Years ago, when my first-born LB was very little, I was anticipating a solo trip with LB (he was 20 months old at the time) and concerned about keeping him happy and calm. Up until then, he had been on five international flights with us and he was an easy-going traveler, but as he approached two years old, developmentally we could no longer just entertain him with ‘This Little Piggy’ and ‘Goodnight Moon’.
I started thinking how likely it was he would have a real meltdown, or maybe he’d just be restless. Could I deal with restless for 15 hours? What if he has a meltdown? Wow, I wish airlines had nannies just for kids in-flight. I wonder how much that would cost. How much would I pay to prevent a meltdown on a trip? Wait, what if I did that. LIGHTBULB.
What if I spent that money on surprise treats that I then wrap to be a real gift?!
Before I give you the details on how I do it, I’ll give you an example of how it has worked well. LB is seven and has had one meltdown, but it was after 17 hours of travel and we had one more flight. A is only two so fewer trips for data, but he didn’t have a meltdown so much as a hangry silent protest in the Edinburgh Airport after a red-eye flight. But other than that… no issues.
That one 17-hour trip ended up being 19.5 hours by the end of it. We were right behind first class and Imelda May was up there and she even commented on how well behaved he was. And when we disembarked, the first class flight attendant was shocked there was a two-year-old just on the other side of the curtain. Our section’s flight attendant was beaming with pride. We have not done this with both kids yet because this is the first long trip A is old enough to engage with rewards, books, etc. The year before that it was just me and LB off to the States and he was not yet two years old. At that age, I would organise all the activity books and flat rewards in a file folio and not always wrapped. He still loved the surprises. See that Pooh board book? I made the mistakes and learned from them early on! One trip I actually brought a translucent IKEA placement for entertainment. Think about what actually amuses your kid at their current age, it may be something you already have that is forgotten or never used.
Now, I’ll explain how I hand these out then I’ll detail how each gift fits in a category (Activity/Book, Game, Snack, Toy) and is wrapped for aesthetic. I linked to Amazon Affiliate links. I make a few quid a year from that, but the links are more to show you examples of things. As always, shopping in your own town is awesome which is what I did for all the rewards shown in this post.
When To Reward
Knowing when to give a reward is personal and comes down to paying attention and listening to your child’s subtle cues. I can tell when either of my kids is on the verge of feeling restless. Perhaps they flip faster in the book they’re reading or they don’t color a whole page anymore or they’re lacklustre in their interaction with whatever they’re doing. But when that happens, I chime in and genuinely thank them each for their patience and how they have great attitudes in spite of the delay/smell/space/… (insert your own specifics). Sometimes I’ll point out something they find challenging that they’ve been doing well (like resisting kicking the seat in front of them) or something nice they did. If the timing is right and I’m considering a reward when a flight attendant comes by with water, I’ll make a point of noticing my kids’ nice manners and that can be an excuse for a reward. Side note here, travel with an empty water bottle and have them put water in that not a spoilable cup – this helps with turbulence but also kit makes it easier to have the water for later in the flight when the drink cart isn’t offered.
Over time, LB came to expect these in-flight rewards, but it didn’t change how he acted. He actually would ask how many were available and keep that in mind with how long the trip was. It has also made a different outside of travel. When I go to the salon or dentist, my boys sit happily playing with a little toy, playing a Sago Mini game. There’s a contentedness. For us, a device is my last line of defence against boredom, but I embrace it fully for the engagement tool that it is. But I also like variety and my trip rewards keeps a gadget from being the only thing getting their attention on a trip. Selfishly, my kids will grow up and build lives of their own one day so I kinda love having them with me for a long stretch without Internet so we can keep getting to know one another.
Before I go into what I like to choose, I’ll just say that puzzles, things that make noise electronically, and spherical things that roll (balls and marbles specifically) are not recommended for travel. Noisy things are cool if it’s a family road trip, of course, but this post is from my experience on long-haul flights and in that context the aforementioned items aren’t worth carrying.
An activity reward is a colouring book, maze book, magazine, storybook, or something a kid can do solo or with a sibling or parent. I also love our AquaDoodle travel set, just remember to fill the pen after security. Magna Doodles are fun too.
I tend to source colouring and activity books at the Euro/Dollar store in a multipack. Flying Tiger is also good for inventive ones at varying developmental levels. I also love Write Away in Cork for these things. I always keep a couple little ones in with crayons in my purse for dining out and I save some in my ’emergency gifts’ box in my closet. For this trip, I have A LOT of different colouring and activity books. I chose one for each kid and wrapped them together. They’re similar.
I also will brainstorm my own activities. This time, I’m bringing metallic glittery pipe cleaners. Or paper people cutouts to draw with different clothes. I also have glittery paper, mini scissors, and googly eyes to cut out dinosaurs (inevitably) and put eyes on them. I never bring actual glitter.
In terms of magazines, I aim for ones like National Geographic Kids or something age appropriate because they don’t come with easily lost toys.
For books, go with small ones, no hardback or board books. You can choose a combination of books to read together or solo, depending on age. I look for books at the charity/thrift shops here because the Mr. Men books are an ideal travel size and they are priced there for €0.25–0.50.
Sometimes an activity pack will include a little set of coloured pencils or crayons (like a few shown above), but I also have a bag of ones we use already in nice containers. I prefer coloured pencils. Sostrene Greene has ones that are triangular so they don’t roll to the back of the plane never to be seen again (ahem, I’m looking at you crayons). I never bring markers or pens. Too much can happen. If I bring crayons, I like shaped ones that are fun and can be played with too.
For mini scissors, I always have a tiny pair in my knitting kit, but because I packed pipe cleaners and glitter paper this time, I included a tiny pair in the pencil case too. TSA is ok with any scissors with blades under 4″ (10cm). These are much shorter than that.
Other activities can be kits, I love the ones from Flying Tiger. These are little matchbox-style containers with animal cutouts you set up. Two for €1 and I have two kids. Score. The robot wind-up toy is doing a happy dance.
A game reward is usually a deck of cards, themed card game (like Top Trumps or UNO), travel game set (like mini Clue or Checkers), or travel BINGO. These tend to be fun to do together. You don’t want to open one of these right before you want to nap. In terms of games that work best, aim for ones that you can still play if you lose a piece or a card. Magnetic or peg games are brilliant. For this trip, I have a PJ Masks card game I bought at Boots (it’s like CVS or Walgreens), but it’s also on Amazon.co.uk to read more about it.
When LB was younger, he wanted ever single Hot Wheels car in existence. It was an easy win to wrap a few of these for the toy reward. And when he was in his blind bag phase, that made this so easy. Grab a selection of Hot Wheels and blind bags for €1.50 each. I like these two blind bags (Sylvanian and Star Wars) from Amazon.co.uk as inspiration because they give you something to play with. Also there are many variations of wood toys linked by elastic cord that are fun to reshape and manipulate, like this robot version. The plastic twist toy snake puzzles are great too.
Those days are long gone and A isn’t into the same things, so for this I chose little metal landscape in a suitcase toy and a wind-up toy that dances instead of walking (so it won’t go off a tray table onto the abyss that is an airplane floor under the seat), both from Flying Tiger. Amazon.co.uk has the wind-up toy as well. There are many little toy sets in tin cases on Amazon.co.uk, but not in the same price point as the one from Flying Tiger.
I also made them a travel LEGO set. I’ll write up that in a blog post for next week so check back. Of course, they sell ones already made. Which is way easier. Amazon.co.uk has one I’m kinda digging.
I don’t wrap these. They’re usually fruit snacks, packaged waffles, and things that don’t create lots of crumbs. I avoid chocolate because it melts and makes a gooey mess. I also try to skip pure sugar like gummy bears or jellies. And though no one in our family has a nut allergy, I never travel with a nut snack if I can help it. This is because if a person with a severe nut allergy is on the same flight, they announce that no nut snacks may be opened so then any snacks I’ve brought with nuts are useless. Additionally, with the kids as much as they wash their hands and use wipes, I would just dread if they touched something that someone with a nut allergy then touches. I am severely allergic to pig, so if one of my kids eats sausage then kisses my cheek, I get a hive. But I can still breathe. But if I do that, I figure it is a risk for others too.
I wrap in whatever is handy. This tissue paper was in a set for €1.50 at TKMaxx last week and I used half the package to wrap 16 parcels, so that’s nice. I wouldn’t use newspaper because of the finger transfer of ink. The tissue paper is also available on Amazon.co.uk.
I have all the parcels wrapped. LB wants to help me decide when rewards will be given. I think it’s great that he wants to take on a big brother role like this, but also it will mean he gains more awareness about resource management and reading behaviour.
So, he’ll carry the bag with them all inside. It’s a conference swag rucksack I bought at a charity shop for €3.90 and updated it with new lining and a monogram (blog post on that later this summer, I promise).
I already tested it in the washing machine! The bag is lighter in weight than my LLBean Boat Tote and works for the kids to carry easily.
That’s it. It is simple. I usually spend €1–3 per reward (higher end for a pair of rewards, one for each kid in the same wrapping). I am sure there are parenting experts who could argue against this approach, but from my perspective I’ve seen how this helps my son do his own thing in a positive way in an otherwise boring and cramped situation.
I’ve heard of parents handing out goody bags to neighbouring passengers, which is super, but I feel like this is the right fit for us because we don’t travel with toys otherwise so they get new small ones that are not irreplaceable or valuable. Also, I want my children to comprehend it is our responsibility to treat fellow passengers with respect and not to assume earplugs and a cookie will make up for bad behaviour.
What tricks do you have up your sleeve for making the most of long-haul flights or lengthy trips with kids?