Regulations and restrictions
- Limits on the liquids and pastes you can take through security will affect the food and drink that you might have been planning on taking onboard the aircraft. Formula can still be taken onboard, but please be aware that you will probably be expected to taste it.
- A child under 2 years of age will not have a seat and will be expected to sit on your lap. But, they will still need a ticket.
- Hold baggage allowances vary but are much lower than 20 years ago and can vary. No one bag should weigh more than 32kg for safety reasons. At the same time hand luggage allowances have increased, especially with some low-cost carriers. Again check with your airline, as size limits vary. A baby will have a hand baggage allowance in addition to your own that is often in addition to a buggy / travel system. This can be a great help in the aim to have as much as possible in the cabin with you.
Security. Everything and everyone will need to be scanned, including babies and young children
Queues and waiting
- You are likely to be effected by queuing at check-in, security, at the gate, boarding, disembarking, immigration and baggage reclaim. Additional waiting could be expected on inter- & intra- terminal transport, at airport shops and the old favourite, toilets.
- A way of keeping a baby happy can be in a front carrier, thus keeping your hands free for documents and a baby free to people-watch. Alternatively keeping your buggy until the gate can mean that a child is contained and has access to toys around them.
- Look for fast-track ways around long queues. Some airports now have family only security queues now.
Food and Drink
- Baby food could well be hard to get through security. If home made, then it will need to be pots that clearly say they are less than 100ml (not just written on). It is therefore often easier for a travelling baby to use commercial food that is often sold in 100ml pots or pouches. Not ideal if you are used to home cooking, but definitely easier. It can also be easier if you buy it after you go through security. Companies like Boots will allow a passenger to pre order items such as cartons of formula.
- As already mentioned, sometimes it can be easier to pre-order cartons of formula to collect after you go through security. But, I imagine that you will want to have some with you, just in case the order doesn’t happen. As long as you are happy to taste the milk (or water if you make it up with powder) then most airports are accommodating of baby bottles containing more than 100ml of liquid.
- Find out if the airports you are travelling to and from have any special kids areas. Some airport lounges might also offer this.
- Refrain from taking toys that have loads of bits to them. It is relatively easy to entertain babies with buggy toys and all the new sights and sounds around them. With young children, more thought is required. Consider the various reusable drawing toys or for older children an electronic toy (with learning games, of course!).
- On board, there will be the in-flight entertainment package. Consider also a children’s version of an ebook if they are older and can read a little.
- When booking your flight, if possible, choose the most appropriate times relevant to the children’s routine. Consider the time you are checking-in as well as the arrival time at the other end. It can help if you fly through the night and / or are able to integrate little ones to the new time zone early on.
- Try and go for an airline with allocated seating, or at least one that boards families first. There is nothing worse than a family split-up at opposite ends of an aircraft.
- If you are travelling with a baby on a long-haul flight, try and pre-order a baby bassinette (or baby seat) that fits on to a bulkhead wall.
- Children might eat better on long flights if you pre-order a special children’s meal. The bonus is that this could mean they are served before you.
- Keep all documents handy but secure – in a place that more than one party member knows. Keeping check of kids running all over the place can be stressful so don’t add to your stress by thinking you have lost the documents
In Depth Discussion on Air Travel
While much of the advice I can give for air travel is similar to that of any other form of travel, there are some very unique aspects, too. I will endeavour to cover as many facets of air travel, with babies & children, as possible.
Well, we all know about the usual 100ml limit on liquid and paste items going through security as hand luggage. But please remember that if not planned correctly, this can really affect the food and drink you plan on taking on-board the aircraft (see below). As well as hold luggage, airlines will generally allow one piece of hand baggage per person. A few large carriers, such as British Airways, also allow an additional handbag, laptop etc. An infant ticket should also include (but not always, so please check your airline’s policy) a buggy and change-bag; so pack wisely and you should end up with virtually everything you need on-board.
Please remember though that airlines vary, while even different destinations with the same airline can vary, so check the airline’s website. For example, low-cost airlines currently offer generous cabin-baggage allowances, but at the expense of the hold allowance. Equally a short-haul flight may be more restrictive than a long-haul flight. But the shorter the flight; the less you theoretically need to pack and consider.
There are limits on the liquids and pastes you can take through security – this affects the food and drink that you might have been planning on taking onboard the aircraft. There are ways of still taking formula onboard, but please be aware that you will probably be expected to taste it.
A child under 2 years of age will not have a seat and will be expected to sit on your lap. But, they will still need a ticket. If you would like more space (especially on longer flights) then it might be worth buying an additional seat. The seat will then be available during the flight but the infant will still need to be on an adults lap for take off and landing. On the topic of babies on laps, if there are two babies and there are only two adults travelling, then check with your airline about seating. Due to the equipment carried on some aircraft, mostly on short-haul aircraft, there is a limit of one baby per three seats. A car seat is one way, if you have bought an extra seat, of not having to have an infant on your lap. Be aware however, that a baby would need to be at least 6 months to use a car seat for takeoff and the seat will need to be capable of forward-facing with a 5-point harness. Each airline will have their own restrictions so please check with them before booking. Some airlines however don’t allow any car seats in the cabin. Virgin Atlantic states this on their website, but they do offer a service of booking an alternative seat for use onboard.
- Baggage allowances have decreased over recent years so please double check your airline’s policy. At UK airports, there is a maximum limit of 32kg per bag for safety reasons. This is about twice that of many airline’s allowances, so probably not an issue for you. At the same time hand luggage allowances have increased, especially with some low-cost carriers. Again check with your airline, as size limits vary. A baby will have a hand baggage allowance in addition to your own that is often in addition to a buggy / travel system. This can be a great help in the aim to have as much as possible in the cabin with you.
- Security. Everything and everyone will need to be scanned, including babies and young children. Explain to young children in advance about the walk through scanners and pat-downs, in order to limit their adverse reactions.
- If you are delayed for any length of time, don’t worry. The European Union has set down rules on what needs to be provided for delayed air travellers depending on the length of delay. Additionally, those travelling with babies and very young children may be offered additional assistance by some airlines.
Food & drink tips
As long as you have the space in your hand-luggage, food shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Although food is always available on board aircraft there are a number of factors that may necessitate taking food in your hand-luggage.
Low-cost airlines – These have always charged for food and drinks on-board. Added to which most food on offer is of the snack/treat variety and not so conducive for calm kids!
Length of flight – Short flights, such as scheduled intra-European flights, will generally only offer a drink and a snack (paid or complimentary). Charter flights offer more, possibly even a cooked meal. Increasingly, however, charter airlines are charging for this service (some even moving to a more low-cost airline catering service), while their drinks & snacks have always been offered at a cost. Long-haul flights typically include two meal services (one hot and one cold) with snacks available from the galley. While most of the time this is offered for free, some airline's snacks and drinks are chargeable, so please bare this in mind. This all becomes relevant when a child’s routine needs to be factored into flight times.
Dietary requirements - Airlines that serve meals, will also have the option of specialist dietary meals. These might include vegetarian, vegan, lactose-free, kosher etc. Options vary from airline to airline, so if this a concern for you, please double check. All special meals MUST be ordered at least 48 hours prior to departure, not at the check-in desk. While additional vegetarian meals are often carried on-board on longer flights, you cannot assume you will be able to have one if you have not ordered one. So, if it is important for you or your child to have a vegetarian meal, order well in advance. At this point, I might add that it is possible to order children's meals on many longer flights. This is a good option as the food is tailored to younger tastes, with crew often bringing it out before serving the rest of the cabin. Again this needs to be pre-ordered.
General food fussiness - Solid foods, such as biscuits and crisps, fruit and sandwiches are easily sourced. But, if weaning has been recent, these won't be so easy for you. So, look at the options and try to purchase jars and containers that contain 100ml/100g or less. A few very large long-haul airlines carry jars of baby food on board. But, this is not always the case and is more seen as emergency food during delays or if there has been a breakage.
A factor to be considered is meal times. While adults can adapt, children find it hard and if you want to try and keep a routine (especially with fussy eaters), you might have to carry meal alternatives with you.
Cabin crew will be happy to serve two parents their meals at staggered times on longer flights. This will aid one parent to eat while their partner deals with a baby or young child and then swap places. This is often offered with babies, but if you are travelling with a young child and would still appreciate this service, just ask - there is no harm in asking.
Queues and potential waiting
More than any other form, air travel is really a series of queues. You can expect to queue to check-in, to get through security, to enter your boarding gate and finally as you board your aircraft. Once you have landed, there will be a wait to disembark the aircraft, a queue at immigration and then a wait as you wait for your luggage to come through on the belt.
Check-in (landside) - The fact that terminals are often very busy and there are a number of boredom-inducing queues for children, I would recommend that a buggy or baby carrier (if your child is particularly young) is kept with you for as long as possible, hopefully right until you board the aircraft. Many airlines will allow a buggy to be retained until the gate, although they may still baggage-tag it at the check-in desk. The advantage of keeping a buggy with you means somewhere for a child to sit and sleep, especially important if they are tired or you encounter a delay. Additionally it is useful for carrying (and keeping together) many of your hand-luggage items.
Security - This can be quick, but it is best to be prepared for the worst. The worst situation can involve a long queue (that you won’t be able to get out of, even temporarily, to occupy a baby or child), assertive security staff and if it goes on too long a rush to your boarding aircraft. It is useful to have a child in a buggy at this point as they are contained and can hopefully entertain themselves with a book, game or toy. I have been known to forgo the buggy on some jaunts through security, especially if I have known it is a cramped queuing system. When my eldest was just a baby and the flight was short (so we didn’t have very much hand-luggage), I found it easier to use a baby carrier (in our case a Baby Bjorn). IP loved it and all the sights and sounds kept her brilliantly entertained, leaving my husband to deal with the bag scanner! Security, believe it or not, is getting better. Improvements in technology over the last few years have been overshadowed by additional government and international regulations and constraints. Over the next few years even better technological advances will see a much simplified security system, meaning a more relaxed process for all passengers. In the mean time, the old rules apply and security has become many a regular travellers bug-bare. Don't argue or joke with security staff, especially in the UK. Just converse politely with them and look to get to the other side of security as quickly and efficiently as possible. Some airports have realised how additionally stressful security can be for children and endeavoured to ease the process. London Gatwick Airport, for example, has introduced family and buggy only security points, meaning you don't have to join the normal queuing system.
Post-security shops, gates & boarding (airside) – As a family escapes the security queues, and your vision opens up onto the view that is shops and restaurants, it is tempting to kids to run off. Take stock of your surroundings first; even in a terminal I know well I have become disorientated and gone to walk in the wrong direction. This terminal area is the last real opportunity for the walking /crawling children to let off steam. Many of the restaurants and cafes will have large picture windows for views of the aircraft. Some airports will even be kind enough to sight these picture windows by free waiting areas.
If its going to be a long wait and you’re able, a good option is an executive lounge. Some lounge providers now include specialist family food & play areas. The bonus for them being; that you don’t interfere with business customers and a whole new market is opened up to them. Plus, you get a safe enclosed and, most importantly, fun area for the family. Virgin Atlantic customers are offered this through the Clubhouse and a number of other lounges have followed suit. At London Gatwick Airport, for example, there are Servisair and No.1 Traveller lounges at both terminals that include child-friendly areas. Additionally the Virgin Clubhouse is found at the South Terminal. Airports themselves are increasingly looking to make family travel easier, with many now including free play-areas by the retail space.
The next big queue is potentially when you get to the gate and at boarding time. If many of your fellow passengers arrive at the gate at the same time, boarding card and passport checks can cause a long wait. Arrive at the gate at least 10 minutes before it is due to close. Boarding could well start at this point and/or a bus might be taking you to the aircraft, which adds on time. Once the gate is due to close, then announcements for lost passengers generally start. Having said all this, gates are not always particularly large, with little more than a TV showing the news for entertainment. Therefore, as a family, you may not want to spend too much time there. So a quick calculation is needed to limit stress. Always find out where the gate is located and how long it is advertised as realistically taking to walk there. Then add at least an additional 50% of the time on for lagging toddlers and a good 10 minutes for getting all your bags together (and toilet trips) as well as the -10mins from gate closing. Hey presto, I hope it's a stress-free boarding for you. Families with young children are often called forward to board first, so it is nice to be ready for this benefit. This can also give you additional time to get your bags away before you are being pestered to get out of the way by other passengers.
Immigration – You are all exhausted, you just want to get to the hotel / family / home but you still have to stand and be polite, yes I know, its tough. If we didn’t have a buggy to overload with children and bags, it was especially tough. A baby carrier was especially useful for the youngest family member and reins for the oldest (even when they are four!) as it takes less energy to ‘rein them in’ than shouting and running. A brilliant alternative is the Trunki. As long as this has been used as hand-luggage, this can be a useful way of pulling a tired child around the airport.
The good news is that this is the last major queue, other than potential ones if you are waiting for baggage and/or transport outside the airport.
Every child is different and every flight is likely to be different. But, here are a few pointers on what might make the flight less fraught.
- Have the appropriate food and drink easily available
- Ensure that you, or a child, have packed items for entertainment (games, colouring, books etc.). Place it all in their own bag and ensure it is close to their seat.
- Make use of the larger airline’s freebies. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic do lovely travel packs that include activities for older children and colouring for the younger ones. But please don’t rely to heavily on these great packs. If your flight is very busy with children, it might just end up being your child they run out of stock for. All of this is in addition to the in-flight entertainment that will include films, cartoons and games.
- Ensure that all children have been to the toilet before boarding if possible as it could be as much as an hour before the next opportunity. Landing could be a similar issue, so try and get to the toilet before the seatbelt signs come back on, if possible. On a long-haul flight my signal to get everyone sorted is when the second meal service is being cleared away, if not sooner. At this point my husband will simultaneously prepare the bags, ready for a quick grab as the aircraft disembarks. When IP and GG were little we used to disembark with them in front carriers in order to keep our hands free for bags and paperwork.
- If the flight is long and your travelling with a baby, try and pre-book a bulk-head row (wall in front of you) and a baby bassinet or chair. These really free up your lap and enable quality sleep for at least the youngest member of the family. Remember though, these will not be able to be used during take-off, landing or turbulence. If you are not able to get one of these seats and you would prefer more space, then consider buying an extra seat, although a baby would have to still sit on your lap for take-off and landing. If your child is between 6 months and 3 years, then it might be possible to use a car-seat on-board. This is not always approved of by airlines however, although it is useful. Virgin Atlantic in particular, state that you cannot bring your own car seats into the cabin. If you are taking a car seat, then think very carefully as allowing it to go in the hold of the aircraft carries a very high chance of damage.
Keeping Little Ones entertained
As already mentioned there are the free kids-packs on-board the aircraft, the views of the aircraft at the terminal, films and games on-board, free play areas in the terminal, charge play areas in lounges and good old fashioned people watching.
Otherwise, just do what you normally do to keep your children entertained; you know them best.
Even if you encounter a flight delay, don't be down. A baby or child will sense it and, in my experience, play up. Therefore, just enjoy the additional time in the terminal (to let the children let off steam or people-watch those around them) or aircraft (to all catch-up on long-lost sleep or that new book/game/film/colouring). Let the world slow down for a bit and don't think of it as a delay to starting your holiday - it's just an additional adventure. These things happen (thankfully not too often) and please trust me, the airport and airline staff will do whatever they can to get you moving again - they hate delays as much as the passengers.
Planning for a trip by air can be equally one of the easiest and hardest forms of travel. The queues and packing limitations can be tough, but on a positive note an airport can be an exciting place for any little one to start their holidays. Just enjoy yourselves from the moment you leave the house or check-in for your flight. Just remember to be on time!