Tuesday, 16 September 2008

travelling with kids: flying

I promised in this post that it would be a series of three. Here is the long awaited second in series, travelling with kids: flying.

Let me say at the outset that our flying experience includes flights to a maximum of four hours. However, even if your planned flights are longer, you might find some of the ideas below useful for while you are at the airport. These ideas are not exhaustive. I am still learning and would appreciate your suggestions. These ideas are particularly focussed on managing children on flights, there are probably other things about flying I haven't mentioned.


Find out as much information as you can about the flight when booking it. Ask about what the airline provides. Will there an in-flight movie shown? Do you need to pay extra? Is it suitable for children? Is it for children? Are there individual consoles or is it one screen for everyone? Do they provide colouring-books and the like? Mention any dietary requirements you have and book children's meals for your children if you want them (they may not get them automatically). Ask about baby food. Ask about how the seats are set out (how many seats across before the aisle) so you can plan possible seating arrangements. For long flights, think seriously about booking a seat for your under-two year old, if you can afford it. Under twos are usually only a fraction of the cost of an adult fare but they ride on your lap, and this can be very difficult on long flights. If not (and we never have) think about how you might manage a small one on your lap for the duration of the flight.


Only one person needs to wait in the queue for check-in. If you have two adults traveling with children, this is usually OK. For an international flight, all people going on the flight will need to be present at the check-in desk, but there is no need for everyone to wait in the queue. If you are traveling on your own with children, it would be a good idea to ask a friend to come and stay with your children while you wait in the queue. The earlier you arrive for check-in, usually the less time you wait in this queue, but the longer you wait around afterwards. It is a good idea to bring something for your children to do at this time so you are not chasing them around the airport. If you have people seeing you off, they may be able to help, as long as they don't take a child for a long walk as they will need to be present at the check in desk. Don't give them too much to drink; you'll regret it on the flight. While doing check-in, confirm seating arrangements and any arrangements you have made for meals. Try to remember to pick up your departure cards at check-in and fill them in before you get to immigration.


You can end up doing lots of waiting at airports; it's good to have something for the children to do during these times. Think of some quiet talking games such as eye-spy, count how many or 20 questions that you can play. A book of games (including these sort of talking games) would be a useful purchase as preparation, or your local library would have some. Your children may like to watch the airplanes if you can see them. It's better not to have to get out things for drawing, colouring or playing as you may have to get up quickly and won't want to pack up (especially while everyone is waiting for you at boarding lounge when families are often boarded first). If you are waiting for a really long time, a DVD on the lap-top is a good back-up plan. If you are really worried about how your children will cope waiting quietly, you might like to 'train' them for waiting. Have 'quiet time' in their day where they need to sit quietly and play by themselves, or arrive extra early for your next doctor's appointment with them, and practice waiting together without playing with the toys. See how you go!


Immigration and the queue beforehand can be another tricky time with children. This is when you have to fill out your departure cards (which you present at immigration), if you haven't done so already. As I said before, try to pick up the departure card at check-in (if available) and fill it out before you do anything else. If you are the only adult with children and need to fill it out in the queue, just leave the queue and sit the children down quietly (maybe a snack would help here) and sit down with them while you fill out the cards. Join the queue when you are done. It's really difficult to fill in the cards while standing in a queue and looking after children. Don't panic about the time. If you are worried, contact one of the staff and let them know which flight you are on. Remember, once you have luggage checked in, the flight will not leave without finding you and immigration is a place they are likely to look. If your children get bored while in the queue, talk with them about what you can see (don't be rude about anyone wherever you are, as there is always likely to be someone around who can speak English) and play the sorts of games mentioned above. Again, if you are really worried about queues, you might like to give your children some practice; take them with you to the bank the next time you go, or to Centrelink, or to the Post Office.


This has been by far the most stressful part of flying for us. There are lots and lots of people in a small space. Everyone is worried and stressed out and the security personnel don't major in public relations. I have two recommendations. Firstly, explain in advance to your children what will happen and what you need them to do. If they know what to expect, they are less likely to panic. If you panic, they are also likely to panic. Secondly, be prepared for the security check before you get swept along with the tide and ordered around by the security personnel. My current plan for is to take an extra bag, one that doesn't take mush space and can fold or squash up into a pocket, and to sit down with the family before we get near the security check and remove everything that might possibly beep or cause trouble, put all of it into this bag so that all the bits and pieces go through the scanner in one lot rather than in lots of different lots. It's much easier to pick up one bag on the other side than scramble to collect things from four or five different trays. Then once through, we can sit down somewhere and put everything back on; shoes, hair-clips, watches etc etc etc. Even better would be not to wear or take any of these things.

Children need to come out of carriers, such as back-packs, slings and strollers. These carriers need to go through the security scan, so wear such that are easy to remove (not a wrap around sling, as I have discovered). If you have a child on a "leash" (as I have done when traveling on my own) it will also need to be removed if it has metal parts. Laptops need to come out of their bags and go in a scanning-tray and through the scanner separately. If the children are carrying toys (their favourite teddy, for instance) this will also be removed to go through the scanner. It's best if you can do this before a security officer does it for you. You also now need to have all carry-on liquids displayed in plastic zip-lock bags (provided at the airport, usually close to the security check) and may only take liquids in containers that have a volume of 100mL or less (exceptions are made for infants).


Until your children are old enough to be responsible for their own hand luggage, I would strongly recommend not packing bags for them to take as their own hand luggage. Otherwise, you end up worrying about whether they have their bag, whether they've taken things out OR whether someone else has put something in and you often end up carrying their bags anyway. Pack everything you and the children need in your bag. Try to manage without hats and other accessories that are likely to go astray in airport lounges and in queues and its not worth you worrying about them. I strongly recommend NOT packing 'things to do' for yourself as there's rarely a chance to finish that novel or do that sudoko; and the bag-space will be better used with extra activities for the children. Plan to enjoy spending time with the children and if you do get a quiet moment to yourself; sit back, relax and enjoy doing nothing.

ON THE FLIGHT for over 2s

A typical flight for us will include

  • time just talking and being excited about being on the airplane. This usually lasts until after take-off (don't forget a small drink -100mL or less- to sip for take off and landing).

  • Imaginative play with a small and familiar soft toy. We strap them into their seats, tell them the emergency procedures etc etc. We have found this particularly effective on the odd occasion when they want to sleep.

  • Colouring. This can fill in quite a lot of time, particularly if you have some well-chosen age-appropriate colouring/activity books. Sticker books are also a favourite. A friend once recommended 'paint-with-water' books which she had found terrific for her son. I found my girls loved them, and spent ages doing the but the hostesses didn't seem to thrilled about the water.

  • Being creative about meal-times. This can make the in-flight meal last a really long time.

  • A DVD. This can fill anywhere from half and hour to three hours, depending on battery life and the concentration of the children. We always take a lap-top for this purpose and have head-phones with a double adaptor so two children can plug in to the one lap-top. Many airlines have child-friendly in-flight entertainment, but not all.
Those things will fill our time with no trouble at all. We also take books for the children look at, stickers, and packs of cards in case they are needed.

ON THE FLIGHT for 6 months to 2 years
This is, I think, the most difficult age. From when they want to move around until they can sit quietly for long periods (roughly the ages 6 months to 2 years, depending a lot on the child) flying is very difficult. Usually, I look after the child in this age and my husband is responsible for the older ones. It is challenging and all-consuming but there is usually a break while they have a sleep. Here are some ideas that may help:
  • Observe your child for the weeks leading up to the flight. Take note of what they like to spend a lot of time doing. Work out a way to take it with you for the flight. For instance, one of our children would be amused for a LONG TIME pushing a train ticket in and out of a ticket slot in a purse, so we would make sure we took a little purse with cards.

  • toys Take a collection of small, quiet toys; some familiar, some new. It's worth spending some money on toys if you think it will help keep them happy for a long time (you have paid so much for the tickets, a little extra to make the time go better is worth it). Or put away some of their toys for a month before you fly so they seem new to them on the flight. Don't take noisy toys or toys that have 'flying' parts. Be considerate of your neighbours as you will probably need their consideration during the flight!

  • books Books with flaps and touchy-feely bits are great for keeping their attention.

  • snacks Pack some snacks like sultanas which are time-consuming to eat. Don't forget to get rid of them before you leave the aircraft!

ON THE FLIGHT for less than six months
In our experience, this has been an easy age because they spend most of the time sleeping. I usually take them in a pouch which they are used to sleeping in, and give them a feed as soon as take-off is complete. The motion of the plane seems to have the same effect as that of a car and the children have all slept well at this age. If your infant is used to sleeping in a pram or a cot you may have more difficulty with sleeps, as there may not be room for them to lie down. Most airlines try to give families extra seats if they are available, but they are not guaranteed.

Sleeps, also, are not guaranteed. Children do not always do what we expect. I always take some infant-panadol just in case we need it. Don't be afraid to stand up in the aisle to rock your child if you need to. And try not to miss sleeps before the flight as over-tired infants can be more difficult to settle. Don't be afraid to 'feed them to sleep' if you need to, even if it isn't your usual practice, it's not going to upset your normal routines.

Arrival is not nearly as tricky as far as children are concerned (but it can be complicated in itself). They are usually tired, yet excited and busy looking around them. There may be a long wait in the immigration queue, and again for customs and quarantine, but the comments above should help. Some airports provide strollers for children. I once used a courtesy wheelchair for the children when I was on my own. Not its intended use, but the staff graciously turned a blind eye.

Try to bring appropriate clothes and footwear for the climate at your destination; particularly if going from a warm to a cool climate. Airports can be freezing.

Well I hope some of these ideas and experiences will be of help to you as you plan and prepare your trip. Happy travelling!

And, if everything does go wrong and it is a complete disaster, remember: it is in the end, a short period of time. It may feel long at the time, but it will pass, for you and for everyone else in the plane. It will become another story to tell and to laugh about.


Christopher said...

Wow, Rachael, this is very thorough. Is this its finished form?

It might be useful being passed on to travel advice information services...

mattnbec said...

A very practical act of service! Good idea. A few additional thoughts:

Firstly, on take off and landing, if your kids take dummies or lollies for the kids to suck/chew to relieve sore ears. Airlines often have jelly beans available if you ask. This has averted a tantrum or two for us.

If you're planning long-haul flights, aim to fly at night at a time when the children will be so exhausted that they sleep. If there's a flight beforehand, let them sleep a little to help them last until later.

When waiting for a connecting flight find out if there is a children's play area. Singapore airport has one upstairs next to Burger King - It's made the world of difference to our kids flying between Perth and London.

If you have a baby, ask for a bassinet seat. Even if the baby doesn't sleep in the bassinet, you can store things in it, baby can sit in there and watch from up-high while you eat etc. This gains you a little extra leg-room too. The main down-side to this is that the arm rests between seats there don't come up. Booking a bassinet won't guarantee you get it, but it's worth a shot. If you don't get it when you check in, check with the cabin crew if it's in use. I've seen them not in use several times and people (including us) have been able to be moved.

Also, try to book midweek flights as they can be less busy and there's more chance of getting spare seats or bassinets.

Sorry, that's a long comment, but hopefully there's some useful tips we've gleaned from our flights with our little people

Rachael said...

Thanks for the comments about bassinets. This is outside my experience. Does it mean you need to book a seat for your infant?

Rachael said...

Chris, Well I thought it was finished. Waiting to see if there are more helpful comments like the one above. Maybe I can change it. A travel service found the last one and linked to it, so I sort of figure that if people are looking for this sort of information, they'll find it. Try googling and see if it turns up!

mattnbec said...

You have to book the bassinet, but the child doesn't have a seat (sorry, I shouldb't have said bassinet seat, just bassinet in the original post). So you still pay the same infant rate with or without the bassinet. The airline may well have some of this info on their website (at least Qantas does).