Vivian and I have just returned from our winter holiday, after a 12+-hour flight across the Pacific, followed by a 5-hour layover in Beijing, plus another 90 minutes in the air home to Qingdao. For both of us, it was a long 24-hour stretch with no sleep. The next day Vivian, being young and resilient as she is, didn’t let the fatigue get her down. For her, playing with friends new and old was more important than napping. I, on the other hand, spent half the day immobile on the bed, unable to sleep but also unable to even think about any kind of work.
As I indulged in post-travel malaise, I reflected on six years of long-haul flights. These long flights have become so routine in our lives that now I think of a 6-hour flight as "short", and after a dozen hops between continents with a small child along, I have learned a thing or two about crossing oceans with kids.
- Arrival Time: For long flights with significant time changes, I prefer day flights that arrive in the evening over night flights that arrive in the morning. This is contrary to other advice I have received, but I find it easiest to suffer a long flight awake, or mostly so, and collapse into bed for a full night sleep shortly after arriving.
- Day flights vs. Night flights: Arriving in the evening often means taking day flights, which many parents I know avoid. Most families I know prefer night flights so that their children can sleep on the plane. That strategy is good only if your child will actually sleep on a plane. My child will not – EVER – sleep on flights, long or short. Unless its 20 minutes to landing, when she can be relied on to pass out.
- Amenities: Be careful choosing a flight. If parental sanity is even nearly as important to you as price tag, you will want to consider more than just price, duration, and layovers. In this day and age, most long-haul carriers provide in-seat Video on Demand (VOD) with programming that is suitable for children. Find out before you buy at Seat Guru.
- In-flight entertainment: In the event your flight does not have VOD, prepare other ways to entertain your kid. Coloring books, crayons, and books work for us, but become heavy quickly, and only entertain for an hour or two. For us, electronics are the way to go, but most gadgets have batteries that are drained well before the flight ends. We double-up on gadgets when we can (though our budget and our parenting choices restrict this option somewhat). Some flights that do not provide VOD do provide in-seat power for recharging laptops and video gadgets, which can solve the battery life problem. Consult Seat Guru to find out if the flight you are considering has a power option.
- Bulkheads: Be careful choosing seats and re-consider the bulkhead seats. Many families I know always choose the bulkhead seats when traveling in economy class with children. These seats do offer some advantages like extra leg room, easier access to your seat, optional bassinettes for babies, and no disgruntled passenger seated immediately in front of a bored child who might find kicking the seat entertaining. My family has outgrown the bulkhead, though, and here’s why.
- No seatback storage for easy access to the child’s playthings, and more importantly,
- No under-seat storage for easy access to backpacks.
- The arms of bulkhead seats typically do not lift, because the table and/or VOD devices are stopred inside the armrest. If your child likes to lay on your lap to sleep, bulkhead seats make this impossible.
- Bulkhead seats are often located behind the toilets. The traffic, noise, and disruption are enough to disturb a sleeping child; the unpleasantness of unwanted smells disturbs everyone.
- In flights without VOD, the bulkhead is typically immediately in front of the large shared video screen, which is a constant source of visual stimulation that is difficult to avoid and can make it more difficult for restless children to sleep.
- Last words: Finally, the best piece of strategic advice I ever received as a new parent-long haul traveler: never, ever, let your kid wander around the plane. Good travel manners start young, and letting a kid run amock on the plane sets the stage for a childhood full of headaches. We always require Vivian to remain seated with her seatbelt on; she can’t entertain herself by running up and down the aisles, she can’t make too much noise, and she cannot ever, ever, kick the seat in front of her. Its easier that way. Trust me.
Kiley Ariail is an Oregonian by birth, Portlander at heart, and an expatriate in China by circumstance. She lives in Qingdao with her husband and her daughter Vivi, and has been blogging from the time her daughter was born six years ago. Visit her at her blog Gogovivi.com
Photo: Judy and Jam of flickr