“With the kids?” This was by far the most common response I heard after telling people
I was planning to travel halfway around the world to Australia this Christmas.
The response was typically delivered with a sort of incredulous undertone, suggesting the people thought my wife and I were a little bit crazy for planning to spend just shy of 24 hours on two back-to-back long-haul flights with 21-month-old Saibh and three-year-old Dáithí.
Everyone has been on flights where they were thankful they weren’t the parents of the child lying face-down in the aisle screaming at the top of his lungs that he wanted his teddy — which had been accidentally left at home.
However, surely, with some planning, research and as many gadgets as we could cram into four carry-on bags, we would be fine.
So earlier this month we packed our bags, drove from Cork to Dublin, and boarded the ‘short’ seven-hour flight to Dubai, where we would have a quick two-hour turnaround and get onto a 13-hour flight to Melbourne.
Prepare to fail. Preparation, I felt was key. Not just ensuring we hadn’t forgotten our passports or left one of the children behind, but even more important was preparing ourselves mentally.
Approaching flights like these with an attitude that no matter what happens, it will be okay in the end, will help you deal with the vicious glares and I-want-to-stab-you-right-now stares from fellow passengers when your darling daughter is shattering records for how loud a 21-month old can scream.
It is also important to book your seats as far in advance as possible. We booked our flights six months out, and were able to get the same set of seats for all flights — the bulkhead seats with included a bassinet for Saibh.
As we boarded the first flight in Dublin there were a lot of children on board and some families were separated and crammed in between other passengers who probably didn’t fancy spending seven hours in the air listening over-and-over again to the Peppa Pig theme tune.
However, because Saibh was under two, she didn’t get a seat and this means you will be sitting with your child in your lap for much of the flight.
At take off this can be particularly problematic as the noise from the engines together with the change in air pressure hurting their ears can cause them a lot of discomfort.
Luckily for us, Saibh still uses a dummy so that meant she was able to deal with the change in air pressure without even noticing it.
Dáithí was equally excited by the noise and as he had been on a plane before, knew what to expect. We gave him a couple of jellies to chew on during takeoff which again helped him pop his ears without too much trouble.
For the first couple of hours, it appeared that all our worries were unfounded. The kids sat in blissful silence. One slept while the other sat enthralled by the in-flight entertainment system. For a brief blissful moment, we wondered what all the fuss was about. This, of course, ended and so we faced the challenge of entertaining them for another 22 hours.
In total, we brought four bags onboard packed full of things we thought would help keep our children entertained.
In hindsight, we brought too much stuff. A box of lego with dozens of small pieces was probably not a great idea. A new tablet with pre-loaded games and videos was a good idea. Bringing a familiar toy or teddy to comfort the children is a good idea.
Books for the parents to read while relaxing with a glass of wine proved completely pointless.
Of course, all these decisions will change depending on your own children’s preferences.
The first flight passed relatively as expected. Saibh slept for a couple of hours, Dáithí not at all. Both had periods where they didn’t want to sit on their seats and wanted to move around. Both cried, but for the most part, it went better than expected.
By the end of the flight, we were all ready to get off. The only problem we had another 13-hour flight to face in two hours.
Having changed the children into pyjamas and telling them they now needed to sleep, we boarded the second flight more in hope than belief.
From the off, things looked bad. Dáithí decided that now was the perfect time for a meltdown and as he was now over-tired, having not slept for the best part of 16 hours, nothing we could do was going to help.
Finally, after getting his hands on a bag of sweets, he curled up into a ball and fell asleep. By the time the seatbelt lights went out both children were asleep.
One of the bags we brought with us was a Jetkids BedBox. Think of a Trunki that doubles as a way of converting a plane seat into a lie-flat bed. Having set that up, Dáithí slept for five hours straight. It’s hard to say if the BedBox was the reason, but it certainly seemed to make him more comfortable.
Five hours sleep sounds great, but on a 13-hour flight, there is still a long time left.
The next eight hours passed in a blur of crying, laughing, eating and walking the aisles. As long as you forget about the idea of watching a movie or getting a lot of sleep yourself, this is all fine. Being able to get up and walk around makes things a lot easier, and despite the fear that the children would annoy our fellow passengers, we found everyone was really accommodating and helpful.
Gadgets certainly helped too. The enduring power that Peppa Pig can hold over a 21-month-old is mind-boggling. Bluetooth headphones meant getting tangled in wires when they fell asleep was one less thing to worry about.
In the end there is only so much you can do. There is no magic solution to making the flight a breeze. It is stressful but it’s not impossible. Being prepared helps, but there are always going to be unforeseen problems which you just can’t predict — such as having to wait an extra 30 minutes in the plane because the baggage carousel at Melbourne Airport broke down.
In the end, everything will be okay and you shouldn’t be put off travelling long-haul flights even if you have young children. Of course, don’t forget, once the flight is over, you have jetlag to worry about.