The Awkward Girl’s Guide to Flying Long-Haul With a Toddler
I’ve already written about our first flight with Max: a five hour jaunt to Tenerife, when he was 11 months old, and we were still filled with hope that flying with a baby might be easier than people like to make out.
Well, spoiler alert: NO, IT WASN’T. Flying with a baby might not be easy, however, but it’s significantly easier than flying with a toddler – which is why I thought it might be a good idea to revisit this topic now that Max is a bit older, and the flight in question a bit longer. When we flew to Tenerife, after all, Max hadn’t started walking, so was much more willing to sit on our laps the entire time. Six months on, however, he’s not just walking, but also running and climbing, and sitting still for any period of time really isn’t high on his agenda. Our flight from Glasgow to Orlando was around 8 hours: so, not super-long haul, obviously, but still long enough (Especially when you add in the time you spend in the airport at either end of the flight) for us to be feeling pretty apprehensive about it.
In the end, however, neither flight was quite as bad as we’d anticipated, so, with all of the usual caveats in mind (All toddlers are different, what works for us might not work for you, your home is at risk if you fail to make repayments, etc, etc…), here are some of my top tips on surviving a long(ish) flight with a toddler…
First of all, accept that this is going to destroy you.
Prepare for your flight by purchasing some books and movies you’ve been looking forward to, some fancy moisturiser, and one of those pillows that goes around your neck.
Now throw them all away, because, seriously, did you not read point one? This is not the kind of flight you’re going to be having, people: this is purely an act of survival, and we don’t survive flying with a toddler by using cute eye masks and the like. THIS IS NOT A DRILL, folks, so lower your expectations, then lower them some more. You will thank me for this later.
Upgrade your seats if you can
OK, so I obviously realise this isn’t an option for everyone, and, to be totally honest, it’s not normally an option for us, either. This time around, though, we were travelling with my parents, who very generously decided to upgrade our tickers to TUI’s Premier Club. Advantages of this included…
- Priority check in: so, rather than having to wait in one of those crazy-long lines to check in, we walked straight up to the check-in desk, and were dealt with right away.
- Access to the premier lounge at both airports. We had access to the Upperdeck Lounge at Glasgow airport (Where some of the photos in this post were taken), and the Royal Palm Lounge at Sanford Orlando. Both lounges provide you with unlimited food and drink (We did have to pay for meals at Sanford, but drinks and snacks were free), plus a quieter, less stressful place to wait for your flight, basically. At Sanford, there was also a toddler play room, which made it a whole lot easier for us to keep Max entertained while we were waiting to board, and allowed him to burn off some of his energy before the flight.
- Extra legroom. It’s not business class, obviously, but these seats had significantly more space than economy, and, once we were in the air, Max was able to stand in front of our seats and rummage through the seat-back pockets quite comfortably. The extra space also came in useful when he fell asleep on Terry’s chest, and I instantly decided I had to go to the bathroom: I was in the window seat on the outbound flight, but it was easy enough for me to get past Terry in the aisle without waking up Max. Oh, and speaking of the seating arrangements, if you only have one child who’s travelling on your lap, I highly recommend pre-booking the seats that are grouped in twos, rather than a row of three, so there’s no one else in your row: it was such a relief not to have to keep disturbing someone every time Max wanted to move around, or I wanted to go to the bathroom. (He DID forge a lasting relationship with the couple in the row behind us, though, who he christened ‘LADY!’ and ‘MAN!’. Thankfully The Lady and The Man were absolutely lovely, and even made a point of coming to find him on the return journey, much to his excitement…)
- Priority boarding and disembarking. Most airlines allow people with small children to board first anyway, but, with these tickets, our cabin was also the first to be allowed to disembark, too, which meant we had less time to wait at immigration. This was actually something I hadn’t really considered, but US immigration queues can be long and slow (If you’re flying into LAX, for instance, I’d advise cancelling all appointments for the next few weeks…), and when your toddler is desperate to finally get to run around, after being cooped up on the plane for hours, that’s the very last thing you need, isn’t it?
(I should probably also add here that we were obviously very fortunate to be travelling as a group of four, so we were able to hand Max over to my parents when he desperately needed a change of scene. I know ‘TAKE REINFORCEMENTS’ isn’t exactly a useful tip here, but if you CAN do it, I can highly recommend it…)
So, I talked about this in my post on our first flight with a baby, but it’s important enough to be repeated: PACKING CUBES. GET SOME. The fact is, flying with a toddler (or baby) is not the time to start packing light: you’re going to get on board that aircraft with a TON of stuff – some of which you’ll actually use, too! – and there’s really no getting around that. The best way I’ve found to make life a little bit easier on myself in this situation is to be super-organise: I separate all of Max’s in-flight essentials into piles – so, one for toys, one for nappies/changing equipment, one for clothes, one for snacks, etc – and then I put each pile into a packing cube, which then goes inside my carry-on. This won’t change your live, but it WILL make it a whole lot easier to find that essential item at 20 thousand feet: and, rather than having to rummage forever inside a giant bag, you can just take out a much smaller bag, containing exactly what you need for whatever situation you find yourself facing.
It also really helps to have just a few nappies, wipes etc in a smaller bag, so that, when the time comes for a nappy change, you don’t have to squeeze your entire flight bag into the aiplane toilet with you: trust me on this…
Don’t count on nap-times being observed
Of course, your main hope when flying with a toddler is that the toddler in question will snuggle up shortly after takeoff, and then settle down for a nice, long nap, lulled by the sound of the engines into the kind of deep sleep that might even give you an opportunity to read some of that book you optimistically downloaded onto your Kindle before you left home, you sweet summer child, you. If your child is anything like Max, though, and is not a fan of napping outside of his cot, it’s best to just abandon this hope as soon as you board the aircraft. In fact, it’s probably best to just abandon ALL hope, to be totally honest with you: it’s easier that way.
As you can see from the photo above, Max DID sleep during our two flights, but… barely. I think he managed just under two hours each way – and the return journey was a night flight, with the cabin lights dimmed and everything, so that was really quite the achievement, Max, well done, little guy! Now, just to reassure anyone contemplating flying with a toddler, and feeling a little bit freaked out by this, worry not: as I said, Max has NEVER been keen on napping anywhere other than in his cot (Other than when he was tiny, I mean. At his current age, though, he won’t even sleep in the car until he’s totally exhausted – which normally happens approximately two minutes before we reach our destination…), so we weren’t really expecting him to start now, nice though that would’ve been. If you have a toddler who’s into napping, though, you may well find that you DO get to read that book/watch that movie/drink that wine. You will be living my dream life, in other words. I kind of hate you right now, tbh…
Where was I? While we weren’t surprised that Max chose to stay awake as much as he did, we nevertheless did our best to try to encourage him to sleep, by keeping things as close to ‘normal’ as possible for him. He won’t, for instance, sleep without his sleeping bag, so my mum bought him a 0.5 tog muslin bag from SlumberSac, which was light enough for him to wear on the plane without overheating. We also gave him a dummy (We’ve been trying – without much success, it has to be said – to wean him off this, but it really helps him sleep, and we needed all the help we could get…), then, once the seatbelt sign was off, Terry stood up and took him to the back of the cabin to rock him for a bit. It was a bit of a nightmare, to be totally honest, and involved about 20 minutes of crying (I leave it up to you to decide whether that came from me, Terry or Max…), and we both found it pretty stressful. Luckily for us, our fellow passengers were all very tolerant (A few people even took the time to assure us that they’d been there and knew what it was like, which we were very grateful for…) but, well, no one likes being The People With the Screaming Baby on the Flight, obviously, so we were just relieved to find that the screaming was short-lived. (We were slightly less thrilled to find that the napping was ALSO to be short-lived, but hey…)
Take plenty of in-flight entertainment options
If I had to give the photo above a caption I’d call it either, ‘Pick Your Battles’ or ‘Seven Hours Into a Long Haul Flight.’ I mean, he’s got The Forbidden Dummy, he’s staring at an OMGSCREEN… and the irony of him doing these things while wearing a ‘Harvard’ shirt is not lost on me, either. So, clearly Terry and I had long-since given up on winning any parenting awards by this stage: while I’m sure some people will judge us, though, I firmly believe that airplane cabins are one of the few places in the world where normal rules are suspended for a while, and you do things you wouldn’t normally do, purely in the name of survival. Like day-drinking, for instance. Or wearing sweatpants in public. In our case, you can also add, ‘Use of devices and dummies,’ to that list, and file it under, ‘What Happens on the Aircraft Stays on the Aircraft,’ OK?
So, at home, we don’t really give Max much screen time at all. There was a time when he was smaller when we’d switch on Moana for ten minutes, just to give ourselves time to clear up the kitchen or whatever, but for about six months now, we’ve been doing our best to limit his access to screens – and dummies, for that matter. On a long-haul flight, though, all bets are off, so not only were we willing to relax the dummy rule if it meant he was less likely to disturb the people around us, we were also willing to do whatever else it took to keep him occupied. We actually bought the Amazon Fire Tablet in preparation for our flight to Tenerife, but didn’t get much use out of it then, because Max completely refused to wear the baby headphones we’d bought to go with it. Six months on, though, and although he’s still not particularly keen on them, he did consent to wear them for short periods of time, to watch his beloved Moana, so it was definitely worth persevering with them.
As far as toys etc go, though, I have to admit, I was at a bit of loss as to what to bring on board for him. The problem here was that the only toys that could be relied upon to hold his interest for longer than a couple of minutes were either too large, or too messy, to take onto a plane (Play-Doh, I’m looking at you, here…), and as my carry-on bag was stuffed to the limits as it was, I was reluctant to try to cram even more stuff in, and then have to lug it around with me, only for it to go unused.
One thing he does enjoy, however, is opening up boxes and bags, so, in the end, I filled a small pouch with items-inside-other-items, which he could spend time unpacking, and then, on a whim, we also picked up a couple of sticker books at the airport. I didn’t have high hopes for these, and actually bought them for the little toys on the covers (Yes, I know, they’re just cheap tat, but they were cheap tat that Max had never seen before, so I was relying on the novelty value here…), rather than the stickers themselves, which I assumed he’d be too young for. As it turned out, though, the toys entertained him for about two minutes, but he actually quite enjoyed peeling off and then re-attaching the stickers, so that passed a bit of time, too. The biggest hit, though, was the little bag of toiletries TUI handed out as we boarded: not only was it a bag (Or a ‘BAGA’ as Max would have it…) filled with STUFF for him to rummage through, it was all stuff like hand cream and lip balm, which are some of his very favourite things. Don’t ask…
Snacks are life
While toys can be hit and miss, the one thing absolutely guaranteed to hold Max’s attention is snacks. I bought a multi-compartment snack box in Matalan just before our trip, and filled it with fruit and raisins, to be doled out as necessary, and he also had some of the food from our plates, too – sometimes even with our permission. (If you’re flying to the US, it’s worth noting that some foods aren’t allowed past border control, so if you don’t finish them on the flight, you’ll have to leave them behind. You can find more info on what’s allowed here…) We also took a sippy cup, which we used to give him milk at the airport, and water during the flight: he drinks cow’s milk at home, but you can’t take it through security (Both formula and expressed breast milk are permitted, though), so we just relied on water, plus a few pouches of pureed baby food. Max is long past the stage of eating these at home, but we found them useful during the flight as they’re easy for him to eat without spilling, and also another way to get some liquids into him. On the way back, I picked up a few pouches at Target, and had no problem taking them through security – oh, and they were also quite handy as snacks when we were out and about during the holiday, too.
Bring a change of clothes. Or three.
I was absolutely convinced that putting some fresh clothes in my hand luggage would be a guaranteed way of ensuring I wouldn’t actually need them, but.. I mean, it’s like I haven’t even MET myself sometimes, isn’t it? Or my child, as the case may be, because THREE TIMES, people: that’s how often I had to change his outfit. In fairness, the first time it was just his top, which he’d managed to get covered in food: the second time, however, it was his entire outfit, and it was ALSO due to food spillages, so, yeah, BRING SPARE CLOTHES. BRING LOTS OF THEM. On the plus side, it was actually accidents of the toilet-kind I was worried about here, and, thankfully, that didn’t happen: he did manage to get himself absolutely filthy, though, and he did it before we’d even left the airport, so I was glad I’d brought some clean clothes to change him into, or I shudder to think what kind of state he’d have been in by the time we landed.
(I also packed a change of outfit for myself, on the advice of a few different articles I’d read on the subject of flying with a toddler, all of which promised that Max would distribute bodily fluids over me at various points during the flight. Thankfully, that didn’t happen either, so I didn’t have to deploy my trust t-shirt dress or spare sweater on the outbound flight. As we were waiting for our flight to be called on the way home, though, I happened to glance down and see that the top that had been clean on that morning was now covered in stains, so I felt pretty smug as I reached down and plucked a fresh one out of my carry-on bag… only to get IT covered in some kind of mysterious black substance by the time we boarded. Er, now that I’ve shared my tips on flying with a toddler, I think it’s only fair that someone shares some tips with ME on how not to be a walking disaster zone every day? Anyone? Anyone at all?)
With all of this said, of course, I think my final tip for anyone flying with a toddler would be to remember that this too will pass: and while the flights we’ve taken with Max definitely haven’t been the most relaxing ones we’ve ever had, the experiences we’ve had at the end of them have been 100% worth it. In a few years time, after all, we won’t remember the flight*: we will, however, remember his face when he saw the Disney fireworks for the first time – and, for that, we’d happily do it all over again…
(*I will totally remember the flight, though: especially now that I’ve written about it in excruciating detail…)