As an international flight attendant, I spent 11 years serving families travelling with kids, and I can tell you that some parents are definitely cooler than others when it comes to airline travel. I used to think it was all down to travel experience, but now that I am a parent, I see things from the other side. Having a successful family airplane trip is not about experience, it’s about planning ahead and using common sense. So, if you are travelling by air with your family this year (especially if you are a first-time family traveller!) take my advice: Slow down, be cool…. and sanitize within an inch of your life! Then follow this list of 33 do’s and don’ts. Happy Travels!
1. DO book direct flights. When you were single, you booked the cheapest flight. Who cares if you had to make 3 connections and travel overnight? Now that you have a family, it’s time to change your plans. Even if the non-stop flight is a couple of hundred dollars more, it’s worth it so that you can get from A to B, stress-free.
2. DO NOT book tight connections. Even if your travel agent says “sure, you can make that connection!” don’t believe him or her. Some airports (I can think immediately of Newark, Atlanta, Heathrow) have multiple terminals with trains between the terminals. Some cities have three or four airports. Leave yourself ample time; never the minimum.
3. DO NOT bring your Mountain Buggy through the airport. A small umbrella stroller is far more useful and versatile than a large stroller or “travel system”. Plus, the chance of damage to strollers is high, especially when placed in the hold. For convenience and peace of mind, leave the “Baby Hummers” at home! In fact, if you are travelling with an infant, you may consider not using a stroller at all! On our first trip to the UK with our baby, we relied on a Trekker baby carrier for our entire journey (although we did borrow a stroller at our final destination). Going light on the baby accessories made travelling a breeze.
4. DO NOT buy yourself a new handbag, purse or a “ great new travelling jacket with secret pockets” for your trip. This is a classic mistake! If you buy a new bag, especially one with lots of “handy pockets”, I can guarantee you will lose things. This will not only drive you crazy, but it could cause you delay when you can’t find the passports!
5. DO Breastfeed. If you are currently breastfeeding your infant, don’t stop! Breastfeeding is great on airplanes. Firstly, it helps to clear a baby’s Eustachian tubes during takeoff and landing. No more sore ears! Practically, your milk supply is a constant on-demand supply of warm nutrition- the best in-flight service your little one can get.
6. DO NOT drink the water. Aircraft water has been shown to contain coliforms, which are decidedly unfriendly bacteria. Do you really want to start your family holiday with a sore tummy or worse? Drink bottled!
7. DO order a kid’s meal. Not only will a kid’s meal have lots of nice treats for your child, but it is usually served before the regular meals! This means you can help your kids open packaging and identify food items, without juggling 3 or 4 trays. Once the kids have eaten, then your own food will arrive, and you can eat in peace. Nice!
8. DO NOT try new foods. You would think this is common sense, but you’d be surprised by the number of people who get taken away in the spirit of adventure and decide to try the prawn curry on a long haul flight. My advice: unless you are 100% sure that every member of your family is not allergic to seafood or nuts, just don’t go there. 30,000 feet up is not the best place to have an anaphylactic reaction!
9. DO mention allergies when booking your flight so it can be noted on your file, and on the passenger list. Mention it again, as you board. Most airlines have policies in place to help reduce the risk of exposure. For example, Air Canada can create “buffer zone” around your seat, and most American carriers will suspend the service of peanuts if someone on board has an allergy. Although airlines can’t guarantee a nut-free environment, they take it seriously. For example, Did you know that the Canadian Transportation Agency considers a nut allergy a “disability” in the context of air travel? If you’re a lucky family with no allergies at all, please DO NOT bring peanuts on board. These days, so many kids are allergic, that no matter how much your family loves peanut butter, it’s just not fair to introduce peanuts to the airplane environment.
10. DO NOT bring “everything you need”. It’s daunting travelling with a baby or young child and so you may feel the need to bring those things that make your child comfortable: the toys, blankets, blackout blinds, grobags, pillows, pack n’ plays… the list goes on. Well, don’t, unless you want to be miserable. There are hundreds of baby equipment rental companies out there that will have everything you need at your destination. Most companies will meet you at the airport, or arrange to have goods ready at your hotel. If you’re travelling within Canada, check out this directory of companies from kidsonaplane.com . Internationally, a quick google search will reveal lots of options for baby equipment rentals.
11. DO pack snacks, such as granola bars, raisins, rice cakes and peanut-free trail mix. Make sure you include a secret “bag of bribes” that the kids don’t see you pack. These treats will provide valuable currency during a behaviour melt-down.
12. DO bring your medication. The place for prescription medication is your hand-luggage. Always. Think about what would happen if you were delayed 24 hrs. or if your bags got lost (it happens!). Also, if you are crossing more than one time zone, consider how a slightly reduced or increased dose (due to the time change) might affect you or the kids. If in doubt, consult your doctor before you travel. And the Epi-pen? It goes without saying that this should be close at hand when travelling.
13. DO bring a letter of consent. If you’re bringing a child across the border, a consent letter is not mandatory but some border control agents (United Kingdom, for example) will want to see a letter from the other parent/guardians stating that it’s OK for you to remove your child from the country, especially if you have different last names. For more details, check the guidelines from the Government of Canada on consent letters. Some parents find this sexist and unfair. Click here for an interesting discussion about the UK rules.
14. DO use a backpack. When travelling with kids, you want both hands free to hang on to kids, open doors, wipe noses and grab passports. This is why I recommend a backpack instead of a shoulder bag or wheelie. Mesh side pockets on the backpack are a good idea for quick-grab items like tissues or a water bottle.
15. DO let your kids take their own small piece of hand luggage, especially in small or familiar airports. You child will love to carry a small backpack full of games, snacks and a stuffy – and they do have a luggage allocation, so why not use it? Make them responsible for their own bag, but for goodness’ sakes don’t let them carry anything valuable! Finally, especially for long or complicated journeys make sure the bag is something you can take easily, if your child tires of carrying it.
16. DO BYO headphones for the kids. Many airlines only offer earbuds, which kids find uncomfortable. I recommend bringing your own cheap “over the ear” foam kind with an adjustable head piece, for a snug fit.
17. DO bring a carseat. This is a tough one, especially since I already advised you to travel light (see #3), but there is one good reason to bring a carseat on board, and that’s safety. During takeoff and landing, the chance of an incident is at its highest, and the most likely incident is a sudden jolt. European airlines insist on a child extension seatbelt which attaches to the parent. This stops an infant becoming a projectile during an impact or turbulence (I’ve seen objects – not children, thankfully – fly up and hit the ceiling). However, airlines in North America say that attaching an infant to the parent is fatal as the infant could be being crushed by the parent’s body during impact. So, they allow the infant to go without any restraint at all (this seems crazy to me). There is one point that everyone agrees on: in the unlikely event of an emergency, the best protection for a child is an approved carseat – same as in the car. Tip: If you are bringing a carseat, make sure you check with each airline before you go, remembering that each airline may have different regulations and standards.
18. DO try to get a bulkhead seat, especially if you are travelling with an infant. Most airlines have a baby bed that fits into the wall space at the bulkhead. Air Canada’s set up: a “plug-in” bassinet, is really great. Warning: a bulkhead does not necessarily mean more leg room (in fact, it’s slightly tighter) and also, at a bulkhead there is no floor space to store your luggage. You are not allowed to tuck items behind the seat on takeoff; everything must go in the overhead bins. Crew can get quite shirty about this, but…
19. DO NOT argue with the crew. Your flight attendants are experts in customer service and they are there to make sure you have a great flight! But – disagree with any crew member on a point of safety (or anything else, for that matter) and you’re in a losing battle. If you have a problem on board, quietly approach the in-charge crew member to seek a resolution. If you’re not satisfied, back down. Contact the airline on return and lodge a formal complaint. Hopefully, you will get an apology and some air miles! And of course, word of mouth via social media works too. Does anyone remember the “United Breaks Guitars” Youtube hit? (A proud Halifax classic).
20. DO NOT put your kids to sleep on the floor. If you’re not lucky enough to get some good seats, then just make the best of it, and that doesn’t mean camping on the ground. Airline floors are very dirty, but the main reason for this is safety: oxygen masks won’t reach the floor, so it’s against safety regulations to have people down there.
21. DO use the cuspidor. The cuspidor? It’s is that small, wax-lined paper bag in your seat pocket. You may know it as a vomit bag, but it also makes a great rubbish bag for placing candy wrappers, blanket wrappers, earbud wrappers, napkins, dirty wet wipes, chewing gum. Keeping a clean and tidy seat area will ensure you have a comfortable flight- and it will prevent you from losing things.
22. DO bring sanitizing wipes and hand-sanitizer. Airplanes are dirty.
23. DO NOT change your baby’s diaper on the tray table at your seat. Go to the bathroom, but DO use a change pad or receiving blanket when you change your child on the drop-down bathroom change table. Can I mention cleanliness again?
24. DO warn toddlers and young children about the toilet flush sound. It’s very loud. You definitely don’t want a case of “toilet fear” on a long flight.
25. DO wear socks. Most North American and European airlines like you to wear socks when you are travelling. Some even provide them! The reason? Part safety, part hygiene, part etiquette. Just use those socks, please!
26. DO NOT end up on Passengershaming.com: a website featuring photos taken by anonymous flight attendants and passengers around the world. The site is slightly rude, but it speaks pretty clearly to the way airline staff feel about dirty diapers in wrong places, or passengers with their stinky feet up on the headrests!
27. DO wear seatbelts, even in flight. Sudden turbulence happens, sometimes unexpectedly. Strap your kids in at all times.
28. DO NOT play with the call bell. If your little one is dinging out a tune on the armrest call bell, you can be sure that when you really need something, you will be ignored because the crew will assume it’s a false alarm. Solution? Tell your kids not to touch it. If that doesn’t work, ask your flight attendant to disable the call bell. (This is possible on some aircraft, not all!).
29. DO buy chocolates for the crew. You tip your waiter and you tip your hairdresser, so why not tip the highly trained group of professionals who will be looking after your comfort and safety for the next few hours? Flight attendants don’t take money… but they love chocolate. I usually present a box of duty free Lindor at the start of a flight, and say “thank you in advance for looking after us”. We usually receive a pretty good service thereafter, and it makes me feel so much less guilty when the kids start screaming.
30. DO NOT sedate the kids. I have known parents admit to giving their child antihistamines before overnight flights, so that they sleep well. As a flight attendant, I laughed gratefully when I heard this. Now that I’m a parent, I look back horrified. Drugging kids can be dangerous in an emergency so please don’t do it.
31. DO plan bathroom visits. Good times are on boarding (you’re usually offered priority boarding, so take advantage of it!) and during flight. Bad times: during the meal service, during turbulence, and when the seat belt signs go on for landing.
32. DO NOT allow your kids to brush their teeth in the airline sink. I won’t describe the horrors that I have seen in airline sinks, or the casual nature in which they are cleaned on turnaround (e.g., with the same rag that was used on the toilet). Please, give your kids a mint, and leave the toothbrushes in your bag until you reach your destination.
33. Finally, DO SLOW DOWN. The most commonly forgotten item for families who travel? That little suitcase of common sense. Do not rush off the airplane. You will forget something. Do not rush for your connection. There is always another flight. If someone needs to pee, let them. If someone is hungry, feed them. Make sure you know which parent has which kids. Don’t let kids play with the baggage carousel. Hold their hands at all times. Airports can fun, but they are also dangerous places. Slow down, be safe – and enjoy the family travel experience!
Do you have any tips for travelling with kids? Tell us about them in the comments below!