Read: Irish Examiner | The A-Z of flying with kids
I’ve distilled more than ten years of air travel (mostly long haul) with my smallies into an A-Z of flying with kids for the Irish Examiner. Always trying, always failing. Always trying to fail better.
An edited version of this feature was first published in the Irish Examiner on 27 June 2019.
From A – what to do when you get to the airport – through the practicalities of P (packing for kids) and best ways of catching those all important Zs on a long haul flight, Caroline Hennessy gives you 26 top tips for making flying fun this summer.
Having a Kiwi partner comes with strings attached, and those strings are directly connected to New Zealand. Every couple of years, we go there to spend time with his family. As a result, I’ve travelled with our two girls – 10-year-old Little Missy and the Small Girl, who is 7 – at all ages, from breastfeeding babies to self-propelled tweens, on journeys that involve from three to five flights over 40+ hours. Here are a few tips that I’ve picked up.
A – Get to the airport early so that you have time to eat. Otherwise it’s sods law: if there’s food provided on the flight, kids have no interest in eating it, if there’s no food, then they’ll be ravenous.
B – Baby slings are the ultimate hands-free-kit for babies. Airports are much easier to maneuver when the littlest family member is able to see and interact with the world around.
C – Most airlines now take car seats for free but they’re an awkward bit of luggage to drag around. If your kids are old enough for booster seats, an alternative is the Trunki BoostApak, a seat that turns into a backpack, with enough space for some light clothes and books. We inherited a pair from a friend, the girls fell in love with their new seats and were very happy to carry the packs while travelling. Do make sure to check and remove all the pots of slime that Little Missy may have packed before you get to airport security.
D – If you are travelling with your kids on your own – especially if you don’t have the same surname – make sure you have the correct documentation. EU regulations state that you “may need an extra (official) document signed by their parents, second parent or legal guardian(s) authorising them to travel.” While each country has different requirements, airlines can have their own regulations so check before you travel.
E – Once you get over paying full price for children over 2 years (and, believe me, it hurts!), then enjoy all the extra elbow room. Space is always at a premium on long haul flights so having an entire middle four-seat row, just for your own family, feels like pure luxury.
F – When checking in, take the opportunity to confirm any food choices: there’s nothing worse than watching the kids’ meals arrive, only to realise that they’ve forgotten your own little darling. Better still, if the adults pick special meals – Indian vegetarian is my choice on long haul flights – it ensures the entire family gets fed and settled earlier.
G – Good ages to travel with kids? One of the best times is while they’re babies, especially if they’re being breastfed: there’s food on tap, no worries about sterilising bottles and, if you feed during take off and landing, the swallowing motion helps to equalise the pressure in their ears.
H – If your kids are going use a tablet or other handheld device, pack headphones to save your own and everyone else’s sanity.
I – A key thing when travelling with children is informing them about what’s happening. When the girls were small, books really helped to prepare them for all the new experiences: Richard Scarry’s A Day at the Airport and Everything Goes: In The Air by Brian Biggs were two favourites.
J – Travel journals can be great if your kids are into keeping records. Get one with lots of prompts and a hard cover so that they can write or draw even if they don’t have a surface to lean on.
K – Ignore the killjoys who persist in telling you nightmare stories about the babies who screamed for hours on a plane or the toddler who kept running around. Babies are always going to scream – that’s why other passengers have headphones – and toddlers need to walk, just make sure that they don’t take off alone. Feel the fear and book the trip anyway!
L – Kids love roll along luggage but there will be times when it’s just not possible for them to wheel things around, or they may be asleep and you have to carry them plus the luggage. Get small wheely cases that double as a backpack so you’re not asking a sleepy child to drag along a suitcase.
M – Our girls have always been fascinated with maps so we like to plot out the trip in an atlas beforehand. On long haul flights, show them the flight tracker on their own screens so that they can watch the map in real time.
N – We resisted neck pillows for many years until a very helpful uncle bought a pair of cute grey squishy ones for the girls and now they won’t travel without them. Carabiner rings are useful to attach them to the outside of the kids’ luggage.
O – There’s always going to be an “Oh, shoot!” – or other, not so polite, words to that effect – moment on a trip. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that you really do love your family, even if they’re driving you up the wall at that particular moment, and relax.
P – When we travel to New Zealand, we spend the most of a weekend in transit – that means packing for the flights in a similar manner: the girls bring cosy pajamas for the (theoretically) night time flights as it’s always freezing, along with a change of clothes, spare leggings for emergencies and flip flops for the plane. You’ll also need spare clothes for yourself – with kids, there’s always a good chance that someone will vomit on you.
Q – Queues are a fact of life when you’re travelling, but not all of you need to stand in line. Divide and conquer, the adults taking it in turns to do a scavenger hunt (eg three toilets, two cafes, one playground) or anything to keep the kids moving so that they’re delighted to sit down when they eventually get to the plane.
R – No matter what life is like at home, there is no routine when travelling. Meals are skipped and sleep happens when least expected – we once struggled off the plane in NZ carrying a dead-to-the-world toddler who slept through passport control, luggage collection and customs. Just know that you need to go with the flow.
S – Never travel without snacks for kids – and grumpy parents. On long haul flights, when they won’t touch their trays of food, gingernut biscuits can save the day, and are easy for travel-sick tummies to digest. Dried fruit and nuts, rice cakes, crackers are always good, and a bar of plain dark chocolate is an invaluable morale booster before you disembark.
T – It’s good to have something familiar on the plane so get the children to choose one small soft toy / book for their carry on – this can take weeks to figure out! – then allow space for for a few age-appropriate additions. Just before we leave, I whisk their bags away, remove the extraneous Mr Potato Heads and Shopkins and pack some activity-based surprises and a new book instead. Small items like crayons, colouring pencils, notebooks, sticker / colouring activity books, pipe cleaners, sparkly bracelets and small cars are all good.
U – Travel card games such as UNO and Top Trumps are easy to pack, don’t have any fiddly bits to lose and will keep all ages entertained while waiting around.
V – Make sure, if you have any stopovers planned, that you know about Visa requirements in advance. The middle of the night with sleepy kids is not the best time to get this kind of thing sorted.
W – Pack a lightweight reusable water bottle for each child, making sure to drain the bottles before security, refilling them at water fountains in departures lounges. Twist and sip bottles also have the advantage of helping regulate ear pressure at take off and landing.
X – Make sure you warn kids that their precious possessions will have to be handed over to the black maw of the security X-ray machine. The Small Girl, on her first plane trip, was inconsolable that she had to be temporarily parted from Monkey. Fortunately, both Monkey and the Small Girl were quickly reunited.
Y – When you’re getting children dressed for travelling, pick yellow or the brightest colours that you can find. It makes them so much easier to find them at airports.
Z – Grab zzz-eds whenever you can. I love reading about travellers who have a structured sleeping regime, involving noise-cancelling headphones and padded sleep masks. When you travel with kids, you’re guaranteed – just as you pass out – that they’ll need to use the toilet / want you to change the channel on their in-flight entertainment / get sick all over themselves (and you). Grit your teeth, deal with the issue patiently, and dream of getting to the other end and lying down flat on a big bed. It’s always worth it.
Eventually. Until you have to turn around and come back home, that is.
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