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In the beginning, the main reason I was reluctant to travel with kids was the idea of a long haul flight with a little one.
I imagined an experience where my kids screamed the whole time, where we were all in utter agony (including everyone around us) and I thought that I would feel like I was torturing my kids just so I could have a holiday.
There were so many things wrong with my thinking.
First and foremost was that even if the flight was painful that it wouldn’t be worth it. Travel with kids is just so amazing – and not just for you, but for them – that I really should not have doubted this. I did not comprehend all the benefits that await young kids in foreign lands. From experiencing new cultures to the quality time that comes with spending all that time as a family, I firmly believe that all of this imprints on their young minds and will make them better people because of it.
The second thing is that flying with kids is really not that bad. I have only had one trip where the flights were a nightmare – the first long haul one – and the rest have been fine.
This does not stop me feeling anxious about the long ones beforehand, but it has become so much easier with practice and age. We all know what to expect, how to behave and actually flights are often now one of my easiest times as a parent. I actually spend a big chunk of them reading or watching shows on my computer – and my kids are only 3 and 4.
From all this, we have learned a lot. Our kids didn’t become great flyers magically. Hopefully, the following tips can help ease your anxieties about flying with kids and babies and make your flight as pain free as possible.
When booking your flight, try to make things as easy as possible. If it is at all possible to fly direct – do it! Try to keep the journey time as short as possible, but if you do have to break the journey, ensure the transit time is long enough that you can comfortably get to your next flight.
Things move slowly with kids and we have been booked on flights with only 1.5 hours transit time – when you have to clear immigration and get around a big terminal that is far too stressful for me (we changed it). Plus, it is good to have some time for the kids to run around.
If possible, fly at non peak times. Not only will it be cheaper, but there will likely be less people. Full planes are far more stressful than when there is a lot of space to stretch out.
When booking, also consider the time of your flight. Flying overnight can make things easier if your child is likely to sleep the whole time. Day times can be stressful as you will need to do more entertaining. It all depends on your child and what you think will work better for them.
The one time we try to avoid is early morning flights. Getting the kids up extra early means they will be tired before we even begin. It’s not always possible to avoid this unfortunately.
If you have an infant, book a bassinet if there is any chance they will fit into it. When we flew to the US with a big 20 month old, we did not book a bassinet as I thought he would not fit. Stupid me! We were given this on the way back and Z did indeed fit into it – just! It made the flight so much easier.
If your child is under 2, you will have to decide whether to book a seat for them or not. Sometimes, this does not cost much more. We have bought such bargain tickets between Malaysia and Australia that it only cost about $50 extra each way for our “infant” to have their own seat. At $6 an hour, I am happy to pay that!
If you book their own seat, you also have the option to take a car seat on board, so this is something to consider as well.
You will also find our article with 25 tips to find the cheapest flight to anywhere worth reading.
If your child is 2 or older, you can help prepare them beforehand by talking about it, reading books together (I recommend this one) and watching YouTube videos of flights. This will help them understand what will happen and the process of flying.
Make sure you talk about how you will need to check in, have your bags scanned (my kids love seeing the inside of their bags!), go through passport control etc, as well as what will happen on the other end. Then you can remind your child of all these steps once you are at the airport. Kids can find this all quite exciting if you approach it with enthusiasm.
The problems we experience on flights all come from the same issues that cause problems at home. That is hunger, boredom and being tired. Have a plan about how you will handle all three of these, especially with younger children.
Always come prepared with some drinks (when possible) and snacks. Even if your flight is full service or you purchased meals, it can take a long time to receive these items. It is much better to have something on hand ready to go.
On budget airlines, we purchase meals whenever it is somewhat affordable. Our kids love getting served meals on planes so it gives them something to look forward to.
If you have a bottle drinking baby or toddler, be prepared. It differs from airline to airline what they can do to help. Do not assume you will be able to get milk or heat a bottle unless they tell you they can. Formula can make things easier so you can make your bottles as you need them.
We have been allowed to take small UHT cartons of milk on board, but this can vary depending on your airport and who is checking your bags. I have always made sure my kids are used to room temperature bottles which has helped.
For boredom, think about what will entertain them. I fully thank the iPad for much of our flying success. It has worked well for us once the kids are about 18 months old. We load it with games and TV shows. Flights are the only time they get unlimited access and they just lap it up.
Other things that work well for us are activity and colouring books and favourite toys. Keep in mind that in flight entertainment systems that are in the seat back do not work well for young kids. They are not at the right height and they can be too difficult to navigate.
There are some good game ideas here.
Initially when flying with babies, we would take some toys on. However, they never were that interested and preferred grabbing whatever we were using. Empty water bottles worked well! We stopped travelling with many toys for under 18 month olds as it just wasn’t necessary.
Battling tiredness with babies and toddlers can be much more difficult if you have kids like us who do not sleep easily. Our first nightmare long haul flights were because Miss 1 would not sleep. Try to ensure kids are as well rested as possible before they hop on the plane (unless you have kids that will sleep everywhere – in which case you may want to adapt to the new timezone), then do whatever you can to get them to sleep before they become over tired. With Z, J would have to carry him around the plane rocking him for about 30 minutes to get him to sleep.
In all areas of travel, I believe that the earlier you start travelling with them, the easier it will be in the long run. Flying is no exception. Thanks to having family in another state, my kids have been flying since 2 months old and it has paid off.
Some people will disagree with this one, but we prefer to board last. The longer the kids are running around with relative freedom, the better. They get bored very quickly when sitting on the tarmac especially when electronics are not allowed, we are supposed to have the tray table up, etc.
There are some benefits to boarding first – it’s easy to get organised and settled when not surrounded by people, there’s more overhead bin space etc. A way to get the benefits of both options is to have one parent board early on with the bags, the other later with the kids.
Before I sit down, I remove the main things from our bags that we need for the flight and put it in the seat pocket or on the ground in front of us before stowing the bags in overhead compartments. Snacks, drinks and boredom busters need to be in reaching distance. This is especially important if you will be having a child on your lap.
If you are travelling alone with an infant, have a small bag with all essentials in addition to your main carry on so it’s as easy as possible to get organised on board.
You will have a much more enjoyable flight if your kid is trapped! You do not want them in a position where they can get to the aisle without you, especially when they are young.
If you are travelling alone with an infant on your lap, do whatever you can to get an aisle seat. This gives a bit of extra room especially if your kid has long legs.
We no longer need this but rewards can work wonders! Have a small present or special treat that your child can only have if they behave for a certain length of time. If they are old enough to wait, make the reward something they can have at the destination – like a special attraction.
Like with everything else in life, kids need to be trained how to behave. Work out beforehand what consequences there can be for bad behaviour. I say work it out beforehand as think through how the consequences will affect the flight.
At home, I might remove an iPad for bad behaviour – I would not want to do this on the plane. Bad behaviour will not be improved by removing all the boredom busters. I have found time outs in the toilets work well.
Regularly stand up and take the kids or baby for a walk. It will do everyone some good.
If the kids need a nap or its night time, do whatever you can to get them to sleep before they are over tired and it becomes more difficult. Like mentioned above, walking Z around when he was younger worked well. Now, we put up the arm rests and let the kids sleep on us. For overnight flights, we put them in pajamas. Where possible, we try to grab free seats. Having more space to lie down makes things so much easier!
Remember this is a learning experience for all of you and flights just aren’t that much fun a lot of the time even when you don’t have kids. It can be hard to stay patient when you have been up all night, but remember your kids are trying to adapt as well. Some kind words and a hug can often fix many problems.
If all else fails and the flight does not go smoothly, remember this – it does end! And you will be somewhere awesome having awesome experiences. Flights are very short in the scheme of things and you will all recover. Next time it will be better!
You can also read about our experiences on our first flight to Asia with two kids and our journey to the US (15 hours!). You may also enjoy reading 40 things we have learned about family travel!
Worried about jet lag? Read our top tips for avoiding and dealing with jet lag in your babies, toddlers and kids.
Flying pregnant? There’s some pregnancy flying tips here.
What are you best tips for flying with kids? What are your fears?