It may be an understatement to say flying has never been my greatest joy. At one point in my life I even sought therapy, which is kind of funny since my husband is from another continent AND an anxiety researcher. For the most part, I’ve always flown despite my fear, but my travels were tainted by a lack of anticipatory excitement as well as return flight dread that set in pretty much the moment the outbound flight touched down.
You may well ask what “anticipatory excitement” is. Basically, it’s planning a trip based on the assumption that you will not arrive alive at your intended destination. Try taking a honeymoon without making a single hotel reservation and you’ll get a taste of my very special kind of crazy–a crazy you do not want your daughter to inherit.
Luckily, my daughter is a very happy little traveler so far. She looks forward to every trip and gets a little out of sorts if my husband or I get to fly somewhere without her. But even excited children can prove difficult to keep happy and comfortable when trapped in a cramped and stagnant tube where the crabby, hungry, bored and often sick masses are pressed together in an annoying heap of humanity.
Each age has its own challenges, which means we parents must remain vigilant; juking and jiving through childhood to keep our offspring, fellow passengers, and ourselves sane and law-abiding while en route.
I hope my experiences are enlightening to a few of you, but I should disclose up front that the following observations are completely anecdotal and have no basis in scientific evidence. So pay attention.
Baby’s First Year
As seen in the photo above, infancy is THE time to fly with children. Tickets are free, and you get those adorable little bassinet things in the bulkhead seat. No one wants to sit next to you, which means you can spread out, leisurely watch movies and drink free beer to your heart’s content while your nine-month-old snoozes her way across the Atlantic.
Seriously, on this flight to Holland, we took a late afternoon flight, fed her when the seat belt sign went off, tucked her in within an hour and a half of take-off, and had to wake her up when it was time to land. Since babies sleep so much anyway, there was very little adjustment with the seven hour time difference so jet lag was no problem at all. Awesome.
One to Two Years Old
My daughter is almost two in this photo. She’s sitting on a beautiful beach in the south of France doing her best Hervé Villechaize impression of “Da plane! Da plane!” Cute, right? Don’t let her fool you. I think she’s excited about a plane flying overhead because she’s gleefully remembering the hell she put us through on the flight over, and plotting her shenanigans for the return home.
In her entire childhood to date, the frustration I felt trying to get her to sleep on those two flights was matched only by the post-diaper, pre-poop-in-the-potty days. She slept for about three hours on the outbound flight, and not a single wink on the return. Ten hours is a long time to entertain a toddler who is not yet interested in television and incapable of sitting quietly. A really long time. The only positive thing I can say about traveling with a child this age is the ticket is free. The good news is, when you look back on the trip, you’ll mostly remember the fun time you had, and the whole flight fiasco will be a funny story you tell parents of toddlers.
Two to Three Years Old
Kids this age are beginning to be rational beings. They can be reasoned with, bribed, tricked and otherwise manipulated. Snacks, new toys (like creepy baby dolls), snacks, explorations of the tiny bathroom, snacks…these are the parent’s friend in flight. While we did not fly overseas with our daughter at this age, we took several trips in the three-four hour range. She was excited about going somewhere in general, and enjoyed the novelty of all the goings-on within the plane.
This is a tricky age for some, depending on when potty training occurs. Our daughter was in the midst of potty training on this flight, but I took the easy way out and put her in a diaper rather than going to the grosser-by-the minute toilet fifteen times. It worked for us, but I’m sure some would criticize. To them I would say: my five year old daughter hasn’t wet her pants in more than two years. Except for that week or two a few months back when she became transfixed by things like soccer and Legos. So there.
Three to Four Years Old
The most obvious thing you need in order to have an enjoyable family trip is excited (or at least resigned) kids. Our daughter gets super jazzed about going pretty much anywhere when I tell her it’s time to get her backpack ready to go. It’s small enough that it can’t get too heavy, but large enough that she can cram in the stuffed animals, books and art supplies that are most important to her at that moment. As an added bonus, I’ve never heard her complain about not having a particular prized possession.
As seen above, that whole backpack thing will be completely forgotten when your four year old discovers she has her very own television and access to literally hours of movies and shows. When it comes to lengthy flights, I’m all for ignoring the rules. If that means Peter Pan, followed by The Incredibles, followed by chicken strips, followed by Sponge Bob Squarepants, so be it. Judge if you will. My kid looks forward to 10-12 flights, and it’s the boob tube that makes that possible.
Five Years Old
Five years old is really not so different from four in terms of making it through a long-haul flight. Snacks, books, movies and games got us through most of our most recent vacation. My daughter didn’t sleep nearly enough on either leg of our last trip. It’s tough to try and squeeze in any healthy amount of rest between the coughs, conversation, meals, turbulence, toilet flushes and bangs on the seat. Still, she was a trooper on the plane, but five minutes after landing…just long enough for everyone to move into the aisle and block our path to the bathroom…my poor little peanut hurled all over a poor teenager’s cute carry-on bag.
I’m not sure who I felt sorrier for, but as you’ll see in this photo taken about 30 minutes after “the incident,” my girl was pretty darn pitiful.
A note on jet lag: kids this age are very resilient. Our entire family had an afternoon nap upon arrival and slept like babies the first night. On nights two and three, we had a party from about 1:30 to 3:30 a.m. and then got right on track.