Long Haul Flight Tips
I often see questions about how best to travel with kids to New Zealand. The trip, especially from the United States, is long and can be intimidating. We took the trip for the first time when our kids were one and three, and they’ve now done the Houston to Auckland flight five times. I’ve figured out a few things that work well when making this long haul flight that will hopefully work for you, too.
Choose one long flight over two mid-length flights. I will happily take my kids on a 14 hour flight, but I have no interest in taking an 8 hour flight. Why? On that 14 hour flight, they can get in a close-to-full night’s sleep, which makes everything better. Splitting up the flight and going through a place like LA or Hawaii means a huge interruption and longer trip due to layovers.
Talk about expectations frequently and well in advance of the trip. Starting about two weeks before the big flight, we start having pep talks about how “we sleep on the plane.” Setting that expectation early means no surprises onboard.
Test Benadryl ahead of time. I’m not above putting my kids fall asleep with a little medicinal help. My son has no problem falling asleep quickly on a plane, but my daughter needs a little assistance calming down enough to drift into sleep. For her, I give just a bit of Benadryl with dessert, and she’s good to go after that. However, Benadryl can have an opposite affect on some kids, so do a test run before hand if you are unsure.
Get the SkyCouch. This is an Air New Zealand option, and it is amazing! A SkyCouch is three seats in economy that have special foot rests that can pop up flat with the seats. When it is time to sleep, you unfold a special mattress pad that fits over the whole thing and make the space extra cozy with bigger pillows and lots of blankets. Extra seat belts called snuggle belts go across two sleeping passengers to keep everyone safe. Being able to lay flat makes a huge difference in the quality of sleep you’re able to get on the plane. On our first trip we got one SkyCouch that the kids shared while my husband and I sat upright. Now we splurge and get two SkyCouches so there’s one adult and one kid per couch. Everyone does better this way.
Make bedtime as normal as possible. Bring pyjamas, lovies, and books that are familiar for your kid. Make bedtime as close to normal as possible so the kids will realize it is TIME TO SLEEP.
Bring a few toys and crafts. But don’t go overboard. The best thing we ever brought on the plane with us was a surprise craft bag made by one of the kids’ babysitters. Inside a colorful paper bag, she put little things like some crayons, a small pad of paper, some pipe cleaners, stickers. etc. The kids adored opening up their special plane gift and used everything in the bag by the end of the flight.
A similar trick I’ve used is to take small toys and books (even ones we already have) and wrapped them with wrapping paper (several layers) so that part of the activity is to get to the toy. Yes, it creates a bit of a mess, but what kid doesn’t like unwrapping presents?
Prepare for walking through the airport. Everyone is going to be a bit tired and cranky upon arrival, and there is not an insignificant amount of walking in the Auckland airport to get through customs and immigration. Have a plan for moving the kids. For us, this means two small 360º wheel suitcases that the kids can ride on. They think this is such a treat! You also have the option to gate check a stroller, but we’ve had a couple of instances when the stroller did not come back to the gate when we arrived and we had to pick it up at baggage claim, which defeats the purpose.
We have more 360º wheel luggage that we use as our checked baggage. This makes it very easy to manoeuvre a lot of luggage through the airport by one adult. We’re also quite entertaining when we have our luggage get up rolling through the airport, and I like bringing joy to travel weary people.
Passport Control. This will be your first stop. Keep an eye up at the signs to see if the family line is open for kids under 12. This can be a great option if you have little kids. If not, I’ve never waited more than 20 minutes in the regular line.
Baggage Collection, Customs, and Biosecurity checks come next. After collecting all of your baggage, you’ll make your way to the biosecurity check area. You’ll hand over your declaration card, answer some basic questions about what you brought with you, and most likely your luggage will be scanned a second time. Make sure you’ve reviewed what you can and can’t bring with you so you’re prepared ahead of time. This customs site has lots of good information.
Additionally, there are always questions about food products that can and can’t be brought into the country. This MPI site breaks everything down in detail. (Generally, if it is commercially produced and packaged, it is fine to bring in.)
Prepare for an early morning arrival. The Houston to Auckland flight arrives before breakfast, and getting through customs and immigration rarely takes a long time. We’ve found it is beneficial to arrange for accomodations starting the night before so that we can roll in at six or seven in the morning with no problems. We like to take a quick shower, then immediately nap for a couple of hours so everyone can stay awake until a normal bedtime that first night.
Figure out transportation ahead of time. You’ll be a little bleary eyed upon arrival, so have a plan for getting out of the airport. Uber is an option as well as many car rental companies. We found that Apex has the lowest rates as opposed to some of the bigger names. Make sure you’re prepared to drive on the “wrong” side of the road and have directions to your destination available. (This means either have your international plan on your phone turned on so you can use a map app or have turn-by-turn instructions at hand.)
Get ready for jet lag. If you’re coming from the US, there’s going to be some jet lag. I’ve found the best way to get over it is to stay outside in the sun as much as possible the first couple of days. At night, it is useful to take melatonin to help every body get in the right rhythm. However, melatonin isn’t readily available in New Zealand, so bring some from the US.
The best piece of advice I can give is to relax. If you’re stressed out, the kids will be stressed out. Remember that this, too, shall pass and Kiwis are much more tolerant of whiny kids on a plane than Americans. On our first flight, Kiwis were coming up to me as we queued up for boarding to talk about how exciting it was that our young kids were going on an adventure. They were happy for us, not dreading the experience of 14 hours on a plane with kids who may or may not be quiet. On that first flight my daughter was having a tough time going down. The flight attendant noticed, and quietly left another glass of wine for me to enjoy so I could take a moment to relax once I finally got her to sleep. It’s little things like this that make this trip totally do-able.
On a silly side note, one of my favorite things about travelling on Air New Zealand, is their cheeky lavatory wallpaper. I love how they spruce things up with very funny and entertaining bathroom decor.