If you're over 35, chances are you didn't hop on a plane until you were old enough to drive, and maybe even later. Family vacations used to mean long car rides to the beach, the Grand Canyon or grandma's house, affording hours and hours of important familial bonding. "If I have to turn around one more time, I'm going to pull over and really give it to you kidsÂ?"
Nowadays, dads and moms are keeping their offspring in line aboard giant jet planes bound for far-flung destinations around the world. And, as we're all too familiar with, no child seems too young to be schlepped along on the family vacation.
I took my twin boys on their first international flight just short of their first birthday, traveling from New York to Delhi (India), via London --- a total of about 14 hours in the air. Another doozie was an 18-hour and 10-minute non-stop marathon from New York to Singapore a few months back. If I can survive a trip with a pair of three and a half year olds that took us up and over the North Pole and down across Mongolia, anything is possible.
What might actually be more traumatic than the actual flight is the bill. I'm nostalgic for the days when I was buying just one or two tickets for myself and husband. Now we're four and ever since the boys turned 2, the age children are required to occupy their own seat, our airfare costs have broken through the stratosphere. Ahhh, the price of togetherness.
Read on to find out more about kids' fares, special amenities and tips to make your long haul flight with the family bearable, and maybe even enjoyable.
The airlines typically offer standardized children's fares for international flights originating in the United States, says Mervyn Winston, president of Zena Travel Ltd. in New York City (tel. 800/339-5923; www.zenatravel.com).
2 to 12s
"For children ages 2 to 12, the international fare for flights from the U.S. is a standard 75 percent of the adult fare, which entitles the child to his/her own seat," says Winston. Citing a few exceptions, he adds that when travel originates in AsiaÂ and Europe, for example, child fares are typically 67 percent of the adult fares. For domestic flights within the U.S., the standard airline policy is no discounts for children occupying their own seats.
For international flights, Winston says children under 2 who do not occupy their own seat, typically pay 10% of the adult fare . For domestic flights, the standard among airlines is that children 2 and under travel free if they do not occupy their own seat (and are held on a parent's lap). If an under 2 does occupy his own seat, fares vary. American Airlines, for example, offers seats to infants at 50 percent off the adult rate. When my kids were between 2 and 3 years old, I must admit I cheated a bit on domestic flights, where children's ID isn't typically checked, not booking a seat for my boys, opting to hold them and save some dough. Passports (and ages) are checked, of course, for all passengers on international flights.
Seat Options for Under 2s
Attached to the bulkheads in front of a row of seats, the airlines' bassinets can typically accommodate infants up to a maximum of about 10 to 14 kgs or 20 to 30 pounds. There are a limited number, so it's vital to pre-request one well in advance at the time of booking, as first come first served. Worst case, baby's confined to your lap for the duration of the flight. Keep in mind, during take-off, landing and patches of turbulence, your child can not be in the bassinet, but must be in your lap secured with a seat-belt extension. Up until my boys were about 2, the bassinets came in real handy; they generally slept pretty soundly in them for at least half of the flight.
If you decide to forgo buying junior his own seat and bassinets aren't available or don't work for you, planes doing international flights will have seat-belt extensions that can be attached to your seatbelt and buckled around baby. I've held my guys when they were a little too big for the bassinettes, but weren't yet 2 (when I was required to buy them a seat), and it wasn't too bad. Sure, you're certainly limited by what you can do (namely, the important stuff: eat, drink, read and go to the bathroom), but when they're sleeping, who can really complain about a warm, moist, sweet smelling baby nuzzled across your chest like a toasty blanket? Keep in mind, if traveling with two children under 2, each must be held by a separate adult; if you're traveling solo with two infants, one must be in a seat as only one is permitted in your lap.
A Separate Seat
Assuming you don't mind paying the fare for a separate seat (typically 75% of adult fare as discussed above), some parents prefer booking a seat for their infants and using a car seat they bring from home to secure them. With twins, I was always too cheap to spring for two more seats for my boys until I was required to do so at age 2. It's a personal choice, some parents feel it's safer to have baby in his own seat and it also gives the parent(s) more space of their own. If you want to go the car seat route, it must be a forward-facing style and able to fit and be secured onto the plane's seat by using the aircraft safety belt.
And More Tips
Changing Facilities and Supplies Aboard
Planes on international routes will generally have a handful of bathrooms equipped with changing tables that pull down above the toilets. Sure it's tight, but I found them very adequate and conveniently positioned at about waist to chest level. Don't expect diapers and other supplies (American Airlines, for instance, doesn't provide diapers or baby food), though some airlines, like Singapore Airlines (with service between North America, Asia/Pacific, Europe and other regions), do stock diapers, disposable bibs, feeding bottles, and baby wipes. Cathay Pacific Airways (which also flies between North America, Asia/Pacific, Europe and elsewhere) provides diapers if requested at least 24 hours in advance. Still, you can't be sure they're the right size etc, so bring some of your own. And you can never bring too many wipes for cleaning up baby (otherwise, you're left to the questionable water that comes out of the bathroom taps).
A consolation to the cost and hassle of long flights with kids are the perks, which typically include kids' meals, a goody bag with small toys, crayons and coloring books, and sometimes logo stuff like hats and bags.
With twin boys, we needed to use strollers in the airport until they were about 3. Assume you'll have to check them at the gate and have them stowed under the plane; they're usually waiting just outside of the plane's door in the jetway when exiting the plane. If the plane is not full, you may be able to take your stroller onto the plane have it stowed in a closet or behind seats at the back of the plane --- ask at the gate. Worst case, the jetway will be a long and circuitous hike to the plane, as it was on a British Airways flight from Heathrow when my boys were 1; we had to check the strollers at a gate and carry the babies as well as schlep carry-on bags for what seemed like miles to reach the plane's door.
Many lines offer baby food as well as children's meals if reserved at booking time. Cathay Pacific Airlines, for example, offers infants strained meat and vegetables, plus a dessert and juice. For old children, the meals include standards like sausages, fish fingers, burgers, chocolate bars and juice.
Travel During the Downtime
According to agent Mervyn Winston, your best chances for landing a flight with some elbow room for your brood is flying between a Monday and Thursday during holiday periods and otherwise, flying on weekends, when there tend to be fewer business travelers.
Non-stop Flights Versus Connections
I've done it both ways on long haul flights between New York and Asia. Psychologically, breaking up a long plane ride in the middle, with a few hours to stretch your legs etc sounds good on paper, but it doesn't always wind up being so worthwhile. Remember, if your kids are sleeping, you'll have to wake them up to get off the plane, then carry them or chase them, around the airport. Furthermore, connections often add on not only the extra time spent waiting between flights, but another few hours of flying time when you consider take off and landing. We go non-stop whenever possible.
Aisle or Window?
A window seat is great for kids because it provides a wall for them to doze against and also affords great views of take-off and landing. The earlier you book your tickets, the more choice you will have in making special seat requests. Requesting a bulkhead non-emergency-exit row, along the sides of the plane (with a window and an aisle seat), provides you and your toddler more floor space (if you don't mind your child unrestrained and playing on the floor). This worked really well for me on several flights.
Upgrading the Family
If you've got big bucks to burn, go first class. But for most of us, that's a pipe dream. An alternative to going coach with the hordes, but more affordable than first, is booking one of the various intermediate classes many airlines now offer. "Traveling in the coach-plus class is a great idea if one can afford it," says Mervyn Winston, president of New York City-based Zena Travels Ltd, adding it usually costs substantially more than the regular coach fare, but the few extra inches of leg room can make quite a difference. Some flights, like Singapore Airline's non-stop A340-500 service between the U.S. and Singapore, are offered aboard aircraft configured only with "Executive Economy Class" seats (or better) that are wider, have extendable foot and leg rests, and offer much more space between seats.
In most cases, on international flights and sometimes domestic too, families with young children will be permitted to board first. But, it's never a sure thing. On that British Airways London to Delhi flight a few years back, not only couldn't we take our strollers to the plane's door, the gatekeepers didn't permit families to board early, citing there being too many children on the flight. Bah humbug.
Packing Carry-on Bags
It won't be pretty, but consider yourself a pack mule when preparing for a long flight with young children. And remember, your needs don't matter (well, except when/if the kids nod off and the wine trolley rolls your way).
Bring the obvious basics -- change of clothes, diapers, favorite blanket or stuffed toys, snacks in case they don't like what's being served and lots of wipes. I always like to give my boys snacks (granola bars, crackers etc) or a drink while the plane is taking off and landing to keep them swallowing and keep painful ear pressure at bay. Touch wood, after easily more than 25 flights with them so far, they've never suffered from pressure-related ear problems on planes.
Consider bringing a bottle of Benadryl, or the equivalent, if you don't mind "helping" baby sleep on those long flights. I used the stuff (just one regular dose at the beginning of the flight) until my boys were about two, and it seemed to work (though who knows, maybe they would have slept anyway). Just remember, for most children Benadryl makes them drowsy, but for a few, it makes them wired. Definitely experiment at home first.
New (and cheap) toys like books, matchbox cars and little plastic animals, keep kids entertained and excited to be opening a "present." Lots of stickers are also a good idea (they're not loud and can't hurt anyone!) Crayons and paper always entertain. And books, it's amazing how long my kids can sit still if read too.
Portable DVD players are another idea. Though so far I've self righteously held back from getting one of these (I'm sure my resolve will wear thin any minute now), many parents swear by these to keep kids 2+ happily zoned out on long flights. In lieu of bringing your own, more and more planes, including those of Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Quantas, for example, have personal video screens attached to each seat. Often there's a cartoon channel(s), which may or may not be appropriate for children under about age 10.
Finally, Expect the Worst
This strategy has always worked for me, as flights are never as hairy as I imagine them to be. I'm not saying they're fun, but I've always come out of a long flight with my young boys saying, "gee, that really wasn't so bad." Even the 18-hour non-stop half-way-around the flight with my toddlers was more than bearable. Many long-haul flights leave at night, so kids can sleep the first half or more, then the toys, snacks, seat video monitors and walks around the plane will get you through the rest.
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