Travelling with children is easy!….said no parent ever. From public transport to car rides to flights, the prospect of keeping children happy on a journey is something that strikes fear in the hearts of even the most laid back parents. I am originally from upstate New York and still have family there, so two to three long haul flights per year followed by a two hour car ride plus a couple flights to Europe per year is our normal. Flying with babies or small children can mean lots of extra luggage, buggies, car seats, nappies, wipes, changes of clothes, toys and tired, bored grumpy children with frazzled parents. But luckily there are a few things you can do to ensure your journey is as smooth as possible. Read on for my tips on travelling by aeroplane with babies and children, all tried and tested by me with my own children on many, many flights.
Firstly: Plan. Everything. In. Advance. I cannot stress this enough. If you have a plan for the journey you will be a lot less stressed when the day arrives. Pack anything that you don’t need every day up to a week in advance (think swimwear, clothes and shoes that you don’t plan on using until the holiday, towels, nappies and baby accessories bought specifically for your trip, new toys, books, etc.) The more stuff is already packed, the less you have to think about last minute. Make a list of what you have packed and what needs to be packed right before your trip. Examples of my last minute items are baby monitors, car seat, baby bottles food and drink and favourite toys. There are some very good list making apps that you can use to help keep track of your packing. My favourite is Trello!
If you’re taking a taxi to the airport, make sure the driver knows you will be travelling with children as it will likely take you some extra time to get them in the car. If you have bought any new car seats for the taxi ride or to use during your trip, make sure you know how to install these correctly and ideally practice installing these in your own car ahead of time.
Check in at the airport
Some airlines have a family check in area, a fast track security queue for families and priority boarding for families with small children. These aren’t always immediately obvious when you arrive at the airport so make yourself aware of what is offered for families before your flight to ensure your time in the airport is as stress free as possible.
Car seat laws vary country by country so be sure to know the laws in your destination before travelling, especially if you are hiring a car. Please note that car seats hired with a rental car may only just meet the bare minimum legal safety standards and may be very different than the car seat you use at home.
As I am very concerned with car safety, we always bring our own car seats rather than relying on a rental company. At home we use isofix car seats that attach to a base which is attached directly to the chassis of the car. As this isn’t practical for travelling, we have a Group 1-2-3 adjustable car seat which we have used for travel for my four year old son since he was just over a year old and, up until now, we have been able to use my daughter’s Group 0+ infant seat as she is still under the weight and height limit for her seat. However, for our last trip to New York where we knew we would have to take lots of taxis, I bought the Mifold Grab and Go Group 2/3 car restraint (for children aged 4-12) to use for my son as it would be hard to carry two full sized car seats along with our luggage. The Mifold is very small and light and took up hardly any space in our hand luggage. Instead of raising the height of the child like a booster seat, this car restraint lowers the seatbelt to the correct height for the child and is fully adjustable. Going forward our son will use this for travel and our daughter will switch to the Group 1-2-3. The Mifold Grab and Go can be purchased on Amazon, John Lewis, Boots and many other retailers for £39.95.
Some airlines do not count car seats towards your luggage allowance, so check before you fly as this really helps! I highly recommend buying a car seat travel bag to protect your car seats when in the luggage hold. We have the Venture travel bag which is available for £18.89 on Amazon and we have found it to be very durable and easy to carry with its adjustable shoulder strap.
Many airlines will let you take these right to the gate, where they will be checked in and stored in the hold (or if you are lucky in a compartment in the main cabin). Although this might sound like a good idea, we have found that you never know what condition your stroller will be returned in. And, just because you’ve checked it in at the gate, does not necessarily guarantee your stroller will be waiting for you when you get off the plane – often you will still need to retrieve it from the carousel with the rest of your luggage. This defeats the purpose of having brought it to the gate in the first place and now your child either has to walk or be carried (along with all your carryon luggage) across the airport. I have found that it’s easiest for me to use a good quality, comfortable baby carrier (I love Ergo baby and it can be used up until three years old!) in the airport and to check in our buggy at the bag drop. If we are bringing our Bugaboo Cameleon (we take this on holidays where we know we will be doing a lot of walking or will be out and about during nap times or late in the evening), we check it in at the bag drop, safely nestled in its Bugaboo travel bag. The bag was annoyingly expensive and I thought at the time that we might have made a mistake in buying it, but I was wrong. It has wheels so it is easy to pull, folds flat when empty so although it’s huge it fits under the bed and it has kept our Cameleon completely safe on many, many flights. There is also room for other items – we have managed to fit the Cameleon plus out travel cot in the past. I totally recommend this if you are travelling with a Bugaboo buggy. It really is up to the job. If we don’t intend to do much walking, we bring an inexpensive, fold up stroller or just use the baby carrier.
Bottles, baby food and water
If your child is under two years old or has any special dietary requirements, be sure to plan ahead as airlines do not usually provide food for babies. Baby milk, water and baby food are usually exempt from your liquid limit but you will need to check with your airline before you travel as the policy may differ from airline to airline and country to country.
If your baby is bottle fed, how many bottles will your baby need for the duration of the flight, plus airport waiting time and any transfer time once you reach your destination? Will you have enough even if your flight is delayed? If your baby drinks formula how will you prepare this on the flight? Does it need to be warmed? It might be easiest to pack pre-prepared containers of formula to be poured into sterilised bottles. Be sure to pack enough sterilised bottles as these should not be rinsed and reused. Alternatively you can bring cooled, boiled water in sterilised bottles and pre-measured formula powder, to be mixed as required. Most airlines are happy to warm your baby’s bottles for you if you ask nicely. If your baby is over a year old and has moved on to cows’ milk or a plant based milk, you will need to think about how to transport this and keep it cool, especially on longer flights. Some airports will confiscate ice/gel packs when passing through security as these count as liquids and are not covered under policies on food and drink for babies. Although again, if you ask nicely and explain why you need it, security staff may be able to test or scan your ice packs and allow them through.
If your child eats solid foods and is under two or if your airline does not provide meals, be sure to bring an adequate amount of food and snacks for the flight. Most airlines allow a reasonable number of unopened packets or jars of baby food to pass through security. Food for older children can be purchased once you are airside – just be sure to leave enough time to purchase this and be VERY careful if your child has food allergies. Some airport eateries do not provide allergen information on the food packets or menus. It is always safest to bring your own allergen free food if you have a child with a severe food allergy. Also call the airline in advance if your child has a severe nut allergy – many airlines will ensure your flight is completely nut free if you ask.
You should also bring your own water for babies over six months as airlines will usually only provide bottled water and this is not recommended for babies under a year. As long as your water is in a baby cup it should be allowed through.
If you’re baby is breastfed, then breastfeed away! Some airports have special parent and child rooms which have a comfortable chair for nursing. However it is perfectly acceptable to nurse your child anywhere in the airport or on the plane.
Clothing/ nappies (diapers)
Pack at least 1.5 times more nappies than you think you need and more than one change of clothes. We travelled to New York when my son was five months old and got through no less than five nappies and three outfits on the seven hour flight (and I needed a change of clothes by the time we arrived too – talk about poo-namis!).
I have found it absolutely essential to tire the kids out as much as possible before a flight, especially long haul. I am not someone that likes to pace the aisles with my children during a flight if I can help it. Some airports are very child friendly and have an airside soft play or children’s play area. It is best to check in advance what is available and where it is located to avoid wasting time at the airport. We have also been known to let our kids run around empty airport waiting areas!
A new toy or some toys that have been set aside solely for travelling will keep your kids entertained for longer than their every day toys. The new toy doesn’t have to be expensive – I find the magazines for preschoolers that come with a few small plastic toys, themed with their favourite TV characters, work wonders.
And don’t underestimate the allure of junk for babies – my 16 month daughter spent a good hour during our last flight playing with a bit of crinkly plastic from our in-flight headphones. Most babies love empty or partially empty water bottles too!
Many parents have the best intentions to limit screen time on phones or tablets, which I am all for in normal situations, but a flight is not the time for such scruples! We have an iPad mini that that we only use in situations where our kids need to sit quietly, such as on plane journeys, in restaurants, waiting rooms, etc. (and usually once all other distractions such as colouring have failed). And we aren’t afraid to use it. Children over three/ three and a half years might also have the attention span to watch children’s films on the in-flight entertainment system. Just check the headphones occasionally to ensure that the volume is not too loud, or better still, purchase your own headphones made especially for small children, which come equipped with a built in volume limiter.
If you are travelling with a baby up to two years old, ask for a bulkhead seat with a bassinet or baby seat on long haul flights. The worst that could happen is they say no. And, if possible, plan flight times around naps or bedtime – if you’re lucky your baby might sleep for most of the flight! Both of our children slept all the way home from NY on our last flight and my husband and I got to eat our dinner and watch a film, what a treat!
I also highly recommend snacks…I don’t normally allow my children to have too many raisins as they’re not great for little teeth, but on a flight anything goes as long as it helps us get through! Raisins and rice cakes work especially well as a distraction to children on a long flight as they take longer to eat than many other snacks and aren’t too messy.
Last, but not least, the dreaded jet lag. If you are travelling to a time zone behind yours, jet lag shouldn’t be too much of an issue. New York is five hours behind London. We normally arrive around 2.30 pm New York time and start to get tired early but manage to soldier on until until bed time. The kids usually have a short nap in the car from the airport but it is important for them to go to bed and get up as close to their normal time as possible and to keep children’s naps at the regular time.
Traveling to a time zone ahead of the one you are adjusted to is where the potential problems lurk. The first two times we travelled to New York with H, we spent nearly a week after we arrived home sitting up with him wide awake and playing from 1-4 am. Not ideal, especially as I was still working in an office at the time! As we weren’t getting enough sleep on the night flight back (only around two to three hours once you factor in take off, dinner, breakfast and landing), we were so exhausted that we all settled down for a four to five hour nap as soon as we got home. BIG mistake. Although H seemingly went down okay(ish) at night, he wasn’t properly adjusted to the time change and he was waking for the day at 1 am (6 am New York Time). We found that sticking to his normal schedule when we got back, even if that meant waiting, exhausted, until after lunch for a nap and letting him sleep no longer than 3 hours maximum (more or less his normal nap length) made a HUGE difference. We have (touch wood!) never had jet lag problems with H since and Baby I has never had a problem.
Finally, try to relax! Routines will be slightly different and you might need to do things that you don’t normally approve of like allow screen time, extra nursing or bottle feeding, snacks, allowing daytime dummies, etc. Just go with it, try to enjoy yourself and good luck!