Air Travel with young children

Can’t wait to board our flight. Some bright coloured, comfy clothes makes it easy to quickly spot my busy boys when they find a play corner and are surrounded by other friends.

Because my husband and I are from two different continents, my family does a whole lot of traveling. In fact, before we were married, right after we got engaged in Durban, South Africa, I found myself standing in the Berlin airport watching people kiss loved ones good bye, realizing: That will be my life from now on. There will always be somebody left behind. A sharp sting burned my heart when I thought that this will be the life I will be dragging my yet-unborn children into. Always having to say good bye for a real long time to either set of cousins and grandparents, and having to stretch to accommodate two different continents …

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Our life in South Africa is drastically different to the times we spend overseas, and somehow the kids find it very easy to adjust to both settings.

Right there and then I decided I will give my everything to make this a bonus in my kids life rather than a burden. No matter how much it hurts me to leave everything that I love behind, I will get my kids excited about all the different wonderful things in their lives. Sure, my kids miss out on the amazing playgrounds and parks, culture and education Germany has to offer, while they grow up in Africa. But once a year we are trying to make up for that and have them dive into their German heritage, full package. Musicals, History, Arts, friends, family, food, the full Monty. And while in Africa, we focus on doing and enjoying all things south African: The vast landscapes, the game, the wild, the roughness of freedom, hospitality, food, family …

Crossing the country by train is one of the favorite ways of traveling for my family. We usually send our suitcases with the luggage service of the Deutsche Bahn (German train company) and travel easy with just the hand luggage. Fun!

I am telling you, to recycle ALL your waste into 5 different bins and to take EVERY SINGLe bottle you ever buy back into the store for refund can be tideous.

Anyway, before you get to expose your little ones to the wonders of exotic destinations such as Landshut, Bavaria, you got to face often long and exhausting journeys.

Here’s my little cents of advise from the experience of so far 18 take offs  (this includes in land flights and connection flights of course) with toddlers …

First things first.

Before you fly, check in online to reserve your seats in the “baby isle” (where nobody sits in front of you) on the airplane and book child meals.

You need to really talk this through with daddy BEFORE the big day. Because we can not afford business class or direct flights, but have to stop over in Dubai, the flight day is even harder and longer. So really, make a plan beforehand and stick to it.

We usually agree Mama is sitting in the isle seat, and is responsible for all the potty breaks, nappy changes etc on flight, simply because I am smaller than daddy and manage to fit WITH a child into the tiny airplane bathrooms. I will also take the kids for little walks inside of the plane. Dad will enjoy a movie or two and help me with the feeding of the lot. Your under 2year old will most likely not have her own seat – this means, worst case, 14 hours with a toddler on your lap… but not necessarily so. More about that later. But this is why you need to have a night or 2 of sound sleep before and after the flight day.

Because I know I will be on major duty during the flight, I don’t even plan on reading or watching anything. But I do get to sleep through the night before, as daddy is taking both kids for that night. Fair deal, in my eyes as daddy also handles the passports and luggage and I can focus on keeping the kids happy.

Whatever you prefer, it’s really good to have an agreement beforehand. During the whole travel, it is not a good idea to be discussing who should hold on to the boarding passes or why is dad nodding off to sleep while you have to handle a sudden running tummy and find yourself in the “lavatories” every 30 minutes with a screaming baby. Nope, agree, and then switch on the “autopilot” and do your thing. Rest once you arrived! I am so much more relaxed when I don’t have to discuss who does what while we’re at it.

Less is more. I know this is on the train. But really, don’t feel tempted to pack pens, favorite toys and too much snacks.

I was asked recently by a first-time flyer what kind of things one should pack for the flight to keep the kids happy. Please trust me, less is more. Pack in a way that enables you to check in as much luggage as possible. We normally check in all our hand-luggage trolleys as well, so that my husband and I each have only one reasonable sized backpack to carry and our hands are free for the children. As much as you’d like your kids to bring their own little pack, remember – you’ll have to look after every item of luggage. It’s easier if they have just themselves to carry. Mine are 4 and 1 year old and I believe once they’re a little older it will be neat for them to carry some backpack, but right now I prefer traveling “clutter-free”.

Remember, from the security check to the gate and even from the gate to your plane are often long ways. You might have to carry tired kids. There might be stairs. You do not want to have nappy bags, hand bags, shopping bags etc dangling from your wrists while you try to catch the kids. 2 backpacks. Nothing more. Feel the freedom.

When your baby is still tiny, a baby carrier is a real good idea. Hands free.

In my hubbys backpack are his man-things, a book, tablet, chargers, camera, tickets etc etc. In my backpack are extra clothes for each child, plus basic toiletries and nappies (diapers). no, I will not have a diaperbag at my feet during flight. Remember, you have to stow ever loose item overhead during take off, landing and turbulences. I do not feel like doing in-flight gymnastics. Rather, I have a slim zipper pouch holding 6 nappies, a tube of bum cream, a travel size pack of wet wipes (two others are in the backpack), moisturizer and hand sanitizer. This pouch fits neatly in the magazine pouch in front of my seat. Two bottles, one with milk and one with tea, also fit into the pouch in front of my husband’s seat. the pouch in front of my son holds his drinking bottle. That’s it. Sorted. Stays there even during turbulences. I don’t have to rummage through the overhead compartment for anything except if baby’s tummy really gets runny and I need to refill on diapers. Okay, if baby is under 12 month and doesn’t drink cows milk yet (which you get from the stewardess once your initial supply of formula is used up) you little formula container will also fit in front of you. I prefer to not have to look for a lot of things when we get off the plane.

Such a zip pouch you can easily get when you buy a gift pack of toiletries etc. Perfect for baby things. Small enough for a baby change tango in the tiny cabin loo.

Refill in water you get anytime on board, so don’t worry about that.

I am sure your kids have their collection of favorite “guys” too. But beware. Little things tend to get lost on airports or in planes, other kids come and want to play with them and break them etc etc. So I generally advise to get a little keepsake at the airport or be surprised what the air hostesses have for your kids, but do not risk tantrums because someone special like Spidey or Buzz got lost …

Remember, if you bring pens and a coloring book, the pens WILL roll off the table and you’ll have to go crawling in a search mission. the same goes for superman, and other favorite small toys the kids might want to bring. Loose them in-flight and you are in for terror! Mama, practice your finger games, funny songs, rhymes and stories beforehand. You are the main source of entertainment now.

Also, make sure you greet the flight attendants very friendly right from the start and point them out to your children. My boys will get all excited saying: Hey mom, look at the beautiful princess! (Emirates Airways – great outfits) Of course the “princess” will stop by later with some extra goodies for the kids.

Also, having the flight attendants on your side right from the start will help you with the extra seat for baby you bargained for when booking “baby isle”. Most likely at check-in you discussed it with the lady at the counter, too – a free seat next to you. Often, flights are overbooked and there will still be somebody sitting next to you when you board the plane, no matter how you tried to sweet talk the person at the airline counter. Do not panic.

A person in single free seat next to you in the baby isle is most likely traveling alone and wont mind moving to another open seat elsewhere in the plane after the plane took off. Especially after you and your husband had a lively discussion on how you hope the kids wont throw up again after the airplane meal … you get the picture. Having a flight attendant on your side helps, as she will kindly ask the single traveler if he minds moving to another open seat and she’ll even help him with his luggage. Done, free seat secure. Mind you, I had to travel twice for 8 hours with Sam on my lap. It is manageable, if your relax about it.

Today’s airplanes provide each passenger with his own screen. Perfect. For your toddlers – relax if you’ve been limiting their screen time. This is not the time to get all educational conscious. this is the time to focus on peace. Do not choose a Disney movie for your little ones, as they wont hold a 2 year olds attention for long. Go to the “TV-Series” options and check whether CTV (stands for Children’s TV) is available. My best bet is CeeBeebies, the BBC’s children’s channel. They have a nice compilation of favorite 10 min episodes. My baby’s hooked. Disney Junior will do as well. Stay clear of Cartoon network and the likes. Makes them all edgy.

You know about the bottle during take off and landing. Get ready for the need to pee soon after, of course. But again, I am entering the plane knowing I will be walking to the loo with one of the two kids more than sitting down and relaxing. So it’s no biggie. I also take the child that’s bored the most on little exploration tours through the economy part of the plane. Next to the emergency exit are little windows through which we can see “the whole world”. How amazing, every time.

The little kiddies bag Steven is wearing was a complimentary gift from Lufthansa filled with little surprises. No need to bring too much stuff on board.

The flight attendants will usually bring the child meal before your meal, so you have enough time to assist your kids with their eating. The plate Steven gets is more than enough for him and his brother. They will also bring toys for the kids, and even some coloring books and pencils. You see, there was no need for you to bring your chest of wonders from home. If you’re the cranky passenger, there will be the one set of complimentary toys for your older child and you will hear: Sorry, it’s only for the paying child. When you’ve made the flight attendants your ally from the start, there will be, miraculously, another set of toys and gifts for your baby as well, and a back pack, and extra chocolate … you get the picture. It’s worth a try. If your baby has a bad day, it is hard on your flight attendant as well, because she needs to make sure ALL passengers are comfortable. So try to show appreciation.

The complimentary on board magazines have a lot of “strange”  photos in them to keep baby entertained for a bit as well.

O yes, and, very important, have one nice and thick empty plastic bag handy, folded away neatly in the seat in front of you. I tell you why:

When it’s real hot in South Africa, we have winter in Germany. So you gotta pack a set of warm clothes to change into at the airport. Lots of fun.

Mealtimes often last an excruciating long time on board. It literally takes over an hour before the tray with lots of flimsy little containers on a flimsy little table in front of you is removed by the hard working crew. Not good with rambunctious toddlers who need to jump on their seats and definitely will want to go pipi twice while you both are stuck with that tray. Enter the plastic bag. You drink that tiny sip of a juice you were provided with, finish any open container or put a lid on, unfold your bag into which you elegantly slide one tray on top of the other, place it on your seat, get out with the kids to attend their needs (no waiting time at the lavatories because everybody else is “stuck”), go back, sit down and slide the tray out again and continue your meal as if nothing happened. Easy peasy. Helps every time.

Later you can use the bag to scoop up all the little favours you received, and put your nappy pouch back into the backpack, slide the bottles into the backpacks sides and you’re good to leave the plane, no mess, no clutter, no panic.

Especially if you have to stop over somewhere it is a big advantage to not have too much luggage to look after. There is always another security check, passport control etc. Yes, it is good to prepare, but unless you are going somewhere 3rd world (with little kids? Not a good idea) remember that you can purchase almost everything in an airport.

Dubai airport has little strollers available which is excellent, because both kids can sit down and rest while we find our way to the connecting flight. We had to stay from 8pm to 4 am at the airport.

Tapas Restaurant has cosy little quiet corners to sit and wait for your connecting flight.

We found ourself the quietest of all restaurants, Tapas Authentic Tapas Bar located near Gate B26 offering  delicious Spanish tapas in a very comfy setting.  We put the kids on the soft couches and enjoyed the little portions of Spanish starters and just had a good time. If we had waited at our gate or in the overcrowded main restaurants, it would have been really exhausting.

IMG-20130718-01389I hope it helped a little.

Enjoy your flight.

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  1. I enjoyed your post. When we flew home from China with our third child, he was just ready to turn 2. The flight attendants gave us extra blankets and we were able to make a bed for him under the seats in front of us. It’s a useful option if you can’t get a bassinet row and your child is the right age.

    1. Hi, thanks for commenting!!! The bassinets are anyways just for children 9 month old or younger- and most airlines will not allow you to put a child or even an adult on the floor, it is just not safe. We tried once, but the air hostesses immediately came to tell us that people aren’t allowed to do that anymore. A safe bet is to try to look for an empty row of chairs somewhere in the back of the plane. Mom and baby could rest there a little. Flying can be exhausting, especially long distance…

    1. Hi, thanks for stopping by! Traveling with little ones is so exciting! Sam, 1, still shouts to everyone he meets: Sam airplane flying! Sky! Clouds! Pilot!!!.. It was a big highlight for him and that’s exactly the way we handle our travels: with lots of excitement and joy, pointing out even the smallest things as if they are world wonders. Mind you, everything can be amazing if given a chance…

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