Survival Tips for Transpacific Flights

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In the event there is a lack of stressful pressure in the cabin, extra children will appear ;)

Outside of language concerns and unfamiliar food, the biggest issue keeping more families from jumping across the Pacific to explore Asia is the long flight time needed to get there.

Strategies that a business traveler or backpacking adventurer might use to either make productive use of the time – or make it pass faster – aren’t as practical for a parent or guardian to use, because the responsibility for looking after children in a semi-public space means keeping some level of situational awareness, even when resting. 

So while liquor, tranquilizers, and sensory deprivation helmets are off the list, there are still plenty of strategies and tactics to use to make a Transpacific voyage more pleasant for everyone involved.

 Kids should be involved at every point in the flight-preparation process, of course!

Kids should be involved at every point in the flight-preparation process, of course!

Planning and Booking Your Flights

More than at any other time, your choice of airline, routing, and specific aircraft will make a significant difference in your family’s comfort. There are more flights across the Pacific than ever, which has helped drive fares down, but there are also tradeoffs with low fares.

Booking your seats at least six weeks ahead of travel – and ideally months ahead – will give you more control of where you can sit. Avoid “Basic Economy” fares if you see them because you won’t be able to pick your seats, and the computer will notput your group together: we’ve been on several flights where families were standing in the aisles crying because they thought they could get enough people to switch seats once everyone was on board. Plus, the baggage up-charges will likely cost you more than the difference from the basic Economy fare.

If you need to obtain tourist visas, depending on the country you’re visiting and length of stay, you might not be able to book a flight until those visas are issued. So that’s also something to get done as early as possible.

If you are flying from the Midwest or East Coast, there are now plenty of nonstop options to gateway cities in Asia, and if speed is your most important concern you should certainly price them out. But you may also want to consider breaking up your flight with a stop on the West Coast: while it may add a few more hours to total trip time, having the opportunity to stretch your legs, use a full-sized restroom, and eat a real meal can help the time pass more enjoyably. 

 A380 used by China Southern on the Los Angeles - Guangzhou route

A380 used by China Southern on the Los Angeles - Guangzhou route

While the global trend is to pack more and more seats into Economy class, by reducing legroom as well as by adding more seats across in each row, the Airbus A330 and A350 types can be loaded only 8-across and 9-across, respectively, and these are reasonably good seat widths. The Airbus A380 is 10-across in Economy, but this is still one of the widest seats “in the back” you can encounter. The Boeing 787 was launched as an 8-across aircraft, but all carriers except Japan Airlines have squeezed in a 9th seat, making these narrower chairs than even on domestic flights! Likewise, the Boeing 777 was launched as a comfortable 9-across in Economy, but most airlines have squished in a 10th seat. Here, Delta and Japan Airlines have refrained from cramming passengers shoulder-to-shoulder. Delta also runs a few Boeing 767 aircraft over the Pacific, and these are quite comfortable with only 7-across seating. Check the airline’s website for seat maps, or a resource like SeatGuru.com to see how tightly-packed each cabin is you may be flying on.

 Boeing 777 interior image by  Jun Seita  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Boeing 777 interior image by Jun Seita via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Also take note of what kind of in-flight entertainment system is available, if any, as well as availability of power at your seat (either by traditional plug or by USB port.) A flight becomes much, much longer if you drain your battery! Likewise, if the seatback screen is entertaining, you won’t have to use your own devices as much.

How many people will be traveling together? Seats are often grouped in the aircraft in sets of 2 or 3 on the sides, and 3, 4, or 5 in the middle, so this may affect where you want to sit. For managing your kids’ behavior, as well as supplies and activities, it’s always easier for you and less disruptive to other passengers to do it going across a seat row rather than trying to block a square of seats in successive rows. Having to unbuckle, turn around, and lean over a seat back without hitting your head on the overhead bin is difficult by design.

Another hidden cost in some otherwise-attractive fares is an overnight connection! Always click the “see details” link and note how long the airline wants to make your connection time. You’ll need to foot the bill for a hotel room and often that makes a cheap fare more costly than the next-higher level.

Carry-on Packing Plan

If you are bringing toddlers or younger school-age children, you already know that accidents may happen. In a crowded airplane cabin, with tray tables and armrests at awkward positions, uneven lighting, and limited ability to simply fidget, it is only a matter of time before a drink gets spilled, a crayon gets smeared, or worse.

Like the time I was literally shoving my daughter’s pants and diaper down the little trash compartment in the airplane lavatory while holding her over the sink somewhere over Alaska because her bowel movement was soooliquid that it was never going to wash out, and I wasn’t going to subject the other passengers to that smell for another six hours much less try to go through Customs with it. Thankfully her shirt was so long that it fit her like a dress, and we had extra diapers. So, please learn from my failure to plan! 

For each young child, have a spare shirt, pants, and undies. If you’re taking an overnight flight, comfortable pajamas are a great idea (and if it’s already getting dark while you’re at the airport, it’s easier just to have them change in the terminal before you board.) A comfortable light blanket and possibly a favorite bedtime stuffed animal are both good for relieving stress and helping cuddle down to sleep.

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A “freshen-up” kit is a must. You can never have enough wet-wipes of course, but a small towel is handy for all sorts of uses, as are a few extra hair elastics. A few empty zip-top clear plastic bags in quart and gallon sizes are also life-savers.

While many aircraft are installing USB power ports, their audio systems still use the traditional jack rather than the Lightning plug used on newer phones and iPads, so you’ll need to pack an adapter for everyone, or a spare pair of old-style headphones.

Security of course will keep you from bringing drinks from home, so you’ll have to shop for milk, juice, and other beverages before your flight (however, certain places like mainland China and Hong Kong won’t even let you take beverages you bought inside security on board your aircraft!) Empty wide-mouthed water bottles are good for storage & can be filled up on board.

Healthy, interesting snacks are important because mealtimes on the airplane may not sync with your family’s internal clocks. Airline meals may not taste the way you want and probably won’t have enough in them to keep growing kids satisfied. It is true that thinner cabin pressure and dry air affect how we perceive flavor – so it helps to have picked something out ahead of time where you know what the food is supposed to taste like. Shared eating experiences also help kids focus, and frankly, break up the time! 

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What to Do On Board

Whether your flight is during the daytime or overnight, getting a good amount of sleep is always your first-choice activity. Not only does it make the time aloft go faster, but the restorative power of sleep helps you and your children be more alert and clear-headed once you’ve landed. If you’re traveling with another responsible adult, it’s a good idea to trade “sleep shifts” so that someone can capably handle safety or bathroom issues, and interact with cabin crew.

The flip side of getting rest is getting up, stretching, and moving around the cabin when the crew is not trying to serve meals and drinks. You aren’t going to get any reasonable exercise – a twin-aisle jetliner is really not that big when you’re stuck inside – but even a few minutes’ break from sitting is good for your heart and a break from boredom.

This site isn’t going to insist that screen time for kids is a bad thing: many airlines have created extensive children’s entertainment channels on their IFE systems and some have videogames, too. Wi-Fi is being rolled out on more Transpacific aircraft, but for most carriers the data charges are still quite expensive: keep your own phones and iPads in Airplane Mode and use the content you’ve pre-loaded.

There is a point, though, where even teenagers get tired of looking at a screen, so have a supply of unpowered reading material, small games, and quiet creative activities at hand.

Getting Along and Being Safe

Of course, one of the main reasons to get up and walk is to use the restroom. Remember to watch along the ceiling for the lit indicator that a stall is available and try not to block the aisle. Kids and adults alike should always wear shoes just in case there are spills on the floor. Be sure to wash your hands with plenty of soap!

Courtesy to other passengers is important at all parts of the trip, so it’s helpful to review and talk through the “rules of the sky” with your children at the beginning of the flight; for instance:

  • Knowing where the light switch is and how it works, and when it should and should not be used (like when other passengers are trying to sleep)
  • How the seat recline works, and just how much recline is really necessary
  • Why standing up in your seat and looking over the headrest at other passengers is nice the first time but annoying the third 
  • The back of the seat is not a place for feet
  • What to do in case something falls on the floor

Kids of school age should also be aware of general safety rules and watch the pre-flight briefing. In case of emergency, every bit of self-responsibility helps.

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Back on the Ground

Why does getting off an airplane have to be one of the highest-stress parts of the trip? Yes, there is anxiety about making a connecting flight, and excitement about discovering a new place, but neither of those feelings seems to help passengers get their gear together and move out smoothly and quickly, even after all these years of mass travel.

All you can do is keep your and your family’s own stress level down, and be as efficient as you can when your turn finally comes. Make any final adjustments to your overhead-bin bags a good hour before landing, and make sure all books, electronics, etc. are out of the seatback pockets and zipped up in the under-seat bags before landing. 

If you’re seated in the back third of the aircraft, you may just want to sit tight until nearly all the other passengers have passed: it’s amazing how quickly you can guide your family through a nearly-empty airplane.

 

Remember, you know your family best: what their triggers are and what they react well to, how they act when anxious and when overly tired. Learn from your first flight and adapt your approach to the homeward trip. As your kids log more miles, they’ll be better able to manage themselves, too.

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