Transatlantic with the Toddler

There are so many horror stories I could share involving transatlantic travel. I entertained my babysitter the other day by regaling my worst memories of flights between Europe and North America, some of which involve being sandwiched between an overweight, unhappy married couple, or missing my connection due to the deranged older woman who caused the plane to turn around mid-ocean. I was used to the long-haul flight, the hours of boredom and unrest, the painful itching in your legs to get up and move when there are still three hours to go, but that was all paradise compared to international travel with children.

In the olden days before children (BC), I thought there were few things worse on a long flight than being stuck in front of a toddler, young child, baby, or any other being likely to cry and kick the back of my seat the whole flight. Now, with children of my own, I realize that the far worse fate is to be the parent to one of those monsters. Don’t misunderstand me – my own children are perfect angels, of course! But I have learned that keeping a baby/toddler/small child in one place for 12 hours (10.5 flight time + boarding, departing, sitting uselessly on the runway = about 12) is near impossible. Keeping them happy during that time and preventing them from crying, screaming, tantrum-throwing, seat-kicking, flight-attendant-beckoning, etc., is out of the question. For those of you flying without children, I apologize for all our bad behavior in the past years and in the years to come. For those of you who do fly with small children, here are a few tips I have learned over the years. Many thanks to frequent flying friends of mine who brave the skies with their little ones more often than I do; many of these tips I picked up from them!

1. Plan times using your regular routine
Babies require an incredible amount of gear. Any intercontinental trip will require careful planning of the amount of baby food, formula, bottles, spoons, sippy cups, pacifiers, diapers, wipes, and so on. I usually write out the times of the trip from door to door, then plan according to my child’s regular habits. Then add a few hours extra, just in case. Clearly you can’t plan sleep times – for those you just have to keep your fingers crossed!

2. Entertainment
Keeping little ones entertained on such a long trip is difficult. We bought a portable DVD player and bring along their favorite DVDs and some headphones. While many airlines now have individual screens with on-demand programming, very little of it is actually suitable for small children. We also pack a few favorite books that both parents and kids can read and listen to repeatedly, and a small selection of toys. A pad of paper and 5-10 crayons also keep everyone busy for a bit. For kids big enough to carry a small backpack, I suggest having them carry their own little toys – they love getting their bag all organized and feel grown-up carrying something like everyone else. Favorite loveys (stuffed animal, blanket, etc.) that your child needs in order to fall asleep are crucial.

3. Lollipops
This was one of the best tips I ever received regarding long flights with kids. Lollipops help bridge those painful waiting times: security, waiting for takeoff, waiting to depart, customs, immigration, etc. Anywhere you are stuck just waiting and somehow have to keep your kid(s) from going insane, a lollipop will save the day. Long-haul travel is not the time to be extra strict about sugar intake; get through the flight first, and worry about perfect parenting after you arrive. Germans also sell a fantastic individually-packed candy called “Traubenzucker” which is a glucose tablet that instantly boosts blood sugar. Kids love them and they come in handy for those moments when your toddler has thrown himself on the floor in the middle of the airport, screaming that he can’t go another step. One Traubenzucker and he’s good for at least 15 minutes, which will get you to your departure gate.

4. Request children’s meals
When you book your tickets online, you can usually also request a children’s meal for the little ones. It is still airplane fare, but it gets delivered earlier than the regular meal (thus eliminating the need for any kind of patience) and often includes things kids are more likely to eat. On our recent trip, our kids were asleep when the breakfast trays arrived, so we packed the mini milk cartons and cereal boxes, two plastic cups and spoons into our bags. When we arrived at our transfer airport, we sat at the gate and let the kids eat cereal for breakfast. They loved it.

5. Carry proper documentation
If one parent is traveling alone with the kids to another country, be sure to carry permission from the other parent. Ideally this should be notarized, but that costs a bit of money. I have always traveled with a letter signed by my husband, including his contact numbers, and a copy of his passport. Nobody has ever asked to see it. I also keep copies of all passports at home and in our luggage, just in case.

6. Skip layovers where possible
It might be tempting to save 100 Euro per ticket and fly via Atlanta or New York, then connect to your destination. Don’t (unless of course you are headed for the East Coast!). Once you get your toddler off the transatlantic flight, she won’t want to get back in another airplane for another long flight. In that moment, you will wish you spent the extra 100 bucks, just to shorten the trip. We fly Europe – West Coast U.S. direct, and have small transfers from Stuttgart, either to Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

7. Book a hotel at the airport
When flying alone with the kids, I booked a hotel at the Frankfurt airport. My husband drove us there, I checked in at the airline – kid-free – the night before, and we spent a night of “vacation” together in the hotel. The morning was leisurely and I only had to get them on the plane in Frankfurt and off again in Portland. I minimized our transit time by paying extra for a hotel room at the airport, and it was worth every cent.

8. Buy travel insurance
Many insurers in Germany offer a “Reiserücktrittsversicherung” which will cover the costs of canceling or rescheduling your trip, should you or a child be sick on the day of departure. Kids inevitably get sick when you have travel planned, and this insurance is very affordable. It has saved us hundreds in the last few years.

9. Pack a change of clothes
There are bound to be spills and leaks, and a full set of clothes for changing the kid is helpful. Unfortunately on our last flight, one leak spread onto my own jeans, for which I had no solution but to sit and endure it. We also pack their slippers so they don’t have to wear their shoes during the flight.

10. Grin and bear it
People will give you nasty looks, sigh loudly, and shake their heads. But that’s only some of them. Others will be incredibly kind and helpful, complimenting your child on such good behavior at the end of the trip. Admittedly, the likelihood of anyone helping you as you juggle a diaper bag, purse, backpack, stroller, and one or more children is higher on one side of the Atlantic than the other. The helpfulness of customs officials in the U.S. has surprised me in the past – one woman watched my kids while I retrieved the bags, then pushed the entire luggage cart through customs for me. I was near tears with gratitude. Ignore the nasty looks, say thank you for any help, and know that the trip will end soon and, hopefully, someone is waiting for you who can lift your spirits and lighten your burden.