9 Tricks to Surviving an International Flight with a Toddler

Kids before a transatlantic flight

Europe and beyond – the destination is so tantalizing, yet those hours across the ocean can inspire fear in parents. Think of flying across the Atlantic with a baby or toddler and the first images may be of frantic parents, screaming kids, and the most annoying kicking on the back of the seat. While this may still be part of your future (heck, it could happen on any flight any time), don’t let it deter you from the long-haul flight and the adventures once the plane touches down.

These tips are geared toward babies and toddlers because starting at preschool age, the inflight movies can entertain for hours

1. Get the toddler their own seat

We’ve never purchased a separate airplane seat for our children until after their 2nd birthdays. We’d rather sit through half a day with squirming toddler on our laps then pay for another airline ticket. I’ve seen plenty of parents who don’t agree with this mentality. Instead they buy the baby or toddler their own seat and bring their car seat on board. However, unless you’re renting a car at your destination, I would not recommend burdening yourself with a car seat.

Instead, our technique has been to arrive at check in early so that you can get assigned some of the better seating that is reserved for parents with children. The first time we rode Air France to Paris with our 14 month old, we got bulkhead seats and a bassinet that attached to the wall. This is an incredible option, as long as your little one weighs less than 20 lbs.

On our last flight from Houston to Paris (9.5 hours there, 10.5 hours back) on Air France, we had seats in the middle of the plane toward the back. The plane had 4 seats in the middle and 3 on either side. To our joy on both Transatlantic flights, the 4th seat was unoccupied and our squirmy 22 month old got her own seat.

2. Be polite to the other passengers, but don’t worry what they think

I advocate patience and kindness toward others, even if they’re annoying the crap out of you. Unfortunately, some passengers may take it on themselves to glare at you or even admonish your parenting skills. I’ve received plenty of the “stare of dread” as I board a plane with a child or two, not because my children are crying or causing problems at the moment, but because they might in the future.

On a four hour flight from Paris to Moscow, our toddler was tired, wanted her own seat, and was crying and kicking. Despite our best efforts, the person in front of the parent holding the toddler got their seat kicked. At one point I took both children to the bathroom and one of the people sitting in front of us told my husband, in French, that we needed to keep our kids in line more. Hey grumpy childless person, we’re trying.

On the other hand, lots of people have been nice to us on planes, whether it’s by kind looks or comments, or playing peekaboo.

Do you best parenting, but don’t worry what this group of strangers, who you’ll never see again, thinks of your parenting skills and your kids.

3. Walk the aisle

Everybody gets restless cramped into those tiny seats for half a day, but especially kids with lots of energy. Walk up and down the aisles, play at the back where the toilets are, peek out the window, play the “I’m going to get you” game. During the last few hours of a transatlantic flight, you might walk with your toddler every 15-30 minutes.

4. Cajole extra snacks and drinks

During long flights there is often water and juice to pour yourself at the back of the plane. Kids and adults get dehydrated, so make sure to stop here on your walks around the plane. Usually there is also a basket of snacks. If there are no more snacks available – or none that your toddler will eat – don’t hesitate to politely ask a flight attendant for a snack for your child. I always pack extra snacks, but sometimes the airplane snacks make kids happier.

5. Pack a bag full of songs and finger rhymes 

Lots of traveling parents recommend packing small, new toys that you pull out one at a time to stretch the entertainment value. This is great advice, but I find myself dissatisfied with the attention span of a young child weighed against hauling the new toy around with us for the rest of our trip.

Instead, before the trip memorize songs and games for young children, especially ones that have hand motions. A few that my kids love: Itsy Bitsy Spider; Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes; and This Little Piggy. 

6. Browse the inflight magazines together

I love how random magazine pictures capture children’s imagination. If my child is in full-out cry mode because they’re sleepy and grumpy, this tip may not work. Otherwise, it’s great for restless kids to look and talk about the different pictures they see. Inflight shopping magazines work great for this too.

7. Hey kid, go to sleep already!

On our flight to Russia, our four year old was easy. We took off his headphones, told him it was time to sleep, and he agreed. We took him to the bathroom and then he snuggled up and snoozed off. Our two year old? Not so easy on the way to Russia. She cried and squirmed. I rocked and sang. Finally, I went the controversial Benadryl route. I only used a fourth of the plastic measuring cup because I prefer as little medication as possible. And it worked. She quickly settled down and soon my husband had two little heads on his lap.

There are many caveats with the Benadryl method and lots of parents avoid medications for sleep for good reason. First, try a small dose on your child before the trip. A small percentage of children become hyperactive instead of sleepy and it’s better to know that at home than while flying. Benadryl can also make kids nauseous. When we went to France with my 14 month old first born, we fed him Benadryl because that’s what other parents told us to do. He slept, but he also vomited all over me. Hello Paris, yes that’s vomit on my shirt. Which leads me to the next point:

8. Bring a change of clothes for everyone in the carry on

After the first plane vomit incident, I always include a full change of clothes for the kids plus an extra shirt and underwear for the parents. Also in the carry on are toothbrushes, any airplane games, and extra snacks. Anytime I run out of good snacks, disaster strikes our trip, even if that disaster is just in the form of a hungry toddler meltdown.

9. Relax and enjoy yourself!

Flights across the ocean are long for all involved. But it’s also a great time to spend with your toddler, who will be crawling over you and demanding your attention. You have no where else to go, so why not enjoy these hours of snuggle time? Enjoy it while it lasts because on your next trip your child will already be at a different stage of development.

What are your tricks for surviving an international flight with a baby or toddler? Leave a comment with your survival methods.

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