This summer, my husband and I took our family on the dream vacation. We went to New Zealand, hubby’s home country, for a two week visit around the North Island. We visited family, we went to an engagement party, and we played tourist.
But first, we had to get there! Due to some crazy last minute circumstances with a passport, this meant a drive from our home in North Dakota to Los Angeles via Seattle (what a life we lead), then a flight from LA to Auckland, New Zealand.
Check out these posts to learn more about how we got there.
Yes, we boarded a 12-hour flight with four children, ranging from two to 14. No, we’re not crazy. But yes, I planned it like a mad person. And you can, too. Putting the work in ahead of time means even a mom can have a relaxing vacation.
Matching shirts so we can find them in the airport
A few weeks before the trip I had the stroke of genius to order the family matching shirts to make it easier to find each other in the crowded airports – on both sides of the ocean.
The complaints from the kids about wanting to personalize their wardrobe was half-hearted at best, and in the end it was cool to have a t-shirt to remember the trip. Our 13-year-old asked if she could cut and tie the sides and we said she could…but she wore it as it came.
Luckily we didn’t have to test the effectiveness of the shirts by losing anyone in the busy airport, but I do think it helped us stay together. Once while we were waiting for a flight delay and our oldest wandered off to entertain himself for a while, I was able to spot him easily from across the terminal.
For a fun added twist, my hubby designed a fun logo for the shirts, commemorating our trip.
Touchscreen TVs – kid friendly vs. pre-teen friendly
Air New Zealand has a wonderful feature in the coach class cabin – touch screen TVs for each seat. While this is fantastic and gave us tons of breathing space as far as entertaining children on a long flight, we did run into a small snag. The parental controls were all or nothing. Basically this meant we could lock the toddler’s television to avoid anything scary coming on (though we couldn’t block the Disney and Nickelodeon garbage we don’t allow her to watch at home), but there was no appropriate control for the pre-teen and teenagers.
I looked over at my 13-year-old’s screen once in the middle of the flight and saw an explicit sex scene in the movie she was watching! Of course I handled it at the time, but with six of us sitting in two rows, there was no way I could watch everyone all the time. I would have loved to have a little bit more flexibility in my discretion there. Another feature that would have been fantastic would have been the ability to control their screen from mine.
(By the way, we did have a discussion before the trip home about appropriate viewing.)
Skycouch — not worth the extra $$$
For months leading up to the trip, we were excited by Air New Zealand’s new “Skycouch” feature. Like, really excited. It was the reason we stuck with the airline. We had taken this flight before, with and without kids, and we were not looking forward to being cramped into the seats. The flexibility of the skycouches sounded like a great solution!
Once was plenty, though, unfortunately. The skycouches allowed three seats to be folded together into a bed (including folding up the footrests to make it wider, if the people in the seats in front of you have chosen not to recline their seats, that is). We were two adults and four children in two skycouches, so we did not have the benefit of a spare seat between us to spread out (a potential situation that is being advertised, but was outside of our budget).
For me (at 5’4″), the seat was OK. At one point, our two-year-old and I cuddled up and lay down while our 11-year-old watched a movie in the outside seat. It was far from perfect (and I admittedly ignored the maze of seatbelts for use while lying down that reminded me of a mountain climb and totally confused me), but it allowed for a new position and some rest.
My husband, on the other hand, was not a fan at all. It was too narrow, three seats across is too short to lie down, the complications of the seatbelts were stupid, and if you had people in the seat (for example, a teenager) who didn’t want to be part of a family cuddle, the entire thing was a waste.
We both found this review from MSN to be accurate. Would we do it again? Well, to be honest we will probably avoid the 777 entirely in the future. Carrying a toddler down the plane was next to impossible with the new narrow gap between the seats, something that was downright embarrassing. Coupling the narrow aisles with less than ideal seats, it was not a great choice for what is essentially a trip halfway around the world.
CARES system – totally worth the extra $$
As I prepared for our super long flight and everything that went with it, I was really struggling with the car seat plan. I knew I wanted our toddler to be safely strapped into her carseat for take-off and landing (and any other times it might be needed in-flight), but having her bulky car seat there, taking up space the rest of the flight, sounded really unappealing. There was just no way I could make her sit in it the entire time, and it would really cut into the space of the skycouch.
With all this in mind, I was excited to find the CARES Airplane Safety Harness for Children. It is fantastic. It folds into a tiny bag which we tossed in her backpack, and couldn’t have been smoother. The harness fastens her into her seat when needed, is approved by the FAA, and gets out of the way when it isn’t needed. I checked with two flight attendant friends, and they happily endorsed the product. I definitely recommend it for international travel! (If you need a car seat on the other end, like we did, you can check it for free and have it when you arrive, without having to drag it through the airport during layovers.)
My children have always been good travelers, and for that I feel eternally blessed. Once the initial excitement of the personal TVs had worn off, there were a lot of Zs coming from our offspring!
Take the time to get everyone comfortable, with blankets and pillows handy, before take-off. It will save a lot of trouble once in the air.
…and lack of sleep
We brought along some magic little Hylands Calm Forte just in case of a restlessness issue, and I was really glad to have them on hand. (If you are considering sleeping pills, do a little homework, they are not recommended due to an increased risk of blood clots.)
Considering she is the little girl who falls asleep on every car trip, we were really surprised at how much time our two-year-old spent AWAKE on the flight. I had packed plenty of activities for her, including books, writing and coloring, toys (including new ones to pull out mid-flight), but we reached a point where sleep-deprivation won out.
The five of us took turns walking up and down the aisles with her, took advantage of the children’s programming available on the television, and had lots of cuddles. Snacks and drinks helped, too. If you have a toddler who is constantly asking for food, make sure you plan for that.
Meals – dealing with toddler mess
Which brings us to the topic of meals! A Transpacific flight is not your average trip when it comes to toddler mess. Imagine setting your toddler down in a chair and providing them with food, things to do, and everything else they may need for 12 hours. Now imagine the mess. Yikes, right?
When booking the flight, we selected a “kids meal” for our daughter, and then blindly boarded a plane. Imagine our joy when her first meal came, and it was spaghetti and meatballs. And me without a tarp!
Then there were drinks, snacks, and breakfast. We needed a lot of baby wipes. (She was never a bib kid, but if your child is willing to wear them, I would definitely be sure to have some along.)
Here is where I point out something important to know – one outfit in your carry-on is not going to cut it. We packed three complete outfits, a sweater, and a pair of footie pajamas, and most of it got some use.
That applies to everyone. Drink lots and lots of water, and avoid drinks like coffee, tea, and alcohol. This can help you combat jet lag, and who needs jet lag when you are on a family vacation?
Bathroom breaks before landing
Inevitably, with all that drinking and four children involved, someone needs to go to the bathroom at an inopportune moment. Our moment came just as the plane landed in Auckland. Pay attention to the approach of landing time, and make sure everyone gets up to use the facilities before the time comes to return seats to an upright position and stow the carry-ons.
Customs with a brood
With all of the planning and preparation we did, prepping the children effectively for customs did not cross my mind. Hindsight is 20/20, though, let me tell you!
There are two stages to pass through once you get off the plane. First is Immigration and Passport Control, followed by Customs, where agricultural inspections and secondary screenings happen.
Some tips for the process (a few learned the hard way):
- Have passports out and ready to go. I suggest opening them to the photo page and stacking them that way. If one of you has a passport from a different country, present it separately (we have had agents think we were trying to sneak it through).
- Hand over the customs forms outside of the passports, with the head of household on top (if required to complete more than one).
- Make sure your children know the rules for what can be brought into the country. You don’t want to be caught out by a pre-teen with fruit in her bag.
- If you are unsure, declare it. We live in North Dakota, so we ALWAYS say we have been to a farm or rural area.
- And most importantly…customs agents do not find your teenager’s jokes amusing. Make sure he knows it would be appropriate to zip his lips.
Arrival at your destination
You’re finally there! Don’t plan anything for the first day if you can avoid it.
Some of you will have tons of energy and some of you will want to sleep it off, be sure to have a plan that accommodates everyone.