When you are backpacking with your friend or alone, you naturally want to make your money stretch as far as possible. One obvious way to do that is choose the cheapest option on flights. You take the Red Eye, you take the flight with the 7 hour stop over, you take the flight that takes 17 hours because it is not the most direct route. When you are by yourself, you take a book or a journal and you wait the 7 hours in a quiet corner of the airport. Once I bought and read two entire novels in Munich airport.
This is not the best way to choose a flight if you have kids. You know when you are standing in some random airport with one crying child, one hungry child and another with a big saggy poo in their pants, the $300 you saved will be as meaningless as the wrong currency in your purse, preventing you from buying the hungry one something to shut it up. While you are waiting another 5 hours, you would gladly hand over all your credit cards and let them charge whatever they want to get you out of that hell. But it’s too late.
These are the things I consider when I am choosing a flight:
1. The time the flight leaves. I never ever take early morning flights. Think of a time when you’ve had an early morning flight with just your husband, say 7am, and you had to wake up at 4am, eat, wash your dishes, pack your toothbrush, get a cab and get to the airport for 5am, wondering if you turned off the appliances, left the key out for someone to feed the cat and packed your passport. Now think of a time you had to be somewhere at 9am with your kids. They all had to be fed, dressed, brush their teeth, do their hair, find their shoes, get their drink bottles, snacks, hats, spare clothes, strapped in the car etc. Think how hard it is to get out of the house in the morning, even if you think you prepared everything the night before. Then combine that with the stress of getting to the airport, then multiply it by 5. It is not worth it.
Late flights are worth considering. Especially if you have the type of children that come 7pm, they pass out wherever they are standing. If you know your kids will be tired at a certain time, you want that time to be just as the flight is taking off. Of course, some kids will be overexcited and this doesn’t always work (see above photo of small child doing bog laps around the towel display), but if there is a possibility of your kids sleeping through most of the flight, this is what you want to aim for. Once my 18 month old Xanthe slept like a lump on my husband for 5 hours to Singapore. He couldn’t sleep of course, he was uncomfortable, exhausted and complaining loudly by the end, but I think we were actually lucky, considering the havoc an 18 month old could cause if they were awake.
2. The time the flight arrives. One reason is jet lag. The best way to combat jet lag is to try to get on the local time immediately. By myself I like to arrive in the morning, stay awake in the daylight all day and then go to sleep at night, local time. This is not a good idea if your kids are likely to be tired. If you arrive in the late afternoon, you can stay awake for a little while, get some dinner and then do some sort of a bedtime routine and hopefully they will be tired enough to go to sleep for the night and wake up the next morning. Arriving in the middle of the night into another timezone is asking for trouble that can last for weeks. Another reason is if you arrive early in the morning you probably won’t be able to check straight into your accommodation. So you can just wander around the city with all your luggage and all your kids and all your kids’ luggage. You may not have had a shower for 2 days. Hmmmm.
3. The airline. I don’t always take the cheapest option. One reason is the food. This may sound trivial but think about your kids and food. Enough said. The more expensive airlines will bring you food (and wine but that’s another topic!) on a little tray, take away your rubbish, and then bring you whatever else you ask for. Once we went on one of those cheap Asian airlines and I had everything organised perfectly. Except when it got to 18 month old Fina’s bedtime.
“Milk” she said. “Oh no, we have no milk, just go to sleep.” I told her.
“Milk” she said, again.
I had an empty bottle, I’d just ask the hostess for some milk.
They didn’t have any normal milk, only chocolate milk. We realised this was as good as it was going to get, and wouldn’t do any harm once. So we asked for the chocolate milk. But they only sold it in a kid’s pack that came with a hot dog (even if we ate meat we wouldn’t eat a processed, preserved, airline hotdog) and a potato biscuit (not even my step kids or husband could manage to eat the whole thing after they all tried it). We paid $10, plus the credit card fee for the kids pack, which we threw out except for the chocolate milk that we put in our 18 month old’s bottle for her to suck all over her teeth at bedtime. Parent fail. This would not have happened on QANTAS. Luckily it was only a 5 hour flight, or this sort of nonsense could have happened again and again and again.
Another time I took a 6 month old Annabelle across the world to Vancouver. This was my first baby on our first trip so I wanted to be really prepared. I requested a bassinet for her to sleep in when I booked the flight. I called a few weeks before the trip to confirm the bassinet. It was confirmed. When we checked in, I confirmed the bassinet again. Yes, they told me, you have a bassinet booked. We got on the plane and found our seats. A window seat and an aisle seat. I complained loudly that I had checked 3 times and was assured that I had a bassinet for my baby. They checked and said oh yes you have a bassinet booked, but there is nowhere to attach it in those seats. How was I to know the airline was so stupid they assign you a bassinet but put you in a seat where you can’t use it? I would have thought that was common sense but apparently not. I was getting so angry that people were starting to look at me so whoever was in the bulkhead was nice enough to swap with us so that we could actually use the bassinet. Lesson learned.
4. The amount of stop overs.
So there we were at San Francisco Airport, fresh off a delayed flight with a cranky baby. We finally got the baby to sleep in the pram when we realised just how far we had to walk to get through security, immigration and to the next gate. Unfortunately, prams have to go through their X-Ray machines, without the baby in it. We had to take the sleeping baby out, then fold the pram to go through. And there we were, listening to our names getting called over the loudspeaker as the flight was preparing to leave, running through an airport with a sleeping baby, shoes, belts, passports and boarding passes in our hands. We were literally running. Barefoot. Vowing never to be in this situation again.
On a trip from Perth to Canberra, I paid the extra money for a direct flight even though all but one went via Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide. Stopovers are just invitations for more things to go wrong so you definitely want to avoid them. Plus, think about getting your kids in and out of your car for a trip to the shops. Then think about lining up to get on a plane while the special people get on first. Combine those two things and multiply by 5. Then think about the actual waiting. Pay the extra.
5. The hidden costs.
A flight might look like it costs $150, but when you read the fine print, it doesn’t include luggage (add $20-60 per person per flight), food or fees for paying with a credit card. Make sure you factor these things in before deciding which flight to choose based on price.
6. Think outside the box.
I recently booked a flight from Perth to Lombok to get to the Gilis. It was cheap cheap plus they were offering 20% off on Air Asia. Problem was, it went via Kuala Lumpur and had a 10 hour stop over. It arrived at 10pm into KL and left for Lombok at 8am. Basically the whole night. So I looked up transit hotels at KL airport. For $160 I could get a room for 24 hours including breakfast within the airport. This was much cheaper than getting a flight with a better connection, plus we get to have a decent sleep, a shower and get breakfast half-way through our trip. Now I think I will actually be looking for 10 hour stopovers, it seems like such a good idea, provided the airport has a transit hotel.
Of course you are not likely to be able to get the perfect flight that meets all these criteria but they are something to aim for and to consider instead of just taking the cheapest option.