How to survive airplane travel with kids

Airplane journeys with small kids are a nightmare scenario for many parents. Sarah Siese, author of Heaven on Earth - Kids: the World's Best Family Holidays, brings you her top tips for making the transition from home to holiday destination as stress-free as possible 

The rule of thumb when flying with small children is that "getting there" is far harder than "being there". The more thought I've put into how to travel with my three in tow, the easier the holiday has been.

To help you prepare for the necessary evil of taking the tribe on holiday, I've compiled a list of dos and don’ts. The list begins with the not-so-obvious suggestion of talking to the customer services department of your chosen airline before flying out.

Without you knowing it, many airlines and tour operators do offer families special provision to pre-book seats together, or to order a healthy child’s meal online or book one of their special Britax child seats onboard. As someone who has experienced the horror of boarding a plane to find the baby change bag had been left at home, I would argue that paying a little extra for a decent airline is worth its weight in nappy bags.

What rings true for the parent of a small baby will not necessarily register with that of a pre-schooler. For this reason, I've divided up my tips to cover three different age groups up to the age of six. From six upwards, the wonderful world of books, iPods and in-car/flight entertainment generally kicks in, and you're on your own – free to open a book and read yourself, perhaps for the first time that year!

From experience, I’d say it is better to travel pessimistically than optimistically. Having suffered a delay on a trip to Spain on my own, with a bored 18-month-old, I later became obsessed with checking what airport authorities provided in the way of a designated family area once you'd checked in. Copenhagen airport, for example, has a fabulous replica of an airplane with peek-a-boo windows, a slide down the back and endless tables of Lego. London Gatwick now has a designated soft-play area upstairs beside the shops. Some terminals in Heathrow, however, have nothing but shops and won’t even let you sit at the oyster bar for a restorative glass of wine if you have a child in tow.

Preparation is key. A quick look online or a call to the airport before you book can make all the difference.

1. With babies up to eight months

Do check with the customer services of the airline to find out what provision is made for families with babies. For example, whether you can take a pushchair to the boarding gate, where they are checked into the hold and reclaimed at the other end, either at the aircraft door (ideal) or the carousel (not so ideal). Regulations vary between different airports and airlines.

Do request bulkhead seats if your child is under two, where the cot/child seat is attached after take-off. These seats are often near the loo, and also offer a little more legroom.

Do take all baby essentials as hand luggage – you may get delayed taking off.

Do take a wet flannel in a plastic bag as well as wipes. Babies often hate the taste of chemicals on their fingers.

Do feed your baby on take-off and landing to stop discomfort as the cabin pressure changes.

Don’t forget to take the food your baby is used to, and ask for it to be warmed. Many airlines do not carry baby food.

Don’t forget to offer frequent feeds, including water - flying is especially dehydrating for an infant.
Don’t plan for your baby to sleep throughout the journey. Even if the baby does sleep, the cabin crew will disturb them if there is turbulence so that their seatbelt can be attached, according to regulations.

Don’t forget to take your baby’s favourite teddy. Airlines provide sheets and blankets for cots, but the familiarity of a teddy can make the difference between sleep or no sleep.

2. With infants aged between nine months and two years

This is the most challenging age, when children are crawling, walking and demanding constant entertainment, and when other passengers tend to scowl rather than coo over your little angel.

Do book airline seats well in advance so you can all sit together, and order children’s meals at the same time.

Do take a supply of healthy snacks (rather than sweet ones, which will result in the inevitable sugar rush) such as raisins, bread sticks and rice cakes. Just the conjurer's trick of pulling something new out of the bag will be a distraction for a few minutes.

Do take daytime flights if you possibly can. Children often do not sleep at all without the familiar routine of bedtime - so neither will you.

Do take reins for toddlers. It is often a long walk from the aircraft through passport control to the carousel, and reins can keep a toddler upright.

Don’t forget that although children under two pay 10% of the adult fare, they are often not provided with food or a baggage allowance, so check ahead about weight allowance and number of bags admitted. Some airlines, such as BA, do offer 23kg of luggage allowance for under-twos.

Don’t be tempted to make your child sleepy by using over-the counter and prescription antihistamines sometimes prescribed by doctors for jetlag, unless you are able to try out the medication before flying. Some can result in hyperactivity. Chamomile tea, on the other hand, is harmless and may bring on sleep.

Don’t put off the trip to the loo until landing. Just before descent is normally the ideal time, and prevents a crisis in the long wait to disembark.

3. With children aged between two and six years

Children at this age usually love the excitement of flying - the only problem is usually stopping them watching videos for 10 hours non-stop.

Do put a bracelet tag on your child with your mobile phone number if they are prone to running away in crowds.

Do get your children to pack a small backpack with toys, magazines and colouring pencils to carry onboard. Ask ahead whether entertainment packs are offered.
Do buy one new thing to do with the child as a treat to save for a fractious moment - a new book to read together, a new app or game.

Don’t forget to have some boiled sweets in your bag to help with ears popping on the final descent.

Don’t forget to ask at check-in whether you can sit with other families. The best entertainment can be a like-minded child with new magazines and toys in their backpack, and thankful parents looking for respite.

Don’t forget to pack the Calpol and a favourite teddy in your hand luggage.

Related links

Top places to travel with kids: If you’re looking for a special holiday en famille, but have no idea where to go, fear no longer. Sarah Siese, author of Heaven on Earth - Kids: The World's Best Family Holidays, has four of the best for you....

Planning a Holiday with the Kids: Even planning a holiday with the kids can be stressful. The Supernanny website guides you through the decision process of what kind of break your family needs and where you could go…

Find out more

The family holiday experts at Holidays from Heaven, tel 0118 9333777 (dedicated line) are available to answer any enquiries or help with family holiday bookings and will refund the cost of Sarah Siese's book when a reservation is made.

Heaven on Earth Kids- the world's best family holidays by Sarah Siese is a must-read for parents yearning for a family holiday that genuinely ticks all the boxes.

Related Advice