I took a toddler on a pair of transatlantic flights – and survived.
For an entire year I researched how to cope on a nine-hour British Airways flight from London Heathrow Airport to Miami International Airport.
I have distilled a total of 18 hours in the air into this guide of top tips for flying long haul with a toddler in economy class.
1. Book a seat for infants and toddlers under two
The money saving gremlin inside me believed we could last nine hours each way with a toddler sat on our laps. This worked very well on a short haul flight so it should work on a long haul flight, right?
Except for the two types of flight are not created equal.
Being confined for an extended period took its toll on my two-year-old.
Paying for an additional (yet optional) seat meant I could book an entire row of three, saving someone else from the misery of being allocated a seat next to us.
A row of seats also meant my son could move between the three, lessening the impact of being cooped up for so long.
For the first time I flew in an Airbus A380 on the outbound journey. The aircraft was remarkably spacious inside, particularly in terms of headroom. The lack of personal overhead vents and lights meant there was nothing tiny meddling hands could play with when he stood up on my lap.
On the return flight, I travelled on an older and noisier Boeing 747. The tired and worn interior was darker and offered less headroom. By the time we boarded our evening flight, my son was exhausted.
That was perhaps a good thing as I had gambled with our seats and lost. I had booked three seats in a row of four with the hope of bagging a bonus fourth seat for free. I had not anticipated a full flight.
I originally booked our seats over the wings on both planes. It dawned on me after flying on relatively empty SAS flights that if we booked our seats at the very rear of the aircraft, these might be more secluded. If my two-year-old screamed, it would have been less likely to disrupt as many people compared to sitting in the middle of the plane. The downside is that you are the last to leave the plane when you land, which adds at least ten extra minutes of waiting time.
2. Brace yourself for a long day
A nine-hour flight is not an accurate reflection of how long the journey from home to Miami takes.
I arrived at Heathrow Airport three hours before the departure time as is recommended. I left my home three hours earlier having been awake for two hours. So I already had eight hours under my belt by the time I stepped aboard the aircraft.
Then the pilot muttered that dreaded word no passenger nor parent wishes to hear – “delay”. The tug truck that had hooked onto the aircraft back had suffered a mechanical failure as it tried to push back. One hour later the plane eventually reached the runway.
Seeing the beautiful, dusky skyline of Downtown Miami on the approach filled me with a sense of joy, but it too masked plenty more time before I could finally crawl into bed. Three hours later I could finally sleep. Totalling 21 hours, the day was very long for all of us.
Do not forget to pack a box of paracetamol for you and infant paracetamol sachets for your child in your hand luggage. You never know when you might need them.
3. Book a children’s meal
When I booked my flights, I was told I had to request a child meal online. The British Airways website stated a child meal was for children aged between two and 12 years so I was unsure whether they would honour the request for a 22-month-old.
It was, and onboard, children were served their meals around 15 minutes before the adults.
The meals consisted of a hot component (just one option so no choice here), a juice drink, a bread roll, a yoghurt, a snack, bottle of water and a bag of chocolate. The outbound meal was (soggy) breaded chicken, mashed potato and peas. The meal on the return journey was an uninviting pasta dish.
Even so, overall, the quality of the children’s food aboard was very reasonable and far better than the adult trays in some aspects (the bread roll was edible for example).
British Airways supply a one-size-fits-all meal for children aged up to 12 years old, meaning there is likely to be some wastage for younger children. You can, of course, hold onto some of the items such as the snacks or chocolate for consumption later on.
When it comes to adult meals do not expect a hassle-free mealtime if you are travelling with an inquisitive child. The inflexible meal system means that cabin crew collect all trays together. With three trays to explore, my son was a handful.
I coped as best I could, but it was inevitable that food would start flying everywhere. A tray of potato salad slid down the back of the tray-table and into the seat pocket. Thankfully the firm texture of aeroplane food meant it held its shape and stuck to the container instead of the seat.
The standard adult meals were amongst the most disappointing we had experienced, with revolting hot pasta dishes and rock solid bakery items. The square of cheese and sweet desserts were the only redeeming features. The snack boxes didn’t fare much better either.
Overall the meal service was disappointing. The food was awful, and the service could have been more flexible to help the many families on these flights – serving children first is a splendid idea but only if tray collection happens soon after.
4. Variety trumps quantity
I had read plenty of advice that recommended taking lots of toys and games to keep the little one entertained. While this is great advice, it transpired that variety trumped quantity.
True to expectations my son jumped between activities. Something would keep him quiet for 15 minutes before he got bored and moved on. After a while, he looped back to the first activity. The same pattern repeated itself.
I kept his toys, games, books and activities tucked away. As one item came out, everything else went back into the bag, creating a small ‘surprise’ each time something new appeared.
I had packed cuddly toys, games, books, and activity books including a mix of familiar and new items. My son tended to prefer the books with toys coming taking second place.
On the outbound journey, British Airways cabin crew supplied a complimentary Skyflyers activity pack typically offered to children aged three or older. The kit consisted of crayons and a colouring book in a handy reusable drawstring back. The bag was almost more popular than the toys I had packed.
In reality, I packed too many toys for one little boy. When packing for the next trip, I would likely take a sticker book, story books, and a couple of toys. The older he gets, the more likely he would latch onto a games console or tablet computer which should help keep him engrossed for longer periods of time.
5. Avoid sugary snacks
I heeded advice not to take sugary snacks like chocolate, confectionery, and fruit based snacks (containing plenty of natural sugars) and instead opted for rice cakes and biscuits as these had worked on our short haul flight.
As you may have spotted above, chocolate forms part of the children’s meal. Hiding this from inquisitive eyes requires the super slick moves of a parenting ninja but is worthwhile doing. The snack can then become a treat closer to landing or upon arrival.
Have a cup of water available at all times to avoid dehydration and unnecessary crankiness. We saved the bottles of water from the meal services and used these to top up his cup periodically.
6. Pack enough nappies – but not too many
To work out how many nappies you need, work out how many you use on an average day and add a handful as a backup. Remember to pack enough baby wipes and nappy bags using the same principle.
Having run out of space in my hold luggage, I had to pack nappies in my carry-on bag. Covering all eventualities looks a little extreme when you carry 50 nappies onto an aircraft!
Take a change of clothes for your child too, or perhaps two. It is easy to forget but should any accidents happen mid-air then you will have a spare set of clothes to change them into should you need to. Some parents recommend taking sleepwear to encourage children to fall asleep although I chose not to.
7. A collapsible buggy rules
Take a collapsible umbrella buggy with you, even if you do not think you will need it on holiday.
You can take the buggy to the gate for most airlines, but cannot always collect it at the arrivals gate.
When I landed at Miami International Airport, I had to collect our buggy from the oversized luggage area, meaning I had to carry my cabin luggage and my son through the long maze of corridors and for half an hour in the US immigration queue.
On the return leg, the buggy was waiting at the bottom of the aircraft steps at Heathrow Airport. I did notice spot family on the same flight denied this service due to the sheer size of their travel system buggy.
A light, collapsible umbrella buggy is a sensible travel investment! Even if you do not expect to make full use of it, it can be a relief for families with young children.
Have you flown with children? Do you have tips and tricks to keep them on the right side of happy? Share them in the comments section below.
Disclosure: Carnival Cruise Line kindly supplied one return adult economy airfare, overseas transfers, one night in a Miami hotel, a full board cruise for two adults and an infant, and Seuss at Sea Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast fees. I paid for one return adult and child airfare, meals ashore, private excursions, and domestic travel to and from Heathrow airport. My opinions are my own.