First Time Traveling Abroad With Kids – A How-To Guide, Part 3: On the Airplane and Arrival
Welcome back to the four-part series on traveling abroad with your kids! If you missed the first two parts, you can catch up here:
Part 3: On The Plane & Arrival <<You Are Here>>
Part 4: Getting Around & Coming Home (Coming Soon!)
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Part 3: On the Airplane and Arrival
I have a mantra of sorts when I’m making a long voyage laden with kids and bags and logistics…
:: Positive Attitudes and Low Expectations ::
When you’re stressed, and particularly when you’re in an unfamiliar place, It’s so easy to lose patience and forget why you’re taking that damned trip in the first place. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Let me tell you a quick story…
This past summer, I was feeling particularly brave, so I decided to take my two kids back to the U.S. for four weeks to visit the grandmas… by myself. Why did I think this was a good idea??
While I’ve enjoyed living in Armenia, the trip back home is not easy: usually 15 hours of flying with one stop in the middle (either Paris or Vienna).
My kids are young. I was the only adult in the room. Seriously, what was I thinking??
I’ve done many hard things in my life requiring patience and tenacity, but this trip was at the top of the list.
What kept me sane was having a solid plan for all the stages of my trip, the ability to be flexible with those plans when things needed to change, and free wine on the flight.
Step 8: On the Airplane
If you find this is the most dreaded part of a trip with kids, you are not alone. The act of flying with children is stress-inducing for even the most seasoned of traveling parents. I’ve found that the length of an airplane ride is inversely proportional to the level of patience you will have by the end. It’s science.
Unless you are flying first class, you will be stuffed in a space smaller than you’d wish with tiny people who want to invade that space like tiny gremlins. It’s really a recipe for everyone to get on each other’s nerves. I’d have to say the real key to surviving a long haul flight with little ones to take care of is a little patience and a lot of preparation.
The Key To Success
Distraction, Distraction, Distraction. Try your hardest to make your child forget they are on a never-ending airplane ride.
The older your kids are the easier this is. But if your kids are young like mine, it’s a constant juggling act. My son is just old enough now to sit and watch an entire movie start to finish so you better believe I load the iPad up with his faves that he’s seen two million times and let him go to town. (Toy Story again? Please, let me set that up for you).
Screens not your thing? I get it. You do you mama/papa and best of luck. But my personal parenting strategy on flights is without restriction on screen time. If that shiny thing keeps him from *literally* jumping on the seat, I will do it. Gladly.
Many international carriers these days are still genuinely concerned about customer experience and therefore have excellent in-flight entertainment. Most transoceanic flights will have seat-back touch screens with movies, some TV shows, music, and games to include content for kids. (Fly-Nerd tip: they’ll also have a “Flight Tracker” that has a moving map that shows you where you are in the world and gives you stats about the trip. It makes my little navigator heart happy.)
My point is, a little prep really does go a long way. Figure out what it is that holds your child’s attention and then exploit the crap out of it. AND THEN (here’s the good part) have creative ideas at the ready for when that first thing doesn’t work anymore.
What Works For Me
Here are some back-pocket tricks that work well for me and my kids under 4:
- Sticker activity books. My son LOVES stickers and is blossoming an incredible imagination. Even if it’s not a full-blown themed activity book, just a book of stickers and a piece of paper will keep him entertained for a long while. I’ve also heard that window clings work well too if you’re concerned about the removability.
- Bandaids. M is really into role playing these days, especially since he learned about jobs in school. Bandaids have the allure of stickers but also allow him to use his imagination to play doctor. Plus the process of removing the paper is really good for his fine motor skills!
- Wiki sticks. Whoever invented these deserves a big hug. These are great to pull out in a pinch. They’re flexible, wax-covered sticks which you can mold to build whatever you want.. and they’re reusable!
- Water Wow books. First off, I love Melissa & Doug. And these books are PERFECT for on-the-go kids. Just fill the paintbrush with water and the water-activated pages come to life. When it dries, it becomes a blank canvas again, allowing for reusable fun!
- CozyPhones Comfortable Headphones. I cannot say enough about these headphones. Thin earphones are placed inside a comfortable headband allowing M to easily fall asleep while watching his movie without being bothered by clunky headphones. Parent high-five!
- Mini-Presents. Another little trick I like to use is to have little “presents” for him that he can unwrap throughout the trip. Get creative: cars, crayons, stickers, bouncy balls, post-it notes. Explore the dollar section at Target and you’ll find plenty of great ideas. The key is to use them at times when they may need a little extra incentive or to keep their attention.
Isn’t he adorable?
One More Thing…
And finally, I need to take a moment to talk about the Fly Tot. If you have expectations of your kids sleeping on an airplane, I urge you to check it out. Fly Tot is a giant pillow that inflates to fill the space in front of your child’s seat to create one large surface for them to lay down. It may seem a little excessive but it’s really nice if you anticipate your child falling asleep and worry about them rolling off the seat.
Step 9: Arrival
What’s the first thing we all do as soon as the plane lands? Yep, turn off airplane mode. Don’t pretend you don’t, we all do.
So let’s take a minute to talk about cell phones. You have a few options when you land in another country:
– Wing it and operate on wifi only
Pros: FREE! You’ll be able to find wifi in most cafes, hotels, and other public places around the world. We do this when we travel somewhere for up to a week or so.
Cons: You won’t have coverage while you’re out exploring.
– Purchase an international plan through your existing carrier
Pros: It’s all set up once you get there! Just use like normal. You’re already covered.
Cons: Can get expensive depending on where you are and how much you use. Make sure to check your carrier’s rate options and choose what’s right for you.
– Get a local SIM card
Pros: The only time this would really be worth it if you are staying for an extended period of time. We do this when we’re traveling somewhere more than a couple weeks.
Cons: May require a little local finesse. Also, your cell phone will need to be unlocked by your carrier. They’ll only do this if you own your phone outright (i.e., you don’t owe any financing on it).
Pro Tip: Despite what you choose, I recommend trying to connect to the airport WiFi as soon as you can, if it’s available. This will at least give you a bit of a cushion of connectivity.
Another thing you’ll encounter between the plane and baggage claim is Passport Control. This is where you actually get stamped for entry. You will meet a border agent who will ask you a few questions about your trip: intentions, plans, return, etc. Their job is to make sure you are legal to enter the country and that you have intent to leave when you’re done.
Something we don’t think about much as Americans is the need for travel visas. United States citizens are extremely privileged by having visa-free travel to most countries in the world. We don’t have to ask the host country’s permission to go there and wait (sometimes months) for approval. We can just go.
That being said, there are some few surprising exceptions to this. (Lookin’ at you, Australia!) Before you travel, check out the State Department’s guidance on where you’re going to see if a visa is required for your travel and how to go about obtaining one.
Leaving the Airport
You’re almost there!!
If you’re being picked up by someone, be prepared to collect your luggage from baggage claim before exiting the security area. Most international airports I have visited offer luggage carts at no cost.
And finally, have a general game plan to get from the airport to your hotel, or whatever your onward plans are. Whether it’s public transportation, taxi, charter car, etc., make sure you have a plan.
Alright! That’s it for Part 3!! In Part 4, I’ll cover how to get yourself around and coming home.
If you enjoyed this post, don’t forget to share it! You might also like:
- 4 Reasons Why I’m Raising My Kids Abroad
- 5 Easy Steps to Pack for a Stress-Free Family Vacation
- Children’s Travel Books to Inspire Wanderlust