How to Survive Air Travel With Children
Air travel with children – does the very idea fill you with dread?
We used to feel the same way but now we have a couple of (successful) long haul flights with the kids under my belt, we can share the do's and don’ts on how to make air travel with children fun. Kinda.
We're not saying it's going to be a walk in the park, but a little preparation can make the whole experience enjoyable for both you and them.
1. Book in advance or prepare to spend money; lots of money
If you have school age kids the era of off peak, last minute holiday bargains are over. Holidays now have to be taken in April or August if you want a decent amount of time away, which means you will have to pay peak prices. If you can, book as far in advance as possible. December/January is a good time to start looking at holidays for the following August as a lot of airlines have seat sales. We booked with Virgin in January and got return tickets to St Lucia for under £500 each. Yes for a family of four it meant spending almost £2,000 on tickets but once the promotion was over (usually by the end of Jan) those same tickets were £750 each.
2. Think about the night before you travel
Most long haul flights leave the UK before midday so unless you live close to the airport it means waking everyone up at the crack of dawn which usually leaves parents and children starting the day tired and miserable. There is much to be said for shelling out for a hotel room close to the airport as the difference between getting up at 3 or 4 am verses 6 or 7am when you are 2 years old makes all the difference. We looked on hotels.com for the cheapest rates and then called the hotel direct to get them to beat that price. A family room at Gatwick Hilton starts at £164, which meant we didn’t have to wake up until 7 am.
3. Use twilight check-in if available
If you’re travelling from Gatwick with Virgin you can check in the night before between noon and 9 pm. Simply turn up with your bags and documents and check in at the desk. There are virtually no queues and as you probably aren’t going to be at the airport until after rush hour the drive to the airport will hopefully make everyone nice and sleepy.
4. Think about feeding them
Breakfast at the hotel can be £15 per person and little ones are very unlikely to eat that much. If you ask for a room with a fridge, simply bring your own milk in a disposable bottle, a serving of their favourite cereal in a Ziploc bag and a plastic bowl and spoon. Most hotel rooms have a kettle so warm the milk like you used to when they were babies and serve their breakfast in your room.
5. Think about seating on the aircraft
Most airlines allow you to choose your seat online up to 48 hours before you fly. Study your aircraft carefully! Try and choose seats as close to the exits as possible as the aisles are wider with a little cubbyhole area that’s great for stretching little legs and looking out of windows etc. We found it handy to sit right at the back of the aircraft as there’s no one behind to huff and puff when your little one is standing on the chairs and/or banging on their seats.
6. Think about food on the plane
Airline food isn’t generally suited to the discerning palates of children so bring as much food as possible from home. You can’t bring any drinks for them unless they are still on milk and if they are still breastfeeding even better as nothing keeps them quiet like a bit of boob. Bring their favourite beaker and buy juice and water for them once you have cleared Customs. If you stayed in a hotel the night before and asked for a fridge, bring a packed lunch and as many snacks as you can. At eating child/toddler is a quiet one. Go easy on the sweets as sugar highs and airplanes are not a good mix.
7. Plan your entrance onto the plane
For their convenience (and not yours), the airline will ask for families with children to board the plane first. Don’t! Why have them seated any longer than they have to? We let our kids run around duty free for as long as possible so they were at least a little bit tired when it came time to board. And we made sure we were among the last to board so they weren’t sitting down for a second longer than they had to.
8. Keep them busy
Most airlines have a TV in the seat back but that’s usually one film and a handful of TV shows that are appropriate for kids. Break the length of your flight into 4 to 5 shifts – maybe it’s all psychological but it’s less intimidating if you think of it as filling four 2-hour slots. A trip to Wilkinson’s or the pound shop where you spend £20 on arts and crafts kits, word search and colouring books (and breaking them out one at a time) is money well spent. If you have an iPad or some other similar device, fill it with their favourite TV shows, games, apps, etc and break it out periodically during each of your time slots. A portable DVD player with their favourite movies works just as well. The joy of looking out of the window gets old, fast.
9. Choose Your Accommodation Wisely
There is nothing worse than being in a resort full of honeymooners or couples on romantic getaways and finding yours is the only family there! Sites like Trip Advisor are invaluable for seeing how other families fared in the resorts you are considering holidaying at. Research what activities they offer for kids (clubs, trips, babysitting services) but bear in mind that most will not accept little ones still in nappies.
We stayed at the Windjammer Landings Resort in St. Lucia – one of the most family orientated resorts on the island. They love children (lots of families are there so the kids won't feel left out) and have a 2-foot deep pool, perfect for even the youngest of guests.
10. Think About Your Return Leg
Unless you are flying chartered, you should have a degree of flexibility when it comes to choosing your return flight. Try and get the latest flight possible so most of it is spent asleep. The majority of hotels require you check out by around midday and if your flight isn’t until later that evening you will have a lot of time to kill.
If the hotel offers a late checkout option, take advantage of it, check your luggage in at the airport as early as you can (Virgin offers check in, chill out where they will come to the hotel, collect your luggage and check you in from the comfort of the hotel foyer). Make the most of your last day and tire them out on the beach (most have at least shower facilities) and go for a late lunch / early dinner.
As I’m sure you’ve seen, the key to stress free air travel with children is plan, plan and plan some more. If all else fails, take comfort from the fact that travelling in peak season usually means you aren’t the only family on board and someone else’s kid is bound to be worse than yours!
What's your go-to move to make air travel with children bearable?