Our best airport and aeroplane hacks to make flying with children an enjoyable experience
Lots of parents worry about taking toddlers and young children on a flight. You hope they will be comfortable and happy but fear they will be noisy, cry or have a tantrum and annoy people around them.
We’ve put together our top tips to make it as easy as possible for you. To read our comprehensive guide on flying with a baby or infant under two, click here.
1. The airport – make it fun
The airport is a big, noisy place for children, with long queues, long waits and people asking questions.
Try to ease the process by explaining ahead what will happen and make each part a game or a challenge. Maybe split up and take two different security lines to see who wins, sit by a window at the airport and do some plane spotting and let the children pull lighter suitcases if they are big enough.
Some airports have a play area for children, which can help pass the time. Also, keep them walking around, they’ll be sitting for long enough on the plane.
And buy them a magazine or book at the shops to take on board – which kills time in the airport and in the air.
2. Buggy/pushchair/stroller/car seat
Airlines normally let you have a pushchair and child car seat in the hold for free, check ahead to avoid extra costs.
Most airlines will let you keep your pushchair with you until you board if you prefer, then crew will put it in the hold for the flight. Buy a buggy bag, it offers some protection for the buggy, which is likely to get a bit battered. Plus, we have managed to fit extra bits like milk and nappies collected from Boots or even coats inside, to save carrying them on to the plane when you are juggling everything and trying to get the children on safely.
We also have protective bags for our car seats – for a full guide to hiring or taking car seats abroad see our article here.
3. Split your boarding
Children and families are often allowed to board first, this can be useful but also means more time on the plane for little ones so we prefer to wait until the end to get on.
Or consider this trick of ours. If there is more than one adult, one boards first with all the hand luggage, sorts the books, tablets/iPads, snacks and drinks out, then pops the bags in the overhead lockers.
The other parent stays with the children to burn off some energy at the departure gate and boards at the end of the process.
4. Where to sit on the plane
Airlines must aim to seat children close to parents or guardians, according to guidance from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Where they can’t, they should be no more than one row apart but there are no guarantees.
The safest way to be sure you are sitting together is to pay to book your seats online in advance. Otherwise, check in early, as soon as free online check-in opens (usually between four days and 24 hours before departure depending on the airline).
When deciding where to sit, look at the aircraft layout plans online and decide the best solution for your family. Many short haul flights are a 3-3 seating arrangement. As a family of four, we prefer to sit in two pairs rather than three together and one across the aisle, allowing us to concentrate on one child each. And we put each child in a window seat.
We never sit our children in aisle seats in case a passing trolley bumps them or catches their fingers or a hot drink is spilled. But also young children will be tempted to keep getting up and running off if they have easy access to the aisle!
If you are sitting one row behind another, consider putting a younger one who may be tempted to kick the seat in front, behind, so they aren’t annoying a stranger!
5. How to get extra seats for free
Ask when checking in and boarding whether the flight is full. If there is space, ask the crew if you could have a row of seats to spread out.
Another trick when booking seats if there are three across, is to book an aisle and a window seat, leaving a seat in the middle. These middle seats are usually last to be sold so if the plane isn’t full it may remain empty. If someone has booked it, they will usually gladly swap to be by the aisle or window.
6. Bulkhead seats
A bulkhead is a divider between sections of the plane such as a wall, curtain or screen.
Some people love bulkhead seats and some hate them, there are pros and cons.
Pros: Bulkhead seats can give more leg room and there is nobody to lie back in front of you. You are also among the first to be served food and drinks. You may be nearer to the toilet.
Cons: The arm rests don’t move, tray tables are often stored in them. There isn’t room under the seats for bags. So if the airline doesn’t allow hand luggage in front of you – always true during take-off and landing – you have to jump up and down a lot to fetch changing bags, activities, food and drink.
7. Entertainment options
Spend time preparing what to take on board to keep children entertained – else you may pay the price in the air when it is too late.
You can buy packs already made up such as the Keep em Quiet bags. But you know your children best and what holds their attention, such as colouring books, plain paper, activity books, pens, crayons and little games (not any with lots of little pieces you will be scrabbling under the chairs to find). I sometimes print out free word searches and colouring pages from the internet to make a little personal pack up for them.
We split the flight into sections. We don’t give our children anything when we first board, else they get engrossed and miss out on the fun bit! We encourage them to look out of the window and take in the excitement of lifting off the ground and being in the air. We just give them drinks to stop their ears from hurting.
When they start to get bored, we begin to bring out the entertainment. Ours love children’s magazines so we start with a new one and try some reading, colouring and puzzles while they’re still fresh.
Later on in the flight, when they start to get restless, we wheel out the iPads. When taking tablets, remember to check batteries are fully charged and their favourite programmes are downloaded and not just available via Wi-Fi.
And take proper children’s headphones which are designed for small heads so don’t slip off and are also much quieter to protect their ears.
Break up the screen time with a sandwich and snacks and use toilet breaks as an excuse to explore the plane and stretch legs.
8. What else to pack in hand luggage
Don’t forget drinks, snacks, sandwiches, nappies/pull ups for children still in them and comforters.
Remember wipes and proper anti-bacterial hand wipes (we get Lacura travel wipes from Aldi and stock up whenever they are selling them) or hand gel to keep hands germ free on board.
Put children in comfortable, loose-fitting clothes or pyjamas and take spare clothes, extra layers and extra socks in case they are cold.
Consider taking a blanket and an extra blanket or use the onboard one to make a canopy to shield children from the lights if they want to sleep. Just slot it into the headrest (this won’t work in a bulkhead seat).
And don’t forget a Kindle, book or tablet for you, you never know, you might get a few minutes to relax!
You can pre-order holiday essentials including nappies, baby milk, dummies etc to collect at a Boots airport store as you are allowed to take one shopping bag on board. Go to the Boots website, add items to your basket and choose the Collect in Store delivery option. Type the name of the airport in the ‘Find your nearest store’ box. Make sure you choose the ‘after security’ option and the correct terminal if there are more than one. Choose the day of the flight as the collection day. The order needs to be made at least three days before you fly.
9. How to stop those ears popping
There are various tricks to deal with the air pressure during take-off and particularly landing.
Boiled sweets used to be a favourite but they are a choking hazard for younger children.
We give ours drinks. It’s important they drink throughout the flight anyway – but we encourage ours to drink lots of water during take-off and landing, as the swallowing eases the pressure build-up in their ears.
Yawning when your child can see you so they reciprocate, also helps.
Younger children can also have milk or a dummy to help them.
10. And relax
Above all, try to relax and enjoy what you can about this shared experience, a big part of your holiday for them. If you are a nervous flyer, try your best not to show it else they will pick up on it and it will affect how they see it too now and in the future. Treat it as an adventure and a fun part of the holiday.
Fingers crossed and happy holidays!