Screaming on a Jet Plane: Traveling Overseas with Kids

Traveling Overseas with Kids

When I tell people my husband’s from Australia and that we lived there for several years, I think they imagine a life with a gorgeous, Chris Hemsworth-ian man on a beach surrounded by kangaroos, exotic fruit and Fosters beer. That vision is, unfortunately, quite far from reality. The main difference between our life and the lives of people with fewer international situations is that half our children’s family lives in another country, so we are destined (or doomed) to take one of the longest overseas journeys in existence until we die.

Recently, we traveled back to ‘Oz’ for the first time since we moved from there two and a half years ago, lugging a four year old, a two year old and my five-month pregnant belly along for the ride. I will from here on out chronicle our trip for you, dear reader, so that if you too are one day stupid enough to attempt such an ambitious journey with such small children, hopefully you can recreate our triumphs and avoid our mistakes.

The Journey

This was, to be honest, my main area of concern and what I focused on prior to the trip because honestly, flying sucks, right? The idea of navigating airport crowds and then being forced to sit in a tube in the sky for hours on end makes me as an adult woman want to throw a full-on screaming fit, so I couldn’t imagine how actual children would behave. For our actual time spent in the airports and on the plane, most of my prep work involved buying any and everything I could to possibly make the trip less horrendous. Here’s what I got:

Cheap stroller: Hustling through airports is hard no matter who you are, so if you have kids under the age of 6ish, throwing them in a stroller is a great way to get things moving along. I bought a cheap, old double umbrella stroller for the boys from a consignment sale a few months before the trip because it folded up smaller than our fancy stroller and at $25, I didn’t really care if the airport folks broke it (like they so often do) when tossing it under the plane.

He's unsure about all of this...

He’s unsure about all of this…

CARES Harnesses: The great debate of ‘Should we take the car seats?’ cycled through my house for weeks. Once we realized that our U.S. seats wouldn’t work in our Australian rental car anyway, the pro-car seat regime (a.k.a. me) had to cede the floor. (Seriously, if you’re going overseas, check your car seat adaptability as early as possible so you can avoid such an asinine argument.) Anyway, I read about CARES harnesses, which are the only FAA-approved harness for kids on planes. They also cost a whopping $75 a pop, and since I was pretty sure we would never want to step on a plane again after this trip, Australian family or no, I didn’t want to drop that much cash on something that may only get one use. Thanks to Google I stumbled across, where I could rent two harnesses for less than half the price of buying one. The harnesses showed up on time, in great condition and were such a Godsend for the flights. Rather than having to lug one of our giant car seats around, the harnesses fit neatly into our carry-on and safely kept the boys hunkered down through all the flights. If you’re flying anywhere with kids, I HIGHLY recommend checking out Rent Cares. (And no, I’m not being paid for this endorsement. Still waiting on that call from Old Navy, though).

In-flight Entertainment: In the weeks leading up to the trip, I trolled the Target dollar section for any and all interesting books of the sticker, coloring and board variety in a desperate attempt to keep my kids from driving our fellow passengers to murder. I bought special kid-sized headphones for the in-flight TV screens, granola bars, little bags of cereal and new Duplo. All of these things brought me some, if not overwhelming, success. I would still recommend loading up before a trip just in case your kids aren’t as ridiculously finicky as mine. The boys stayed busy enough, but got bored much quicker than I anticipated. The two things that really seemed to do the trick were this magnetic book that my lovely friend Steph gave to the boys as a going away present that I’m pretty sure she used some kind of voodoo on because they fought over it the ENTIRE time and…

Benadryl: I always felt really gross about drugging my kids with Benadryl. However, everyone in creation, from the nurse at our doctor’s office to the random lady at Gap Kids recommended I take some along. After the boys slept almost eight hours straight on the way to Sydney, let’s just say, I no longer feel gross about it.

The Destination

Most of you have, at one point or another, probably taken a trip away from home with your children, even if you had to be drugged and beaten by pushy family members in order to do so. Overseas travel is really no different, except that the trip is usually longer, therefore requires more crap to make your little ones feel at home enough to leave you alone and go to sleep. We brought the usual, necessary nighttime supplies: blankets, stuffed animals, and my technological life mate: the noise machine. (Seriously, if I could divorce my husband and legally marry that thing, I would. It’s brought more joy and reliability to my life than any human being ever could.) In all my planning and packing and Googling, however, I didn’t anticipate what turned out to be the hardest and most enduring part of our trip: the JET LAG.

What jet lag does to a nice family photo.

What jet lag does to a nice family photo.

Now, I’ve traveled internationally several times in my life and I always experience some degree of jet lag. Why I didn’t realize that my children would experience the same phenomenon, only to the thousandth degree because they’re babies and therefore everything is that much worse, I don’t know. What I do know is that both my children woke up anywhere between 1am and 3am every night for eight out of the thirteen nights we stayed in Sydney and refused to go back to sleep for several hours, if at all. After about the fourth or fifth night I was seriously considering calling it a loss and killing us all. We finally resorted to waking them up at about 12:30am and giving them a dose of our new best pal Benadryl so that they’d hopefully sleep until at least 6am.

There are ways to prepare your children for the horrors of jet lag, says the internet, but none could have really worked in our case. Many people say to gradually move your child to the time of your destination in the days leading up to your flight. Australia is anywhere between 14 and 16 hours ahead of Chattanooga, depending on the time of year, so unless we wanted to live like literal vampires before the trip, that just wouldn’t have been feasible. We just had to take it on the chin, exhausted and hating each other as we shuffled downstairs for a delicious 2:30am breakfast.

We also had about a week’s worth of jet lag when we arrived home, but at least we were in our own house where the children can be told just to stop screaming and look at a book for a while. Our pediatrician recommended using children’s melatonin, which we had some success with, but it still seemed to be a matter of just waiting it out.

So, in the case of jet lag, you’re on your own, dear reader. I have no great advice other than to alert you that it actually exists and that children get it, which is more information than I was apparently working with this time around. Your choices are to either a) schedule your trip for longer so you can recover from jet lag and then enjoy yourself or b) never go anywhere more than two time zones from where you live until your kids are old enough to go alone. I’m leaning towards option b, myself.


Despite my snarkiness, we did have a great time visiting wonderful family, friends and kangaroos. I really am grateful that my kids have two beautiful countries to call home and that we’re financially and physically able to show them both. Traveling with kids can be an incredible experience for both them and you, but understanding what obstacles you may face and having a plan is the best way to make sure everyone has the most amazing time possible. So be prepared, be diligent and remember: unlike life, the best part of traveling with kids really is the destination, not the journey.

Unless you’re all jet lagged, in which case it’s all horrible.

Just kidding. Kind of.

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