As a Foreign Service spouse serving in Africa and Latin America, I have traveled all over the world with my children. Articles about travel with small children in mainstream publications can have their merits, but usually are aimed at the typical American family making a short domestic flight. This is clearly not in the same ballpark as traveling to Europe or Asia with a two-year-old! Drastic measures are called for in these circumstances. I can’t claim to have been successful every time, but I do have a few tried-and-true ideas for coping with really long-distance travel with children.
If you are transferring to a new post, consider sending one parent ahead to feather the nest. Kids behave better when they can’t play one parent off the other, and it will be a much bigger “adventure” to travel with one parent. Older children will usually rise to the occasion, helping with small luggage, entertaining younger siblings, and chasing after toddlers while you wait at the check-in counter. My oldest daughter is extremely proud of her role as mother’s helper, and has never failed me yet. Finally, airport personnel and other strangers are far more likely to be helpful to a single parent, especially in countries where children are tolerated more cheerfully than in the United States.
Always allow plenty of time between flights, even if it means spending the night in an airport hotel. What may be just another Holiday Inn to you, can be a playground to kids who have been strapped in their seats all day. Let them splash in the pool, jump on the bed with them, run races in the corridors, whatever gets the yayas out! Ask for some extra disposable cups when you get the room–they make great bathtub toys, especially when paired with sample-size bubble bath.
Speaking of disposable, dress your kids in a disposable wardrobe. Put them in old t-shirts or whatever is appropriate, and when the clothes get dirty, throw them away. No fretting over spills, and no carrying smelly laundry all the way to Korea. The same principle applies to snacks and drinks. Bring LOTS of prepackaged snacks, or disposable Baggies with snacks in them, to avoid having to rinse out little containers all the time. Pack your kids’ oldest bottle nipples and sippee cups, so you can throw them away too when they get sticky. It’s a good idea to bring a few extra plastic bags as well, for those times when you have to make an emergency in-seat diaper change, and the airline steward is nowhere to be found. Just bag it up and push it under the seat until later.
I’ll just assume no one is crazy enough to bring cloth diapers on an intercontinental journey! If your toddler has recently been potty trained however, consider putting them in Pull-Ups no matter how much they protest the indignity. It may not be easy to get into the bathroom on the airplane, or to find the bathroom in an airport where you don’t speak or read the language. In some countries your toddler may outright refuse to use the toilet even if you can locate it, for hygienic reasons. It’s best to be on the safe side!
As for in-flight entertainment, there is nothing like a bag of Hot Wheels cars or other small toys picked up at a garage sale and pulled out of a “magic bag” one by one. Cheap coloring books are great, along with cheap, disposable colored pencils, markers, and crayons. Travel -sized Magna-doodles and etch-a-sketches are always a hit. Party-favor sized containers of Play-Doh are great too. If you are flying from a country where new toys are unavailable, hide a few toys weeks ahead of time and bring them out as “new” during the trip. Or trade toys and books with a friend. There are some kids who fall asleep as soon as the plane takes off, but I have never met one of them personally. My two-year-old daughter stayed awake all the way from London to Harare once–and this flight took off at 10:00 PM. (She finally fell asleep 15 minutes before the plane landed). The long trip was without incident though, thanks to plenty of playthings and books for her, and a couple of stiff drinks and a good attitude on my part. The moral: never underestimate your kids’ entertainment needs!
Finally, spoil them! Pass out stickers and candy as rewards for good behavior. Give them chewing gum to pop their ears and to keep their mouths busy. Buy new toys in the airport gift shop if it seems necessary to maintain the peace. Feed them fast food and ice cream for three days straight if you have to (consider packing some kiddie Mylanta as well). Contrary to popular belief, I have found that kids can understand that travel is a special circumstance, and will not expect the same treatment once you get back to your daily life.
Intercontinental travel with kids doesn’t have to be an ordeal. In fact it can be an experience that your kids will remember fondly for years to come. It’s especially rewarding if you have been living in a “developing” country, and can have the pleasure of treating your kids to McDonalds or riding an escalator for the first time. My daughter is now six years old and still talks about the wonderful time we had watching airplanes land and eating French fries at an airport hotel that we stayed at when she was two. The trick is to plan well, and break the rules when necessary. I am stationed in the U.S. now, pending a tour in Europe, and can say that I am actually looking forward to taking my kids on their next big adventure in flying!
Kelly Bembry Midura is a Foreign Service spouse and AAFSW ‘s Content Manager.