How to Fly With Kids: A British Expat’s Guide

(Photo via Travelsort)

A child lost in dreams: an ideal situation if you’re traveling with young kids. (Photo via Travelsort)

At some stage, we’ve all been the passenger in front of the child who’s decided his in-flight entertainment will be pummeling the back of your seat for seven hours with his tiny devil feet. And then there’s the baby a couple of rows down who doing its best exorcist impression. To your left, it’s those twins from The Shining! (They’re stabbing each other with forks while their parents stare regretfully into the middle-distance). All the while, you’re wondering what dreadful thing you did in a former life to deserve being trapped in a flying metal tube with these malevolent, loud creatures.

If you can, spare a thought for the children’s shattered, nervous owners. We dread flying with our young children, almost as much as you fear sitting next to them. (Alas, expat mums and dad will probably have to do more flying than most parents.)

But a few smart decisions and some forward planning can minimize the horror for parents, children and their fellow passengers. First off, fly at night if possible, and reserve your seats as soon as you can. Always choose the bulkhead. If you have a baby, this is especially helpful because many airlines—Virgin Atlantic and British Airways included—provide a limited number of cots that bolt onto the wall. You’ll have to remove junior during take off, landing and severe turbulence, but otherwise this maximizes the chance of them sleeping and you drinking wine without a curious eight month old trying to shove his sweaty fist down your throat.

If you have a toddler or a child who’s not old enough to understand that kicking the seat in front of them isn’t on, bulkhead seats are an equally smart move. Pick the ones on the far left or right and you can even create a tiny makeshift playpen. Incidentally, if you’re not flying with children and want to boost your chances of not being in the vicinity of any, avoid the bulkhead. The extra legroom just isn’t worth it when your neighbor is a three year old who thinks your lap is an extension of her coloring book.

If you’re flying domestically, a good way to placate the childless people sitting either side of you is to apologize in advance and buy them a drink. Unfortunately, it’s much trickier to play the compensation card on an international flight where the drinks are free. All you can do is say sorry a lot and hope the surrounding passengers internalize their grumbling.

Keeping the kids entertained sounds obvious, but it’s harder than it looks. They’re overexcited because they’re going on an plane, so their regular boring toys might get short shrift. Surprise them with a couple of swishy new (but small and silent) play things.

Also, bring an iPad and headphones. Suggest they start a holiday scrapbook. Before flying, introduce them to fictional characters who live in the sky. You’ll be surprised just how long a determined three-year-old is prepared to spend on a stake out.

Most airlines will allow you to bring umbrella strollers (the lighter collapsible kind) to the gate. But check your carrier’s rules on this in advance. If the flight isn’t full, some airlines will even let you bring on a car seat, which you can also pair with inexpensive, snap-on wheels for a makeshift, travel stroller for babies under six months.

For infants who prefer to be held anyway, dispense with the pushchair and wear them in a sling or carrier for as much of the flight as you can. This will also make pacing the aisles easier when you’re trying to get them to sleep.

Parents who are new to flying with babies worry a lot about ear pain. If your child is old enough, there are over-the-counter decongestants that work as a prophylactic. But always check with your doctor first. These same drugs, often used by adults to prevent in-flight earache, are not recommended for nursing mothers as they can leech into your breast milk and act, as my wonderfully blunt pediatrician put it, like baby speed. A workable alternative is to let babies nurse, bottle-feed or suck a dummy on the way up and down.

Travel with as little hand luggage as possible but remember the baby essentials: nappies, wipes, a change of clothes, food and drink and those exciting new toys I mentioned earlier. But the best accessory you can take on a long plane ride is a helper, be it a spouse, mother-in-law or even an older child. If you do have to go it alone, don’t be afraid to ask the crew for assistance.

Above all, remember that how ever painful your in flight experience, it will end and you will recover. Probably.

What’s your tip for flying with kids, especially on long haul flights? Tell us below.

Also, join @MindTheGap_BBCA on Twitter Wednesday (November 20) at 1 pm ET to discuss how to get the most out of traveling during this holiday season with guest co-host @BBC_Travel. Tweet us your thoughts, suggestions, and horror stories using hashtag #MindTheChat.

See more:
9 U.S. Vacation Destinations That Will Remind Brits of Home
Five Occasions When British Expats Should Fly Home – And Five When They Shouldn’t
Eight Reasons Brits Move to America

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • Toni Hargis

    Been long haul flying with kids for 20 years and sometimes I don’t know how I did it. Usually alone. A few more tips –
    If you’re going to give them Benadryl (often recommended to help kids sleep) test it out before the flight. It makes some kids hyper…..
    – Take more diapers and baby food than you think you’ll ever need. Not all airlines have diaper kits and sod’s law says they won’t fit your child anyway. If you are delayed more than four hours (the length of your average nappy), you could run out. Also don’t forget “explosions” which can run down your supply quickly.
    -Speaking of Explosions, always take a change of clothing on board. (Also good for drinks spillage.)
    – When on an overnight flight, tell them it’s bedtime. (Let them change into PJs if they want.) This will get them into the habit of snuggling down for the flight.
    – If you think your child will need a baby painkiller, take it on board. Flight attendants don’t carry medications and aren’t allowed to administer them. Again, chances of another parent having any to give you are usually slim.
    – Always ask for help if you need it.

  • gn

    I’ve never been able to guarantee the bulkhead seats in advance: the airline (I think it’s always been Virgin) has told me to be at the checkin desk as early as possible.

    Other advice: make sure you have at least one fully-charged iPad per child.

    • Toni Hargis

      One thing I found with the bulkhead seats is after a while they aren’t your friend. If you have a leggy four year old it is often better to be in regular seats so that you can put the arm rests up and let them perhaps put their legs or head on your lap. (You won’t get any sleep but then I never did anyway.)

  • Pumphers

    Car Seat! We took our 2 and 1 year old on a flight to Blighty and the car seat plus movies on the tablet were absolute lifesavers. Bit of a pain to carry around the airport but completely worth it. Check that your seat has the official ‘approved for flying’ sticker before buying (the airline will look for this) and check that the airlines will accept it on board but most of the big ones do.

    Another thing. BA and Virgin make you belt the kid to your lap on take off and landing. AA however just have them sitting on with no restraint whatsoever. A little concerning if you ask me.

  • maggie

    I guess i was lucky when flying with my daughter. We started flying when she was 3 weeks old and quite honestly never had problem with her.. We always paid for a seat for her which made it so much easier and when older had plenty to occupy her, games, books, colouring books and writing pads. These were the days before ipads. The only flight we were on where she didn’t have a seat was when we both were evacuated from Saudi Arabia during the first gulf war but she was very good and put up with being on my lap for the flights.