How to fly budget, long-haul with kids

HAPPY KIDS: Keeping the little ones well fed and entertained on long-haul budget flights are is not always easy.
HAPPY KIDS: Keeping the little ones well fed and entertained on long-haul budget flights are is not always easy.

I'm recently back from a trip to South-East Asia made exclusively on budget airlines.

My wife, myself, and our eight and eleven year old kids flew into Singapore on Scoot, then to Cambodia on Jetstar Asia and back home through Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia and Air Asia X. Here's how we survived.

We knew the long-haul flights would be a challenge, but they were priced so well we were able to do a two-week trip to Asia for about the same price as a one-week journey to a hermetic Queensland or Fiji resort, which made them irresistible.

Other than the food and lack of entertainment units, the experience is really no different from flying economy on a full service airline.

But those two differences are biggies when travelling with small folk. If we do this again, we'll use these tactics on budget long-haul flights with kids:

1. Order the simplest food

Budget airline food is of the "slurry with protein chunks" genre. Scoot's "Moroccan Chicken" was largely liquid and therefore not something our kids wanted to taste.

Simpler meals like Air Asia's satay chicken looked closer to a local version of the dish and generated more enthusiasm. The lesson? Order the simplest-sounding foods if you don't want grumpy, hungry kids.

2. Food isn't well-packaged

Vacuum-sealed food is hard to open at the best of times. For a kid in a cramped plane seat, it's a splatter accident waiting to happen, so open kids' food yourself.

3. Plane food in Asia is spicy!

Again: Pick bland dishes for young palettes.

4. You can eat your own food

Both Scoot and Air Asia made announcements that outside food was not allowed.

The former certainly didn't enforce that rule: we brought food aboard and were able to discreetly scoff it outside of mealtimes without attracting attention.

5. Bring water

There are no free refills on a budget carrier and even the $5 a litre water on the safe side of airport security is cheaper than water on the plane.

6.Ration electronic devices

Budget airlines don't do USB-to-the-seat, so our kids' iThings burned out about three hours before our day flight reached Singapore.

You could rent the airlines' own movie-laden tablet computers to get around this, but little of the pre-loaded fare was age-appropriate.

Interestingly, those tablets were handed out about an hour after takeoff, then retrieved an hour before landing. If you could get your kids working to that schedule with their own devices they'd probably last most of the eight hour trip.

We also loaded up our personal devices with kid-friendly movies and bought a headphone splitter. Using adult-self control to ensure there was battery life a-plenty remaining in the flight's second half, we muddled through.

A stand that puts iThings at a good viewing angle is another good idea. Holding them for hours at a time is a pain.

7. Night flights are easier

Cambodia is only three hours behind Australia and we were there for more than a week, so the kids' body clocks were ready to sleep on the return Air Asia X flight.

Sure we had a tough travel day before the flight, but knowing they'd sleep a fair bit of the way home was a blessing even if us grown ups knew we'd have the usual torrid economy class sleep experience.

8. Expect lots of walking

Budget airlines don't get the best gates, which means long walks to your plane or, at Kuala Lumpur's dire Low Cost Carrier Terminal, a trek across the tarmac and then a circuit around the shed terminal. Even at Singapore's universally-acclaimed Changi we had a distant gate.

So plan for a little extra time at the airport if you want to shop and get ready to carry all the carry-ons yourself.

We'd do this trip again if we could but I'm not sure a longer flight from Australia to the USA or from Asia to Europe would work. Kids need more distractions and that little bit of extra space just like us grown ups.


What are your tips for flying with kids? How do you keep them entertained? Leave a comment below.