Every time I think about planes and children, I cringe. I feel sorry not only for myself as the parent but also everybody who is lucky enough to be seated around us. I’m not apologizing for my kids behavior (quite yet) as I believe that kids are very capable of having wonderful flight experiences given the right structure. Over the years of flying solo and with children, I have learned how to minimize some of the stresses of flight. Here are the top 3 things I consider when booking flights with children.
1. Direct or Layover?
It’s the question we all ask ourselves when we see the price difference of a direct versus a layover flight. Direct is always the way to go if the price differential is not substantial. You’ll have to decide what the financial tradeoffs are for your sanity. For me, this depends on how much time I’ve spent with my children in the last 24 hours and how many times they’ve said my name to ask a question and then forgotten the question.
So why even consider a layover? The pros of a layover are that 1) everybody can stretch their bodies 2) you might (arguably) get a decent (but expensive) meal. Another reason may be if your child is really active, it might be a better idea to take shorter flights so that they can run around the airport during the layover.
The cons of a layover is that you have to pack up and lug all your stuff off the plane just to get back on another plane and do it all over again. It lengthens the day and makes the trip feel longer, even if it’s a short layover.
As our children have gotten older, we have started to choose flights with layovers because they are significantly less expensive. We take the money we saved and let them buy one magazine stand treat for the plane. They seem to think it’s a fair tradeoff.
If you go the layover route, consider these 2 things.
1. How long is the layover? We have seen layovers of less than 40 minutes. I don’t believe this gives you enough time to deplane (with or without children), use the toilet, and make it to your next gate (especially if it’s in another terminal).
My rule of thumb for layovers is that they need to be at least an hour. You have to prepare for things like delayed flights, being seated at the back of a plane, different terminal for your connecting flight, immigration if you’re transiting through countries, waiting for your stroller/buggy and any other unforeseen circumstances.
On a flight from Barcelona to Frankfurt, we were taxiing to our gate and I noted that our next flight was flying out of the gate next to our arrival gate. This was great news! This meant we would have time to go use the toilet, maybe grab a bite to eat, and just stretch our legs. Then they announced that our jet bridge was not operating and we would need to take a bus to the terminal. Unfortunately, the bus took us all the way across the airport to another terminal (closer to baggage claim – lucky for those who were not connecting). In our case, we had to hurry our way back to our connecting gate losing about 40 minutes in the process. We had just enough time to use the toilet.
2. Research the layover airport. Are there things for kids to do there such as playgrounds, special kids activities, an outdoor space? Are their things for adults to do there like spa services, lounge areas, museums? Most international airports, especially in Europe, are incredibly traveler friendly. They have indoor playgrounds, museums, and nice cafes.
We booked a flight from London to Barcelona via Munich because it was significantly less expensive. It was going to be a 6 hour layover but the flight had been ridiculously cheap. I started researching what to do at the Munich airport with kids and found there to be a gold mine of fun things for the children. We discovered a place called Kinderland where we could drop off our kids for free (if you fly Lufthansa) or a reasonable fee with other airlines. It was amazing for the kids and we could sit outside at a café for some adult time. There were also many play areas (mini-playgrounds) scattered throughout the terminals of the Munich Airport. A 6-hour layover became a nice, relaxing travel day instead of a dreaded airport layover.
2. Flight Departure and Arrival Times
Departure times are a critically underrated detail when most people are booking flights. Departure times can lower (or increase) the chance of your plane being delayed. Here is a study that was conducted by Decision Science News that analyzed US airline flight departures for an entire year. The data is a few years old but the logic is sound. Essentially the later you fly in the day (until 7pm), the more likely your departure will be delayed. The only time departure times matter less is on long haul flights (more than 6 hours). Then, it is more important to consider your arrival to minimize jet lag.
Things to consider for departure day/times:
- Work backwards from your flight time to when you must leave the house. Remember that you should be at the airport at least 2 hours (3 hours for international) before departure. An 8am flight might look good until you realize that you need to be there at 5am. Depending on your proximity to the airport and how fast you get ready in the morning, this flight might not be ideal. If you are hiring airport transportation, there may also be a surcharge for early morning/late night pick-ups.
- Overnight Flights. Long haul flights are the only time we would consider an overnight flight. Although children might not get a full night of sleep, most will sleep for at least a few hours. This makes the “waking hours” of a flight feel shorter and gives the adults a break.
- Nap Time. When our children were young and still took naps, we would try to find flights where we would be in the air during nap time. This (in theory) would give us a bit of a break during flight. I’d say our kids took their naps 75% of the time. The other 25% was well……we survived.
- Try to avoid the busiest travel days of the week: Mondays and Friday’s are busy for business travelers, Sundays for leisure travelers. Tuesdays and Wednesday tend to see the least amount of traffic followed by Thursday and Saturday. Less crowded travel is good for all, especially the parents.
Things to consider for arrival times:
We try to avoid arriving at any destination after 8pm. It makes everything harder from trying to navigate a new city to arriving at your actual accommodations late in the night. The ideal time for us to arrive at any destination is between 1pm-6pm. Our preferred arrival window means that our accommodations will most likely be available. It also means that on a travel day, we have just enough time to settle in, find some dinner, and come back to our hotel to relax so that we can start the next day fresh and ready to explore.
The arrival window also allows us to accommodate all the things that happen after landing and before leaving the airport. These instances could add an hour or two after your arrival at the airport. Things that add time:
- If you gate checked a stroller/buggy, you might wait a while for the crew to bring it up to the gate.
- Bathroom breaks. This is always a must visit for us as soon as we get off a flight.
- If you travelled internationally, you’ll have to deal with passport control.
- Waiting for your luggage.
- If you’re renting a car, you’ll need to figure out how to get to the rental car agency and then completing all the necessary paperwork. I have yet to find a car rental agency that takes less than 30 minutes to rent me a car.
- Getting foreign currency if you are traveling internationally.
A few years ago, we took a flight from Seattle to Tokyo with our 5 year old. We departed at around 1pm from San Francisco and arrived in Tokyo the next day at 3pm. This flight worked out great because we arrived, got our baggage, and made it into Tokyo by about 6. We could eat dinner and then stay up until about 8pm before falling asleep. This strategy doesn’t necessarily alleviate all jet lag but it does make it feel less torturous than trying to stay up for a whole day after a long flight.
On another flight from NYC to Amsterdam, we left in the evening and arrived around 7am the next day. This meant that we had to wander around Amsterdam until our hotel room was ready. By the time we made it to our hotel room, we were so tired that we took a nap that lasted until the middle of the night. Not ideal for acclimating to jet lag.
3. Seating on the Plane
Ideal seats are dependent entirely on the temperament of your child. I always try to choose a window seat since my kids love to look out the plane window and they are secured in an area where they can’t escape past me. On the other hand, if you have an active child that needs to walk, making sure you have at least one aisle seat might be a better option.
We were taking an 11 hour flight from San Francisco to Tokyo so we decided to pay for an upgrade to an economy plus window seat. When we boarded the plane and saw our seats, my young son started to cry. It did not show up on the seating plan that on this 747 there was no window next to the seat. It was also not indicated anywhere on the website that this was the case nor was the seat discounted because of this issue. We were lucky that it was not a full flight and a flight attendant was able to quickly move us. Lesson here is to double-check seating plans or call the airline to confirm.
When we flew with my son to Tanzania at 8 months old, we asked for the middle bulk head row. Bulk head is preferable if you’re flying with babies. Most airlines have a baby bassinet that can be hooked onto the bulk head. Regardless of whether your kid actually sleeps in it, it becomes a great place to store all your baby stuff.
We use SeatGuru as well as the airline website to check seating arrangements. We try to book them as far in advance as possible. If you’re traveling with children, the airline is required to seat at least one adult per child. They hold seats for this specific purpose and will move people if necessary.