Flying long-haul with toddlers: 3 ways to handle layovers

We've flown from Australia to the UK with toddlers several times now, and we've tried various different ways to tackle the layover. (You can now fly direct from London to Perth, but we were always travelling from Sydney.) So I thought I'd write a post outlining how we got on with each one and what we find works best for us in the hope it can help other parents decide how to tackle these two-stage journeys.

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Layover type 1: straight through

By this I mean plan for the shortest transfer time possible (usually just under 2 hours), sit in the departures lounge, and get straight on to the second plane.

Before we had kids we used to take this option a lot in order to maximise our time at our destination. There are other advantages, such as not having to go through extra passport control, baggage halls and security once more when you return to the airport: once you've done it all at Sydney there is minimal hassle until you get off the plane in London. However, the major disadvantage we found was that we felt like zombies - both in the transit period and then at our destination. Because most flights out of Sydney took off in the evening and neither hubby nor I sleep well on aeroplanes, by the time we were twiddling our thumbs in the layover airport we'd been up for near enough 24 hours, and every minute that ticked by while we were waiting to board again felt like an eternity.

Add in one or two tired toddlers and we felt even MORE like zombies. Those small snatches of sleep we might have got on the first flight as just two adults travelling together were pretty much non-existent with a baby sprawled over one or both of us - though often the saving grace would be that the kids would be relatively calm having had a few hours of kip. Thank goodness! We do however find this one the hardest when it comes to adjusting to the new time zone as it's one big adjustment rather than doing it in stages.

So, the advantages are: 

- More time at your destination
- All the travelling is done and dusted in the shortest possible time (especially attractive if it's something you're dreading)
- Only have to go through security, passport control and baggage hall once
- Overall cheapest option as you're not adding in hotel and sightseeing costs etc. (unless these apply at your destination too of course)

Disadvantages:

- The time between flights is rough - if the second flight is delayed in any way the time waiting in the transit area can feel FOREVER
- Hardest to adjust body clock as it's one big time zone change

baby-jetlag
Sleeping off the jet lag with my 1-year-old having flown straight through from London to Sydney

Top tips for flying straight through

- The best advice a friend gave me once was to use the airport showers during the layover, and carry a change of underwear and a fresh top to change into. The showers usually cost around £10 or less, and it is SO worth it. I feel like I've arrived at the layover airport anew and fully refreshed. Just make sure you head there quickly as queues can form and if you've got a really short transfer time and have to get to a different part of the airport you might run out of time. Obviously this may mean there's only time for one person to shower while the other parent stays with the kids, but I usually find the cubicles are roomy enough that a child can stay in the dry bit while you go into the shower. Some airport showers also include use of a business lounge, or some have this as an option for an additional fee, so if you know you and your family might want to get some food at this point it may be more cost effective to take the full lounge option.
- My other top tip is to choose different seats on the plane for the second leg. The row itself doesn't matter too much I don't think, but if you've been sitting on the left of the plane in seats A-C for example, on the second leg I'd opt for H-J. Psychologically I feel as though I'm on a whole new flight, and am not just into the 14th hour of a 22-hour flight, as it were. It also makes it marginally more interesting for the kids, as it will feel like a new environment for them too.


Layover type 2: take a mini holiday stopover

This is a great option if you're stopping somewhere you haven't been before and would like to visit. Or perhaps you're heading over to visit family and want to have a bit of a luxury hotel break for a couple of days in between flights - a lot of the hotels in Asia are perfectly set up for this. Indeed, we have some friends who enjoy going to an all-inclusive resort for a few nights and don't ever leave the hotel. Finally, another great reason to stop is if you have friends or family there. We actually started flying via LA a few times rather than through Singapore (which we'd visited on a few stopover holidays by then) so we could see friends who live in San Diego.

singapore-gardens
Visiting some of Singapore's beautiful botanic gardens on our first stopover there with our 1-year-old in his Baby Jogger City Mini GT stroller (en route from Sydney to London) 

Advantages:

- Visit a new place (that you might not otherwise go to were it not on your long route)
- See friends or family (I had coffee with a friend whom I hadn't seen since we were 18 a couple of years ago in Dubai, which was fab! People who live abroad are always very willing to make time for people who travel to their part of the world.)
- It can help adjust your body clock if you move to the mid-way time zone over the space of a few days first, as it's less of an adjustment when you then get to your final destination.

toddler-pool-dubai
Enjoying some pool time with our 1-year-old at our hotel in Abu Dhabi

baby-stopover-dubai
Sightseeing in Dubai, now as a family of four
(the now 2-year-old was beside me in the Baby Jogger City Mini GT stroller while we took our 7-month-old around in the Baby Bjorn One carrier)

Disadvantages:

- Takes time out of your total holiday so you'll have less time at your destination
- Will probably add extra costs (hotel, sightseeing, extra taxis etc.)

Top tips for a mini holiday stopover

- Check if you know someone who lives there! Facebook and LinkedIn can remind you of that classmate who went off to teach English where again? Bingo! It's always such a treat to meet with someone you know in a new place I always think, and they'll be delighted you made the effort.
- Do some research and book any must-see activities in advance so you don't miss out. You'll probably have a limited time there so you don't want to rock up at that must-see attraction only to find the tickets are all sold out for the next three days.
- Remember you (and your toddler(s)) will be changing time zones and try to accommodate this when you plan your stopver itinerary. Singapore has a fabulous night zoo, but unfortunately I slept through most of the train ride through it due to poor planning!



Layover type 3: book a "night" in the airport hotel

This is a recent discovery for us, and it's been a total game-changer. Some of the major hub airports have hotel rooms actually within the terminal itself - so you don't collect your bags or go through passport control; you just find the signs within the departures area and head up to the reception, then bam! You're in a hotel! The rooms are usually just a floor or two above the shops and restaurants, so the first time we tried this we were delighted that within 25 minutes of touching down on the tarmac we were in our suite in Dubai's airport hotel.

We had deliberately booked flights that had approximately 10 hours in between, so we got into our room, headed to the pool to help our kids burn off some energy, came back for a proper shower, changed into PJs, then SLEPT IN A BED... for a glorious 4 hours before the baby woke up! Nevertheless, those 4 hours in a proper bed made me feel like I'd had a great rest, plus we'd upgraded to the suite which included use of a massage chair, so I just eased myself into that, snuggled baby in for a feed, and the two of us were quite content. A short while later the boys woke up and we headed over to the lounge to get some breakfast (another inclusion with the upgrade - I recommend it), then we played in the room until it was time to go to the gate - which was just one short lift ride away!

Yes, the rooms are a bit pricier than normal hotel rates (even by airport standards), but the massive benefit of not having to go through all the baggage collection and passport control, and then return to the airport the next day several hours in advance, meant that we were able to take advantage of the room for the maximum amount of time. Also, these hotels usually allow you to check in and out at unusual times, so you can sleep the hours that suit you and stay as long as you need, which for us means the kids can spread out and move around without us worrying we're going to lose sight of them in a busy airport, plus we can change nappies and clothes easily in our own space right up until we need to go to the gate. The only downside I've found is that, because we need to take everything we'll need in our hand luggage, we end up with two big carry-ons: one with stuff for the plane, and one full of swimmers, pyjamas, new clothes, extra nappies and so on.

Advantages:

- Helps you adjust your body clock in two stages
- Makes you feel refreshed and ready for the second flight
- Allows the kids time to move, stretch and play properly having been cooped up for a while

Disadvantages:

- Adds a small amount of time and cost on to your total holiday time
- Need to take lots of hand luggage to see you through your "overnight"

Top tips for an airport hotel stay

- Take swimmers and make use of the hotel pool (if there is one - we stayed in Abu Dhabi's airport hotel and there was no pool, much to our disappointment). You and/or your kids might not be able to go to sleep, despite feeling knackered, so a pool is a great way to burn off some energy and also stretch those limbs.
- Upgrade to the suite option if possible - the massage chair and 24-hour snacks are worth it!
- Pack some balloons in your hand luggage for instant, low-risk "ball" games in the hotel room


So what do we find works best? Really a combination of short stops and airport hotels, depending on whether or not it's a place where we know people, have visited there before, and if it has an airport hotel! The only thing we really don't do now is fly straight through. Mind you, in a few years' time Qantas is going to start a direct flight from London to Sydney, and our kids will be that bit older then, so I might be willing to give that a try...


In the meantime, do let me know any other layover tips and tricks, fellow travellers - leave a comment below, or email me on fiona@globetoddles.com. And happy flying!

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