How to Choose the Best Flight Path for Your Family Trip

“At least we’re flying First Class,” I thought. Boy, was I wrong.

Photo by Paul Hanoaka on Unsplash

Before we moved our young family to the other side of the world, I worried about the flight. I thought it would be bad because it was overnight. I thought it’d be awful because it was 13 hours long. I thought it’d be better because the company was flying us First Class.

I was wrong on all counts.

I’ve discovered some surprising things about flying with kids. When you choose your flight path, the ticket price is not the only thing to consider.

Short Flights are Better Than Long Flights — Not Always

Our worst flights were not long. They just felt long!

1 inconsolable baby + glares from other passengers = 1 stressful flight

Thailand to Seoul takes about four hours. We flew in the middle of the afternoon. Nap time. But there was too much going on for our ten-month-old to settle. As she became more tired, whimpering progressed to wailing.

She finally dozed off minutes before landing! This was not an isolated event. Afternoon flights are the worst! Less than four hours isn’t long enough for most kids to settle. (Newborns excepted).

It usually takes three or four hours for little kids to fall asleep on an airplane. The last thing you want is to wake them a half hour later because the plane is landing. Given the choice between two 6-hour flights and one 10–12 hour flight, I’ll take the long haul. Every time.

Long flights have been some of our best. Especially the red-eyes.

Daytime Flying is Better than Nighttime — Nope

Most of us don’t sleep well on planes. I don’t either.

And yet, for long-hauls with little kids, I prefer overnight flights.

A long daytime flight, say 8 hours or more, means you’re confining an energetic little one through almost all their waking hours. Be prepared to walk the aisles. A lot.

Before a red-eye, we change into PJ’s in the airport. We brush kids’ teeth. They know bedtime is coming and it will be in flight.

Superman’s phone booth is more spacious than an airplane restroom. Don’t try to change your kids’ outfits on the plane unless absolutely necessary.

The kids eat a snack on board and may watch a show. It makes for a late night, but they do sleep for several consecutive hours.

First Class is Better Than Economy

You would think this goes without saying.

  • Extra leg room. Yes!
  • Excellent service. Yes!
  • Your own private pod. NOOOO!

We usually fly economy but my husband’s company flew us First Class to South Korea. Our two-and-a-half-year-old sat in front of Dad but couldn’t see him. The poor girl couldn’t see anything over the walls of her posh little prison.

With her seat belt on, she couldn’t reach the TV controls or the food tray! No wonder she had trouble falling asleep.

The privacy of a first class pod caters to business travelers. Not families. Know what type of seating you’re paying for.

And then there was the infant (four months old at the time).

Our plan had been to strap Baby into her car seat and then strap said car seat into the airplane seat. I’d done research. It can be done. Just not in a pod. (The flight attendant needed to check the safety manual. Apparently, this issue doesn’t come up often. But no, special side airbags mean no car seats.)

Despite the company having purchased a seat for Baby, I had to hold her for 13 hours. I strapped her into a front baby carrier so I wouldn’t drop her if turbulence caused a sudden jolt or if I dozed off. But still.

Having learned this lesson, we booked our return flight Seoul to Toronto on Korean Air. This Business Class was lovely! The seats look like double-wide Economy Class seats. They offer legroom and elbow room. They recline. There is room to walk in front of your child. You can help your child without the flexibility of a gymnast.

Connections — Don’t Cut it Close!

Expedia will allow you to book flights with only 1.5 hours to make your connection. That is not enough time!

Sprinting through airports with baby carriers and strollers is not fast. And you’ll need a bathroom break. (Also, not fast.)

The longer your inbound flight, the more wiggle room you’ll want. A hop between Pittsburgh and NYC probably won’t be hours late. A ten-hour flight from South America could easily be 3 hours late.

My 10-year-old just told me she’s tired of houses and wants to go to an airport. Airports can be fun. Don’t stress about the long layover. And attempts to reduce the time you spend there may backfire.

We find four hours is usually enough time to catch connecting flights, except for that one time…

Photo by Justin Peterson on Unsplash
It’s better to find the play area, run around for a couple of hours, and get to your gate early than to miss your connection and be stuck until the next day.

In case you get stuck, here’s what to do on long airport layovers with young kids.

Carrying Baby in Your Lap is Better — Often

Under age two, babies aren’t required to have their own seat. Purchasing one less seat has an obvious price advantage. That’s the pro.

There are some hidden costs to this arrangement. Often they won’t outweigh ticket price, but it’s worth thinking it through.

  • Do you need to maximize every day that you are away? Are you spending hundreds of dollars per day for a long awaited vacation? Will you be in business meetings the next morning and you need to perform? If so, being able to rest better inflight adds value. Consider the cost of the recovery time you’ll need (or of pushing through despite being exhausted).
  • How sore will you be and for how long? Will you be looking for a massage or chiropractor in a strange land because your shoulders are so tight?
  • Will your baby sleep better in her car seat? Does she have trouble sleeping while being held? Will she be less exhausted and therefore less likely to have difficult nights and naps in the days ahead?

Once babies move into the front-facing car seat and up to about four years of age, we prefer them to have their own seat. They travel in their car seat. This gives them better boundaries (i.e., no climbing, clicking seat belts, standing, or pacing) and more independence within those boundaries (i.e., they can reach their tray and see their screen better.)

Between one and two years of age, they often still ride on my lap because — one less plane ticket.

Another option is to pay for more leg room within economy. Children cannot sit in an emergency exit row, but you can often select the front row of the economy section. If Baby will be on your lap, that extra wiggle room is golden.

Recap How to Choose a Flight Path

It goes without saying that ticket price weighs heavily into our flight selection. Also, consider these factors the next time you plan a family trip.

  • Flight length — One long flight may be easier than multiple shorter ones.
  • Timing — For a long flight, don’t rule out the red-eyes.
  • Connections — Don’t cut it close.
  • Seating- If you can afford business class, make sure you know the seating arrangements. When flying economy, consider if it’s worth paying for extra legroom or buying a seat for baby.

Bon voyage! May your kids be sleepy and your flights be punctual!