I Flew to Europe with Toddlers & Lived to Tell the Tale

Hi. I’m Jenna. I’m a Brooklyn-based travel editor and mom of twins. Mostly those twain identities shan’t meet. Other times, though, they come together for a 10+ day European journey with my toddlers Buddy and Bunny, collectively known as #thegrems (and yes, they got that hashtag because I love Mariah and #dembabies).

My in-laws (#thegrems’ grandparents) live in Spain. Since my husband hadn’t been to visit home in three-plus years and we wanted to take advantage of not having to pay for four international seats while our kids were still under two, we went for it in a serious way and packed up our 17 month old twins and embarked on the international jaunt. Yup — we flew seven hours and 15 minutes from JFK to Madrid with our children on our laps. And back again.

In my capacity as a travel professional, most of my trips are short. I did a five day on the ground in Tanzania trip once, which included three different hotel stays. When I travel for work, I also often don’t know I’m going on assignment until about 12 hours before departure, which means getting ready is usually a speedy affair: I toss a poorly edited selection of clothes and too many shoes into a roller board carry-on and I’m off.

But when you’ve got twins, the first thing you learn is that you’ve got to be hyper organized and add a solid 40 minutes to any maneuver that takes you out of your normal routine. For better or for worse, my babies are pretty regimented when it comes to their schedule. Given that 1) I’m a seasoned traveler, and 2) my babies are well-oiled eating and sleeping machines, I was confident that they’d be the best-behaved babies in the history of international plane travel.

Have you seen that Onion article about the dad who insists on getting to the airport a few days ahead of flight time? I totally and one thousand percent get it.

We rolled up to the airport three (3!) plus hours before departure. Each baby was in an an umbrella stroller, their clothing was packed (ahem, an entire week prior to departure) into a single wheelie suitcase along with some applesauce, juice boxes, tuna cans and a load of individual snack bags of Cheerios and cheddar bunnies. My husband had his usual roller, and I did the mommy minimalist thing with a camo print tote from L.L. Bean.

Sidenote: a long time ago, I stayed at a magical, unplugged beach resort in the Caribbean. Brad, Angelina, and their older three kids had recently checked out. Everyone — and I mean every single staff member that acknowledged the fact that the wonder-family had visited — said they were all totally down to earth and gracious guests. And everyone mentioned that Angelina traveled with a single duffel for herself. Now that I have kids I get why she traveled so lightly; after all the child gear, she didn’t have the arm strength to carry anything for herself. And yes, reader, in my story, I am the gorgeous MILF alien beauty that is Angelina Jolie.

Anyway, in my carry-on bag had diapers, wipes, and extra onesies and pants for each kid. Plus loveys, a tablet and headphones, books, a stuffed animal, and two toy cars for each child. And loads of snacks and a sippy of milk for each kid (in addition to the aforementioned ones). I also stashed a wet bag (a cloth bag with a plastic inner lining and a zipper). I also had a magazine and a book that that I had been trying to read for months. Since my babies are wondertwins and would likely snooze the entire trip, I’d probably get to read, even if a child was dozing in my arms. Oh and I made my husband carry a pack of wipes in his backpack. You can never have enough wipes.

Getting through security wasn’t actually hard because 1) We had plenty of time, and b) we opted for single umbrella strollers that have a folding mechanism at the top — genius — and can be hooked together. Carrying the non-walker and guiding the walker, we all passed through the checkpoint. One hiccup, however, was the electronic boarding pass. Every airline handles infants-in-arms differently. My advice: Just do the paper ticket, especially if you’re using passports, and it can all be folded together. Oh, that was another thing in Daddy’s purview: toting our passports.

Waiting for the flight was fairly simple. I was on a hunt for milk and finally found it at McDonald’s. We let the walker (Buddy) amble around as much as he wanted. One thing I didn’t know is that TSA makes liquid allowances for children. I knew about the formula/breast milk exceptions, but hadn’t realized that pouches, milk, and yogurt are also allowable for families with young children. Just check the TSA website before getting to the airport and inquire with your airline to be safe. Many international airports have family security lines and easily make such allowances.

Boarding was a breeze because I insisted we push our way to the “people that need assistance” section of the pre-boarding process. Seemed fair. Especially because once on the plane, we smiled at all our flight neighbors and said in both English and Spanish “first flight, let’s see how it goes.” People are very charmed by adorable babies in coordinating hoodies.

And that, dear reader, is where my I’m-so-awesome pro-ness essentially ends. I had been totally banking on the fact that the tablets would be a hit. We don’t really do screens in our house, so I thought they’d be an extra special treat. WRONG. The week before departure, my husband had suggested that we introduce the tablets and some books, PBS kids programing, and interactive games to #thegrems. I had vetoed. And I was in error. (See? I can I admit when I’m wrong. It is right here on the internet!)

Buddy and Bunny took one look at the tablets and grunted. Similarly, their books and cars were a bit of a bust. Instead they were enamored with the seat-back entertainment system. At one point, Buddy was so entranced by the screens, he was jumping between the seats and trying to change the pictures. He was completely overstimulated and finally I had to get the crabby flight crew to turn off the entire row of TVs so we could cradle the babies to sleep.

Ah, sleep.

Now, I did not expect my kids would sleep the entire time, but I figured it’d be at least a bulk of the overnight flight. They’re such good sleepers normally. But you know what goes here. WRONG. Bunny dozed for maybe 20 minutes. The rest of the time she was glassy-eyed and enthralled with the experience. Clutching her lovey, she flipped though the inflight magazines, tossed around the safety card, and crinkled the plastic wrapper on the blanket/slippers/eye mask for hours. As a walker, Buddy was more on the move, and needed shushed to sleep. But our friends the flight crew insisted that it’s illegal for parents to walk around the plane with a toddler in arms. (As an aside, I’m pretty sure that is a lie.) After a few bouts of “I’m trying to get comfortable” screams, Buddy drifted into a deepish slumber. Until someone slammed the bathroom door and he awoke with a frightened scream. No one ever slept again.

Upon initial descent, the nosebleed came. Buddy is prone to them. But when the flight attendants saw blood coming from the face of a toddler, they asked if they should call a doctor. No MD was needed, just yet a(nother) trip to the bathroom (we had dealt with a major blowout earlier in the flight) for a face wash and onesie wardrobe change.

And, that, my friends, is pretty much it. The landing, like take off, was accompanied by pacifiers (Bunny) and loads of water and milk (Buddy) to assuage pressure changes. And although there was some crying, that part was relatively painless.

So would I do a double lap trip again? Absolutely. In fact, we did a round-trip to Miami within months. And it isn’t because I like to be punished. It is because I like to see the world. And, like everything in life, the more you fly with kids, the more streamlined the process gets. We learned to manage our expectations about sleep, found that buying snacks (Chex, yogurt, string cheese, apple juice) is a special treat, and watching planes take off is better than TV. Also, the next time we flew, the tablets were more of a hit — the kids by then understood Daniel Tiger is that cool cat in the red hoodie. The flight crew was friendlier. And — this is the most important point — the babies knew more or less what to expect.

We’re planning some international travel later this year and now I have to figure out how to add car seats to the entire equation. Guess my own luggage will get even smaller – à la Angie.

Jenna Mahoney is a Brooklyn-based magazine editor and writer specializing in travel, weddings, beauty and healthy lifestyles. She's been on staff at Bridal Guide and Fitness magazines and her work has appeared in Shape, Self, Allure, Redbook and New York Magazine, among other places. She's the author of Small Apartment Hacks.