In 2008 my husband, 3 year old daughter Vivi, and I spent 3 amazing weeks in China. This was no ordinary vacation- though we would be sightseeing and playing tourists for some of the time- this trip was to bring home our new 3.5 year old son from faraway Urumqi. I am re-writing our journal here, adding in travel tips for parents traveling with kids. My goal is to inspire families to travel together- even with kids!
Here are our tips and packing list for surviving long plane rides with kids.
We flew directly from Chicago to Beijing, and it “only” took 13 and a half hours to fly the 6500 miles. It’s funny to leave in the morning on Wednesday, cross over the international dateline, and lose a day as we land Thursday at 3pm. My dad had been doing this for years as a commercial airline pilot and I was always confused as a kid when he would come home on a Sunday morning, and tell us he already had eaten breakfast on Sunday morning.
This was not our first trip abroad with Vivi: she had been to Ireland and several times to Mexico. But this time we would add in another 3.5 year old, who wouldn’t understand us, and whose temperament was a mystery so far. Three year olds get a bad rap- but if you start them young, they can get used to it and travel pretty well. Well-prepared parents are the key to a successful trip on long plane rides with kids!
This is what our 13+ hour flight looked like with a 3 year old: snack, walk to potty, read books; snack, walk to potty, put stickers in in-flight magazine, color; snack, walk to potty, play dough, play peekaboo with neighbors; snack, walk to potty, beg Vivi to snuggle and rest for a bit (to no avail). In addition to preventing deep vein thrombosis, the countless trips to the back of the plane past rows of sleeping people (and kids!) finally wore Vivi out and let her sleep about 3 hours. Here’s what our “Bag-o’-Fun” looked liked- not only for the flight, but for the 3 week trip:
Packing for Long Plane Rides with Kids:
* Crayons, coloring books, a tracing book, and a blank notebook: Kumon makes great little workbooks that have colorful graphics and keep even 3 year olds busy! The “Let’s Color” and “My First Tracing” seen above are both from Kumon. Now that my kids are a little bigger, we like doodling coloring books such as this, or this one.
* Stickers are essential. This huge sticker book is a great side-by-side book for parent and child on an airplane. I also bought $1 sticker packs from Michael’s or JoAnn Fabrics that have tiny stickers. Vivi loves to put these over people’s faces/eyes in the in-flight magazine (weird, but she loves it!)
* Look and Find Books are also great activities for kids– like I-Spy or Where’s Waldo, but for younger kids. I scored this Elmo one at a garage sale for 50 cents! They come in all of the favorite characters: Dora, Diego, Princesses, Thomas, etc, and ask kids to find certain pictures within the colorful and detailed scenes.
* Little tubs of play-dough (with a plastic knife or other random toy) were really popular- Vivi actually went to sit by another girl on the plane for a bit and they both played play-dough together for almost an hour!
* Schleich animals: Vivi is a huge animal-lover, and is in that imaginative state where she makes everything talk in a high-pitched voice:). These little animals go everywhere with us and she never tires. They are a bit pricey, but Target has them on clearance every couple of months. These are the only animal figures we have found that don’t lose their paint when kids chew on them (true).
* Ikea mini-stuffed animals: I picked up these new, very cheap little animal buddies because I wanted to thwart the crisis of losing a favorite stuffed animal, and the ensuing meltdown.
* Snacks galore!!!! Snacks are worth their weight in gold. (fast-forward a couple of years and I will say a DVD player is worth its weight in gold, but we hadn’t discovered that yet). I feel like you can change any unhappy, whiny, crabby child into a little angel with some carefully chosen snacks (especially those that are normally limited or forbidden, and probably include sugar). Remember that on the flight you can bring any food you’d like: just consume or throw it away before customs. We had the omnipresent goldfish, but also carrots, blueberries, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, applesauce and cheese in case Vivi didn’t love the airplane food. 13 hours is a long time for a 3 year old!:) In MY carry-on, far from prying, curious hands, I hid some lollypops which saved us later in the trip. Used sparingly, sugar bribes really do stop meltdowns in their tracks.
* Empty sippy cup– to be filled after security. Starbucks will sell you cold milk for the price of a steamed milk (and nice employees will just fill the big sippy for that same low price), and McDonald’s also sells smaller containers of milk. Also, in-flight the flight attendants will fill with milk, water, juice, etc.
* An extra set of clothes, in my carry-on. Murphy’s Law says you’ll only need them if you forget to pack them, so we made sure to carry extra undies and a lightweight outfit in my carry-on, in case of accidents. We were traumatized on a flight returning from Mexico one winter when Vivi had rotovirus, and will never, ever forget extra clothes for our kids!
My last pieces of advice for the flight: do your best to keep your kids form practicing kung-fu on the seat in front of them- happy passengers are more likely to help when they are not getting beat up; screaming tantrums can be transferred to the plane’s rear bathrooms where the engines muffle the noise better; if all else fails, have a sense of humor on long plane rides with kids: your flight does end at some point, and you’ll probably never see these passengers again!
We made it to Beijing in one piece- tired but SO excited!
Do you and your kids have any favorite must-have items for trips?
Aaron the Ogre says
I flew with my kids to and from Korea eleven times. I really appreciate your advice. I wish there was enough snacks for the (mostly American) complainers on the flight (BTW: I’m American). My kids did their best, but the other passengers always made these trips harder than they needed to be.
Eleven times! You’ve earned a medal:). Apparently, kids are not the only crabby travelers when they’re hungry! I agree though- kids get a bad rap, but most of them are really troopers- it sounds like your kids are!
I’m still too exhausted from my traveling home from Ethiopia 1 1/2 years ago to blog about it yet!! One thing that I didn’t do, but regretted… When we arrived at our first airport in the states (still had another flight), I had a clean set of clothes for the both of us & practically bathed my little one in the women’s room. I considered washing my hair in the sink, but didn’t. When we arrived at our home airport & friends were there with cameras I wished I had!! Thirty hours of travel is rough!! Thanks for sharing!!
That is a great idea! 🙂 Isn’t that so true- keep the cute, clean outfit that will be used for the photos until the last 5 minutes of the flight- or right when you land! I’m passing this on to future adoptive parents:).
Julie Wilkin Mladic says
When our 2 kids came home from Peru, they had a clean outfit put on right before they got off the airplane. Our daughter was very ill, so it was a great idea! Thanks Becky!
Jennifer W says
Here’s my trip to China with a 3-year-old, http://www.lianmakes4.blogspot.com/2007/09/50-ways-to-get-to-china.html
I love it!:) Laughed out loud several times- glad you made it safe and sound, and sorry that you forgot the chocolate!!!!!
Marie Keränen says
Hi! A great story! We are expecting a member to the extended family in the near future through adoption and I would be very interested in hearing how you dealt with the language issues (in other words not having a common language with the child?)I have been looking for information on what would be the best way to go about it for the child, but can’t seem to find any. I’ve also been confused that many online resources suggest that keeping the child’s native language alive might not be worth it (and sometimes even detrimental) and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this… thank you!
Marie ( France)
We went against the advice of “professionals” and taught our children English and Spanish at the same time. We also have our kids in Mandarin. It is very difficult to maintain their language, but if you have access to tutors or friends of the language, I would highly recommend trying to maintain- what a wonderful connection to their culture and birthland. I suspect that the people advising against keeping the native language are monolingual themselves? We tried to maintain Chinese in our son, but he quickly lost it to Spanish and English- but now is learning it back in classes. With our son from Ethiopia, we could not find anyone who spoke his native language (Sidamigna). However we would love for him to learn Amharic! I think multilingualism is never detrimental, and always an advantage (in my humble opinion!).
Jennifer W says
Sign language – kids pick it up fast. Our second daughter’s special need meant she was not understandable in any langauge- but she picked up Sign very fast- she had over a dozen signs before we left China. We used it with our older daughter too, great for bridging the terrible twos when they know what they want – but can’t tell you.
I second the sign language! “more” and “milk” were learned while still in China (the most important words in my son’s world:). Great point Jennifer!
richard p. says
We used a few key words like potty, food, go to sleep, I love you etc. The one word our 3 year old hated was “no”! Pointing was big and somehow we all managed. Language came pretty fast, so don’t worry. I cannot see how learning a new language can be detrimental. A kids mind is like a sponge and they just absorb everthing. We tried Chinese with both ou our kids but it did not last longer than a year. There was just too much going on to make it work (getting them to scholl, homework etc) and they had no interest what so ever. To be honest, we felt that going to class once a week for 3 hours would not get them too far along anyway (just my opinion). We got around the gilt by keeping them in piano class. We both felt music was just as important as language.
I love that you have your kids in piano from a young age! Music, like language, is much easier to learn when you are younger- and a skill they will always be able to enjoy!
richard p. says
We figured they could learn Chinese later in an imersion program while spending the summer there. You can’t learn to play the piano and understand music (well, anyway) as an adult. We would have loved to do both but it just was not possible.
I agree! Have you heard about that great immersion program where the kids stay at a university in China for part of a summer? I can’t recall the name… but I think they kids need to be at least 8 or 10. The parents can also stay in the dorms. I’ll need to go look up the name of the program…
richard p. says
There are several such programs. Many colleges and university’s have some as well. We were at an event and a college senior gave a presentation in Manderin. He had never studied until he was in college but spent 2 summers in the college’s emersion program. That is when my wife and I stopped felling guilty. A herrityage tour will come first – probably next year as our youngest will be 9 and our oldest will be entering junior year of high school.
richard p. says
Nice blog! I would like to mention that we traveled in 2007 to get our 2nd daughter who was 36 mo. The dvd player and movies had no effect on her, so don’t count on it! Snacks, toys, activities and above all patience is key.
YES: “snacks, toys, activities and above all PATIENCE is key” I completely agree:). Hunger and boredom are huge triggers! Your daughter came home at almost the same age as our sons (son #1 42 months in 2008; and son #2 35 months in 2010). A fun but very busy age!