You've just boarded a transatlantic flight with two kids, a stroller and a diaper bag. As you make your way up the aisle, other passengers avert their eyes, their body language shouting: "Please, don't sit here!" You know well the acute sense of relief they feel as you limp past them on your way to the back of the plane--after all, you used to be one of them. But flying across the ocean with the under-5 set doesn't have to be a total nightmare. A little preparation and some intelligent packing will go a long way.
Planning your flight:
Choosing a route is often the first step in making a long-haul flight with kids successful. Direct flights are best, but if you have a layover, try to schedule it near the beginning of the trip. "There's no way I'd want to tell the kids they have another flight after they just survived 11 hours in the air," says Scott Grove, who crosses the Atlantic as many as five times a year from Rome with his wife and three kids.
Many travel agents insist on booking bulkhead seats for passengers with kids because there's more legroom. Don't do it! You'll end up having to store your carry-on luggage in the overhead compartment during takeoff (since there's no seat in front of you), which makes it difficult to get a spit-up cloth or a sippy cup. This is especially problematic if your plane is stuck in a long queue and your child is thirsty--now. Another drawback is that the seat dividers generally don't lift up, which means that if your toddler wants to sleep with his head on your lap, he has to somehow lie across the hard divider to do so.
If you are bringing a stroller to wheel the kids between airport gates, you will undoubtedly be asked to "gate check" it when you board the plane. Gate checking is not a guarantee that your stroller will be at the gate when you disembark. Rather, about half the time it will be with your bags in baggage claim. Grove's wife, Ruth, once ended up carrying three grumpy kids across Heathrow--by herself. If you cannot possibly transit between gates without your stroller, make sure you have a collapsible one that will fit in an overhead bin, and come prepared to guilt-trip the flight attendants if necessary. Bottom line: if you really need that stroller, don't let it out of your sight.
Most parents split up the carry-on bags. One is for necessities like powdered milk or formula, diapers (always bring more than you need), wipes, juice boxes, water and food. In it you should also have multiple changes of clothing for each child--and a change of shirt for each parent. A second carry-on bag should have toys for the kids. Package toys individually or in sets by putting them in plastic food bags so you won't have to rummage through all the luggage to find a missing Lego piece.
Food, too, is crucial to a successful trip. Make sure to bring what you know your child will eat. "I'm bringing meatball sandwiches because that is [my daughter's] favorite food," says Elizabeth Shick, who travels regularly from Rome to Australia and to the United States with her husband and 2 1/2-year-old daughter Rebecca.
When your kids have extra energy, it is perfectly acceptable to let them walk the aisle with your supervision. Apologize to people around you but don't go overboard--after all, your kid has his own seat that you bought. Keep your kids clean(ish), too. Cute and adorable go a long way when you need your fellow passengers to be sympathetic.
Finally, don't panic:
No matter how hard you try, your child may just collapse in tears and cry throughout the journey. But the minute you, too, stress out, you've lost the battle. Stay calm and remember that the sobbing is loudest to you and that the hum of the airplane will help insulate most of the passengers from the tantrum.
Above all, try to use this time to give your children the undivided attention they don't often get. Don't read the newspaper; instead, read them a book or talk to them, build a Lego tower with them or help them put stickers in their book. Look out the window and try to find shapes in the clouds below. The trip will go faster for you, too. Getting there, even with kids, can be half the fun.