Once upon a time, when you were going on holiday, the airport was an exciting place. It was like great big diving board from which you leapt into the vast blue beyond. There were lovely duty free shops and places to eat. Magazines were purchased specifically for the purpose of flipping through them idly en route to some exotic holiday locale.
And then you had children.
Tis true, travel just ain’t the same with kids; but it can be done, and without alienating yourself from the free world. I’m an American expat with three children (all boys) and this is my advice is based on ten years of experience flying with my children on 70+ flight segments, many of them on my own and most of them long haul. I apologize in advance if my remarks seem judgey or heavy handed, or for any offense caused. I realize that your experiences might differ from my own, but I hope something here might ring true for you.
I used to read articles like this one for tips on flying with children until I got annoyed with all the lame, recycled advice. Choose the flight time to coincide with their regular routine, pack their favorite toys, bring them things to snack on, have something for them to suck on. For heaven’s sake, I do that when I go out to the park for the day. That isn’t advice, that’s common sense!
It was usually the comments sections of these articles that raised my ire more than anything. There will always be trolls chiming in and saying that children shouldn’t be allowed on airplanes, etc. I don’t even know where to begin dissecting that idiocy. I’ve seen many more instances of scandalous behavior from adults on flights, but it’s always children that other people complain about, as though they passed their own childhoods as mute angels. All I can say is don’t prove them right. When traveling with your children, as with everything else you do with your children, remember you are the adult. You are in charge of the little people with you. There are situations where you need to be rigid with the rules, and a confined space 40,000 feet in the air with 350 other people is certainly one of them.
Now, I’ve heard of those sweet, good natured folk who prepare little goody bags with earplugs for the passengers around them. I know they mean well, but I can’t decide whether that’s an insult to their parenting skills, their child, or the passenger’s intelligence. Hear me now kind hearted people, if your child is acting out and you’re not actively working to remedy the situation, all the Polo mints in the world are not going to placate the nearby passengers. My advice is to save the energy spent on goody bags, because you’re going to need it for that flight.
My husband and I have differing views on this subject. He likes to be at the airport with hours to spare before our flight. While I agree that it takes some of the stress out of missing your flight, I find hours spent trying to corral a toddler in a busy airport before an 8 hour flight is something akin to the 6thring of hell. I live in fear of a rambunctious three year old darting off and tripping someone’s grandma over, causing her to break a hip. My dream scenario would be to check in, go through security, and walk straight to the gate, without breaking step; but for what it’s worth, when we travel together, he usually gets his way and I put on a brave face. I find my children can sniff out fear or dissention and my husband and I need present a confident, united front because they will exploit any weakness.
If you are at the airport with time to spare and are fortunate, you might find a children’s play area. If it were in my power, I would hand out medals to those enterprising airport professionals who advocated for their presence. If no children’s area exists, a very close second to a children’s play area is an empty gate at the end of a terminal. If you think you sense a trend here, you’re right. Giving your children as many opportunities to be children before expecting them to behave like little adults for an extended period of time increases your likelihood of success.
Boarding the Airplane
Chances are if you’re flying with kids, you’ve had to check bags. To the extent possible, I try to check every bag I can (in winter, I stuff our coats into the bags before checking them) because a suitcase can just be one more thing to lug or look after in an airport when you’re already lugging and looking after children. Given that, you likely won’t need the overhead compartments very much. Which means you shouldn’t need to break someone’s legs to be the first people in the queue to get on the plane. Do you really want the honor of being cooped up in that metal tube with your kids for an extra 30 minutes?
The Dog and Pony Show
An eight hour flight with children is an eight hour tap dance for you. Get that stuck in your head now. You will likely limp off that plane like Rocky Balboa after his fight with Apollo Creed, exhausted and sweating, hair matted and possibly with a black eye. Of course, you might get lucky and get to watch a film uninterrupted or read a chapter of your book; but my advice is to set your expectations low. Once, when travelling with my husband on a long haul flight, he took a paper from the flight attendants as they walked down the aisle. I couldn’t believe it. Was he in the same row of five with three children as me? In the end, my middle son ripped said paper into shreds, thereby restoring order to my universe.
When packing for a flight, just think about it like it’s an extended day outing. Bring all those things that you normally have with you (change of clothes and nappies, snacks, favorite toy, etc) and then consider what else you’re going to bring to pass the time. Hopefully, you’ll get a break at naptime, and boredom eating is completely acceptable (especially if you’re a toddler on an airplane); but you’re going to need more than that in your arsenal. If you’re one of those parents who swears you’ll never let your child near an iPad, bless your heart. I commend you, and I was once you. Then I realized the marvel of technology on a flight and never looked back. Seriously, think about the upside of being able to upload their favorite books and movies onto one small device. Otherwise, you’re limited to what you can carry, and that can get limited. How many times can a person read Goodnight Moon on a transatlantic flight? I don’t know the exact answer, but I think if anyone was keeping track, I might have broken the world record for it in March 2007 on a flight to Philadelphia. Trust me on this one. iPad, loaded, and extra power.
Now that my children are a little older, they carry their stuff in their backpacks. I think they like the responsibility, and I like that I don’t have to carry it!
THE One Rule to Rule them All
My number one rule on an airplane, DO NOT WALK YOUR CHILD UP AND DOWN THE AISLES. If you consider no other piece of advice from me than this one, I will be satisfied. I’m not saying this as a passenger, I am saying it as your friend. It will save you a lot of trouble. Once you start walking them, there’s no going back to sitting still in their seats. Are we clear? It cannot be an option. They need to think of it like their seat and the little patch of carpet in front is their house and garden and the aisle is the pavement of Regent’s Street. I.e. you can be comfortable at home, but you don’t play in Regent’s Street. If you’re concerned about them developing thrombosis from being seated for so long you a) have better behaved children than I do because mine wiggle a fair amount and b) should maybe take them to the toilets, holding their hand along the aisle like you would on Regent’s Street.
Back when we only had one child, we had lots of travel points which we flamboyantly spent on nice things like upgrades. We would buy premium economy seats on BA and upgrade to business class. I know, I know… a baby in business class? I’ll tell you though, those were the halcyon days. They were truly the most successful flights we had with a small child. Depending on the seat configuration, your child will have a large area to himself to play on the floor with toys (we used to bring wooden trains or a selection of Duplos), the chair reclines into a bed that they can sleep on (which means that precious nap isn’t compromised), and the level of service before, during and after the flight is higher (dedicated check in, greater baggage allowance, fast track security, pre-flight lounge access that sometimes has a dedicated kids play area, better flight attendant to passenger ratio, fast track through passport control, priority baggage handling, etc.). Not only that, but since you’re not seated right on top of the nearest passenger, chances are your child will be less likely to annoy. Yep, those were the days. Now, I feel lucky just to be in economy.
This is Part One of our amazing ‘How To Survive Flying With Kids’ Guide. Part 2 is here.
Both posts are part of our ‘Holidays With Kids’ series. You can find the other posts here.
This blog was written anonymously by one of our wonderful MGFBlogSquad.
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