Bella Brennan is a Sydney-based writer and editor with over a decade of experience in publishing and digital media. When she’s not writing, she’s hanging out with her two little girls, Edie and Tilly. You can find out more about her here.
Cast your mind back to the days of travelling sans kids. Leisurely strolling through duty-free, working your way through the crappy plane food, watching all the cheesy romcoms and weeping (why does being in the air make you more weepy?), napping in precarious positions (my personal fave was using the tray table as a pillow). What a time! Nowadays, the thought of a flight with no dependents is a holiday in itself.
When I travelled in my 20s, I’d be pretty upset if a noisy baby had the audacity to be on the same plane. How very dare they! Cue my outrage as I had to try and watch my movies to the piercing soundtrack of a whingy child in the background. Ohh, how naive I was! And little did I know that one day, I’d be that frazzled parent on a long-haul flight trying to get my babies to shut the ’eff up so the entire plane didn’t hate us.
Two kids deep, my husband and I have thrown caution to the wind and taken our daughters on several long-haul flights, and we’ve learned a few lessons along the way. Many parents with young children might be too nervous about braving a flight with their bub, but don’t let that rob you of an incredible family holiday.
The flight is a blip in the scheme of things, and even if it’s a disaster, it’s a short-term pain for long-term gain and all the glorious things that are waiting for you on the other side (the joy of watching your baby’s first taste of authentic Italian gelato/pizza/pasta, to name a few). So if you’re considering travelling with your little ones, here’s your ultimate survival guide!
Give the airline a call beforehand
Pro tip if you have a really young baby: always call the airline you’re flying with to try and secure the coveted bassinet seat so you’ll have an actual crib for your bub to nap instead of on you. On the topic of being organised, ensure you pre-book the kids’ meals when securing your ticket; more often than not, you can’t order them on the plane. And as we all know, eating is a great unit killer for kids to while away the time on a plane.
Now is not the time for cute airport outfits
As much as we’d all love to be as chic as Victoria Beckham and baby Harper gliding through the airport in coordinated mother-daughter looks (never forget), practicality should trump donning anything too precious when the inevitable spills occur because I can guarantee that you’ll experience the whole gamut of explosions on your person – from bodily fluids to rogue fruit pouches. So pack away your cute white linen set (you can always whip it out for your next adults-only getaway) and opt for something you’re not too attached to because it will get painted in stains. Head-to-toe all-black is my preferred transit day uniform, so you can’t see how filthy I am.
Throw the routine out the window
“Any sleep is a win” is my go-to mantra for transit days with kids. There’s no possible way you’ll stick to your baby’s usual nap schedule, and that’s OK. No matter what, everyone’s going to be tired. And no matter what, everyone will readjust and recalibrate on the other end. Even if your kid only catches a few hours here or there, that’s fine, because, repeat after me, any sleep is a win!
My second favourite mantra is screen time doesn’t count on transit days (similar to how duty-free airport shopping doesn’t count, either). If your child is iPad age, surrender to it for the flight and don’t feel bad. To balance out any pesky guilt, download a few educational games to have in the mix, too.
Burn, baby, burn all that energy!
Finding a quiet gate at the airport and letting your bub crawl around is always a must ahead of a flight. And look, it’s probably more of a placebo for anxious parents, but at least in our minds, we believe we've helped them burn off as much energy as possible before boarding the plane.
It’s also wise to board the plane last so there’s less time on board wrangling wriggly babies; every second counts! Once on the plane, you can take them for little walks up and down the aisles during non-service times.
Choose your battles wisely
Recently, I had to fly solo with my two daughters from Adelaide to Sydney and it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Due to a flight cancellation and several more delays, the whole trip home blew out to a 14-hour transit day and my girls were absolutely wrecked. I was that mother trying to quell x2 full body-throwing levels of tantrums in the middle of the airport, and then again later on the plane. I could feel the passerby’s eyes on us and hear their thoughts, “Oh, that poor woman! Her kids are cracking it.”
So when my four-year-old refused several times to put on her shoes, I thought, screw it! That’s the least of my worries right now. The airport floors are clean enough, and it’s not like she’s outside where she could step on glass or anything of concern. It wasn’t worth the battle and the ensuing tantrum that would no doubt play out.
My point is that on transit days (and in parenting in general), sometimes you have to pick the path of least resistance. You have to do whatever you need to do to get through, and if that means letting your kid run around the airport with bare feet to avoid another tanty, then so be it!
You might swear. A lot
During this same solo trip, I lost count of how many times I muttered “for fuck’s sake” under my breath. And while I thought I was doing it quietly, when we returned home, it appeared my two-year-old had a new catchphrase, proudly screaming, “fuck’s sake!” with a cheeky grin on her face. We’re not robots; sometimes, we lose our cool in stressful situations. Find me a parent who has never dropped an F-bomb in front of their kids, and I’ll eat my travel-sized neck pillow.
Cut your kids (and yourself) some slack
Airports and planes are not designed for small children. The long lines, the patience it requires to wait in said long lines, the intimidating walk through the metal detectors as the security guards watch on (my girls always freak out during this bit and cling onto us for dear life), the delays, the waiting, and even more waiting. And that’s before you even get on the plane!
It’s a lot for little ones to get through, not to mention completely exhausting. And when kids are overtired and stuck to the claustrophobic confines of a titanium tube, they’ll have shorter fuses.
Just like we wouldn’t expect our babies to sit through an eight-course degustation dinner at a fancy restaurant, we shouldn’t expect our bubbas to waltz through airports and chill on planes like a seasoned traveller. And sure, they might surprise you, and that’s great. But overall, park your expectations for them to be on their ‘best behaviour’ and cut them, and yourself, some slack. Everyone is just doing their best to get to the other end in one piece.
Most people will get it, but there’ll always be a jerk. Don’t let the jerks win.
Overall, people are lovely and supportive and always willing to help you. But you’ll eventually encounter someone who wishes your kids weren’t on their flight or at least had a mute button. It’s easier said than done, but try not to take their unsolicited parenting advice to heart.
I’ll be the first to admit that I got in a squabble with an apparent parenting expert sitting in the row in front of us on a recent flight when my two-year-old finally found something to entertain herself – playing with the red button on her tray table, much to the lady’s dismay. And I get it, it’s annoying to feel someone playing on the back of your seat. But she wasn’t kicking her seat or touching her.
When she asked me to make her stop doing it, I replied, “I’ll try my best, but she’s two, so just be prepared for her to have a meltdown." She replied, “Well, I used to have a two-year-old.” Ahh! Of course. Silly me, what would I know about how my kid will react? Deep. Breaths. I made her stop doing it and I can confirm, she screamed bloody murder in the woman’s ear. Me, tickled pink? Never.
Mentally prepare for a shit show… then be quietly delighted if it’s not
In everyday life, I’m very much a glass-half-full kind of person. But managing expectations is safer when you embark on a transit day with little kids. Pop your optimism on hold just for the journey; if it’s not an absolute disaster, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
As we’re shown time and time again, kids are resilient. They might sail through the journey like a champ. Or they could have a two-hour wobbly because you won’t let them get off the plane while you’re 18,000 feet above sea level. Either way you can’t do much, so I’m a big fan of this mental reframe. It works a charm every time.
By Bella Brennan