They are now 5 and 6 years old and over the last half decade I’ve discovered the essential elements needed to make a flight with kids pleasant. Not just for me or for my kids, but also for passengers sitting around us.
So what makes the perfect flight for kids?
1. Not too long
When we first started travelling we wisely chose shorter flights and destinations closer to home. As our kids grew we experimented with longer flights until the crucial pan-Pacific journey from Asia to US was undertaken when they were 2 and 3.
For us the perfect flight doesn’t extend over 6 hours. 3 to 4 hours is just enough time for a bite to eat, a movie and a little airplane excitement. Start small, then work your way up to those long flights.
2. Departure time
The last thing I wanted to do with young children was to leave in the middle of the night, interrupting not just their sleep pattern, but also mine. For us a flight leaving mid/late afternoon works perfect. It gives us time to eat lunch at the airport, and then settle down for the flight. Hopefully the kids have spent time letting off some steam before the flight.
It’s not unusual that flights departing mid afternoon are more expensive, but in most occasions your sanity is worth so much more. You can potentially offset that extra cost by using Expedia Coupons to discount the flight cost.
Expert tip: Beware of even sensible appearing departure times like 9am. For international flights you usually have to arrive at least 2 hours in advance, and take into consideration a 1 hour drive to the airport and you’re waking up at around 5:30am. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t get me (or my kids) excited.
3. Arrival time
Just as importantly is the arrival time. Arrival just before bedtime works perfect for us, because everyone is generally tired from the flight and we can’t wait to climb into bed.
Arriving first thing in the morning is terrible. Our flight from China to Los Angeles had us arriving at 9am, which meant we had a whole day to get through before heading to bed. We didn’t make it. And it extended the jet lag effect by days.
Now even more important than the departure time is the time we arrive, especially on those long distance flights. Arriving around 5pm is perfect. It provides just enough time to get out of the airport, eat dinner and have a nice early bedtime. This is the single easiest way to get over jet lag on long flights and start your holiday refreshed.
4. On-board entertainment (electronics)
While we usually bring on board our kids’ Kindles loaded with fresh new games and movies, they are always more excited when they have their own inflight entertainment centre. Numerous movies and TV shows to choose from, games and music – what’s not to love?
5. On-board entertainment (just for kids)
Some of our favourite flights have been with airlines that offer a special kids program. On Emirates the kids received a SpongeBob Squarepants backpack filled with toys, colouring items and games.
On KLM Royal Dutch Airlines they have a holistic approach throughout the journey from the Bluey-themed family airport check-in to kid-friendly meals to entertainment. Bluey is a friendly character, a tough little KLM plane mascot that brings a smile to every child’s face.
Children 2 years and older receive a Bluey play set with a memory game, tic tac toe, pencils, custom stickers, and more. They also offer a Bluey eye mask for those children that might go to sleep. It has really taken children’s entertainment on planes to another level.
6. Kids Food
Whatever airline you are flying with, ensure you select a child’s meal (when meals are included). Even most budget airlines have a better option for kids that won’t have them cringing at the baked fish or spicy curry.
Plus when you indicate a child’s meal they are usually served first before the other passengers with regular meals. That extra 20 minutes can make all the difference to a hungry youngster.
Flights that include meals often have an abundant supply of snacks at hand. Snacks that air crew are generally more than eager to hand out to little hands. If your kids are happy so are other passengers, and so are the crew.
7. Find Space
When you travel with a baby the bulkhead seats are a lifesaver. Not only does it offer more legroom, which is great for a crawling baby, but often comes with a bassinet for sleep time.
With older children, attempt to gain extra seats at the back of the plane after take-off. There won’t be more legroom, but there are often spare seats to spread out on and catch a few z’s.
8. Friendly Staff
How much does life change with just a smile from a fellow passenger or a staff member. We love airlines that actively seek to make your life easier. Bringing snacks for the kids, taking the time to chat to them and make them feel important. Or opening up the cockpit for a sneak peek.
It takes many hands to raise a family and for just a few hours (or sometimes 16 hours) - staff can really make a difference in your child’s mood.
9. Baggage Allowances
We favour airlines that check-in children’s items for free. At times a car seat or stroller is a travel necessity, but so are the nappies and clothes, so you don’t want to have to limit your baggage for these items or fork out extra dollars for additional luggage.
Ryanair is the only airline we’ve flown with that charged extra to check-in a car seat. Some airlines, like KLM also allow you to bring car seats on board (if they fit) so your child is more secure and comfortable.
When our kids were younger we owned a Quicksmart stroller which folded down to smaller than standard carry-on size limitations and we carried it on the plane. I was so thankful for that stroller since it helped more than once with sleeping children disembarking the plane.
10. Airport Facilities
While not directly related to an airline, a child-friendly airport can be a saviour for layovers or those times when you are waiting to board. When we had a late-night layover in Doha, Qatar a large playground with a nearby rest area was the perfect combination for our kids.
Premium airport lounges can be put to good use for free food, drinks, or just a quiet place to sleep. We spent a good amount of time in an airport lounge in Istanbul, Turkey that was worth every cent so our tired kids could nap between flights.
In Schiphol, KLM offer a Junior Jet Lounge for unaccompanied children with a fun play area.
Whatever airline you chose to fly with try a little research ahead of time to make sure you can tick off as many of these items as possible. You just never know when that pack of playing cards or colouring kit handed out on the plane, or colourful airport playground, will save your sanity.