Lydia and I flew across most of the country yesterday, just the 2.7 of us (I think pregnant women traveling with toddlers should get bonus points). Lydia had flown once before when she was one and it was a similarly long trip, but she didn't remember it this time. Luckily, I remembered a few ideas to help provide smooth travels.
My first idea for a long day of travel is to pack small items with big impact. Because Lydia is older I gave her some choice in what we brought. I explained that we would be sitting like on a long car ride and she requested her Nintendo DS. Next I suggested that she would need to take a map and might want a "sleep friend" like they use at school. (I really appreciate that her school has a rule about only bringing ONE toy from home. Both at school and in situations like this, we don't end up with tons of toys and there isn't a battle because it's already an established rule.) She chose her American Girl doll (a little big but good for comfort and conversation.
Lydia's third choice was completely up to her and she surprised me by asking for books. I selected 3 paper back smaller books. Two were classics that I knew she wouldn't mind hearing over and over again. The other was a "pre-reader" book (designed with easy to follow pictures and a few repeating small words) that Lydia could look at and "read" on her own. Everything had to fit in HER backpack and she was given the job of carrying it.
When we traveled with a one year old Lydia, I also tried to focus on a small number of small items. The genius travel item was provided by my sister who traveled with me that time (also a highly recommended tip, travel with support if possible). Jen brought a couple of those thick balloons punching balls that have a rubber and attached as a handle. Deflated they take up little space and weight next to nothing. Inflated, they were a HIT (literally)!
They are thicker than normal balloons, especially if not inflated super big, so we never popped one. They are easy to tie and then to untie again, so they deflated and easily stored away when needed. AND that rubber band handle made it easy for a grown up to keep the balloon from falling or rolling away, while baby grabbed, pushed, and dropped it.
Another recommendation is to pack at least one "surprise item". When Lydia was a baby, I bought one new toy and made sure the first time she saw it was on the plane. I selected a small soft "busy book" about a rainbow fish, that had a fish finger puppet included.
This time, I packed a small bento box with several small doll toys. Everything came from Happy Meals so I wasn't worried if something got lost. We had 2 Madame Alexander dolls, 2 My Little Pony dolls, and one small dog. They didn't take up much space and Lydia hadn't played with them in a while so they seemed new. They were a fun surprise that resulted in hours of imaginative play.
After lunch (and after missing our last connection) we settled in for a nap as close to our normal schedule as possible. I pulled out a small blanket that Lydia uses for naps at school and the one "sleep friend" toy (her American Girl doll). I read her one story and she was fast asleep.
With our unexpected long layover in Pheonix, we ended up with 19 hours of travel time from our house to Grammy's house. She played a little with each thing we brought and a little with some apps on my phone. I was proud that she did not spend the day watching endless TV shows on a computer or iPad screen. She used each item we packed a little and (mostly) carried her own stuff! In two more days we get to do the whole thing in reverse order. For now, I feel like we have a pretty good system so I'm not worried. But the next time I fly like this, there will be two kids in tow. I'll let you know how that goes!