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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.
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.
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.
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.
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?