First time flyers with little ones, everything you will need to know and more…
How to prepare yourself and your kids for a long flight
What you need to know for first time flyers with your children is a very important part of your trip. Even just a little bit of planning and preparation before can go a long way.
- Talk to your children about what will happen on the trip. Try to explain in a step-by-step fashion what will happen at the airport and on the plane.
- Talk to your kids about how they should behave at the airport and on the plane. If they’re old enough, try to explain the concept of security zones and that there are some places in airports and on planes where you are not allowed to go.
- Read books about airplanes. Prepare yourself to answer questions about wing-flaps, conveyor belts, and strange noises during take-off and landing, among other things.
- Try to make it all sound fun and exciting, especially if your children are anxious about flying or going away. For example, planning what to bring in their hand-luggage can be a big thrill for children. And if you have to take more than one flight to reach your destination, try to make that sound exciting too. After all, not all children are lucky enough to fly several airplanes in one day!
Even with all the preparation in the world, your children likely won’t do what you ask of them for the entire trip, but knowing more of what to expect will make it easier for them and for you.
What to ask the airline before traveling with kids
Infants & bassinets
When traveling with small children and facing a long flight, there are several things you should ask the airline about in advance, preferably when you book your trip. Being aware of your choices and options can make your family travel a lot easier and more comfortable.
If your child is under two, they can travel sitting on your lap. This means you don’t need to pay for a seat for them, though a small fee still applies. However, holding a child on your lap for many hours can be challenging, so it’s a good idea to bring a baby carrier like a African Baby Carrier – Deluxe if your child is small enough to use one. You can get your child a seat too of course even if they’re under two, but then you will be paying close to full price.
There is also another option. If you’re going on a long flight, your child is under two and meets certain size and weight requirements, your baby may get a bassinet on board.
A bassinet is a small cot and on a long flight they are a fantastic perk: your child gets a bed to sleep in and you get your hands free. There are only a limited number of seats on the plane where a bassinet can be accommodated, so you may not always get one, but always, always ask.
Meals for kids
If you’re going on a flight where meals will be served, you should be able to order kids’ meals for your children ahead of time. Just mention it to your travel agent or the airline when you book your flight. Even some airlines that usually charge for snacks and food will sometimes provide kids’ meals for free.
Always make sure that you have access to the aisle. I cannot stress this enough. Window seats are nice and may keep kids occupied looking at the view for a while, but the aisle seat is your lifeline. It makes taking kids to the bathroom or for little strolls easier for them, for you and for other passengers.
If your entire family can’t be seated next to each other (which may happen, especially if there are more than three of you), consider asking for the additional seat, or seats, just across the aisle on the same row, rather than in front or behind.This seating arrangement often and it works well, You can see and talk to each other easier than if you’re seated on different rows, and can also easily pass items (and children!) back and forth.
Some people will tell you to definitely bring a car seat for your child to use on the plane. I’m not one of those people, but a car seat can be convenient. It does make the seat more comfortable for your child when they’re small, but carrying the car seat around can become burdensome, especially if you’re taking multiple flights.
If you want to bring a car seat, check with the airline in advance. Some airlines allow them on board and others don’t. Also, if you want to use the car seat at your destination, make sure that it’s legal (and fits into the cars) in the country you’re headed to.
Strollers & carriers
Like car seats, strollers can be convenient but also a hassle. The good thing is that your child has somewhere to sit and won’t complain about having to walk long distances through big airports. The bad thing is that if they don’t want to use the stroller, you still have to lug that stroller around. Also, you will probably have to check the stroller either at check-in or at the gate when you board the plane, and will then have to wait for it to be brought out once the plane lands.
If your child is still an infant, consider using a baby carrier instead of a stroller. Carriers are nice because they leave your hands free to haul luggage and hold tickets and passports. Take a look at African Baby Carrier – Original.
We did bring umbrella strollers a couple of times and they were good for moving fast through airports with tired or dawdling children. However, our kids rarely wanted to sit down, so the strollers mostly ended as unnecessary baggage. But if you’re sure that your child will use the stroller, then it may be worth bringing one.
As with car seats, some airlines are happy to bring strollers inside the cabin while others require you to check them at the gate. Ask ahead of time to avoid unnecessary hassles!
Finally: double-check everything
What to pack in your hand luggage when traveling with kids
Packing light is a challenge when traveling with children, especially if they still need diapers, special food and formula.
General packing strategies
- Keep credit cards, money, tickets and passports on your person, in a waist pack or neck wallet for example. This reduces the risk of forgetting them somewhere.
- Use a backpack as your carry-on. It frees up your hands and when you’re traveling with kids, you will need your hands a lot!
- If there are two adults on the trip, split the load of carry-on items in a useful way. Make one carry-on the diaper and change-of-clothes bag and the other the snack and toy bag for example. This makes it easier to stow one carry-on in the overhead compartment on board to use only when it’s needed. It also makes it easier to find what you need.
What to pack in your hand luggage
- Anti-bacterial hand wipes and gels.
- Sippy cups & juiceboxes.
- Diapers and wipes.
- Baby food, baby bottles and formula.
- A change of clothes.
- Comfort items. Bring any and all such items your child may need: blankets, stuffed animals, pacifiers and so on. If your child uses a pacifier, bring an extra one as well as a strap for securing it to your child’s clothing.
- Snacks. Granola bars, fruit rollups, crackers, pretzels, raisins… Go with snacks that your child likes, are easy to pack and not too messy to eat.
- Toys and books. Pick items that are big enough that they won’t disappear on-board, yet small enough to fit in the hand-luggage. Avoid messy and noisy toys.
What to do at the airport when traveling with kids
Depending on the circumstances, family travel time spent in airports may be only marginally less stressful than the time spent on board airplanes.
If you’re transferring to another flight you may have barely enough time to find the next gate. On the other hand, if there’s a delay or just a long scheduled wait before your next flight, you may have hours to kill in a place where there is not a lot for your children to do. Both situations can be taxing for you and your kids.
Some airports (though not enough of them) do have good play-areas and they can be invaluable if you have a lot of time to kill before or between flights.
Always keep your eyes open for a bathroom, try to take your child to the bathroom as many times as you can, even if they don’t need to go. Sometimes luck isnt always on our side and as we are about to board the plane, somehow this is the moment our little one needs to go to the bathroom.
That’s why I highly recommend keeping an eye out for bathrooms at all times, and to hustle your children into one when you do have the time and you think they may be due for a visit.
Keep an eye on your children at all times. Yes, it’s obvious advice, but there are so many ways for children to get into big trouble at an airport. There are security zones, security guards, no-enter areas, conveyor belts, electric cars, heavy luggage carts, alarmed doors… you get the idea. Keep them close to keep them safe.
Be ready for delays. With all the security measures in place today, getting around an airport even under normal circumstances can take a long time. Long lineups can form everywhere: at check in counters, at various passport, security and immigration checkpoints and at the gate. Add any other kind of delay because of volcanoes, terrorism, weather or mechanical problems and you may be in for a trip that’s a lot longer than you planned.
You can’t control these things so just come prepared and bring extra supplies of diapers, formula and snacks, just in case.
At the gate
Families with children are usually allowed to board the airplane before other passengers, so be ready for that and grab the opportunity when it’s offered!
What to do on the airplane when traveling with kids
Once you’re on the airplane, try to make everyone as comfortable as possible. Fasten the seat-belts and take off your kids’ shoes if they’ll let you. Let the children explore their surroundings: seat pockets, in-flight magazines, TV-screens, meal trays, and various buttons in the arm rest can all be exhilarating stuff for kids.
Bring out the blankets, stuffed animals and maybe a book or a game, and make use of the pillows usually provided by the airline. If you’re lucky your children will settle down once the initial excitement of being on board dies down. And if you’re really lucky, they will spend at least part of the flight asleep.
On longer flights, some airlines will dole out free snacks every now and then: crackers, sandwiches, candy, pretzels and so on. If your children are asleep or simply not hungry when snacks are being offered just stash them in your hand luggage and hand them out as needed.
Again with the bathrooms
Just like at the airport, make sure you know where the bathrooms are and try to use them before there’s an emergency. I find my children always need to go right as the plane is about to land, or once it’s landed and everyone is standing up waiting for the doors to open. Try to get them to go before that and your life will be a lot easier.
Make use of the in-flight entertainment system
Nowadays, pretty much every airline offers individual TV-screens for all passengers. No more craning your neck to watch the one movie offered like in the bad old days! Instead, you can usually choose from a menu of movies, TV-episodes, music, news and even games.
Some airlines charge for the use of headphones while others give them out for free. Bring kid-sized headphones with you if you can: the ones provided by the airlines can often be difficult for little children to wear comfortably.
When it comes to kids’ behavior on board, you can never be sure what you’re going to get. Sometimes I’ve received compliments on my kids’ behavior; other times I’ve been given the evil eye or, very rarely, an earful.
The reality is that at some point during a long flight, your children will probably squirm, be loud, kick the seat in front of them, play with their tray in a noisy fashion, whine or spill something. They’re in an unfamiliar situation and may be tired, scared, bored, uncomfortable or even feel sick, so some acting up and acting out is normal.
Of course you do your best to help them calm down. You bring out the toys and games. You explain what’s expected of them. You divert their attention. You pull out all the usual tricks you use to get your children to behave in public. And still it won’t always help and you might end up feeling stressed out because you know your children are bothering other passengers. However, in my experience, other passengers are usually quite sympathetic: sometimes I’ve even had people play with my children for part of a flight!
Sadly, even if you and your children do your very best, there may still be passengers who get annoyed with you: some people just seem to get stressed out when they’re on a plane with kids on-board. Try to take that in stride even if it can be aggravating.
Enjoy your trip!
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