Most kids find flying, or at least the prospect of it, exciting - often in contrast to their parents. This excitement can help them tolerate check-in queues, departure lounge waits, and even lengthy flights, and you can foster it with little incentives – such as giving them their own wheeled mini-suitcases to make them feel more grown-up and part of the journey. That said, you do need to put in some time and thought if you’re to make your experience in the air as hassle-free as possible. In particular, make sure that everything you need (airport parking, kids’ meals, baby bassinets) and so forth is ordered in advance and reconfirmed a day or two before flying.
While most airlines fly under-2s for free (on a parent’s knee), on some low-cost carriers you may need to pay for an infant regardless of the fact they're not occupying a seat (indeed, on some super-cheap flights you may find you’re paying more for the infant than for each of the regular passengers!). Additionally, low-cost airlines tend to charge kids the same fares as adults rather than a lower child fare (typically 10–60% less than a standard fare). You may also have to pay extra to carry infant equipment (though buggies are normally carried free) and even for bags – on top of the taxes added on to what first seem to be rock-bottom fares.
Whoever you fly with and at whatever fare, get comprehensive family travel insurance that includes cover if you have to cancel your flight due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances. For advice claiming compensation (£100-470) if your flight is delayed by more than three hours or cancelled, on the other hand, see moneysavingexpert.com.
You might also think about carbon-offsetting the impact of emissions from your flights through UN certified emission reduction projects, although many environmentalists challenge the idea that this is truly useful.
Lastly, many parents are afraid of flying, and many more become so after the birth of their children. There are many different ways of dealing with this, from self-help books such as ‘Manage Your Mind’ (Gillian Butler and Tony Hope) to one-day courses led by airlines. If even you don’t end up being ‘cured’ of your phobia, learn to control your emotions so as not to transmit your fears to your children.
If your children do happen to be afraid of flying themselves, you may need to tackle this. Use websites and books explaining the principle of flight and get hold of books about travelling by plane, such as ‘Going on a Place’ (Usborne Experiences). With younger kids, simple aeroplane sticker books might be enough to get them interested enough to forget about their anxiety. Flying Without Fear runs special half-day children’s courses, with an adult going free, but these don’t include a real flight as adult courses do. The Child Anxiety Network may also be a useful resource.
• Arrive at the airport in plenty of time. You don’t want to be running down long corridors to catch your plane if you’re pushing a buggy or with younger kids, or panicking when your child decides he or she urgently needs the loo when you have only minutes to board. Most airlines do invite families with under-5s to board first, in which case you should be able get to your seat with relative ease. You should also be able to wheel your buggy to the airline steps, and the ground crew will then take it to the hold.
• Getting to the airport in plenty of time means you can be sure of all sitting together; it’s also worth finding out if your airline is responsive to requests for bulkhead seating with extra floor space. Most airlines now allow advance online check-in (sometimes for a fee), but even so the potential for hold-ups en route to the airport is greater with kids, so always leave longer than you think you need, or even stay the night at a hotel near the airport.
• It’s not always feasible, especially when booking a package holiday, to choose your airline, but it’s worth finding out what specific airlines offer families. For instance, Gulf Air provide trained ‘Sky Nannies’ on certain routes to help parents with meals, setting up bassinets and general assistance throughout the flight. On the other hand, though some sources claimed that the twin-deck Airbus A380 would offer onboard crèches/childcare, this seems unlikely to come to fruition.
• Though flight attendants are generally happy to help you out within their capabilities, the onus is on you as a parent to entertain your kids and make them behave safely. In-flight entertainment really comes into play here: this varies by airline but you might get individual seat-back TVs and even individual games consoles, and perhaps activity packs.
• You also need to come prepared with books, toys, games and gadgets that you know will keep your child occupied, whether it’s the latest Harry Potter novel, an iPod, a puzzle book or a lo-fi packet of plasticine. Keep it small but not too small (delving around under seats for lost items as other passengers are trying to disembark is no fun at all).
• Again, your choice of airport is constrained by your flight, but it’s worth finding out what airports have to keep kids entertained while waiting. For example, Heathrow has several soft-play areas for ages 2–6, play areas for under-8s and free colouring materials (available from BAA information desks). You might choose to splash out on access to a lounge with complimentary bar, refreshments, newspapers and magazines, and Wifi, and sometimes also kids' areas (see our review of the Virgin v-room at Gatwick Airport).
• Try to time flights to coincide with children’s naps, and to try to take a night flight when travelling long-haul so you can all sleep most of the way. If you want to avoid jetlag, especially with young children, choose South Africa or Indian Ocean destinations such as Mauritius or the Seychelles over the USA or a Caribbean destination such as St Lucia. In general, factor in one day’s recovery time (for kids) for each time zone you cross – for instance, Sydney is GMT+10, so you need to be going for a good few weeks to make the disruption worthwhile. British Airways has a handy jet-lag calculator on its Health & Well-Being pages, plus tips for minimizing jet-lag. One of the key ones is to try to adjust to your new time zone before travelling, by moving your family’s sleep (and nap) times back- or forwards over the course of several days, and after arrival, by getting kids on the new schedule as soon as possible, with the help of sunlight (which influences our internal clocks) and adopting local mealtimes.
• Where possible, avoid layovers – when a plane makes a stop at another airport en route to your destination, or when you take connecting planes and have to hang around in the airport. These are the most disruptive journeys in terms of your family’s routine, and in the case of the latter they also carry the risk of missing flights and hence extended waiting at an airport. There may be other solutions if you can’t get a direct flight – again, if travelling to Sydney, you could get a night flight to Hong Kong and then a second night flight on to Australia.
• During take-off and landing, protect small ears, which can suffer even more than adults’ as cabin pressure changes, by breastfeeding your baby (or giving them a bottle of milk or water to suck on) or giving older kids a boiled sweet.
• Bring along simple snacks such as rice cakes, dried fruit, biscuits and drinks in case your kids don’t like the airline meal, or just to keep them quiet when all else fails!
• After arriving, don’t test your children’s patience and ability to sit still by making a long transfer to your accommodation. If you have got a lengthy onward journey, it might be an idea to spend the night in a hotel near the airport before carrying on, or find somewhere to stop en route.
• Do not be tempted to administer your child medicines such as Phenergan in the hope it will make them sleep on the journey; potential misuse of prescribed or over-the-counter medicines could be life-threatening.
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