07.09.2011 Long Haul with a Toddler
Not that I’m an expert by any means but Alfie has just clocked up his 20th flight this year alone, at least 4 of which were long haul, ie 12 hours– and that’s not including connections and travel time either side. Some of it was done with a partner, some of it alone whilst pregnant. And all of it pain and worry free.
So this is what I have learned, gleaned and picked up along the way (by the way, most airlines class an infant as between 6 months and two years old):
1. Buy a seat for your child. Unless your child is under a year old or teeny tiny and will fit into one of those bassinets you get on a bulkhead seat (in which case get a night flight and enjoy) then book a seat for your child. Don’t even think about the alternative; 12 hours in a cramped seat with 12 – 15kgs of squirming misery on your knee, neither of you being able to eat, sleep or read a book comfortably, especially when the guy in front reclines his seat for a nice snooze after dinner… You might not have a full flight but then again, you might. It’s not worth the savings and as infants only pay a percentage of the full adult fare in any case, treat yourselves. Your sanity is worth it.
2. Reserve your seats. Most airlines won’t let you check in online if you are travelling with an infant, but you can reserve your seats when booking your ticket. They won’t be guaranteed but mostly you’ll get what you ask for. So do your research, check the website for the layout of the plane and pick your seats. Remember, travelling with an infant you will most likely get on first (no matter where you are sitting), and if you sit near the front exits, you will most likely get off first as well. We sat by the galley meaning there was plenty of comings and goings to look at and plenty of attention from the flight staff as they passed by, but you may prefer something quieter. We also booked the two end seats of a row of three, chancing that no-one would book the middle seat and we were right, thankfully. Because the flight wasn’t full we got the full 3 seats between two of us and Alfie could get a good sleep while I ate my dinner. Result!
3. Book a Children’s Meal. Not only will they avoid the Thai curry that you get for breakfast, getting a more palatable chicken, mash and beans sort of meal, but they also get extras like a piece of fruit and chocolate biscuits. In my experience the portions are easily adult size, just slightly adjusted for taste. But by far the advantage of booking a children’s meal is that the staff are aware of you from the beginning as they will come and find you to tick you off their list. Once that happens you are marked out for special treatments such as snack boxes, stickers, drawing sets, puzzles and extra rounds of water and juice and a general keeping an eye out for you which is especially helpful if you are travelling alone. Plus they were quite happy to keep Alfie’s meal for when he woke up as he had managed to fall asleep just as the meals were served.
4. Be canny with your travel times. Obviously the beginning and end of holiday season is busy if you are anywhere near a tourist destination. Ditto weekends as people dash back to work. On long haul night flights are popular because people want to save time and wake up on holiday, as it were. So pick an ordinary Tuesday lunchtime and chances are your flight won’t be that full. It’s tempting to think that your toddler will sleep through a night journey but a) it’s not guaranteed by any means, b) day flights are nothing to be scared of! and c) it usually means you arrive in the morning. Which brings me to…
5. Arrive at your destination in the evening to avoid jetlag. No matter how smooth your journey, you and your child will be exhausted. By arriving at a decent time you only have to stay up an hour or two before it is ‘bedtime’ and chances are you will both sleep. Maybe not all night, but you’ve already made a good start on conquering the time difference. They say it takes a day for every hour’s difference to adjust, but I have to say that Alfie takes no more than 3 days and suffers least of all of us.
6. In flight entertainment. Well, this is a tricky one as it all depends on personal taste. I was a bit taken aback to find that Thai Airways don’t have individual screens which meant Alfie and I would have to crane our necks to see a main screen, have no choice of viewing matter and also have to cope with earphones. Hardly ideal for a nearly two year old! I had counted on at least an hour or two of entertainment from a cartoon or children’s channel on board. I needn’t have worried. On one flight he never bothered with the screen at all and on another he was quite riveted by the film ‘Rio’ (animated parrot adventure) though he didn’t want anything to do with the earphones and was only able to see the screen because the man in front had reclined his seat all the way back. I do have an iPod which I made sure was fully charged and he shows sporadic interest in some of the games, but mostly prefers looking at photos of himself. I also take a selection of books and toys, but only small stuff that isn’t too precious; he’s at the age when cars, trucks and diggers keep him occupied for ages and luckily, he loves airplanes of all kinds. He does also read all the material in the seat pocket in front and can spend hours poring over the magazines to find pictures of airplanes. Not to mention the in flight safety instructions which he’ reads’ for ages. Sweet! I can also highly recommend buying one of the proliferation of children’s magazines which you can get in the UK; most have favourite characters and stickers and toys attached and Alfie was riveted by his In the Night Garden mag for ages, plus we are still playing with the stickers and the plastic Iggle Piggle at home. Other than that he was happily occupied with the drawing sets and stickers given to him by the in-flight attendants (if you don’t get any, ask!) and chatting to the people behind, plus a couple of trips to the loo and a walk around the plane – though in fairness he wasn’t as bursting with energy as I had feared. Travelling is quite a tiring experience after all! You are of course able to take laptops on board these days and they are great if you can load up some CBeebies programmes or DVD’s. I didn’t bother and didn’t really miss it at all last time.
7. You can take your buggy or carrier up to the boarding gate but once there you have to hand it in. MAKE SURE you specify that you need to pick it up at the aircraft door on the other side, otherwise they might put it with the other luggage so it appears on the baggage carousel. This is not good if you are arriving somewhere like Heathrow where it is a good 20 minute walk from the aircraft to baggage pick up. Some airlines will ask, but it’s good if you reiterate to make sure, which is especially important if you are travelling alone with your child of course. Once you disembark, or preferably before if you get a chance, just remind the staff to look out for your buggy, otherwise you might have quite a wait while they go and get it, thus cancelling the advantage of getting off first!
8. Don’t stress! The thought of travelling with a child send some parents scurrying for the valium but you know what? It ain’t that bad, people do it all the time and if you make it an exciting adventure, well then your child(ren) will assume it IS an exciting adventure. And it is!