Flying long haul with a baby: Here's what to expect

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of parents quite like the first plane ride with bub. Along with seat recliners and window screen openers, the general public just don't seem to warm to screaming kids on a plane – and don't we parents know it.

I'll admit I fell prey to the dark hole of social media before our long haul. Coming second only to posts asking about travel to Fiji ("Has anyone been?"), the pleas on parenting forums were loud and desperate: "We're flying long haul with baby: what the hell do we do?"

The good times roll once you're at the airport.

After flying from Sydney to Venice and back from Amsterdam, more than 20 hours each way, with a 10-month-old, I've got good news and bad news. The bad news? How your flight goes is entirely a matter of chance. If you've got kids, you know no matter how prepared you are, everything can fall apart within five minutes.

The good news? Travelling with a kid can actually be pretty awesome.

The good times roll once you're at the airport. Expect to be ushered to the shorter queue at customs. Bypass the cattle class lines and enjoy the express pre-boarding, where you can fill up empty overhead bins and grab bulkhead seats, (a space pre-kid I would have classified as "legroom" and post-kid now identify as "where the nappy bag goes").

While we felt pretty snazzy with our travel pram that folded up into overhead bin size, we had to tip our hats to the genius set-up of one family: dad standing in bulkhead reading a dog-eared paperback, a sleeping four-month-old strapped to his chest; mum spread across the two economy seats with her feet up #goals.

Preparation was a key part of our survival. We eked out toys, books, food, snacks and story time (who knew reciting The Very Cranky Bear would be so warmly received by passengers in the surrounding rows?) However for all our tricks, it was a plastic cup leftover from service that provided the best entertainment.

Allaying my fears, people are actually kind. Those seated near us were businessmen or older travellers with kids of their own, bored and keen for interaction with a smiley bub. And there is solidarity: at one point the area at the front of the A380 becomes an in-flight playgroup with kids and parents sharing snacks, toys and travel plans. My little one makes off with a toy mobile phone; I give a pair of socks to a parent whose kid had thrown up on all four pairs she'd packed.

With the in-flight entertainment system out of reach thanks to 10 kilos of slumber, amusement came in other forms: through a crack in the galley curtain I watched as a group of flight attendants in economy descended on leftover food trays sent down from Business Class like a pack of bin chickens. One attendant who returned late to the party even fished a tub of discarded dessert from a bin.

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The only passive-aggressive snark that we encountered from a fellow passenger was at Dubai Airport. I let a family with a screaming baby go through the security scanners ahead of us, raising the ire of a woman that grumbled she should cut ahead because she had "a flight to catch", a comment which everyone patiently waiting in the transit line with a flight to catch chuckles at.

I was sympathetic to her anxiety but my gesture didn't inconvenience her, so I smiled and ignored her. At the end of the day, I didn't really care if anyone on the plane felt my child (or anyone else's) was an inconvenience: modern economies of scale means we share a flight like cattle – and if someone doesn't like travelling with kids, they can hire a private jet or lump it.

Overall, the only disappointment is our airline. Across four flights the service was incredibly inconsistent. We had brilliant flights where the staff went above and beyond to take care of us. On others they just had a poor attitude, including one attendant who intentionally shut the galley curtain in my husband's face as he was passing through to change a nappy; rude at best, but downright unacceptable given there was an infant in his arms.

While this, along with hearing staff moan about passengers, their managers and other attendants was mildly amusing, being the last flight home it left a lasting impression – and next time we'll try another airline.

We went in with a "be-prepared" mentally, our anxiety about flying was really about keeping our little one healthy, happy and getting there safely. As bad as the fear can be, flying with kids is par for the course of modern parenting. After all, if you can afford a long haul trip, you're really doing OK.

My advice? Plan for the worst. Have low expectations. Be pleasantly surprised, and celebrate survival at the hotel mini-bar.

See also: The 50 best family holiday destinations

See also: Why airlines split up groups on planes, even when you reserve seats

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