If you’re planning to fly with littlies soon, let me be the first to say ‘Bon voyage!’
You’re in for a treat.
For one thing, you get to visit friends and family (or fabulous wonders) in far-flung places, so that’s awesome. For another, you are doing it without being stuck below-decks for three months on the high seas, the way all my emigrating (or transported, as I just learned!) forebears travelled between hemispheres.
Generational gratitude aside, there’s a lot of great stuff ahead of you, even before you reach your destination. You and your small people will be surrounded by helpful, unencumbered adults who will smile at you, open doors for you and entertain you. You will encounter all sorts of new and exciting contraptions (luggage belts! seat belts!) and make lots of friends.
If that sounds too Pollyanna for you, let me assure you I’m serious, as well as evangelistic about flight optimism. Long-haul travel with a toddler is basically just a long day in a confined space, and I’m sure you’ve done that before and all survived. The difference is that the adult-to-child ratio is better – especially if you’re travelling with a partner or other adult, but even if not, given the presence of flight staff and seat neighbours – and the environment is novel. It’ll be fine, honest.
This isn’t a step-by-step recipe or checklist, just a few tips from our experiences. And I’m really only talking about travelling with babies and toddlers, rather than older children. We have flown between New Zealand and the United Kingdom five times now, when SBJ was 5 months, 9 months, 17 months, 20 months and 30 months old, as well as a couple of trans-Tasman trips and a couple of dozen shorter domestic flights. I’m hoping all my recycling, walking and soapnut usage counts on the other side of the environmental ledger.
If you’re after more info or inspiration, here are a couple of places to start. For my favourite post about travelling with kids, see Daisy Coles’ article at Kiwi Families. And this exhaustive account from a former American flight attendant has all the detail you could possibly want about every single aspect of flying with children. Several thousand words on carseats alone!
Tip 1: Pack for maximum convenience
Every airline I know allows baby paraphernalia to be checked in free of charge. So even though an under-two doesn’t get a luggage allowance, you are able to check in, for free, a pushchair, a travel-cot and/or a carseat. We take full advantage of this.
Our pushchair has gone around the world and this makes a huge difference to the ease of travel. The first time we went to the UK with SBJ we borrowed carseats from friends and family at our two main destinations, but this meant we didn’t have one with us for one other stop we could otherwise have made. Now we just travel with our own all the time, so we can put it in a taxi at the airport or whatever.
We figure that there’s no question of doing without a trolley for the baggage anymore (oh, those long-ago days of packing light. Or even ‘light’), so we might as well balance a carseat on top of the pile.
A couple of times when we’ve been tight for the weight limit we’ve sneakily packed the pushchair tray with baby blankets and nappies – super handy!
If you’re in a bassinet row on the plane (more about this below), you can’t have any bags with you on the floor during take-off and landing, so pack your carry-on thoughtfully.
Wherever we’re sitting, we tend to have a couple of bags-within-bags so we can quickly whip out the necessities and stash the larger bag in a locker or under the seat. If your carry-on stuff is well-organised, you don’t need to get on the plane earlier than you want, and you have to spend less time juggling the baby while you find the nappies/chocolate/paracetamol/crossword/other vital item.
Tip 2: Pack for maximum fun
The biggest challenge of travelling with an active toddler is occupation. SBJ is very sociable, so we rely heavily on touring around the cabin meeting people. My husband is particularly good at this, and would rather go for a little walk with SBJ than occupy him in the seat.
For take-off, landing and turbulence, you have to be seated, though. Also, on long flights when lots of people are sleeping, it can be less interesting and convenient to spend lots of time charging down the aisles.
When you’re packing, think ahead about the kinds of things that normally keep your little one most interested and content. If it’s cars or dinosaurs or dogs, cater for the obsession with a new book or bag of little toys. If it’s tv, then embrace the screen-beast. If your toddler has got into drawing, bring plentiful supplies.
It might help to think through, on paper or in your head, how you can fill an hour of confinement if you’re in turbulence, for instance. Your list might include favourite action songs (teach them some ahead of time if they appeal!), paperback books that have lots of detail to spin out (‘Show me the magpie;’ ‘How many red cars can you count on this page?’), snacks, and indulging in rather more peek-a-boo than you might otherwise.
There’s lots to explore just in the seat, of course, and working out how the headphones extend or how the seat-belt clicks can be very satisfying for a small person.
We generally don’t take many toys at all, but do prioritise packing books that have lots of detail to mine. Our favourites this time are a series of bright Kiwiana books by Donovan Bixley, with keys in the inside covers of items to find on each page. Our boy still loves them a year after they first appeared on a flight for him, and they were very popular with the seven-year-old we stayed with en route too. Have a look!
Tip 3: Dress thoughtfully
Babies are messy. Pack a full change of clothes for everyone in your carry-on – even if it’s just light layers to keep you decent if the worst happens. I always did this before kids anyway, on the theory that having an extra set of clothes is handy if your luggage goes missing.
A great tip from a flight attendant: take photos of your kids on the day of flying so you have pictures of what they’re wearing if they get lost in the airport. (But they won’t!)
I’ve also intended – but not actually done it yet – to write our flight details on SBJ’s arm for the same reason. Obviously we are well-practised in watching him like a hawk, but I reckon this kind of thing is wise just in case.
Tip 4: Book the best seat in the house
When you book seats on a long-haul flight with a baby or toddler you should get the option to sit in a bassinet row – the front of the cabin where there’s a wall in front of you to mount a mini-cot. The first time we flew long-haul, the airline told us bassinet seats were allocated on the day to the youngest children on the list, so we couldn’t be guaranteed one.
If you have a baby who will fit in it – the limit is usually around 11kg – and who sleeps well, it could be well worth it. You get to have your hands and lap free, and your baby gets to sleep undisturbed by your movements. When your baby isn’t in it, it’s a fabulously handy place to put your meal tray until the crew collect it.
The bassinet row – with or without bassinet – is also good if you want more leg-room, or if you are worried about your toddler kicking the seat in front.
But there are some drawbacks, and we don’t ask for bassinets anymore. They only get put up half an hour or so into the flight, when the crew are moving around after take-off, and your baby can only be in the bassinet when the seatbelt sign is off. Every time there’s turbulence, you have to take the baby out and put it in the infant seatbelt – and I know you can imagine the frustration of being made to pick up a sleeping baby!
The bassinet is sometimes too big to let you swing your entertainment screen out from the armrest, so if you’re keen on watching movies while bubs sleeps, you may be out of luck. Also, the screens have to be packed away for take-off and landing, so that’s less movie time than if you’re in other seats.
You’re unlikely to have free seats next to you in a bassinet row – we have only had extra space once, on a three-hour flight before the main passenger cohort joined the plane at the next stop – and if you do, the armrests don’t move in those rows because they hold the screens and tray-tables, so there’s no question of lying down or stretching out sideways.
Whether or not you’re using the bassinet, the extra leg-room in that row comes at a price. Other families will be put in the same row, which can be good for cameraderie but poor for getting your kid to rest when the neighbour’s toddler is kicking or playing. Other passengers sometimes use it as an alleyway between aisles unless the bassinets are up. For safety reasons you aren’t allowed anything at all on the floor (the plane exits are usually in the same row) during take-off and landing (or for the whole flight on some airlines) and there’s no seat in front to stash bags under, so you have to keep your things in an overhead locker.
Tip 5: Skip queues at check-in, security and immigration
It’s in everyone’s interest for people with small kids to skip queues. Take every opportunity to do so, and be quick to ask for the option. Only the very grumpiest travellers will begrudge you jumping to the front and taking your adorable but loud youngsters with you.
At check-in, security and immigration, there are always fast and slow queues, with special (sometimes secret) lines for business class passengers, airline staff or disabled passengers. We are very frequently invited to join the fast queues, and if SBJ is losing patience with things I don’t hesitate to ask. It’s never a problem.
For best results, dress your kids in their cutest outfits!
If you’re taking a pushchair, ask how long you can keep it with you. Different airlines and airports offer different things. The best case scenario is being able to take it right to the gate – sometimes right to the plane – but even when that’s not possible, since you usually have to take it to an oversize baggage counter, you can often arrange to get it tagged, take it away with you for a while and drop it back at check-in at the last minute.
Some airports have pushchairs available to use while you’re there – Dubai has thousands! – but plenty don’t. We’ve learned not to trust airlines to remember to give us our pushchair for a stopover, even if they offer – they’ve never quite got it right, and we’ve spent hours trudging around after it.
You usually have to take the baby out of the pushchair when you go through security, and you also have to empty the tray completely, so bear that in mind when you pack it. Some airports are better set up for checking or scanning pushchairs than others, but the staff are universally full of goodwill for families with young kids, so just be ready with smiles as you approach, and try not to be in a hurry.
Tip 6: Board when it suits you
Families with small children get called to board early – and even before you’re called, you tend to get waved through with the first class passengers if you want to get on fast.
Just how long you want to spend in the plane is up to you, though, and you may choose to spend an extra fifteen minutes running around the gate lounge before being confined to a smaller space. It doesn’t take long to get settled in your seats if you have packed your carry-on thoughtfully, so don’t feel the need to get on early unless you want to.
Tip 7: Make friends on the flight
Repeat after me: the cabin crew are your friends!
Of course, it’s always good to be pleasant to people you come across. On a plane it’s also a vital survival strategy.
Introduce yourself and your dear ones early to any flight staff you come across. Offer smiles and high fives. Ask how they are feeling and whether they’ve had a long day already. Thank them for looking after you, even before they do.
We have almost always found plane staff to be helpful, friendly and interested in getting to know SBJ, particularly on the longest flights. Assume the best. If they turn out to be grumpy (everyone has bad days), remember they are being paid to look after passengers of all ages and don’t hesitate to ask politely for help.
Ask for anything you need – you’d be amazed what stashes of treats and conveniences the staff have access to if you ask. Most airlines will have a range of food available between meals on request, so it should be straightforward to get an emergency banana or sandwich for you or your little one.
They’ll also be happy to provide extra blankets and pillows, which are especially useful if you have a baby sleeping on you or you’re breastfeeding.
Some airlines provide all sorts of baby things, from toiletries to toys, and appropriate food at mealtimes, but it varies a lot. Do ask, either when booking or on the flight. A friend said when he is asked if his kids want a toy, he asks what’s available, and is usually then given the entire range!
Speaking of breastfeeding, it is my secret weapon. There is no problem in SBJ’s world that can’t be solved with a ‘bee!’ or feed, so I always feed him often on flights. We don’t follow a feeding routine, but I would imagine it would be worth disrupting one (as the time-shifting will do anyway) to get the benefit of instant fixes in stressful moments. It also justifies more chocolate consumption: gotta keep supply up, right?
Feeding (bottle, breast, whatever) during ascent and especially descent (if the seatbelt allows) is handy for helping to regulate a baby’s ear pressure, or you can massage around the ears, or (I am squeamish about this one, but have often seen a doctor do it for his son) even block the baby’s nose and mouth briefly so they have to do their own ear-popping the same way an adult might.
I think that’s enough from me. Remember long-haul travel is really just a long day in a small (but exciting) space – you’ll be fine!
Please add your own tips below, remembering that all our kids are different and will have their own ways of responding to flying. If you have any questions, probably someone can answer them, so ask away.
This is the second post in a set about flying long-haul with small people. The first is here, and is tellingly entitled Long-haul Travel with a Toddler is Fine, Honest!