Helping you from home to plane – the most stressful part of the family vacation
This page in our family flying series steps you through the airport arrivals process with advice on saving time and remaining patient when travelling by air with kids.
- You should read this post after our guide to planning flights with kids – giving you our top tips on booking the best possible flight times and seats for a comfortable family journey.
In this post we are going to help you with:
- Pre-departure – Steps to take before you fly with kids
- Getting to the airport with kids
- Getting through the airport with kids
- Dealing with security and kids
- Boarding the plane with kids
- How to travel with 2+ Kids
- Invaluable tips for travelling as a single parent
- Ultimate guide to tarvel toys suitable for all ages
Pre-departure – Steps to take before you fly with kids
In the days leading up to your flight there are plenty of steps you can take to make your big travel day less stressful.
Confirm arrangements with your airline
Always ring the airline at least 48 hours in advance to confirm your booking details are correct. I know it sounds like overkill, but flying with kids is a different beast! Things to check include;
- Seating arrangements – if you are not specially requesting the bassinet seat, confirm they have not moved your seat allocations; check how full the flight is to see if a spare seat strategy will work (see Planning flights for my suggested seating ideas).
- Ensure all special meals are appropriately selected (yes, kids’ meals need pre-ordering).
- Confirm your luggage allowances, including baby equipment.
- Add any passport details and frequent flyer numbers – much easier to do in advance than in retrospect.
Preparing for the airport & travel days
- Plan your car seat arrangements; if you need your car seats for the flight or destination, not a problem to travel with them to the airport as well, but if they are only needed for home to the departure airport, make inquiries as to transport services that can provide infant and toddler car seats for you, or will store your seat until your return.
- Check what facilities are at the airport prior to departure. A lot of international hub airports now have great facilities for children to run around or be entertained before their flight. The children’s entertainment may however not be in your flight terminal or anywhere near your gate, factor this into timings.
- How early should you arrive at the airport? It pays to be prepared with kids but if you arrive more than 3 hours before your flight the check-in may not be open yet = even more unnecessary waiting.
- Depending on the time of day your flight leaves, schedule in some good exhausting activities beforehand or a good night’s sleep before departure.
Preparing your luggage and documents
- Check everyone has a valid passport, correct Visa and print out of airline tickets and pack these somewhere easily accessible in your carry-on.
- Even though the airline will tag everything, always tag all of your luggage yourself with a contact phone number and email address, including extra baby equipment and children’s luggage – these are the most likely items to go missing!
- I would also recommend photographing items like baby equipment prior to your flight to evidence condition of items that can be susceptible to damage if not handled carefully.
FURTHER READING: 30 Steps to preparing you & your home for family vacation
Preparing for onward arrangements
- If staying at a hotel or renting accommodation, confirm your sleeping arrangements and arrival time with them, including any airport collection/car services (even if this costs slightly more than a local taxi it may well be worth the effort to book in advance when travelling with tired kids. They may also be able to help you with car seats).
Getting to the airport with kids
- Try and find a way you can be dropped as close as possible to the airport door and utilize porter services if there is more than you can carry – it might seem pricey for a short trip from the door to the check-in desk but in my mind is money well spent, particularly if you are travelling as a single parent or have more children than adults.
- Taking your own car and parking long-term off-site, it may be worth getting the luggage and children (with an adult, of course!) dropped at the terminal first, then dealing with the car as lugging your items on the free transit bus can be incredibly challenging.
- Better yet, have a friend drop you at the airport, or book a door-to-door car service (see car seat considerations above).
Getting through the airport with kids
- Remember everything will take longer. I used to be a ‘just in time’ flyer, but this is a highly risky strategy with kids in tow; I would always suggest using the recommended three hours for an international flight and an hour for a domestic.
- Allow more time at check-in. The earlier you get there, the more chance you will get your preferred seating, even if you weren’t able to book this in advance. No matter how well prepared we have been it almost always seems to take 15-20 minutes to check us in as a group of five before adding queuing time.
- Bulky items like car seats often need to be shrink-wrapped (to prevent damage) and checked in at a separate oversized item counter; allow for this in your flight timings.
- Plan your baby equipment needs in advance. Know your luggage allowances in advance and how you will transport everything AFTER check-in. Should you consider buying or hiring a lightweight collapsible stroller that fits on the plane?
- I highly recommend taking a carrier or sling, even if you have a stroller, in case the child is sleeping, or you have a delay in collecting your stroller at the other end. Having a stroller with you until the gate is also great for hanging bags on, leaving your hands free to do other things. Note that only small collapsible strollers can go to the gate (your 2-piece travel systems etc, should be checked), and only the micro-folding strollers are allowed on board (see our review of the Nano and its competitors).
- If you are gambling on the spare seat strategy, be prepared that the spare seat may well be taken by the time you get to the gate, and things like child seats will need to be checked at the gate.
- By all means, shop duty-free at your peril; to me, this is like running the gauntlet of breakable items, dealing with pleading requests to buy chocolates or crappy overpriced souvenirs. This might help kill some time for slightly older travellers but with infants, steer clear.
- Check your eligibility for lounge access. Often the best child-friendly facilities are hidden inside the airline lounges but don’t be mistaken that you have to be on a business class ticket to use these facilities. It may cost a few extra dollars but totally worth it for comfort and facilities, depending on the airport.
- If all else fails, try to find a gate that is not being used so there is somewhere for the kids to run or crawl around, preferably where they can view the planes.
Dealing with security and kids
- The key to getting through this hurdle is to be organised; while you are in the queue try to get as many items as possible into bags, any accessories removed from children, electronics out of pockets, liquids kept separate.
- Not all airports make you take your shoes off these days, but why risk it? I always try to dress them in easy to slip on and off shoes, which will speed up the security process and also help with quick trips to the bathroom on the plane.
- Some airports are still quite stringent on liquids. It pays to do your research in advance on what liquid limits are at the airport(s) you are going through, especially for infant milk or formula which has separate limits to toiletries and other liquids. Be prepared that they may ask you taste the milk, or dispose of some if you are over the limit.
- Reassure children that there’s nothing to be scared about, try to make it fun saying goodbye to shoes and teddies as they go through the x-ray machine.
- Most airports will require strollers to be foldable and go through the x-ray machine as well, no mercy will be shown for the sleeping infant, so get everything else prepared first then take the infant out last.
- The most extreme request I have had is to remove a babies pacifier while walking through security – I was understandably furious at the time but have long since learnt to accept not to argue, they are just doing their job and following instructions, no matter how ridiculous the concept seems to us feeble parents.
- Make sure children don’t do anything ‘funny’ like making bomb threats; no matter how cute they might think they are I am pretty sure security staff will not feel the same way and you could do without any delays or fines for innocent jokes.
Boarding the plane with kids
- Most airlines will offer priority boarding to families, but remember this process this can start at least 45 minutes before the flight is due to take off, you may actually prefer the kids to wait around as long as possible at the boarding gate before boarding.
- We have gotten away on many occasions with just coming to the front of the queue when ready; nobody tends to argue when they see you swamped with bags, half-sleepy toddlers, and pregnant bellies; they are too busy praying you are not sitting anywhere near them to really care that you have queue jumped.
- Another strategy is to send one parent in advance with all the bags to do the pre-board and set everything up ready in your row while the other continues to exhaust the kids running around at the gate (make sure you keep the correct boarding passes and passports with you if choosing this tactic!)
- Your child needs to understand the importance of wearing a seatbelt; I always try to leave strapping them in until the last minute to avoid them getting bored and immediately jumping out of their restraint, or as usually happens with Master 2, inconsolable screaming throughout the whole taking off process.
- It will help if you have discussed and perhaps practiced this at home first, but I hate to admit this is one part of the process I simply haven’t managed to conquer tear-free as yet!
Flying with kids – what next?
We hope this has helped you mentally prepare for what lies ahead in the flying process. Make sure you head over to our Ultimate guide to flying with kids; we have a big pool of resources there to help you to including:
- What to expect during your very first baby flight
- How to fly with 2+ Kids
- Invaluable tips for travelling as a single parent
- Ultimate guide to travel toys for every age group
Do you have any pre-flight rituals with your children? How have you made the process of getting from A to B easier?
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