The Travelling Circus: Flying With Children

multiple parenting - er where do we check the 3 kids in?This week Emily reminds us of the chaos of flying with children and offers up some handy tips for helping you get to the other end in one piece with your sanity (just about) intact…  

I love flying. I love everything about it; people-watching at the airport, shopping for duty-free, running to the gate in response to the last call for boarding. As with so many things, however, there is a fine line between heaven and hell, and this line is crossed as soon as one introduces children into the equation. Flying with children is a whole different ballgame; a descent into a hell involving the exact antithesis of all that I love about my solo flying experience.

First you negotiate the snaking check-in queue, with your over-sized buggy, over-stuffed baggage and over-tired children, snatched from their beds because someone once told you it was easier to fly overnight with small children. Next comes the hurdle of security; folding buggies and stripping coats from reluctant arms. Your bag is pulled aside, you shuffle across, a child on each hip, to retrieve your belongings, take a sip of baby milk to prove you’re not a terrorist, and explain away the hundred-weight of raisins, cheerios and cheese triangles necessary to placate the children during the flight.

Forget the perfume counter, the next hour is taken up with toilet trips, feeding and distraction tactics. All this before you’ve even reached Gate 27, where the airline invokes their policy to board families first. Far from being helpful, all this serves to do is to use up not only your children’s (already limited) attention span, but also your diversionary toys, your aforementioned stache of snacks, and your sanity, while you wait for the remaining passengers to board.

The actual flight is three and a half hours of purgatory. A nappy filled just as the seat-belt sign lights; a tantrum over your refusal to allow them to jump on the seats; an air-sick child who won’t use a bag… You daren’t accept a hot coffee with a child bouncing on your lap; you’d kill for a gin, but you already have ‘unfit mother’ stamped on your hand luggage. The in-flight meal comes and goes; your tray is already in use as a colouring desk.

The air around your neighbouring passengers is thick with disapproval. You’re torn between bribing the children into submission, and your desire to demonstrate some redeeming parenting skills. Forget the latter; bribery will win out. Finally, when you think it will never end, and you have long since exhausted your reserves of chocolate, nursery rhymes and self-respect, the plane will land. They say it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive; perhaps just occasionally it is better never to set off. Or better still, to leave the children with Grandma, and travel alone.

For anyone still considering taking their children abroad, there are a few things worth considering:

Buy a cheap umbrella-fold buggy and make sure you have a sling as although you can generally take the pram right up to the plane, you won’t get it back till baggage reclaim. Don’t take your expensive Smugaboo unless you don’t mind it getting scratched and battered.

Be extremely wary of car seats provided by hire companies, but at the same time consider whether you want your carefully selected, side-impact-protection infant carrier bashed around the hold of a plane. We acquired two baby seats from Freecycle to take on holiday, and ‘donated’ them to the car hire company when we’d finished with them.

Don’t rule out flying with a newborn; babies under six months are surprisingly easy to travel with, compared to a toddler who wants to be on the move!

Take more food than you could possibly imagine your child eating. Raisins, fruit puree pots, breadsticks, chocolate buttons… Now is not the time to worry about creating bad eating habits; if it distracts them, feed it to them. Added to which, swallowing on take-off and landing will help prevent earache.

Pack a special bag filled with things your children have never seen before. They don’t have to be toys in the conventional sense; spoons, a purse, a sponge… anything that will hold their attention for a bit. Don’t show all your cards straight away though – bring out a new item every 15 minutes. Don’t let them play with them whilst you’re away, and they’ll be fresh and exciting again for the journey home.

We flew to Portugal when the babies were three months old and the toddler 18 months. It was pure hell and we swore never to do it again. A few months later, when our son turned two and could have his own seat, we took a short flight to Scotland, where an Easyjet angel restored our faith in cabin crew.

I can’t help but give a wry smile when friends panic over a forthcoming trip away with a single baby; it’s a doddle, really. But travelling with several children, whilst certainly achievable, isn’t my idea of fun. From now on we’ll be going places by car, and saving trips abroad for when it’s just the two of us. That is, just as soon as we can convince someone to look after the children…

Emily Carlisle is a freelance writer living in the Cotswolds with her husband and three small children. You can read her take on extreme parenting at More Than Just a Mother.


  1. I will never ever forget flying London to Singapore via Dubai with a 2 year old and me 2 months pregnant. I felt dreadful, little boy was very very bored and grumpy and tired. The flight home was even worse – he was awake the whole time Singapore->Dubai; 2 hours in Dubai Airport; Dubai->London – he fell asleep literally as we touched down.

  2. Tze Ching says:

    Traveling with little ones really is a pain (especially at airports) ! Went on a trip through Asia, Australia and US with my then 8 month old twins last year. The only thing I say, if you are planning to travel with kids (especially more than one), do it whilst they are young ! The only thing that saved us on our trip was, the little ones were not yet walking ! I would not dream of doing that trip now. Would be a nightmare ! We can barely make a trip down the road without them complaining nowadays, let alone 12 hour flights !
    However, the trip was amazing and was worth every second of the “pain” it caused.

  3. As a mum of six month old twins, I’ll be travelling on a 2 hour flight when they’re 9 months old. i would have liked the article to be a bit more useful rather than it being quite negative. Yes, I know it will be difficult but also a challenge and exciting -their first flight! Maybe i’m just kidding myself that they’ll be OK. The idea about using a sling doesn’t work with twins! You can buy protector bags for your car seats – but also worth bearing in mind that not all car seats fit all cars – so you may bring your own and find they don’t fit the car you have hired!

  4. More than Just a Mother says:

    Mils, sorry you didn’t enjoy the article. As you will see from my previous columns, my reporting is rather tongue in cheek. My personal experience was extreme – travelling with three children under 18 months was a genuine nightmare I have no desire to ever repeat. As I said, my subsequent (short domestic) flight when my eldest had his own seat, was a vast improvement.

    Are you flying with another adult or managing the twins on your own? If so, you will have a lap for each baby, and it will be much easier. Either way, I would still recommend a lightweight Maclaren-style stroller instead of a nice Nipper, or whatever you use at home.

    One of the biggest problems is that there are only 4 air masks per row, meaning you can only have one baby on each row. My own experience is that airlines don’t seek to manage this in advance, but wait until everyone is seated, then start trying to move people around. In other words, we boarded the flight and sat in our allocated seats – my husband and I next to each other with a baby on each lap. The seat was full, so my seat move depended entirely on which passenger was kind enough to give up their seat. Most passengers were travelling in pairs or families, so understandably didn’t want to move. Eventually I ended up right at the back of the flight, my husband at the front. I was breast-feeding both babies, so spent the entire flight trying to get from one end of the aisle to the other in response to wailing babies. My 18 month old toddler was sitting with his aunt in the middle of the plane, screaming for me everytime he saw me walk past. My advice would be to take control of the seating issue and ask for seats in different rows from the outset – one in front of the other. That way you can help each other out. I’d also advise you (if you are indeed travelling with another adult) to each carry a change-bag with all the essentials, rather than lumping everything in together. That way if you are seated a distance from each other, you’ve got everything you need (toys, clothes, food, water etc).

    I disagree that slings are irrelevant for twins, in fact I could write a whole article on the value of slings for multiple mums. My twins are now 14 months and I still use slings daily. I occasionally wear two Coorie slings at the same time, to carry a baby on each hip, or if there’s another adult with me, obviously we can wear a baby each. If I’m on my own, putting one baby in a sling makes it much much easier to carry the other one or just give me both hands free to manage luggage etc.

    The car seat issue is a thorny one and is a lottery regardless of what you decide. What we tend to do is take our own ‘spare’ seats, as I explained in the article, and hire the same car as we have at home. That way we know for definite the buggy, the seats and the luggage all fit. Where there’s no extra charge, I request car seats on arrival anyway, then I make a decision on what to use based on what fits best or seems safest or cleanest. I have seen some truly terrible car seats offered up by hire companies.

    Best of luck with your forthcoming trip – I hope you have a great time. Maybe you’ll come back and share some of your own tips once you’re back :)

    • We went to the US when the bambino was 3 months and then 6 months. The boyf had dreaded the first trip for ages and she surprised us by being an angel on the flight although she was near naked when we got off as she poohed through 3 outfits – she’s a poo on take off and landing type of girl… We were so enamoured, we booked another trip and whilst she wasn’t a nightmare, by God she had changed in 3 months and of course I bore the brunt as the boyf could not seem to stay awake… Just after she turned 1 we flew to Majorca and by the time we got off the plane we were completely zombified! She was so hyper! I completely agree with you about car seats as we had a complete nightmare in the US the first time round and car hire firms don’t like to install the car seat because they claim they don’t want to be sued! I had to throw a major hissy fit for them to do it and it took them 45 minutes and we were never happy with how she was seated in it, so the next time we packed the Maxi Cosi and it was like a major weight off our mind.
      Mils, each person has their own personal experience of flying with children and this column is a personal column where she also offered some tips to make things easier but she kept her experience real. I too would love you or anyone else that wants to, to share their experiences or tips as we’re heading into holiday season. Best of luck with your trip!

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