10 Top Tips for Flying with Young Kids
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
Remember the days when you could fling some clothes into a bag, make sure you'd packed your toothbrush and your passport and, you could spontaneously go on an exciting adventure, escape day-to-day and venture off somewhere far away?
The likelihood is that you might not remember, because if you've got small kids, it feels like a lifetime ago!
Your holidays are different now; now your hand-luggage isn't just filled with a great book and your favourite pair of sunglasses, it's more likely to contain a pack of baby wipes, an endless supply of snacks, a collection of Hey Duggee board books and a leaking bottle of Calpol than it is anything that might actually - God forbid! - be for you, or your personal enjoyment!
But - I'm here to show you that travelling with kids, whilst it's a whole different ball game from your pre-parent vacations, needn't be any less fun, or any more stressful.
My small crazy army (that's me, Mr Scrummie, and our two pint-sized lunatics) have just returned from six days in Gran Canaria. We booked the holiday suuuuper last-minute, because we were waiting on my daughter's renewed passport to turn up, and we gave ourselves three days to get everything ready to go and we were off.
Doing it this really way put my holiday planning and packing hacks to the test and I'm rather proud to say that they held up, and we were able to board the plane feeling pretty relaxed, prepared and ready to enjoy our break away. So, I'm going to share them with you, in the hope that you will also be able to ditch the stress and enjoy holidaying with little people in tow.
1. Write a Packing List
It sounds obvious, doesn't it? But I am always surprised by how many people rely purely on their mental capacity to remember everything they need.
If you've got a child that still fits in a buggy (do check the weight-bearing allowance of your model!) - regardless of whether or not they are 'a walker' - it's worth you bringing it with you when you fly.
Most commercial airlines will now let you take a collapsible stroller right up to the door of the plane. This means that any little legs in your party then have the option of a pushchair seat around the airport, at no extra hassle to you. You don't have to 'wear' or carry infants, and you don't have to wrangle a tired child whose "knees feel a bit bendy today" or anything else. Of course, it also doubles up as a pint-sized person snooze-chair too.
You don't have to check it as hold baggage, you'll be given a tag for it, and it can stay with you, literally, until you find your seats on the plane; and when you come to disembark, it'll be at luggage collection. Trust me, it's a game changer.
We have a cheap and cheerful stroller that, I think, was from Argos. It does the job, it folds easily and, because it's not a full Mamas and Papas-style pushchair, it wouldn't matter if the airline lost it, it got broken etc. etc.
By my own admission, I am an over-packer. I pack for every possible eventuality and someone always makes a snide remark along the lines of "Oh, we'll never need that!" BUT - when (and as a parent, let's face it, it is probably 'when' and not 'if') that same person gets the squits/vomits on a waiter/complains of their shoes rubbing, they are suddenly very grateful that Mummy Scrummie packed the rehydration sachets/sick bags/blister plasters...
So, the moral of the story here is: pack a first-aid kit and some basic medications. Especially if you're going abroad and especially, especially if you're going somewhere that you're going to be relying on your GCSE grasp of the language. Remember the bit in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason where she tries to explain to the Austrian chemist that she needs a pregnancy test?
Well, unless you fancy doing the same bartering but for teething granules, I recommend packing at least (both adult and kiddie versions of) paracetamol, something for upset tummies, and some antihistamines.
In the same vein, if you or your children have allergies, make sure you know how to say so in the language of the country you're visiting; you can order foreign travel allergy cards from Allergy UK, or - as I did visiting Spanish-speaking Gran Canaria - ask a friend to translate "My son is allergic to dairy" for you - providing you trust that friend!!
4. Keeping Children Happy on the Flight
We've all been there: you're on a flight and suddenly a newborn baby decides that, just to make everyone's life a little more exciting, it's going to scream its lungs out for the next four hours.
In the years BC (Before Children), you might've looked at the parents of said screaming bundle and muttered to yourself "Why would you bring a baby on a flight?!"; post-kids, you've probably given the three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games and mumbled something about "solidarity" and "we've all been there, mate".
But there are ways to avoid the screaming heebie-jeebies (on the part of you and the kids).
On-Board Entertainment: If you're flying long-haul, there is a strong chance that you'll have on-board entertainment, in the form of a TV screen in the seat in front of you.
Now, I realise that everyone has differing opinions when it comes to healthy screen time, but I would argue that 45,000 feet up in the air, is not the time to be scrupulous about letting your small person watch "Encanto".
Giving them something to focus on, and enjoy, will make everyone's lives a little easier for that period of time. That's not to say that you have to allow them to sit vegetative, glued to the screen, but watching with them, talking to them about it, discussing it, will be a much easier way to pass the time than by reading "That's Not My Cow" 135 times.
If your plane won't have at seat on-board entertainment, I recommend using the Kids Kindle Fire tablets. They come ready-fitted with a bash-proof kiddie case and you have full control over what your child has access to viewing.
I find that colouring books (and crayons), sticker books and "Where's Wally" type books also work really well.
Little ears, and big ears for that matter, often do not enjoy flying, so: to ease any discomfort due to altitude and air-pressure, make sure you have a snack for your small person, or milk for babies, ready for take-off and landing: the chewing/sucking helps relieve pressure in the inner ear, and you'll find your child is much more comfortable!
Similarly, remember to pack an empty water bottle/sippy cup for your child in your hand luggage; you won't be able to take a filled bottle through security (different rules apply for baby milk/formulas, so do check with your airline) but you can fill it up once you're into Departures, and you can ask for it to be refilled once you're on the plane too.
(Taking a cup or bottle that your child is familiar with and knows how to use is important, I've had to ask for a frappe cup from Starbucks before now, and both Littlest and I have just ended up soaked.)
Talk About It
Young children are, by nature, curious: so remember to talk to them about what is going on; especially if they are feeling anxious or it's their first time flying.
Role-playing a plane situation, or playing with toy planes in the days before you fly can be helpful for young children, but I've found that just talking about what is going on actually when you fly, can really help to reassure children that they are safe on-board.
"Now the plane is going to speed up along the runway. We need to go fast so that we can get into the air. What do you think we might be able to see from the air?"
"This is called turbulence; it's a bit like being in the car on a bumpy ride, isn't it?"
"The pilot is going to land the plane in a moment. There might be a bump when we land on the ground; can you be the first person to say 'bump' when you feel us land?"
The Window Seat
As much as you might want to snap an Instagrammable shot of the sun-setting above the clouds, when you're flying with your children, it's not the time: that window seat belongs to your child.
Seating your small person away from the aisle means that they have a view to look at and they are safely out of grabbing reach of the hot food/drinks trolley.
Layers and Blankets
When dressing children for a flight; you need to think 'layers'. Wearing easy to add/remove layers of clothing will mean quicker processing when it comes to security and you'll be better able to regulate their temperature on board.
I really recommend bringing a small blanket in your hand-luggage (if your airline doesn't already provide one) as it can get chilly up in the air and little people don't always enjoy air-con.
5. A Change of Clothes
A super simple one, but a really important one to remember, unless you want to find yourself walking through the Arrivals lounge of your holiday destination smeared with the contents of leaking nappy or bearing the marks of chocolate-covered fingers. Pack a simple change of clothes: for children and adults.
Remember what kind of runway you're headed for, it doesn't need to be high fashion, but having a clean t-shirt and a pair of leggings in your bag is never a bad idea when you're a parent!
6. Stand Out
At Baggage Claim, one black suitcase, or one Argos pushchair, can look much like another and so, to make your life easier, make sure that your luggage stands out. If you don't have particularly garish kit, the best way I've found to do this is by tying on a distinctive scarf or ribbon.
For years now, we have used the same 1990s, Laura Ashley-esque, ivy-patterned yellow ribbon that I initially bought to tie around my daughter's first birthday cake, to mark out our suitcases. Looking for the vibrant ribbon tied through the handles of our cases makes identifying our stuff soooo much easier, quicker and as an added bonus, even Little Miss (4) gets involved with spotting our cases.
N.B. Do remember that whilst many suitcases look alike, so do 10 of the same design of Elsa backpack or ladybird Trunki; make your stuff very clearly yours, you'll thank me for it later!
7. Find Out What the Perks Are
Most airlines offer some form of perk for parents travelling with young children (usually kids aged 5 and under) - this might be anything from priority boarding, to a boarding pass for your small person's teddy bear (yep, that's a thing, if you're flying Lufthansa), to a free kids' activity pack.
All airlines should offer babies flying with them a bassinet and some will also provide you with extra baby supplies (nappies, wipes, bottles etc.) - Emirates can even designate you a "flying nanny", a Norland-trained flight attendant, to help you wrangle your pint-sized people whilst on-board!
Do your research and see what is available to you.
8. Choose a Flight Time That Works for You
Picking a flight-time of day (or night) that fits in well with your daily family routine can make the world of difference when it comes to enjoying the experience.
Early morning flights are usually less crowded than those in the middle of day, so you may have more space to play with; opting for an over-night flight might mean that your children will sleep through the journey.
Choose an option that works well for you and your child.
9. Sitting Pretty
It's easy to forget, but remember to book seats in which your family can all sit together, unless you want to risk a Home Alone-type situation! Some airlines will charge you extra to do this, so bear this in mind and try, where you can, to book early.
It's also worth thinking about where you sit, whilst different parts of the plane are supposedly better or worse for turbulence and passenger comfort, parental comfort dictates that it's sensible to be near the loos when you have little people and their little bladders with you.
10. Adopt Realistic Expectations
My final tip is to have realistic expectations of your holiday, and no, that doesn't mean: embrace the mantra "I am destined to have a miserable time", what I mean by that is be realistic and enjoy what your holiday is going to be.
For example, if you're headed to a warm-weather destination, you're unlikely to have hours of undisturbed sun-lounging by the pool, you're going to spend the majority of your time in the Splash Zone policing your tiny human and hoping their swim nappy holds all it needs to. Unless you employ on-vacation child-care, you're not going to be propping up the cocktail bar of your hotel into the wee hours, you're going to be hiding in the bathroom with your spouse, playing Gin Rummy, to the soundscape of your child's lullaby playlist.
But: enjoy it; enjoy that time, relish splashing with your kids, being with your other half away from your screens, and work, and all the other baggage of your daily life at home. Holidaying with kids isn't a time for rest and recuperation, because, essentially, you're still parenting, just in a different place, but enjoy that place, enjoy that time, remind yourself that it's okay if they have meltdowns, it's okay if they need an early night; you won't manage to see or do everything there is to sample, and there is no such thing as "the perfect holiday", enjoy the little things, have an experience; they're only this age once.