Transpacific Flight with Four Kids

Getting ready to fly to Taiwan.
READY TO FLY!

A lot of people ask me how we make it across the Pacific Ocean with little children.  Getting them across the ocean is the easy part; it’s getting them to the gate that is the hard part!  With enough traveling, we have figured out what we need to do prior to the day of departure as well as what needs to be done at the airport.

PRIOR TO DEPARTURE:

1. Purchase your tickets!

2. Call the airline a couple of days after you purchase your ticket.  (Some airlines don’t let you make the below reservations until 90 days before your flight.)

  • Request infant and/or children’s meals.  These meals can be a lifesaver.  The infant meal is usually a bag of jarred baby food (usually 4 small bottles) and bottled juice that they give you prior to take off.  This gives you the ability to feed your baby at his/her own schedule.  The children’s meals usually are better than the adult meals!  My kids usually eat them up; the entree is always something familiar like mac and cheese or spaghetti.  They always bring out the kid meal before they start the cabin food service.
  • Reserve a bassinet seat!  Not all airlines have bassinet seats available, but If you have an infant (0 – 18 months), you should check to see if your flight has a bassinet seat and reserve one! The bassinet seat is on the bulk head aisle.  After the flight has taken off, the flight attendant will install a bassinet in to the wall.  This gives your baby his/her own bed, and a relief to your arms so you don’t have to hold your baby the whole flight.  When you call, the agent will tell you the maximum length and weight your child can be in order to use the bassinet.  The bassinet is more convenient for the little babies under one, but my 15 month old slept great in it.  She was 2 inches longer than the maximum length I was told on the phone, but since the flight attendant set it up without asking me, I thought I would see if she could fit.  It was a perfect fit.  Even if your child is too big for the bassinet, this seat in front of the bulk head is great because you won’t have anyone trying to lean their chair back in front of you, and your child will have some room on the floor to play around.  If you have more than one child and you reserve this seat, the agent will try to arrange your children to be either on that row or as close as possible. This latest flight, I was in the bassinet seat and the rest of my family was in the row behind us.
The
The “family couch” on China Airlines.
  • The family couch?!?  China Airlines has a new row that is called “The Family Couch”. It is called this because each of the chairs in the row have a foot rest that can come all the way up so it is the same height as your seat; it creates a big bed. When I was booking our tickets, my husband and I almost purchased this row of tickets for a higher price, but decided against it because we didn’t really understand how it worked.  To our surprise, when we were on our flight, one of the flight attendants was extremely kind and wanted to let us use the family couch row.  I was extremely interested because I really wanted to see what it was like.  Two of my boys and myself moved to the family couch while my husband stayed back in the bassinet seat.  Ultimately I did like the family couch.  The seatbelts were kind of restrictive to wear while laying down, but if there isn’t turbulence, the couch is fantastic.  The boys were able to lay down completely and sleep soundly.  The only hesitation is that I would suggest that the adult sit on the aisle seat.  I made the mistake of sitting by the window and I was blocked in there while the kids were sleeping (duh!).

3. Pack! All I can say is pack LIGHT!  The less luggage you have to keep track of, the less stressed you will be traveling to your destination, and back.  I always keep in mind that it is really only your passport (and visas, if applicable) that you definitely need.  If you forget something, don’t sweat it!  You can find practically anything at your arrival city; maybe not the brands you are familiar with, but whatever you find will do the job while on your trip. I feel like our trips are enhanced when we try new local products when abroad.

Since our kids are still smaller, I do not have them carry any bags.  Why is this?  Because my husband and I will end up being the ones carrying all their stuff.  I think it adorable when little kids have their own little suitcases and backpack, but when you are flying for a long time and switching airports, the less you have you have to keep track of, the better.

When we go abroad for 3 months of research, we keep our baggage to 2 checked bags (a large roller board and a backpacking backpack) and 3 carry ons.  This is what we found to be the best set up for us. It is great to have a big backpack and only one roller board because at least one of us with have both hands free for any little kid(s) that need help.

When we pack our carry ons, we make sure that we have something for the kids to do on the plane.  Our children keep themselves occupied with the tv screens in their seats, but if we are on a domestic flight that doesn’t have these screens, we have an iPad and iPhones loaded with movies, books, and homework to occupy their time.  For the littler kids, they usually fall asleep or are occupied by a toy we have brought.  It is also fun to have a few treats in your bag for the older kids, and some bit size food for the baby.

When we travel to Asia with a baby 2 years or younger, we DO NOT travel with a car seat or stroller.  The only thing we bring is a baby carrier.  The first time we went abroad to Thailand with our 6 month old, we brought everything–the carseat, the HUGE stroller, the mosquito netting, EVERYTHING!!  I could only use our stroller on the roads in a rural village we lived in.  We could never have used the stroller in the cities because their sidewalks are too uneven or too narrow for the stroller wheels.  The only option would be to stroll in the street and that is just dangerous.  But cheap, small strollers are always an option if you are already at your destination instead of bringing it along on the flight over. The car seat could be handy, but anytime we have rented a car in Thailand, they have let us rent the car seat for free.  But I would pay money to rent a car seat rather than have the hassle of bringing it along.  There is a new booster seat called MiFold (http://www.mifold.com/) that is suppose to come out at the end of the year that I am extremely excited about.  These boosters are very compact and I would definitely bring them along when we travel out of the US next year!

THE AIRPORT:

1. Go to the Ticket Counter.  You always have to go to the ticket counter when you have an infant traveling with you.  I don’t know if this is the case if a child (over 2 yrs) is traveling with you because I always have had an infant.  I always prefer going to the ticket counter anyway because I know everything is done correctly and it was done all together, as a family.  When you have to go to the kiosk, you have to do everything for each individual which is more stressful.  And having to do the kiosk while keeping track of the kids can be a pain so I would much rather give my passports to an agent, have them do the work, and I’ll just watch the kids.  It makes for much longer lasting happy kids and parents!

2.  Go through Security. Security always seems to be daunting for families with little kids, but I’ve gotten to the point where it isn’t that big of a deal.  The trick is to pack light and keep a positive attitude even if you have to wait in long lines!!

When we go through security, we have our 3 carry ons: my bag with baby’s necessities and one small toy/item that each of the kids has chosen to bring, my husband’s computer bag, and a smaller backpack with all the electronics or expensive equipment we didn’t want in our checked bags.

If you are lucky, hopefully your tickets indicate that you can go in the TSA pre-check line.  This line is always shorter, but sometimes some agents are just nice and will let you go in this line anyway!  It is always nicer to go in the shorter line so the kids won’t be cranky, but even if you have to wait the line, it goes pretty quick.  The best thing to do in a long line is to stay positive.  Ask your kids questions. Make some sort of game. Think of something that will entertain the kids to do.

Once you have given your passports to the TSA guys who checks your passport with your ticket, then on to the X-rays!  I always hear about what you do and don’t have to do at security anymore, but it seems like they keep going back to the original post-9/11 rules so that is what I do every time we go through security.  I have found that this is the fastest way to get through security because you’re not asking the TSA attendant what is or isn’t allowed, and you aren’t getting stopped right in front of the scanner with the agent telling you to do this or that.  My goal is always to be faster than the individuals around us, and we usually are.  That is my treat to them since they have had to stand in line with my kids!

  •  Take off shoes, jackets, belts, and anything in pockets.
  • Take out liquids from the bags. If I have a baby, I ALWAYS bring a bottle of milk through security with me.  I always take it out of my bag and put it in the basket with my bag.  If you have a bottle filled with milk, once you go through the body scanner, they will test the milk and make sure it is milk.  I have taken squeeze apple sauces on the airplane with us before.  I wasn’t sure they would allow it because I think they were 3.4 ounces.  I set them outside my bag with the bottle and they didn’t have a problem with them.
  • Take baby out of baby carrier. Some airports will let you keep a cloth baby carrier on (not the huge, backpack ones) through the scanner, but once they do, they will have you stand aside and someone will swab your hands to test whether you have any residue of a harmful chemical on your hands.
  • Take out laptop and iPads.

The order in which we go through the body scanner is–all the boys first, then myself and the baby, and dad is at the rear making sure everything gets through the x-ray machine.

Up to this point, security is a breeze, but then you get to the end of the x-ray machine and all your stuff is piled up and there is this sense of urgency to get all your stuff off the belt as fast as you can.  Take a breath.  First, take the basket of shoes (which should be the first basket) and move it to one of the nearby benches.  Have the kids sit down and put on their shoes (this occupies my kids for a few minutes! I like doing this because I know exactly where the kids are and I’m not trying to keep track of them while I am dealing with making sure we have everything from the x-ray machine), then I put the baby back in the carrier while my husband is putting the electronics back in his bag.

Horray, security is done!

3. Waiting for your flight. There are many things that you can do while waiting for a flight.  You can always watch the airplanes out the window (the younger ones love that!), look through the gift shops, or sit near someone with kids so hopefully their kids and your kids can entertain each other.  I hesitate saying that an option is to give your kids an iPad–this is usually the last option if we have exhausted all other options.  But iPad doesn’t simply mean game playing; there are a lot of educational apps and books that you can have entertain your children.

If we have to wait a few hours for the flight, whether it is the first flight or a layover, the kids always think it is fun to eat in the terminal.  We usually scope out all the different food options and then let the kids pick whichever food option they want to go to.  This is always a treat to them and always makes the mood better!

If there is a shorter wait time or you don’t need a meal, we have the kids go to one of the book shops or convenient shop and let them pick out their favorite treat, drink, or a little toy.  We usually don’t let them spend over $5.  This is always a treat for the kids as well and occupies their time for the rest of the waiting time before the flight.

4. Boarding.

Domestic flights: If you have to make a domestic flight to connect to your international flight, depending on your airline, they may or may not announce family pre-boarding.  I think in recent years, US airlines have stopped announcing when families can board and have put them in the general boarding group.  I still think that airlines still let families board before the general boarding group, they simply don’t announce it anymore.  I usually wait for the break after the first and elite classes have been called, then I will take my whole family up to the ticket person.  We have always been allowed on board at that time, and not once have we been told that we couldn’t board or that we had to wait until general boarding has been called.  I don’t know if it is the particular airline we use or maybe each of the ticket agents have been sympathetic, but I think it is worth a try. I know that many travelers don’t like seeing families go first, but I feel like we are doing them a favor so the kids aren’t bothering them while waiting in a line.  But it isn’t the end of the world if you have to wait in line.  I feel like the more my kids have the experience of waiting in lines, the better they become at being patient and waiting.

International flights: On all transpacific flights we have taken, there has been family pre-boarding.  We fly on international airlines, so I don’t know if US airlines have family pre-boarding as an option for international flights.  We have had great experiences with Family Pre-boarding when flying internationally. Since you are one of the first people on board the plane, the flight attendants have time to help you with bags, meet the kids, and a lot of time the attendants will have a toy or sketch pad that they give the kids as gifts for flying their airline.   At this point, you should get anything out of your bags that the kids will need during the flight and put it in their chair pockets so you don’t have to find them while in flight.

THE FLIGHT:

Games and Movies at their disposal.
Games and Movies at their disposal.

Yes, transpacific flights are LONG, but surprisingly, they go by pretty quickly.  I think that the flight attendants break up the flight nicely with their meal services. Transpacific flights are about 11-15 hours long.  There are three meals that are provided.  On my last flight, there were two hot meals and then one boxed meal.  But throughout the flight, the attendants were offering water and snacks throughout.  I always feel like we are constantly being fed!  There is about a 6 hour break when they are trying to let everyone sleep which is nice.

What to do with the kids while on the flight? Many people bring toys to keep their kids occupied for a long flight.  If you know what will occupy your children and make them happy, bring that!  I have found that all my kids are happy with the screen on the chair in front of them.  My 5 and 7 yr olds love to peruse the movies and games; they feel very independent getting the chance to choose what they want on their own screen.  My 3 yr old enjoys picking his own movie to watch. There is always the iPad and iPhones as a back up if they don’t find anything they like on the airline screens.  My kids also sleep A LOT on the plane!

Peek-a-boo
Peek-a-boo

The infant is always the questionable one as to how she will do on the flight!  Once we get on the flight, I sit her in her assigned chair (my chair).  If she tries to get into another chair, I return her to her seat. I feel like this helps her understand where she needs to stay.  I also don’t let her get on the floor. If she gets time on the floor at the beginning of the flight, she will think she owns it and will want to be walking up and down the aisles the whole flight.  I have found it is just easier to establish these perimeters early in the flight.  If she need to walk around and get some energy out, I will take her to the back of the plane where she can walk around without bothering anyone.  Then once we return to our seat, continue the perimeter, but I can open it up so she can sit with her brothers and dad.  I am not always this strict about the plane routine.  It also depends on the passengers next around me.  If there are passengers who love kids and want to play with her, then I am more relaxed about letting her venture to people.  But if we sit by people who obviously want to be left alone, then I will not let her venture out.

If I have a baby/infant, I always bring a pacifier on the plane!  I don’t know if this is true, but I was told that you always have your baby suck on a pacifier during the lift off and descent; supposedly, the sucking will pop their ears and their ears won’t bother them during the flight.  A pacifier is just a great thing to have to quiet a baby!

I have a lot of people ask me whether I give my baby any medication when we go on a flight to encourage the baby to sleep.  I have never given my baby/kids anything.  I don’t think it is necessary.  I want my kids to be good travelers on their own, and frankly, they already sleep a lot on flights.  I think the trick with having a small baby on a plane is to be patient and relaxed.  A baby can sense when you are uptight, especially when it is crying, which usually prolongs the crying.  I always got panicky when my babies cried on a flight; I didn’t want to be THAT person whose baby wouldn’t stop crying.  The fact is, babies cry! There are many things about a flight that can upset a baby.  The things that aided me when I had a small baby were: a pacifier, a bottle of milk, a toy, diapers and wipes.  It is also a good idea to get up and walk with the baby; it is easy for a little baby to get air bubbles in the tummy that need to get out.  Moving about can definitely get the baby happy again.

Breastfeeding is tricky on a plane. Each time I have breastfed while on a plane, I luckily was in a window seat and my husband was next to me so nobody noticed what I was doing it.  If I knew I had to breastfeed my baby during a flight and I was sitting by a stranger, I would definitely ask the person (prior to departure) if they minded me feeding my baby.  If they didn’t agree, I would have the attendant find me a new seat next to someone who didn’t mind or maybe a seat on my own.

TOUCH DOWN!

It is always a relief when you have landed at your final destination.  All Asian airports have the same procedures when entering their country.  Depending on which country you enter, you may need to fill out a customs form.  The flight attendant on your flight will provide you with one if you need one; they will also let you know if you only need one form per family or one form per individual.

Jetlag is setting in while standing in the Immigration line.
Jetlag is setting in while standing in the Immigration line.

1. Immigration/Passport Control: The first stop after you get off the plane will be immigration/passport control.  Airports in Asia are great because if they see you have a family, you will usually be moved to the shortest line.  Once it is our time with the agent, I always give the agent our stack of passports with our customs form(s) stuck in the appropriate passport; I have found that this is how agents prefer dealing with families.  It is common at passport control to have your picture taken.  Some countries take pictures of just the adults, but some take photos of everyone in the family.  Also, something that was new this year was that we got our index fingers scanned when we landed in Ho Chi Minh City. So don’t be alarmed if these are required when you enter a country. The part of passport control that I find the funniest is when the agents are trying to figure out which kid belongs to which passport.  My kids look quite similar and we always have to point our who is who.  Once the agent is finished stamping the passports, s/he will return them to you, and you can pass through the immigration area.

2 Baggage Claim: Next stop is baggage claim.  It is always nice to see that your bags have made the long journey!  Find a luggage cart, and stake the luggage on it.  Once you have located everything, look for the exit.

3. Customs:  Just before the exit, you will have to walk through customs.  Usually customs is simply a few people standing and looking at your luggage as you pass by.  We have never been stopped at customs so I don’t know what questions they would ask if we were stopped.

The next big task is to find a way out of the airport!  But before you leave, stop by an ATM.  The airport ATM is the fastest, easiest way to get foreign currency which you will need if you take any form of transportation out of the airport!

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