Long Haul Air Travel With Young Kids, Part 1: Planning Flights & Jet Lag

Family travel - flying with kids long haul

I didn’t sleep well for at least the prior week before flying with my baby from Hong Kong to LAX. She was not quite 3 months old, the distance was far and I was scared out of my mind. Especially, because I booked my flight last minute, we also had to connect in Tokyo. So, we flew Hong Kong – Tokyo – LAX and then had a car ride to Santa Barbara where my parents live. It’s about 24 hours of in transit time total. Oh, and I was by myself and my baby was not the slightest bit mellow. We were just fine on the flights, in the end.

Since then, I’ve flown long haul with her countless times until May of this year when we landed back in La Jolla permanently. The only long haul flight my husband ever flew with her was our last one. I sort of did that on purpose, because his level of tolerance is much lower than mine. He also could only stay in La Jolla for a certain amount of time due to work, so we would fly in earlier than him and stay later. Plus, I enjoyed being on an adventure like that with her. I know, you must think I’m nuts for loving long haul flights with kids.

I’m going to split these travel tips into four posts. Keep in mind that some of my suggestions for flying with kids and babies might not work for you. However, I was so nervous before my first long haul flight, that I found myself very interested in what other people were doing. Therefore, I’d like to share my experiences with you. I should also note that I was flying primarily Asian airlines, like Cathay Pacific, which are much nicer and more kid-friendly than domestic US airlines, in my opinion. This shouldn’t matter too much, however.  I also am referring mainly flying with younger kids and babies.

Planning The Long Haul Flight With Kids

If at all possible, schedule your flight in a manner that allows your baby or toddler to remain on the same daily schedule as at home.

For example, my first long haul flight mentioned above put us on the airplane to Tokyo exactly when my daughter usually napped in the morning. I also get to the airport much earlier than necessary so that I can relax, change her diaper (when she was in diapers) and feed her before we board the plane. I don’t want her to be hungry, in case we get stuck on the tarmac before take off or in turbulence once in the air–at which point I am unable to get into my bag due to airline restrictions. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you can get caught up in the stress of travel and forget stuff like this, trust me.

The Worst Long Haul Flight I Ever Took

The worst flight that I ever took was one of the Cathay Pacific direct flights from LAX to Hong Kong that left around midnight. My daughter was about 5 months old. If you fly to Asia, you probably know this is a common time to schedule a direct flight because it will put you at your destination in the early morning (though a full day later) and allow most business travelers to get in a full day of work.  Plus, it’s designed to help eliminate jet lag by trying to force you to get some sleep on board since it’s night time in the US and you’ll wake up when it’s morning in Asia. I hope that makes sense.

Anyway, my baby was not used to so much activity so late at night. She slept a little bit in the car on the way to the airport but woke up as soon as the car stopped. I thought eventually she’d pass out on the plane for almost the entire flight. She didn’t. Therefore, she became so incredibly OVERTIRED and confused that she screamed the whole bloody way to Hong Kong. We were also in business class on Cathay Pacific. Imagine the poor other passengers that paid serious cash or miles to listen to a screaming kid the entire way.  That’s 15 hours of crying since she slept the first 30 minutes after the plane left the gate, and was shocked awake by the captain giving his flight message over the PA. Can you imagine? I thought I was going to die. I nursed her like mad to try to get her to pass out but it didn’t work. I had my own seat with plenty of room and she had the bassinet, which she never went in to (more on airplane bassinets later). I must say that some of my friends have had an OK time with the late night long haul flights, because their babies slept fine. My daughter wound up being a routine-dependent baby and any deviation from it was a disaster. I never, ever took a late night flight again.

Preventing Jet Lag In Kids

Because my baby was routine-dependent and not a great sleeper, we went to a sleep clinic. Hong Kong is full of American, British, Australian and other expats who routinely fly long haul and need to frequently address the issue of jet lag in their kids. The clinic gave us very useful jet lag advice which I am passing on to you through these posts.

The other reason to schedule your flights so that your kids can stay on the same daily routine while in transit, has to do with jet lag.  You should always, regardless of time change, keep your baby or toddler on the same daily routine UNTIL you arrive at your destination.

This is hard if the airline is trying to force night time by making the plane dark. After you arrive at your destination, plonk your little traveler into the new time zone but implementing their normal routine using the time of the zone you’re in. This seems cruel, but trust me, it works. I was lucky that my flight times made it quasi-easy for me to do this. If we were to arrive at my house in La Jolla around 1:00pm, then I would put my daughter down for a 2-hour nap since she napped around 1:00pm in Hong Kong. Remember, she’s tired (as am I) so getting her to nap was not hard. Waking her up after 2 hours was a nightmare because her little body thought it was night time (as it was in Hong Kong) and she would cry and whine like you wouldn’t believe. Trust me, the agony of the first day is worth it. On the flip side, keeping kids awake is hard too. I would have to do an insane song and dance (sometimes literally) to keep her awake so that she’d go to sleep for the night at her normal time.  As the parent, it’s exhausting but it’s MORE exhausting to have a kid with jet lag for a week or longer when you have it too.

If you do all that I mentioned in my paragraph above, your little traveler will still most likely wake up in the middle of the night on the first night. My daughter would somehow realize she was in a “strange” bed and not know where she was. She’d wake up. I would go in, hold and console her and when she leaned toward her bed, I’d put her in and to sleep. Sometimes I’d have to do this several times on the first night. As she got older, she wanted to walk around the house in the dark to just remind herself where she was. The sleep clinic said that if the child is wide awake in the middle of the first night, go ahead and calmly play or do whatever they like until they tire out and want to go back to sleep. Eventually, they will do the latter except at this point 20 minutes feels like 20 years. Just keep the room as dark as is tolerable and keep your voice and motions calm and sleepy. Easier said than done, I know.

On the second day, wake up in the morning and do your routine like normal.  If your little traveler is sleeping in longer than usual, despite maybe being awake in the night, wake them up.  If your little traveler wakes up during this second night, then you do not go in the room. Let them sort it out by themselves. It sounds harsh, I know, but you use your judgement. By day 2, my daughter is usually back to normal. She does not get jet lag. I firmly believe that the flight scheduling has a lot to do with it along with her inconvenient habit of not sleeping well on the plane and needing to catch up after landing.

I’ll talk next time about what to do and bring on the plane. Please also leave comments about what works for you.

Here are links to the rest of the series:
Long Haul Air Travel with Young Kids, Part 2: What to Pack Carry-On and In-flight Meals
Long Haul Air Travel with Young Kids, Part 3: Getting Little Traveler to Sleep on the Plane and Gear
Long Haul Air Travel with Young Kids, Part 4: The Packing List and Last Thoughts

Also, I wrote a short book that’s available in paperback and Kindle called Flying with Kids: Safe and Sane Air Travel with Your Baby, Toddler or Young Child (Volume 1). Have a look!

Photo credit: istockphoto/vsurkov

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  1. Hi. Visiting from SITS! Great tips. I’m thinking some of them might even work for my husband!

  2. The longest flight I’ve taken was 8 hours from JFK to Frankfurt. I can’t imagine doing it with an infant. I salute you.
    .-= Karen´s last blog ..The 13th Hour =-.

  3. I love LaJolla, lived there for about 8 months. We visit often to go eat at The Spot and look at the seals. Merry Christmas.
    .-= Debby´s last blog ..THE EVE OF CHRISTMAS =-.

  4. Wow, I used to live in Hong Kong and I can’t imagine that 14 hour flight and a baby who didn’t sleep. Did you have a baby carrier? I found that was magic with my kids. Having her in a car seat, in her own seat would have probably helped. I fly alone with three between Europe and California about twice a year, since each was 4 months old. I also would dive into free lavs, if available… I would also recommend getting babies out of business. Yes, bring her to the back if you need to.

    I agree to try to follow the baby’s schedule BUT I hate to see the unhelpful tip to fly when the baby naps. As a Flight Attendant, I saw this go wrong SO MANY times. Especially for shorter flights, babies are easier in the morning and flights are more likely to be on time.

    Yes, once I had a 10 monther sleep a whooping 20 minutes of an 11 1/2 hour flight. Luckily, it was half empty and while he didn’t sleep, he didn’t fuss or cry either. Was glad I brought all those new toys! It was also a daytime flight so while I expected him to sleep *some*, I didn’t realize it would be a marathon (especially on my pregnant-at-time self).

    I never let my babies cry alone but I do keep the lights down and everything quiet. With toddlers, I talk to them. I also let them wake up in California when it’s light out. Okay, the first day or two, it’s 5am but they quickly make it more reasonable and are at least not in a cranky, zombie state.
    .-= Eclipsepearl´s last blog ..Updated September 2009 =-.

  5. We dont plan on doing much airline travel, but thanks for these tips. I am going to send the link to a friend who lives oddly, in Hong Kong with her family!
    .-= Ms. Mama´s last blog ..Family Camping =-.

  6. I’ll have to share these tips with my sister who frequently travels and just added a newborn into the mix.
    .-= a H.I.T.´s last blog ..Making Amends =-.

  7. Belated congrats on your SITS day!
    .-= Joy´s last blog ..joy to the blog’s stampers’ sampler magazine giveaway! =-.

  8. What fantastic advice! No one likes jet lag. YUCK!
    .-= Rhiannon´s last blog ..Wedding Cupcake Tower =-.

  9. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. I know I’m a day late and a dollar short, but happy sits day none the less!
    .-= Éimí (Amy in Gaelic)´s last blog ..Photo shoot 07aug09 =-.

  10. The Redhead Riter says:

    I hate flying. I am air sick the whole time and nothing helps…iggg
    .-= The Redhead Riter´s last blog ..My Blog Is Pregnant With Multiples =-.

  11. In 2005, we fly out of Chicago(at 8 pm in the evening) to Tokyo, and then drag our lifeless bodies into Beijing at midnight. Not the easiest trip to make when you have a 17-month-old determined to sabotage peace and sanity!! Poor little Miss daughter was a miserable mess on this flight and quite literally banging on the doors for a quick escape. She SCREAMED bloody hell for the entire flight . Once we got to Tokyo she wa shappy to play in the toddler room. I was so petrified to put her on the flight from Tokyo to Beijing – thankfully she passed out in my arms – I swear – I DID NOT MOVE that flight – NOT ONE MUSCLE!
    .-= Tiaras & Tantrums´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday =-.

  12. Great 4 posts. As a frequent business traveller, I see so many parents who could have done pre-flight checks better for all our sakes.
    I really do enjoy children but I also need a peaceful trip, as like many other travellers, I’m on cue from the moment of landing so children travelling well makes for a harmonious community up in the sky.
    .-= Zooly´s last blog ..CHAMPAGNE CLUB – DIVAS IN THE KITCHEN =-.

  13. Wow…what a really terrific detailed post. Thanks so much for sharing all that amazing, insightful information!

    I’m so glad it was your SITS day :)
    .-= Stefanie Zucker´s last blog ..Growing Up With ADHD – Have Things Changed…? =-.

  14. I remember our flight home from Spain with our two toddlers! It was a like I was in a time warp! My 12 month old just started walking so all he wanted to do was WALK up and down the aisles over and over! We have traveled a lot with our kids, and so far we have been very lucky, they are good little travelers!

  15. The Dapper Darling says:

    THANKS!! Im flying home to the US in a week with a 1 year old!! I need all the help I can get!

  16. Great advice! I’m scared to fly with my youngsters, hopefully this will make it easier!

    Happy SITS Day!
    .-= greedygrace´s last blog ..Crush =-.

  17. Terrific advice. I’ve flow domestically with my (almost) 2 yo son since he was 5 mos old almost a dozen times. Personally, I found that nursing was the best and easiest way to get around almost any issue. The trips post-nursing have been much harder, particularly the in-flight time. UGH! Hard work!

    Great tips!
    .-= Jessica – This Is Worthwhile´s last blog ..2:50 pm =-.

  18. awesome post. There is so much good stuff in here, I may have to read it over and over!

    Congratulations on being featured at SITS!
    .-= Michelle at Her Cup Overfloweth´s last blog ..Muffin Tin Monday – Theme: People and Faces =-.

  19. Great ideas! It’s so true to keep them in their normal routines. I have 4 little ones and if one of them gets out of sorts it’s a nightmare for the rest of us.
    .-= Nicole- Chasing Blue´s last blog ..Chasing fresh starts… =-.

  20. Fantastic tips – we will be planning a long haul trip soon with our little ones and will definatley be following your advice!

    Over from SITS!!! Great Blog!
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..The House That Jack Built….. =-.

  21. Simply Mommy says:

    Wow!!! I give you so much credit for traveling so long with a toddler. You have some really great tips. Im not so sure I’ll try it though with 3 under 4 1/2. Maybe in a few years.
    .-= Simply Mommy´s last blog ..How has Motherhood Changed Me? =-.

  22. Boy are you BRAVE! LOL! Great tips. Happy SITS day!
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..IT’S OFFICIAL!!! =-.

  23. Thanks for this post. We are seriously considering flying from Australia to the UK later this year to see family and I have a 3-year-old and a 10-week-old. I know the baby won’t be a problem. Last time I flew long haul was when my eldest was 4-months and it was a breeze. I did it by myself. I am breastfeeding so that will make it easy for the baby but it’s entertaining my pre-schooler that will be the challenge!
    .-= Emily´s last blog ..Portable UV Dummy Sterilizer =-.

  24. Crazy in Alaska says:

    You’re a brave soul! I’m still traumatized from a flight with my (then) infant three years ago to try it again!
    Alaska to New Jersey in a plane=1 Parent having a nervous breakdown
    .-= Crazy in Alaska´s last blog ..Oobleck =-.

  25. My son is great on a plane, I’m so pleased. Last time we flew across the country he even sat and waited patiently while the plane got up to altitude to go pee.

    Congrats on being featured today! Great blog.

    Don’t Put Lizards In Your Ears
    .-= Norine´s last blog ..Book Envy =-.

  26. Unknown Mami says:

    Great tips. Just took a very long trip with my 11 month old. It was a little rough.
    .-= Unknown Mami´s last blog ..Guess Where I’m Taking You? =-.

  27. What great tips! I’m bookmarking this for future reference.
    .-= Maureen´s last blog ..Scrapbooking as an Educational Tool Part2 =-.

  28. Happy SITS day! This is good to know. I’ll remember it when my baby gets older.
    .-= Nadirah´s last blog ..Stubborn Baby Stains? =-.

  29. Hi http://www.greedygirlsguide.com checking in from SITS

    Great suggestions. I don’t fly well my self as an adult so i can imagine what kids go through on such long flight. But this is great info on getting through it
    .-= GReedyGirl1´s last blog ..Drinks on Us: Low-Calorie Cocktails =-.

  30. Great travel tips & wonderful blog!

    Jamie :)
    .-= Jamie´s last blog ..The E.N.D. =-.

  31. Wow! What a very useful post. Very comprehensive!

    I just took a short hour flight to Malaysia, followed by a two-hour car ride, and ALREADY I was packing and getting ready like crazy! Haha! But thanks… I will definitely bookmark this blog for our next planned longer family trip with my 2yo. :)

    Oh, and congrats on being the FB!
    .-= San´s last blog ..My Family Trip to Malaysia =-.

  32. Oh boy! My husband and I already fight constantly when travelling because of our hatred for airports and lack of patience. I can’t imagine what it will be like when we decide to have kids and travel with them for the first time! Thanks for the tips on how to survive though!!
    .-= Alma´s last blog ..oink, oink =-.

  33. Wow, you are so brave! 24 hours of travel is tough on adults–I’m impressed that you handle it so well with a little one.
    .-= Viv´s last blog ..Talking Up the Weight of Silence =-.

  34. Wish I’d read this before i took my baby to the UK – she only recovered after 11 days of a 17 day trip!
    .-= Joy´s last blog ..Camp Tales – Part One. =-.

  35. Great advice!
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Ponderisms =-.

  36. Great tips here for travelling with little ones!
    .-= Rachel´s last blog ..Outdoor Flower Pot Gardening =-.


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