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Family Travel: flying with kids

Skyscanner's guide to flying with children.

Updated 27 January 2009

Skyscanner‘s guide to flying with children.

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For many people, the screaming child is pretty close to the top of the list of things you do not want next to you on a plane (others in the list include hi-jackers, savage animals, anyone who smells, people with placards who shout that God loves you, passengers who want to talk about their families, stag parties/drunks in general, members of the Ku Klux Klan, radioactive material and carriers of contagious diseases).

I was heartened the other day to read a book by a commercial airline pilot who suggested that all children be gagged and/or sedated before being allowed on board – this plan cheered me immensely until I realised the American author had unexpectedly bucked geo-literary conventions and used sarcasm deliberately. That said, I do like kids and even though I am intolerant of shrieking children on planes, I cannot help but always feel a tiny bit of sympathy for the parents as the look around helplessly, soaking up the hatred.

It is undoubtedly the parents that suffer most on long flights – and whilst the rest of us have picked our chosen weapon from the ear plug, sleeping pill, iPod, headphone and alcohol list, out there in the darkness somewhere, illuminated by a single overhead cabin-light, a sleep-deprived parent wishes they could have all of them at once.

The answers to the following questions might help you to have a more peaceful flight:

Practical Questions

At what age can children travel in a commercial airliner?
Accompanied infants are allowed to fly virtually from the moment they’re born. In fact, the only restriction to travel is how long it takes to get a passport for the baby.

Does my child need its own passport?
Yes. The picture should be taken against a light background so that the features are visible and the child should be on its own (with no toys, dummies, bottles or other people in view). Children over 6 months old should be photographed with their eyes open. The passport is valid for five years from when you receive it so if you got one straight away, your child’s identity will be confirmed a few years later by a picture that bears absolutely no resemblance to them whatsoever. For details of the documentation needed, please see www.ukpi.org.

Do I need to buy a ticket for my baby?
If your child is under two years old, then most airlines will let him or her fly for free. The downside of this is that the child will be sitting on your lap which firstly can be extremely dangerous and secondly, can be rather uncomfortable for you.

It seems very odd that all loose items, other than your child, need to be stowed away during a flight since during extreme turbulence or a crash landing, you would not be able to adequately protect yourself and your baby. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recommends that all parents purchase a ticket for their children and use a car seat on the plane.

What are the rules for unaccompanied children on flights?
This varies between airlines so it is best to check with your carrier, but broadly speaking, the following guidelines apply:

• A child must be at least five years old to fly alone.
• Unaccompanied children aged between five and eight can take direct flights but are not allowed on journeys where a connecting flight is necessary.
• Children aged between eight and eleven can take non-direct flights but only if they are escorted by airline personnel and a charge for this service is likely.
• Any passenger who is under the age of seventeen must have a letter signed by a parent or guardian giving permission for the flight and details of the travel arrangements – length of stay, final destination etc.

Are discounts offered for children’s seats?
Some airlines offer big discounts on the price of tickets for kids under the age of 2. Yes, it is still an extra cost to incur on your trip, but better that than risk injuring your child.

What kind of travel seat does my child need?
There are a few options here: many airlines will offer a pre-booked “sky-cot” which attaches to the bulk-head wall directly in front of you whilst other airlines might offer special child seats. Alternatively, for babies weighing under 20 pounds (9kg approx) it is suggested that children are in a rear-facing safety seat.

Children between 20 – 40 pounds (9-18kg) should be in a forward facing child safety seat. It is best to contact your airline before you travel to organise suitable arrangements.

Is their any other child safety equipment I can use?
The Child Aviation Restraint System (CARES) is FAA and European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) approved and works in conjunction with the aircraft seat belt to give the same level of safety as a car seatbelt. The system is suitable for children who are one and older, sitting in their own aircraft seat and who weigh between 22 and 44 pounds (10 – 20 kg).

This system cannot be bought in the UK at the moment but if you send an email to Cares@ordering.com providing your name and contact details, then a representative will call you back to take your order. To view the product see www.kidsflysafe.com.

How do I get my child to equalise their ears during take off and landing?
Small babies will not be able to suck a boiled sweet or perform the Valsalva manoeuvre (pinching your nose and blowing gently) to clear their ears. Instead, the swallowing mechanism that comes with feeding or sucking on a dummy will have the same effect. If this does not work, then the inevitable crying that follows with its associated jaw movement and swallowing will eventually work.

As a single adult, can I travel with more than one small child?
Probably not. Many airlines specify that each child under 2 years old be accompanied by an adult. If in doubt, contact your airline.

What about restrictions on liquids through airport security?
Bottles of milk for children are excluded from the list of restricted liquids. You may be asked to taste the milk by security officers but will be allowed to take whatever volume is necessary for the duration of your flight.

What to pack
Aeroplanes tend not to have a huge amount of space (unless you are travelling First Class) and so try and pack economically. Take into the plane only the things you will need for the duration of the flight though it’s best to plan for potential delays.

Take nappies, wipes/cotton wool, a lightweight plastic changing mat and any creams and lotions. Additionally take two bottles, milk formula (unless breastfeeding) whilst warm water can be provided by the airline.

Aiports and boarding
Book early. This way you stand the best chance of getting the seats you want for your family. Make sure you get to the airport in good time since things tend to take a lot longer with children in tow. Take full advantage of priority boarding – most airlines will allow families with small children to board first.

By doing this you can get as much assistance as possible and try to leave the plane last – again the airline staff will have more time to assist you. Also keep an eye out for fast track routes through customs and security for those travelling with youngsters.

Seating
As discussed, bulk head seats are often used by parents with small children but equally if your children are a bit bigger, try and get window seats since flying can be exciting for them and it gives them something to look at.

A window seat also means your child is less likely to go wandering off. Parents with a small child or children might consider asking for one of the adult seats to be away from the others. This way, the parent not “on duty” can try and get some rest – this is particularly advisable for long flights.

Entertainment
One of the biggest problems facing parents on long flights is their kids getting bored. Past a certain age, children might be happy to watch in-flight entertainment or read a book but toddlers are more difficult to keep occupied. The following list gives some ideas to keep you and your children happy:

• Wrap up toys – this adds novelty value – enthusiastic use of sticking tape will slow the child down as well.
• Pack favourite doll/animal in a readily accessible place.
• Bring out toys one at a time until they are thoroughly bored with each one.
• Don’t bring really noisy toys and games – this is unfair on other passengers.
• Find out what the airline will provide in terms of games and entertainment packs for kids.
• “Misplace” a few toys a couple of weeks before you travel and then miraculously “find” them on the flight.
• Remember you will be coming back too so be prepared for the return leg.

Food
Airline food is often extremely hot so if your child is eating adult meals, then make sure the food is at a manageable temperature. For younger children, it is probably best to take your own food which can be warmed by cabin staff. Planes often do carry tins of baby food but it is unlikely to be exactly what your child likes.

For infants requiring bottled milk, then disposable, pre-sterilised bottle liners are excellent for long journeys. If you carry pre-boiled water with you too, then the cabin attendants get warm this for you. Make sure you give the cabin crew plenty of notice regarding your requests. Much as you might think your child is the most important priority on the flight, they have several hundred other passengers to think about as well.

Finally, the ideas and information above, whilst researched carefully, do not provide specific information about particular airlines and their individual rules. It is designed to help you consider issues you may not have already thought about and to offer some practical advice. For all detailed enquiries, it is best to contact your airline who will be able to give you definitive answers about their policies regarding children.

You may also like to read

Sitting Comfortably? – finding the right airline seat

Fluid Dynamics – taking liquids through security

Get more top tips for family travel: listen or download our podcast How to Survive a Family Holiday below:

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