Five Tips For Flying With Kids on a “Red Eye” Flight

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This is the year that my daughter’s travels get a bit “more advanced”.  She’s probably been ready for it for a while, but now as parents we are ready, too.  This travel evolution will include some longer flights as well as some flights at challenging times of the day.  Last night she had her first “red eye” flight.  It wasn’t exactly a red eye by definition, but it wasn’t far off, and I can assure you our eyes were red.  Our flight took off at about 9:30 PM, and arrived at its final destination at about 2:30 AM Houston time (12:30AM local time).  By the time we went through passport control, got to the hotel, etc. it was after 3:30AM Houston time.  It was asking a lot of our little traveler, but we all made it in one piece.  Here are a few tips we picked up along the way…

Go into the trip well rested:

If you know you are going to be asking a lot of your kids (or yourself) in terms of travel at awkward hours, then be sure to go into the trip as rested as possible.  We had a normal week leading up to the trip, so everyone was starting without a sleep deficit.  This was very helpful as the evening drug on.

Prepare your kid ahead of time:

This is really a mantra for life, but the more you can prepare your kids for what will happen and where they will be sleeping the better.  Our daughter knew full well that she could watch a movie on the plane, but then needed to go to sleep as it was past her bedtime.  She also knew that she would have to sleep sitting up, which she wasn’t excited about, but at least she knew the plan.  Additionally, we had also prepared her by giving her a bath and putting her in comfortable clothes (which we called her pajamas for the night) before we left home for the airport.  That way she was ready for bed as soon as sleep came.

When we turned off her iPad after an hour or so into the flight, she starting trying to go to sleep immediately as planned.  However, the chair wasn’t quite as comfortable as we had hoped so there was lots of tossing and turning.

First class may not be the best choice:

We were seated in domestic first class on this particular flight, which is marginally more comfortable for sleeping for adults than coach, but it may have been a worse situation for our kiddo.  She could curl up in the seat, but she would often then start slipping on the leather and ended up on the floor, or awake and uncomfortable several times.  I tried holding her for a bit with the seat belt sign off, but she is really too big for that to be practical.  She couldn’t just stretch out onto us from her seat as there was a big divider between the first class seats.  If we had been in coach seats we could have just put up the armrest on many planes and let her sprawl out on us.  I’m not sure that would have been a better solution, but it might have helped.

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The four year old seat pretzel sleeping position

Be ready to help upon landing:

One of the hardest parts of the journey was when we landed, our daughter had to get up and walk through the airport and then stand in the passport line.  Asking a four year old to wake up at 2:30AM their time and calmly and efficiently walk through an airport to stand in a line is a recipe for a challenging event, but since she was prepared, and we were patient(ish), it went okay.  We held her as much as we could and carried her bag for her.  What really saved the day was waiting behind a dog in line.  This perked her right up!

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Book an airport hotel:

Again this is just good advice in general, but even more important if you are flying with a young child on a red-eye or late night flight.  If one is available, you want to book the hotel that is physically attached to the airport so that you have as little distance to go as possible once you land.  Hotels located in airports like the Grand Hyatt DFW or Fairmont Vancouver are ideal.  If there isn’t one attached, you want the hotel that is the closest to hopefully avoid having to wait for a hotel shuttle and dragging the night out even longer.

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Grand Hyatt DFW attached to the airport

I would also be careful with what you plan the next day as it is pretty much inevitable that there will be a wall of exhaustion that everyone will probably hit at some point.  However, with some advance preparations and strategic decisions even pretty young kids can handle late night flights like pros!  Their parents may or may not fare as well…

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  1. I remember our first flight with my oldest (about 2 y/o). It was similar in timing to your flight – we left about 8 or 9 pm and arrived about 2 a.m. We were way in the back of the plane and we finally got her to sleep on the plane, but when the plane landed and the lights came on, she woke up again and just started screaming and nothing we could do would console her. And of course, since we were way in the back, it felt like forever until we could finally get off the plane.

    Good times…. 🙂

  2. Hi MP, i have noticed a trend of parents letting their young ones watch videos on flights without head phones. Yesterday, I found it so annoying on a transatlantic that I had to request an FA to intervene. I felt bad, the FA felt bad about it, the child felt bad about it, and the mum felt bad about it, but it does not seem right to disturb passengers with loud childrens shows, especially on a night flight. Any guidance here on how parents should behave, and how to deal with parents when they do this?

    • How parents should behave? What about how YOU should have behaved. Fair enough, it was disturbing you but perhaps you could have asked to be moved to a different seat. Otherwise the alternative could have been to listen to a child scream for hours. If the show calms the child, I’d rather listen to the show. You are an adult, you should be able to show some sort of paitience and understanding.

  3. When we fly to Europe we always go through this and the whole making them walk is why we still travel with a stroller, and one of us ends up carrying our 2.5 year old and the 5 year old goes in the stroller, just through passport control. I also think we are lucky because our kids are very go with the flow when we travel, I can’t imagine if they weren’t!

    (off topic, I love her vest, so cute!)

  4. My child does great on the red-eye, me, not so much. I’d much rather fly in the morning. Wish all major airports had nice hotels like Vancouver! I think that’s a great idea–both directions.

  5. Why would you not buy Global Entry for all of you? $20 year is a small price to pay to bypass passport control when everyone is exhausted.

    Also not sure why you would take a 3 hour flight that late. Surely there were earlier options? The only way we fly that late with our kids would be due to massive flight delays or if there was no other option, like to Australia. We recently had a choice for a 2 hour flight that arrived at 7pm or 11pm. We chose the earlier one even though it cost $60×4 more. Not arriving home after midnight (or later if delayed) on a school night is priceless.

    • Short answer we did apply for nexus on this trip but that didn’t help us ahead of time, and this is the only direct flight of the day.

  6. We took our daughter to New Zealand when she was 7. We were fantastically lucky to have an empty economy row right behind us so we strapped her in and she managed to sleep across those 3 seats most of the way to AKL from SFO. She was also very tired because we had walked several miles earlier in the day (which helped get her to sleep). Not so lucky on the way back when ANZ seated us near the bulkhead with some other families. There was too much movement/noise nearby and the light from the overhead movie screen (this was 2006) was too distracting. I found that the best way to get her to relax/sleep was to make up a story and whisper it in her ear until she got sleepy. Exhausting for me, but there was no other option. We also brought her beloved stuffed animal and her favorite blanket. On a different flight back from LIH to IAD, we were in First and my daughter did indeed find it hard to sleep because the seat was not fully flat, but given the choice of noise, other people moving around and a delayed dinner, I’d definitely go with 1st or business over econ.

  7. We have two little boys 4 and 1 and when we do red eyes in first we look for either lie flat business class seats (we are delta captive) or the older 757 seats that have 21 in wide seats so our older one can curl up and sleep.

    We have a trip planned to Hawaii and I went with the lie flat hnl to atl flight so they can sleep better. Ultimately it is always a stressful experience and I am grateful when our youngest doesn’t cry and bother the other passengers.

  8. Redeye is one of the cases where, if you can bring your car seat I would. Strap them in, and they will go to sleep all comfy, cozy no problems.

    Counter to your advice, we let our kiddo run himself ragged right before the flight. Particularly in the waiting area he had found another 3-year old he could play tag with. The waiting pax weren’t enjoying the screaming and running around there, but by the time the flight rolled out he was DEAD to the world!

    The redeye was much harder on adults like myself that find it very difficult to sleep on planes.

  9. @Levy Flight — I’ve unfortunately seen a lot of non-headphone use in the past year, from adults and kids alike. A lot more folks have gotten tablets and not yet learned the etiquette. It was so bad on the last flight I took that the Southwest flight attendant made an announcement to tell the whole plane that they should not use their electronic devices without earphones.

  10. @Boraxo, Global entry does not help getting into Canada. (only back to US) But I agree that a connection option earlier in the day would have made more sense. One than takes the Skytrain from the airport directly into downtown, checks into the Hyatt and is well positioned to take the Pacific Coach bus up to Whistler the next day. Plus tons of restaurants and grocery stores to buy snacks for the bus ride.

  11. -I have also seen an increased use of non-headphone usage from all age groups. Not terrible yet from what I have seen, but somewhat on the increase.

    -The red eye option + staying at the airport hotel really worked out great for us. I would do it again that way, but only with the airport hotel. Was super easy to get the rental at the airport in the morning and then head out. Of course, for some connections earlier in the day would be the better choice.

    -A car seat isn’t a terrible option if you have it available as it may make for better red-eye sleeping for the little ones.

  12. Some routes offer no option of avoiding red eye flights. For example, in going from CGK (Jakarta) to SFO on Cathay Pacific, one either has a midnight flight from CGK or 1 am flight from Hong Kong. Even taking along a stroller is no help, as has happened to me a couple of times. The crew collected the stroller at the gate before check-in, leaving me trying to carry my sleeping 5-year-old, my backpack, and his wheeled carry-on simultaneously. And no, nobody offered to help.

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