All the steps to consider before you get to the plane
Before you jump onboard a flight with kids there are plenty of things to consider from flight timing to pre-booking the best seats for a more comfortable journey.
When to fly with kids
Picking the right time to fly – not only the time of year but the time of day – can hugely help with making a long journey with children run smoothly.
Travelling at off-peak times (i.e. away from school holidays, long weekends, religious events, commuter hub times) and avoiding major hub routes will naturally increase your chances that the flight you book will not be full and you will get the seating arrangements and travel times that you desire.
It’s not fail-safe, but try to book long-haul flights overnight when children would usually be asleep. It can cause some wretchedness when they are overtired and waiting for takeoff but as soon as the cabin lights dim and the engine noise starts, you have a better than average chance that you might squeeze a few hours of blissful sleep out of them for at least the first few hours of the flight. (See also advice on the jet lag page regarding long haul flight timing).
My preference with infants on shorter flights is to time them for the lunchtime nap. It can cause some kerfuffle as they try to fall asleep but it normally gives me an hour or so of the flight where I am not being a constant entertainer, peacekeeper, hand-wiper, toilet monitor and can focus on my older child.
Of course, for every bit of parenting advice, you will find those that argue the opposite; for a short flight some children find the excitement far too much and they don’t want to miss a minute of the action by napping so avoid the middle of the day (that was my daughter 10 hours non-stop from London to the Cayman Islands at 18 months).
I’m afraid the only way you’ll find out what suits your child best is by trying.
Travel in one hit or break it up?
Again this might be a case of you need to experiment with your children and depending on their ages find what works best, but I would always suggest trying to do things in one hit with short layovers if required.
We made the dreadful decision once of taking two overnight flights with a six-hour layover in the middle thinking it would maximize the children’s sleep and we would “pop in and do a bit of sightseeing on the way” to tire them out before the next leg.
The kids may have slept fine for parts of the journey but my husband and I didn’t get a wink of sleep on the first leg; we ended up in a transit hotel in Kuala Lumpa with two highly wired munchkins insisting it was still playing time while we desperate fought the urge to break down and scream.
We learn from our mistakes. I will always take a direct flight option where one exists even if it costs more. Alterantively, if arranging a stopover, make it for at least 24 hours so you get a chance to leave the airport, properly wear the kids out and have some sleep yourself before tackling it all again.
A direct flight also carries the advantage of minimising any possible flight delays or missed connections than can throw a spanner in the works to your planning.
Again, those with extremely active children may argue than any sort of layover no matter how long or short is required for children to burn some energy or get an infant off your lap.
Think about whether you are actually changing planes and need to take all your carry on luggage with you if electing this option.
Where to sit on the plane flying with kids?
This is the million dollar question that can make or break your travel experience; There is no one right answer and it will really depend on the age and size of your child/children and how many of you are travelling together –and no doubt everyone you ask will give you a different answer, so these are merely my viewpoints to consider.
- Assuming you are travelling as a couple with one infant, it’s the bulkhead/bassinet row every time. You will get the extra leg room and somewhere to lay your child down while they are sleeping. As they get older you might cheekily be able to get away with having them play at your feet as well (though I have been told this is against regulations).
- The main disadvantage of sitting here is you will still need to hold your child during takeoff and landing, and times of turbulence, which can mean frequently waking the baby. It can also be quite a bright noisy area on the plane as people queue for the bathrooms and the stewards are busy in the galley – in which case something like the Fly Babee bassinet cover might make things easier.
- When travelling with a larger infant who no longer fits the bassinet (you can push this to the limit!), or more than one child, I recommend finding a full row nearer to the rear of the plane. It can be a risky move if the child doesn’t have their own seat (you can, of course, pay for one), but a gamble that has frequently paid off to book the window and aisle, or if sitting in the centre, both aisles with a spare seat in between. Airlines tend to fill front to back so the further back you are in the plane (but avoiding being on top of the toilets) the better the chances your gamble will pay off and you’ll get that spare seat between you to spread out with the armrests up. If someone is placed in the spare seat, the airline staff are normally pretty good about trying to move them if possible (and the passenger is normally more than willing to oblige!)
If you are still unsure on the advantages or disadvantages of a particular seat, I am a big fan of Seat Guru that can guide you by airline and type of plane which are the best seats.
If you are unable to get your seats of choice when booking, don’t give up. Keep ringing the airline to check, I always ask how full the flight is to try and work out my tactics!
Note that booking an infant ticket does not automatically book you a bassinet seat (we learnt the hard way), it must be requested.
At peak times there may simply not be enough bassinet seats to go around, or if you do not request early enough, airlines can sell these seats for the extra legroom, or give them away to their priority customers.
If you have pre-booked particular seats online, it’s always worth double-checking again a day or two before you fly. I once refused to take my seat on a 12-hour flight until they switched our seat to the bassinet row after we did pre-book it but were not allocated the right seats on arrival at the airport – they’d given it to a customer on the domestic leg before ours.
If you still don’t get your choice of seating beforehand, ask at check-in, plead with the gate staff and resort to tears once you have boarded if the situation is still not sorted – it can really be worth your sanity to have the right seats.
Being a member of the airline’s frequent flyer program can also work in your favour.
Another point to note in pre-booking seats, an infant seat only comes with infant food – i.e. baby puree! If your child is on solids you will need to organise to bring their meal with you or share yours.
Likewise booking a child’s seat does not automatically get you a child’s meal; you will need to pre-order this with the airline at least 24 hours in advance or risk disappointment.
You can see our post on 10 Toddler Flying Mistakes to see how we found these points out the hard way.
Don’t forget to think about some alternate seating arrangements as well
- When you’re travelling with just two of you plus baby, consider actually sitting apart, especially if the plane is not full and you can move about. This gives one of you a break so you are not both on duty for the whole flight, as long as you remember to rotate seats during the flight! In fact, some people even deliberately pre-book their seats apart (note, however, swapping people between cabins in frowned upon or on some airlines strictly not allowed. An infant can only sit in a row fitted with an extra air mask).
- Are your children old enough to travel alone? That thought might terrify you now, but I do know parents that swear by this! Check with your airline what age they can take solo flyers on, but when you feel your child/children are mature enough to sit quietly for a whole flight, why not put them in the economy cabin and treat yourselves to an upgrade? Some of you are no doubt gasping in horror, but think about it – the parents are relaxed and ready to start their holiday and the children get a huge feeling of independence and adventure from it in an environment where you know they will be looked after by the cabin crew.
Is it worth going Premium Economy?
If looking to upgrade to get some extra room, note that on most planes, the premium economy seats have a screen in the armrest, meaning that the armrests don’t fold out and you cannot spread yourselves across the row, something you may prefer to do as your children grow.
Of course, my ultimate solution is to fly up the pointy end of the plane every time, but back in reality-land, this is a choice only available to the privileged few among us! (But keep saving those frequent flyers!!)
More reading on flying with kids
The best starting point is to check out our flying with kids home page where we share invaluable tips from our 10+ years travelling the world with kids. Next head to:
- Getting to your flight – preparing for flying day, navigating the airport and getting on board
- Entertaining kids onboard – top tips for getting through your flight, best travel toys and dealing with mid-air meltdowns and delays
For more on what you can expect from individual airlines, don’t forget to check out our popular family flying airline reviews
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