Flying long-haul is never easy, let alone throwing into the challenge caring for tiny people at 38,000 feet
Fear not, I am about to let you in on some of my secrets – five tried and tested strategies to minimise the stress of flying as a family with young children – with the focus on maximizing sleep. Combine all five and you will become a super-savvy-flying-family in no time!
Strategy 1. Fly overnight
Aim: Try and get the bulk of flying hours during darkness. The theory is your our globetrotters will be tired and naturally ready for sleep by the time you board and sleep for at least a few hours of the flight while they’re body clock is telling them to do so.
Execution: Flying around their normal bedtime is best, even better flying east to west where the darkness stays with you throughout the night.
Disadvantage: Sometimes this means taking a flight that leaves in the middle of the night which can mean waking a child to get them to the airport resulting in very grumpy overtired screaming child by the time you board. Also flying west to east you can have issues with an early sunrise and jet lag.
Other drawbacks: I cannot sleep a wink on the plane so I find this exhausting, but not nearly as much as dealing with an overhyped, irate child who can’t drift off; I will sacrifice my own sleep over there’s any day.
Alternates: Fly during the day time or crossing over into the evening. At your own peril, I find it much more difficult to ‘wear them out’ to a point where they are naturally sleepy if they have already been confined for several hours before their bedtime.
Success: It’s worth the risk to try and maximise total kiddie sleeping hours; this one has proven almost fail-safe for us over the years.
Strategy 2. Use pre-boarding for families
Aim: Get in and settled before the crowds and get locker space.
Execution: Works well on a busy flight where space is a premium, also when kids are tired. Also works well when combined with strategy 1. Even if they don’t officially call family pre-boarding, just hang around near the gate entrance and they will let family groups on first along with any disabled/assisted passengers.
Disadvantages: On a large flight there can be a long time between pre-boarding commencing and push-off, that feels like an infinity when you’re trying to keep a child sitting still and entertained without using up your entire bag of tricks.
Alternates: Keep them off the plane as long as possible; you may prefer longer in the lounge or in a kiddie play area then board at final call so you don’t have the queue at the gate and pop them straight in before the plane starts moving – but risk your bags being stored four rows away.
Another alternative that works really well is to send one grown-up in at pre-boarding with the bags (and maybe small infants that won’t move) and the other adult keeps older kid(s) running around as long as possible.
Success: You really need to pick and choose your circumstances, when we have had sleepy heads in the airport this has worked a charm for quickly settling and scoring coveted locker space, especially if you’re in the bulkhead where locker space is at a premium. It also gives you time to make friendly with the cabin staff (see strategy 3!)
FURTHER READING: Our Top Toddler Travel Tips
Strategy 3. The empty seat
Aim: Get a spare seat between you so you can spread out as a group without children sitting on your lap and use head-to-toe sleeping.
Execution: This depends on your aircraft so research this beforehand (check out seatguru.com if you don’t know the configuration) but basically for a family of three, book a row with a window and aisle seat, leaving the seat between you free.
For groups of four, book the middle seats taking both aisles and leaving one middle seat free. Try and book as far back in the aircraft as possible as the middle seats tend to fill near the front first. If someone does get seated in the ‘empty’ seat, politely ask the cabin crew if there is another spare seat they can be moved to – the other party is likely to be more than happy not to share with your children!
Disadvantage: It can back-fire if the flight fills up! Sitting near the back also adds to off-loading time at the other end, and puts you nearer the night-time traffic of the galley.
Alternates: With little ones who still fit the bassinet you may still prefer the bulkhead, just remember you can’t move the armrests so if you are travelling with toddlers as well they won’t be able to stretch out unless your group splits and they sit in the row behind you. For more seating combinations, check out our planning flights page.
Success: We have only had this back-fire once on a full flight over school holidays. Be nice and polite to the hosties and they will try their best to accommodate your group.
Strategy 4. Fly direct
Aim: Minimise total travel time to finish the process as quickly as possible.
Execution: Only possible on flights up to approx 8,000 miles in length (yes ‘only’). Over this you will have no choice to make a stopover.
Disadvantage: This can make for an incredibly long time cramped up in a tiny space as those used to the 14 to 16-hour legs can testify. Any flight over approximately 10 hours you will have to content with the fact there will be some awake time no matter what you do – not to mention that if anything goes wrong (ie delays), your plane supplies and patience could run extremely low.
Alternates: The obvious is to break it up with a layover or longer stop. I personally can’t think of anything worse than stopping in a strange time zone walking around bleary-eyed, but if your flight timings work that it’s naturally their morning you may want to take this opportunity to burn some beans and buy more supplies. Aim for between 2-4 hour layover maximum.
My favoured alternate despite some of the hassle it involves is to do a city stop over for at least 24 hours. Mr H and I have seen so much of the world this way by breaking up the UK to Australia journey with a new city break each time, but to be honest with kids now I would only do this where essential – ie where distance requires two flights then break it up.
Success: I have always found the recovery from the direct flight much quicker but this really may depend on your children’s ages and character if this will work best for you.
Strategy 5. Fly premium airlines
Aim: Pay more to get better service, better luggage allowances and loyalty points.
Execution: You pay for what you get in the aviation world. When we are heading off overseas these days, even for a short trip we have an insane amount of luggage – particularly if car seats and portacots need to come into the equation. Even if it costs a little more, look for airports that are near to home and fly with a well-regarded airline with generous luggage limits.
As an added bonus, most premium airlines will also have reward programs (long-haul frequent flyer miles with multiple fliers each time can quickly add up to a bonus short break for the family).
Disadvantages: It may well not be the cheapest option, nor will the airline you like necessarily fly to the destination that you need or at the right time of day, some of its down to scheduling rather than choice.
Check out our complete guide to flying business class with kids here
Alternates: Obviously fly with a budget airline, and budget your packing and your patience along with your hip pocket.
Success: When you add the cost of excess baggage, transfers to remote airports, paying for everything on board, we simply can’t make budget airlines stack up to their premium partners for long-haul travel.
As always the quality of your experience might come down to the particular cabin crew and the aircraft on the day but premium airlines do not win customer service awards without reason – and we certainly find that loyalty points during a long term posting do pay off – from upgrades to gifts, access to lounges and of course free flights.
Do you have any fail-safe strategies you use for booking and boarding flights with your family?
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