Travelling with children

We have flown often with our children – our oldest child was only a week old when he made his first trip. Even on long international flights, our experience has been very good – the kids loved it, cabin crew were excellent and it was a fun part of the holiday. Here are some things we have found useful ourselves, and from watching other travellers.

Babies are easy

Don’t be scared about travelling with an infant – it is probably easier than travelling with older children. Staff and fellow passengers are usually very willing to help. Even though infants are supposed to travel on a parent’s lap, see if you can arrange an empty seat next to you during check-in. Check if you can take your car seat on board for them to be seated in. Breastfeeding simplifies travel, but if you are packing bottles, check security restrictions on liquids.

Calm creates calm, stir creates stir

Children pick up on your mood. If you are stressed by the preparations to travel, the packing and checking in, then your child will pick up on your emotions but probably not know why you are tense or upset. They may misinterpret it as you being upset with them, or that flying is a scary, dangerous thing. When travelling with children, allow the extra time you need to make the lead-up to the flight and the trip to the airport more relaxed. Failing that, at least act calm – even if you are not!

Start the holiday even before you get there

Make the travelling part of the holiday fun, not an ordeal to be endured. Maybe you travel often for business and you find airports as exciting as a head cold, but for your kids, airports can be marvellous places and aeroplanes a real adventure. Sow expectations with an excited glint in your eye about what they will see and do at the airport – to look out for the different planes, the different shops, the flight crews, the sparrows in the cafeteria! Allow time to visit the observation deck, to ride on the escalators, the play areas and some of the shops. Point out things that may seem so familiar to you and yet will be quite novel to your children – the luggage ‘dolly trains’ and conveyor belts, the announcements in foreign languages, the travelators and all the activities you can see happening around the planes.

The flight itself should be a real adventure. Point out things on the seats, the overhead panel – “You can push that one but not that one”, and in the seat pockets. Seats away from the aisle are best for children – they are easier to restrain and less likely to be bumped by service carts, but also there may be a view out the window. And make a fuss over the meals that get served (with some airlines, your acting skills might be needed here).

Going up and coming down

Tell them to expect an exciting feeling of being pushed back at take-off. It’s fun for adults, especially if we are jaded frequent flyers, to experience flying afresh in the company of a child. I think we should all yell, “Wooooowwww!” as the plane lifts off!

Landing can be distressing for children as it may cause ear discomfort, and the motion of the plane may become unpleasant. Reassuring them beforehand can reduce the anxiety. There are various ways of equalizing their ears – chewing gum, sucking on a sweet, dummy or bottle, gently blowing their nose, yawning etc. If your child cries, that will probably clear their ears anyway. If they have a head cold, it may be more unpleasant for them. A menthol lozenge or eucalyptus on a tissue can really help – cabin crew often have them available.

Appropriate warnings

“Don’t fiddle with buttons or the wings will fall off” might be going a bit far, but do warn your children there are dangers on planes, such as the galleys and sudden turbulence. Prepare your children – “Once you are in the plane, you have to stay in the seat you are told to sit in with your seatbelt on. You can walk around, but only when the crew says you can, and when I say you can.” Let them know that the airport staff, cabin crew and especially the pilot have to be obeyed very carefully. Airports and planes may be the first time your children have ever encountered people with legal authority – a little awe is appropriate. Children can handle rules!

Stretch legs, but don’t stretch patience

Your children are wonderful. Really delightful. But a grumpy, jetlagged and hung-over fellow-traveller, on the last leg of a long series of flights, may not know that. Your children don’t need to behave like they are at a funeral, but do be aware that noisy, boisterous children can really upset other passengers.

  • It is fine for children to make an occasional stroll down the length of the plane, but limit them to just a few jaunts. If you don’t have a window seat, they will enjoy looking out the window on the emergency exit.
  • It is always wise to visit the loos before boarding. Sometimes they will have to squeeze past other seated passengers to get to the toilet, but if it is the third time in an hour, they are probably bored rather than bursting.
  • The person behind you might love playing peek-a-boo with your toddler, but may not wish to be so entertained for the entire trip to Tokyo.

In general, you will find other passengers helpful and tolerant of children, but consideration and moderation are the key.

What might you need?

tablet-airplaneOnce our family were already in the departure lounge before a 12-hour flight when we discovered our son had packed all his asthma medication into his checked-through suitcase. Groan! Obliging security guards helped us out that time, but it could have been very awkward. Take everything you might need in your carry-on bag. And remember, airports get fogged in, strikes happen, bags vanish – these don’t happen often, but be prepared to be separated from your main luggage for longer than you might expect.

As well as the medications, nappies, wipes, and special dietary needs, you might want to pack treats, toys and distractions. Don’t bring them out all at once so that they are bored with them before you have even taken off, but space them out over the journey.

  • Books for reading, colouring-in and doing puzzles
  • Snacks – which will have to be disposed of as you enter a new country
  • Electronic hand games – noise turned down, and not during take-off or landing
  • Sipper bottle – fill it after you have been through security
  • A new or favourite toy
  • Warm clothes and a blanket – planes can be chilly. “Airline blankets are like tea towels!”, said one frequent flyer.
  • Ask the cabin crew – they will probably have a supply of things to entertain children

Stay awake

You have my envy if you are one of those people that can snooze away the hours on a long flight. I have other emotions for you if you are on the same flight as me and you are sleeping while your child is running up and down the aisles, annoying passengers and crew. If you have a mobile child, you need to be vigilant, so no sleeping pills and go easy on the booze. On long-haul flights you might be able to take turn-about with another caregiver to get some rest.

Ease their nerves

Some children (and adults!) are fearful about flying. Safety announcements and videos, changes in engine pitch and other noises, turbulence, the feeling in their ears as you come in to land and just the knowledge that you are so high up can all be a little disturbing, especially if they are already agitated or tired.

  • Distraction – pointing out things, engaging them in a game or a story.
  • Anticipation – if you are familiar with flying, you can let them know that things they may see, hear and feel are very normal. Tell them that wing tips are meant to flex up and down, that the wheels always make a noise as they come up, that their ears will feel funny, and that planes often rock and wobble.
  • Sympathy – some parents are embarrassed by their children’s distress and chide them for it. But their emotion is real, even if the basis for it is not. Sympathise as you reassure them.


About Author

John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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