12 Jan 2015

Some Suggestions for Surviving International Travel (Especially with Kids)


Those of you who have traveled even occasionally will appreciate the excruciating pain that it can be when you are traveling with young kids. My husband jokes that the reason we only go home to South Africa every other year is that it takes that long to get over the PTSD of the 18 hour flight. 

And since we leave on Wednesday (bringing Crystal from Money Saving Mom with us) to brave the 18 hour flight home again to South Africa I was remembering our various trips over the years and marveling at the fact that we survived.

Because on a flight home to South Africa, at the 8 hour mark – if you or your kids have been lucky enough to actually sleep – you wake up after 8 hours and “hey, presto” just another 8 hours to go!

And on more than one occasion I have spent a good 10 hours delayed at airports with kids BEFORE THE INTERNATIONAL FLYING TIME EVEN BEGAN!

When your travel time hits the 12 hour mark you now know the fragile air ballet involved in trying to negotiate children to sleep in cramped quarters. This amount of flying time will have you mastering the art of contortion by the end of the flight as kids try to sprawl over and on top of you to get some rest. About this time, when the in-flight kids entertainment has been used up, the snacks eaten, and the Benadryl offered a miracle might occur – one and sometimes even two of your children will – against all odds – fall asleep. And right then, when bliss is within reach, your flight will pitstop. At 2am. On an island in the middle of nowhere. To refuel. Because apparently South Africa is more than a hop, skip and a jump away. And while no one will be allowed to disembark, ALL THE OVERHEAD LIGHTS WILL BE TURNED ON. All bags will be searched. All seat cushions will be pulled up, examined and replaced. All bathrooms will be cleaned. All passengers will be identified. And ALL SLEEPING CHILDREN WILL WAKE UP!

Once your travel time hits the 18 hour mark you know what it’s like to fake sleep so that your husband will be forced to change yet another poopy diaper in the confines of the bulkhead toilet, beg the flight attendant for yet MORE apple juice, or apologize once again to the business traveler in front of you who continues to stare pointed daggers at your toddler who has to have SOMETHING to bang his head against. I mean, at this point in the flight, who doesn’t??

If you’ve ever been on a trip that’s pushed its way into the 36 hour mark between international flights and domestic connections, we may become bosom buddies! Because then you too will know what it’s like to have lost track of terminals, time zones, and your mind. You will know how it feels to have your contact lenses suction-cupped to your eyeballs and how quickly you lose any sense of dignity and are no longer embarrassed by those T-Shirt stains you got during the previous 4 meals eaten on cramped knees between crazed kids. You will understand the sweet torture of being within site of your gate only to get pulled aside for a spot security check, which includes waking the infant finally slumbering on your chest after crossing multiple time zones so that you can both be subjected to what, I can only imagine, must look to him like some insane form of laser tag.

And you will know the sweet revenge wreaked upon the foolish security folks when said infant goes ballistic and into full throttle Masai warrior mode – directing his red, enraged, frothing, sleep-deprived, saliva-flecked face in the direction of the world at large. And as he screams the fury you can’t express, you will smile sickly at the security guard, clutch your babe to your chest, abandon whatever dignity you may have had left, and sprint for the gate because there is NO WAY you are spending another night away from your own bed!

Ok, where was I going with this.

Since we leave on Wednesday to brave the 18 hour flight again to South Africa, I was sharing my years’ worth of experience and travel tips with Crystal from Money Saving Mom, since this is her first mega long distance flight. And I thought it might be helpful (or at least entertaining) to some of you as well. Remember, above all a sense of humor is paramount when it comes to being suspended between countries and time zones:

  • Travel clothes for you – for the plane I always pack an extra set of clothes in my carry on. I travel in clothes I’m comfy sleeping in – so my oldest, softest jeans or sweatpants, socks, and sweater. Remember that you might spill something on yourself and want to change before you land. And that layering is good on a flight where the temperature can vary up and down. And if you wear contact lenses – I recommend having your glasses in your carry on so you can wear those during the flight – I always end up switching out the contacts half way through.
  • Travel clothes for your kids – always, always bring more clothes than you could ever imagine them needing. Because trust me, they will need it. You cannot possibly predict what the food or time difference or air sickness will do to your kiddos and I have regretted too many flights to remember not packing at least one more pair of pants for a sick toddler. And think layering – because it’s hard to predict what the airplane temperature will feel like to your kiddos.
  • Packing – I think Crystal’s suggestion over here for how to get your kids to manage their own packing (once they’re old enough) is genius! Because as we all know, the packing can be half the battle (and stress) of travel.
  • Travel expectations – we’ve learned the hard way to finally just go with the flow when we travel. All normal rules about sleep or naps or healthy food choices are just placed on hold when we travel. You want chicken nuggets at 6am because your body clock says it’s 5pm? Have at it kid. You want ice cream at midnight when it’s being offered as plane snack? Go for it! We figure, whatever it takes to all make it through with a good humor and memories still in tact and possibly some sleep is totally worth it. Going off track on our diets and sleep patterns for a couple days is so much better than getting into a control fight at 30,000 feet above the ground with the child who can’t stomach the airplane food. For real.  So, if our kids want to veg out on movies for 17 of the 18 hours of flying time, we’re just OK with that. Same for what they choose to eat.
  • Travel food – pack what you know your kids will eat. Because if they don’t want any of the airplane options (and we have one really stubborn one like this) you’re all gonna hurt when that kid hits hour 10 of being hungry. I plan easy snacks in ziplock baggies that I know will be a no-brainer for him. Helps cut down on my own stress considerably as well.
  • Water – bring a water bottle for each person in the family. You’re gonna drink more water on this flight than you ever could have imagined. Make sure they’re easy to open and close so that your kiddos can handle that themselves and aren’t constantly asking for help.
  • Baby gear – You’re going to want to be able to actually carry it as well as the baby. So keep that in mind. That said, load up friends. Now’s not the time to be conservative on how many extra diapers or how much extra formula you pack. I’ve had to beg seat mates for milk on flights that were delayed hours and used up all our extra supplies. Be generous – more is more here.
  • Travel entertainment – most flights these days have wifi and outlets. But there are no guarantees. However, the inflight entertainment system on international flights is amazing – seriously – tons of movie channels, TV channels, and music channels to choose from. We also bring an iPad loaded with familiar favorites for our kiddos and a big hit in the past has been packing a very small toy that is wrapped and marked for each hour of the trip. Think coloring books or playing cards. This gives them something to anticipate, a way to count down the hours, as well as a way to keep entertained. Last time an awesome aunt sent these great gift collections for our kiddos and we can’t overstate what a big hit they were.
  • Head sets: the plane provides its own headsets but after 18 hours (after like 5 really) the ear piece covers start to fall off and chafe your ears. If you’re partial to great head sets feel free to bring your own. Just know that the planes only have the 2 jacks (as opposed to the one jack that ear buds have) so if you plug in only one jack you’re only going to be hearing through one ear :) So you probably want to bring headphones with a double jack — or a nifty airline headphone adapter like this . We’ve also found bringing headsets that are kid sized is also a big win in their comfort and endurance.
  • Dramamine: If you get airsick or even if you just want something to help you sleep – cannot recommend these highly enough. I get horrifically air sick (can you say puking for 18 hours straight?) but Dramamine is my salvation. I pop them like candy on these flights. They are the only thing I’ve found to effectively combat motion sickness. And are not always available to buy overseas so be sure to bring enough for the round trip flights.
  • Packing: Be sure not to pack ANYTHING of real value into the suitcase that you check – over the years we’ve had cameras and camcorders stolen out of our suitcases by luggage control in other countries.
  • Cameras: I always travel with my DSLR (I have the old model Nikon D3100) and my cell phone – but be very aware of the country’s crime rate and pay close attention to when and where you take your camera out.
  • Plugs: Make sure you bring adapter plugs for all your electronics – here are the ones we are taking with us to South Africa. I usually bring at least 3 (think laptop, cell phone and potentially iPad or Kindle).
  • Calling home: So many free options these days as long as you have access to wifi. Google Hangout is great and Voxer (which is like walkie talkies for grown ups) is my go-to form of communicating with home.
  • Money: We never travel with any cash, since you can use your debit card in store like a credit card most places overseas. Just be SURE to notify your banks that they can expect to see you using your accounts in another country. That way if cards are stolen they’re easy to cancel without any real loss as opposed to having cash stolen. Also, it’s much easier, safer and a better exchange rate just to withdraw local currency from a local cash/ATM machine using your American ATM card. The funny thing is that it’s actually cheaper in some places too – for example, South African ATM machines don’t charge you a fee if you’re not a member of their bank for using their ATM like American ones do.
  • Passport tips: in the old days we’d make a copy of our passport and keep one in a separate place than the actual passport – like in your luggage somewhere. And the second one we’d leave at home so it could be faxed to us if need be. But in today’s digital age I’d recommend just uploading a copy to Dropbox so that if you need to access a copy if yours gets lost it’s easy to reach.

OK what did I forget? Feel free to add your experience in the comments below.

And if you want to follow along with our trip this week, be sure and sign up below:


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{ Leave a Comment }
  1. 1

    Wedding bubbles are fun and small and don’t make too much mess if you spill them because there’s less than an oz in there – you’d have to gauge what your seat mates are like but they usually stay in our little corner of the plane. Also pipe cleaners and tape. Kids love wasting both and at no other time do I let them go for it You can do a million and two things with pipe cleaners!!!

  2. 2
    Jenny Bell says:

    Lisa Jo! This list is great! I can just feel that 18 hour flight and while I don’t envy the flight, I SURE envy getting to visit SA! I tried to sign up to follow your trip, but an error kept coming up. I hope you have the best visit yet, and can you eat some Nandos for me?

    With love, Jenny Bell

    • 3

      YES to the Nandos! And sorry about the weird subscribe error – rats – but if you’re already subscribed to my blog you should be able to follow along no worries! Thanks Jenny!

  3. 4
    Rachel Greenfield says:

    Great suggestions!! We have lived in the Middle East for the last 8 years and have lugged our now four kids back and forth a bazillion times- we have had flights delayed, overnights in hotels, (and paid an INSANE amount of money for diapers in an airport), lost luggage, etc.

    I didn’t see a tip about requesting bulkhead if you have a newborn or infant. this is a huge help because most airlines have a basinet. it’s also nice to have the extra leg room, my older kids will play on the floor. the bummer about bulkhead is that you can’t have your bags under your feet, they have to go in overhead bin so depending on how many kids you are traveling with and their ages, you might not want bulkhead. We have found most airlines reserve it for families with infants anyway.

    we always ask at the gate if there is a row with empty seats, this was especially helpful when we had “lap children” who didn’t have their own assigned seat (like the time we had an 11 hour flight and i was enormously 7 months pregnant with no lap whatsoever and my 19 month old son was in my non existent lap- good times!)

    Make sure you have gum for your bigger kids for take off and landing! or a sucker (but to me suckers are too sticky and get everywhere!)

    My hubby and I just do our best to survive. We have a motto “don’t turn on each other” no matter what happens. even if all four kiddos (2,2,4,6) all have a melt down at the same exact time (yep been there done that – landing and ears popping is the worst), or all want to sit beside mama, we cannot turn on each other (it’s amazing how sleep deprivation and stress will make you start blaming each other for the most ridiculous things!)

    • 5

      “Don’t turn on each other” — that is SO great, Rachel. Making a mental note now :) And YES to the bulkhead reminder – I’ve often be jealous of the bassinet my babies have been able to sleep in when I was crammed in a tiny chair.

  4. 6

    don’t forget wet wipes if you don’t have any kiddos still in diapers, otherwise I’d just use the diaper wipes for cleaning. but there are so many times traveling that you just need something to clean hands and face and reduce the amount of germs that are sharing the ride. That’s a long trip to SA, Europe is far enough for me. in the middle of all the snacks try to pack something that is higher in protein that they will eat. granola bars with protein added, cheese sticks, homemade peanut butter crackers,these will help keep the blood sugar evened out and not the spiked highs and lows that sweet carb loading gives along with the drama that accompanies them. Get up frequently and take a stroll up and down the aisle- they may make a new friend and thus be diverted, if for only a short time. the pipe cleaner suggestion is genius, legos- not so much. and if you get crazy distracted- like me- you may want to make a list of everything packed in your/your children’s carry on, just so you know you have everything before you deplane- nothing ruins a trip like leaving the favorite blankey or a tiny toy that could be missed in the seat pocket. Prayers go with you – it’s a long ride.

  5. 8

    Wow! So I was JUST googling “survive transatlantic flight in coach” when your post popped up in my inbox! I’ll be flying solo, so most of what I found was geared that way, and I haven’t actually done this yet myself, but…
    – the inflatable C-shaped pillow seems to be recommended by everybody
    – bring lotion, chapstick, eye-drops (even if you don’t wear contacts), etc. Cabin air is DRY.
    – wear loose, comfy shoes and Take Them Off as soon as you get onboard. Replace them with warm, fuzzy socks. Compression socks recommended, apparently.
    – bring those pre-dampened face wipes, single-use toothbrushes, and travel hairbrush. These will help you simulate a “bedtime” routine (which might help you fall asleep), and they’ll make you feel less ick for the moment you finally get to step off the plane and greet the world.

    Good luck, Baker Family!

  6. 9

    1) If you have kids, buy or make a rest upright pillow. Our kids have been known to sleep a full night’s sleep on a plane with those pillows.
    2) We do the whole bedtime routine on the plane including PJs, stories, brushing teeth. That really seems to make a difference.
    3) Requesting the kids meals on the plane is a huge hit for our kids.
    4) Make sure, depending on the size of your family, that you are all actually together. We once were told our two year old had to sit by themselves…not sure what the airline was thinking. Talk to the airline until you make it firm to avoid craziness (or just have more the right number of kids to fill up a whole row =) ).
    5) We would take each kid to the back of the airplane and do stretching exercises periodically. It helps with comfort and gives them some individual time.

    Thanks for this post! I love the community spirit of getting ideas from each others experiences!

  7. 10

    Great tips! Traveling internationally, especially with young children, is no small feat. Still, we’ve always managed to abide by our “one bag” guideline: No more than one carry-on sized bag per person. Packing super light has made our travels extra enjoyable.

  8. 11

    Great list. I wished I had had this and all the other comments when I was preparing to travel the first time from the US to India (21hrs flying not counting airports and layovers!) I would just add a thin blanket of some kind to the list. I brought two light weight muslin blankets (adenandanasis.com) and was super glad because on our flight from India to the USA we got stuck at JFK and were going to have to spend the night on the floor. So I spread the blankets down and the kids (4 & 2) had a place to lay down and stay clean.

  9. 12
    Jayne Gautreau says:

    I giggled as I read because i could totally relate to a lot of what you shared. We have flown to Ireland a lot over the last 14 years to visit family. Not as long as a flight to S.A. but we have had some crazy stuff happen and sure know how it is to try and get comfy in those seats with a wiggly lap child :) I would also recommend not taking an expensive stroller as they throw those things around and we have had one damaged before :( Also take a photo of your luggage and your car seat ( lost those before ) it is hard trying to describe what your luggage and car seat looks like when you are exhausted! We also dress our boys in similar shirts, I find it easier to keep track of them and everyone knows your all together :)
    Thank you I am pinning this for future reference!

  10. 13

    Thanks for another fantastic article. Where else may just
    anyone get that kind of information in such an ideal method of writing?
    I’ve a presentation next week, and I am on the search
    for such information.


  1. […] Those of you who have traveled even occasionally will appreciate the excruciating pain that it can be when you are …read more       […]

  2. […] lot of it based upon your experienced advice and Lisa-Jo’s years of experience (see her post here with great tips on International Travel With Kids — she’s a […]

  3. […] lot of it based upon your experienced advice and Lisa-Jo’s years of experience (see her post here with great tips on International Travel With Kids — she’s a […]

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