One of the world’s longest non-stop routes flown by a commercial aircraft travels between Hong Kong and JFK airport – a grueling 16-hour flight. In the first year and a half that my daughter was born, we had flown back and forth from Hong Kong to New York City on this particular flight five times. On most of these occasions, I had flown alone with my daughter.
I was intimidated my first time around, to say the least. I began packing a month in advance and enlisted the advice of many mommies on parenting forums. Do I use a baby carrier? A stroller? Or Both? How many diapers should I pack? What happens if I get stuck in an airport? What if the airline losses my baggage? My mind listlessly ran through countless scenarios ranging from mundane to disastrous.
Having completed this 16-hour flight many times, I am firmly confident that most of the horrible scenarios will not happen. To ensure that a long-haul flight goes as smoothly as possible, I’ve learned a few things:
- Plan in advance. Doing research early on will save you from last-minute panic situations (and will likely save you money).
- Choose an airline with the best possible reputation available to you. Look for service awards and traveler reviews (Skytrax is a wonderful resource). Accommodating customer service can make a world of difference when traveling with young babies and children. Being based in Hong Kong, we prefer Cathay Pacific, which offers the best customer service, and airport lounges available to us.
- Look for non-stop flight options. The goal is the make a long journey as short as possible.
- Get an upgrade. If you can avoid sitting in economy class for 6+ hours, then do so. Save your mileage points for the upgrade. Each class upgraded beyond economy will increase your ease of travel exponentially.
- Make ample use of lounges. Get respite from busy international airports. A nice hot complimentary beverage, lounge chairs and spacious bathrooms will help get you mentally prepared for the long trip ahead. If you are nursing, then the lounge is an ideal setting for some added privacy. Read our advice on stress-free nursing on a plane.
- Pack light. This is my travel mantra. Bring only what is necessary. Most things that you forget can be easily purchased abroad. The most essential piece of the puzzle is your carry-on – extra set of clothing for you and your child, just enough diapers (plus maybe two or three extra), snacks, and basic toiletries.
- Book flights that arrive during the daytime. I get asked frequently if red-eye flights are the best option for long-haul, but depending on the destination of travel, you may end up sleeping through most of the flight and arriving in the evening which means you and your child may be up all night. My rule of thumb is to aim for flights that arrive during the daytime. That way, you and your family can begin adjusting to time changes the minute you hit the ground.
- There is no easy way around jet lag. Sunlight, sunlight and more sunlight is the answer. It is hard enough to keep your little ones up for as long as possible during the daytime, but tricking their little bellies into thinking it’s time to eat is another obstacle I don’t enjoy. Nap time is still essential, but the duration and timing of them will change as they adjust. Kids will be cranky for a few days, and, just when you think you can’t take it anymore, they sleep through the night!
- Travel is a privilege. I’ve taught my daughter from a very early age that traveling is a special occasion. When trips are regarded as a treat by your family, the same mindset is easily adopted by children as young as 18 months. Toddlers are more likely to cooperate with you when there’s something to look forward to!
- Do something nice for yourself. Last but not least, don’t forget to spoil yourself a little. To prepare for a flight, find a few minutes to just relax. Whether it’s a hot shower, or an at-home facial, relaxing can help put you in the right mindset for what’s ahead. I typically try to download some new music to my iPhone pre-flight, but I’m lucky if I ever get that far.
Now that my little girl is almost three, the contents of my carry-on may have changed, but my travel priorities remain the same. I no longer have to pack diapers, but wipes are still a must. Her teething toys have been replaced with the holy grail of children’s entertainment – the iPad. Not only am I much more confident with traveling, but Faye has a clear understanding of what it means to be on an airplane! It may take some trial-and-error to find your own system, but with some careful planning, traveling abroad with young children can be quite enjoyable.