I was dreading the more than 25 hours of flying we had ahead of us as a family of four. After adopting a 5-year-old boy from the Philippines and all the excitement of the life-changing trip, I was not excited about the airplane travel. Taking two kids under the age of 6 across the world is no easy task and, despite all worry and fears, we made it home safe and sound! 

This is how we travel with our kids so it is safe and fun for everyone involved. 

  1. Embrace the Hard Parts

Coming home from India with our 2-year-old daughter went amazingly and surprisingly well. I spent the week leading up to travel worrying about every single detail. I was sure our little girl would cry and disturb everyone on the plane and that it would be the worst experience of my life. It wasn’t. The flight attendants were patient and kind, the passengers were friendly and understanding and my daughter spent the overnight flight eating and sleeping, My husband was even able to sleep. I watched several movies and while there were a few tense moments, there were no meltdowns, no crying, and it was an overall pleasant experience. 

That ended at the immigration counter. The nice thing about having a two-year melting down was that immigration moves you to the front of the line and asks very few questions. Once we finally got into the airport to board the short domestic flight home, it was delayed. We waited in a line for an hour to be told they had no flights leaving until that evening. My baby was hungry and crying, I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours, and we had to go through security before there was a place to eat. We had all the bags we needed to re-check now that we were stateside and I just lost it. 

There were no chairs, so I dragged my bags and carried my baby to the nearest wall and almost fell to the ground. I searched the bags for food but all we had left after going through customs was a cold, soggy container of rice. I was trying to calm down our baby enough to get her to eat, but she was too tired, scared, and overstimulated to take a bite. When a child is too hungry and angry too calm down enough to eat, it is an incredibly frustrating circumstance as a parent. 

While I held my crying child and continued to cry like I was a child, my exasperated husband tried desperately to calm and comfort us. People must have stared and judged, but I didn’t care. I was so close to home and yet so far away. I would have hitched hiked to get home at that point. 

Now that I am older, wiser, and hopefully smarter, I look back and laugh at how young and scared I was as a new mom. I just wanted desperately to feed my baby and the smelly, loud airport was making that impossible. When we finally got through security and the airport restaurants opened up, we were able to get a real breakfast, find a comfy, quiet corner, and wait for our delayed flight. My daughter instantly fell asleep as we waited at our gate. 

I wish I had embraced the hard: leaned into it. Trying to fight it or worry about it helped no one. There will be hard parts when it comes to traveling home with your child. Accepting that it will be hard and embracing that can go a long way. Know it will be worth it in the end. 

  1. Prepare. 

My mom always told me to have more than you need in any situation. It would always be better to have something and not need it than to desperately need it and have no way to get it. When flying thousands of miles around the earth, that is especially true. When flying with a child whose whole life has been turned upside down, that is even more essential. 

There is the added complication of limited space in carry-on bags. How do we choose what to take and what to leave? I found myself asking myself questions like “What can’t we live without?”

I finally prioritized the following items: medicines and products that are difficult to get abroad, diapers and pull-ups, and extra clothing. Having lots of favorite snacks might be more important than anything else. I didn’t bring many toys. I allowed one coloring book pack for each kid and one toy.

I looked online and printed lists for traveling to help me decide what we would even need. I hate to say it, but even with all the prep something will be forgotten! We ended up buying a very expensive pair of headphones at the South Korean airport. Do your best to think through all the details and be prepared to not always be prepared. Desperation can be the start of creativity. 

  1. Relax. 

Honestly, even if everything goes perfectly, travel is just stressful. It is hard for adults to sit or stand for long periods and wait. For children, this is even more difficult. When we are stressed the children can sense it. That is why when we travel, we take extra care with our words and tone of voice. 

That is hard when the whole family is sleep-deprived, hungry, and homesick. That is when it is most challenging to stay kind and patient. Preparing snacks can help with hunger and having ways to pass the time are all usefu,l but packing a good attitude trumps it all. 

When I start to stress, I take extra breaths. I close my eyes for a few seconds and try not to give in to my emotions. I often pray when I feel the stress start to rise and my blood starts to boil. I lean on my husband a lot and he leans on me. We joke that only one of us can freak out at a time. We communicate our needs to each other so we don’t get too far gone and have a meltdown. It is very hard to relax in a stressful situation like traveling, but attitude can go a long way. 

  1. Take the Pressure off 

We often see social media posts about family travel. It is usually romanticized. “Take your toddler across the country it is not a big deal!” Any toddler parent knows it is a very big deal. The smaller the child, the more stuff they need just for survival. You can’t easily grab a backpack and roam across Europe with a 2-year-old. It is possible to travel with children, but it won’t look like a social media dream!

There may not be picture-perfect moments throughout your journey. I know that I didn’t want pictures of me from hour 25 of travel. I looked like death warmed over. People only show the best online and often leave out the hard parts. Taking the pressure off makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone. It won’t be perfect or even stress-free, but it can be fun. My husband and I love to look back at our travels and we laugh about the parts that made us upset in the moment. 

  1. Have Fun 

I know this is hard in the midst of stressful airport moments. Getting all the children and bags and passports and visas to all the correct places at the correct time is a handful. If we decide to find the fun, it can make a difficult situation less painful. When we were tired or losing energy, we would have a dance party in the terminal. Before a long flight, I would have the kids jump and run in circles to get their energy out. 

We sang silly songs and had tickle sessions on the plane. I made every meal a party and probably overfed the children to make them tired so they would sleep as much as possible. People looked at me like I was crazy and two countries in, I probably was a bit out of my mind. I did it for my kids and I ended up having fun too. 

There is not one, easy life hack for traveling with children. All I know is I am learning every day and every trip how to do it better next time.