The Challenges of Flying with Young Children

Passenger plane in the sky

“Oh no,” said DorkyDad. “What a terrible start to a holiday.” We had just been treated to the sight of Alex Salmond, recently off a flight from London, strutting through Edinburgh airport. For a man in a crumpled suit, he exuded an extraordinary air of arrogance.

As it turned out, DorkyDad was right. Our holiday did not get off to a great start. A security alert at Edinburgh meant that we missed our connection at Heathrow. Despite arriving with 25 minutes to spare, we were discouraged from even attempting to catch it, and had already been re-booked onto another flight the next morning.

There followed a farcical afternoon and early evening, in which we were sent from floor to floor, desk to desk, and back again, in an attempt to secure three things: our bags and DorkySon’s pram, a bed for the night, and confirmation of our flight the next day. It proved surprisingly difficult. Individually, every member of staff we spoke to was lovely. Collectively it seemed like the right hand wasn’t even aware of the left hand’s existence. I am giving myself a week or two more to chill out before I write to BA… but they had better be ready for me.

Anyway, four hours and one jaw-droppingly expensive hotel room later, all was well. DorkySon would probably have been happy if we’d spent that one night at the Heathrow Hilton and come home again. He got on a bus to the hotel; when we’d got settled we ordered room service (or as he puts it “A man knocked on the door with burger and chips”); there were chairs that were the perfect height to practice jumping off; there were unlimited bubbles in the bath; and then he spent the night in a new bed. What could be better?

The next morning we got on our flight to Toronto without any problems. Three flights later we are back in Edinburgh, and there have been no other major setbacks. But the whole experience has reminded me how unpleasant it is to fly.

That may be partly due to how much harder air travel is as a family. We found it stressful enough with two parents and one toddler. I’m still getting chills thinking about the poor woman I saw waving off her husband, before boarding a transatlantic flight alone with three children. I found myself having single passenger envy; glaring at those people who sat alone at a table, sipping wine and reading a book, their one small carry-on bag tucked in by their feet. I sat there in the same café – sweaty old me with a bulging backpack, smoothie smears on my leggings, trying to cut up an overpriced pizza with one hand while sending reassuring texts to family members with the other – and wondered what had happened to my life.

But as other bulging backpack carriers will know, preparation is everything. If you’re getting on an eight-hour flight with a two year old, and you don’t want to annoy every other passenger by having a screamer, you need to have enough books, toys, crayons, stickers, snacks, nappies, wipes and iPad apps to go the distance. The liquid ban has made it harder. I had three cartons of Peter Rabbit organic apple juice confiscated in Edinburgh because they were 125ml instead of 100ml. I feel genuinely sorry for the folks working at security these days, because they seem full of common sense – they realized just how ridiculous that was, and were deeply apologetic – but rules are rules.

We encountered lots of good intentions; lots of instances of people trying to do the right thing. We were invited to pre-board on almost every flight… but pre-boarding only works if you actually let people board the plane and get settled, rather than just moving all the families from one hot, cramped room into another. Gate-checking your pushchair is another great idea… but only if you get it back at the plane door at the other end. When we gate-checked DorkySon’s battered old Maclaren in Edinburgh we didn’t realize that it would be sent right through to Toronto… and so when we missed the connection we had to make all those runs between floors without it.

The US and Canada seem to be doing better than the UK. In both Toronto and Boston there were ‘family only’ security lines, which are a great idea. Not only were they much shorter and faster, when I had to negotiate with DorkySon to remove his shoes, and got in a bit of a tangle trying to fold up his pushchair, I got sympathetic looks rather than irritated ones.

It was the tiniest of glimpses into the way that air travel might look if it was designed by families. Imagine if there were walk-through scanners that allowed you to leave your sleeping baby in their pram rather than wake them up and carry them through. Imagine if there were cartoons on every TV in the airport, drinking fountains, healthy snacks and a range of toys available at every gate. Imagine if, once on board the plane, there was a dedicated nappy changing facility, a sticker book for every under-5, and no armrests to cut off the circulation in your arm when your toddler falls asleep on you.

Sigh. It is a nice dream. And if anyone has any bright ideas about how to make it happen, do let me know. But in the meantime we will make do with missed connections, overpriced pizza, and lost baggage. It is a small price to pay for spending time with loved ones.

Photo by E T T T O on Unsplash

14 responses

  1. Didn’t want to read and run, just wanted to say what a briliant post, really highlights how it is to travel as a parent, ours is only 15weeks and we have only ventured a few hours away from home. I have begged the hubby if we do go anywhere can we go on the ferry i think it would be a tiny bit easier!

    • Thanks for your comment – I’m so sorry I’ve only just spotted it! I think travelling with really wee one is easier if anything – when all they want to do is sleep and drink milk, and when they still fit on the fold down baby changing tables! Ferry sounds like it would be fun though 🙂 xx

  2. Oh my goodness, we have only dared to go away in this country yet, the thought of flying with a baby just fills me with dread (the thought of flying fullstop fills my OH with dread, which is why, if an abroad holiday is ever on the cards, he will go on a totally different plane to The Baby and I. Anyway..). You obviously handled it very well, despite a lack of competence from BA. This post reminded me of my cousin who lives in California, but is from the UK, whose husband gets very little holiday, which meant a few years ago she had to do the 13 hour flight over here with a 5 year old and a 6-month old with no help. That thought alone leaves me in need of a strong G&T x

    • Thanks for the comment! I am so full of admiration for your cousin – wow! The problem I have with my OH is not that he hates flying, but he is very used to flying for work, when he speeds through airports on his own with nothing but a briefcase, and then sits sipping a drink in the lounge… it has been a challenge for him slowing down to family travel pace! xx

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  4. Havent tried overseas with Little A yet. It all seems very daunting. The English coast can make do for now. But loved your post – really made me laugh and feel afraid in one fell swoop. Your ideas for better family travel are very good. Why don’t they do this already then single passengers wont get so tut tutty with stressed out families.

  5. Thanks! I’m glad it made you laugh (even if it was a slightly fearful laugh…!). If it’s any consolation, this was the fourth or fifth time we have travelled with a wee one, and the first time we’d had any problems. On previous flights we’ve been amazed by his stamina and good mood, and by the patience and helpfulness of other people. The English Coast sounds lovely… but good luck if you do ever decide to go for it! xx

  6. Oh god. This is why I’m not going abroad! Can’t believe they threw the juice away. Ridiculous.

    I love your list of what you would do differently. If you ran a plane company it would probably be the best plane company in the world!

    • Thank you! I’m sure there are loads of wee things that could be done to make it easier – things you wouldn’t even think of if you weren’t a parent. We should start a campaign!

  7. Family security lines in Scandinavia and Germany too! Come on England!! Great post! It’s so tough flying with children isn’t it. I used to hate flying, and I still don’t really enjoy it, but offer me a flight anywhere BY MYSELF and I would probably jump at the chance! Thanks so much for your travel contribution at Loveallblogs! Emma 🙂

    • We’ve got a big flight coming up next month – I’m already stashing away activities for DorkySon to do on the plane! It’s definitely not as relaxing as it used to be pre-parenthood! Thanks for commenting 🙂 x

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