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Travelling alone with young children is only for the brave! Even the most well behaved children can be a challenge when navigating airports and flights. I have taken 4 flights alone with a five year old and an 18 month old (ok, so technically not alone) in the past month and I have survived to tell the tale. I therefore thought that a blog with my top tips for travelling alone with young children may help other people in the same situation.
As you may know from About me, we live in a different country to the rest of our family, we have to travel a lot to see them. Our families also live 3 and a half hours apart so we are always on the move. I’m fairly well seasoned at travelling with the girls, whether by plane, car or sea and I find that preparation can make or break a trip. However, I have usually had my husband with me so travelling alone with the girls has been a whole new ballgame.
Firstly, the packing is a marathon event. If you are anything like me, I manage to pack well for the children and then forget myself! Or if I do remember to pack enough clothes for me, they don’t all fit in around the children’s clothes. And once I am packed, I make the mistake of leaving the bags and cases open for last minute bits and bobs. This allows my 18 month old to unpack and proudly parade around the house with underwear on her head!
Secondly, you have to get to the airport. For mountain dwellers like us, this can be a long journey, although since moving house last year we are only just over an hour from an airport. Previously, our journey to an airport was over 3 hours long. You can guarantee that before even getting to the end of the road a chorus of ‘are we there yet’ has usually begun! I get it, they are excited but this can make for a very long drive!
Thirdly, you have to try not to lose your children in the airport. My five year old has been brilliant when flying recently. However, my 18 month old ‘wildling’ likes to make a bid for freedom every time she is allowed out of her pushchair. Going through security was particularly ‘fun’. We had 6 trays to juggle once liquids and electronics were out, as well as the pushchair. And of course, the last time we flew I beeped as I went through, which meant my 5 year old had to parent the 18 month old while I was searched. Remarkably, my blood pressure didn’t rise too much!
When travelling alone with young children, the question of ‘who will fall apart first – mummy versus the girls’ is one that I try to avoid having to answer! I’ve learnt not to set my expectations too high. Things invariably go wrong. Think spilt drinks, lost toys, unscheduled toilet stops and delayed flights.
So, my top tips for travelling alone with children are:
1 – In car entertainment
The car journey to and from the airport can add hours to the length of time that little ones are restrained for. Don’t neglect to include this leg of the journey in your planning. Take an extra bag of goodies for the car, and if possible leave snacks and entertainment for your return journey too.
2 – Flight time
If possible, choose a flight at a time that won’t interfere with or alternatively complements naps and sleep schedules. However, coinciding a nap with the time that you fly doesn’t always work. My littlest sleep thief refused to nap on our most recent flight, resulting in a very over tired toddler that was very hard work to keep entertained! Best laid plans!
Choosing your ideal travel time may also be easier said than done if there is a big price difference with the flights at different times.
3 – Timing
Give yourself plenty and I mean plenty of time. This will allow you to calmly deal with the unexpected.
On a recent trip back from Mallorca my youngest lost her shoe just before we went through security! She had been in her buggy and had taken it off. After retracing our foot steps, I found where the little play shoe had been flung! I always travel with spare clothes, but I do not keep spare shoes to hand! I was very grateful that we had a lot of time to spare which avoided too much stress during the great shoe hunt!
4 – Keep your hand luggage to a minimum.
I heed not my own advice! Seriously, will I ever learn?
I travelled with hand luggage only for my last trip to the UK. We had access to a washing machine so I only took 3 – 4 outfits each. However, I still had a large rucksack, a small (well as big as the airlines allow and very overweight) pull along case and a nappy bag, plus two children a pushchair and all our coats which would not fit in the luggage.
Many airlines allow a you to take a nappy bag when you fly with a child on your lap, as opposed to giving an infant or child under two a hand luggage allocation. I find this really useful as you keep it under your seat, therefore there is no need to fish about in the overhead locker mid air if you need to do a nappy change. As it is so accessible, I also fill it with drinks, snacks and entertainment for the flight.
5 – Take a baby carrier or sling
If you have done the math, you’ll have realised that there is no way I could board the plane with the amount that I carry on. However, I take my Ergobaby sling with me, so that once I have discarded the pushchair I can carry the youngest onto the plane and keep my hands free for my bags. Usually at this point I start desperately looking around for a nice person to help me on to the plane. Especially as the nappy bag, designed for my 5 year old to carry has become too heavy for her to manage!
I would not recommend the ‘take as much hand luggage as you can’ approach at all. Check in as much as you can. Easyjet often let you check in hand luggage for a very small price. Unfortunately, this was not an option for us due to the medical equipment that we carry but I would definitely use this service if I could.
6 – Security
Getting through security is the part of the journey that I find the hardest. Again, when travelling alone with young children I find that preparation is key.
Avoid wearing any metal or anything that may have to be removed. Have your liquids and electronics easily accessible. If using a pushchair, keep your child in it until the very last minute. Don’t panic and take your time. I know I feel the pressure of getting through quickly and not holding people up, but usually once people spot the crazy lady with the young children they change lanes quite quickly anyway.
7 – Play areas
If you have lively children, it is a good idea to allow them to let off steam before boarding the plan. Find out if there is a play area in the airport that you are flying from.
I have discovered two areas in Geneva. The first is for 5’s and under and it is in the transit zone on the first floor, above the shops. The ‘Espace Enfants’ is well signed once you are through security. It is a closed area with a reading corner, drawing table and play area. I think it is fabulous. The second area is an open play area and it is on the way to terminal A.
8 – Know how to collapse your buggy.
Many of us travel with a lightweight pushchair that we don’t use regularly. In fact, I hadn’t used ours since my first daughter was about two years old. Picture a rather fretful mum at the foot of the plane steps trying to figure out how to fold the damn pram! Yes, this was me! Please learn from my mistakes. I ended up kicking it hard…..and it worked!
9 – Snacks
I try to pack fairly healthy snacks as well as mid air bribes. This is definitely a time to relax the rules. Airport food is improving, however plane food still tastes like cardboard so I try to bring my own. This helps saves on cost too.
A lollypop is essential. It can occupy some time, plus sucking a lollypop can help little ears on take off and landing.
10 – Stickers
Stickers can provide hours of entertainment. They kept my 18 month old entertained for a big part of the journey. I would highly recommend taking stickers with you on a plane.
11 – Activities
My 5 year old spent most journeys with her head in her activity book and an etch-a-sketch is great for any age. Try and choose one with the pen thingy on a string and don’t take all the magnets. I lost count of how many times I had to retrieve ours from the floor!
12 – Don’t be afraid to ask for or accept help
I hate to put people out. Especially if my hand luggage is very heavy. But ultimately, when you are travelling alone with young children there are times that you will need an extra pair of hands. I will always try and help out other parents when travelling because I know what a challenge it can be.
13 – Spare clothes
When you are travelling alone with young children you are performing a juggling act. And this juggling act can mean spillages and stains. I know that I am a very easy target and that food or drink gravitates towards me! It is easy to remember to take spare clothes for your children but have you thought about yourself?
14 – Fluid intake
It is really important to stay well-hydrated when flying, however I try to limit fluid intake just before and during the flight if it is short haul. I like to try to avoid juggling a toddler and a 5 year old in cramped airplane toilets by encouraging lots of fluid well before and after the flight, plus multiple bathroom trips at the airport. Even changing a nappy in those tiny cubicles can be a challenge; especially if you have wriggly ones like I do!
15 – Try not to worry about what other people think.
This is easier said than done. The very first time that I flew alone with my oldest she was less than a year old and I was extremely anxious about the flight. An older lady turned to my daughter and said ‘ you better be good on this flight’. I was flabbergasted! As if the journey wasn’t difficult enough, without the extra pressure of keeping other passengers happy! Luckily, she was as good as gold. I fed her and she slept most of the way!
However, I now have a much thicker ‘travelling skin’. I always try to be courteous to other passengers and I am conscious of the girls kicking the seats and making too much noise. I work extremely hard to entertain them but I can only do my best. And if my best isn’t good enough for other people, tough @h#t! My priority is getting my girls safely from A to B!
Babies, toddlers and young children do not understand why they have to be restrained for hours on end. Nature intended them to move and explore, therefore being strapped in goes against the grain. They may also struggle to equalise if their ears pop and maybe upset by the pain or sensation.
So if young children get upset, don’t worry about anyone but your children. It is always worse for you, as the parent, than for the other people around you. I observed this on recent flights. Parents were desperately trying to settle upset children. I felt bad for them but the sound of the crying didn’t bother me at all.
17 – Exiting the plane
I usually wait until the end. This way, I can take my time, without getting in the way of other passengers. By the time I have got into the terminal building (usually way after everyone else) my pushchair is ready and waiting for me (then I just have to figure out how to put it up again).
Travelling will get a lot easier as the girls get older. There will be a shift in their needs and travelling will become more a lot more civilised……I hope!