Air travel with children

Nino Perdido Travel Blog

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We take our kids just about everywhere we go, and much of our travel is on planes.  We are on short plane rides (less than 4 hours) about once every two months or so.  We take long plane rides (4-15 hours) several times a year.   Here's some things we have learned:

1) Pack light.  When you are a new parent, you feel like you need every possible contraption "just in case."  We found that the pain of carrying all these gadgets more than outweighed any possible benefit from actually having these things around.  Most parents learn this the hard way the first time they travel, and most don't make the mistake again.  The first time we travelled with our first son, Gabriel, was when he was 2 months old.  He was born in Costa Rica, and we took him to the US to see his maternal grandparents.  From there, we flew to Uzbekistan (via London), where we were living.  Because we felt that we would not be able to get a lot of things in Uzbekistan, we tried to carry back as much as possible.  When I checked in, I had 5 trunks full of baby stuff, a pack-n-play, a car seat, a stroller, my computer bag,  a carry-on.  My wife had a backpack full of diapers for the trip, a carry-on full of bottles, medicines, little rattles, pacifyers, etc (you get the picture), a carry-on with her stuff, a purse, and then we had a bag of stuff we were given at the last minute by my parents at the airport in Costa Rica.  Considering the baby becomes another carry-on (you have to carry the poor kid), we had more carry-ons than we had arms.  I don't know why the airline let us on with so much stuff, but they did, and it was miserable.  The only way I got everything on was with the help of several other nice passengers. 

I definitely did not need all that stuff for a four hour flight from San Jose to Atlanta.  We thought we needed it all.  Even for our 30 hour trip from DC to Tashkent, we did not need the two-weeks worth of diapers we brought "just in case." 

2) Ok, so after I told you to pack light, now I'm going to tell you what to bring.  Strollers are really helpful for the long airport walks.  Especially for international travel where you might have to stand in line for a long time at immigration.  Most airlines (but not all) will allow you to take the stroller to the door of the plane, and will bring it to you at the door of the plane when you land.  Some will put it on the conveyer belt with your luggage.

3) Bring a few snacks for the kids even when you aren't planning to be onboard during meal times.  You can usually buy what you need at the restaurants in the airport, but flights get delayed, and you might end up sitting on a runway for an hour, and the kids get hungry.  Don't bring a family meal (you can put up with a little hunger yourself).  Just bring enough for the kids so that you can take care of their little needs.

4) For long-haul flights, if your baby is less than 9 months old, ask for the bulk head and a bassinet for your baby.  Then you will travel in comfort while your baby sleeps in front of you.  Don't buy an extra ticket for the little baby if you can get bulk head as you will not need the extra space.

5) If your baby is older than 9 months, he/she will not fit in the bassinet.  We have found that bulk head seats are actually less comfortable when we have an older infant/small child.  The armrests do not go up, and the fixed bars are at an uncomfortable position for you to hold the child if they want to sleep.  Get a regular row, even if it has less leg room, especially if both parents are traveling with the child.  That way you can lift the armrest and have a more comfortable space for everyone.

6) If you can afford it, buy the extra seat for your baby, especially once they are too old for the bassinett.  When we get on those 8 hour flights to Europe or 14 hour flights to Dubai, it makes all the difference to have a space where your child can sleep while you enjoy a movie or catch something to eat.

7) Airports are fun for kids.  Even if it's 2 am when you have to check in, the exitement of being at the airport will overcome the fatigue of our boys.  So, get there early, check in before the crowds, and make a special event out of the airport.  Gone are the days when I would estimate how little time I could plan on being at the airport.  When we check in for international flights now, we aim for 2 and a half to 3 hours before the flight.  It makes the whole check in experience much less stressful.  And it gives us plenty of time after check in to go see the planes, run back and forth down the long halls (the kids love the space), visit a play area, or catch a leisurely bite to eat (is eating with preschooler's every leisurely?)

8) Tell your kids what to expect, even if you think they are too young to understand.  Our 3 year old would be telling everyone for three weeks prior to our trip "three planes, then see grandma."   We tell our kids that the man needs to see our passport.  Then we tell them that we need to collect the luggage.  The luggage area is not the place to let kids roam free, by the way.  But we bring them into the experience of travel.  We explain what jet lag is, etc.

9) Children do very, very well with adjusting to jetlag.  In fact, their biological clocks tend to adjust at an easier rate than adults.  They can be really cranky that first day when you are keeping them up, but after that they do pretty well.  But, if you and the kids wake up at 3 am, just make the most of it.  One of my best memories of Gabriel's infancy is when we all woke up a 3 am in our hotel room in Tashkent a day after flying in from the US.  He was 2 months old, and was wide awake, as were we.  We played for hours in the bed, smiling at him, examining his little hands, etc.  Sometimes those crazy jetlagged moments are actually the most wonderful moments as a family.

10) The airline matters.  Some airlines go out of their way to help you with children.  Others just try to deal with you.   US based airlines tend to be efficient, but offer no frills.  They've got the system set up to where things are relatively easy.  Plus American travelers are a helpful and friendly bunch, and will always offer to give an extra hand to a mom (or dad) in need.  KLM is good with children, and the airport in Amsterdam has  a great little play zone.   British Airways is a nightmare that begins at check-in with the sour-faced attendants wondering why in the world you had children to begin with.  The airports in London are not made for strollers, and they are so crowded that you are always having to protect the kids from getting run over by rushing travelers.  The flight attendants don't seem to know quite what to do with the children either.  Emirates deserves the best ratings, though.  These guys have thought it all through, and execute it with mastery.  From the help getting on the plane, to the excellent meals and snacks they bring your kids, it's all great.  They have 500 movies to chose from on their Dubai-New York flight, and a whole lot of them are children's movies.  On our last 14 hour flight from Dubai, Gabriel watched Finding Nemo three times, and about 5 other children's movies and didn't sleep a wink, he was so entertained.  It was perfect to arrive in the US, and have him go straight to bed on American time already.


islandflavour says:
So nice to see a fellow wanderer with kids!
Posted on: Jun 18, 2007
sunsetrosebud says:
Great advice. I love how you see the good in everything and how much you enjoy the kids.
Posted on: May 09, 2007
Kana says:
Great tips! I have a 5-year-old, and he survived flights between the US and Japan for 3 times. Your stories are very inspiring, and make me feel like I should be more adventurous even with a kid!! Thank you for sharing your experience.
Posted on: Apr 27, 2007
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Nino Perdido
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