Updated: Jul 5
As an American living in Spain, I try to make it a point to get home to the US to visit my parents and family every other summer. Lately, we've been lucky enough to travel every summer and stay for a few weeks at a time. As if transatlantic travel with children wasn't tricky enough, I usually make one of the trips (either the trip from Spain to the US or vice versa) on my own with the kids.
The first transatlantic flight I ever made solo with a baby was when my oldest was just 8 months old and I was 12 weeks pregnant with our second child. Since then I've made many more and the last one I made was with a newly walking 1.5-year-old, a recently potty-trained 3-year-old, a 7-year-old, and an 8-year-old. Oh yeah, and it was during the summer of 2020 in the midst of the Covid pandemic so we wore masks the whole time (except the two little guys).
Something that comes up on a lot of international forums is moms asking for tips for flying with babies and young toddlers. How can I keep a toddler occupied on a long-haul flight? What should I pack in my carry-on for flying with my baby? How will I survive a transatlantic flight with an energetic toddler?!
When these posts come up, I'm always quick to offer the information I've gathered from years of personal experience and the experiences of friends. Here are helpful international travel tips with small children:
To pack in your carry-on:
Pack a change of clothes for everyone (mother included!). Roll the clothes so they take up less space & put them in a gallon Ziploc bag.
Pack some extra plastic grocery bags or Ziploc bags for any messy clothing you may have to keep wrapped up until you reach your destination
Make sure each person has a light sweater or sweatshirt. Even though they provide blankets, it's often very cold on these 8+ hour flights and it's easier for kids to keep a sweater on than a blanket.
Snacks, snacks and more snacks! Some of my go-to's are:
small salty crackers
trail mix (though keep in mind nuts are a risk for children under the age of 5)
alllll the fruit pouches (yep, even my 9-year-old is still a fan)
mini fuet (this is specific to those of you flying out of Spain)
I'll note that I'm aware these snacks are mostly full of salt, but they are some of the easiest things to take for small kids and be sure they'll be interested in eating them. I try not to pack anything that will go bad or get forgotten and squished all over the bag (like bananas).
Use a soft-structure baby carrier (like an Ergo, Tula, Beco, Lillebaby, etc) to wear the youngest while getting on and off the plane or while pushing the carry-on luggage in the stroller through the airport.
I also usually wear my littlest while going to the bathroom on the plane though last time I flew I was seated near the bathroom and my daughter (8yo) kept an eye on the little guy for those two minutes.
Prepare a diaper changing bag with wipes, a few diapers and rash cream in a Ziploc bag and put it in the pocket of the seat in front of you as soon as you sit down for easy access to grab and take to the bathroom for changes
Pack another Ziploc bag of medicine you might need for yourself and your kids. Note the dosage for each child on a small piece of paper tucked into it the bag. I also carry a thermometer just in case. Some medication you might need:
Pack twice as many diapers, wipes, and formula milk as you think you'll need. You never know when you might get a delay or other issue pop up and you cannot be caught unprepared with little ones.
Bring a few activities like Water Wow books, sticker books (Usborne books are my favorites for this) and small toys. One toy that kept all my toddlers occupied for ages was a simple toy I made by cutting a small hole in the lid of a water bottle and filling the water bottle with straws. Something like this.
Take tablets and headphones for each child if you can. Otherwise, take headphones (something made of flexible material and made for kids, with a noise limit) for each child to use the in-flight entertainment with them. I always recommend having the absolute favorites loaded on the tablet/phone and saving them for later in the flight if you can so you always have that last trick up your sleeve for when they get really antsy.
Arrive to the airport as early as possible to request the bassinet if your baby is small and to let the kids get energy out at the airport before the flight if they're a little bigger. Some airlines now charge a fee for the bassinet even if it's available so that's something to ask about when you book your tickets.
Take a stroller you can fold with one hand (for putting through the scanning machines)
Trunkis or other hard shell carry-ons are easy to pack in an organized fashion and Trunkis in particular are pretty fun for kids to ride on through the airport.
Ask for help when needed - people usually offer if you're traveling alone, but it doesn't hurt to ask!
Request the kids' food on the plane to be served before yours and request your tray after they've finished. This is especially helpful if you have toddlers who need a lot of help opening all the airplane food. It makes it so much easier to eat your own meal.
Practice with the headphones at home before travel so your little ones are used to it. While screen time for babies isn't great, it can be a tool to get through a long, necessary flight so you can arrive sane to your destination.
Pack all the passports and info you'll need for the trip in one folder. Be careful about storing this folder in the seat pocket when traveling with children. I once left it behind on a plane and didn't realize until the airport called us the next day! With three small kids it was easy to forget!
Fill out your customs declaration form before flying, print it, and store it with passports.
During non-Covid times there are some fantastic children's areas in the Madrid airport. We always visit these as soon as we get through security and it's a major reason we like to arrive as early as possible. There is a small kitchen for preparing food and bottles, a nap area with cribs, baby baths, and changing stations in addition to the play area. This one is in T4 (near the McDonald's just past security):
Take a deep breath and remind yourself you can do anything for x number of hours!
Long-haul air travel with children, whether you're on your own or with a partner, can seem overwhelming, but with experience and patience you may find it doable. In my case, I know it's the only pathway to visiting my family so I prepare as best I can and keep those deep breaths at the ready.
I hope these tips and bits of information help you as you prepare for your trip with little ones!
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