How to survive a long-haul flight with babies and toddlers

When two people from different countries decide to start going out, the thought of flying to each other’s countries sounds exciting and romantic. We knew that we’d want kids in the future but, during those early exciting days of Trans-Atlantic dating, the thought of having to do the same 12-hour trips with children didn’t even cross our minds!

Fast forward a decade and we’ve now travelled 21 long or short-haul flights with a baby or a toddler – these days both at the same time!

And, we’ve experienced every type of flight you can imagine: from lots of sleep, and smugly receiving compliments from those near us, to death-stares from half of the plane. Even the cabin crew have skipped their “Thank you, goodbye!” as we got off the plane – I didn’t even know they could do that, isn’t it part of their contract to be ridiculously perfect?!

Every parent wants to know the big secret which reveals how to have a successful flight with young-uns. While there isn’t one solid answer, we’ve put together a few tips to help you keep your sanity…and maybe your fellow passengers’.

Different airlines have varying facilities for kids. Left: Samantha in her own car seat. Top right: Dylan in the "duffel bag". Bottom right: Virgin Atlantic's Sky Cot

Different airlines have varying facilities for kids. Left: Samantha in her own car seat. Top right: Dylan in the “duffel bag”. Bottom right: Virgin Atlantic’s Sky Cot

It begins as soon as you book your flights

Call the airline as soon as you’ve booked to see if you can get an in-flight cot/bassinet for your baby. Virgin Atlantic has a brilliant one that uses their Upper Class leather and makes you want to swap places with them for the whole flight. One of these can give your baby a proper sleep, instead of waking every time you move a millimetre and can can make a world of difference.

The bassinets can get booked up quickly on popular flights so book asap so you don’t have to hold them the whole flight. Different airlines have different levels of bassinets – we were given a “duffel bag” to put Dylan in on his first long-haul flight. Weirdly, he did sleep really well on the floor almost the whole flight – and if he cried, we just zipped him up!! (Just kidding – honest!)

While you’re on the phone, check the rules on what baby accessories you can take on board for free and which you’ll have to pay for so there are no surprises when you arrive at the airport.

Also, book the food for your child now, too, if you didn’t do it while you booked. The kids’ meals usually come out 15 minutes before the adults. It will keep them entertained and might mean that they’re finished in time for when your meal is ready so you can use the tray, instead of sharing with your toddler.

The headphones that are given out on-board are usually uncomfortable for children, so invest in a nice, comfy pair.

The headphones that are given out on-board are usually uncomfortable for children, so invest in a nice, comfy pair.

Download their favourite shows or cartoons

You know that TV show or movie your little one is obsessed with? Be prepared and bring it with you! The last thing you want is to find out that there’s no Frozen on your two-inch screen that you’ll be staring at for 12 hours. Cue first meltdown of the flight and it’s from the adults: “No Elsa and Anna? Who doesn’t have Frozen as standard on every flight?!!! Noooo, I can’t get that movie out of my life and the ONE time I need it, it’s nowhere to be found?!!!”

All you need to do is be prepared and have it ready to go on your preferred device. And don’t just stick with their favourite, add some new ones on there too. You don’t need to pay through iTunes to download them these days. Remember, BBC iPlayer lets you download a show and keep it for 30 days, while Amazon Prime Video let you save movies onto your device, too.

We bought a cool external drive for our more recent trip which lets you stream three different films/shows at the same time. You can also upload (via its own wifi) all of your iPhone photos and videos so you’ll always have room to capture more memories.

Just remember to charge everything up the night before!!

Get them to practice wearing headphones

This sounds a bit OTT but you need to know what you’re getting yourself into. Headphones are funny things that toddlers and babies don’t really like to wear. Borrow or invest in ones with large comfortable pads that go over the ears – they have some cool boy and girl (Frozen) versions out there – wireless ones would be the dream, if you can afford it. Never use in-ear headphones, they won’t stay in and it’s not good for babies and toddlers.

Always check the volume before putting them on your cherub’s ears and if they decide they hate the feeling of them during the practice,  at least you know not to bank on them during the flight and you can pack sedatives instead (kidding again, promise!)

If they do like their new headphones and get used to them quickly, then they should feel comfortable wearing them in the air and, will be more likely to amuse themselves.

Make the most of your baggage allowance

You can get your bassinet on a flight as part of your "buggy." The bassinet can then double up as a bed so there's no need for a travel cot at your destination. It's also good for babies not to always be in the car seat on the buggy, too.

You can get your bassinet on a flight as part of your “buggy.” The bassinet can then double up as a bed so there’s no need for a travel cot at your destination. It’s also good for babies not to always be in the car seat on the buggy, too.

So, everyone in the family will usually get one free checked bag with the flight – even the tiny newborn whose clothes are the size of your granny pants – not that I have any! So, why not stuff their clothes into the rest of the family’s suitcases. This will allow you to check a travel cot (Pack-And-Play) or a car seat, as their bag. Also, check with family/your hotel to see if they have any essential items that you can borrow for free.

Again, make sure you’ve phoned the airline ahead to make sure you know what you have to pay to take on the flight. Some items, such as car seats and buggies/strollers, are often free to check in. If you have a nifty ‘Transformer’ buggy, which can carry a car seat, traditional seat or bassinetto turn it into a bassinet buggy at check-in, so the car seat flies for free.

If they’re still ickle, you can use the detachable bassinet as their bed when you stay instead of a Travel Cot.

BOOM! Car seat, bed and buggy all for free!!

Snacks (lots of them) and toys (not too many)

Get those snacks out and keep 'em coming!

Get those snacks out and keep ’em coming!

The “distract them with food” principle pretty much works for all toddlers and babies at anytime, anywhere. Try to pack ones that aren’t quickly eaten so they have to take a while to eat them.

This does however mean they might not eat their actual plane food dinner but this is probably ok. Most baby/toddler meal items are pretty easily packed away to eat later, and trying to have two meals on a tiny pull down tray with a wriggling baby or toddler on your lap, trying to grab your delicious glass of wine brownie, is not easy.

Also be selective with the toys you choose to bring in your hand luggage. The planner in you will want to pack every toy that your little one could possibly play with but this is just one more thing to juggle, along with everything else. Think of small, new toys that you can deal out slowly.

Make friends with the check-in staff

This is a bit of a gamble but try not to check-in online ahead of your flight. Yes, you won’t have that peace of mind that you’ll definitely be sat next to each other. The thing about checking in online is that you won’t be able to leave a spare seat between you and your other half (in the hope that no-one will want it and you get a “free” seat for your toddler without having to pay full-price for one) BUT the check-in staff can!!

Arrive nice and early, so you don’t end up at different ends of the plane, but be nice (friendly and chatty) to the staff there and ask if they can help you out with our “spare seat” trick. Some airlines try to sell you these “cheaper” toddler seats but quite often, if the check-in person likes you, they can make the seat next to you inaccessible for free.

Got an Under Two on your lap for the flight? Look at the benefit of getting that middle seat!

Got an Under Two on your lap for the flight? Look at the benefit of getting that middle seat!

You see, the difference between a spare seat in between you and your partner in crime is SLEEP, food and drink. Instead of having to wake the baby up to go to the toilet, or by mistakenly dripping ice-cream on their head while they’re sleeping (come on, we’ve all done it!), they can snooze away next to you!

It also doubles up as an impromptu playroom for the thousands of toys you brought broken headphones they decide to play with. It really can make all the difference.

The airline staff want to make the flight as enjoyable for you and the other passengers so many look to help young families out whenever they can. It’s not like you’re asking for an upgrade to First Class, which is what people usually try!

Make besties with the cabin crew

The cabin crew can also sometimes provide a free creche service!!

The cabin crew can also sometimes provide a free creche* service!! *We can’t back that up, some are just really nice and helpful and will entertain your kids for you!

So, the Check-in staff might’ve helped you out but it’s the cabin staff who are actually on the flight with you for 12 hours. When they’re not busy during take-off, landing and meal service, the cabin crew like to chat and make the flight go faster themselves, too.

Smile, thank them for everything and find out more about them.

It seems trivial but there have been many times where the loving arms of the stewardess have distracted our little ones from screaming down the plane and given us that much needed ten seconds of rest.

Don’t assume they all hate kids just because everyone thinks children on planes are the worst thing ever created – nice kids are fun to chat to. A few of the Virgin Atlantic crew on our flight to San Diego started entertaining them for free!! One let them sit in the crew seats and showed them around the galley. The kids loved it and it chalked off another 30 minutes off the flight. We saw them at the baggage carousel and a few of them said “Bye Dylan, bye Samantha!” The Virgin Atlantic crew really are fab, so do try to go with them, if it’s cost-effective for you!

If all else fails, and the airline isn’t as friendly, then find an old lady who’ll coo and fall in love with your little one as you walk around.

Expect the worst

Dylan and Samantha ended up becoming cabin crew during a recent flight

Dylan and Samantha ended up becoming cabin crew during a recent flight

Gone are the days of a flight being 12 hours where you’re forced to relax, watch some films, read a book and have a few drinks. Well, they might not be gone. Just don’t have these kind of expectations. Remember that  half a day in a metal tube, travelling at hundreds of miles an hour in the sky, is a real challenge for us adults.

So, if you expect the worst, most headachy, sleep-deprived journey of your life, at least you’ll be mentally prepared from it.

There is a chance that your little one surprises you and they don’t scream their way across the Atlantic but by thinking that this will be the toughest few hours since that first night you brought them home from the hospital, any good moments will feel like heaven.

Work as partners in crime

And stay united. Don’t let your little dictator break your bond! They control enough of your life and will do for many years to come. Remember those early days of sleepless nights and the ‘no way out’ feeling? Long haul flights are just like that.

Work as a team throughout the flight so you each get time to sleep and relax...a tiny bit!

Work as a team throughout the flight so you each get time to sleep and relax…a tiny bit!

Work as a team. Agree a set time to “swap shifts.” Whether it’s a valuable hour-or-so to watch a movie or get some shut-eye, choose wisely and make the most of it so that you each can enjoy a few minutes to yourself and so you don’t feel resentful of your partner before the holiday has even started.

You might get lucky and the baby will fall asleep on your shift. This is the dream because you still get to pass the baby over after two hours, even though it was an easy one. (Actually, the dream is for everyone to sleep for a few hours – it does happen!!)

Get your walking boots on

Plan on walking pacing the aisles. You’ll have the cabin’s floor-plan memorised by the time you get off the plane.

Long-haul is not your hour-and-a-half flight to Spain where you’re only allowed to take your seat-belt off to go to the loo – walking around is encouraged. It has a very different culture. People hang out at exit rows, change into ‘sweats’, and go to the toilet just to brush their teeth and freshen up. So, don’t be afraid to let little ones tear up and down those aisles.

Little legs need to walk and run, so restricting them will just add to those tantrums. You’re more likely to find that the old lady who is staring at them is actually trying to catch their eye and wants to play with them while you stand there and zone out for a few minutes!

For babies, remember to pack a Baby Bjorn or sling. They’re a great plane accessory so you can give your arms a break and give them some different views. It also increases the chances that your little one will fall asleep on you so you can – ever…so…carefully, sit back down once they’re out and enjoy some quiet time.

Feed those newborns

Dylan, at three-months-old, on his way to California for the first time

Dylan, at three-months-old, on his way to California for the first time

Whether it’s a plastic nipple or the fleshy kind, get that milk flowing.

This may not be possible for those with 3 or 4 year old travel companions (or maybe it is, who am I to judge!?) but did you know that if you breast feed your bubba on take-off and landing that the sucking action will help to pop their ears? Ain’t no fury like the fury of a baby whose ears won’t pop when those seatbelt signs are on!

It’s also usually the scariest part for a baby so the comfort of some milk and their momma is a great combo.

Nappy changes

I’m sorry, but even the best airlines in the world don’t have baby changing facilities that are fit for purpose. Quite often, only one of the six or seven toilets will have a baby changer, so note down where it is.

Even worse, I’ve pulled the baby changer down and it’s literally half the size of the baby and no way to secure them, so I luckily caught my little one before they fell into the sink! It’s all very 1980s still!

So, for older toddlers, practice the standing-up nappy change. This can be tricky, especially for number two’s. Have them stand over the mat and “touch their toes” when needed.  “Ew gross!” I hear you say? Well if you would rather sit for 12 hours with that smell on your lap – or the death stares of your fellow passengers –  be my guest! It is possible to do – and there may be no other option – so it’s best to practice at home when you can actually move your elbows.

If you’ve got a new-born and have seats in the bulk-head area, which is usually reserved for those travelling with babies, then we have done several discreet “number one” changes which are SO much easier than having to enter the dreaded toilets.

No flight is the same

The kids are only as good as their last flight. Don't expect them to be awful or great.

The kids are only as good as their last flight. Don’t expect them to be awful or great.Just because the first leg of your journey was close to what you imagine a brief stay at Guantanamo Bay might be like, doesn’t mean that the return journey will be.

Every flight is different. We find that the kids are more lively flying from the UK and then sleep most of the way home.

The opposite also applies.

Be careful not to brag too much about how your little cherub “slept the whole way” and “everyone on the plane complimented you on how good they were” because, as luck would have it, you’ll be eating those words during your next in-flight meal – if your toddler hasn’t knocked it onto the floor yet.

 

Try not to worry what others are thinking

Let your little one stand in the aisle next to you. It's a long-haul flight, no-one will mind as long as they're not annoying them.

Let your little one stand in the aisle next to you. It’s a long-haul flight, no-one will mind as long as they’re not annoying them.

As you take your seat on the plane, it’s most likely that all your neighbours will give you a polite smile as you sit down, then turn to their travel companion with a big, “oh great!” at the sight of your family sitting next to them for what was meant to be a relaxing flight to their dream destination.

Try not to be wrapped up in what everyone’s thinking of you. There’s no need to have the permanent “I’m sorry” face stuck on your mug the whole time.

Remember, that most of the people on the flight – even the solo business travellers that avoid eye contact – have probably got kids and know what you’re going through. Some people might look at you with a pained expression. Not because they’re annoyed that your child is screaming, but because they feel sorry for you.

The odds are that they will find your singing (loudly) and dancing (badly) two-year-old funny and cute! And, if they don’t, worrying over it isn’t going to help anyone. It’s best to save your mental energy to dig the recesses of your mind for just one more song to sing with your little one. And besides, you know your baby best so whatever their judgement is: it’s wrong. I promise you, at any given point in time whether it be in air or on land you are inherently doing what is best for your baby and therefore the rest of the passengers too.

The Golden rule…

Your kids will be great, Frequent Flyers before long!

Your kids will be great, Frequent Flyers before long!

Is that there is no golden rule. No tips will help stop a baby with colic from crying – sometimes you’ll just have to power through. Babies don’t read blogs, unfortunately.

But remember, you are on this trip for a reason. Think about the family you’ve missed so much, who will be delighted to take your little screamer off your hands for as long as you want when you land. They can’t wait to get to know them better and you can rest/eat/shower/zone out.

Think of the holiday you’ll have with the squeals of delight coming from your little one as they splash in the pool. The awesome memories you will be making and the photos you will be able to show your little one of their first big trip.

Remember, in the big scheme of things, it’s just a short(ish) flight for a lifetime of memories.

4 Comments

  1. This is brilliant! X

  2. Not just because I know and love you, this is a really fun read! And helpful, too!

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