As an Aussie expat living in the UK with 2 children under 4 years old, the pull to get back home regularly to show off the kids/get some help with babysitting have the kids spend some quality time with their grandparents, cousins, and uncles and aunts is very strong. I’ve done the London to Sydney long-haul flight with children a few times now. Sometimes with my husband. Sometimes on my own. Sometimes with just Gammon. Sometimes with both Gammon and Chips.
In fact, seeing as the flight one way to Australia is at least 24 hours of flying time in the air, I reckon I’ve clocked up at least 144 hours of juvenile aviation adventures. Do I get a medal for that? Or some extra bonus Frequent Flyer points? Or at least a free one of those natty little small-scale models of the Airbus A380 that you can buy in the back of the airline’s Duty Free magazine?
No, unfortunately all I get is guaranteed tired, red eyes like a rabbit with Myxomatosis, a temper shorter than Tom Cruise’s trouser leg, a nappy change bag that looks like it’s been hanging on a fence post during Hurricane Katrina, and quite a few surreptitious, yet entirely obvious eye rolls and tuts from nearby childless passengers.
But what I can do, in the spirit of true Zen-like altruism, is pass on a few survival tips that I’ve learned from my experiences for those new to long-haul flying with children. So, here is my top 10.
1. Take your buggy right up to the aircraft door
Most airlines these days let you do this, so don’t be tempted to check it in early and just rely on a baby carrier or sling. That way, if there is any delay, then your baby or toddler can have a really comfortable sleep, and your back will be buying you a coffee in thanks. Many airlines will also let you have your buggy back as soon as you step off the plane at the other end. This is an absolute godsend and makes all the difference if you’ve gone a little over-the-top with buying too much Duty Free Baileys Biscotti beforehand.
But if your airline doesn’t do this, don’t worry – many airports (such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Copenhagen, etc.) offer courtesy buggies for families that you can pick up a short walk from the plane door. Some even do twin models!
2. Take a night flight
This way, in theory, your kids will sleep for a large proportion of the flight because they will be tired. Even if you have a baby who is restless, your toddler should sleep more easily, meaning you only have one child to stay up with. If you catch a day flight, then you will almost certainly be up for the entire flight with both children (especially if your toddler no longer has daytime naps). Believe me, this works.
3. Arrange a stopover
If you are flying for more than 12 hours with children, I would strongly recommend stopping over for at least a few days at the refuelling stop. Not only does it make travel boredom more bearable (i.e. one 24 hour flight is much more horrific than two 12 hours flights!), it also helps to break up the jet lag, so that you can cope with it in easier-to-handle segments. And hopefully by the time you get to your second destination, it will nearly have gone.
It also means that you can try to arrange another night flight for your final leg too, which wouldn’t be possible if you were doing it all in one go. That way, after a few days in the stopover country, the kids should be pretty much in their time zone, and (touch wood) should sleep the majority of the second night flight too.
4. Ask for a bulkhead seat
Do this when booking so you can get a bassinet cot for your baby. Otherwise they will need to sit on your lap at all times, which can make eating meals difficult, especially if you’re travelling on your own (you may need to rely on the kindness of strangers – see point number 10 below). Even if you don’t have a baby, bulkhead seats offer more room for bags of kiddy essentials, and you don’t have to worry about your toddler kicking the seats of the people in front of you.
Whatever you do, it’s probably best NOT to ask for the bulkhead seats if you don’t have children. On our recent flight from Kuala Lumpur to London Heathrow, one man had done just that and was allocated his seat in a 4-seat row, wedged in between a lady with a 3 month old, her 4 year old son, and me with 1 year old Chips on my lap. I offered for him to swap with my husband who had a seat across the aisle with 3 year old Gammon, because otherwise he was going to have a baby bassinette in front of him the whole trip and he replied “No, thanks. I need the leg room”. Cue much hilarity from all the parents in the surrounding rows over his decision to be sandwiched between 2 toddlers and 2 babies on a plane for 13 hours in order to merely stretch his Chinos out a bit. The air hostess who had witnessed this (and no doubt heard the collective sniggering from afar) didn’t wait long to put him out of his misery and found him a new seat down the other end of the plane where the passengers hadn’t heard his embarrassingly naïve faux pas. We all had another collective snigger when he stood up to move, and we could clearly see that he was even shorter than Doug!
5. Buy some Yu Yee Oil
On the first leg of our recent trip to Australia, 1 year old Chips cried so much that the air hostess came up and discretely gave us a small piece of paper with the words ‘Yu Yee Oil’ written on it and directions of where to find the nearest chemist at Kuala Lumpur airport. You should be able to get some from your local Chinese market, or else you can buy some here.
Dabbing some of this hot Chinese oil on the soles of babies’ feet, the palms of their hands and their tummy can help to calm them down during a flight. It’s made from a blend of Peppermint Oil, Clove Oil, Menthol, Cinnamon, and Nutmeg Oil and it certainly seemed to calm Chips down for the second leg of the flight. She was much better and seemed more calm and relaxed. And if nothing else, she smelt heavenly. I even nicked a smidge for my ears and pits in between trips to the aeroplane bogs for routine dousings of free 4711.
6. Pack lots of food
Don’t just rely on the airline’s food for your child. There will be lots of times during the trip when a healthy snack like a handful of dried apricots or raisins will distract and defuse a wetdown of megalithic proportions. And if you can’t trick your kids anymore with the old ‘raisins are treats’ line, just fill your bag with actual treats – they are on holidays after all!
7. Have milk at your fingertips
Take loads of milk with you for both babies and toddlers, especially to give to them during take-off and landing, when babies’ ears can be affected by the air pressure. Being breastfed, or sucking on a bottle, can really help. And a drink of milk before ‘bed’ can really calm toddlers down too, and when mixed with changing into their pyjamas, cleaning their teeth, and having a bedtime story read to them, can help them to somewhat stick to their normal routine, which will be comforting. Just make sure it is all easily accessible, as when a child wants milk, they want milk NOW!
Don’t worry about taking milk, formula or baby food through airport security – you’ll be allowed to take them through no problems, but you might just be asked to taste some to prove that they are not Cow & Gate branded Nitroglycerin.
8. Travel with an iPad or mobile phone
Don’t give yourself grief about bringing an electronic babysitter with you. If you’ve got one, use it, and load it up to the brim with your kids’ favourite games, Apps, TV episodes, and films. And don’t not do it because you think there will be a seat-back TV on the plane for them to use. There will be long periods of waiting in airports, and travelling in cars and other forms of transport, when your iNanny will come in handy. BBC iPlayer now allows you to download episodes onto your phone or iPad and keep them for 7 days, so visit the CBeebies section the day before you fly and stock up big time.
9. Take 100ml Calpol and Nurofen
It’s always good to have these on hand in case of temperatures, headaches, ear aches, teething pains, general meltdowns, or if the cabin staff have run out of Bloody Marys. And if in 100ml bottles, you’ll definitely get them through airport security no questions asked.
10. Rely on the kindness of strangers
I’ve flown many different airlines out to Australia now, but have once yet to have an air hostess offer to hold a baby or toddler. I think the airlines avoid it at all cost for health and safety reasons or something.
So, if you’re in need of help, you are going to have to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Aeroplanes can bring out the worst in people – like the plum-mouthed old lady with too much work done and her ‘yes dear, no dear’ husband who I was sat next to in a row of 3 when I had an infant Gammon on my lap, who very loudly (specifically so I could hear) said “I think it’s so cruel making a baby fly long-haul”. I feel that, despite her rudeness, I got the last laugh though, as she had to sit next to me and ‘ants pants’ Gammon all the way from Sydney to Hong Kong. Touché.
But aeroplanes can also bring out the best in people too – like the lovely lady who told us her seat number as she was walking down the aisle whilst boarding, so we could come and get her during the flight if we needed any help. And the wonderful woman who helped me swing Gammon the whole way from the plane door to the baggage reclaim area at Gatwick after he decided to have one of his monumental skitzes whilst I was on my own and laden with way too much hand luggage filled with packets of Tim Tams, bags of Cherry Ripes, and jars of Promite.
So, I hope these survival tips help to make your flight just that little bit easier. I think that half the key is in mentally preparing yourself before you go. It will be horrendous, it will be long, it will be tiring, your kids won’t sleep as well as they do back home, they won’t want to eat when the meals are being served, and you definitely won’t get to watch an entire movie all the way through (although if you’re lucky, you might get to catch the end on the flight home).
Lower your expectations and then you might just be pleasantly surprised. And keep telling yourself that, flights, like labour, will be over eventually too.