This summer, Flea and I are taking a road trip around the Canadian Rockies and Pacific North West. It’s a 10 hour flight each way and has major jet lag potential. But the big time difference actually works out perfectly for self-employed types like me.
Holidaying on the West Coast, I can wake up at 7am, and it’s only 3pm in London. This means I have 2 hours to work and chat with clients and colleagues.
Then I can turn off the laptop at 9am, make breakfast for Flea, and nobody is going to need me for the rest of the day. Result!
But long haul travel has its downsides. Jet lag is a big one, especially when you’re travelling with kids.
Generally speaking, if you’re flying West on a daytime flight, jet lag means you’ll land exhausted and struggle to make it to dinner time without lying down on the nearest flat surface. On the flight back, you’ll fly overnight, and arrive home in the morning when your body is convinced it’s still 2am. This means you’ll be groggy and fighting a major headache.
I know. It’s SUPER fun, and it only gets more fun when you’re experiencing it along with a small child who’s holding their head and wailing, “But my head HURTS!” and refusing to carry anything.
Over the years, we’ve flown to all sorts of destinations from New York (7 hours) to LA (10.5 hours) and even Mauritius (12 hours). It means we’ve picked up some tips and tricks for avoiding jet lag when you’re travelling with kids.
Here are our top ten:
If you’re flying when it’s day time at your destination, then you’re going to want to stay awake for the flight. This is actually pretty simple to do because I’ve yet to meet a child who isn’t completely in love with seat-back entertainment. Movies on demand and a personal screen? KID HEAVEN.
Even Flea won’t watch TV for 10 hours straight, though.
So we tend to also bring along two books. On top of this there’s an iPad loaded with TV and games, plus a headphone splitter because inevitably Flea wants to watch what I’m watching. Finally, some snacks that she isn’t necessarily allowed at home. When she was younger, I’d top this up with a big zip-loc bag filled with Playmobil figures and other small toys.
Mission: Don’t Fall Asleep
Once you land, chances are it’s bedtime according to your child’s body clock. Your mission now is to stay awake for as long as humanly possible. For me, this means being outdoors, where it’s socially unacceptable and possibly illegal to just lie down and go to sleep.
This doesn’t work 100% of the time, of course. Here’s Flea (around 18 months) crashed out at 5pm in the afternoon on our first trip to New York. Sometimes you’ve got to accept jet lag is the Boss of You, and roll with it.
If you can, though, stay awake. Walk through the city. Sit on the deck of your hotel. Eat a light dinner in the gardens. Go sit in Starbucks and check Facebook. Basically, do whatever it takes to not go and sit in your hotel where there’s a bed, and soft lighting. At least until 9.30pm.
You might not feel like it but your stomach will thank you later if you eat something when you arrive where you’re going.
Little kids, especially, are less likely to wake at 3am feeling hungry if you’ve put something in their bellies before bed.
Make it Dark and Quiet
Once you do go to bed, your mission is to help everyone sleep for as long as possible. For us, this means shutting every curtain, pulling down every blind and making the room as dark as possible. I’ve even have been known to prop a book in front of that annoying clock on the TV in every hotel room ever.
Turn off A/C to eliminate noise, put phones into ‘do not disturb mode’, and close the doors if you’re in a hotel, to minimise disturbance from other guests.
This means you’ve a fighting chance of persuading small people to go back to sleep if they do wake up ridiculously early with jet lag. If not, you can encourage them to lie quietly in bed listening to an audio book. Flea will usually fall back to sleep for an hour or two if I do this.
Get into a Routine
No matter what, on day two, get up at the regular time, eat breakfast and go outdoors.
It’s going to feel like a long day so have something planned for the evening that will keep the kids occupied and awake until bedtime.
Top tip from me – don’t go to the theatre! I spent the second half of The Nutcracker in Chicago with an unconscious child slumped across my lap, drooling onto my jeans. Meanwhile, I pretty much poked myself in the face every five seconds to stop myself from joining her.
Flying home in Layers
When you’re flying East, generally the jet lag is worse, because you’re trying to persuade kids to sleep when their bodies don’t want to. It’s about a gazillion times harder than keeping them awake when they’re tired.
For me, the first step in making this work is dressing in what we call our “plane outfits”. So, comfy, soft trousers with thick socks, t-shirts with long sleeves and a zip up hoodie. FYI, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched someone try and take off an over-the-head hoodie in economy on a long haul flight. Hilarious.
Once you’re on the plane, encourage kids to eat dinner as soon as possible. If you’re swanky enough to fly business, you can eat dinner in the lounge before you board. For the rest of us, I recommend ordering kids’ and veggie meals before the flight as you’ll be served (and finished) first.
Dehydration is definitely a factor in jet lag so make sure kids drink plenty. To encourage Flea, I tend to pick up one of those little tubs of concentrated squash in the airport and use that to flavour lots of big cups of water.
The One Movie Rule
Watching a movie is a good way to keep kids occupied for the first two hours of the flight but we have a strict “one movie” rule on overnight flights. This was implemented after the time Flea stayed awake for 8 hours of a 9 hour flight and had a complete meltdown in arrivals.
Actually by the time the kids have eaten dinner, stretched their legs and used the bathroom, their movie will be about done, and then it’s strictly lights out.
Bring Sleep Friendly Accessories
There are certain things you know will help your kids sleep – so don’t forget them!
For us it’s headphones and an iPad/iPhone loaded with familiar, soft music or e-books. Flea’s a fan of a squishy pillow, so we always pack one in our carry on. On board, we steal blankets from empty seats to make a cosy nest.
And one more bonus tip…
Take Care of You First
Maybe it’s because I’m a single parent but my sleep on a long haul flight is non-negotiable. If Flea has jet lag, she might be cranky and have a headache. If I have jet lag, I’m not able to drive us home safely.
With that in mind, when we fly overnight, I get the window seat if we’re in economy, so I can sleep leaning against the outer wall. It also means Flea can go to the bathroom without waking me.
I have a glass of wine with dinner, and take a sleeping tablet if I need to. Then I put my headphones in and crash out.
Flea is safe and contained, so I don’t worry too much. I made sure from a young age she knew how to use the call button if she wanted a drink or had a problem with her seat-back TV. Of course, she can wake me if she needs me, but not unless it’s 100% necessary! Needs must.
Do you have any tips on avoiding jet lag when you’re flying with kids?