The $3 Kmart item that will save your trip
Taking kids on a long-haul flight can be the stuff of nightmares. The stomach-churning anticipation, the overpacking for fear of a forgotten (essential) sleep toy, the dread of impending meltdowns - the horror of forgetting to download Peppa Pig on the iPad - it's as torturous for the parent as it is the bored, tired child - and the poor traveller in the seat behind them.
So how do you prepare kids for 24 hours in the air and keep them happy through transits and time zones?
PACK THE ESSENTIALS
Depending on the time of day, you might have to try and get kids to sleep when they know it's not dark outside. And while they're sitting up. And it's noisy. It's a tough ask, and we're not suggesting we have a foolproof solution. But packing an eye mask might help - especially if they can see you wear one too. Kmart have heaps of fun ones for $3, and they're small enough to fit in your pocket if your bag is overflowing. Earplugs are also a good investment, and easy to pack too. But perhaps the most important item to pack in your carry-on is your emergency travel kit. You know your kids are 100 per cent unpredictable. They can be absolutely fine, and within half an hour have a burning fever, or your 12-month-old's second tooth may choose that flight to pop through. You just never know. Pack children's paracetamol and ibuprofen, and a packet of Bandaids for when they somehow manage to cut themselves opening a packet of stickers.
BE PREPARED FOR FAILURE
NSW mother-of-two Shannan Human recently flew 14 hours from South Africa to Sydney alone with her children aged 3 and 6 - and for the first five hours, the plane's televisions and in-flight entertainment systems didn't work.
"It could have been a disaster," she said.
"Luckily I was prepared for the worst and had two fully charged iPads ready and waiting."
A pre-trip stop at Kmart or Big W is a great way to deter boredom and keep the little ones occupied. Some parents go to extreme lengths and wrap mini presents for each child, letting them open one an hour to give them things to do, and the thrill of what the surprise may be. That may not be your thing, but having a colouring-in book and a pencil case of fresh crayons is always a good idea. Add packets of stickers (especially popular with toddlers who are too young to watch a screen), their favourite story (or novel for older kids), a game of Uno or playing cards, a book of crosswords or Sudoku - anything they enjoy that will keep their little minds and hands busy is a winner.
BRING A CHANGE OF EVERYTHING
If you're travelling with an infant, think about their needs and make sure you've got them covered. Enough nappies and wipes, formula if you need it, a few dummies in case one goes walkabout, and spare clothes. Lots of spare clothes. Pack a few complete, comfortable outfits for bub (who is surely guaranteed to have an accident or two), and a change of clothes for you in case you're vomited on or juice is spilt all over your T-shirt before you've even left the tarmac. Having what you need - just in case you may need it - could change your whole trip.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR HOSTIE
It's a long trip - you're in it together. And starting on the right foot with airline staff can often make all the difference. Connect with them, ask how they are, apologise in advance for noisy children - having a friend on the other side of the curtain (with access to extra food, drinks, treats and an extra pair of hands) could be a lifesaver.
The Plane Pal is an inflatable cushion that fills the space between your child's seat and the seat in front. Similarly, the Fly Tot is an inflatable cube that essentially turns your child's seat into a business class flat-bed. If your child is over two, so not in your lap or the baby bassinet, one of these inflatables will become your new best friend. The kids can stretch out and go to sleep, instead of trying to get some shut-eye sitting up in an uncomfortable chair. But, a note of warning. Plenty of airlines won't accept them, so check with your carrier before you invest in them - or better yet, borrow one from an understanding and ever-prepared friend.
HEADPHONES, AND A SPARE BATTERY
The key to keeping kids happy on long-haul travel can often be technology (especially if they're old enough to focus on a movie). We've just to come to terms with that fact, and let it go. Drop the 'no more than 20 minutes on the iPad' rule, or only 'half an hour of TV a day' ideal you enforce at home. It's not going to happen. So bring the big over-ear headphones that actually stay on their heads (invest in the child-sized ones: they may be cumbersome, but lugging them around will be less painful than putting the buds back in their ears every two minutes). Another must is a spare, fully charged portable battery for any device. Just. In. Case.
If giving your kids an antihistamine like Phenergan to get some sleep is the only way you'll get through the trip, that is your prerogative. But make sure you test it first, as it has been known to have the opposite effect on some children. You do NOT want a hyperactive child stuck on a plane.
You could also try the iHerb website for Zarbee's natural Melatonin gummy bears for kids to help induce sleep - they cost about $18 (plus shipping) for a bottle and from most accounts, are well worth it. You can also give them one for the first three days of the trip and for your first three nights home to help with jet lag. Just make sure you order them far enough in advance or you'll be stuck paying $30 in shipping.
But with both of these products, it's best you speak with your GP before you give them to your child.