When life takes you far, far away from where you come from, long-haul flights are something that must be endured if you ever want to see your family and friends back home. Cramped conditions, unappetising food and jetlag are bad enough when flying alone, but with kids it can be truly hellish.
Prominent among high-altitude parenting experiences I would rather forget is once finding myself trapped between an ancient and immobile lady and my vomiting three-year-old daughter. We were somewhere high above the Australian outback and despite having multiple changes of clothes for my daughter, I had neglected to bring one for myself – a rookie error which I had several hours to regret before we finally reached our destination.
What I’ve learned from many long-haul flights with children is that there are a few things you can do to make the experience easier. Below, I offer you my guide to getting through it as painlessly as possible.
What to expect at different ages:
I would say there are three stages to flying with kids: Stage one: Small babies up to around nine months to a year old. Although it might not seem like it the first time you are preparing to fly with your new baby, this stage is actually quite manageable. Babies’ requirements are few – as long as they are comfortable, with parents on hand, a few favourite toys should be enough to keep them entertained. If you’re lucky they’ll sleep for long stretches in the giant white noise machine (the plane) and you might even be able to watch a movie. What you need to take will bear a very close resemblance to the normal contents of your pushchair/baby bag. Babies are all different so you might be able to stretch this stage out up to a year, but the bigger and more active your little one is, the less time this stage will last.
Stage two: 1-3 years. Known as the hell zone, this stage is by far the most difficult to manage – too big and active to sleep most of the way yet too young to be entertained by a screen for longer than a few minutes. Staying still and quiet for long periods is all but impossible in this age group, so long-haul flights are tough on them and on their parents. What can be done? If possible, book a flight that coincides with the time they usually sleep to try to at least reduce the number of hours you will have to keep them entertained in a small space. Most airlines will not require you to purchase a seat for a child less than two years old, but it’s worth considering if you can possibly afford it for the extra space. For this age it’s all about having a series of activities in mind and just doing them on rotation for the duration of the flight, switching from one to the other as short attention spans require. If both parents are flying, tag team so you can each take a break, because it is gruelling.
But don’t despair, because at some point from three years old, you graduate into Stage 3, which can actually be quite enjoyable. As your child gets older, better able to communicate and understand why you are trapped in this tiny space for what seems like forever, flying can become a real adventure. Kids of this age can grasp what is happening and so get excited about the process – seeing the plane, loudly advising parents (and all other passengers) when you’ve lifted off, and checking flight progress on the map. They love a bit of responsibility and the thrill of doing big-kid stuff – handing over their own boarding pass, wheeling their own mini bag, doing up their own seatbelt. And of course, with a longer attention span they can watch whole movies, allowing you to do the same. Bliss! I’m all for limits on screen time, but on a plane? Don’t judge me, it’s a very long way to New Zealand!
What to plan in advance:
To start with, it’s worth taking the time to make sure you have looked into whatever airline rules and regulations are going to apply to you. Things to check:
Seat allocation – if you have a small baby make sure you get the bassinet seat which is usually the front row against the bulkhead (and check maximum baby age/weight rules).
Pushchair – often you can take it all the way to the gate and pick it up as soon as you get off the plane. One that folds easily will make your life infinitely easier.
Hand-luggage allowances – sometimes more generous if you are travelling with a baby. Check rules about formula or baby food you are allowed to take onboard, and that any medicines you’ll need are allowed.
Documentation – Depending on destinations and circumstances, occasionally mixed-nationality families run into issues if children are travelling with only one parent. It’s unlikely, but possible, that you might need to demonstrate you are not abducting your own child. What would be required would differ in each case but it’s worth considering if this might apply to you. Also, if you are pregnant, it might be worth getting a doctor’s letter to confirm all is well, just in case you are asked (you usually wouldn’t be unless you appear to be in the later stages).
What to take onboard:
For babies, apart from the usual contents of your baby bag (nappies, wipes, dummies, etc) definitely take several changes of clothes and plan for varying temperatures (pyjamas are easiest). Perhaps a nice soft blanket and favourite cushion which will make you both more comfortable for feeding and if your baby sleeps on you (they will have cushions on board but they’ll be tiny).
I recommend pyjamas or other elasticated comfort-wear for everyone young and old. Style can wait for your destination. Don’t forget the slippers – the moccasin-style sock-slippers work great for kids as they don’t come off too easily. Light hoodies and fleeces that zip up in front are much better than those that go over the head. Think layers – it can be both hot and freezing at different points during the flight. At least one change of clothes per person is highly recommended.
For take off and landing, little ones are going to need something to drink (swallowing helps ear popping to avoid pain as cabin pressure adjusts) so be ready with boob, bottle or water as appropriate. Bigger kids will have fun learning to hold their nose and pop their ears like adults do. Refillable, non-spill water bottles are a must. You’ll have to take them on board empty, but just ask the crew to fill them up for you as soon as you’re seated.
Snacks – meals will be provided on the plane of course (for those who have a seat) but it’s wise to take a few provisions. You know best what your kids will eat but consider a few easy, low-mess options, like mandarins, biscuits, mini-muffins and cheese sandwiches cut into little squares which can be given out one at a time. It doesn’t have to be perfectly nutritionally balanced, they can eat vegetables when you get there. Not recommended are little juice boxes – very sticky if spilled and squirt out quickly due to cabin pressure.
A few plastic supermarket bags to use as rubbish bags. It may sound like an odd thing to take, but everything on the plane comes wrapped in plastic and you will soon accumulate a surplus of used wipes, mandarin peels, plastic cups and other detritus that just gets in the way. When the crew pass by to collect rubbish you can just hand them a bag instead of scrambling around.
Medicines – hopefully none will be needed but it’s always good to be prepared. I take some baby paracetamol or ibuprofen and a nasal spray, and headache and hay-fever pills for me. You might have something specific depending on your child’s needs. Make sure everything is in small (100ml) bottles and check any airline rules about medicines. Take a syringe (without the needle obviously!) to help give an accurate dose without spillage.
Toiletries – toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss. Facial moisturiser and lip balm, non-aerosol deodorant. Mini hairbrush and hair ties. Tampons/pantyliners. Plenty of tissues and about three times as many wet wipes as you think you’ll need.
An inflatable booster seat, like this one*. Inflatable so that it doesn’t take up space in your hand luggage, a booster is useful for raising a little one up to a height where they can see the screen on the back of the seat in front (which is positioned at adult head height and can be difficult to view from a low level). This made a huge difference to our trip to NZ last year – without it my daughter would have been too low to view the in-built screen properly.
The best policy is to not put all your eggs in one basket in terms of entertainment. Take a range of things and hope some of them work, at least for a while. New things (new to the child – they can be second hand of course) will last a little longer due to the novelty factor.
A top tip for little ones is play dough. Cheap, easy and there are endless ways to play with it. Colouring books or blank notebooks are essential, along with something to draw with. Crayons can make a mess of the tray table, coloured pencils need sharpening and felt pens can stain clothes – so take your pick of the least bad option according to your priorities!
These days there are many travel-sized games and puzzles for kids of all ages, and it’s nice to have something that’s not a screen. Choose those that are small and come with a little case to avoid losing small parts (or put small parts in a re-sealable plastic bag before you go). Make sure you have checked them out in advance so you know how they work. If you are super-organised you could even wrap it up as a present for added impact onboard.
Then of course there are the electronic options. I usually try to exhaust whatever is available on the onboard entertainment system before moving on to what I have prepared. A tablet loaded with tried-and-tested movies, animated series and games is my on-board life-saver. For older kids those hand-held games consoles can be great. Don’t forget the headphones*. It’s better to get your own so you know they fit and work properly. You will need an adapter* (from one to two prong) to plug your own headphones into the plane entertainment system. It’s worth taking your charger onboard as some planes have a socket that you can charge from.
Organising your hand luggage:
This often-overlooked artform is crucial to a smooth experience. Start by thinking about the objectives – you need to get through security with as little unpacking and re-packing as possible, and once you are on the plane you need a few things within easy reach and the rest packed away in the overhead locker. You want to avoid having to get up and down constantly on the flight looking for things and trying to keep track of everything. Before packing get yourself a supply of resealable plastic bags – you’ll need quite a few for snacks, liquids, crayons etc. Kids’ iPads or tablets that don’t need to be connected can have airplane mode switched on at home – it saves battery as well as time later.
Remember that if you’ve bought a seat for your child (usually if they are over two years old) then they get the full adult hand luggage allowance so make use of it. You’ll often be allowed an extra bag if you have a baby too. For your own hand-luggage I recommend a backpack, so you have your hands free, and a smaller handbag with a long shoulder strap (or even a belt bag) that you can wear at the front to keep passports and boarding passes in for easy access. A wheelie suitcase for the overhead locker will be for the things you hopefully won’t need during the flight.
Each child from toddler up can have their own little bag to take on and keep with them during the flight. Inside they can have their (empty) water bottle, a favourite snuggly toy, their slippers, their headphones and perhaps a new toy that they will only be allowed to open and play with once they get on the plane (I’m not usually in favour of bribery but this can encourage good behaviour during airport security). Don’t put their tablet or other electronics in their little bag as it will be more complicated at security.
How many other bags you take will of course depend on your group size and allowances, so there is no one formula. But I find it helps to think about it as a collective allowance rather than each person having their own bag (the kids’ little backpacks shouldn’t count as a bag – if in doubt make sure you leave room so you can put them inside another bag if necessary). If there are two adults traveling, one has a wheelie bag and the other a backpack. Pack them so that at security it is easy to whip out the electronics and liquids with minimum fuss. I have one plastic bag for essential toiletries (see above) and another for medicines. I put non-liquid stuff in the plastic bag with the liquids too (toothbrushes etc) just to keep it all in one place.
Once onboard, spend a few minutes getting organised. Everyone needs to take their shoes off and put their slippers on – shoes go in the wheelie bag in the overhead locker, along with medicines, changes of clothes, and any electronics that won’t be used during the flight. Ask the crew to fill up your water bottles and distribute electronics, inflatable booster seats etc into seat pockets, but don’t get out the colouring until after take off as you’ll have to put the trays up again anyway – at this stage hopefully the novelty of being on a plane will be entertainment enough! In your backpack or smaller bag that that you keep with you, you’ll have snacks, the charger, essential toiletries, wipes and tissues, colouring stuff/other toys to ration out slowly and a few supermarket plastic bags to use as rubbish bags. All set! Are we there yet?!
During the flight:
If you have a baby, make use of the bassinet while you can. It can be a mixed blessing because as soon the seatbelt light comes on you will be required to pick up your baby, even if the turbulence is undetectable and you have just spent an hour getting them to sleep.
If you are two adults, ask to have your meals separately, so one can remain on duty while the other eats in peace. Let the crew know at the beginning of the flight, not when the meals come.
Pace yourself. Don’t break out all the new toys at once. If possible, exhaust the onboard entertainment options before moving on to what you have prepared. Everything is an activity – a meal can kill half an hour and going to the toilet is an exciting adventure. Novelty is key – a small “bag of surprises” full of cheap but new toys which you can dip into as needed can be a life saver.
It’s not worth trying to enforce sleep or meals at any particular time. Your routine is going to get shot to pieces by the jetlag when you reach your destination anyway, so going with the flow seems to be the best policy.
Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance from the crew. Re-filling water bottles, extra cushions, a coffee, even holding your baby while you go to the loo in peace. Especially if you are nice to them, often the crew will go out of their way to help you.
Dealing with difficult behaviour:
Small kids in a cramped space for hours on end is unlikely to produce perfect behaviour, but it’s important to distinguish between what you need to worry about and what you don’t.
Babies almost always cry on take off and landing because their ears hurt as the cabin pressure changes (drinking something can help) and you will probably have to endure a period of crying at some other point in the flight. Ignore the dagger looks of judgmental childless passengers – however bad it is for them, it’s much worse for you! While they can turn up the volume on their movie and order another glass of wine, you have to deal with your upset child.
To generally keep the peace, I suspend the normal restrictions on snacking and screen time and try not to sweat the small stuff. If you do face a complete meltdown over something, there is not much you can do but manage it as best you can. Kids will be kids.
But I would draw the line at behaviour that really has an impact on other passengers, like kicking the seat in front, standing up and leaning over the seat to the row behind or generally jumping around. Running up and down the aisle is dangerous and a real pain in the neck for the crew who are trying to do their jobs. It’s not easy, but I think there are some limits which have to be respected.
To stop or not to stop:
If your route means you have to go through transit somewhere, should you stop and take a break mid journey, or push on and just get it over with?
In a recent Facebook discussion that I followed, the consensus seemed to be that it was better to just get to your destination as quickly as possible. I can see the merits of this approach, but I find myself in the other camp. Perhaps it’s because of where I fly to – usually between Europe and New Zealand – which is two long haul flights one after the other. Even when flying solo, I prefer a break to shower, change into fresh clothes and hopefully lie down horizontally in an actual bed for a few hours.
A lot will depend on where you stop. If you have to collect your luggage and get a taxi to a hotel, I can see why it wouldn’t be worth the hassle. But since I usually fly through Singapore Changi, where they have everything you could possibly need in the transit area (including a transit hotel, outdoor swimming pool, and butterfly garden – seriously!) I try to leave a gap between flights to have a break.
It will all be worth it in the end:
When I was young, free and childless, I used to complain about economy class flying. I dreamt of a day when I would be able to afford business or first-class travel, stretching out with a glass of champagne and looking forward to my gourmet meal. That day never came, sadly, but perhaps the silver lining will be that after flying with young children, just flying child-free in economy will seem like business class!
But it’s worth remembering that if we are able to take our children to other parts of the world, we are really very lucky indeed. Discovering completely different places is a wonderful way to expand their horizons, and when we look back in years to come, we’ll only remember the great adventure of the trip, not the minor discomfort we endured getting there. Buen viaje!
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