Can travelling long distances with children ever be a stress-free experience? Fear not, frazzled parents: airline services and staff can make all the difference.
APART from a large glass of wine, what makes the most difference when travelling long-haul with children? Is it the inflight entertainment, the attitude of cabin crew, well-thought-out activity packs, or stress-savers such as being able to skip the check-in queue?
Offerings for families on international airlines range from virtually non-existent to very generous, making it both important and difficult for parents to choose.
The executive chairman of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, Peter Harbison, sat on a panel to select finalists for the 2011 Family Friendly Airline Award and says it was a very tough job.
The award, organised by the US-based Kids First Fund, was won by North American carrier Air Transat, which offers families dedicated airport counters, children's welcome kits, prize drawings and on-board birthday celebrations.
Services offered by other finalists in the awards included kids' zones in airport lounges, inflight magazines for kids, the opportunity for children to make inflight announcements and even staff training to help autistic children.
"It was very hard to differentiate between airlines," Harbison says.
He says he looked for evidence that airlines really cared about families, such as by having priority check-in and quality entertainment. The general manager of Travel with Kidz Newport, Uschi Howard, nominates airline scheduling, pre-seating policies and inflight entertainment systems as the top factors for smooth family travel.
"Do not sacrifice these three things if you want to have a good flight," Howard says.
The total duration of the flight and the number and length of transit stops should always be the biggest consideration, because killing time in airports with children can be very trying.
Pre-seating is important because it is not uncommon for families to end up seated in different parts of the plane, Howard says. Most airlines are prepared to pre-seat at the time of booking but some don't.
For inflight entertainment, Howard nominates Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines as standouts, although she says most leading airlines now have movies on demand.
For parents travelling with infants, Howard says the most important thing is a guaranteed bassinet. "You should not accept 'it's on request', it has to be confirmed," she says.
A big factor for any family is on-board service and the amount of help cabin crew provide.
Howard says the oft-quoted rule of sticking to Asian carriers "no longer applies, categorically", although Singapore Airlines and Asiana Airlines are her nominations for best on-board service.
She recommends flying with full-service carriers unless the price difference is sizeable, as you can always get your children a drink or snack on a full-service airline.
Howard has experienced low-cost airlines running out of food, drinks or entertainment units, even when they have been pre-booked.
"With families, that is aggravation that you really don't need," she says.
Aside from Singapore Airlines, Etihad, Emirates and Asiana, Howard says Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways are reliably good choices for families (however, note that Thai does not offer in-seat entertainment on all routes).
The director at Harvey World Travel Blacktown, Cindy Lee, believes inflight entertainment is the most important factor.
"When you've got kids, even an hour is a long-haul flight," says Lee, who is the mother of three well-travelled children.
Lee and her family recently travelled to New York on an airline with no seat entertainment. She says they will never do it again.
Another big factor for families is meal options, as many children are fussy or have allergies.
Asian carriers often fail to provide suitable meals for children and on any airline it pays to double-check that meal requests have been received.
Making up Lee's top priorities for family airlines are pre-seating and pre-boarding, to make sure that families are seated together and to give them a chance to get settled on board before the general crush.
Airlines that allow strollers to be taken to the boarding gate get bonus marks, as carrying tired children through airports can be a nightmare.
Lee nominates Qantas as her first choice for families, saying it is an airline that really makes an effort with children.
Singapore Airlines comes in second on her list, due to its high service standards.
IF SITTING near children is your worst nightmare when flying, you have plenty of company. A survey of nearly 5000 travellers by British company HolidayExtras.com has found 83 per cent want adults-only areas on planes, with 31 per cent going as far as saying children should be banned from flights. A similar survey by Skyscanner last year found that nearly 60 per cent of travellers wanted children confined to a families-only section, with a quarter saying they would prefer their flight to be completely child-free.