How to fly with a three-year-old

Annoyed child.
The United Kingdom is a long way away when you're travelling with a 3-year-old. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Nothing is more terrifying for a parent than a long-haul flight with an active three-year-old.

Except maybe sitting next to parents with an active three-year-old on a long-haul flight.

It was a week before Christmas and my wife Hilary and I along with our son Hunter, were heading to England to spend the festive season with my family.

It was Hunter's first time to England, first time on a plane.

"Take him on a shorter flight first," friends advised.

We didn't.

We had paid an exorbitant amount for flights to the UK over Christmas, there wasn't a lot of spare cash lying around for experimental flights.

Instead I spent weeks telling him about our trip. Showing him on a globe where we would be going and how long it would take.

We talked about England and my family there, most of whom he hadn't yet met.

I think it sank in, but still the concerns of flying all that way with him began to overtake the excitement of making the trip.

So we boarded the flight, my wife and I much more anxious about it than Hunter.

I was relieved to see a few other families had the same idea and the plane had a generous smattering of children.

I had made the trip many times before.

I had a routine - a couple of glasses of wine, a movie and then hopefully a long sleep, waking up just outside Hong Kong. I would repeat this on the leg to London.

This was never going to happen with a three year old.

Here was challenge number one. How was I going to keep him entertained, whilst staving off the inevitable boredom that engulfs you on a long flight? All without the aid of alcohol.

We had a bag full of snacks for him - a lifesaver - as well as new toys and bribes we would give him at intervals during the flight.

At first it was fine. Hunter watched a few programmes and then we played various games we had brought on the seat table in front of us.

Three hours in and I was starting to relax. This ain't so bad. What was I worried about. Hunter seemed to be enjoying the one-on-one attention he was getting.

I felt bad thinking it, but there were other families with noisier children. Hunter was being angelic in comparison.   

Until he wanted to go to sleep. Not in the aircraft seat but in his bed at home.

Suddenly he didn't want to be on a plane anymore. The excitement of heading to England had, for him, worn off. And boy did everyone hear about it.

And so the first meltdown began. There was no rationing with him, he wanted to go home. It didn't end until he eventually succumbed to sleep.

Unfortunately I was wide awake.

Sleep chews up hours on a long haul flight and six hours in it had deserted me.

Anyone who has had trouble sleeping on a flight knows how lonely a packed plane can be when the lights are off and everyone else is gently snoring.

Mark Longley and son.
Cars can go a long way with a three-year-old on a long flight. Photo credit: Mark Longley.

After watching a movie, trying to meditate - not something I do but I thought it might help - we were a couple of hours out of Hong Kong.

Those last two hours are the worst. By now the seats feel as if they have shrunk. The leg room feels half what it was on take-off. And Hunter woke up.

More games, more bribes, more snacks and we landed at Hong Kong. Halfway and so far so good.

We had pre-booked a hotel room at Hong Kong airport for our stopover, we had around 10 hours until our flight to London. What could go wrong?

Somewhere before we went through passport control I, in my sleep deprived state, managed to lose a bag. Not just any bag but one containing some very expensive Christmas presents.

"At least I didn't lose Hunter," I said to my wife.

So instead of relaxing in the hotel I spent two hours at the Cathay Pacific desk while staff tried to locate the bag. Luckily no one had blown it up and we could pick it up after we went through customs again.

Leg two was easier. We were more relaxed. Hunter was used to the aeroplane.

He felt confident enough to walk up and down the aisle. He even talked to a few passengers. People must have been feeling festive, and no one seemed to mind a child having a tantrum.

More games, more films and then sleep. I was so tired by now sleep just took over. I think I would have slept through the plane crash landing somewhere in China.

By the time we were collecting our luggage at Heathrow the flight was becoming a distant memory. We had survived and were still intact as a family.

The flight was nowhere near as bad as I had built it up to be. There were always going to be moments, but we managed to limit them. And while we were tired it was actually a bonding experience to go through.

The fact we had to do it all again in three weeks, well that was ages away.

My tips for traveling with a child:

  • Take plenty of snacks, hangry isn’t good on a plane.
  • Take some bribes for those moments when boredom sets in.
  • Pick a good airline, it’s worth paying extra for decent service.    
  • Having a child kick the back of your seat is annoying, don’t let your child be the one doing it.
  • Relax, the thought of it is worse than doing it.
  • Being able to shower and freshen up halfway was a bonus.
  • Hong Kong also has a McDonalds, which helped.