Every year, my family of five boards the 16-hour flight to New York to start our summer break. We were chatting about it at the dinner table a few weeks before our last trip and my oldest daughter said, “Oh, this is the long flight.”
I guess she means as opposed to the “short” 12 hours to San Francisco?
“Around hour 8, no—10, I get kind of bored. But then I just go to sleep and it’s usually okay.”
“And you get ice cream on this flight!” my youngest says. This is met with happy nods all around. Note to Cathay Pacific: good call serving Haagen Dazs after dinner. That tiny 1/4 pint plus unlimited iPad time usually keeps my team happy for the duration, but I’ve learned a few things over our 12+ years of doing this flight—10 of them with at least one child in tow—about how to do it right.
Charge all the iPads and Kindles a few days before you travel
I don’t know about you but the USB ports on the seats NEVER seem to work for me. Note to Cathay Pacific: the USB ports on the seats NEVER seem to work for me! So it’s smart to charge everything to 100% before you leave and bring along extra batteries and charging cables. We have a very laissez-faire attitude about screens on the plane and it has meant many peaceful hours and even being able to watch a movie (or two, or three, or five: it is 16 hours, after all) myself. But a dwindling iPad charge can make that beautiful plan go pear-shaped fast, so those extra batteries are key!
Bring your own travel blankets
My husband thinks this is bulky and absurd but I feel MUCH better leaving the scratchy plane blankets in their plastic wrap on the floor. I’m always freezing on flights so I bought travel blankets at a shop in Brooklyn that has a strange name I can’t remember. I tried searching for it but “travel shop in Brooklyn with a strange name” pulls up 28 million results. Flight 001 makes a few great ones and of course Amazon has a million (okay, 30,000) so no need to use the potentially unwashed one they give you. Yes, even in its plastic packaging it may be unwashed.
And travel pillows
We like the ones from Muji that can be unlatched to change shape. Kids can lean on them, hug them, sleep on them: whatever is most comfortable in flight. Again, the stories about germs on airplanes are shocking, so best to bring your own pillows, too.
Pack a change of clothes for the kids
We started doing this when they were tiny for obvious reasons, but now it’s just a good habit: that full cup of water or juice has a way of finding itself onto laps before we’ve even taxied to the runway. Bonus: now that they’re older, the girls keep their extra clothes in their own backpacks.
Which brings us to…
Each child has her own backpack and can pack it with whatever she’d like. Within reason. Edited by me. Usually my youngest scours the house to find the most obscure (or heaviest) item she never really plays with and which is generally also missing parts. Often it’s three to four large sticker books that are 3/4 of the way finished and don’t have the stickers she needs for the last 1/4. My middle daughter will jam as many stuffed animals as possible into her backpack and my oldest daughter will fill hers with snacks. So, the night before our trip, I go through the bags, wean out the contraband in an effort to keep it lean: hoodie for the inevitably freezing cabin, socks for same, eye mask, Kindle, headphones, travel blanket. And when we get on the plane, I look over at my darling children and they’ve sneaked at least half the banned items back in.
Make your own healthy snacks
Sometimes airplane food is okay—ahem, Haagen Dazs—but sometimes it’s overly gingery fish or gluey yet also crunchy(?) pasta, so I like to have fruit, carrots, and granola bars on hand. And of course the meals can come at odd times: better to have something to offer a hungry child, because a hungry child will not sleep. I think only my oldest daughter knows about the salty and sugary snacks you can find in the galleys during the flight. I’ll thank you not to tell the other two….
Put some lime or lemon slices in a water bottle
Sounds pretty posh but really it’s just that the water on the flights isn’t great (to say the least), and flying to the US means we can’t bring our own water on board, even after security. Really, really trust me on this one: I’ve tried so many times to get water onto the plane because dehydration in the air is a real thing. If you’re flying somewhere you can bring water onboard, then definitely do that! The citrus will just be a bonus.
Repeat after me: I will get to the other side
Leave any preconceived notions at the gate about how this is going to go and embrace a zen attitude. Because you will get through whatever happens on the flight and you will land at your destination. You may not sleep, you may land covered in crumbs with stickers in your hair (or covered in stickers with crumbs in your hair). Maybe you’ll stand for the entire flight trying to (unsuccessfully) soothe an unhappy baby. You may be thrown up on (or worse). You may hold your pee half the flight while all your limbs go numb because your child has finally found a comfortable position, which is sleeping on your lap, with her tiny but somehow very heavy head (how so heavy?) firmly tucked into the crook of your arm at a bizarre angle and if you move she might wake up and it has taken you 13 hours to get her to sleep so you Stay. In. Your. Seat.*
But you will get to the other side.
*all actual, lived-through events
Now, go forth and travel, and let me know how it goes!