We have logged thousands and thousands of miles flying with our kids to several continents. Maybe someone with a history of traumatic flights with children would be better qualified to write this post. Really, our kids are such good travelers that I would say we have only had a couple bad flights, but I would like to think it is partially because we try to be very prepared to keep them happy (and to keep the other people on the plane happy also.) I know traveling in general is stressful, even if you are just traveling alone as an adult. That said, I do get so annoyed by adults who are overly put out with little kids who also travel. Everyone was once a child and just a little patience and understanding goes a long, long way.
I did not fly with either of my kids until they were about 5 months old so I don’t have experience with really little ones on flights. What has saved us on many flights is breast feeding. It is so convenient not to pack tons of bottles and formula but instead just to have instant food and comfort. It is also helpful to nurse for take- off and landing to keep little ears more comfortable. For those who don't breastfeed, I would think having a bottle ready to go at those times would be very valuable.
We have kept our kids as lap children as long as possible to save from the extra expense of a whole other ticket. (Domestically in the USA there is no extra charge for a lap child under the age of 2, but remember when traveling internationally, there is a charge. It is usually around 10% of the adult fare or the taxes. On international trips airlines have required our lap children to have an actual paper ticket.) A lap child gets tricky as kids get bigger and squirmy. On all international flights we have been on the airlines have supplied an additional seat belt or belly belt that attaches your baby to your seat belt for extra safety. I have liked additionally having a baby flight vest that does the same thing but secures the baby more efficiently since I feel the belly belts tend to come undone. The flight vest is long enough that an older baby can also stand in front of you while seated, still allows nursing while attached, and it give the parent of the lap child the use of two hands! It also protects your lap baby in the case of turbulence.
We flew from the middle of the United States to Israel with our son when he was 14 months old. It was a long day, made longer by about a 3 hour delay on the jet way in London. Our son was a very busy 1 year old and we were nervous. We had recently celebrated Easter and he was very entertained by plastic eggs and jelly beans. We would break the jelly beans in half to make them last longer. My friend had mentioned that oversized pill boxes (you know, the ones with all the days of the week) were fun for little kids on flights as you can hide little things or snacks in them to find and they are great for shaking. Our son was also very entertained by left over ice from the beverage service. I know some people say just to expect to walk the plane with your kids but we have chosen to limit that option for our kids. Once you open up that option, you better be ready to wander the aisles non-stop. We much prefer keeping the kids entertained in a confined space rather than letting them roam the plane.
Things we have found to be helpful:
-Bring a change of clothing for the kids and maybe even for yourself (and your neighbor). I sat by a lady once who was telling me how her baby threw up on the stranger sitting next to her. She said the person was very understanding but the mom obviously felt horrible. All she could do was hand over some wet wipes.
-Don’t forget to bring lots of wipes, diapers, plastic bags to put any gross clothing, soiled diapers etc after you have used the extra change of clothing. We once flew across the Atlantic the day after our son had diarrhea. I had him double diapered and in plastic pants the entire trip and brought tons of extra supplies just in case. Thankfully our son was fine on the flight, but my husband spent a lot of the 10 hour flight sick in the restroom, poor guy!
-A flashlight is fun, as you can send your preschoolers under the seats to look for things that are going to be dropped. I once was flying alone with my kids and most of the flight I was telling them to not shine the flashlights in my eyes. I am sure there was a great light show on the ceiling in our row but people assured me if the kids were being quiet, they did not care. Glow sticks are fun too. It can also be fun for older kids to make a fort with the flash light and the in-flight blanket over a tray table that is down. Whatever is fun and semi-quiet is great.
-Portable dvd player/ipod/mp3 players can help keep kids entertained. (Make sure everything is fully charged the night before.) We have found that sometimes even on 12 hour flights to Japan or Paris there may not be individual movies screens in the economy class, which is crazy!! If your flight does have individual movie screens, there is usually a kids channel which is very, very helpful.
-I always try to bring little surprises to open along the way. I have spent up to $40 at the Dollar Store getting ready for a trip. I don’t mind cheap surprises because some of them may be left behind on the airplane anyway. (I try not to bring favorite small toys on board to ensure not losing them.) I find lots of things my kids are entertained with in the party favor sections too. Kinder eggs are very fun, a little chocolate and a toy, awesome! Space out surprises every 30-45 minutes or longer if you can. It makes me sound like a mean mom, but the surprises are good for curtailing misbehavior. I am sure I have threatened “no more surprises if you do not stop that right now!” on more than one occasion. We have found great Dollar Stores as we travel also in Japan, Canada, and Israel.
-I find it handy also to keep candy treats in smaller portioned snack bags so as to space out the candy. We make gummy candy go further by making it a game of breaking off little pieces and sticking them to the back of our kid’s hands. We try to make it a goal of not making our kids sick to their stomachs with too much candy. When we were traveling for a wedding once, our son’s babysitter accidentally let him eat an entire bag of gummy candy. He got very sick (everywhere!) and it was not fun, especially as he had eaten hot dogs for lunch. Maybe hot dog vomit is a rite of passage for parenthood?
-We have had a lot fun recently with dry erase markers. My son has a couple activity books that use dry erase markers and my husband realized they can also be used in little photo albums. I make my kids their own photo albums of their pictures and now they are extra fun as they are a place to draw and add funny details to their photos. Wipes clean with your finger or a wet wipe. The dry erase markers are also fun with the inflight magazines and Skymall. (Is there Skymall outside of the USA? Most of our international travel has been based or going to the USA so we always have Skymall. Check out all their ridiculous things here- they have everything you did not know you needed.) With young kids, it is fun to find the doggies and kitties in Skymall, and as my kids get older, they like to look for what they want. We hope to not raise totally mindless consumers, but if Skymall can keep them happy for a few minutes I think it is great.
Trying to relax will also go a long way, you will get there whether you are stressed out or relaxed! I love the feeling of finally being on a plane because I am done packing and even if the flight is a disaster, we will get there! Just a few weeks back we flew from Rome, Italy back to the Western United States and the whole very long travel day was really much easier than we expected. Good luck to all of you in your travels!