How we took on one of the world’s longest direct flight with kids – and won
Do the words “16 hours on a plane with kids” make you feel slightly nauseous?
Our Globetrotters are up there in the big league when it comes to air miles under their belt, but I must admit, even I find the concept of more than 16 uninterrupted hours in the air with my own offspring rather daunting! Nonetheless, it is just one of those obstacles to overcome in getting out there and seeing the world with kids.
In March we undertook our first ultra-long-haul flight with all three kids – aged 5 years, 2.5 years and 8 months old. Our scheduled flight time was 16 hours and 40 minutes from Doha to Miami with Qatar Airways after a 20-hour layover. Here’s how we survived with our sanity (somewhat) intact.
You may also want to read these top 10 long-haul flying survival tips from a flight attendant
Pre-flight (Take off – 20 hours)
We made a short hop from Abu Dhabi to Doha to begin our adventure. 20 hours to explore and exhaust three children before tackling the task ahead of an entirely daylight flight across the Atlantic, arriving in the USA when our body clocks think its midnight. Already the flight timing is one of my worst nightmares and against my number one flying strategy!
A lot of walking in Doha (due mostly to the fact we couldn’t take our strollers from the airport – queue upcoming article on how to handle layovers!), exploring and a good run around at the Doha Food Festival into the early evening ensures the kids are exhausted before a short hotel sleepover.
T – 3.5 hours
We wake the kids at 4.30am. We expected them to be grumpy but they wake up full of excitement! Is it big plane day? Do we get a taxi? Master L is particularly beside himself as he is currently in love with all forms of transportation.
T – 3 hours
Doha airport is brilliantly staffed, everything clearly signposted and easy to navigate. No queuing needed, our bags were already checked through the previous day we just need to collect our boarding passes. All the check-in staff (yes pretty much the whole row) are far more interested in our tribe of blonde heads than the amount of crap we are lugging with us as “hand luggage”.
Passport control and security run smooth as silk (and with the friendliness you don’t always see in the Middle East) and straight to the Oryx Lounge. It is all very new and thoughtfully laid out with a separate area for families – it’s not much more than a few couches and a TV but at least you are separated from the business travellers who really don’t want to see or hear your kids. There’s also a parents’ room attached with baby change table, nursing area and a sink for bottle cleaning and preparation.
T – 1.5 hours
Immediately before departure, we seek out the family play area in the airport. It is an amazing metal structure not like any child’s play area I’ve seen before but Miss Z and Master L were straight into it, sliding and climbing, making new friends. I loved the little attention to detail with sculptured people, though it would probably look out of place anywhere other than the Middle East!
Just a quick note on Hamdan International – or Doha International Airport; It’s light and open, loads of free facilities like WiFi and computer games, toilets and bins where you need them – free strollers actually available and one I love, a parents’ room – yes not just a change table in the ladies, a proper room that both parents can use! (Needless to say, I was still the one doing tag team nappy changes and toilet runs for about 30 minutes or so before boarding).
T – 45 minutes
We have chosen the board last strategy on this occasion to wear kids out a bit before the flight so we’re among the last to the gate. This slightly back-fires as there is a second security check at the gate – should have suspected being a US flight. I don’t mind this when you have the space to unload everything again, and the time – we had neither. Once everyone’s shoes have come off, baby carrier off, electronics removed from bags, children hustled through, we realize this was a real rookie error; we look like prize fools carrying out a circus act much to the bemusement of all airline and security staff watching the show. (Though still thankful that the kids had a long play and surely, surely not another nappy change could be required before we’re airborne?)
T – 25 minutes
The late boarding strategy is also back-firing on the plane: no overhead locker space for our overnight bag but two massive pluses – Mr Globetrotter and the two older kids have their own row two behind me and Master J and I have our bassinet row, and a spare seat! I can fully extend my legs in front of me and I have space to the side. And wait there’s more, the 777 seating layout means there’s only business class in front and no economy toilets, this means no in-flight foot traffic brushing past the bassinet either! (Seat 10D mums note it down!)
As Master J drifts off to sleep in my arms before we even taxi, I’m thinking this is seriously my lucky day (trying not to make eye contact with Mr Globetrotter now trying to ram the overnight bag under the seats in front of him – hopelessly failing – while dealing with headphone requests, where’s this… I’ve lost my… )
Then joy of joys, the in-flight information screen (brilliant displays by the way Qatar Airways) shows that we have already knocked over an hour off our estimated arrival time before we’ve left the tarmac – brilliant there are less than 16 hours to go!!!
T + 30 minutes
Master J & Master L have both fallen asleep during take-off. Miss Z has been plugged into the in-flight entertainment system and is mesmerized. Its only turbulence now stopping me from dropping Master J into the bassinet and making use of my hands again.
T + 1 hour 15 minutes
Breakfast is being served. Normally I would say no as we ate in the lounge, but past experience has taught me on the long-hauls you’re unlikely to get fed again until a few hours before landing so take whatever food offered, whenever you can, especially if the baby is sleeping.
T + 1 hour 45 minutes
Regretting breakfast decision already. Of course, there’s turbulence, I still have my tray in front of me and Master J is most displeased I’ve stopped his morning nap. Really wish I remembered to cut master J’s nails yesterday. Really wish I got my baby bag down from overhead locker straight after take-off. Really wish they’d clear away the breakfast trays faster.
T + 1 hour 50 minutes
There must be some flying genies looking after us today, the head steward just walked past and took my tray without needing to ask 17 times, unheard of.
T + 2 hours
Miss Z has now surprisingly fallen asleep and Master L has woken up. He’s discovered there’s Mickey Mouse Club House on the entertainment system, happy as Larry. Master J has confirmed what I already knew, barf bags are the best plane toy ever.
T + 2 hours 15 minutes
In record time the dinner service has been cleared away and the cabin dimmed. It is only just after 10am in our departure time zone so this really surprises me; many passengers have their sleeping masks on and earplugs in already and away we go – but I was all ready for playtime, come on guys you’re throwing my schedule!
T + 4 Hours 50 minutes
Our good run has come to an end and the first meltdown ensues; Master L missed the breakfast and now wants his lunch; Miss Z has lost her headphones and simultaneously Master J starts hollering for a feed. Good teamwork sees us through this first obstacle.
T + 5 hours 30 minutes
First major operation child swap takes place. Multiple toilet stops. Multiple moaning about the new seating arrangements. More lost headphones lost toys. Rummaging through bags trying to find new activities commences. (It’s a shame there weren’t a few actual surprises left – before boarding our first flight the previous day Master L and Miss Z had already discovered there were ‘new things’ hidden in their backpacks and opened the entire contents all over the floor in the Etihad first class check-in area).
T + 7 hours 43 minutes
According to the screen we are officially halfway. I’ve never felt so desperately far from anywhere, and we’re only just off the coast of Portugal. We still have the entire Atlantic Ocean to cross; about 7 hours of being nowhere near land is slightly frightening at this point, mental fatigue is already kicking in and it’s only about 4pm by my body clock.
T + 8 hours
This was about the point when all three of them are suddenly awake crying for mum, then trolley service starts – one stuck with a crap in his nappy, the baby desperately trying to sleep but having none of it, and you guessed it, headphones are lost. Our rows not being directly next to each other means to placate the situation items are now being lobbed over the heads of the row in between us. I’d say this was the point where our civility went out the window.
I am seriously regretting my choice of volunteering to sit in row 12 to do some ‘active playtime’ with Miss Z. We are literally wallowing in our own filth back here. I can’t move for a popsicle stick or pipe cleaner sticking out of an orifice. The purple pen is missing. It simply has to be the purple pen. I’m head deep in bags and garbage, definitely something soggy that must be left from the breakfast boxes is now under my fingernails and my arse crack is pointed out for all in the cabin to see as we are the only ones with our reading light on breaking the serenity.
After smacking Master J’s head on the fully reclined chair in front of me three times now he’s positively howling. With Mr Globetrotter still stuck on toilet queue duties in the aftermath of the trolley blockage, I resort to pulling out my nearly retired boobs to comfort him, utterly useless, I am completely dried up.
T + 8 hours 20 minutes
Mr Globetrotter returns to assess the situation of fluffy pipe cleaners and paddle pop sticks at this point and resolves we have too much crap; next time they can have an iPad and one colouring book each. I’m forlornly in agreement as I admit defeat with the baby and get a bottle out.
T + 8 hours 30 minutes
After taking a stroll down the plane with Master J I’m suddenly envious of the second economy cabin, bathed in the natural glow of daylight they look to almost be enjoying the experience at this point. We go hang out the back of the plane by the loos so he can look out the window. Nothing but blue water below us.
T + 9 hours 15 minutes
It would seem calm has descended. The older kids are now plugged into their iPads, there is an air of silence and peace. I grab my front row back and grab myself a drink at last.
T + 9 hours 30 minutes
Master J spills my entire drink all over me, impressive. I love the seedy bar smell on arrival in foreign countries. Also why I always wear quick-dry material when I fly. And why I stick to white wine and G&T’s in the air, this Travel Mama knows.
T + 12 hours
I have just completed watching a whole movie, almost uninterrupted. My eyelids are gently starting to burn with dehydration but there is calm. Master J asleep in the bassinet and the older ones still blissfully plugged in. I imagine just for a second that I am flying by myself, it’s almost euphoric.
T + 12 hours 30 minutes
Should have bottled that euphoria. The food requests are starting. Apparently, there are absolutely no snacks left on board and another hour until the next meal service. My great big plastic lunch box stuffed full of snacks in the ‘spares’ bag isn’t looking like such a waste of space now, is it Mr Globetrotter?
T + 13 hours 30 minutes
Meals came out sooner than expected, kiddies thrilled, bellies fed and blissfully resting next to Mr Globetrotter, I’m thinking he’s going to have the last laugh on these seating arrangements after all. I have a well-rested over-fidgety baby jumping off my lap, off my chair, over the lady in 10F. Still, more than 2 hours to go, seriously, WTF? Has the clock actually moved backwards since I last looked? Must stop looking and trying to count backwards. Trying to count the time at home, trying to count how many collective hours sleep I’ve had, when will I next see the inside of my eyelids. Another eyelid gouge cheers Master J. Nail scissors!
T + 14 hours
The battle over seating begins. Everyone wants to sit with mum for landing. Yeah I know I’m good but seriously, sit with your father. More toilet stops. Surely they have not consumed enough liquid to require lining up this frequently? I’m convinced the people in the back row think I have a bladder issue and I’m using my kids to jump the queue.
T + 15 hours 15 minutes
We land. Well ahead of schedule. The last hour passes in a blur of excitement and exhaustion. We are quietly ecstatic by how well the flight actually went- no known casualties of the plane seat black-hole phenomena and only one child with an outfit change.
Our excitement was fairly short-lived when we saw the queue ahead for homeland security and it then took us 4 hours, yes 4 HOURS to finally get to our hotel where the booking was cocked up, but that’s a story for another time. We survived and we’re all still talking to one another. It can be done!
There are still little lessons that we learn every time we fly to make for smoother sailing the next time. Later this month I will be posting our top practical tips for surviving long-haul flights with kids in one handy article. You can see more on how we prepared for the ultra-long-haul flying challenge here too – and what defines ordinary long-haul from the ultra, it’s basically like the extreme sport of the travel world.
What’s the longest single journey you have had to undertake in the air and did you survive, or are you still mentally scarred?
In case insanity strikes you too – Pin this for Later
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