Flying short-haul with a baby or toddler: what you need to know

Short haul air travel brings a huge range of holiday destinations to your family’s door but you still need to plan if you want a stress-free trip and holiday

mum and baby on a plane

The joy of a short-haul flight is that the only thing separating you and your family from sun, sea and sand (or snow) is 3 hours or less in the air. But, if you have a baby or toddler, the challenge of a short-haul flight is getting through those few hours in the air without wishing you’d never booked a holiday in the first place!

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While you can’t, of course, predict how your child’s going to be on the flight (here at MFM, we’ve personally experienced our own babies and toddlers kicking off on a plane in entirely unexpected ways), there are lots of things you can do in advance to set the winds fair for as smooth and as un-stressy a time in the air as possible…

Before you fly: booking tickets and seats

  • Understand the under-2 ticket rule: Lots of people think babies and toddlers under 2 fly for free but this isn’t actually true. Children under 2 don’t need their own seat but airlines are allowed to charge you a fee for a child held in your arms/sitting on your lap – and many do. Plus, children travelling this way on budget airline rarely get a hold or cabin luggage allowance, either. For more details, see our guide on how much it costs to take a baby on a plane.
  • Gen up on the luggage allowance: Gone are the days when you could hop on a flight with just a ticket, your passport and an oversized handbag; with kids, you will definitely need more luggage – and maybe even some luggage in the hold. And different airlines have different rules for what you and your family can take for free, or have to pay extra for. Check out our guide to family baggage rules.
  • Check if you can take your pushchair, car seat and/or travel cot for free: Yep, different articles have different rules. Most will let you take your pushchair for free but some won’t allow a car seat and a travel cot: you’d have to choose one only or pay extra for both. There may also be weight limits on certain items. It’s also worth finding out if you can take your pushchair right up to the departure gate and the plane door or if you’ll be required to put it in with the hold luggage when you check in. For more info, see our guide to buggy and car-seat policies on planes.
  • Work out your seat-booking strategy: Many of the budget flight operators don’t allocate seats: it’s a first-come, first-served scramble to get onboard. But, if you have young children, you’re often given priority boarding (hurray!) or offered the chance to pay for priority boarding (slightly less excited hurray!). If you’re travelling as a couple with children and able to choose your seats (many airlines offer online seat reservations after you’ve bought your ticket) but you’re not able to sit together, think about splitting the kids up between you: a problem shared is a problem halved after all. And if your child doesn’t have their own seat, Emma Barnett, co-director of Tots Too family travel specialists suggests that “if the flight’s not full, see if the airline staff will hold an empty seat next to yours”.

Can you book a bassinet on a short-haul flight?

It’s unlikely. An airline bassinet is a carrycot for a baby, that is set up on a bulkhead seat. These are occasionally available on short-haul flights, though usually only on long-haul ones. If your chosen airline does have one, you’ll need to reserve it in advance.

Before you fly: questions to ask about your destination

  • Where can you store milk/snacks? If you’re staying in a hotel check if there’s a mini bar or fridge that you can use.
  • Is there a kettle or a microwave? For babies who aren’t breastfed, it’s worth taking a small travel kettle for heating milk or for making up bottles. Also take a bottle brush, miniature bottle of washing-up liquid, cold water sterilising tablets (or a microwave travel steriliser) and a lunch box, so you can clean bottles in your room.
  • Is there a bath? Showers can frighten babies or toddlers who aren’t used to them. Ask if the hotel can supply a baby bath, if you need one.
  • Is there a laundry room/washing machine you can use? Or a laundrette nearby? If not, take a tube of travel wash and DIY!
  • Is there a highchair? Hotels and child-friendly villas usually have highchairs but it’s worth checking. It may also be worth taking a portable highchair or clamp-on seat for when you’re out and about, too.
  • If you’re self-catering, what baby/toddler equipment is supplied? Do they have children’s cutlery, crockery, plastic beakers? If there’s a cot, what size is it? You don’t want to end up with a tiny crib or Moses basket for a 12-month-old because you didn’t check in advance. If your toddler’s in a bed, ask if a bed guard is supplied.

How to keep your baby happy on a short-haul flight

  • Bring something they haven’t seen before. Wait till you’re on the flight before you get it out.
  • Take a couple of familiar toys, too. But nothing big or noisy (think of the other passengers) or made up of parts that could drop off and roll away under seats or down the aisle.
  • Pack some cloth books. They’re squashy enough to take up luggage space and your baby can wave them around without whacking other passengers.
  • Pack food (if your baby is weaned) that takes a long time to eat. Like dry cereal or raisins, and pack it in little, lightweight boxes. If your baby drinks formula or breast milk from a bottle, make sure you’ve checked all the official restrictions about what baby milk you can and cannot take on board the plane (for more on this, see Other top tips for short-haul flights, below) .
  • Wear a toy your baby can play with. A teething necklace may keep your baby entertained for ages.
  • Breastfeed or use a dummy when the plane takes off and lands. The rhythmic sucking should help offset any build up of pressure in your baby’s ears.

How to keep your toddler happy on a short-haul flight

  • Run off some energy before boarding. Once you’re through security, find a large space where your little one can run about before your flight is called.
  • Surprise your toddler with a couple of (cheap) new toys. Wrap them up – maybe in several layers – and hand them out, one by one, over the course of the flight. The novelty – and the unwrapping – should happily distract them for a while at least.
  • Pack familiar toys and comforters. A much-loved teddy or blanket is a good idea (as long as you remember not to leave it on the plane!); toys and puzzles with lots of tiny pieces that can fall on the floor and may get lost are not such a good idea.
  • Buy a children’s magazine in the airport shop. Look for one with lots of stories and activities inside (and stow some crayons in case there’s an opportunity for ‘colouring’).

 Other top tips for short-haul flights

  • Take a baby car seat on board. Obviously, this will only work if you’ve bought a separate seat for your baby (but that might not leave you as out of pocket as you think – see our guide on how much it costs to take a baby on a plane). But, if you have one of the car seats that fit in a plane seat, you may well find your baby settles better in it than in your arms (and your arms will appreciate the break). Plus, if you’ve got a hire car at the other end, you’re guaranteed to have a car seat that’s safe and familiar. Take the chassis of your buggy and you can use the car seat as a travel system too. Check with your airline before you travel as to what their buggy and car seat policy is, as you may need to check-in the buggy chassis.
  • Eat before you fly. Most budget airlines don’t supply food (and, if they do, you’ll probably need to pre-book a child’s meal) and the onboard shop is often limited to expensive crisps, chocolate, snacks and sandwiches. So fill up before you fly and take snacks onboard with you.
  • Be (over-)prepared if you use formula milk. UK government guidelines state that you can take bottles of formula, cow’s or breast milk in your hand luggage but it will need to be screened at security – and airport staff may require you to open the bottles. (You can also take formula milk powder, sterilised water and baby food; you cannot take frozen breast milk in your hand luggage). Take a flask with you and, once through security, ask an airport coffee shop to fill it with boiling water for you so you can make up feeds on the flight.
  • Dress your children in bright colours. This is a top airport stress-saver, especially if you’ve a toddler who might run off. “If they go astray in the crowd,” says Emma Barnett, “they’ll be easier to spot.” It’s also a good idea to have a recent photo of your children in your hand luggage, just in case they get lost.
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