Travelling With Kids

Part 1 - Before You Go

A collection of things I've done the hard way so you don't have to!

There are only a few things in my life I can claim to be an expert at:

Talking to Strangers.

Cuddling other people's babies.

Loving & finding things with watermelon on them.

Travelling long distance with kids.
I mean...LONG. As long as any human should ever have the need to travel.

And yet, every time I do it, I still google "travelling with kids" just in case there is someone out there who might have a few new, exciting tips that I haven't thought of yet. How do they sleep? What do they play with? What do I pack? How do I sleep, eat.......pee?? But I have yet to read anything that mirrors the lessons my husband and I have learned along the way. So here it is, my experience over the past 6 years. I don't go for 'advice' really, but I think the best tool we have as parents is the knowledge of other parents, swapped back and forth through stories (best traded over a coffee or a wine, of course!) Then mix and matching until you get the perfect recipe for you and your family. (That's usually how I approach using actual recipes for cooking, too!)

My own meandering experience
My husband and I have taken a few toddlers ranging from 3 months old to 5 years old back and forth between Australia and East Coast USA three times in the past six years. The first time we had a 3 month old and a just-about-to-turn 2 year old, but we also had my in-laws with us! Hooray for two extra laps and FOUR extra hands!!! Next we did it again with a 3 year old and a 15 month old. And finally, we did it with three kids, ages 5, 3, and 1. We've flown from Adelaide - Sydney - LA - Washington DC, and we've flown the same route where we spent the night along the way to break up the journey (either LA or Sydney, depending on which direction we were going in), and we've flown from Adelaide - Dubai - Washington DC, with an 18 hour lay over in Dubai to sleep. We've missed flights, met countless kind strangers, had a drink spilled in our seat by a very apologetic flight attendant, sat on a runway for 3 hours - turning our 13 hour flight into a 16 hour flight! - but overall we've learned to embrace this life we have chosen and built for ourselves that means travelling this far with kids is just what we have to do if we want our kids to grow up knowing their entire family!


Should you buy a ticket for your almost 2 year old?
Absolutely!!! We made this mistake on our first adventure. The problem was, at nearly two our son really needed his own space! He was fidgety and cranky most of the way, and was only really happy when we lucked out with a spare seat next to us that he could claim as his own. As he was generally happy with cuddling one of us we didn't think this would be a problem. We were wrong, wrong, wrong. And another thing to keep in mind, is that they only space you really have is your seats! We thought we would be okay because our son could surely sit on the floor at our feet if he needed to. But that's a big no no, apparently. Don't count on this space!

Large planes for long haul flights have special bassinets that clip onto the wall of the bulkhead. They're built mostly for smaller babies, in my experience flight attendants have mixed opinions as to how big of a baby can fit in them, but even if your baby/toddler is too big to sleep comfortably in it, it may be handy to have to sit him/her in while you eat or just to prop some things in so they are within reach. When you book your ticket make sure you request a bassinet (you'll need to ring the airline), as they don't necessarily make sure they have enough available on the plane before booking your infant. Another thing to keep in mind is that when the captain turns on the 'fasten seat belt' sign you will need to pick your peacefully sleeping baby up and clip them back into their special seat belt that attaches to yours. If you have a turbulent flight (or a pilot who forgets to switch off the sign, as we suspect happened on one of our flights!) the sign can go on and off frequently, so while the bassinet is nice, if you can get comfortable with your baby sleeping on top of you, you both might be better off!!

I found this photo of a cozy toddler wearing her seatbelt, which is attached to Mom or Dad's seatbelt with another loop of material.

Lay overs.
The first time we flew from the east coast of the states to Adelaide, Australia, it took us three flights (6 hours, 12 hours, 2 hours each), and 44 hours total. That was too long. By the third flight both kids were OVER IT and just screamed for the whole two hours. Even though this last flight was only short, it's all that time waiting in the airport, going from plane to plane, and all of those hours without any free play whatsoever that were harder for them to cope with. So the next time  we flew we stopped for a night in a hotel after our second flight. This is worth it!! We were able to rest and start adjusting to the time zone, we spent most of the time sleeping or sitting in a local playground with a coffee while the kids did whatever they liked. Sooooooooooooooooo worth it!! Of course this made our overall travel time longer, so this may not work if you are severely time-crunched, but it made our whole trip more of a pleasant experience as we actually arrived to our destination feeling like actual humans and not dirty, grungy zombies who needed two whole days to adjust (so really, you'll probably lose the same amount of time either way!)

The next time we flew we actually went a different path that included two 12 hour flights instead of three (one long two short). We used an Emirates flight that left Adelaide at 10pm, landed in Dubai 12 hours later, including a built in layover for 18 hours, followed by a final 12 hour flight to Washington DC. This worked great for us! We used the 18 hours in Dubai to just check into a hotel and sleeeeeppp! Hotels usually all have black out curtains, so we paid no attention to what time of day it was and just slept. On the way back to Australia our flight left DC during the day, but surprisingly enough once we're on a plane this weird thing happens and the actual time of day doesn't really matter. We have a pattern of all the same things we do on the plane no matter what.

Remember, all of my advice is geared towards flying all the way around the world (pretty much as far as you can go before you start coming back from the other direction!) so for anything shorter where time zones aren't too much of an issue you may find that layovers aren't as important to you.

What age is the best to fly with? 
Any age has it's own set of pros and cons, but our main objective is to start teaching good travelling habits early, so that as time goes on travelling with them just becomes easier because they are such good, experienced travellers! For us, this means that everyone stays in their own seat, there is no running up and down the aisle, everyone uses their 'inside voice,' and, once they are able to, walks themselves on and off the plane.

From 0 - 6 months babies are pretty easy to travel with (relatively speaking!) as they mostly just need sleep and cuddles. Of course, this does mean that you need to get organised for their passport pretty much as soon as they are born. The good news is that for kids passports are quick and easy to order. The other risk you take is gambling whether or not you will have a more relaxed baby, or a slightly more screamy one. If you have to book before they are born just book your own ticket, then ring the airline and add your infant after they are born, as you need a name and a birthdate to actually book a ticket. On the plus side, if you do have a screamy baby, I promise they will bother you way more than any other passenger, AND chances are, this won't be the worst night you've had as a parent!

From 6 months to 1 or 1 1/2 year they get a little trickier as they are old enough to need some entertaining, but not yet old enough to watch the little tv screen or entertain themselves for too long. The good news is - they can be entertained by almost anything!!! Don't go too crazy on packing toys, but small things they can fiddle and play with are great - straws, pipe cleaners, stacking cups, stickers, a tissue, sock puppets, bright patterned bandaids - just please don't bring anything that makes too much noise!

The trickiest age for us was 1 1/2  to 2 1/2 years. They need more entertaining, they've found their legs so they really want to run around more, and they're still probably not be old enough to watch tv for long. We 'trained' our son to watch shows at a young age, so that the first time he flew at just under 2, he was happy to watch a show for a while. He didn't have his own seat, so we brought along our iPad with Ice Age saved to it, and he happily watched that on repeat! Actually, he watched that on repeat for the whole five weeks of our trip - quite often even without sound! At this age the good news is that they're probably still napping, and they will sleep if you insist on it - taking away all of the toys and things they can find to entertain themselves with, and using their blankie or lovey from home.

From 2 1/2 to 5 was pretty easy for us (relatively speaking!!!) and I look forward to the next time we fly and we have no infants or toddlers with us. We simply 'plug' our kids into the tv screen, and let them watch all the shows they want to their little hearts content!!! For the few weeks leading up to the flight we limit screen time, so that it's exciting for them when they get total access. Since our flight left at 10pm, we assumed they would simply fall asleep at some point - but they just never did! Meg (3yo) watched the same 5 episodes of Dora the Explorer for 10 hours, straight!! Trip (5yo) watched a few shows and movies, and even played a few games. It's tempting at this age to pack their own little carry on, but we've avoided doing so as we're afraid this will just mean more stuff for us to collect and carry. If you do want to bring their own little bag with snacks and toys in it, I'd recommend that you make sure you have a spot in your own back pack to stuff it into, especially if they're sleeping when it comes time to get off the plane.

I haven't yet flown with a kid older than 5, but at this point we are hoping that these kids will be such great travellers that the next few ages should be easier.

What time of day is best to fly? 
Our first flight we left super early, and I would super not recommend that! Leaving on a journey where everyone is already sleep deprived is just not a good idea. Crankiness builds up real quick! Ideally, I wouldn't leave before 9am - and if you live far from the airport it might be worth it to stay in a hotel close by the night before! If you have a choice, late night flights seem to be a better option - it's easier to keep kids awake a little longer, than to rip them from their beds when it's still dark out. Of course, you might not always have a choice, but you can at least make sure everyone sleeps well the week or so leading up to your adventure. Don't try to cram in a lot of things last minute, kids react to new experiences so much better if the time leading up to it has been a calm one following a regular routine. Don't get tricked into thinking that with enough chaos you'll make them tired so they sleep well on the flight - this strange alchemy happens to tired children where they actually get more energy!


Checked Baggage. 

Usually everyone who has a ticket can check in one or two bags. Kids get the same baggage allowance as adults get, too, and any baby related items you can check as well. Now, you may not actually like this next bit of advice, as my husband and I are self-professed super crazy people who like to do things totally different than 'normal' humans ....but bring the smallest amount of stuff possible! All that STUFF you think is going to make your life easier actually weighs you down and adds more stress and chaos to an already stressful, chaotic time. For our last eight week holiday in the states we packed just one large suitcase plus just two carry ons for all five of us. We also fit in heaps of presents for people (including 3 kgs of coffee and a 2 kg bucket of Vegemite) and were still within the weight limit for that one bag. I know. It sounds crazy. But hear me out!!

You don't actually need as much when you're travelling as you think you do. You shouldn't need to bring any more than 2 - 3 outfits for each of you, and if you're lucky you are travelling to a place that is warm! Most of the clothes we brought actually went into our carry on as we needed them for the flight or the lay over. Which means in our suitcase we only really had more underwear and socks (we even had our bathing suits in our carry-on as our layover hotel had a pool). And try to pack clothes you and the kids would just normally wear. I see people all the time (myself included!) who like to bring clothes they have at home but never actually wear. Most likely, you won't wear it on holiday, either, and that denim jacket gets a really nice scenic tour of the world.

If you're going to visit family, just ask if they can buy one outfit for each of your kids. If you live far away, chances are whoever you're going to visit would absolutely love the chance to buy kids clothes! If you're going to 'winter' send the message out before you even get there to see if anyone in your extended social network has warm clothes you can borrow for your kids, and just stuff a duffel bag into your suitcase so you have something to carry all the temporary clothes. Have someone meet you at the airport with a jacket for everyone, or even a few warm blankets that you can use until you can get to more warm clothing! Or you can always go to a second hand store! Believe me, whatever you pay for clothes will be more than worth it in not having to lug all that stuff around. Watching a couple other small humans in a crowded airport is going to take all of your attention, best to limit the bags you have to take care of, too! You can always buy stuff online and have it mailed to your hotel as well, just call to let them know ahead of time. If you do need to do some shopping when you get to your destination, be smart and do your research! Find a hotel with a shopping centre close by. Make a list before you go, potentially even before you leave home! Maybe don't plan to bring the kids with you if you can help it, leave one parent with the kids, hopefully napping or playing at the hotel.

Your Carry on -  type of bag.
We've tried a hiking backpack, a diaper bag, and a rolling suitcase. The rolling suitcase was by far superior to everything else to have with us on the plane! You can lay everything out in it so everything is easy to see and get to. This is one time that being organised helps, people!!! A backpack or your diaper bag means that you have to dig through it until you find that one thing you need. Blech. Painful when the baby is screaming at 3am, the lights are dimmed, and you can't find your spare dummy/pacifier!

We brought two carry ons. One rolly suitcase for the flight, plus another bag for our layover that doesn't get opened on the plane at all. Since we stopped for a night it was helpful to have everything we needed without having to open the big suitcase (plus, your big suitcase might still be check through to your final destination). We used a hiking backpack so one of us had our hands free. I also bought a cute little backpack to use as a purse for that same reason.

Your Carry on -  what to put in it. 
Clothes. In our in-flight carry-on I packed a change of clothes for everyone - trust me, you do not want to be thrown up on two hours into your 12 hour flight!! I usually get comfy clothes for the kids that look like real clothes, but are cozy enough to also feel like pyjamas. Last time I bought them new as we were going for 8 weeks and I wanted to know nothing was going to be worn out and threadbare by the end of our trip! But their favourite clothes they like to wear at home would work just as well.
Diapers. I pack just enough diapers for the flight plus two extra (which in my experience means about 8 for a 12 hour flight, I've only used all of them once, but it's not really something you want to run out of!). I leave a second set of diapers for the next flight (or bus ride or whatever) in the secondary carry-on, switching them over right before we get on the next plane. Then I plan to buy more from that store I've researched is close to our hotel! I bring one of those travel packs of wipes as well as a ziplock bag with just a few in it so it's super small and easy to put in the pouch of the seat in front of me along with one diaper.
Dummies. Two dummies/pacifiers if your baby uses them - I keep one out to use and hide another one and try to forget about it. Dummies are like bobby pins, the fewer you have the longer they last!
Snacks!!! Trust in the power of keeping everyone well fed and their blood sugar up!!! I make little baggies of pop corn and pretzels and raisins or cranberries, which feels like a 'treat' but isn't too full of sugar to make them all hyped up. I also throw in a few muesli bars - nothing too sticky! And for little people, a snack with little pieces they have to pick up actually turns into an entertaining activity.
Toys. I usually buy a couple new sticker books, and a colouring book - the thinnest ones I can find! Our 5 year old loved mazes, and was surprisingly good at them! For the tricky 2 year age bracket, I buy a couple new little toys, like a small plane or squishy ball, and wrap them like a present, thus turning that little toy plane into TWO toys! Even wrapping their favourite small toy from home works too. We want to get as much entertainment value from everything you bring!

What about all that extra stuff babies need?
Babies don't actually need all the things we think they do. We only bothered with an umbrella stroller once, then realised lugging it around was actually more pain that it was worth. And these days you can find $10 secondhand ones pretty easily. Or ask to borrow one ahead of time. And I've heard people say that when they went to Europe their little fold up stroller wasn't worth it at all, as at all of the historic sites the ground was too bumpy. You're much better off having a really good baby carrier, like an ergo or a baby Bjorn. I love my ergo, and wouldn't recommend anything different! Babies were always so comfy, awake or asleep, and it never hurt my back like other carriers. Plus, hands free to hold onto the other one or two children!

Car seats, porta cots, high chairs etc. You're just going to have to get creative! In the states we bought a carseat at Walmart, or borrowed one, or if you'll only be travelling in cabs, trains, buses etc you won't even need one. We get our kids used to sleeping in a real bed when they turn two, so we don't have to worry about portacots for too long. And once on an RV trip we travelled with a hard based but flat bassinet, and made a little bed in a corner that was enclosed on three sides. My mom did keep a portacot for us for two of our visits. She bought the baby Bjorn one which takes up way less space than normal ones - good for frequent travelling! - but isn't necessarily the sturdiest make for robust toddlers! (That one seems heaps expensive....try to find one secondhand!!!)

You've done it! You've prepared as best as you can. Next up: the journey!


  1. Taking the boys to TN next month, definitely going to incorporate some of your tips!


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