Top tips for long-distance travel with a toddler
Parenting,  Travel,  Travel tips

Top tips for long-distance travel with a toddler

Miss M is not yet 4, but she is already a seasoned long-distance traveller. She has already taken more long-distance flights than most adults will in their lifetime. Along the way, we have developed a number of strategies to make long-distance travel with a toddler easier.

By long distance, I mean LOOOONG distance. From Dusseldorf to Adelaide – 16,000 km (10,000 miles) – and two flights and 20+ flight hours each way (not counting transfers). She handles it like a pro. All up, Miss M took 16 long-distance flights before she turned three.

Flights 1 to 4

She was just ten months old for her first flight. My brother decided to get married at very short notice and I didn’t want to miss the wedding. I hadn’t even met my sister-in-law yet.

Flights 5 to 8

Miss M’s second trip was just after my Mum was diagnosed with cancer. My husband and I had already discussed spending Christmas in Australia. After Mum’s diagnosis, we decided that Miss M and I would fly sooner, rather than later. Small children are a great source of distraction and joy. Miss M’s presence was particularly helpful when doctors were doing tests and giving my Mum not so good diagnoses and prognoses.

Flights 9 to 12

Only a few weeks after our return to Germany, my Dad rang very early one morning. My Mum’s condition had significantly deteriorated and her doctor did not expect her to last much longer. Unfortunately, the technology is not yet available to allow us to beam to Australia. So instead, we hopped on a flight the same day. We were not even sure that my Mum would still be there when we arrived 20+ hours later. Fortunately, she was, but she passed a few days later.

Flights 13 to 16

Miss M’s fourth trip was in February, nearly a year after we returned from trip 2. This was the first trip where we had to pay for a separate seat for Miss M: she was two. The return flights were also the first that my husband/Miss M’s Daddy accompanied us. We had a stopover as a family in Dubai to celebrate.

Top tips for long-distance travel with a toddler: Before you fly

With this experience under our belt, we would like to share some tried and true tips for long-distance, overseas travel with a toddler. Some of these tips are just common sense, but some I learnt the hard way.

Tip 1 for long-distance travel with a toddler: book carefully

Tip 1: Book carefully

Choose your flights carefully. When travelling with a toddler, the price is not necessarily the most important factor. Most airlines will allow a child to travel on your ticket until they are two. Once they turn two, you normally have to pay for a separate seat. For your own sanity, flights should ideally match your child’s circadian rhythms. Transfer times should also be as brief as practicable.

We are lucky in that we have a number of flight options between Dusseldorf and Adelaide. Some have long lay overs. These are great if they are long enough to leave the airport and see part of the city, but not so great if you are travelling solo with your toddler. For most parents, the idea of taking a city trip with a toddler between two long flights with is even more daunting than the flights themselves.

Our ideal flight

Our most convenient flight leaves early afternoon in Dusseldorf. Miss M naps for an hour or so during the first leg of the trip. When we reach Dubai, she is quite tired and by the time we get to our gate, she is ready to sleep again. A drink during takeoff and she is out for the count. This is good, because it is a night flight, leaving Dubai just after midnight (local time), and arriving in Adelaide in the evening. Just over halfway through our second flight, Miss M wakes up and wants to be entertained. She is tired again when we land in Adelaide. After a brief play with my parents and a call to Daddy, she is ready for another sleep.

Don’t forget to check transfer times

It is also important to take note of transfer times. If you are flying with the same airline, they will normally ensure that there is enough time for the transfer for the average passenger. Note: transfers with a small child take longer.

Allow for the worst

We had one flight, I think Miss M’s first, when our flight was delayed leaving Dusseldorf. We had to circle the airport when we got to Dubai, and we had a very long descent. Miss M quickly discovered that drinking alleviated the pressure on her ears. Great, right? Due to the long descent, Miss M drank a lot. Just after we landed, we wore it. All over herself, all over me and all over the floor.

Our delays meant that the plane was not in its normal park position. This lead to difficulties connecting the stairs – we were in the Airbus A380 and they did not have many stairs that were high or wide enough. It took ages to disembark and our transfer time quickly diminished. The stench increased with the heat.

By the time we exited the plane, our one and a half hour transfer time had reduced to 40 minutes. We had to catch the bus to the terminal, go through security, catch the train to the next terminal, go up three floors, walk 10 minutes to our gate and go through security again. I was changing Miss M into her clean pajamas in the disabled bathroom of our gate lounge while they were calling for the last passengers for our flight. I did not get to change my own decorated clothes until 2 hours after the event.

Long delays are equally difficult with a small child. There can be some respite if the delay is long enough to leave the airport for a tour or to check into a hotel for a nap. If the delay is shorter, you have to entertain your child at the airport. Transferring, changing clothes, having something to eat… then what? Most large airports will have some sort of play area or garden, but not all these are suitable for toddlers or will catch their interest for long. As a tired parent, there is only so long that you can watch a child go round and round on a merry-go-round.

In my experience, if the transfer time is more than three hours, you might want to see if there is another fight option that has better timing.

Tip 2 for long-distance travel with a toddler: reserve seats and check-in online

Tip 2: Reserve your seats and check in online

When taking long-distance flights with a toddler, reserve your seats in advance (both of them!) and check in online if you can. I learnt the hard way: airlines will not necessarily block a seat next to you for your child if you don’t reserve it.

As we had done a fair bit of flying in a short period of time, my husband and I were silver status frequent flyers. This allowed us to choose and reserve seats without paying any additional fee. Some airlines require you to pay a fee to choose where you sit.

Don’t assume…

On one flight, I mistakenly assumed that if I had reserved a seat, the seat next to me would be blocked for Miss M. She was travelling with me and was the only other person on the booking. As a minor, and a very young one at that, I thought that most airlines would automatically require her to sit with a parent.

Miss M had been granted Australian citizenship by descent, but we had not yet been to Berlin to apply for her passport. Normally, visitors to Australia require an e-visitor visa to enter the country. However, as an Australian, she could not apply for this visa and did not require it. Without the Australian passport, however, I could not confirm that she had all the travel documents necessary to take the trip. This meant that I could not check-in Miss M online.

Fast forward 48 hours: we arrive at the airport (early for our flight) to check Miss M in and drop off our luggage. As she did not yet have an Australian passport, the airline ground staff had to ring the Australian embassy. The embassy staff gave the airline personnel a telephone number in Australia (part of border controls and customs) to ring. The border control staff then gave the airline staff an identifier number, which they could then input into their system. This number served as confirmation that Miss M would be allowed into Australia and would not be turned away at the border. I was concerned about this part of the procedure, but the airline staff had obviously dealt with such situations numerous times and knew the procedure.

Sorry, what now?

My shock came for something that I had not even considered. I casually commented that Miss M “would of course be sitting in the seat next to me, right?

Ahhh, no,” came the response from the check-in staff member.

As I had not checked Miss M in online (and indeed could not in the circumstances), the two seats next to me had been assigned to other passengers. My assumption that the seat next to me would be blocked because (1) we were on the same booking; (2) Miss M was a minor, and (3) I had reserved my seat, was patently incorrect. Instead, the airline had seated her six seats and two aisles away on the other side of the plane. Somehow, the staff member felt that I should not worry because we were (technically) still “in the same row“.

I will not repeat my response to the ground staff who assumed that it would be acceptable for Miss M, for other passengers and to me. Indeed, I hope that the airline has changed their policy after my complaint.

Not just me

This was not the first time that I had seen this airline separate young children from their parents. On a previous very full flight, the same airline assigned a seat to a child (perhaps 4 y.o.) near us. Her father was four rows in front. Meanwhile, the airline had seated Mum in a totally different section of the cabin about 20 rows behind us. Before take-off, the cabin staff spent about 20 minutes shuffling 10 passengers, including Miss M and me, in order to seat the family together.

Avoid additional stress

You definitely do not need such additional stress before or during boarding and the suggestion that you “just board and the cabin staff will work it out when you are on the plane” is not comforting when your child is too young to leave alone when you get on the plane and you do not know which seat to even sit in.

Where possible, check in online – one fewer thing to do at the airport and you will know where you are sitting. Even if you need to pay an additional fee: try and reserve your seats. It is worth it.

Tip 3 for long-distance travel with a toddler: check your travel documents

Tip 3: Check travel documents

Toddlers need their own passport

For any overseas flight, your child will probably need their own passport.

Until a few years ago, children under the age of 2 could fly on their mother’s passport. I do not know of any country that still allows this. The European Union, US and Australia certainly do not.

Special rules for children’s passports

Most countries will have special rules for children’s passports. These can include a much shorter period of applicability, that a parent can sign for the child or that both parents must sign the application form and may even have to be present when applying for a passport. You should check your local requirements.

Some countries, such as Germany, even have special passports just for children. They do not link to full biometric data and are much simpler. However, not all countries accept them. Miss M can fly on her German ‘Kinderpass’ and use it to enter Australia (before she had Australian citizenship) and the UAE, but she cannot enter the US on this type of passport. Please check the entry requirements of the country you are intending to visit if you have a Kinderpass or similar national children’s passport.

Dual citizenship

Our seating panic would also not have happened if I had checked-in both of us online. This would have been possible if Miss M had had her Australian passport.

If your child is entitled to dual citizenship, it is worth making the effort to obtain both. It can open so many doors for your child down the road. However, citizenship is a separate issue to passports.

If you are planning on travelling regularly a child of dual nationality, I would definitely recommend applying for both passports as soon as practicable. Even if this means taking a day off work to go to an embassy and apply. If you cannot apply for one of the passports prior to your flight (and let’s face it, embassies are not always located just around the corner) and you are going to the country which would issue that passport, get to the airport early. Be prepared to wait while airline staff confirm that your child is allowed to fly. You should also be prepared for border control staff to question you at your destination and to receive a mini-lecture about how much easier it would be if your child already had both passports.

Tip 4 for long-distance travel with a toddler: prepare for questions at the border

Tip 4: Prepare for questions at the border

Miss M and I do not share the same surname. While this has no impact on most aspects of our lives, it can have an impact when travelling, particularly when we are not travelling with my husband. Take these simple steps if you are going on long-distance travel with a toddler as a ‘solo parent’.

Travelling as a ‘solo parent’

For most flights, border control personnel did not question our relationship when we were leaving the country. They just checked our passports and through we went. I have heard, however, that some countries, such as Canada, will question whether one parent has the right to take a child out of the country and whether the child’s other parent has given their approval.

In order to confirm that my husband had in fact given his consent and was aware of our plans, I had him sign a letter which I could present to border control, if required. For your ease, I have created a template of the letter I use. You can find it here.

Copies of official documents

The other document that I always take with me is a copy of Miss M’s birth certificate. We do not share the same surname and do not even have passports from the same EU country. I have been queried at the EU border about my relationship to Miss M. Of course, this always happens when I am tired and Mis M just wants to see Daddy. If I can show a copy of her birth certificate, the border staff quickly waive us on, rather than forcing us to wait and answer numerous questions. Apparently, South Africa will require you to show your child’s unabridged birth certificate, sometimes even if both parents are travelling with the child, in order to show paternity.

If you are a single parent and your child’s other parent has passed, you might want to take a copy the death certificate to avoid discussions. If you have sole custody of your child, take a copy of any court order or similar granting you this custody. This will avoid unnecessary complications at the border.

If you are travelling with a child who is not your biological child, please check the requirements for your home country, your destination and any transfer airports.

Tip 5 for long-distance travel with a toddler: order your child's cabin meals

Tip 5: Book meals

In some respects, it is easier to fly with very small children who are still being bottle or breast fed, though these have their own downsides.

Breastfeeding

Depending on your route, you may have fellow passengers who consider it inappropriate to breastfeed a child in public, especially in the presence of a man who is not the child’s father. This is often the case in for certain Islamic cultures where the males and females still lead quite separated lives. As the most important time to feed the child is during take off and landing, it is not possible to disappear into the toilets to do so. Take a muslim wrap as a cover up and grin and bear it – the comfort of your child is paramount, also to your sanity.

Bottles and security

If you are bottle feeding, you should carefully check the security allowances with respect to liquids. In most cases, there are exceptions when it comes to liquids for very small children. I found it easier to take formula and ask for water when on board.

Cabin staff can help warm any liquids that you have. Be aware: if your child is above-average in size (i.e. much too large to fit in the wall-mounted travel cot), you may have difficulties with security who think that the liquids exemption for small children should no longer apply to your child.

Order meals

Most airlines will have jars of baby food available for very small children, but will not necessarily have much of a selection.

If you book a separate seat for your child, your child will be entitled to a separate meal. Most airlines will require you to make the meal selection at the time of booking or when you reserve your seats. Despite the efforts of airlines to develop kid-friendly cabin meals, they are still unlikely to satisfy picky eaters.

Miss M is a picky eater and one thing she will not eat is sauce. Any type of sauce. On most of our flights, the kids’ meals consisted of pasta, potatoes or rice with meat (sausages) and a vegetable (peas, beans or carrots) with a gravy-like sauce over the top. Miss M will not even try something that has been touched by sauce. This often left little for her to eat. She would either eat bread, part of my meal or food that we had packed.

Most airlines will also bring your child’s meal (and any other special meals) before serving the rest of the cabin. This is great in that it allows you to feed your child before your own tray table is crowded. The problem arises when your meal arrives and your child has finished theirs and wants to go to sleep. Be prepared to have a cold meal, or no real meal, and to juggle trays while eating.

For hints on what snacks work well on flights, check out the next post in this series.

Tip 6 for long-distance travel with a toddler: ensure your vaccinations are up-to-date

Tip 6: Ensure immunisations are up-to-date

Flights are great breeding grounds for all sorts of viruses. In fact, the CDC in the US has linked recent outbreaks of measles to air travel. Studies also show that you are more likely to get sick, such as from the flu, if you are unlucky enough to sit near someone who is infected.

Follow country advice

Some countries have lower immunisation rates. In other countries, some diseases are common. That is why, if you are planning to visit certain countries, your own department of foreign affairs will advise you to receive specific immunisations before you go. Likewise, if you are applying for a work visa, you may need to prove that your immunisations are up-to-date. In order to apply for a work visa for Belgium (or any EU country), I had to be tested to show that I had either had tuberculosis or had been immunised against it because we did not have an official record of my shots.

Depending on where you are travelling and, indeed, where other passengers on your flight may come from, you can be at greater risk of contracting a viral disease. Flights from winter, for example, might be more likely to contain passengers who are suffering from the flu. The may still (unknowingly) be contagious.

Our recommendation

In order to avoid the risks for your toddler, we recommend that you ensure that their immunisations – and your own – are up-to-date before you fly. Please also check the advisory information for the country or countries you are visiting.

Tip 7 for long-distance travel with a toddler: sign your child up for the frequent flyers program

Tip 7: Register your toddler for frequent flyer miles

Some airlines will allow you to register children for their frequent flyer miles program. Unfortunately, the airline that we most often use does not allow you to register until you are 18. With the number of flights that Miss M has taken, she might have even qualified for a free flight by now!

The frequent flyer programs of some airlines will also allow you to transfer miles to another family member, or have similar family programs. This can mean quicker upgrades or free flights. Membership to most frequent flyer programs is also free.

If you are intending to travel frequently with your toddler and the airline program allows it, we would recommend that you sign your toddler up for the frequent flyer miles program.

Enough of the paperwork

If you take a little time to check these requirements in advance, you will be more relaxed about your upcoming long-haul flight with a toddler. In the next article in this series, we will provide our tips on the carry-on essentials for your long-distance flight.


9 Comments

  • Kalie Lyn

    My daughter is also a little world traveler at the age of (not yet – almost!) 3, and we have also survived some long-distance flights. I can confirm that these are great and important tips!

    • Rachael Matthews

      Thank you Kalie. Next week we will be looking at what to put in your hand luggage – would love to hear if you have any suggestions to add!

  • irishtwins16

    This is absolutely amazing! I never thought about it and we are planning a trip to Disney. I am only in the savings phase but this has helped me a lot with booking the flight! Thank you!!!

    • Rachael Matthews

      Check out next week’s post too – it will contain suggestions of things to pack – especially the snacks and entertainment!

  • jfitzwater21

    We took our 2 children on a flight when I was still breastfeeding. I had pumped and saved milk from our trip to bring back home, and it got flagged at TSA. It took us an extra 30 minutes to get through security and we missed our flight! Our carseats were already checked and on the plane so we spent 18 hours in the airport with a 4 year old and 3 month old. It was an interesting experience to say the least. These are great travel tips you have shared, and I wish I would have read more on how to travel with children before I went! haha

    • Rachael Matthews

      I am so sorry that that happened to you! Security is still really tight at most airports, though you can’t even say that the rules are uniform or enforced uniformly – very frustrating! I hope your kids still enjoyed their airport adventure and that you eventually made it on your holiday.

  • Kevin And Jade

    My son got his passport at 1 month old and travelled to the other side of the world when he hit 4 months so he can meet his grandparents. These are excellent tips and thankfully, we never had to be seated separately. Dear Lord, I can only imagine what you said. I reckon it would’ve been the same as mine. hah that’s beyond shocking. Is there any chance you can tell me which company this is so I can avoid it in future? I will be travelling to Adelaide within the next few months.

    I’d also like to share my experience as a breastfeeding mum who regularly travels with a toddler. I’ve travelled to quite a few Islamic countries whilst still breastfeeding and I can assure you that they don’t normally complain about it. In fact, I’ve never experienced any complaint and I don’t use a cover. I tried it once and my son screamed bloody murder – everyone looked at us and looked and looked. I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole lol

    I learned later on that breastfeeding is actually in the Koran and it is generally considered a right all Muslim children have. Obviously, there will be some people who complain about it but this happens in other countries too (although to be honest, I’ve had more people complaining in the UK, the US, Australia and the Philippines than in any of the Islamic countries I visited – sadly).

    Thank you very much for the template. I carried my son’s birth certificate with me and my marriage certificate as we don’t share surnames either but you’re right, a signed letter from my husband would’ve been preferable and probably better for my stress levels too. Bookmarking this post, thank you very much.

    • Rachael Matthews

      Hi Jade,

      I am so glad your little one has already been to visit his grandparents! Very exciting for all, I am sure.

      Interestingly, I find it is not so much devout muslims who make you feel any disapproval for breastfeeding, but those who are not so devout, i.e. not observing Ramadan, for example. I just put it down to a segregational thing, but maybe there is something else to it. And anyone is better off having someone breastfeed in full view than have the child scream! Good on you for putting your child first!

      Hope the letter helps. I have not had border control staff ask for it, but I have had to show the birth certificate almost every time and generally whip it out at the same time to save questions.

      Hope you have a smooth flight to Adelaide – have a coffee on Rundle Street for me!

      • Kevin And Jade

        Thanks Rachel! I will do. 😊

        And you’re right. There must be something else going on there. Hmmm

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