It’s not an exaggeration to say this time last month, the prospect of flying long haul with kids felt terrifying. Now that our wonderful trip to Thailand is starting to fade to delicious memories, those anxieties are already becoming distant. In all honesty, once we had conquered the outbound flight, the other four within our holiday got easier and easier. The flight home went so smoothly, the kids mostly slept.
Flying long haul with kids: advance preparation (especially for additional needs)
As I wrote about in this post, we had a very stressful start to our trip, having completely overlooked the need to pre-book seats. One week before flying we were in the very dire position of all five of us sitting separately. Including our autistic daughter, Polly, who was tying herself in knots of worry already. Of course we didn’t tell the kids about our dilemma, it would have only sent their fragile nerves sky rocketing. Thankfully the lovely crew at Thai Airways took care of us, and the children will never know the anguish we felt when imagining how much harder that first long haul flight might have looked like.
My husband and I learnt a very humbling lesson in not making enough noise about our family’s additional needs. Going forward we shall always let the airline know about Polly’s autism as soon as we book our flights. They are geared up to help, and want to help, but have to know who they need to help in order to help. (And yes, I’ve written the word help four times in one sentence on purpose.)
Miriam who writes at Faith Mummy advises this: “watch YouTube videos with the kids before you go! I flew with my two (birth autistic, son non verbal with severe learning difficulties) and we all watched videos of people going through security, what the airport looked like and sounded like and what the plane would be like. Prepare them for as much and more as you can think (bearing in mind they forget quickly).
My biggest tip is to create a plan your child adores. For example, my son loves lifts so when things were hard I could happily say ‘first walk here with mummy, then lift’ as I knew where the lifts were and he felt confident I was in control. Using his obsession helped so much. I also visited the car park, the airport and other places beforehand and took pictures to show the kids. It was all well worth doing.”
Special assistance at the airport
All UK airports have provisions for special assistance. Be it lanyards or stickers to highlight hidden disabilities, quiet spaces or help from ground staff. It’s best to check the airport website, as things vary depending on where you are flying from.
Daisy who writes at InspireCreateDo says: “we have the sunflower lanyard which we got from special assistance in the airport. It’s been so great, the staff are discreet and friendly and make sure we are moved though the airport quickly and with no waiting. They have quiet lounges as well.”
Kristie who writes at Mamma Prada has this advice: “my 3 year old daughter has Type 1 Diabetes and has a device inserted into her arm which can’t go through the x-ray machines at the airport. Cabin pressure makes my daughter’s blood sugar levels plummet so it’s very common for us to have to manage a hypo mid-flight.
My advice is to take a GP letter with you (if you can) for any airport staff discussions. To let the air stewards know when you get on the plane so they know what to expect. I make sure I very openly discuss what I’m doing with my daughter (such as injections) and with anyone staring. That way their unvoiced questions are answered. I hate having to explain myself, but the more people understand conditions, hopefully the less negative their reactions will be.”
Flying long haul with kids: entertainment and snacks
My family spent weeks discussing what the children would pack in their carry on bags. They each had a tablet, crammed full of their downloaded favourite shows and films from iPlayer, Amazon and Netflix. Each of them had their bedtime teddies to cuddle and some squishy toys to fiddle with. They also took activity books, books to read and colouring books. New felt tip pens were purchased ahead of the trip, because I didn’t want to risk taking pens that wouldn’t last the journey. We also bought them magazines at the airport, which I’m not the biggest fan of as a rule, but they paid for themselves a hundred times over. Not only were they super useful on the flights, they came in handy throughout the holiday. As did travel sized chess and connect four.
Freddy (5) is a very fussy eater, so it was important to pack enough food for him. Even though the list of special meals you can request on a long haul flight these days covers just about any dietary restrictions you could imagine. If you do need one, you absolutely have to organise it in advance on the airline website. The photo above is of one of our meals: Pad Ka Prow with rice and a fried egg, cheese and crackers, bread roll, banoffee pie. For each meal there was a spicy and non spicy option. I found the main meals very tasty, and avoided the bread products or puddings.
Anna who writes at Popitha has this advice for travelling with twin toddlers: “buy some new pound shop toys, maybe wrap them up to keep them amused just that little longer. Also, fill a small lunch box/bag full of snacks. When they say they are hungry, hand it over and let them choose. It will save you diving into your bag every 2 minutes.”
Emma Reed says: “we wrap up activities to do or new toys. Each time our child was getting agitated we brought out a ‘gift’ to unwrap and investigate. We took things like snap, colouring books, magic trick set, maze game. Similar toys that you’d get in a party bag, so they were easy to play with on the tray.”
Great advice from Anna and Emma. I’d also say check out your local charity shops ahead of your trip, as you might find some great quality old toys in their 20p/50p basket.
Flying long haul with kids with additional needs
Geraldine Renton has many useful pieces of advice for parents travelling with children who have additional needs. “We created a step by step book to explain what was going to happen in advance. We showed our son what an airplane was like (online), and contacted the airline and airport in advance. Packing everything that he loved also helped. He still had a meltdown but the second, third and fourth time he had less meltdowns and became somewhat of an entertainer. Each time the plane took off he’d roar: ‘up up away, I’m superman’ and when landing he’d roar: ‘no crash’ – like a man who had experience in such an accident.
Regardless of how prepared we are, the first time flying will always be that much more difficult. I found it difficult my first time on a plane and I have no extra needs. My son is no longer able to go on a plane, so I now look back at that time of flying with him fondly. I wish I hadn’t been so anxious and laughed with him when he was roaring out while taking off and landing.”
I’m pretty sure flying long haul, for the very first time, will be super hard for any family. All children, especially those with additional needs, will have worries that can only be fully put to rest through the experience of flying itself.
Short flights just aren’t the same. The planes are smaller, there’s much less leg room and there is often a rocky take off or bumpy landing to factor in. My kids had flown a handful of times on budget airlines, which meant they thought the almost twelve hour flight to Thailand was going to be the same.
Thankfully, they couldn’t have been more different to our previous experiences of flying. Both our long haul flights were great, and I can’t wait to book our next adventure!
**Thanks so much to the bloggers who contributed to this piece.