One of the reasons parents hesitate to take long haul flights with their children has to do with not only the plane ride (and the cost), but also dealing with the unknown when it comes to adjusting to jet lag. In seventeen years of traveling with kids we have learned many tricks to make the adjustment easier for everyone in the family. We feel it is much easier to fly from east to west, when the only significant change we make is keeping the kids up to their typical bed time on the local clock. When you fly across multiple time zones, things can get more complicated, so here are some quick tips to prevent jet lag with kids on your next adventure.
12 Awesome Tips for Jet Lag with Kids
1) Book the first or last flight of the day
We have found this extremely helpful flying with kids. When flying east with kids, the closer to bedtime, the more likely children will sleep on the plane. You should arrive sometime early to mid morning at your destination, allowing you to spend most of the day in your arrival city, or easily transfer to another flight.
If you are flying east to west with kids, consider an early morning flight. Once you arrive at your destination try and keep kids awake until the time at the destination is closest to their normal bedtime.
2) Adjust your time zone before travel
In the 5-6 days before we travel, we try to set the clocks one hour closer to the time zone of the destination. This usually happens around 5:00 or 6:00 local time, and results in kids heading to bed an hour earlier (or later) and waking up an hour earlier (or later) the next morning. I would advise resetting your internal clock as well if possible.
If we can change our sleep schedule two hours ahead, we will. With kids’ busy schedules it can be difficult to pull this off, but it definitely helps if you can make it work. Just be sure to reset the clock to the correct time the next morning!
3) Flight arrival time
Most airlines recommend arriving three hours early for an international flight, which allows for plenty of time to explore the airport. We like to find a quiet area and let the kids play on the moving sidewalks, run if they need, and play games. We are huge proponents of anything that gets the energy and the excitement out so they can (hopefully) sleep on the plane.
4) Eat before you get on the plane
Almost all airline terminals have food options. We prefer to eat a light meal before boarding to make the most efficient use of our time on the plane. Stay away from heavy, fatty food that can make for an uncomfortable journey. We avoid the dinner service because our only priority on the flight is to have the kids sleep. They know this ahead of time, so they have no expectation of any food or entertainment until breakfast service in the morning.
We made the mistake once of not eating before boarding the plane, and by the time the food came they had watched an entire movie and were bouncing out of their seats. Not to mention they missed out on some valuable shut eye.
5) Use the bathroom and brush teeth beforehand
This is another lesson we learned the hard way. We have been standing in the boarding line when someone is desperate to use the bathroom, or worse yet, sitting on the runway and there’s a line five people deep for the toilet on the plane. Do yourself a favor, have everyone use the restroom and brush their teeth before they get on the plane. If you are traveling with little ones, be sure to see these additional tips for flying with toddlers.
6) Wear comfortable clothes on the plane
There are parents who want their child dressed and ready to go exploring once they step foot off the plane. That’s not us. Our kids have traveled in pajamas before (yes, we had some strange looks on London’s Tube), but I think sweats or anything they can sleep in comfortably is a great option.
7) Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine on the plane
Hopefully this comment is geared more for the adults. It sure is tempting when an airlines offers free alcohol, but do yourself a favor and skip it. Dehydration can worsen jet lag, so skip the coffee or vino and opt for water instead.
8) Drink water or 100% fruit juice to stay hydrated
Following on the no caffeine, no alcohol policy, be sure to keep yourself and your children well hydrated. The dry air in the cabin can dry you out, so be sure to drink plenty of water on the plane. Just remember, this will mean more trips to the bathroom, but the walks back and forth are good for you.
9) Sleep on the plane
I can fall asleep in a movie theater, so sleeping on a plane is not a problem for me. My husband and children however, are a bit more restless. We now bring with us: earplugs, eye shades, and favorite blankets.
My husband uses melatonin, an over the counter sleep aid that he swears is a life saver on these long flights. Pull down the window shade as soon as you board the plane and plan for some shut eye once everyone is settled.
10) Acclimate to the local time zone immediately
When you walk off the plane, set your watches to the local time. If anyone is still hungry after the morning food service on the plane, get them a light snack such as fruit, cheese and crackers, or almonds to tide them over until the next meal time on the local clock. Hungry kids are cranky kids so make sure everyone has something in their bellies before heading out for the day.
11) Take a rest
Try as you may, everyone will be tired the first day. Once you have arrived at your hotel and settled in, take about 30 minutes to get your bearings, get settled, and head back out. If kids must nap, make it a short one, or they’ll be out for the rest of the day and your efforts to prevent jet lag have now failed. The most essential thing is to stay awake as long as you can.
12) Plan a light itinerary on the first day
Hopefully you do not plan to climb the Eiffel Tower or tour the Colosseum on the first day of your trip. Nothing spells meltdown more than an over-scheduled, tired child. Take the kids walking around the neighborhood, to a local park or square, something relaxing and low key. They need to be out in the sun exercising, and the more time you can spend outdoors in the bright light, the easier the adjustment to the new time zone will be for everyone.
Make sure to have them back to the hotel by 7 or 8 p.m. so you can all go to bed and get some much needed rest. Try not to sleep in too long the next morning. Set your alarm to make sure everyone wakes up at a decent hour.
Hopefully these jet lag tips for kids will make the prospect of traveling with children less intimidating. Children are resilient, I find it is usually my husband and myself that struggle more with the time adjustment.