9 Tips for Long-Haul Flights with small children

iamjaykellyBlog, Parenting

6 passports, 2 suitcases and 24200 miles covered in a month. 9 tips for long-haul flights with small children.

“You’re brave” is all that I heard for a month before embarking on my travels exploring Australia with my four children. The eldest being 6, a tantrum filled 3-year-old & 10 month-old twins.

Most people get their travelling out of their system before they have children and then settle down and enjoy ‘less challenging’ Spanish package holidays.
You see, nearly 2 years ago, I was supposed to be going to Australia alone, leaving my two children behind with their dad, whilst I went to be a bridesmaid for my close pal, Rachael, who lives in Adelaide. The measurements were emailed over, the material was ready and shoes were bought. A few weeks later the pregnancy test confirmed the measurements would have to adjust slightly! OK…so I was going to be 20 weeks pregnant at the wedding, and in the middle of an Australian summer. Rachael didn’t mind having a pregnant bridesmaid, so what’s the problem? I can manage that!
At my 8 weeks booking-in appointment my midwife told me I was a little on the large side, so I was sent for a scan the following week. The scan confirmed twins. A time of very mixed emotions. So that was it, there was no way I would be fit for travelling to Australia on my own with a twin pregnancy. I was devastated. Rachael completely understood, but said that I would have to bring the babies over to see her instead…so that was it, that was the plan, although deep down I thought it would never happen.
In April 2006 life was turned upside down & inside out when Kitty & Lydia were born. We were still renovating a converted barn to use as a holiday let, still unpacking in the house we moved in to whilst pregnant, my then-husband started a new job & then we were hit with the biggest blow of all – Lydia developed meningitis. When your baby is fighting for her life, all priorities in life change. Even when she recovered we were left with complications, which lead to tests for tumors (another story!). It took many months, but we got the all clear and the symptoms disappeared. Our first two children had suffered the normal lack of attention that happens when siblings are born x 2 and then tripled again. I started thinking about the possibility of going to Australia for a month or so. It took a while to convince then-husband that it would be great and that the flight over would be ok. Our children regularly survive the 2 hour car journey to visit family….surely a flight to Australia would be fine….wouldn’t it?! A month after deciding we would go for it, we were off.
We decided to stay with family in Harrogate the night before and fly from Leeds to Heathrow. It wasn’t the drive to London that worried us, it was the drive home after flying back from Australia, it wouldn’t have been safe. The small flight was fine. Then-husband and I had a big girl and a baby each. Thea and Evie were happy to have stories read to them the whole time and, much to the annoyance of the passenger in front of us, Kitty discovered the pocket was a good place to put things in and out of, in and out of, in and….you get the rest? It kept her happy & quiet & only upset 1 other passenger, not the whole plane!
We chose our own flight schedule so that we left loads of time between flights. It’s a good job we did, as Heathrow’s tube transfer between terminals isn’t set up for people with 4 little ones, 2 pushchairs and luggage. Since I booked it all myself as individual flights, I had no idea that we could have had our main luggage transferred from one terminal to another. At least I knew that for on our return.
We had set off in the morning at 8am and by 10pm we were finally boarding the plane and starting our 20 odd hour flight. We had toyed with the idea of breaking the journey by stopping in Singapore for a few days and then coming back via LA and visiting Disneyland. We changed our mind when we thought about the extra queues we would be putting ourselves through and decided to upgrade our seats instead and sit tight on the plane. With hindsight, we DEFINITELY made the right decision.
Two hours after getting on the plane we were still sitting on the runway. Somebody had boarded the plane looking rather ill, and the pilot wouldn’t fly until a doctor had checked them out. Turns out they had suffered a heart attack and had to be taken off the plane. They removed the passenger and then we had to wait for them to remove the luggage from the hold. There must have been 75,000 bags in the hold that day.
In the meantime, all of our children had fallen fast asleep. Thea and Evie were snuggled up on their chairs; Kitty & Lydia were on our laps. Once we were in the air, the babies had bassinettes, attached to the bulkhead, to sleep in. We all settled down for quite some time, but could I sleep? No, of course not. Everybody else slept until a man walking to the toilet fainted and landed on Evie. Funnily enough, the only people to wake were Evie and then-husband, who by the way was also a fainter, and he started panicking too. Babies now awake and not a single member of cabin crew within a 2-minute circle of the plane. Rather stressful, it was.
Time passed in a flurry of breastfeeding and entertainment. As we started the descent into Bangkok (about 11 hours in) Thea woke and asked if we had taken off yet. Since we were delayed in leaving, the pilot decided to cut short the time at Bangkok airport, so we decided not to get off and wander around. The children were highly entertained by the Bangkok cleaning staff and their love of babies. Can you imagine their faces when they see a matching pair? For the rest of the journey, we were sitting in the cleanest section of the plane.
The passengers who got off the plane managed to get to the end of a corridor and then they had to join the queue to go through security to re-embark the plane. We made the right move by staying put. So for the next leg of the journey then-husband and I swapped our big girl flying partners. I had Evie, who was fine until a sumo wrestler-style man plonked himself on our row. She felt rather intimidated, to say the least. He wasn’t a happy chappy. Neither was the little girl who boarded the plane with a very stressed mummy & daddy. She screamed for 2 hours solid and threw her many dummies and bottles on the floor. The cabin we were in was mainly full of single business travellers, so not very forgiving of a screaming baby. Eventually, she fell asleep. Every time a member of cabin crew came to get something out of a cupboard, you could see many people from the cabin putting their index finger to their closed lips, hushing at them to be quiet. All I could think was “thank goodness it’s not one of mine”.
We managed to keep our big ones entertained with a combination of new books, colouring pens and paper and the all-important Archos player. Back then we didn’t have the luxury of iPads and similar.  At that time we were quite up and coming with technology and so we had bought the newer version of a portable DVD player. It can hold many films & programmes on its hard drive with no need to carry around or change any DVDs. I think we had no fewer than 100 films to choose from (trust me, 10 years back, this was a luxury). This left the onboard flip up/touch screen TV free for the babies to play with. I had a selection of new toys for the babies to have. I would highly recommend that you don’t give a toy to a baby unless it is physically attached to yourself or baby, as the ‘throw it down and pick it up game’ gets really tedious. The most favoured item for both of the babies was a new wooden beaded thing that you are supposed to use to attach a dummy.
We had been told by a stewardess friend that we would be able to take single buggies onboard the plane as opposed to putting them in the hold. There is plenty of space in the wardrobes for them, but unfortunately, the ground staff think otherwise. We were told that there would be pushchairs that we could borrow just at end of the corridor when we left the plane and that we can use them until we retrieve ours from baggage reclaim. Guess what…. Although Kitty and Lydia are very lightweight babies, they soon feel heavy when you’re managing bags too.
The main benefit of lugging around so many children is that the kind air stewardesses take you under their wing and take you through the staff gates, passport control etc. Especially if it means they can cuddle a baby. Going through passport control in Sydney took us 5 minutes. The other passengers must have been in their queues for hours! Do I feel guilty?
Ok… so that’s the first part of the journey. The rest should be easy!
We booked into a hotel for the first 4 days. We guessed it wouldn’t be a good idea to collect the motorhome until we had recovered from the jetlag. Talking about jetlag… I have never come across such a strange thing. One minute I was sorting through bags, whilst then-husband had taken the big girls swimming, and the next thing I knew was then-husband waking me up when he got back. I was lying on the kitchen floor. I know I hadn’t fainted, as I had placed a neatly folded pile of clothes under my head. Why I hadn’t laid down on a bed or sofa I have no idea.
Later that evening, then-husband fell asleep whilst spooning food into the babies’ mouths. When we went to bed, nobody woke for 12 hours.
Sydney was fantastic. I loved it. The fact that we stayed in the best hotel ever might have influenced my opinion, but I will definitely be going back there one day. We collected our motorhome & left Sydney. We drove 2 hours south to a friend’s house & parked it in their driveway. Then after a few days, we were off again. We had to get to Melbourne in time for the Formula 1 Grand Prix that then-husband & Thea had tickets for. We drove for 4 hours a day on 3 days. Each day’s journey was broken by a couple of nights at a campsite. The balance between travelling & time out worked quite well. We reached Melbourne in time & spent a few days there. After that we made our way across the Great Ocean Road to South Australia. Again, we spread the journey out and didn’t drive for more than 4 hours a day (2 in morning, 2 in afternoon).
The sights along the way were amazing. If you were to ask the girls about it, they hardly remember the driving. They were busy watching their DVDs & sleeping! Out of the whole month of travelling we drove from one location to another 8 times. We didn’t take many toys with us. When we arrived, we went to a cheap shop & bought some cheap variations of their favourite toys. They were wrecked by the time we were leaving Australia, so I didn’t feel guilty about leaving them behind.
The only problem that I had with sleep was on the return flight. The children had all slept for 11 hours between Sydney & Bangkok, and as the new passengers boarded at Bangkok, local time being 1am, they all went straight to sleep. My children didn’t take much persuading to go back to sleep, but Kitty woke after a couple of hours & was raring to play.
The hardest part was working out which clothes we really needed to take with us. Since it was turning to autumn in Australia, and the weather variations from one area of the country to another are vast. We took lots of skirts & dresses that could be used when it was hot & coupled them with tights & tops when it was cooler. When I look back at our photographs, then-husband & I are wearing the same clothes on all of them! Washed frequently of course.
On the outbound journey, I was so worried about losing our bags; we took lots of things in our hand luggage. We had the allocation of 2 carry-on bags each, which we had to limit of course since we didn’t have enough arms to carry them. We crammed all of our main luggage (for the 6 of us) into 2 suitcases & for hand luggage, we had 2 backpacks, 2 Trunkis, 1 pull along bag & a nappy changing bag. Not mentioning the trousers with pockets stuffed full of wipes, biscuits etc. The jackets (fleeces & waterproofs) which made great pillows for Thea & Evie on the plane. Just before coming back we bought another suitcase & travelled home with a lot less hand luggage, although I was still very worried! We said goodbye to our bags in Adelaide on a Qantas flight, got on a BA flight in Sydney, got on a BMI flight in Heathrow & prayed that we would meet our bags again in Leeds-Bradford Luggage Reclaim department. I can liken the joy & amazement of seeing my luggage come through, to when I met my babies for the first time. Just a little less overwhelming, but still very emotional! You obviously had to be there.
Ok, so I have had to cut a very long story quite short and I have missed out on the fantastic places, sights, experiences and events that made the journey VERY worthwhile, but I hope it inspires you. If then-husband & I can survive a direct flight to Australia & tour in a motorhome for a month with a 6 year old, 3 year old & 11 month old twins, then who knows what else is possible. I must admit though, I’m not known for doing things by halves.

Here are some tips & hints for travelling long haul with little ones:

1. You may be hot & heavy, but trousers & tops with loads of pockets for stuffing all sorts in. The extra tops make good pillows, as the small ones (if provided) are useless.
2. Take your own blankets for babies if possible. The nylon blankets (again, if provided) cause nasty static shocks whenever you or your baby/child move.
3. Smile nicely at stewards/esses, as you are relying on them to make your journey as good as it can be. If you need help, you must ask. I found them very helpful, but they kept their distance unless you asked them. They have a busy job!
4. Keep all of your items to declare (baby food etc) all in the same place. I missed two jars & got into mild trouble in Sydney Airport! Always check what the regulations are at the time of booking, and again before going to the airport. Check again before you return.
5. On the return flight, when Thea & Evie knew what they were in for, I produced 2 paper bags with new pens, books etc in. It makes such a difference when you get the content selection right. Plan carefully. Choose small books that you know you will be happy to read approx 1000 times. Sometimes old favourites are better than risking new ones. The paper bags were good to decorate too.
6. Don’t give a baby or young toddler a toy unless it is physically attached to them.
7. When choosing munchies for take off & landing. Remember that sugar-filled sweets WILL make your confined time on the plane harder.
8. Sometimes children sleep through meal times, so make sure you have some snacks in case their food isn’t going to keep fresh or in case they don’t like it.
9. Regardless of how you book your flights, make sure you telephone to book/confirm that you have booked bassinettes for little ones. Infants under 2 don’t have their own seats, but under approx 12/18 months* you can request a bassinette or flat cot that attaches to the bulkhead. Check that it is booked for EVERY leg of the journey. *varies depending on airline