We traveled on Scandinavian Airlines domestically within Sweden, and Thai Airways from Sweden to New Zealand, a return journey of almost 45,000kms/28,000mi. In retrospect I have to say that flying that distance with a one year old on my lap was far easier than I'd prepared myself for prior to departing. While good preparation went a fair way to making life easier, we were also pleasantly surprised at how baby-friendly the airlines and the airports were. Here are some tips and suggestions to help you with your next trip:
- A baby-backpack is worth its weight in gold. Prior to leaving we bought a baby carry backpack - the kind you wear on your back and the baby rides in it. Not only do you have your hands free to deal with luggage, passports and the like, but also it kept our son happy to the point he even dozed off in it from time to time. We brought it aboard the aircraft as carry-on luggage (in addition to our own carry-on luggage) so we could use it right up to the door of the aircraft.
- Get a purpose-made carry on bag for your infant's supplies. We purchased a carry-on bag that had many different compartments and was ideal for storing all the necessities our son would need for a few days (we were stopping off for a night in Bangkok on the way to make the journey easier). Because most of the flights were close to 12 hours in duration it meant that there were a number of feeding sessions in addition to quite a number of diaper changes. Having a carry-on bag that made it easy to access the items as we needed them made life much easier.
- Know your baggage allowances. We had to pay 10% of the adult fare for our baby and for that we were allocated 10kgs/22lbs of luggage for him. Additionally we were allowed to take with us a pram as long as it was fully collapsible. Not once, through all six flights, was the pram ever weighed (it weighed 14kgs/30lbs). The travel agent that we booked our flights through neglected to tell us about the pram allowance - this was something we found out by looking on the airlines' websites. In fact, the airlines were so helpful that my guess is that we could have brought along more if it was needed, so talk directly with your airline to find out what their policies and allowances are with regard to infants. We were also offered a large plastic bag to wrap our pram in so that made it easy to handle and protected the pram throughout the journey. If you're not offered one, make sure to ask when you check in.
- Get the best seats early. Because we had booked and paid for our tickets quite early we were in a position to secure some of the best seats for people traveling with infants. These are the seats that are right in front of the bulkheads (the partitions that divide the aircraft cabin into separate sections) and they have the facility to have a bassinet attached for the infant to sleep in. The bassinet itself makes life much easier when it comes to things like mealtimes etc. as it can be extremely difficult to manage a meal tray and an infant on your lap at the same time. Airlines generally have a set of rules that determine if a baby is eligible for a bassinet, namely: Under one year old, and under 10kgs/22lbs, and under 75 cms/ 30 inches long. Generally speaking all three conditions must be met for the infant to be allowed to use the bassinet, but our son only met one of the conditions (under 10kgs/22lbs) yet the cabin crew allowed him the use of one. Be polite and courteous with your requests to the airline staff and you'll be surprised at how much they'll do to accommodate you and your baby's needs. Before you fly, check out your airline's website and see what type of aircraft you'll be flying on and if they have seating charts, then reserve your preferred seat when you make your booking. (Note: One of the drawbacks with sitting right in front of the bulkhead is that on older planes this is where the movie screen is mounted. You may find it difficult on your eyes sitting so close to a bright screen for a long period of time).
During the flight
- Infant seatbelts - As our son was under two years of age, we didn't have to pay for a seat of his own on the plane, but rather he sat in our laps during take-off and landings. We found that Scandinavian Airlines were pro-active in giving us an infant seatbelt (it loops through your seat belt), Thai Airways were reluctant to do so. They cited infant safety as the reason they didn't issue a seat belt for our son (they did so however after we specifically requested one). Perhaps the jury is still out on whether infant seat belts are a help or a hindrance, but we felt better knowing he had one on. If you're concerned either way about the use of an infant seat belt then make sure you talk with your airline representative before you depart.
- On-board Food - The food your baby will be provided with on board the plane will be the normal infant fare available in either the originating or destination country. If your travel agent cannot confirm the brand of the food available, a phone call to the airline direct should put you at ease. In our case we were provided with a number of jars of food at the start of the journey that were more than adequate for our son. Having said that, we did bring along some emergency supplies for him, but they weren't required. As an added consideration, you should be aware of the rules and regulations regarding importing foodstuffs into the destination country you are heading to or passing through. The lingering smells from the food in our carry-on bags aroused the sniffer dogs at Auckland airport when we arrived.
- Changing diapers - even though the airline had diapers available during the flight we brought our own along with us. The only thing to really keep in mind is that the changing tables are mounted sideways in the lavatories in the aircraft (and not all of the lavatories on board the plane will have changing tables in them), thus you'll have to change the diapers with your baby lying at a right angle to you. This can be a bit awkward, particularly if you have an active and uncooperative baby. Once you've done it a couple of times however it gets easier.
- Restless baby - If your baby starts to get restless and bored, and no amount of pacing the aisles will help, ask the flight attendants if they have any toys or books that you can have. Normally the airlines have small toys and/or books that they give out that can help occupy your baby's mind for a while.
- During descent - Make sure you have a full bottle of drink ready for your baby once the plane starts its descent. This will help your baby avoid the build up of pressure on the ears and hopefully will ease any discomfort.
- Don't rush it - At the end of the flight we waited until almost everyone else had disembarked. This gave us the time and space to gather our items and leave at our own pace and not be harried or rushed by anyone behind us (and as you'll see in the next section, there was no rush to beat the pack to the immigration queue). This also allowed us to put on the baby back-pack and load our son into it without inconveniencing the other passengers.
At the airports
- Most airports, or at least the ones in countries where tourism is important, are family-friendly. This means that families with infants (generally under 2-5 years of age) are often fast-tracked through check-in and immigration queues. This came as somewhat of a surprise to us at the start of our journey as we were politely ushered to separate queues where we were the only people in the line. This trend continued throughout every leg of our journey. This meant that being last off the plane was no issue, as we were often one of the first through the immigration queues. The same applied to check-in as well. Normally a representative of the airline or the airport will spot you with the infant and direct you to the ‘family lane'. If however you find yourself in a queue with the masses, try to seek out an airline or immigration representative and ask if they have a special queue for families.