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 a long-haul flight with a toddler easier. Much of it involves the simple things you should even before you fly.
Welcome to Part 1 of our series on long-distance travel with a small child! Today we’re focussing on the paperwork and other steps to take before you get to the airport.
By long-distance, I mean LOOOONG distance. From Dusseldorf to Adelaide – 16,000 km (10,000 miles) – with 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
Miss M 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. I was still breastfeeding, so I couldn’t go without Miss M, but it was a great opportunity for her to meet her family.
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 away 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. Peter even accompanied us on the return flights for the first time. We had a stopover as a family in Dubai to celebrate.
Top tips for a long-haul flight with a toddler: Before you fly
With this experience under our belt, we would like to share some tried and tested tips for an overseas, long-haul flight with a toddler or small child. Some of these tips are just common sense, but some I learnt the hard way.
Tip 1: Book carefully
Choose your flights carefully. For a long-haul flight 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 layovers. 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 is even more daunting than the flights themselves.
Our ideal flight
The most convenient flight for our family 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. However, if you book each leg separately and are flying with different airlines, they have no obligation to wait for you if your first flight is delayed.
Note: transfers with a small child take longer.
Allow for the worst
We had one flight, I think Miss M’s first, that was delayed leaving Dusseldorf. We had to circle the airport when we got to Dubai and 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 yet 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 30 minutes, when boarding was supposed to start. 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 pyjamas 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.
Too long a delay?
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 our 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. If it is more than 6 hours, you might want to book a hotel for a little quiet time and perhaps a rest.
Tip 2: Reserve your seats and check in online
When taking a long-haul flight 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, Peter and I were both 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.
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 Miss M in 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 this would be acceptable for Miss M, for other passengers and for me.
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. This was additional stress none of us needed.
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.
Fortunately, it seems that the airline has changed their policy and will now automatically sit children next to their parents. However, there is no guarantee that they will not move you both to an undesirable middle seat rather than the carefully chosen window seat if you are not both able to check in online.
So, where possible, check-in online for your long-haul flight with a toddler. This will be 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.
Choosing your seats
While we’re on the topic of seats, carefully choose your seats for your long-haul flight with a toddler – if possible.
Normally, I prefer a window seat for myself. When I am travelling with Miss M, I prefer to give her the window seat and sit next to her. This means that she is boxed in, in case I do actually manage to fall asleep on the flight, and that we can look out the window for distractions, especially if we have delays.
Some people prefer to sit near the toilets or galley for easy access when needed. If prefer to sit a little further away because of the noise. Generally, I find you are more likely to get three seats to yourself (unless the flight is full), if you don’t reserve seats in the first cabin, but in subsequent cabins about two-thirds of the way down.
For me, it is even worth paying extra to reserve the seats on a long-haul flight with a toddler just to ensure I get the seats I want. Unfortunately, the ‘extra seat’ still involves a bit of luck.
If you want to find out why I avoid the travel bassinets and bulk-head seats, check out this post.
Tip 3: Check travel documents
Toddlers need their own passport
For any overseas flight, your child will need their own passport.
Until 2012 (in Germany), children under the age of 2 could fly on their mother’s passport. I do not know of any country that still allows this. Now, every person requires a passport if they are crossing a border. 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. 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.
Check which type of passport you will require for your toddler, based on where you will be flying.
Applying for a passport
The passport application process differs depending on the country. Some will require both parents to be present while some will allow you to have a letter from one parent. The child needs to be present in some countries while parents can apply on their behalf without their presence in other countries. Sometimes an online form should be used, though this will often not apply to the first passport, but only to renewals.
Check your local requirements; ring the authority if anything is unclear.
Generally, if your long-haul flight with a toddler is taking you to a country, where you require a visa, your toddler will require their own visa. Check the requirements for the country you are visiting.
While the airline’s previous policy of not blocking seats next to adults for accompanying children caused the seating panic, it probably would not have happened if I had been able to check both of us in 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 from passports.
If you are planning on travelling regularly with 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 long-haul flight with a toddler or young child (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.
Note: Some embassies will require evidence of your address in order to apply through the embassy and not from within the country in question. You may also need to translate documents to apply and may be able to apply without both parents present (as long as the parent with the passport of the country in question is in attendance). Ring your embassy to check their requirements.
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 Peter. Take these simple steps if you are going on a long-haul flight 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 Peter had in fact given his consent and was aware of our plans, I had him sign a letter which I could present to immigration, if required. I print out a new one each time I will be travelling as a solo parent. I have only ever really needed this letter once: on our last trip to Australia. For your ease, I have created a template of the letter I use.
Tip: Also take a photocopy of your child’s other parent’s passport or identification card/drivers’ licence. The immigration official asked me to have a copy of Peter’s passport next time, so that they could verify the signature on the letter.
Copies of official documents
The other document that you should consider taking on your long-haul flight with a toddler as a solo parent is a copy of the child’s birth certificate.
MIss M and I 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
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: Book meals
In some respects, it is easier to fly with very small children who are still bottle or breastfed, rather than taking a long-haul flight with a toddler, though these have their own downsides.
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. We would shun such views, but not all cultures are the same. It can make breastfeeding more uncomfortable for you and bubs.
As the most important time to feed the child is during take-off and landing, it is not possible to disappear into the toilets for a feed. Take a muslin wrap as a cover-up and grin and bear it – the comfort of your child is paramount, also for your sanity.
Tip: If your child is not used to eating with something over them, blocking their view, your long-haul flight is not the time to try it for the first time. Either get your child used to using one before you fly, or be prepared to glare at anyone deserving.
Bottles and security
If your child is bottle-feeding, you should carefully check the security allowances with respect to liquids. Make sure you check any transfer airports too. 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.
If you have not booked a separate ticket for your child (and you plan to sit them on your lap for the flight), they are not entitled to a meal on your long-haul flight with a child. 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
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 two trays while eating.
In any case, take snacks. Lots of snacks. For suggestions of snacks that work well on a long-haul flight with a toddler, check out our post on carry-on essentials.
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. COVID-19 has shown us how contagious and dangerous such outbreaks can be and how they can spread on aeroplanes (of course, this is not restricted to a long-haul flight with a toddler).
Follow country advice
Some countries have lower immunisation rates. In other countries, certain diseases may be 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,
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 before your long-haul flight with a toddler.
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Tip 7: Register your toddler for frequent flyer miles
Unless you intend your long-haul flight with a toddler to be a one-off, you should consider enrolling your child in a frequent flyer program.
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!
Other frequent flyer programs will allow you to transfer miles to another family member, or have family programs. This can mean quicker upgrades or free flights. Membership to most frequent flyer programs is also free.
Tip: If you are intending to travel frequently with your toddler and the airline program allows it, sign your toddler up for the frequent flyer miles program.
Enough of the pre-flight 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.