5 Tips to Having a Successful Flight to Europe with Kids

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I’m fresh off an overnight flight to Europe with my five-year-old daughter, and I think at this point in the game we have a pretty good routine when it comes to successful flights to Europe (or any similar overnight flights).  Of course, every kid is different, and there is no way to guarantee a pleasant flight with a young kid, but here are what I think are the five key components of a successful flight to Europe with a young child.

1.  Prepare, prepare, prepare. 

Kids will do so much better with travel if they know what to expect.  In addition to of course highlighting all the fun things they will get to do on the trip (and get them involved in planning as much as possible), don’t sugar coat the fact that the flights to Europe (or wherever) will be long, and speak in time-frames they understand.  For example, they may not be able to understand totally what 7 hours means, but maybe explain it’s as long as they are at pre-school each day, or as long as watching Frozen four times, or whatever will make sense to them at their age and developmental level.  Kids as young as two or three can be prepared for flights in this manner.

Also explain your expectations for them on the flights.  For example, on our most recent flights to Europe I told my daughter there would be two flights, the first was a three hour flight to Newark where she could eat lunch, watch movies, or take a nap.  Then the second flight was the one that lasts all night and after one movie and dinner she had to turn off everything and go to sleep for as long as possible because it would be morning when we landed.  This way there were no surprises and minimal fussing when the time came to turn off all the electronics and try to sleep.

Sleeping as the sun rose over Western Europe

Sleeping as the sun rose over Western Europe

Because she has flown so many times, I no longer have to review basics like don’t kick the seat in front of you, don’t cry/yell on the plane, wear headphones, and stay seated to my daughter, but those are important lessons to teach for younger kids who haven’t flown as much.  There are also lots of books out there on flying that are written for younger kids that can be helpful for very new travelers.

2.  Go into the flight well rested.

I do not agree with the philosophy of trying to get kids extra tired in advance of flights in hopes they will pass out, but instead I actually recommend somewhat the opposite.  To the extent possible, in the days leading up to the flight be sure to keep as normal a schedule as you can to ensure the kids are well rested on the day of travel.  It is highly likely they will not get a normal night’s sleep on the day of the overnight flight, so you are much better off with a kid tired from just one day of a wonky travel schedule than several days of exhaustion.

3.  Get some exercise the morning for the flight.

Unless you have some big connections, most flights to Europe from the United States leave in the afternoon or evening, so be sure your kid gets some large muscle activity that morning.  They will have plenty of sitting time on the plane, so try to get them to the park, on a bike ride, etc. the morning of travel to get some of their energy out.  They don’t need to be wiped out from tons of activity, but at least an hour or so of running around that morning is very helpful to get through sitting still on the plane.

Get the energy out the morning before a long-haul flight

Get the energy out the morning before a long-haul flight

The day we traveled the weather was gross at home, but we still had our daughter walking around the block that morning with her umbrella!  If you have connections between flights be sure to take that opportunity to play or walk around the airport, too.  We didn’t have much time between flights thanks to delays, but we did a few stretches and standing yoga poses together in the boarding line.  We looked silly, but it helped both of us to sit still on the plane.

4.  Involve your kids in packing for the flights.

With a toddler I recommend having a bag full of goodies they have never seen before to keep them entertained on long flights, but with pre-school aged kids and up I think they should be actively involved in planning and packing what to bring on the flight to keep themselves occupied.  You can still surprise them with a new activity or two, but they should pick the movies, games, coloring books, and small toys that they want to use on the plane.

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They should pack those in their own backpack that they carry through the airport.  Again, kids as young as about two years old can start having some responsibility of their own luggage and activities.  You will have to help from time to time double-check the selections and keep up with the bag, but it is in everyone’s best interest for the kids to have an active role in this part of travel.

5.  Plan to be self-sufficient for the flights. 

Most flights to Europe will have some form of in-flight entertainment and meal service, but don’t count on either to meet your kids’ needs.  I’m glad we didn’t totally rely on either for our European flights this week because the in-flight entertainment was glitchy at best on our overseas flight, and the meal service was mediocre to inedible, depending on which dish you selected.

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

At the very least have your own snacks like peanut butter crackers that can work in a pinch, as well as a loaded iPad or similar that is light-weight but good at keeping kids occupied quietly for a few hours.

These tips will hopefully work to get your children successfully to Europe, but as a preview for how we adjust to the new time zone after landing… I recommend trying to stay up for a couple hours after landing to eat lunch, and then take a 2-3 hour nap the first afternoon in the hotel.  After that go back out for the late afternoon and evening, and try to get to bed at a normal local time.  The first day or two still probably won’t be perfectly adjusted to the new time zone, but you should be close enough.

What does your family do in order to ensure successful flights to Europe with your little ones?

Comments

  1. Never took the kids to Europe but fly at least once a year to GRU from MSP which connecting at DFW gives a 13 hour flight time. The beauty is that it is always a night flight so it helps a lot. We never touch the food on the plane unless we are on business class but that does not happen that often when you need 4 tickets. We pack sandwiches from home, snacks, carrots, etc… Each kid carries its own water bottle which we fill at the lounge prior to boarding. They each have their own iPads loaded with movies and games and usually watch a movie from the plane before going to sleep. They did this trip so many times that they already know what 13 hours on a plane means and they behave really well.

  2. I always find it useful to talk about who is sitting where BEFORE you get on the plane. It causes less squabbling for sure.

    Not specifically mentioned, but I think it is really important for parents to be well rested before the flight as well. It can be exhausting if the kids don’t sleep, sleep different times, or if you have trouble getting to sleep as well.

  3. Those are great tips! I think I am most worried about the time adjustment. We went to Hawaii when our littles were one and five and it was brutal. Pretty much every morning woke up in the middle of the night and would not go back to sleep. Finally the last day the one year old slept until 5:30!!! Yikes. Trying to figure out if a trip to Europe would have similar issues, especially if we’re only there a week.

    • Wendy, they are likely to have some time zone adjustment issues in Europe. For us, she usually goes to bed fine around 9 or 10PM but she will be up a few hours later (basically like a nap). She is usually up from 12AM – 2AM or so in Europe and then will eventually fall back asleep and sleep in late the first morning. We never totally adjust to Europe time, we just stay up a bit late and sleep in late.

  4. Very timely. We are doing SFO-LHR in June.

    This is on overnight flight starting at 9PM so we HOPE they will sleep well on the plane. 7 year old I’m not worried about, it’s the almost-3 year old. Managed to land 4 tickets in Virgin Upper Class on points, and so VERY hopeful we enjoy the start of European Road Trip 2015. Lot of firsts. 1st time on Virgin, 1st lie-flats, 1st time overnight flight as a family.

  5. Our kids are now 6 and 4, and we have been fortunate enough to take 9 trips to Europe with them including 4 in the last 18 months. We also have one coming up this summer to Iceland, and another direct from Chicago to Hong Kong in December. All of these trips have been in good old economy class. The biggest things we have found without question when heading to Europe is making sure we get a late flight, the later the better. The easiest type of toddler to deal with on a flight to Europe is a sleeping one. 9:00PM-10:00PM flights are great…and for me delays are even better. I have also found that while a short flight from say Boston-Dublin sounds good in theory, I’d rather have a longer flight from say Chicago-Brussels/Frankfurt/Istanbul, etc because it gives them more time to sleep. It also sounds silly, but we have also found that as long as our kids have been able to walk, they seem to do better when we let them walk themselves onto the plane instead of being carried.

    By leaving later the child spends more time sleeping because at least for us, no matter what our kids can only stay awake so long. We also always took our car seats that had the head supports until they reached 3 years old so that they could sleep comfortably in their car seat so we didn’t have to worry about holding them the entire night and almost all times they just slept almost the entire night without issue. By leaving later and taking longer flights you also arrive at a much more manageable time. The last thing I want to do is arrive at 7:00AM local time which is 1:00AM our time…you are just asking for trouble when you start your decent into the airport. If you arrive closer to 11:00AM local time or so we’ve found that we are usually able to hit the ground running and have a pretty normal day since we are normally up at 5:45AM our time anyway. We just end up usually getting to bed a little early that night, and by the next morning we are usually good to go and on close to on schedule. If you have to arrive early, we have found that having a collapsible double stroller was invaluable for taking your sleeping kids through the airport and while waiting for border control. We would only travel with two carry-on sized backpacks so our hands could be free to push the double stroller and for one to carry the car seats.

    I also strongly suggest as mentioned above the iPads loaded with brand new movies and new games for those times when they aren’t sleeping on the flights, don’t rely on the plane having working entertainment. Fruit snacks and other non messy snacks like that are great…and airlines such as Turkish Airlines always have little kits for the kids that include an inflatable plane, coloring book, toy plane, etc…those also tend to keep their interest for a little while as well.

    For us the ages from about 1-2 were always stressful, but our kids have been on so many flights now I don’t even worry about it anymore. The more they fly, the more they get used to it, and the better it will be.

  6. With Europe or Asia Travel (or for that matter any travel with more than 3 or more hours of timezone change), its always a good idea to take Day1 easy after the landing at the destination. I have 2 boys – 6 & 9. We have been traveled to Europe from NJ for 4 times in the last 6 yrs. We learnt it the hard way. Once you have the kids well rested for Day1, it becomes lot more easier to enjoy the trip as a family for the remainder duration. And, not to mention when they arrive back in the States, we always ensure that they have at least 1-2 days of downtime before they can go back to their normal routine/school.
    Over the course last 7 yrs, my kids turned out from being absolutely travel unfriendly (I mean causing lot of embarrassment to me/my wife) to being the greatest kids to travel with. It happened because of lot of planning (of course with lot of trial & error and failures) & hard-work. But, now they are awesome global trotters!

  7. Hi MommyPoints! Silly question for you. My wife and I are taking our two kids to Beijing as part of the mistake fare. – They are 4 and 2. Do you know if AA (or if you have examples of other carries) offer kids meals in Business? I know you’ve taken your child in business, and can’t remember the experience. Thanks!

  8. Good advice when you have one kid to handle. Two+ kids ups the ante considerably. You”ll see. This POOPCUP (Google it) world you’ve been enjoying for the last 5 years is gonna get turned on its head.

    • Scott, what part do you think changes with two kids? Lucky for us we don’t have two little kids at the same time. 😉

      • I’ll throw in my 2 cents on long haul with 2: you have the domino issue. When you have one kid off his game ( like chronic diaper rash and screaming from De Gaulle to Dulles) you can at least focus on that kid. Adding another one to the mix ( even if she is fine) means her schedule is blown to pieces, too. Now you have two miserable, jet lagged kids who may or not crash at the same time!

        Still worth it, but a whole ‘nother level of stress.

        • I’m certain there is double the chance for problems and trouble is contagious, but I expect most of the prep steps to be pretty much the same. Of course I could be wrong, guess we’ll see soon enough!

          • Our experience was the opposite, at least through the early years — if one child was loosing it we could often depend on the other one to bring her around even when we parents couldn’t.

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