Tips for Travel with Kids

5th September 2013
Pól Ó Conghaile

Refusing to follow you through the metal detector. Spilling pink milk over fellow passenger’s laptops. Synchronising toilet breaks with seatbelt signs. Travelling with young children can be a challenge, to put it mildly. But a few basic preparations can help – and even turn flying into fun.

Here are my top tips for travel with kids.

Fly with frills…

If you’re travelling with kids, it makes sense to book seats (or priority boarding) in advance. If this means paying a little more, so be it. A four-month-old with popping ears is not going to understand why Daddy has to sit between the strange men in Row 27. You also avoid boarding scrums, and can occupy at least one full window section – giving some sense of having your own space.

Pack light…

If you’re going to a sun destination, there’s no excuse for taking ten bags. The golden rule is to pack what you think you’ll need, and then remove half. Why the third pair of shoes? Are you really going to get through all of those books? Everything you pack, you’re going to have to carry.

It’s worth remembering that there will be shops and supermarkets where you’re going (and often far cheaper than at home), so there’s no reason to take on the job of a Sherpa as well as that of a parent. Then there’s the buggy. Do you really need that hassle?

Pack smart…

Too many of us leave hand luggage to the last minute, grabbing the latest Marian Keyes and whatever won’t fit in the main case as we wing it out the door. With young children on board, this is asking for trouble. Hand luggage is your toddler or baby’s 8-hour survival pack.

Firstly, pack a spill-proof beaker cup. Having something to drink during take-off and landing helps little ears cope with cabin pressures. The air can be stuffy and dry on airplanes too, so it’s a good idea to drink plenty of water or juice anyway.

Wet wipes and snacks are next. Babies, of course, will need their own food and, if you aren’t breastfeeding, enough formula for the duration. Your child’s special toy or blanket is also a must, and consider bringing some books, puzzles and games along too (it’s good idea to use a flight as an excuse for a treat like a new magazine or colouring book).

The key is to break activities out on a staggered basis, and not all at once.

Prepare for the worst…

With babies and toddlers, it’s sensible to pack at least one full spare outfit. These are bouncy creatures, after all. Throw in random turbulence, and they’re never more than five seconds away from being covered in airplane food. A plastic bag is also handy to tie up soiled clothes.

Then there are toilet accidents. Murphy’s Law dictates that no matter how often a child goes to the loo before take-off, the minute she’s strapped in, that tell-tale redness will rise in her face. A little preparation will prevent oxygen masks from activating and the plane diverting to Shannon.

Finally, consider packing enough basics for both the flight and the first night of a holiday. It’s not unusual for hold luggage to go missing, after all, and Plan B won’t seem so intimidating in clean clothes.

Make the airport an adventure…

When we think of flying, most of us confine our thoughts to the skies. The reality is much less romantic – it involves getting up at 3.30am, wandering around a long-term car park, queuing to check in, queuing to pass through security and queuing to board a plane that will then join a queue for take-off.

Then you get to your destination, and do it all in reverse (with the added fun of car hire).

Whilst adults can rationalise tedious journeys, however, toddlers cannot. They live in the now, and if the now involves a two-hour wait in Gate 56A, you’re going to know about it.

Accept that you’ll be in the airport for a few hours. Schedule time for a meal. Go walkabout. Break out a new colouring book or travel game. For older kids, set a list of tasks to complete – can they spot planes from five different countries? How much is a cappuccino? What is the headline in today’s paper?

If you view the airport as a headache, it will be a headache. If you put some effort into making it entertaining for your children, you may even find it entertaining yourself.

Do the switcheroo…

If two parents are travelling with more than one child, it makes sense to do the journey in different combinations. Spend some time together. Then have one parent take the baby, and the other the toddler. Then swap kids, and so on. It helps pass time on a cooped-up flight.

Take control of tantrums…

On a scale of life’s traumatic experiences, being stuck in a tin tube at 30,000 feet with a screaming toddler must rank close to the top. Your own sanity is one thing. But when the nerves of your tut-tutting fellow passengers start to fray, then things really get interesting.

One trick with a tetchy child is to walk the plane. Babies and toddlers love watching people, they love exploring, and the momentum of strolling up and down (provided the aisle isn’t chocabloc with trolleys) can have an inherently calming effect. It’s also a change of scene for you.

If you do have a tantrum on your hands, show other passengers that you are doing your best (catch their eye, apologise for the noise). You are much more likely to gain sympathy this way. Who knows, a fellow parent may even jump in to entertain the child, saving the day.

Rest when they rest…

If you’re lucky, there may come a time when your kids fall asleep. You can’t bank on this, of course. And wishing it to happen will only cause that red vein in your forehead to burst. But if it does, you must seize the opportunity immediately and a) conk out, or b) dive into your Kindle.

Don’t do long-haul…

Long-haul travel is exhausting, dehydrating and plays havoc with body clocks – and that’s just for adults. Is it really worth putting your toddler through it for a holiday they will barely remember?

Two hours will get you to France. In less than three hours you can have your pick of Spain, Portugal and many parts of Italy. Why spend seven hours flying to Florida? Wait until your children are at least six or seven. They’ll cost exactly the same; and they’ll remember a whole lot more.