A recent article in the Sunday Times Travel supplement gave the best tip for travelling with babies as: don’t! I disagree. Here's how to make flying with small children plain sailing
Most adults view flying as a means to an end, a necessary endurance to reach paradise – or at least the Costa Blanca. Most children, on the other hand (especially toddlers), see the flight as one of the most exciting parts of the holiday. I recently spent a week on the Costa del Sol with my three-year-old asking when he could go back on the plane. He didn’t want to return home, but wanted to re-do the outbound experience.
My children are aged two and three. They are lucky enough to have been abroad over a dozen times - which means I've had the pleasure of flying with babies and toddlers over a dozen times. I hope to impart some of what I have learned here.
Choosing a flight
Pre-planning is definitely the key. We have always paid a bit more to fly from our local airport, and at a decent time. I can imagine little worse than turning up for a night flight after a three-hour drive with two toddlers. The amount of luggage must also be considered. Thomson Holidays have recently announced that from summer 2010, infants (children under two on the return flight) will receive a free luggage allowance of 10kg. This certainly lessens the concern about how much can be packed, and hopefully other charter airlines will follow suit. However, thought must also be given to who is going to carry the luggage, as one parent will need to be with the children.
The time that you fly and your destination will determine who the other passengers are and how sympathetic they are likely to be with a crying baby. Weekends and school holidays will mean more families. Morning flights during the week to major cities are likely to contain lots of business people. We flew to Budapest from London Heathrow with British Airways on a Wednesday morning at 7.30 am. As soon as the staff saw the baby, we were quickly sent to the front of the queue for check-in and upgraded to business class, where we could sit on our own. I'm not sure what they were expecting but they definitely did not want my son mixing with their precious business customers.
At the airport
Folding pushchairs can already be carried free of charge, and nearly all airlines let you take a pushchair to the gate but unfortunately you usually won’t get it back until you collect your luggage. Leebruss (www.leebruss.eu) have recently released the Take Off pushchair, which folds so small that it should be able to go onto a plane and be stored in the overhead locker. The folding weight is 8.4kg and most charter airlines only allow 5kg hand luggage per person, so I am not sure how this would work. Instead of a pushchair in the airport, I always use a baby sling (www.thebabasling.co.uk). Airports can be large, noisy places and a sling keeps your baby close to you.
On arrival at the airport, it's best to check in as soon as possible. That way you only have the children and hand luggage to watch. There is no risk of you leaving suitcases unattended whilst chasing a runaway toddler and returning to find your luggage has been removed and destroyed (assuming the constant threat of the Tannoy is actually true). The next step would normally be to go through to the waiting lounge - but if you have a delay, you should consider other options. After being told we had a three-hour delay from Birmingham, we could have joined the other passengers, getting hot and bored and complaining lots. Instead, we checked in our luggage and made full use of the free monorail that connects the airport to the NEC. The children loved going on the ‘floating trains’ and running round the long empty corridors of the NEC. We also went to the train station to look at the engines. The time soon passed and the children thought it was all part of the holiday.
Once through to the departure lounge, I let children literally run free. They are about to enter enforced confinement, after all. Unlike several European airports, British airports rarely have a play area - maybe a bit of Duplo on a bolted-down table if you're lucky. By contrast, Tenerife has a small playground with slide and climbing area.
Unfortunately, the nature of flying means that even the most thorough preparation can be undermined by unforeseen circumstances. On one occasion, after circumnavigating passport control took nearly two hours, I then had to give my 14-month-old a croissant and chocolate biscuit for breakfast whilst we boarded the plane. The plan had been for a leisurely family breakfast in an airport restaurant...
On the plane
Most airlines allow people with small children to board five minutes before everyone else. This gives you time to settle and work out what, if anything, can go in the overhead lockers. I always book the meal on the plane, not for its nutritional content but because it breaks up the flight nicely and the children can get a good 30 minutes of entertainment from lots of little pots containing different types of food. As everything is served together, they also get to create some wonderful concoctions. Recently, carrot dipped in yoghurt and crackers spread with ratatouille have gone down well.
The food is likely to go everywhere, so I always pack a change of clothes for me and the children in the hand luggage. At the start of a two-hour flight to Austria, my two-year-old knocked my husband's vodka and Coke over my jeans. Breastfeeding a newborn whilst smelling of stale vodka is likely to get you funny looks in most places and Austria was no exception.
10 hand luggage essentials
1. Bug spray – particularly if you're due to arrive during the evening.
2. Sunscreen lotion – children can burn very quickly so it's worth having some sunscreen to put on them straight away.
3. Changes of clothes – at least two per child. Even if you manage to arrive without any sickness, toilet or food accidents, they will still be hot and clammy. A change of clothes will often calm a small baby after a long flight.
4. Nappies - take more than you think you will need, just in case of delays, lost luggage, etc.
5. Toys - anything that is small and likely to keep your child engaged, and that you don’t mind being lost. Small books that they haven't seen before often work well. Each of my children has a small backpack, which I fill up with goodies. The first half-hour of a flight can be spent looking through what they have. Colouring books and crayons often go down well.
6. Snacks. Chocolate will just melt and leave the kids hyper. I usually take some boxes of raisins, packets of grapes and apricots.
7. Fold-down buggy or sling.
8. Separate bags. It’s much easier to have a separate changing bag. That way you can just pick that up if you need to change a nappy. Airline toilets are very small, and with the baby changing tray down, there is no room to put anything. It’s much easier to just take exactly what you need.
9. A drink. Breastfeeding is great for take-off and landing - it helps to soothe and settle the baby and at the same time the sucking will stop their ears from hurting - but cooled water in a bottle should also work.
10. DVD player. Now my children are a little older, we have purchased a travel DVD player and it’s fantastic. My three-year-old will happily spend a flight watching his Bob the Builder DVDs.