Transatlantic air travel with a baby and a toddler



"Did you go on vacation already? "  is a question everyone seems to ask when you meet again over the summer.
"Yes we went to Florida in June"
"Oh super ...and what about the kids?"
"We took the kids"

Usually there's some sort of surprised pause audible at that point of the conversation.
Why would it be so hard to travel far with little children? 
Although I know a lot of people that travel far with little children, I still notice quite often that young parents seem to be afraid to make such a choice. One of my colleagues with a baby travels by car to France because she doesn't feel quite ready for air travel. One of our friends stated in the past that you are condemned to a few years of nearby holiday parks when you have young children.

The reasons usually seem the transport (time) and the luggage requirements.

1) Transport

It seems to be an assumption that travelling by car is easier with kids. After all, they are used to sitting in a car and when it starts to annoy them, you can always make a stop.

But your children need to be all buckled up in their car seats in the car with no autonomy to move except for their arms and kicking their legs a bit.  Of course you can make multiple stops in which they can run/play/...  but if your destination is a 10h drive away...they'll still need to be sit still for 10h no matter how often you stop for them.

In a plane they need to sit still for twice 15 minutes, after which they can receive more freedom to move. Obviously it's not as if they can run around in a park, but they can sit on their knees, get on the floor and go for a little walk. Most importantly, they do not have the feeling to be strapped up without autonomy.

Because there is more freedom of movement, I also find it easier to entertain them during the transport time. In a car, you are buckled up yourself, usually in the front seats which makes interaction and play time with the children hard or impossible.  In a plane you can sit next to each other, read books together, make a puzzle, color a drawing,  ride toy cars etc...

While we might suffer from lack of leg room, your child will have plenty of room to sit and even crawl at your feet on the floor!

Long transatlantic flights come with more entertainment: there are more meals served and there is usually inflight entertainment that offers your children child movies on demand or simply offers them a touch screen to mess around with for hours, which is - trust me - very entertaining to them! For this reason I find shorter commercial flights from tour operators to European destinations harder to deal with then the long transatlantic scheduled flights.

There is one thing and that's the fact that babies tend to be sensitive to the air pressure changes in their ears.  Some children are more prone to it than others and you'll never know until you fly.  It's a good idea to have their ears inspected by the doctor beforehand if you have reason to believe that your child is suffering from a cold or is sensitive to ear infections.  Other than that, you should stimulate your child to drink/ breastfeed or suck on a pacifier or eat a cookie or something - and use medication if they would be suffering from a cold.






If you drive because it is your strategy to drive while your child is sleeping, it is my experience that a child will sleep in all means of transport...eventually (usually not as quickly as the essential nap time at home and usually not as long as nap time at home either). But they will sleep.  And then they'll wake up again, as they will in the car. In a car, they might sleep easier as they are strapped up and used to the monotonous rhythm of driving while in a plane, they might be more distracted and here the freedom of movement could work against napping...yet you also have the freedom to rock them in your arms and to stretch them out on the seat if needed/ once asleep. So there is pro's and con's.  If they refuse to sleep when all other passengers around you are sound asleep, they can give you a source of stress when you try to keep them as silent as possible. That's not easy, I admit.





2: Luggage

Luggage also seems to be an often quoted reason why it is troublesome to travel far with little children or why you can't take them on air travel.

My experience is quite opposite: a small baby hardly needs anything on vacation as long as you stay in the urbanised world.  I've tested stores in Berlin, Kopenhagen, France, Gran Canaria, Greece, France, Florida, Canada, California, Egypt, ... and yes: they all sell Pampers. And they all sell global brands of baby food and they sell fresh fruits and vegetables.  So when you pack up baby underwear for each day (accidents happen), some T-shirts and shorts and 1 sweater and 1-2 bathing suits, you hardly have any space taken up in your suitcase.  Now add 10 diapers to cover for the first 2 days so you have plenty of time to search for a store, that's covered too.

The need for toys turns out to be amazingly low during a vacation. Usually your children will experience a ton of new impressions and activities that fill the day which reduces the need for their regular toys.  1-3 little toy cars, 20 Duplo blocks to build a tower with, a fist size soft ball, 2-3 reading books and a coloring book with some pencils together with their sleeping cuddle can entertain our boys a long way for the little time we spend in our hotel rooms. They might ask for what is not there...but what is not there is not there and eventually children get creative to use the things they have.  And when we go to the store to buy that pack of pampers, we usually find a little cheap thing to buy along and they have a new "favourite" toy for the vacation.

My pitfall for luggage is children's medication. I always drag along a big bag of syrups and seem to add on to those with each vacation.  While the entire urbanised world also has children's paracetemol and coughing syrup for sale, I'd rather be able to react quickly and not lose time for searching a pharmacy (the next morning...worst case, they always get ill in the middle of the night), wait for a taxi, cover the transport with a vomiting or feverish child or ...and having to resort to a brand/product that you don't know very well to fix a red itching rash or so. So if there is anything that takes up much luggage for children it is their medication set combined with their 10 diapers.  That fits well in a suitcase that fits in an airplane :).

oh yeah and we check in strollers and that's easier to do and travel with than fitting that in an already overloaded car!

Anything else: a baby bed is available in any hotel at request and if worst comes to worst, they can sleep with you in the bed.   A changing table: any bed with a towel will do...hell, even a drawer or bench or anything flat works!



So what are my tips to travel with your infants or toddlers in a plane? 
Well I covered a lot above but here are some more tips:


  1. Buy a seat for your infant even if it is not needed.  One of the big advantages for travelling with a young child is the fact that you are not required to buy them a seat but it is something we do for any longer flight.  A tiny baby might still sleep a lot and then it is feasible on a short flight to have him/her on your lap; but that changes when they get more mobile and awake.

    So while I challenge above the fact that a car would be easier to travel with children, the price of car travel is certainly one of the biggest advantages.  Our choice of vacation destination greatly depends on the availability of tickets in the price range that we want to afford. For this least trip, this meant a few weeks of searching flights, comparing prices etc...and in the end travelling from Amsterdam to Frankfurt to Miami instead of leaving from Brussels.

    Seriously, all the arguments above would be a lot harder or would disappear if I'd have to hold my toddler on my lap for 10 hours!
  2. Check seat configurations of the chosen flights. Apart from the price, Jan always checks the seat configuration of the flights. So we check if we can sit in one row or would be split up  or whether we'd likely end up sharing our 4 seats next to 1 extra person that we'd need to keep into account all the time. There's not a 1000 potential configurations but if prices are comparable, it is a veto factor we take into consideration
  3. Check flight times and connections: Another thing I check in detail is the flight times and the connecting times.   When we can't reach our destination in one-stop, as was the case for Miami (but also the west-coast of US and Canada on previous vacations) , I personally prefer to have a short European flight and then get the long stretch in one go.

    The reason for this - apart from the fact that US national air travel is known for its lack of service and comfort - is that I suppose the children are still well awake and behaving on the first short flight  and can nap when they want to without disturbance on the long flight.   If we would connect a flight in eg Montreal or New York or ... I fear that they might already be tired and clingy or just asleep when we need to transfer and that they'd then whine when arriving on yet another plane. This is an assumption we've not tested from experience. Mentally I find it easier to have a short stop that is completed before you realise it, and then one go to your destination.


    (=> so I'm a fan of air travel with children but I invest a lot of time in selecting a flight and a destination !)
  4. check in early en ensure you have your wanted seat configuration. You don't want surprises there.
  5. Let your children run around free around the gate before you board
  6. Cookies.  Cookies is the solution to 80% of baby and toddler problems. So travel light, but always stack some packs of Betterfood or small bags of nic nacs or so.  It covers hunger, waiting times, boredom etc.
    A small bottle of water that can be carried on is practical as well.
  7. Download a few (short) movies offline on your smartphone or tablet. We have a netflix and a Stievie subscription and both allow us to download some programs offline. It's particularly useful during take off and landing, when the entertainment system is interrupted and the children need to sit still in their seat.  Then a little bit of Bumba, Hopla   or Planes comes in very handy!
  8. Pack a new (coloring/sticker/reading) book or new little toy in the hand luggage. The novelty will always be a success factor.
  9. Order a kids menu. Although our children turned out to be more interested in our adult meals than in their plate, so I ended up eating the child menu.  But anyhow, it creates a bit more choice which is always handy!
  10. Sleep when they sleep.(or at least rest with eyes closed if you can't catch a nap)...as they might be awake when you get tired and then you need to keep them entertained






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