The ultra long-haul challenge

Our Florida Challenge #2

Sure there’s long-haul flying, then there is a whole separate league for those most ardent of travellers – the ultra long-haul. Non-stop flights over 12 hours are considered in the aviation industry to be ultra long-haul with only the largest of long-range wide-bodied aircraft capable of completing the journey (A380’s, Boeing 777); more than half a day of your life confined to a space no bigger than about two and a half square foot of luxurious living quarters (if you have to fly coach).

Even the best of us find it difficult to endure our own company in such a confined space for so long, let alone needing to bePic-74 responsible – and entertain little people (three of them no less) – for 16 hours and 40 minutes.

I’m not a complete stranger to the ultra long-haul. I complete the voyage from the Middle East to Australia every year, sometimes more often which is a 14-hour one-way trip.  For over eight years I regularly completed the UK to Australia double-leg, though I’ll admit for the most part these early journey’s were without children.

What makes this trip more challenging is that I’ll be breaking one of my most important rules for successful long-haul travel with kids; we are flying through the day time, entirely. Waking the kids at 5am, transiting for what’s likely to be over 21 hours to get to our hotel around 6pm the same day as the sun goes down. Our body clocks will be at around three in the morning.  Somewhere around hour 13 of the flight I am going to have to convince our wee ones that it’s time to get some shut eye before yanking them out of their slumber in order to drag them through US customs, never a pleasant experience!

It’s a challenge and a half, but we are not ones to be defeated in our ultimate mission.  The key as always is to preempt the needs and causes of kiddy frustration – normally linked to boredom, tiredness and hunger.

What we are packing

As if the stopover challenge the night before wasn’t already making this a mammoth packing task, this is going to be the mother of all carry-on planning exercises. So the plan of attack will go something like this;

  • Brand new mummy-made busy bags (yes I’m actually going to purposefully create them this time, not just bullshit about how wonderful they are, forget about them until the last minute, then shove some crayons and a notepad in a bag – in fact there will be a whole busy bag article later next week!)
  • spongebob-meal-357x180Enough snacks to feed a football team – multi-compartmentalized, plastic-wrapped bundles of (relatively) healthy awesomeness. The kid’s packs on Qatar do look exceptional but they never bring them out when you need them so best to be prepared in advance, you can always park the plane provided kiddy meals for later (mental note must make sure I pre-order the meals more than 48 hours before).
  • Full loaded, fully charged and full of brand spanking new stuff iPads, with spangly new headphones. Again, so utterly jam-packed with new ideas on this one there will be another article during the week on just iPads. Yes, they are THAT important! Qatar Airways might have ‘over 1000 entertainment options’ on their in-flight entertainment system but I am leaving nothing to chance.
  • Emergency clothing. Nearly 17 hours in the air, awake, eating. There’s an extremely high chance one or all of us will end up covered head to toe in something particularly wet and unpleasant. At least one full change of clothes for everybody needs to go in, along with more than a days supply of nappies and wet wipes for the younger ones. The last thing you want is spending 10 hours of your life covered in baby vomit as you couldn’t be bothered carrying an extra change – seriously this is not a ‘pack a month in your carry-on’ challenge here, it’s survival of the fittest. Also bring some basic grooming gear – a toothbrush, hairbrush at least. I wouldn’t always waste room on toiletries but ultra long-haul is an exception. And plastic bags; always pack lots of plastic bags.
Feeling Flushed? 10 Tips for toiletting on the move

Seating and entertainment

Packing well can pretty much cover off boredom and hunger – now what about tiredness that wily old beast? Thankfully Master J is still fairly routinely sleeping every few hours so a nice walk down the aisle, a lullaby or two and in to the bassinet should see him sorted. The toddler and the preschooler on the other hand…   Here are a few ideas, I cannot guarantee they will work but they are definitely worth a shot;

  • With all the crap you’re going to need, take advantage of family pre-boarding. Especially in bulkhead seats you can lose overhead locker space. I think we may play the ‘split-up strategy’ on this one; the older kids can get a little extra exercise in the lounge before boarding while someone takes the baby and the bags on board to get settled, iPads and activities ready and put the grab items in seat pockets.
  • Sitting separately. Yep you heard right, with a family of five this is going to be a fact of life going forward, but actually quite strategically important. One adult will need to sit with the bassinet seat (oh me, pick me!) while the other will sit with the kids further back. We are not entirely sadistic, just realistic. It’s almost certain as we are flying at the start of school holidays that the plane will be fully loaded so playing our empty middle seat strategy is unlikely to pay off. SLeeping on planes

Attempting to take the entire bulkhead row is always a risky play, Mr Globetrotter has been bumped before (ironically up a cabin then back down!) leaving me with three kids on my own, so we are deliberately planning this time to split the group, with the advantage that the older kids can then lay flat top-to-tail.  This also gives one adult a small chance to recharge during baby nap times.  Always study a site like SeatGuru if you are unsure of your best seating configurations for your flight; the more comfortable you can all get, the more chance rest may happen.

  • Create sleep cues.  It’s much easier said than done with such limited opportunity to move and to tire kids out, but try and keep them active and engaged when you want them awake; involve them in interactive activities, explore the kids pack and drip feed the busy bag items.  When boredom shows its sign, take them for a walk down the plane, all the time reminding them of the expectation ‘after this we will do quiet time’.   Whether this is just a movie or they actually sleep, hopefully, it will give you a little rest from playing entertainer while spongebob-kit-357x180they’re plugged in.  You then need to repeat the process in the afternoon, try and save a new activity for the afternoon or special surprise for being good and get them active and stimulated again before the evening meal is served and you expect them to sleep. Some like to put PJ’s on at this point to make the point but we might simply be too squeezed for luggage space to do this.
  • Remember the cabin crew are your friends – treat them kindly, even bring gifts if needs must! As long as there’s no turbulence, use the galley to get them active, get up for a drink, let them look out the windows and chat to the staff.  Make friends with your neighbours too.  Even if you’re normally a sit and look straight ahead kinda person, the people around you are going to get to know you all intimately; it can pay to be friendly with them early on to incite a little sympathy when things invariably get tough.
  • Remember simply slipping your head phones on and hoping they kids will go away is not an option.  They know when you’ve disengaged and will do everything in their power to bring you back just as they would on solid ground – this is when disaster can strike.
5 travel challenges for a family of 5+

Bringing it home

As for our return leg – we are coming back in the evening which significantly reduces the hours of entertainment required. Being west to east we lose a day on our return and land middle of the night. Far worse for jet lag which we’ll cover later in the series, but much better for the actual flight endurance challenge.

So there you have it – in a very long nutshell how to handle an epic air voyage with your sanity somewhat intact. None of our theories are foolproof but they are relatively well tried and tested for kids with over 200,000 air miles under their belts between them.

The only thing that may be fractionally worse than our flight is taking the world’s current longest commercial flight route, Sydney to Dallas on Qantas. Oh wait, that’s the flight my in-laws are taking en-route to join us in Orlando.

Are you a regular ultra-long haul flyer? Any tips I have missed for surviving the ultra challenge or do you do anything in your power to break the journey up?

More Reading

“5 Savvy Strategies for Flying Success”

“Planning Flights”

“Getting to your Flight”

 Pictures courtesy Qatar Airways

© Our Globetrotters


  • Great article!

    I have prepared probably way too much, stressing about what to laminate (washable marker pens = reusable pictures) and what not to (considering every kids likes regular crayon and pencil crayon as well. We do have to carry it all on the plane after all! We are going to book a hotel for transit in Hong Kong though – give us a break from keeping hold of them! I suppose my question is – how much is TOO much? The flight is 30 hours!

    Ipad loaded – some apps to buy ‘full version’ as they are favourites which will hopefully last longer… I have a 3 yo and 18 mo – it’s the 18 mo I am more worried about as things don’t hold his attention for very long!

    • Hi Ames – goodness 18 months and 3 year old for 30 hours, I don’t envy you at all!!
      We just came back from Canada return which is 16 hours each way with our 18 month old – not a pleasant flying age I’m afraid. The 3 & 5 year old were pretty good; a full charged iPad is essential (and bring your charger cord on board, most long-haul aircraft have USB charging points under the seats now).
      Honestly don’t over pack toys! Go crazy on the extra nappies and plenty of snacks but toys can be a waste of space – if they’re tired and frustrated a new toy wont necessarily fix your problems but will weigh you down moving about. Your 18 month old would probably still get a decent amount of amusement out of a barf bag and a plastic cup – and stealing the others toys (Keeping the tot away from the happy 3yo is the biggest challenge by far we’ve found!)
      Depends how you are going to transit (with or without stroller, staying at the airport?) but honestly minimalise – let the 3 year old take only what they can carry in a little back pack and one bag for each grown up which includes change of clothes, baby’s personal items etc. A lot of airlines will give out kids packs too.
      Make sure you’ve booked your child’s meal (as well as bringing your own – very important on the really long ones) and try to get your seating with a gap in between you so it might be possible for the 18 month old to lie flat on the spare seat if no one takes it. But best of luck! it wont be easy but its only a day or so of your life then its done. Pack your sense of humour too, you’ll definitely need it by about hour 12, if not before….

      • We have a stroller we aren’t too worried about (grandma has a better one for when we land) and we figure that will make carrying luggage a bit easier (wedding attire to carry on too)! Cathay are supposed to have pretty good disney colouring packs and have usb ports/power, for the 18mo he seems to like sorting so we have pipe cleaners and pom poms! Oh yes, we have little people planes too lol! I just stress about flights and people putting their seats right back, particularly if you need to be in and out with nappy changes or toddler wanting to wee! I guess you can only manage what you are in control of!

      • Absolutely. Its hard not to stress the little things – but just worry about bigger picture. Really try to get the bulkhead even if you’re not using the bassinet to prevent having someone pushing the chair back on you. Someone did this to me when I was 6 months pregnant and had a toddler in my lap – I had to ask them not to and when they turned around and saw me they were quite apologetic (though no doubt disgruntled for the next 7 hours!)

  • I’ve seen many families with young children on planes and there are always books, crayons, smart phones, snacks. Despite the planning kids will be kids. I get that you feel more relaxed being prepared and this is a great list. You do a lot of traveling, so you know.

  • I’m so glad ours are old enough now to spend the entire trip playing Minecraft! I can’t add much to your advice except when all else fails just concentrate on the fact that it’s only one day out of your life. ..

    • We are slowly getting there – Miss 5 will happily plug herself in for hours but Master 2 is still at constant entertainment age!

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