After laying my son to bed for our first night in our cozy Osaka Airbnb, I put up my feet, sipped some tea, and let the exhaustion wash over me. It had been a long travel day, with an early start in Singapore, a 6-hour flight, and a set of connecting trains to make it “home.” But beyond just today, I realized that it’s been a heavy few months of travel and flying. Since the start of 2023, we’ve made our way from the US to New Zealand, and then to Australia, Singapore, and Japan, with a trip to Korea right around the corner.
While all the travel can certainly be exhausting, it has also been a great opportunity to rapidly test out different strategies for flying with our two-year-old. He’s finally in his own seat (we were always stingy and had him as a lap infant before he turned two), with the words and coordination to make flying a wholly different experience than it was previously.
We’ve piloted (no pun intended) early morning, red-eye, and mid-afternoon flights, with a slew of different snacks, toys, routines, and outfits along the way. We’ve learned a few smaller lessons, like to pack more food than you think necessary, or that the tote bag containing the toys is just as fun as the toys themselves. But there has been one big lesson that will more fundamentally shape how we travel in the future: aim to board a flight with a well-rested toddler.
The mistakes we’ve made
Perhaps this sounds familiar: you’re sitting at the computer, considering a few different flight times, and you think, “2pm is just 30 min after his typical nap time. Let’s do that one because he’ll be totally exhausted and just sleep through the flight!” If you’ve gone through with this purchase, you may have also learned that it’s a total flop. In our experience, “2pm” actually means you’re flying and comfortable closer to 3pm. And by 3pm, we’ve ended up with a cranky, overtired toddler who’s too overstimulated to sleep at all.
We’ve had a similar experience with red-eyes. Sometimes there will be options for a 7pm or a 10pm flight, with the latter arriving at a far more appealing time in the mid-morning. But don’t go with that 10pm flight! We’ve made that error, and have had to board with a red-faced, sweaty kiddo who cries for all of take-off until finally passing out for a short, fitful nap.
The lesson in practice
With practice, we’ve learned our lesson: we now aim to select flights that are squarely between rest times. We’d far rather have our son wide awake for the flight than risk him being totally burnt out. An 11am take-off is a dream; even a 7pm red-eye isn’t too bad. With the latter, he can enjoy some playtime at the airport, board with a smile, and ultimately go through a mini bedtime routine around 8:30 without trouble.
Now, obviously, timing isn’t the only variable you’re considering when searching for flights. Cost, availability, airport selection, and other factors are all part of the decision. But all things equal, don’t fall for the trap of thinking a tired toddler will lead to a flight where you can watch all the movies on your wishlist. Board with a rested toddler, and enjoy that calm mid-flight nap when the time comes.
I’ll also note that we’ve tried quite a few outfit combinations on our flights, and have finally settled on a staple: a First Peak short-sleeve T layered with an All-Season Sweatshirt. Even when our son was little, we loved that T-shirts made changes and diaper checks a breeze. And now, having comfy, stretchy, breathable layers makes all the difference.