Most people worry about flying with children. I used to, but now I don’t know why I ever did. We’ve done it many, many times including flying the seriously long-haul UK to Australia routes with kids. It holds no horrors for me and hasn’t for years. No, my children are not angels, far from it, but flying has always been OK, often it’s been great fun. In the early days I missed out on a fair bit of sleep, but that goes hand in hand with parenthood. We’re past that stage now, the children are 9 and 7, they love it, so do I. Here are some thoughts on flying with children.
Flying With Children, Our Tips
Budget Airline or Full Service Airline?
Most of this post refers to flying with children on long haul, full-service airlines. Budget airlines are great for short flights, but any flight of any length, with kids, will be much better enjoyed on an airline that provides food, drink and seatback entertainment. Nobody loves budget flights. Budget seats are uncomfortable, food has to be paid for or pre-ordered, comforts are few. If you possibly can, book a full-service airline.
Prepare the kids for the flight
I love flying! It’s a very rare opportunity for me to sit, chill, do nothing and have lovely people bring me food and wine. Budget airlines are an altogether different experience.
What’s not to like with a full-service airline? Try to tell the kids how great flying is before you leave, for weeks beforehand if necessary.
Don’t tell them they’ll be on a plane for ages and they’ll have to sit still etc. Focus on the positives, lots of food, lots of TV, looking out of the window at the ground below and being up in the clouds. It puts them in the right frame of mind to have a happy flight.
Babies’ Air Cots, Bassinets and Slings
My worst flight ever was when my son was 11 months, small enough to have one of those air cots that fit onto the bulkhead but still a fairly mobile active tot.
It was hell. Every time there was turbulence I had to get him out of the cot and attach him to my seat-belt, waking him up in the process.
I was constantly worried that he’d fall or climb out, shrugging off the strip of velcro that lashed him down.
I had a much better time flying with a baby second time around. I opted to hold my second child all the way to Australia from the UK at the same age. A fabric sling/baby carrier helped a lot. I have used these slings on many airlines including Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Blue and South African, but some airlines won’t allow it. I was banned from using it on Jet Star.
On real airlines you can pick from dozens of recent movies and TV shows in the air, not something that happens to me on the ground and it’s rather a luxury.
Kids can be totally blown away by this, being in full control of their own viewing, no compromises needed. Sometimes they can play computer games, too.
On budget airlines with screens we do tend to buy them access sometimes, now they’re old enough, particularly if a really great movie that they’re longing to see is on. It’s really not so expensive when you think about cinema prices. There is no Mum nagging them to turn screens off in the air, I let them watch until their bodies tell them it is time to sleep.
Tiny tots won’t be sucked in by the screens unfortunately, for the early years mum and dad have to handle entertainment.
I became blessed with an elder child who read voraciously, so short-haul budget routes with no TV screen weren’t an issue and I just talk to, read to or played games with the little one. These days they both read.
Before the advent of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books, we did, once, take a portable DVD player with us, it bought us a couple of hours but battery life was limited. I’m not a fan of these things generally, ours broke quickly and I was glad when it did. I’d rather interact with the children or entertain them in some other way. Of course, nowadays everyone has a tablet or phone and you could easily pre-load a movie or two for your child to watch. Don’t forget to pack a headset for him.
When they were too small to zone out in front of TV, things were harder. Then you have to take a few distractions, we used to find stickers were good, little ones get hours of fun out of stickers.
No chance for Mum to watch a movie when flying with the tiny children, you’ve just got to bite the bullet and give them your undivided attention for most of the time. After all, that’s all they really want. Lots of walking up and down the aisles, talking and jiggling, makes for happier toddlers.
A lovely lady once took a shine to my 11-month old on a 10-hour flight and played with him intermittently all the way to London. I loved that lady.
Sleeping on Planes
I don’t worry too much about what time they get to sleep, their body clocks are going to be all over the place for a few days after flying and we will rest as needed on arrival.
Kids can, of course, sleep very comfortably in economy class, so can I, mostly. The new seats that many airlines have are great, but I’m short, for once I can pity the 6 footers and not envy their endless legs.
My elder one has a “cuddle pillow” that had to come with us, it was bulky but made for a comfortable flight for him. He has his own little backpack to carry it.
I had to learn to chill and accept the fact that it would be absolutely filthy and dragged all over every floor or surface he could find.
My younger child managed with the airline pillows, but usually one or both of them ends up with their head on Mum’s lap. I still sit between them on flights, it makes for a much better journey.
Stop Overs at Exotic Airports with Children
We once had 6 hours to kill, in the middle of the night, in Hong Kong airport. I was dreading it.
But, hang on,” We’re in China Mum! ” How exciting is that!
So several hours of exploring the shops and restaurants, watching a man making noodles, looking at displays on Chinese art and culture, playing in a nice little play area and finally watching cartoons in the departure lounge and we were still all smiles and on our way to London.
Every now and again your children totally surprise you.
I know a lady who booked a room at the airport, on the same flight. Her children had no plans to sleep, it was a disaster. You may be able to gauge how well rested your children will be after flying part of the way and predict their needs at the stopover airport. But it’s tricky, excitement usually wins over sleep.
Now they are older we’re able to take tours from layover airports sometimes. Check out this wonderful layover tour we took in Belgrade when flying back from Bangkok on Etihad.
Flying and Eating
We are grateful, in our family, to not have any serious food intolerances, so for once, it’s a food jamboree and I only remove the seriously toxic looking stuff.
I avoid the children’s meals whenever possible, they always seem to have the most junk, I usually order them the adult vegetarian option as airline sausages are pretty dire.
I actually quite like airline food, I always request the Indian vegetarian menu. Many airlines offer this, most people don’t know about it and many wouldn’t want it, but it suits me. I get some funny looks as I’m obviously not Hindu, but I love it.
I never wake the children up if meals arrive while they are asleep, nothing worse than tired, grumpy kids. They obviously need sleep more right at that second and you can save them some food for later or go see what the aircrew have to offer as snacks.
Everything you could need food-wise should be on the plane, I don’t take my own snacks, the kids love to get extra goodies from the stewardesses, nuts, pretzels, juice and so on.
Cabin crew like quiet children so are often more than happy to hand out food. Sandwiches are available as snacks on most long hall flights, even ice cream and chocolate biscuits sometimes. My children look forward to those little foil trays of food very much, they are a big part of flying for them.
Babies are another matter, I’ve done it, flown for 24 hours with a child that still needed bottles. It’s not so bad really, cabin crew are very helpful and provide hot water to make up bottles as needed.
Child Travel Equipment
Equipment, such as pushchairs, strollers, prams, car seats and travel cots do not normally count as part of your baggage allowance, you can take as much as you like. Sometimes you can keep your stroller right up to the point where you board the plane, it makes life so much easier. We always take our own car seats. You can sometimes hire them with rental cars, but I like to know I’ve got my own, good quality one, with me.
My elder child is now 8, we still take a car seat with us, even to countries where they are not required by law. For instance, they are a legal requirement in the UK, not in Florida. You need to check laws at your destination country before you leave.
Children and Hand Luggage
Take as little as possible! Getting up and down to the overhead locker while you are flying is no fun. Having loads of junk in your seating area is no fun either. I avoid taking toys, the children don’t play with them and invariably drop them all over the floor for Mum to pick up. Ditto those gift bags most airlines hand out to children, I try to avoid those, there’s rarely anything any good in them and I’m not a fan of polluting through plastic junk.
I take snacks and drinks for the airport, but I make sure everything is consumed before we pass through to departure. Regulations sometimes ban any fresh fruit, dairy products or drinks being taken through to your destination.
I allow the children to take one special cuddly bear each when we are flying, any other toys they want to take are kept to a minimum, lots of negotiation is involved.
I take children’s paracetamol with me, in case of unexpected fevers arising as we are flying over Afghanistan. So far, I haven’t needed it. I also take some sweets to chew to help with ear pressure equalization at take off and landing. again, we haven’t had any problems there.
Quality airline toilets usually have antiseptic hand wash and moisturizer, should you need them. I do still pack the baby wipes and hand gel, I’m unable to function without them.
I don’t pack a book for me, it’s frustrating if I want to read and don’t get the chance, so I just don’t bother.
Nappies/diapers, yes, obviously, fact of life. I’ve changed nappies in the air, balancing a baby on a plastic shelf in a tiny cubicle, it’s less than ideal, but it can be done. Wedging one or more children between your knees as you wrestle with a dirty nappy is even harder. Those baby wipes are great for cleaning all surfaces that the children may touch.
We did once have a clean underwear incident seconds before we boarded a flight to Johannesburg, Luckily there was a toilet in the departure lounge. Some don’t, make sure the children visit the toilet before you get to the gate, you never know how long you may be there. Now that the children are completely toilet trained I take maybe 1 spare set of clothes between the two of them in case of major spillages.
If you take duty frees on-board please don’t drop your bottle of spirits on the head of the lady sitting beneath your chosen overhead locker. Yes, it was me, it hurt!
Airport check ins, security and waiting for luggage
These suck, for me they are the worst part of flying with children. Singing or talking or playing talking games with the kids can help to keep them in an orderly queue. Giving them their own jobs and responsibilities can help a bit too. But, whatever way you look at it, it’s not easy.
Seat kickers and screamers
Yes, it happens. I find it happens more when other children are around and my two constantly want to be turning around and standing on chairs to see what the other kids are doing. Annoys the heck out of me! So please don’t play peekaboo with the children in front of you, most parents don’t want their child with their feet on the seats, looking over the seatback, please don’t encourage it.
I watch for any potential seat kicking from the moment we sit down and try to stop it straight away, before it has a chance to really start. Screamers can be taken for a walk, fed or otherwise distracted, fingers crossed it doesn’t happen to you.
It’s Not Just The Kids!
My children are mostly fine now, they get so much easier as they get older and are cool with flying. They are in no way as irritating or foul-mouthed as the drunken lady we had to endure all the way to Bangkok. She thought it was amusing to throw things around the cabin and talk loudly for everybody else’s benefit. Including swearing loudly in front of half a dozen or so children in adjacent rows. Or the lady who insisted on hanging her feet over the back of my seat flying to Perth. Sometimes your fellow passengers are a pain in the rear, it’s not always the children! A quiet, discreet word with cabin crew can often help, they did stop serving alcohol to the drunken woman once I’d had a chat.
Perks of Flying with Children
You often get priority seating, ie. you board the plane first which is very exciting for the kids, a big empty plane and lovely, exotic ladies smiling at them. We are sitting down, hand luggage stowed and looking at the magazines before the rush starts.
At airports you are often ushered through fast track lanes too. ( Bangkok is great for this!)
With tiny children you often get bulkhead seating. More leg room!
If there are any empty seats on the plane and some poor chap has been seated next to you and the kids, they usually move away. That’s a win.
Letting a bit of the kids’ joy and excitement at the whole flying experience and the miracle of seatback entertainment rub off on you can put a smile on any face, if you let it.
I wrote all of the above a few weeks ago, since then I bumped into a friend who recently flew from Cairns to London with her two children. She had a nightmare, hated every second, I really felt for her. What must we be doing differently? As I mentioned, my children aren’t angels, one is a ball of energy and erratic impulses but flying seems to go OK for us. Maybe because I talk up how great flying is beforehand and get them keen on the whole concept? Maybe it’s just down to the individual child? Do you have any ideas? We can learn from each other, what are your experiences of flying with children?