Flying with kids, especially babies and toddlers, is daunting for most parents. But the idea of taking overnight flights – often called red-eyes – can be particularly terrifying for many. Red-eye flights are, however, a necessary evil of air travel. Sometimes there is simply no other way to get where your family needs to go without taking one.
How can you best survive and thrive on overnight flights with kids? I’ve done it with my kids at nearly every age and lived to tell the tale! Here are all my best tips for deciding whether to take a red-eye in the first place. Plus, learn how to maximize your chances of red-eye flight success.
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Should You Take a Red-eye Flight with Kids?
Before we dive into tips, let’s first explore whether and when you should take a red-eye with kids.
Often travelers have no choice but to take a red-eye flight. Due to the time difference and flight length, there’s just no way to fly an itinerary like Tokyo to San Francisco during only daytime hours. In fact, every nonstop flight leaving Japan’s capital city going to SFO leaves around dinner time and lands in the morning.
But sometimes you do have a choice. For example, there are frequently overnight flights from the US West Coast to East Coast, such as LAX to New York City. But there are also lots of daytime flight options for that same trip as well. In these situations, I personally almost always chose to take daytime flights when my kids were very little.
Red-eyes are often the cheapest flights of the day for many destinations, so they are a tempting option for families. Those savings can really add up when you are traveling with multiple adults and kids. That said, I recommend calculating just how much a potential lost night of sleep is going to cost you in other ways when there are flight alternatives.
Red-eye flights with kids can truly be a trap for the unwary for parents of small children. I’ve sometimes heard parents say that they seek out red-eyes because “the little ones will just conk out anyway, right?” Maybe, but maybe not. Choosing a red-eye is really a roll of the dice when dealing with the mercurial nature of infants and toddlers. Your kid might sleep quietly the whole way, or your kid may be one screaming for five hours straight preventing a whole section of the plane from getting a wink of sleep.
The best advice I can give you in deciding whether a red-eye is right for you is to know your child. Some kids sleep anywhere when they are tired. My first born wasn’t one of them for the first several years of her life. Up until about her third birthday, my daughter was perpetually awake on airplanes. The excitement of flying was too overwhelming for her to rest most of the time. We could rarely achieve a successful nap on a plane, so we knew that trying to squeeze in a whole night’s sleep would be a recipe for disaster. Naturally, we avoided overnight flights like the plague.
Our first red-eye ended up happening, of course, but it was an unintentional one! After a truly bizarre flight cancelation situation, we were rebooked on a flight 6 hours later that our original plans that was a red-eye from Hawaii’s Big Island to California. My daughter was so exhausted from a full day at the airport with no naps that she went right out. She had a fitful sleep, however, and also slept until noon after we arrived back at home at about 7 am.
Thankfully, we found our second child was much more flexible when it came to sleeping on planes and rolling with the punches. He was so much easier that I even braved a red-eye trip from San Francisco to Panama with both kids solo when he was a toddler!
As kids get older, of course, they become much more flexible and able to handle red-eye flights. Each age and stage of travel is different, so be prepared to evolve with your kids. Now that my kids are older, overnight flights are quite doable for us. In fact, the kids cope better with them than I do!
Tips to Improve Your Chances of Success on a Red-eye Flight with Kids
If you do end up choosing a red-eye flight with children, here are a few tips to make it work for your family and your little ones.
1. Book the right airline
What has made red-eye flights more successful for me is picking flights that have features that improve the odds that everyone in the family will be comfortable.
Not all airlines are created equal. Some airlines are much more kid-friendly or simply have amenities that will make an overnight flight more manageable with kids. Generally speaking, I prefer international carriers to US ones for international red-eye flights. Often these airlines have more spacious seating configurations, better meal choices, and more attentive service from flight attendants. But not always!
2. Book the right flight itinerary
In addition to booking the right airline, book itineraries that are likely to be less painful for your family if you have multiple flight options. While there are times that my family might choose a connecting flight itinerary over a non-stop one, I will pay a lot more for a non-stop option on an overnight flight. Getting kids settled just once on a single longer flight improves their chances of sleeping more hours. Waiting out a layover (and adding another risk of a flight delay or cancellation) when everyone is bleary-eyed is not fun.
Consider flight arrival and departure times as well. With younger kids, I’m more inclined to book a flight that would depart a little before their regular bedtimes. This way, there would be time to have dinner on the plane and then settle into sleep at a normal hour.
3. Select seat types & location that improve your chance of success
I also highly recommend researching seating options before booking a red-eye with kids. Aircraft can vary considerably across one airline’s fleet. Some aircraft may have seating configurations that will work better for a family looking to maximize sleep.
Peruse SeatGuru for each flight you are considering. This site will alert you to things like seat width and pitch, row-by-row and seat-by-seat. Seeing seat maps and reading the comments from other travelers will help you discover what seats may have the features you want – such as away from the noise of a galley or bathroom or with extra legroom.
When we flew to London on an overnight flight from San Francisco a few summers ago, we purposefully chose to book a British Airways A380 plane. Why? Its top deck has regular economy seats by the window with extra space due to storage bins. My then 8 year old son was able to stretch out and sleep with the additional space – at no extra cost.
Generally speaking, I find that simply getting a whole row or section together as a family, away from other passengers, helps too. On my most recent red-eye to Europe from San Francisco to Frankfurt, I flew solo with my two kids. We were flying on a plane with a 3-4-3 seating configuration in the economy class section of the plane. For about $80 additional in seat upgrade fees, I was able to book us into three contiguous seats on the side of the plane instead of sharing the middle section with another passenger next to us. This gave us an area to ourselves without strangers getting into our sleep space. It allowed us to maneuver into the best sleeping configuration as we could muster – in coach at least!
A few airlines now have even more unique seat options – like Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch – that help families with getting some shut eye. You may also want to consider a larger premium economy seat on some airlines. On many ultra low cost carriers especially, seat upgrades may not be as cost prohibitive as you think.
4. Buy older babies and toddlers a seat
While we are on the topic of seats, let’s talk about kids who technically don’t require one – lap children. If you have a baby or toddler who has not yet reached his or her second birthday, then you could fly with your child in your lap. But should you on a red-eye flight?
If you plan to sleep on a plane or have your child do the same, you absolutely need to have as much space as possible to stretch out and get comfortable. While it may be easy to strap a 4 month old to you in a Baby Bjorn and conk out, you aren’t going to sleep with a squirmy 22 month old on your lap for 5 hours or more. Don’t try it. Lap toddlers and overnight flights just aren’t worth the risk to me!
5. Ask for the infant bassinet on international flights
If you have a younger infant with you, there is one other seat option to consider. Many longer red-eye flights have bassinets available that attach to the back of bulkheads. These are almost exclusively available on international flights and have fairly low weight limits, so they are only good for small infants (often under 6 months old).
While bassinets allow parents to be able to be hands free on occasion, they have their drawbacks. Often they are near high traffic areas of the plane like the galley. That may mean more light and noise that prevent your child from sleeping. Your baby may simply find the new sleep environment unnerving as well.
Additionally, reserving bassinets can be a bit of a gamble, especially if you are flying during peak holiday or summer travel periods where families are more likely to be on board. Other families traveling with infants on your plane may beat you to booking the bulkhead row. And aircraft swaps or cancellations can cause you to lose these seat assignments even if you carefully select them in advance.
6. Carefully consider the pros and cons of a car seat
Whether a car seat is a liability or a necessity on an overnight flight really depends on the child. When my daughter was an infant and young toddler, the car seat was the place she was most likely to fall asleep while on the go. We found that my son, however, much preferred sleeping on mom on planes!
If your child needs the security of being strapped in and separated from distractions to calm him or her down enough to fall asleep, bring the car seat along. If you have a kiddo who is maybe a little more attached, you may not want the seat and would prefer the extra elbow room.
I found a car seat most helpful when we were still using the “bucket” version (we used the Chicco Keyfit 30) that is partially reclined and will allow a comfortable sleeping position.
It is a tougher call for older toddlers, as convertible car seats are upright and also position little legs in a place where they are likely to kick the seat in front of them the whole flight. (Note: a CARES harness is a viable restraint alternative for toddlers on planes but it isn’t comfortable for sleeping).
7. Bring pajamas and a favorite blanket, pillow, or stuffed animal.
Last but certainly not least, create a comfortable sleeping environment for your kids on red-eye flights to maximize sleep. When our kids were younger, we often had them change into PJs right before boarding, just like they would as part of their bedtime routine at home. Remember to pack PJs that are easy for diaper changes or bathroom trips. I avoid the footed ones on flights – yuck!
It’s also helpful for your little one to have the usual items he or she sleeps with such as a stuffed animal, lovey, or blanket. This will help trigger your child’s sleep associations, hopefully resulting in a better chance of a sleepy kid. My kids usually bring a larger stuffed animal that does double duty as a pillow.
While most international flights offer free blankets and pillows for free, domestic red-eye flights often don’t. Be prepared with all the sleep gear you might need.
Most parents dread that first red-eye flight with kids, but I promise you can do it! After having done many overnight flights with my family, I know first hand that they aren’t fun. But the payoff is amazing family vacation memories that last much longer than the temporary discomfort of one poor night of sleep.