Flying long-haul with children

My kids are now 9 & 8, and are very fortunate – they’ve enjoyed 3 trips to Europe (approx 24hrs of flying each way), and a recent trip to Hawai’i (9hrs of flying each way) plus several hops to Australia and the Pacific Islands. Working in the travel industry, you pick up a few ideas about how best to prepare for these trips – guiding principles to follow if you like – so here’s some of them.

  • The best thing about travelling with young children is you often are invited to board the aircraft first, usually with the first & business class passengers, and it’s certainly nice to have a few extra minutes to get settled in. Good airlines will provide activity packs and amenity kits specifically for children, and check you are OK before the rest of the economy class passengers board.
  • It’s obvious, but try and book flights at civilised, kid-friendly times. This can be especially challenging when flying Trans-Tasman, where a lot of flights depart Christchurch between 6 and 7am or from some Pacific Islands like Samoa or Rarotonga where flights can depart around midnight. Cheapest won’t seem worthwhile when you have to wake the kids at 3am!
  • Avoid too many airport transits wherever possible, especially if you are not planning on stopping en-route. There’s nothing worse than dashing across a busy airport with tired kids to make a connection. They won’t enjoy or understand the need for security checks or queues. When flying from Christchurch to Europe, the most popular options are via Singapore (1 stop), via Sydney & Dubai (2 stops) or via Auckland & the States (2 stops) There may be a price difference of a few hundred dollars between all of them, but I’d take the Singapore (one stop) option any day when travelling with kids plus Singapore Airport is relatively uncrowded and has fantastic play spaces for families.
  • Taking a lightweight ‘umbrella’ type stroller that folds down is a great option for younger children, especially when you are transiting large airports like Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong, London etc. These will usually be taken off you at the gate and stored in the hold, then given to you when you leave the aircraft. The larger ‘buggies’ can be problematic for airlines as they don’t always fold flat and can exceed the maximum permissable weight for ‘essential’ infant luggage. It’s worth noting that Dubai Airport provides free use of airport buggies for transit passengers.
  • Consider booking an airport transit hotel to get some sleep, and recover your sanity. Singapore has an excellent airport hotel inside the terminal so there’s no need to clear immigration and customs, there’s also transit hotels inside Dubai & Tokyo airports.
  • Select your airline & type of aircraft carefully. School age kids can be easily entertained on planes when there’s a good choice of seat back on-demand entertainment (movies, TV shows and Games) that is easy to understand and operate. Most airlines now offer individual entertainment systems for each seat, but the choice of programming varies considerably. The Emirates ‘ICE’ system is possibly the most comprehensive, but Air New Zealand’s is also good and Singapore Airlines is also good on board their retro-fitted 777’s and particularly on their A380’s. Of course, taking ‘distractions’ for younger children is a must – colouring-in/sticker books etc.
  • Make your seating & meal choices. Of course, if you are travelling with infants, you should request a bassinet cot and infant meals at the time of booking, but note that airlines will usually allocate the cots to babies by age/weight – ie youngest babies (under 8 months) take priority, not those who book first! The maximum weight for probable allocation of a bassinet varies between airlines – from 11.8-14 kgs at time of travel. If an infant weighs more than this or is a between 1 and 2 yrs old, they may end up on mum’s lap – not ideal for a long-haul flight! For older children, booking child meals may be an option – they usually get served first which is a bonus – and if flying to the Pacific with Air NZ (including Honolulu!), I’d consider paying for a ‘Works’ fare – usually an extra $30-50 each way as this includes a hot meal and feature movies. Take snacks on the flights, kids don’t always want to eat at regular airline mealtimes.
  • When travelling with infants, try not to worry about your fellow passengers – it will only make your own flight harder. A good travel agent will always recommend seating their clients away from the bassinet cot positions!
  • Consider a ‘stay put’ option or two on your itinerary to slow the pace down a little – villas/apartment stays are ideal for young families – not least because they allow you to catch up on the laundry. Also, don’t plan on doing too much sightseeing first thing each morning!
  • Cruises are also ideal options when travelling with kids – the larger ships all have great kids club options staffed by professional childcare providers –   Royal Caribbean, Carnival & Princess in particular. Think of it as a ‘holiday within the holiday’ and some time out for mum & dad!