How to fly long haul with a toddler

A few weeks ago my wife and I strapped our 22-month-old daughter into a car seat and made our way to Heathrow for a flight to Sydney. Yes, Sydney in Australia. Just a brief 25 hours away. The whole experience made me think that perhaps there should be a designated flight primarily for children and guardians/suffering parents. It could be called ‘air creche’ or Flight Club.

Now, having made it home, I am here to offer a few tips and suggestions for flying long haul with a toddler. (Please note that all children are different, as are all airlines and cabin crew, so I am only able to impart my wisdom from the two flights we took with our daughter on Qantas).

1. Double-check the visa requirements when you book your flights

As if getting our baggage weighed wasn’t stressful enough (cue the shaming HEAVY label being elasticised to the handle), the check in staff then asked for our daughter’s Australian visa. We didn’t have one. It hadn’t crossed our minds because she is under two and is not looking for a job. However, it seems that every human traveling to certain countries, on certain passports, needs a visa. Luckily, as we were flying with an Australian airline, we were able to sort it out there and then but if we’d been with another carrier, our daughter would not have been allowed to fly.

Load up the iPad with your favourite films, cartoons and videos – anything that sends your child into a quiet trance

2. Reserve a bassinet

If your child is small enough to fit in a bassinet, do everything you can to secure one. Your life in the air will be so much more pleasant if you have somewhere to put them. Bassinets are allocated by age, so that the youngest child on the flight gets priority. Also request a toddler meal, this is not a given.

3. Dress appropriately

It is highly likely that your child will spill / dribble / throw / puke / drop / pour something sticky and unpleasant all over you at some point during the flight, so pack spare clothes for yourself as well as for them.  Btw, you’re misguided if you think that turning up at check in looking like a pair of Ralph Lauren models will score you an upgrade; your screaming infant riding on your luggage will scupper any chance of that.

4. Pack for every eventuality

It’s surprising how much you can take on the flight as carry-on and your toddler is allowed hand luggage top (damn right given the cost of the seat etc).

With this in mind, ensure that you stuff the largest small bag you have (I’d recommend a large LL Bean zip top tote, which makes a great footrest when full and can be personalised with your child’s name) with toys, books, nappies, crayons, wipes, bottles, bibs, spare clothes, medicine (cough medicine is helpful for promoting drowsiness), creams, and teddies.

You are also allowed to take those baby food sachets on board but choose flavours you like as certain (bored?) security staff will make you taste each one in front of them. My wife did not give Ella’s Fish Pie a particularly glowing view. “Foul”, was her description of it.


poppy5. Use shock tactics

Keep some new toys/ books/ games/ distractions a secret until you get on the plane and then stagger their appearance. They don’t have to be flash or impressive, just as long as they haven’t been seen before. Children’s party organisers Sharky & George provide tailor made travel packs for kids, which include destination and age relevant books, games and toys.

6. Employ an iNanny

Load up the iPad with your favourite films, cartoons and videos – anything that sends your child into a quiet trance (for us Peppa Pig does the trick).  TOP TIP: video downloader app allows you to record from websites such as YouTube, allowing you to create an hour-long compilation of one show, rather than having to start new ones every time an episode ends (excruciating when they are just 5 minutes long).

7. Time your departure

Unless you have a private jet, you’re not going to be able to choose exactly when you plane takes off but if you can get on a flight which leaves close to your little ones bedtime, everything will be a lot easier. Bear in mind, however, that it takes about an hour for the plane to level out/you to get the bassinet down/baby fed and settled. On our return flight (Dubai to London leg), having slept a bit in the first half, our daughter was rather angry (to put it mildly) that we weren’t putting her bed down as we sat on the runway for two hours “waiting for paperwork”… agony.

8. Make friends in high places

Smile at all the cabin crew and neighbouring passengers when boarding and generally be as charming as you can. Put your bubbling stress/ anxiety/ fear to one side as you will need these people on side when junior gets bored of the entertainment you’ve brought for them. You will suss out your neighbours’ code language pretty quickly: he’s a chatterbox, isn’t he?” = please shut him up; “very active little lady” = stop letting her run up the aisle.  Smile and nod, just smile and nod.

9. Get your bearings

The loos with changing tables (on Qantas) are on the outside of the corridor; no one seems to ever go to the ones at the back of the plane. Holding a screaming, stinking infant will grant you a queue pass in most scenarios.

10. Make memoriesimage

Keep reminding yourself that nothing lasts forever (asides the DFS sale and Alex Ferguson’s chewing gum). That beetroot-faced, car alarm screaming tantrum must end at some point. Hopefully before the flight does… I know I may sound like a cheesy travel agent but bear in mind that if your child is under four years old, they will most likely not remember a single part of this expensive, stressful and exhausting holiday you have taken them on.

Don’t rely on instagram being around when they are older or your photographs being on your mobile. Document the whole trip in an album (Bob Books make particularly good ones).

That way, when your child  is 15 and asks you to take them to Australia, you have proof that they have already been. And you can tell them that it’s not nearly as nice as Cornwall…



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