Air travel and babies, are they compatible? This is our experince with it..

Posted by in Children, Travel

Warning airplane with a baby

Do you have a new baby just introduced in your cosy care free life? Why congratulations, welcome to parenthood…

Until now, you’ve been travelling all over the world, backpacking maybe,  don’t mind doing it rough? Now things will change a bit. Ever wondered how easy is it to travel with a baby on toe? Usually, you never look forward to that type of  trip, most probably you remember those crying babies on any of your flights, however, does it pay to check different airlines and their offerings concerning babies? Well, sadly this post will not be a side by side comparison, after our experience we decided not to try any other airline, in fact I am not flying before my little one hits three. Why you ask? read on…

Living in Australia has plenty of advantages, though there is one small drawback, we are situated, in comparison with everybody else, at the end of the world, so going anywhere outside of Australia necessitates a great deal of planning, time, effort and expense.
When a baby is also factored in, you would need to double all of the above and add some spices, unpredictability and to expect the unexpected.

Children are wonderful, they fill our lives, however, they simply make travel an ordeal that everybody but the bravest and punishment loving people would try.

The first thing, the easiest we thought, is the flight; going with one of the relatively new yet big airlines, that have been pouring millions into making their airline one of the best and most known in the world and who incidentally send me lots of emails telling me all about their fantastic best airline awards that they have been winning these days. So I looked into getting tickets on Etihad Airways, though I did check availability on Emirates, Singapore and Qantas airlines and did request from my travel agent to make sure we get a cot for my little 11 month old baby. Emirates and Singapore did not have places on the days we needed, Qantas it seems think that charging almost double other airlines is a feature! So we ended up with relatively expensive tickets with Etihad (baby was just 10% though) to go on our vacation… Italy here we come.

I won’t talk about the things we went through to prepare for the little one’s trip, he is a small thing after all, just thinking about his stuff, I mean how much stuff do you need for a baby on a three week trip? it seems a full suitcase is the answer and a pram and carry on luggage too! but that’s another story.

So we’ll go straight to the torture session, I mean flight, we reached Sydney airport only to be told that we have regular seats and that we don’t have a baby cot, in fact after we expressed our shock and dismay, the check-in counter lady got on the offensive and told us that the airline does not guarantee cots for babies and it is simply first come first serve, or in the advent of the Internet, first login and take the seats, first served and that she simply does not know what else to tell us!

This takes us to another issue, my little one, it seems, was not registered with us! We were told at the counter that even though our baby has a place on the plane (not a seat, he does not get one of those) he is not linked with us, as such we were not flagged as people with a baby! It seems Etihad Airways are in the habit of letting 11 month old babies wonder around aeroplanes without adults needing to be with them. Very progressive I thought, but the check-in counter lady did not seem to have an explanation of why is that so! Especially, when you put in mind that all three of us had the same reference number hooked to our digital purchased tickets.
The Check-in counter lady proceeded to tell us that she contacted our stopover destination in Abu Dhabi and requested we get a baby cot for at least that section of the flight, that was indeed one glimmer of light in a so far not so great experience,  but then told us that we should contact the airline when we arrive at our destination to make sure that our son is actually connected with us on the way back, this way we might have a better chance of having a cot, suffice to say, we were not looking forward to our 14 hour flight to Abu Dhabi!

This brings us to the first big mistake we made, we didn’t check International airline regulation to see what is the deal with babies, their food, where or if they sit anywhere and what they can get. It also seems that air travel regulation changes on regular basis and checking them in regards to children is always a good move.

Here are a few helpful links:

In Australia the place would be the travelling with children page at the  Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA)
In the USA the site would be the travel with kids page at the Transport Security Administration (TSA)
In Europe the site would be the flying with small children page at the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)

The second mistake was that we didn’t do a proper search on the web to check about travel with babies in general. You will be amazed about the amount of sites that have straight forward helpful tips on what to do with babies/toddlers.

Here are but a few of those:

Travel with kids (USA site)
Advice for flying with a baby – long haul (Yahoo Australia)
Tips for travelling by plane with children (the bub hub, Australian site)

On the plane, we got in with two bags, a backpack and a baby bag and that barely covered his necessities of toys, food, sterilised stuff and the like, the helpful flight attendants did tell us where we need to go but then let us struggle with what we had, though, I should mention, with a smile, no help needed, thank you very much! The same thing happened on the second leg of the flight to Milan, however, that time, a very nice and helpful gentleman from first class, no less, felt he needed to get up and help us while we are trying to reach our seats, again the flight attendants simply looked with the usual smile though no offer of help at all!

Try, if you can, to imagine that flight to Abu Dhabi; 14 full hours, in cramped seats with an 11 kg baby sitting on your lap with enough space in front of you for him to barely fit and then a few meal times, with food trays down, no place for a baby to sit, so we ate in turn with our little one jumping from one lap to the other and us trying to keep the plane food away from his hands. If you ever felt like cattle when on a plane this is a new level of discomfort!

Ever heard of DVT? Its Deep Vain Thromboses, sitting for a long flight seems to increase the likely hood of people getting it, everyone in the airline business started recommending not to cross your legs, should move around, stretch, etc, etc. Even though, they don’t mention babies specifically, I am sure, putting an 11 kg baby on your lap for 14 hours, is not exactly one of the ways to alleviate the possibility of getting DVT, so that was on my mind for the whole 24 hours it took us to get to Italy, that took us to a new level of a fun experience.

When we reached Abu Dhabi, we could not find airport strollers, even though they have places saying strollers on them, yet none were actually available (I tried in several terminals, but found none), their new/old airport is huge and you need to walk some distance to reach anywhere, you do get a bit worried when you see signs saying, terminal number such and such is 15 minute walk away! So we started our lovely internal airport journey,  luckily after walking for 10 minutes or so we did find random airport stroller that seems to have been abandoned, which we were thankful for and used.

We managed to get on our second stretch of the  flight to Italy, the cot was fantastic, okay, that is not true, there was no cot, the message that the check-in counter lady in Sydney told us she sent seems to have been lost in the airline skies and we got the same type of cramped seats with no space in front of you or behind, though this time, just to make things a bit more frustrating, there were seats with passengers without babies that can have cots, however, we were not sitting in them, that would make too much sense after all!

At last we reached Italy and got ourselves outside the airport in our hire car with a baby seat, which we booked in advance, had a lovely drive to our final destination at Gressoney-La-Trinite on the Monterosa range in the Italian Alps, I’ll have another post about that one with some really cool photos when I have more time.

When we got to our hotel and after we settled in, a few days later,  I sent a detailed email to Etihad Airways explaining our grievances, what we are not happy with and a few things they can help us with. Four days later I got the following email back:

subject:To Mr Bader from Etihad Airways
Dear Mr Bader,
Thank you for your e-mail message.Your concerns are receiving our attention and we hope to be in a position to respond to you within 21 days.
In the meantime, thank you for your patience.
Yours faithfully,
Guest Affairs Department.
Etihad Airways

Well, that was a lovely reply, especially when you put in consideration that I put my full flight details in the email I sent them, which made it clear that I would be back in Australia before the 21 days they mention, so obviously that was an automated reply, though I am still not sure why an automated reply would take 4 days to reach me. I did get an actual reply from them on the 23 August, almost two months after the fact! Not much in it, rehashing of regulations and International rules, though they did assure me that unprofessional and impolite behaviour from counter personnel or aeroplane staff would be looked into.

A few days before we came back to Australia, I tried to call Etihad offices in Italy, that took a long time, with plenty of waiting and going through automated phone systems, but eventually and after several calls and maybe around 20-30 minutes wait throughout, I got hold of a human and she told me that they have in the system that I sent them an email, that was nice to acknowledge, and that our little one is now registered that he is indeed flying with us, as for cots, they only automatically allocate a cot if the baby is up to 10 months old or younger!

Well, that was news to us, first time to hear that piece of information from anyone, it seems an 11 months baby is an adult maybe? no, that is not true, I don’t know why they chose 10 months as the cut off age, maybe someone can shed some light on that one?

My partner and I stressed about another 24 hours on a plane with a restless baby. So our last two days were grim. When it was 24 hours before the flight I went online immediately and tried to get us seats with a cot, got that for the flight from Milan to Abu Dhabi, however, there were no seats available from Abu Dhabi to Sydney, it seems everybody has already checked-in online but 4 people, that was indeed amazing! I think there is something dodgy in Etihad Airways Check-in system, because I am sure, that not everybody on the flight managed to check-in that fast within 15 minutes or so of the website allowing us to do so.

Well, on the day of the flight we went to the airport in Milan, reached the Etihad check-in counter and after having a chat with the lady there she got us our boarding passes and we headed off to our terminal.

We got ourselves a cot and our little one slept for a few hours in it, so that was nice, though we did notice a small disadvantage of those first line seats, you can’t lift up the middle arm rest, as such, the little one could not easily move between my partner and I, this was due to the fact that TV screens and tables were put inside those arm rests, a minor detail to put in consideration if in a flight in the future.

We got ourselves to Abu Dhabi and again we also got a cot for our long-haul flight to Sydney, which was great news, we would have loved to know it before hand, but it’s not a biggy. On the long flight back to Sydney, there is another thing we didn’t know about, yes, I know, we really should have done a lot of reading before hand, international aviation regulation stipulates that the baby needs to be taken out of the cot if there are turbulences . Being on such a flight meant that we ended up taking out little one in and out of the cot often and at the end simply gave up and he slept in our laps instead. So, the cot was not as helpful on the long flight as we thought it would. Not to mention, we were not lucky with the plane on the return flight to Sydney, Etihad seems to have old planes in their fleet and this one was one that creaked and squeaked for 14 hours straight!

What we got out of this is plenty, here is a run down:

  • Our first recommendation, don’t travel with a baby under two years old.
  • If that is not possible, then don’t be tempted with paying 25% or less for a ticket that does not provide the baby with a seat (this is only important on long flights, a short hour or two flight is not a problem).
  • If you paid for a full seat make sure that you ask specifically the airline you want to travel with if they provide baby seats, i.e. very similar to the one you use for the car, that fits in a a normal plane seat. You can see an example on the European Aviation Safety Agency’s website mentioned above, some European airlines provide them, not sure about others.
  • Don’t be fooled by airlines advertising or awards, most airlines seem to deal with babies as an after thought and only to the limits the law requires, this usually falls short of what any parent would require and expect for their baby.
  • If you are flexable with travel times then make sure you check what type of plane you are getting on and if you have a choice choose AirBus A380, the plane has more legroom and is new, if that is not available then try finding A340-500, avoid Boing 747 like the plague.
  • If you buy tickets via a travel agent, it pays to double check all flight details and arrangements with the airline, this includes the cot, your child being linked to your tickets and connections.
  • If you don’t know anyone at your destination who can provide you with a stroller, then take a lightweight stroller with you. Most Airports will allow you to use it up to the gate, however, you will not see it again until you reach your destination. Check with the Airline you choose if their stop over airport (if you have a stopover that is) provide complimentary strollers, especially if your stop over is for several hours.
  • Take plenty of toys and food for the little one, the usual that airlines provide is canned baby food.
  • Make sure the flight you choose have short stopovers, no more than a couple of hours, trust me, you will all appreciate it. Either that or a few days stopover were you leave the airport and stay in the country and have a proper breather.
  • If you are going on vacation and you can choose where you want to go to, check ahead if the cities you are going to are accessible and easy to use strollers on. In Italy for example, many of the Islands and places we went to have absolutely no access for strollers at all, we were very limited to what we managed to visit in them.
  • If you are planning to rent a car make sure that you request and confirm the baby seat. Many car rental places would not be able to provide you with a baby seat if you ask for it on the spot when you pick the car up at the airport.
  • Check the Smartraveller website to make sure that the destination you are going to is a safe place at the time of the trip. The Australian government updates the website regularly and you can subscribe to their email updates too. If you’re not an Australian, the site is still very useful, though sometimes the information is Australian specific, check equivalent sites in your own country.
  • Always take travel insurance.
  • Take coins of whatever currency your destination uses, trust me, you don’t want to search for currency exchange with a crying, annoyed and tired baby on toe.

At the end my partner and I learned a lot  from this experience, if any one reads this and gets anything helpful that makes their life and their little one’s life easier, it would be the best result we can hope for.

Bon voyage……