Flying with Kids, While Retaining Your Sanity (Part 1 of 2)

7 May 2017

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation…

A life of travel and adventure does not end just because you now have a tiny human (or a few tiny humans) to consider. However, a definite shift in mindset is required. Every child is different, and while some take to travelling without a moment’s hesitation, others require a bit more coaxing and careful management to understand what’s expected of them and what the whole point of the exercise actually is. Being out of routine, sore ears on airplanes, and jetlag are all tough as an adult, so bear in mind how tough they can be on a baby or child. Luckily, if you’re strategic from the very moment you start planning your trip, you can pre-empt the majority of possible meltdowns. Of course, gin will very often take care of any meltdowns you haven’t planned for (as this is not the 1940s, the gin is for you, not the tiny human).

In this post, I have covered the pre-flight portion of a trip, and I will get into the nitty gritty of what to pack in your hand luggage (for both babies and bigger kids), as well the actual airport/flight experience, in my next post. I tried combining them, but this is already a bit of an essay, and there’s just not enough coffee in the world to entice someone to read a 2,400-word blog post on bassinet booking and the versatility of giant muslin cloths.

Before you even start Googling holiday destinations:

Consider the appropriateness of the destination, in terms of journey time, temperature and time difference. Obviously there are times when family commitments dictate that you just can’t avoid, say, three weeks in Australia in December, but if you’re trying to plan a relaxing family holiday, starting with a nine-hour day flight that plonks everyone in a different time zone is possibly not the best start. If it’s also 35 degrees, so your baby or child can’t sleep, then you’re into ‘have you lost your mind?’ territory.

We often fly to South Africa with the children to see family, but we always opt for a night flight. Yes, you may not get the best sleep, but the fact that it’s dark and your child’s natural sleep time may just mean you skip at least a large part of 11 hours of trying your best to entertain them. If you’re going to attempt a day flight to somewhere less remote, try to stay under four hours with really young children – anything more and you’re going to be completely frazzled on both the flight there and back. We did London to New York just before our eldest turned two, but we managed to time it so it coincided with his normal nap and bed times.

Things to consider when booking:

What sort of visas/vaccinations are required for the place you’re travelling to? This may seem obvious, but you’re now organising this with kids in mind – you can’t get it wrong. As well as ensuring everyone’s passports are up to date, bear in mind that you may need additional paperwork if you’re a single parent, or you and your partner don’t have the same surname. South Africa has new rules which mean I have to get a signed affidavit from my husband each time I travel there alone with the boys. It’s a faff to organise, but much less of a faff than being sent home at border control in Johannesburg!

If you’re travelling with a baby or toddler under two, they don’t need their own seat (unless you’re desperate enough to pay for one – but they’ll generally need to sit on your lap for take-off, landing and turbulence anyway, unless they’re in an approved car seat on some airplanes). However, you definitely want the option of putting them in a bassinet or reclining toddler seat in the bulkhead for long-haul flights. This needs to be booked at the time of purchasing your tickets, as it’s first come, first served. As a serious sanity-saver, if you are travelling with a budget airline, pay whatever you have to pay to get seats together as a family – being stuck on your own with the baby while your other half kicks back for a snooze 15 rows away might not make for the most relaxing start to your holiday…

Also, how are you planning to get to the airport? If you’re going to need a pram and car seats on the other end, it might be easiest to book airport parking for your car instead of taking a cab. If you are booking a cab for any leg of your journey, make sure it’s big enough for all your luggage plus the pram!

Finally, get that travel insurance sorted the same day as your pay for your trip. Kids have real comedic skills when it comes to things like chickenpox. Even if you don’t end up having to cancel your trip last minute because your child suddenly looks like a Damien Hirst painting, you may end up having to see a rather expensive foreign doctor upon discovering a torso covered in pox when your three-year-old changes out of his pyjamas on your very first day in Havana… Or appearing on your ten-month-old’s face a week into your visit to South Africa… My kids have the BEST timing.

The dreaded packing mission:

Try not to get carried away. Unless you’re headed to somewhere really remote, there will be nappies/wipes available, and even formula/baby food pouches (do some research if you’re fussy about the kind you use). Pack just enough to get you through the first day or two (although if you do pack a bit more, it does mean you’ll have space to fill with holiday purchases on the way back!), and don’t forget the bottles and bottle-cleaning brush if applicable. You can also buy really compact travel sterilisers and tablets for one bottle/dummy at a time, instead of hunting for a sterilising bucket on the other end.

A well-stocked first aid box or bag is always a good idea, no matter where you’re going. Apart from the usual (plasters, antiseptic, painkillers, anti-nausea tablets, Imodium, rehydrating sachets, etc) make sure you have some good cream for stings/rashes and an anti-allergy syrup for babies over one (i.e. Piriton). Also, don’t forget the sun cream and after-sun (even for skiing holidays!) Fun fact, after-sun makes a soothing alternative to calamine lotion on chickenpox. You’re welcome.

When it comes to the larger bits of baby kit, try to keep it as streamlined as possible. Don’t take your beautiful new Bugaboo (it’s fiddly to dismantle and will get bashed about by the baggage handlers). Instead, pick up a light umbrella fold number (second-hand even). Our McLaren Techno XT has done the job magnificently for many trips, even for a very tall child, but there are even lighter and more compact models out there. Some even fit in the overhead bin! Remember to bring the rain cover and a good, breathable shade cover too. I have been through a few inexpensive stroller travel bags that fit in the basket underneath. and can then be unrolled to put the stroller in when you get to the door of the plane. Make sure your stroller is labelled too, but then put the check-in luggage tags on the bag. The fact that we’ve had to replace ours from time to time shows just how much abuse your stroller would get without one.

This same principle goes for your car seats. If you can’t avoid taking them with you (they can be very pricy to include with your car hire on the other end), you can either buy special car seat bags, or make sure you take one heavy-duty clear plastic bag per flight (like these Waitrose Clear Storage Bags), tucked into an outer pocket of your suitcase with a pre-filled luggage label. You can use the car seats on the way to the airport, then easily stick them in a bag securely tied with a luggage label at bag drop. If you have an older child who’s now in a booster seat, consider the Trunki Boostapak (great for schlepping their own hand luggage essentials too!), or the mifold Grab and Go Booster seat for ultimate space-saving!

One last bit of baby kit, if you really have no option of organising one on the other end, is a travel cot. Save yourself the mare of paying for an extra piece of luggage, and go for a really compact pop-up version (Koo-di Bubble Cot) that can actually fit inside a suitcase, along with a waterproof sheet and two cot-sized sheets. We used one for our youngest up until he was 18 months.

Preparing the kids too:

If you start travelling with your kids when they’re really tiny, chances are they’ll get the hang of things pretty quickly and know what to expect when you’re off on another adventure. However, most kids do really well in situations they have a bit of preparation for, and they’re less likely to get overwhelmed and uncooperative if they know what to expect. Talk them through the plan every time (even if they’re really small), and involve them as much as possible in packing their own toys and snacks for the plane.

Help them label their favourite stuffed toy with your phone number (including international dialling code!), and let them choose what sort of programs and games they want on the iPad (more on the digital nanny in the next post). Finally, details like their very own kids-sized neck pillow for the plane will make them feel like a super-grown-up jetsetter (and hopefully they’ll behave like it too!)

Now that you’ve got the big stuff sorted, stay tuned for my next blog post for all my top hand luggage, airport and in-flight tips!

C x