Jen is a stay-at-home mother of four who has traveled internationally with her children multiple times.
I was lucky enough to marry a man from another country and even luckier to have the opportunity to visit that beautiful country several times before we had kids. Once we began adding to our family, we made it a priority to travel with our children overseas to visit family as often as we possibly could. In the nearly 11 years since we first traveled back with a child, we have managed to take the kids back three times and are currently planning our fourth trip.
We made this trip first with a 9-month-old, then with a 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and 3-month-old. Most recently, we traveled with a 9-year-old, 7-year-old, 5-year-old, and 3-year-old. Our average travel time from door to door is roughly 30 hours (about 24 hours of actual flight time, plus layovers and a two-hour drive to the village). Yes, you read that correctly—we have traveled for more than a day with four children...and survived.
So, how do I manage? First of all, your plan has to be tailored to the ages of your children—my strategy has evolved as my kids have grown more and more independent, but I'll break it down into basic age ranges and provide my best tips for each stage.
Tips for Traveling with Infants and Toddlers
Believe it or not, international travel is much easier with an infant than it is with a toddler. I know that sounds hard to believe, especially if you are on kid #1 and everything feels new and scary, but having traveled with both, I can say that infants are less time intensive, and there are more perks available for them (including a free ticket if they are a lap child!). Here are my top tips for this age group:
- Many international flights will offer a bassinet for babies under a year old. This is a great way to ensure that you get bulkhead seating (that's where the bassinet clips on), and it will allow you a break from holding your baby for a long flight. The bassinet will be equipped with a zippered cover that covers the bottom two-thirds of the bassinet, ensuring that your baby stays put and their face is not covered.
- If a bassinet is not available, travel with your "boppy" or another breastfeeding pillow. With a small enough baby, you can lay the pillow on your lap and allow the baby to sleep on your lap hands-free.
- If your baby is too big for the bassinet or boppy, it's VERY worth the extra money to purchase a seat and travel with your airplane-compatible car seat.
- Pack more diapers and outfits in your carry-on than you think you will need. For some reason, my babies reacted to the pressure changes on an airplane by filling their diapers—a lot. There is nothing worse than running out of diapers on a plane. My general rule of thumb was to take two diapers and one outfit change for every five hours on a plane. For our 25-hour flight, that meant ten diapers and five complete outfits for my infants. I would also add that moms need to travel with an extra shirt in their carry-on as well—there is not much worse than traveling with spit-up or other unmentionable stains on your clothing!
- Breast milk doesn't have to follow the two-ounce rule. If you are traveling with an infant, you may have bottles of breast milk or formula, and these do not have to be under two ounces. They may be swabbed for content, though! Baby food is also OK, although, on every flight where I was traveling with an infant, I was offered baby food jars along with my own meal.
- We always hear about babies screaming from the pressure, but honestly, this was never an issue. I simply nursed my baby during take-off and then again as we landed, and this equalized their ears with zero problems. You could also provide a pacifier or a bottle at this time.
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Tips for Kids Ages Two to Four
This is the tricky age, friends. Buckle up, because, at this age, you need to plan to be "on" the entire time. There will be no chance to watch that in-flight movie, have a cup of hot coffee, or even sleep once your child is in this age range. My best advice would be to avoid travel during this time if I'm being honest, but if you're determined to go, I have some tips for you.
- If you can at all afford to, purchase the almost 2-year-old their own ticket. It's a pretty safe bet that he/she won't actually spend any time in that seat, but at least you'll have it to spread out into.
- Pack a carry-on filled with snacks, because trust me when I say, your child in this age range will not even look at the airplane food. There is literally nothing on that tray that they will touch, so if you want to avoid a meltdown at 30,000 feet, be prepared with applesauce pouches, mini-M&M's, packets of goldfish, puffs, raisins, and other toddler delicacies. This is not the time to be concerned about hitting all of the food groups—you are in survival mode. In other words, pack whatever will keep them occupied and content. Pro-tip: Avoid yogurt cups. Something about the pressure of the airplane causes them to explode when you open them. This also goes for valved sippy cups. It's best to bring an empty sippy cup on board, and then ask for bottled water to fill it.
- Buy one of those reach-in-no-spill snack cups (here's the one we use: snack cups). Those things are amazing for self-feeding. Plus, it takes a little one a long time to empty one of those, a cheerio at a time—bonus.
- In my opinion, the best entertainment options for this age are brightly colored alphabet books (there are 26 letters, so you can drag it out pretty well!), magnetic trains, and iPads. Some great apps that our kids enjoyed were Endless Alphabet and Metamorphabet. Stay away from toys that make noise, small ones that can be lost under the seats, and anything with small pieces, like Legos.
- Having a boppy with you at this age can also be quite helpful—a little one can lay with their head on the boppy in your lap and extend their feet onto their purchased seat.
- Try to have an aisle seat, especially if your little one is potty training. While it is possible to change a toddler on the changing tray in the lavatory, it is not ideal due to space constraints. Do NOT change a soiled diaper on the floor of the airplane—you will get death glares from fellow passengers...and rightly so.
- If your toddler cries/makes a fuss/has a meltdown, don't panic. Chances are that nobody is paying much attention. Distract them with a walk up and down the aisle, a snack, or the iPad/phone.
Tips for Ages Five and Up
Once they've reached the magic age of five, you're in the home stretch, especially if they've been acquiring stamps in their passports since birth, like mine have. While you still have to maintain your survival mode, there is definitely much more time to relax on a plane with this age group. Still, here are some tips:
- Purchase each child their own child-sized earphones. In my experience, the buds on adult ones fall out, and the ones that the airline offers are too big for little heads. Unless you want to be adjusting those bad boys every five minutes or MacGyvering a fix with a wad of paper and a hair elastic, just pony up the $20 for the headphones beforehand.
- Each child at this age can travel with their own carry-on backpack filled with necessities. The last time we traveled overseas with our four children, I packed each child's backpack with a change of clothes (including two pairs of underpants!) inside a plastic Ziploc baggie that could double as a "wet bag" in case of a potty accident. I also had included a bag filled with snacks and a travel kit that included a travel toothbrush/toothpaste, chapstick, and a travel pillow for each child.
- If at all possible, for long flights, have your children travel in PJ's or other non-binding clothes such as leggings or athletic pants. Avoid buttons, zippers, or stiff material like denim that you wouldn't want to wear to sleep.
- Allow them to watch as many kids movies as they want—really. For a 24-hour flight, they will sleep eventually, and there's really not much else that you can pack that will keep them in that seat for the long haul. If you have readers, you can download some books on your Kindle, but truthfully, this is probably the only time in life where they will watch four movies in a row, so be gracious about it.
General Tips for All Ages
Here are some general tips for all ages. Whether you're traveling with a baby, or four kids of various ages, these general tips for travel will apply.
- It should go without saying, but just in case, I'm going to state it plainly—you or your spouse (if you're traveling together) must be in charge of all of your children's passports. You should make copies of all traveling documents and keep them in a separate location once you arrive, just in case the unthinkable happens and one is lost or stolen. You also will need to be prepared to fill out your child's entry/exit card while on the airplane, as well as your own.
- Flexibility is key when traveling with kids. Sometimes, unforeseen changes to the itinerary need to be made, and it is important for you to model a positive attitude, even in the midst of trouble, in order to keep your kids anxiety free. On our last flight home, one leg of our trip (the leg that would bring us back stateside!) got canceled due to weather conditions at the stopover airport. We ended up spending the night on the cold tile floor of the brightly lit airport terminal before flying out to a different country and then continuing on home. In total, it took us 80 hours, with four children under the age of ten, to arrive home. Not what I would call a stellar travel experience. But, because we were able to maintain positivity and flexibility, our kids just rolled with it without complaint.
- You've got this! The number one tip I have if you're considering traveling with kids overseas is to GO FOR IT!!! It has been such a valuable, culturally rich experience for our children, and I absolutely consider it a top priority for our family to maintain our overseas relationships. Don't be intimidated by all of the things that might go wrong, but rather, know that you are gifting your children with the world when you travel with them.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.