Air Travel with Kids: A flight attendant’s guide

by | Nov 12, 2018 | Travel

There’s something truly special about the anticipation of a holiday: dreams of gleaming white sand or snowy mountains, cocktails with little umbrellas, getting lost on cobblestone streets in a medieval village…

But, let’s face it, that’s travelling without kids.  Once you have a family, there’s a fair amount of trepidation that balances the thrill of travel.  Will the hotel have food your kids will eat, will the swim nappy have a blowout in the resort pool, will you be plagued by meltdowns if every theme park ride has a 73-hour-wait?

Well, I can’t help with everything, but as a former flight attendant and current mum I can give you some advice on how to make the airtravel part of the holiday a little easier.

1. Before you fly

Practice flying.  My kids LOVE playing ‘planes’ and it prepared them for what would happen when we travelled and the rules for flying. This was especially important for my special needs kiddo who feels much more secure when she understands a situation in advance.   

We practiced lining up for security checks, getting our bags ready, walking through the scanner, handing over passports and boarding passes, the safety demo, getting our food, staying in seats when the seatbelt sign was on, thinking about other passengers comfort etc.  This clearly won’t be that helpful for babies, but it’s great for toddlers and older kids.

For the babies, contact the airline (or use their website) to order a bassinet and ensure you pack any special food/formula/bottles you’ll need for the flight.  Also pack double the number of nappies you would normally need. This is because the air pressure on a plane means there’s a lot more pooping, and secondly, if your flight is delayed, you’ll be glad you were prepared!

I also highly recommend a great baby/toddler carrier. Littles need to be close in times of stress and something that saves your back and gives you extra hands for baggage is always good.  My 4 year old doesn’t go in the Tula Toddler anymore UNLESS we’re doing lots of plane travel. Running between terminals in LAX so you don’t miss your connection is almost impossible if you can’t throw a slow kid on your back.

2. In-cabin essentials

I cannot stress this enough – pack a change of clothes, for your kids AND for you.  There’s nothing worse that having to sit on a plane for 10 hours while vomit congeals on your shirt.  Kids who otherwise have great constitutions can get airsick, or just spill their spaghetti all over themselves and knock your Bloody Mary all over you.

Depending on the airline, it can also be really cold, or too warm on the plane, so make sure you pack blankets/hoodies/t-shirts and socks to keep everyone comfortable. Having spare clothes is also handy in case the airline loses your luggage and you’re stuck for a few days with nothing to wear.

Which brings me to the obvious one – pack anything you MUST have for your journey in your in-cabin bags.  Medication, toys your kids can’t sleep without etc., should never leave your sight. Bags get lost ALL THE TIME.

On our last REALLY long trip (28 hours of travel door to door) I bought headphones that were like a soft headband with character colours – fox, unicorn etc.  I highly recommend them, they filter out the loud in-cabin noise, are easy to sleep in, and double as an eye mask. In fact, I just bought myself an adult pair! But, even if you don’t buy these, I do suggest BYO headphones so you’ll know they fit, work, and you don’t have to pay for them on the plane.

3. Toys and Electronics

As explained above, make sure you pack the essential sleep/lovey/favourite toys. I also recommend small action figures or dolls that can be played with on airline trays.  On long trips we wrap a couple of small surprise toys for mid-flight/when things get dicey – it’s fun for the kids and will usually give you a little extra peace. For babies, teethers, quiet rattles, and squishy books are all good choices.

I’m also a big fan of sticker books (as pencils/crayons often get lost and roll under seats), paint with water books (particularly the ‘Water Wow’ ones for little kids), and activity books for older kids (mine love the National Geographic ones particularly – they’re more expensive, but worth it).

If you’re comfortable with screens, then I also recommend a tablet for long flights.  The back of seat TVs are great, but I find the games often too complicated for a child under 8, and there are relatively few choices for small children as far as TV and movies go (certainly not enough to cover a 14-hour-flight).  Downloading a couple of new apps, and a favourite TV show to a tablet is never a bad idea.

4. Food

As we all know, you can order kids’ meals on most international flights, and if your child likes standard ‘healthy versions’ of kids’ food they’ll be okay.  My children LOATHE the kids’ meals on planes. There’s no choice and it often looks like a beige nightmare. Take our last flight from the US to Australia. For breakfast I had a choice of pancakes or scrambled eggs and sausage, my kids were given some sort of brownish gooey stewed fruit with a moist granola on top.  I’ve met Labradors that would have turned up their noses at it. So, my kids ate my pancakes and I had an apple.

The lesson to learn here is twofold.  One, decide if you really want a kid’s meal and then check with your airline to make sure you can have your preference.  Two, pack LOTS of extra food – healthy snacks, fruit, muesli/granola bars, protein balls, crackers etc. (see our RECIPES section for some good snack ideas). You can also buy a meal in the airport just before boarding so they can eat that on the plane and avoid the lukewarm hotdogs and green beans.

Another consideration is the changes in air pressure – they can wreak havoc on little ears.  To avoid pain and screaming on take off and landing bring something for children to suck (hard candy, lollipops etc.) and a dummy/pacifier/bottle/boob for babies.

5. Other passengers

You see lots of articles with suggestions like handing out gifts to the passengers around you on a long flight, with apologies for having children. You’re not going to get that suggestion here.  Seriously, if you’re in economy, then all bets are off. If people desperately need peace and quiet, then they need to find a way to fly Business Class.

Having said that, be a decent person and pay attention to your kids – try to accommodate their needs, take them for walks around the cabin when they’re restless, snuggle your baby or pace up and down with them (I HIGHLY recommend a good baby carrier for this), provide lots of distractions, and don’t fill them full of sugar (I once saw a mum feed her 18 month old a bag of lolly snakes and then get angry when the baby wouldn’t sleep, and a group of parents putting cola in baby bottles!).

But long flights are AWFUL for everyone; don’t be surprised or embarrassed if your child cries.  It’s a very normal reaction to a being cooped up in a metal tube that smells weird, looks different to anything you’re used to, and you can’t sleep even though you’re exhausted. All of your normal choices have been stolen and it hurts your ears when the plane takes off and lands. 

Be compassionate towards your kids and expect that of the adults around them.  Don’t let your kids kick people’s seats and throw food, but don’t take any nonsense from passengers who don’t like children having appropriate feelings and actions.

They say getting there is half the fun, and while I’m not sure that’s true, hopefully these tips will make for a less stressful journey. And in the end, the wine is free on an international flight, and that always makes whiny kids more tolerable.

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