This post is the second in a series in which I reflect on our recent move from Tokyo to Nuremberg as a family. In the first installment, I explored some strategies that we found useful leading up to our big move. Global travel with a toddler includes challenges at every step in the process. In this post, I want to focus on a few challenges we faced while flying and offer some suggestions for anyone who may find themselves in a similar situation. This post is also available on Medium.
Getting to the Airport
With any long international flight, you need to prepare for being cooped up in an airplane for an extended period of time, but also for a change in time zones and any number of unforeseen challenges.
Our flight left in the evening, past our toddler’s bedtime, so I didn’t know what to expect. Would he be docile and sleepy? Or pissed off and inconsolable? Thankfully, his disposition landed somewhere between anxious and excited for most of the trip.
We took an airport limousine bus directly from our hotel in Chiba to Haneda Airport in Tokyo, so it was really convenient. I highly recommend limiting the distance you need to trek with all of your luggage. Whether that means hailing a taxi to the airport bus stop or arranging to stay at a hotel with an airport bus stop on-premises, it’s totally worth it. It may also be worthwhile lightening your suitcase load as much as possible so you don’t need to carry quite as much all at once. This isn’t always possible, of course, but it can be one way to make travel to the airport slightly easier.
As an aside, this trip isn’t our first adventure in global travel with a toddler, although our son was just over a year when we moved from the US to Japan. When we first arrived in Japan in April 2019, we had three large suitcases, two carry-on bags, two backpacks full of stuff, and a stroller/baby carrier. It was quite an adventure getting from point A to B with all of those things, but we were literally moving our whole lives in those bags. I hope to write more about this adventure in the future.
Your tiny travel companion may have questions about the trip. Our son gets super inquisitive when he is anxious or tired, so the bus ride to the airport was a barrage of questions: Where is Haneda? Where is our luggage? Where are the rhinos? How did the workers build this bus? Are we slowing down? Where are the suitcases?
As with all of his questions while preparing to move, we tried to answer them honestly one-by-one. One strategy that helped us deal with the repetition of questions was to reply, “I don’t know. What do you think?” or “What did we talk about before? Do you remember what we said about this before?” These types of questions seemed to open up the interaction into a discussion rather than a Q and A.
Everything is a lot to process, and the questions seemed to be our son’s way of dealing with the anxiety. While challenging at times, it’s really important to remind yourself that everything is new and different in situations like these, and tiny humans deserve a little patience and compassion.
The Long Flight
Global travel with a toddler will likely include some kind of flight. Our journey to Germany included two flights: Tokyo to Istanbul and Istanbul to Nuremberg. The first leg of our flight took just under 13 hours. That’s a really long time for anyone! It’s especially challenging when you’re traveling with a toddler who is up past his bedtime. During the flight, a few things helped us keep our sanity.
Logistically, one element of our trip that was invaluable was our snack stash. We made sure to stock up on a few things prior to our departure, and we spread them out across our carry-on bags. It’s quite challenging to eat healthily while traveling, but I honestly don’t think nutrition is the primary purpose of snacks while traveling. When it comes down to it, snacks are a sanity-saving tool for caregivers. Healthy snacks are a bonus, but you should use what you have.
Some go-to snacks for us on this trip were fruit pouches, crackers, dried mango, string cheese, and candy. We chose snacks that our son liked during the worst of times, when he was really sleepy or angry or upset, so there would be a good chance he would be interested in them during the flight.
The candy we brought on the flight was specifically for taking off and landing. When our son was a baby, he would cry while the plane was ascending or descending. Now that he’s a toddler, we’re able to offer different strategies for dealing with the change in altitude and pressure. One strategy that has worked for us is to use lollipops during takeoff and landing. No ear pain = a happy family.
Screen time was another tool we found super useful during our long flight. Our plane had a pretty robust in-flight entertainment system, but we also prepared by downloading episodes of some of our son’s favorite shows on Netflix. To download from Netflix, you have to use the app on a mobile device, so I put some episodes of Mighty Little Bheem and Octonauts on my phone for the trip.
We ended up not needing to use them a ton, but having some kind of backup entertainment option for when your tiny travel companion is awake and needing a distraction is a great way to keep your sanity. While uncommon, it is possible that the in-flight entertainment system could malfunction. Like with the snacks, I think screen time on long flights is akin to a survival tool rather than something to be regulated as it might on a regular day at home.
The final tool we used for our flight was a surprise. Prior to leaving, we purchased a few small toys to hide in our carry-on luggage. Our son is really into Tomica trucks, so we opted to grab a few of those. If you’re not familiar with Tomica, think Matchbox cars.
About two-thirds through our flight, we gave our son the first truck. The novelty and excitement of finding a new truck in his backpack distracted him for at least an hour. When you’re nine hours into a 13-hour flight, an hour of relatively calm playtime is very welcome. The great thing about using surprises like this is that you can use anything you think your little one might enjoy, whether it’s coloring supplies, a puzzle, or a toy truck from the dollar store, a little surprise can bring some excitement and joy to your long flight.
As with every element of our move, I tried to remind myself to be patient, gentle, and kind. It’s easy to get frustrated, especially when everyone is lacking sleep and a regular routine. Finding ways to revisit this mantra throughout your trip can help you maintain perspective and keep your sanity.
In the next post in this series, I will reflect on some challenges we faced while making our connecting flight and dealing with a long layover.
Please feel free to connect with me here in the comments or on Instagram! I’d love to chat about your experience with global travel with a toddler or any questions you may have about our experience.