In 2013 we caught 23 flights. In 2014 it was 19 flights. And who knows how many before that. My daughter’s first flight was at 8 months old, and my son’s first was at 5 months.
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.
Reader Comments..."I respond to every comment by direct private email. I look forward to your feedback" - Josh Bender
Thanks for sharing these very useful tips, I got it very well.
It's also a good idea to have Tylenol or advil handy just in case the kids ears start to hurt.
We've been traveling with our son since 3 mo. Mostly all domestic travel around the continental US and one flight to Europe and a longer one to Hawaii , have a flight to Costa Rica this fall (he will be almost 2 1/2) and a few others. We love the back of the plane, we try to make friends with the flight crew and those around us, bring the iPad and toys. So far, so good with some notable meltdowns but generally understanding passengers!
My son has been flying since he was 5.5 months old. I find that leaving early in the morning is easier with him bc he will sleep for 80% of the plane ride. I also bring a tablet for him to play kiddie games, or watch his favorite show. He is pretty good now that he's 2.5 yrs old. Tip for breastfeeding moms: breast feed your baby during take off, and for about 5-10 mins after. It helps so their ears don't "pop". It helped us 100% Now when we take off we give him something to snack on, or drink. It really helps. We see so many children cry bc of the pain in their ears.
We have also been flying with our son since he was 3 months, but from India to the U.S.! He is a total pro at the long haul flights. Better than us half the time! We missed a flight on our last trip was 40 hrs to India! I was in tears and he kept up the cheer saying 'it's ok mama we have friends in London we can see during the layover.' Lol he's 4! We always disliked bulkhead, but just our preference. Too noisy and busy bc it's always by the bathrooms or flight attendants center. 6 hrs is a good max on domestic or cheap airlines since you seem to be crammed in so much more. I much prefer long haul on nice planes to short trips on tiny planes!
I flew by myself w my oldest when she was 3 months old, I fly a few times a year by myself w an increasing number of children, & my youngest was on a heart monitor for the first year of life, my most recent flight was a few weeks ago (5 1/2, 3 1/2, 1 1/2 year old girls-by myself), so here's my theory of flying: starve them & then feed them anything they want, my oldest is normally only allowed 1 package of fruit snacks a day, one flight I think she ate 10, but she was happy and quiet, of course each older child has a rolling suitcase that fits easily under the seat, one has food w lots of Ziploc baggies for all our garbage, & one is entertainment (electrical & other), we don't do bulk head, the extra room made my middle more prone to try to wander or escape, they are used to long car trips, so once buckled in, they are there to stay, and because I typically fly alone and look like a roving circus, there is inevitably a grandma or mommy that takes pity on us & offers to help w a bag, car seat, double stroller or just to hold a little hand.
Wow. What a creative post ;) thanks for this tips, and im sure now that i have a solution for this biggest problem when we have a family trip. anyway thanks for this sharing informative blog.
Keep it Great ! ;)
I have to say, people think we are crazy, but we prefer red eyes. Get to the airport, have dinner, then get on the plane. The kids sleep, then we land. We make sure the day is not too taxing and a nap is scheduled, but I find they (and I) adjust to the time better.
It's fascinating how each travel family has their on travel tips but what is great and universal about this post is that it puts things to think about before booking that flight on the agenda. (For our trips, we don't get to say too much about departure and arrival times as we are looking for budget deals:) that said, even more need to be prepared with all the strategies and inflight enterainment
Smart tips, though unfortunately I could not wait till the kids were older to do our first trans-Atlantic flight, and the first couple of flights were rather nightmarish. Luckily now they travel like pros, even if we do leave late or arrive early. We just factor that in, when we travel, that we'll be jetlagged and on the first day do something low key, like a bus trip around the city.
Thank you for the notice that Ryan Air and other airlines may charge for car seats. I will be sure to check with each international carrier before flying. Great list!
I also think the trick to having a good flight with kids is to teach them that they should behave just as well on an airplane as they would at home (or in the car/on a train/in a restaurant etc..). An airplane is not an excuse to run wild in the aisles or kick the seat in front of you. We've always travelled with the kids, partly because we've always lived abroad, and the kids LOVE flying…mostly because it's the only time they get to watch the iPad and movies non-stop. :)
When my daughter was younger I would make up a packet of worksheets, coloring pages, and other printables that would keep her busy on the flight. I especially liked ones that were related to the destination. My brother gave me the tip that getting kids to complete the packet would earn them money towards souvenirs and I thought that was a good policy to adopt.
These are details that we sometimes don't even think about when booking a flight, though they can make a big difference! Flights of any length can feel long if you're unprepared. On board entertainment is key with our older kids. Thanks for the tips!
I have one kid who, like all other kids, gets bored on long flights. It really tests your creativity to keep them entertained doesn’t it? Thanks for this post! It was a very informative read, there are some great pointers in here!
love all these tips! We rec asking airport staff where kids play area is during layovers. We found a hidden one in Kuala Lumpar, and Shenzhen also has a nice one (plus helicopter strollers!!) Korean air is our favorite- flight attendants offer to hold or watch our toddler so we can actually eat! And also bring that car seat on plane for your lap baby if it's not a full flight (safer and less climbing) most airlines (united) allow you to use it in a spare seat even if you didn't purchase an extra seat.
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