I have 4 kids.
We fly together as a family.
As much as 30 flights in a 6 month time period.
I have learned that flying with kids isn’t easy but it doesn’t have to be terrible. Before we set off, I had only heard horror stories about flying with kids. I didn’t want to create my own horror story so I knew I needed a plan.
In preparation for the inaugural trip of our new traveling lifestyle, I did a TON of research about activities for kids on flights. I wanted to be as prepared as possible. There is a lot of good amount of information out there about keeping kids happy on flights but not much at all for flights over 6 hours. Most just focus on transcontinental flights in the US or perhaps from East coast to Europe. This was very disappointing!
Our second flight with kids was a 12 hour trans-Pacific flight to the Philippines.
I also found that the vast majority of information out there was for toddlers and preschoolers. Yes, I had both of those but I also had 2 elementary aged kids (ages 6 and 8). What about for them? So, I pulled together all the info I could find and I made my own plan. It was a good plan… no, it was a GREAT plan and it got us happily to South East Asia. However, over the course of the next 6 months of travel and a total of 25 flights, what we ‘needed’ for a flight became more and more minimalist, however we still wanted happy kids.
At the time I began my research for what to take, I was looking for low-cost, high play-time and non-bulky items. Everything we took for plane entertainment had to fit in my backpack so it had to be the RIGHT items! My rule was to plan one activity and one snack for every hour of the flight minus when I planned they would be sleeping. So, I figured out how much of the flight they would be sleeping and then planned activities and snacks alternating every 30 minutes for the duration of the flight.
First, Let’s Start With Activities:
- Zippered Pouch – Each kid had a zippered pouch in which they had their own set of basic 8 crayons, a pencil, a sheet of stickers, and a small notepad. It was a place to stash little “treasures that they wanted to keep and it was easy to put in the seat next to them for use without everything rolling all over their tray table. Similar to these but I got mine at a dollar store.
- Paper – I took approx. 20 sheets of white copier/printer paper for anything from origami to the baby’s scribbles.
- Notebooks– I encouraged sticking stickers in their notepads and also drawing on each page something that they see that they want to remember (a sort of pictorial journal for my non-writers). Something similar to these.
- Post It Notes – come in all shapes and sizes. I always went with the smallest ones. Also, 3M colored flags were a hit.
- Sticky Mosaics – These were a favorite of the kids and took up a lot of time (bonus) but they were a bit messy. The tiny backs to the adhesive shapes got everywhere (even though I was trying to collect them all as we went), however, it was easy enough to have the kids get down on the floor at some point after the project was put away to pick up the remaining bits.
- Polly Pockets – These were my daughter’s but my boys totally got into them on the flight as well. I had found a ziplock of them at a Goodwill store for a dollar so they were the ‘old’ style dolls and clothes (which I prefer). We happened to have bulkhead seats (try requesting them) so the kids played in a circle on the floor in front of their seats.
- Activity Pads – the dollar store variety with word searches, mazes, spot the differences, etc. We had a bunch of old ones at home and I went through and ripped out all the activities the kids liked to do and threw the old books away. Less bulk to start with and we threw away the used activity pages as we went meant less weight on the journey.
- Brain Quest – a fabulous knowledge building game. (available on ios apps) They have games for ages preschool on up.
- Computer Games – My husband and I both have smart phones and tablets so we put age appropriate learning games on our phones and the kids got to play these at certain times. (Future post coming on which games we use)
- Sticker Books – I purchased a couple reposition-able sticker books for the kids to take turns with. Turns out the “stickers” also worked on windows!
- Legos – I picked up a few bags of the smallest sets of Legos you can get. They were small and fun to put together. I just slipped a ziplock in with each set so that when they were finished they could contain their new creation and all its parts without any loss in case they were broken apart. Worked like a champ! It helped to lay something fabric (like a sweatshirt or a blanket) over their tray tables first so the pieces wouldn’t roll off as easily.
- Hidden Picture Books – My kids love to work together on these. I like to find the ones with the pictures of the items to find along the bottom or side of the page so that my non-readers can also play along. These are gold!!!!! A trick to make them last through multiple kids is that you explain they may only cross off or color the little item picture along the edge of the page when you find it but not circle or color it in the larger picture. We did this and my kids found and re-found the items so many times that the books were used for multiple flights until they fell apart.
- Tiny Play-Doh – Play-Doh comes in tiny little containers. My kids enjoyed this greatly. They broke off bits of their colors and shared so they would have other colors to build with. We allowed/encouraged color mixing because we weren’t keeping the play dough anyway. I got dollar store versions of these but they were tiny like this and I was able to purchase them individually (only get 4). The key is to throw them away after a flight. It helps to shed weight. Consider it a $5 investment in sanity!
- Wikki Sticks – My kids refer to them as ‘Bendy-Sticks’. These were great! They kept all the kids attention 8 year old down to 1 year old! WIN! The kids even made some airplane creations for the flight attendants! Because of the size and light weight of these we hung on to them for months flying through Asia and Africa. However, these do get a little too sticky when really warm so I would only do them again if we were staying in a temperate climate or I’d throw them away after a flight or two.
There are LOTS of other ideas out there for what to take along for kids but I wanted to keep things lighter and more compact so that played quite a bit into my decisions for what to take along. If you would like to find other ‘traveling with kids’ activity lists, do a simple google search and you will find lots of additional information.
This list doesn’t include interaction with other passengers. We worked hard to remind our kids to be polite and kind to all our “neighbors” and explained to them about airplane privacy etiquette. However, we discovered that a lot of the time people around us welcomed the smiles, waves, wiggling fingers between seats, and juvenile conversation.
On one flight, our daughter (who loves babies) asked to go 6 rows ahead of us to play with a 1-year-old. With permission granted she proceeded to make friends with the baby and her mother who soon came back to where we were sitting. Long story short, we had a nice chat together and then the baby came to our row and sat with our daughter while her momma got a nice break and a chance to read her book uninterrupted.
The lesson: Teach your kids appropriate behavior but then let your kids be themselves. You may be able to bless someone along the way.
What NOT to take
My recommendations for what NOT to take on an airplane with kids would be:
- no balls or anything that can roll easily – just don’t do it!
- nothing that makes noise – seriously!
Quality over Quantity
I mentioned that we became more minimalist as we traveled. All these activities were what we had on our initial 2-3 flights (I used “leftover” activities on subsequent flights). However, our plan for keeping kids happy on the flights changed a lot over time and with experience.
As we traveled more and more we found we wanted to carry less and less. We also had less opportunity to plan as far ahead and not as much knowledge as to where to find the things we may want (sticky mosaics in Kuala Lumpur???). So we made a decision that meant fewer miscellaneous activities and more gear.
My husband and I had been talking for more than 6 months about getting each kid their own iPad but wanted to get out on the road and see if it really would be worth the cost. When we were in Bangkok we decided to pull the trigger. Our only regret is getting them the iPads with a small amount of memory. :P The kids have used their iPads for games on flights and for schoolwork. For everything from family Battleship tournaments to recording and editing their own videos about life while traveling.
Now, on to snacks! I also researched snack options. I found lists of easy snacks, lists of organic snacks and lists of individual serving snacks. I was looking for things my kids liked and I could be happy with as well. I decided to let go of our all-natural eating lifestyle starting on the plane since we almost certainly wouldn’t be able to continue it while traveling. Here is what I settled on.
- Goldfish crackers
- String cheese (in a small cooler*)
- Yogurt in a tube (in a small cooler*)
- Mixed nuts
- Applesauce (and other pureed fruits) in a bag/pouch
- Dry cereal
- Chewy bread (like bagels) — also helps with ear pressure during landing and takeoff
- Animal crackers
- Yogurt covered pretzels
- Whatever juice they wanted from the flight attendants
- Whatever food they were served
* for keeping your small cooler chilled for at least part of your flight and not have to carry heavy cold pack (which sometimes aren’t allowed through checkpoints) we suggest packing 2 ziplocks in the cooler with your snacks. One full of ice and one empty. Before you go through the security checkpoint simply toss out your ziplock with the ice in it. After you have cleared security, stop at a restaurant or snack counter and ask them to fill your other ziplock with ice. Whala!…a new ice pack for the flight. Once it melts during the flight, just throw it away.
Again my recommendations for what NOT to pack:
- Anything that melts (chocolate)
- Anything that is messy to eat or hard to clean up like cottage cheese or things that are frosted or glazed.
- Anything that is smash-able like pears, muffins, etc.
We also fell into a different practice for snacks as we traveled. While on the ground we make sure the kids eat well. However, while flying we adopted the suggestion of allowing flights to be a “fun zone” for kids. This way they are very happy to take long flights as it is the only time they are allowed to have certain things.
We try to make sure they eat as well as possible in the airport and then we use whatever money we have leftover from that country’s currency to buy the snacks for the flight. It tends to be less protein and more carbs and sugars but we try to make ‘better’ choices and not sweat it too much. The kids are allowed to eat whatever they want from the meal they are served (we typically pre-request gluten free meals so there are fewer carbs and more fruit/veggie/protein options offered.). They are also allowed to choose whatever they want from the offered juice options. The bigger kids know they still aren’t allowed to have the sodas but they still feel like they are in a restaurant since we don’t typically have fruit juices at home.
Overall, we have relaxed about what is “okay” on a flight. I am much less structured and happy to just ‘go with the flow’ and see what happens. The next time we set out for a long-haul trip, I think I will probably find 1 or 2 activities to take along and a few snacks as well but I like the freedom that comes with kids who don’t need lots of different things to have a happy trip.
True, our kids consume more sugar and spend more time in front of their iPad screens on a flight than any other time. But it is just for the flight and it makes the ‘getting there’ so much more enjoyable for everyone. And that’s really important…especially when your life choice is to enjoy the journey not just the destination.
I would love to hear your questions and additions to our lists. What have you found works best for your crew? Is there something that I missed that you are wondering about…let me know!