front of you for quick access. You may wonder: How’s that possible when, in addition to my personal items (wallet, keys and travel docs), I also need to pack healthy snacks, extra toys, diapers, wipes, a change of clothes and more?

Streamlining is key! As an example, for a change of clothes, two onesies or long-sleeved T-shirts, PJs, and underwear are sufficient. An envelope with stamps, a small notepad and stickers make excellent toys. Kids are usually so bored on a plane that anything you pull out of your bag is magical!

two young girls drawing on an airplane

5. Bring on the novelty.

A few weeks before I travel long distances, I take note of the ignored toys and books around my home. If there aren’t any, I take the liberty of setting aside some toys for the plane ride. That way when my little ones see them on a long flight, they see something new or novel. Coloring and connect-the-dot books work well for my boys, since they rarely use them in other circumstances.

Our local libraries often have coloring pages for families to use; I pick those up, too. Plus, as a library member you’re entitled to 10 free black-and-white printouts weekly. Imagine your tot’s delight when you pull out a stack of fresh coloring pages on the plane! 

6. Keep a tactile play item handy.

I always keep Play-Doh or Playfoam close by when flying with my boys. Who doesn’t enjoy squishing, kneading and pounding these awesome tactile compounds? Adding small dinos and little cars to the mix enhances the fun. Once they run out of ideas, I bring out the saved airplane coffee stirrers and plastic cups. Think dinosaurs in fast cars out in space. At the end of it all, they’re either ready for a nap, a snack or a walk up and down the aisles. 

7. Get creative.

Children will often demand their parents’ undivided attention on long flights. My kids are no exception. So, it’s time to get creative! I make up stories and play I Spy with my boys. I also become a spontaneous artist. Here’s how: Scrawl something simple such as three concentric triangles and write numbers from 1 to 3 in each. Then say, “One is yellow; two is green; and three is red.” Voilà! You just created a color-by-number.

Coloring airsickness bags, looking through travel magazines and talking about what your kids see, or bringing out saved airline cups, lids and stirrers are all wonderfully simple, no-plan ways to keep kids busy.

8. Walk and stretch.

I often rely on a bit of movement when it’s safe to walk around. It’s helpful for circulation and for a much-needed change of scenery. Seat-stretches such as lifting our feet, rotating our ankles and necks, stretching our arms overhead, big belly breaths and blowing the candle breaths work well, too.

In my experience, when the seatbelt sign is off, it’s okay to hold hands and walk up and down the aisle a few times. Do a few standing stretches with your kids at the back of the plane such as standing on your toes. Reaching down and touching our toes also helps. Passengers and crew members like smiling at and saying hello to little kids passing by!

9. Incorporate rest and quiet time into your flight.

Whenever possible, incorporate some R&R. I have found that a great time to do so is after some activities, snacks, movement and a potty break. Make it enticing by bringing out never-before-seen sleep masks and give your kids a relaxing head and neck massage (play spa day, maybe?). Sometimes I also put a small bottle of lavender essential oil in my carry-on liquids Ziplock. Sprinkling some on their blanket or wrists is not only calming, but can also be a fun new experience for them. At a minimum, they’ll enjoy smelling the lavender. 

two little kids watching movies on a plane

10. A note about screens and other gadgets.

On any long flight, there comes a time when kids will inevitably veg out in front of a screen. I find it helpful to save screentime for the end of the flight, as opposed to the beginning of it, or around nap time. Whenever I have introduced screens at the beginning of a long flight, I’ve found that everything else I offer seems to fall short, and my kids tend to display greater boredom and irritability. Plus, evidence suggests that the blue light from gadgets could amp-up users. Hard as it is, parents are better off equipping children with meaningfully engaging age-appropriate materials, and personally interacting with them before pulling out screens.

The bottom line

When flying long distances with young kids, plan out your time spent on the plane. Stay rested and hydrated; get creative and interactive; stay practical and relaxed. It’s probably a lot to ask, but isn’t that true of most of parenting? Jokes aside, when I’m on a plane with my kids, I keep it simple, have a routine of sorts, eat meals and healthy snacks, and move and rest. Spending lots of time in close quarters on long flights with your kids can be a sweet, special time of togetherness. 

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