Flying with small children: when the best laid plans go awry

At The Trunki Files we are all for taking your kids to exotic foreign places. But we aren’t so naive as to think getting to your chosen destination will always be pain or incident-free. Here, new contributor, Helen Finney, gives a refreshingly honest and humorous account of what happened when things went wrong when flying off on holiday with her boys.

We’ve flown a number of times with our sons – now aged 7 and 3 – mainly to short-haul destinations in an attempt to remain sane for the duration of the journey. We’ve opted for scheduled flights at reasonable times, and I’ve become a master of a treat-filled carry-on bag to drip-feed the boys with entertainment throughout the flight. For the most part I have to say that they have done remarkably well. Most children, given the right kind of controlled entertainment on a flight, behave within reasonable limits.

But. And there is a but. What do you do if, despite all your best laid plans, things don’t go entirely to plan? We have two extremes of experience with this one. Both involve holidays to Tenerife and with sons aged around 20 months.

Joe on the beach in Tenerife

Joe on the beach in Tenerife, the 11-hour flight a distant memory

The first was with our eldest, Joe, on an outbound flight from Manchester. He was sitting on my knee for the journey and all was going marvellously until we’d just done the looking-out-of-the-window-at-the-Channel-Islands bit. Then the pilot announced he’d found an issue with the plane and we were turning back to Gatwick. There was, err, a certain level of increased anxiety aboard that flight! We circled Gatwick for a further 90 minutes, burning off excess fuel, before landing. I think the sight of the fire engines haring up the side of the runway alongside the plane will haunt me somewhat for many years to come!

Then we sat on the plane. For four hours. In the sunshine. We couldn’t get off. The power was turned off, so there was no air-conditioning, food or drinks. Joe was remarkable. As the queue for the toilets got longer and longer we changed his nappy in the aisle of the plane, apologising profusely to the surrounding passengers. Stripped down to his nappy and vest he sat and read the same books over and over, talked to the people around us and then fell asleep! 11 hours after we’d taken off the first time, we eventually landed in Tenerife – on the same plane that they had fixed while we’d all sat there – and he slept all the way to the hotel and went straight down in the cot in the early hours of the morning. I think it’s safe to say that he fared much better than many of the other passengers!

Ben enjoying the Tenerife sun

Ben enjoying the Tenerife sun

The second incident involves our youngest, Ben, at around the same age. Returning from Tenerife this time we found that our flight was delayed by four hours. Ben’s something of a different character to his laid-back older brother. He has a love-hate relationship with sleep (like his mother!). Catch him at the right time and he’ll crash out for eight lovely hours. Go ten minutes passed this time and he turns into the most irrational and unreasonable being on the planet – a lovely trait he has inherited from me – with a hatred of anything soothing or sleep-inducing.

Four mind-numbing hours roaming around Tenerife airport should have been enough to tire him out. So we got on the plane in blissful ignorance of what was about to happen. An hour into the flight he went into total overdrive. Half an hour later and he started screaming. No amount of milk, jiggling up and down or pacing the aisle made any difference. Dummies were thrown, backs were arched and I experienced the terrifying volume of my younger son’s lungs for 90 hellish minutes. There was literally nothing that made any difference.

At this point the plane divided into two clear camps. The pitying looks of those with small children and the obvious grandparents with the been-there-so-glad-it’s-not-me look and the pre-child couples and girlie holiday groups with their DO-something-with-that-child glares.

Standing in that aisle I prayed to all the parenting gods as I struggled in vain to settle Ben. With me close to tears my husband took over too. Neither of us got anywhere at all. Swapping our smaller child between us, we all got hotter and more stressed as he flailed around our row of three seats.  Finally he gave in. Three quarters of the way through the flight and he final crashed out.

As I sank into my cramped seat, head in hands, a hand appeared through the gap in the seats in front. The lady on the row ahead of us (with two immaculately behaved small girls of her own)  passed me a copy of ‘Hello’ and a glass of wine and said ‘We’ve all been there love – I think you need a bit of a break now, don’t you?’

The moral of this story is, no matter how carefully you plan and how many amazing treats you stock up on, sometimes it all goes horribly wrong.  All you can do is your best. Kindness is still there in people you’ve never met before. And there’s the knowledge that one day, all those pre-child people on that flight will experience the same thing. Maybe then they’ll remember with sympathy the slightly-sunburnt, crazy-eyed mother with the screaming son on that long flight home from Tenerife.

Related links

Flying with kids? 5 things to pack in your hand luggage

5 iPad apps to entertain travelling tots


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