It is the one announcement any parent travelling with small children dreads, especially if they are travelling as a solo parent. You are all strapped in and ready to go when you hear: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Captain speaking. We’re going to be facing a delay…” So what do you do if your flight is delayed?
Sometimes the delay is only brief and the captain is confident that the time can be made up during the flight. Other times, the length of the delay is more nebulous, and the problem has not yet been fixed. This is the scarier delay when you’re a parent on the flight.
I’ve had delays for de-icing, bad weather, mechanical issues (always a fun one), air traffic control strikes, delayed connecting flights, awaiting specific passengers (Angela Merkel or European Commissioners), having to wait for a new slot and for the runway to be cleared because our plane was so heavy and would need the WHOLE runway to take off (very assuring…). On our latest flight from Dubai, the flight was delayed because heavy rain and flash flooding had prevented the caterer from delivering the food for the flight. I have also had flights cancelled after checking in and arriving at the airport.
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So what do you do when you hear that announcement?
First, try not to let your child see the look of dread or fear on your face. It will only make them more anxious. And then irritable. Take a deep breath: you’ve got this.
If the doors are not yet closed, you can normally walk around the cabin or at least access things in the overhead locker. Get out some toys. Now IS the time to break out that new surprise toy that you were saving for later in the flight.
If you can catch the attention of a member of the cabin crew, perhaps you can ask them to hand out the kids’ goodie bags early. Some airlines will also go around and take photos of young travellers, which is a nice distraction with a free souvenir. If they don’t have other tasks they still need to complete, staff are often happy to help.
Otherwise, if your flight is delayed it is really only a case of distracting your child until you have more information.
Other ways to distract your child if your flight is delayed
- Meet your neighbours. They are probably dreading the delay, too, but maybe your child’s cheeky smile will convince them to play peekaboo or where’s your nose. At least for a few minutes.
- Look out the windows. Let your child take photos. We have this camera for Miss M and she loves using it to photograph the world around her. Invent stories about what is happening outside.
- Play I spy (we use colours instead of letters).
- Practice the foreign language words you have learnt for your destination – use our helpful phrases list to keep track of all of them (subscribe to our email to access our Little helpers and get your copy).
- Challenge your child to get up and do some exercises in the aisle, such as touching their toes, jumping jacks or running on the spot. Or go through some yoga poses in your seats.
- Read a book together, such as this one on how airports work, and look at the in-flight magazines, flight safety cards and anything else you can find.
- Play cards.
- Colour in, draw some pictures or play naughts and crosses. We love these pencils because you get twice the number of colours in the same space.
- Sing. Preferrably anything our child knows and will join in with. Songs with actions are particularly good at this stage.
- Sticker. On everything. Take some simple stickers and let your child attach them to anything they can see. Take them off and restick them.
- Turn on the in-flight entertainment. Most major airlines will already have their in-flight entertainment working. Turn on Paw Patrol or whatever you are happy to let your child watch. Grab your tablet and watch something you downloaded. They will be engrossed and you can silently scream and then try to find out more information from the staff.
Basically, resort to all the tools and toys you packed in your (and your child’s) carry-on.
If you resort to snacks – it is one of the reasons we recommend packing LOTS of snacks in your carry on – avoid anything sugary now. You do not yet know when you will be taking off and will regret it later in the flight. Also, don’t let your child drink too much at this stage, especially if they are still breastfeeding or taking bottles. They will need to drink more to relieve air pressure when you finally do take off and if they are already full, you are likely to have problems.
If your flight is delayed, take the time to repack your carry-on, check that you still have all documents and fill out immigration cards or anything else you might have to do before the end of the flight anyway. Send messages and let loved ones know what is happening, or make any last-minute arrangements. You then won’t have to do it all later in your flight.
‘Crawling delays’ are the most frustrating as it is difficult to predict how long the delay might be. If your child is still distracted, try and find out more about the delay so that you can at least mentally and emotionally prepare yourself.
What if your flight is delayed and you have not boarded yet?
Sometimes, you will still be waiting at the gate when the announcement comes. Or you might just have an unspecified time before you can board. A favourite one is when the plane you are supposed to take has not yet arrived before your scheduled departure.
What you can do will depend on the nature and duration of the delay. However, you should do pretty much the same thing as you would do if you were sitting on the plane, only you have a little more room to do it in.
- Play I spy with you can see outside.
- Practice the words you have learnt in the language of your destination. You might even have a fellow passenger who knows how to say them properly.
- Let your child run around if space allows or do some yoga in a corner.
- Buy a new book to read together.
- Make paper planes. The one time I tried to distract Miss M with a paper plane, a fellow passenger asked for a piece of paper and folded a wonderful looping plane just for her. Just find somewhere safe to throw them.
- Sing. If you were willing to sing on the plane, what is a bigger audience really?
- Sticker everything, preferably with post-its so that cleaning staff can remove them easily.
- Pull out your tablet and let your child watch something you downloaded.
- Go for a walk and do some window shopping.
- If your delay allows, explore the airport. Most airports have a kids corner or a playground or a garden or something worth exploring with a small child. Changi Airport in Singapore has a butterfly garden in Terminal 3. Dubai Aiport has a Kids Zone in Terminal 3 (near Gate B7), with soft play for smaller children, interactive games for older children and private areas to feed and change babies. Ask staff members where that might be and go and explore. This works particularly well if you can split up – one person taking the kids and one staying to listen for updates.
Get assistance with connecting flights
What if your flight is delayed and you have connecting flights? Rest assured that the airline will do all that they can to get you on your connecting flight or find you a suitable alternative. Unfortunately, it may not be quite the route you anticipated.
It is not always a bad thing. A good friend of mine flew from Washington D.C. to Adelaide for my Mum’s funeral. There were major weather delays on the East coast, so it was clear that she would miss her connecting flight in Los Angeles.
The airlines did a bit of a reshuffle and changed her route. In the end, she reached Adelaide via different airports but arrived 2 hours before her original schedule arrival. It really is just the luck of the draw.
Families travelling with small children will normally be given priority assistance if your flight is delayed. Last time I had a flight cancelled (they cancelled three flights at once, late on a Sunday evening), the airline was only helping families with young children or elderly passengers with their arrangements. All other passengers had to go online and make their own arrangements.
Do you need to stay overnight?
If your flight is delayed or cancelled, you might need to stay somewhere overnight before you can catch your onward flight. Fortunately, you followed all of our packing suggestions and have extra clothes (and nappies), snacks, toiletries, entertainment and first aid gear in your carry-on. While it might not be what you planned, you and your child should be comfortable.
Ask a crew member or fellow passenger to watch your child while you scout out some accommodation, or go to the accommodation desk in the arrival hall once you know when your alternative flight will be.
If you need to find your own accommodation, we recommend booking.com.
Are you entitled to compensation?
If your flight is delayed for more than two hours, you may be entitled to compensation (in the European Union, EU).
In this case, it applies to airports in and carriers from the following countries: the 27 EU countries (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden) including Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion Island, Mayotte, Saint-Martin (French Antilles), the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands, as well as Iceland, Norway Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
If you have a flight within the EU, from an EU airport, or to an EU airport on an EU carrier, and your flight is delayed at departure by more than two hours, you may be entitled to reimbursement and a return flight. If you reached your destination with a delay of more than 3 hours, you might be entitled to compensation, unless the delay was due to extraordinary circumstances. You do not need to have boarded the flight for these rules to apply, but you generally need to have checked in.
When a flight from London to Düsseldorf was cancelled (effectively delayed until the next day), the airline was required to refund my hotel costs for the additional night, food costs (dinner and breakfast) and my transport to and from the airport with the underground, as well as the cost of the difference in tickets (I had to fly home with a different carrier as my original carrier had no spaces on their flights until two days later).
In the EU, airlines are required by law to inform you of the reason for the delay and provide you with an overview of your rights and an address to send your request for compensation. You do not need a lawyer. A simple letter setting out the flight and booking details, the reason for the delay, the amount of time it was delayed and invoices for your costs will suffice. KEEP THE INVOICES!
In contrast, the US does not have any laws requiring airlines to pay compensation for flight delays, except in the case of someone bumped from a flight due to overselling. While many airlines do offer some compensation, or are willing to book you on another flight, they are not legally required to do so. If your flight is delayed in the US, travel insurance comes in very handy.
Of course, you booked some travel insurance before you left home, right? Grab your free quote from AXA Travel Insurance today!
Remember this if your flight is delayed
You got this.
You followed our tips and packed extra clothes and nappies and plenty of snacks so you are all set for this eventuality. Make it an adventure for both you and your child and a tale to tell your loved ones when you see them – albeit with a little delay. You will be fine, but possibly a little tired.