Which airlines welcome children with open arms and which hosties turn their noses up at babies? We’ve asked our readers and compiled the results of what they consider to be the best family-friendly airlines. Not everyone has the same experience and of course this is not definitive (it depends so much on who you get on the day), but here’s the lowdown of the good, the bad and the ugly when flying with kids as told to us so you can plan (or be prepared for) your next family vacation.
If you’re flying into Canada this is the most efficient way to not have to deal with luggage and multiple check-ins if you are transiting for domestic flights. (They will transit the luggage directly for you.) Meals and inflight entertainment (which is live from gate to gate) are included and you will get Aeroplan points, but that’s basically where the service stops. According to our sources, don’t expect attentive or even friendly hosties on Air Canada (and you may have to ask for your bassinet several times).
By all accounts British Airways treats families very well. Their staff are approachable, helpful and will regularly check in to make sure everything is going smoothly. Their inflight entertainment has a wide variety to occupy children on long haul flights, the meals are reasonable and there is a snack bar where you can get Scottish shortbread. Activity packs for kids are quite basic – usually stickers and colouring in activities.
For a premium airline, if you book right after Christmas, the cost can be quite reasonable. As they should be, since you can no longer use the frequent flier points with Qantas.
This Thai offering always has very reasonable ticket prices and is almost as good as some of the other Asian boutique airlines. You always get a meal, even if the flight is under an hour, but they can be disorganised about having enough kids’ meals onboard, even if you pre-order. There are no televisions in the seats but they do provide basic sticker packs to children. Service is polite, but they aren’t going out of their way to help you with your baby.
Here all passengers get access to the lounge which is a good place for pre-flight snacks, free wi-fi and computers (there is no lounge in Koh Samui).
Cathay Pacific is a reliable, if somewhat forgettable, airline for families. They provide inflight entertainment, meals and a basic kids’ pack, but they are generally more inclined to leave parents to themselves. Except during even the slightest turbulence. They are extremely vigilant about safety on Cathay Pacific so the second the seatbelt sign turns on, you can expect a staff member to be policing you until your infant is out of the bassinet and secure.
This is a low cost carrier, so you pay for what you get. It’s cheap, no-frills and inexpensive. Because of this, they generally fly out of the small European airports which is much more convenient for families laden with baggage and children.
And you’ll need that convenience because you will be doing everything yourself. The staff will do their jobs, but they won’t be falling over themselves to assist. There are no free meals but you can buy snacks onboard (you are not allowed to consume your own food inflight – and yes, we hear they will stop you). Obviously, there is no entertainment (for kids or adults) either. Also, it’s worthwhile taking your stroller to the gate (rather than checking it in) so you know it will actually show up at the other end.
If you are really travelling on a budget, don’t pay for the optional express boarding as generally families with young kids will be called to the front regardless.
There are two very opposing schools of thought about Emirates. On the one hand, some describe it as one of the best family-friendly airlines. They say the staff are super attentive and enthusiastic about children. They will take a Polaroid of you onboard and give it to you as a souvenir. If there are spare seats, they will play musical chairs so your children can stretch out to sleep. And the activity packs include good quality stuffed toys, backpacks and, for younger kids, seat belt buddies to make keeping the seat belt on fun. They even have Quiksilver packs for older kids. As a full service airline, all meals and inflight entertainment are included (look out for the Flying Camera channel for a pilot’s view of take-off and landing), as well as free birthday cakes for children (you need to book these in advance).
Then there is the opposing view – which is the service is some of the worst in the air. The surly staff are more interested in gossiping and complaining in the galley and won't help with, well, anything. They refuse to assist if someone else has taken your seat or if there is nowhere to store your overhead luggage and if you insist, you can expect an extremely hostile reaction. (And this is before you throw kids into the mix.)
Obviously it all boils down to who happens to be your hostie on the day which is, of course, no guarantee of anything.
Surely Ethiad is about to become the most popular airline for families travelling with kids anywhere in the world. By the end of 2013 they will have fully launched their Flying Nanny program where 500 staff will have been specially trained to help parents with keeping children occupied and settled on their flights. This is more than just bringing the kids' meals early or holding a baby while you sort out your bags – these nannies will have learnt their skills from Norland College so they will understand child psychology as well as be equipped with activity packs so they can help create greeting cards, fold origami animals or create sock puppets, for example. For older kids, they will have quizzes on hand and magic tricks. They will actually know about which airport terminals have a playground, where baby change tables are located and will even provide snacks and drinks if you are transiting on to another flight. And they can assist you even before you board from check-in until you are safely buckled into your seat. Need we say more?
If there is one thing that makes an airline a poor choice when traveling with kids, it's unreliability. Sadly, this has been the reputation Ethiopian Airlines have earned themselves. Flights are often delayed and over-booked so there is every chance you can arrive at the airport (even mid-transfer between flights) only to find that you have been unceremoniously bumped. Worse still, when you actually manage to get on the plane the service is surly and sullen at best. If you opt for a busy flight, be prepared for chaos, especially in Addis Ababa. There in no priority boarding for families – in fact there seem to be very few orderly systems in place at all – and passengers onboard sit wherever they want, regardless of their seat allocation. All of which makes this an airline you'd probably only fly if you really had no other choice.
If your children love the pink little cat, Hello Kitty Jets are a fun, if slightly frivolous, way to get from A to B. Everything about the flight is specifically dedicated to Hello Kitty from the check-in counters to the meals, upholstery and even the hand soaps. The whole purpose of the airline is to encourage a sense of nostalgia and happiness amongst passengers, so if this isn’t a kid-friendly airline, it’s hard to know what is. [For an insiders’ tour of the Hello Kitty Jets, read the suitcases&strollers’ story here.]
Like the country it comes from, Iceland Air has some lovely quirkiness to its flight experience. Throughout the plane, from the entrance door to the headrests, there are lots of fun facts and figures about Iceland that school age kids can enjoy. The kids’ food pack is fun too. It is actually full of healthy food such as yoghurt and fruit (extremely rare for an airline) and the box itself breaks down into cut out figurines. The activity pack also comes with a free set of headphones for children.
There the freebies end. Parents have to pay for their own food, drinks and headphones. But the headphones are worthwhile as the touch screen entertainment lasts from (almost) taxi take-off to landing. There is also free wifi onboard so bring your laptop or tablet if you want to clear some holiday emails.
The staff are friendly and helpful and while they’re not going out of their way to carry your child for you, they will graciously assist when needed.
There’s one reason to fly Jetstar – it’s cheap. Especially if you can somehow miraculously cut down your luggage allowance, Jetstar is typically significantly cheaper than Qantas. But budget is budget – this means they only have the bare necessities. No free inflight entertainment, no free meals, no speedy, efficient service. In fact, the check-in times for Australian domestic flights are notoriously long even if you check-in online (which you can’t do if travelling with an infant). Come prepared to do everything yourself – because you definitely will be.
For a non-budget national airline, as a parent you really get very little bang for your buck on Luftanasa, particularly on short haul flights. No entertainment system (not even a communal television screen), very basic seats, no activity packs and no special help with infants or little kids. The one thing the airline does have is free meals – think sandwiches and yoghurt. Apart from priority boarding, don’t be surprised if you go the entire flight and wonder if the air hostesses to even noticed your children were onboard.
For such a friendly country, we’re sad to say that Qantas does not always deliver such friendly service. Their flights seem to be relatively reliable and generally only a little delayed. Facilities and services are clean and you will always get food (even if it’s just an apple). What tends to be lacking is the customer service, especially considering the premium prices. When travelling with children and/or babies our sources report that its rare for any help to be offered unless you ask for it. And then expect just the bare minimum of enthusiasm. In fact, be prepared to ask your fellow passengers for help lifting your luggage to the overhead compartments if you can’t do it yourself as the hosties won’t assist you, even if you are pregnant.
This underrated airline is actually one of the most economical full-service airlines, yet they are still extremely friendly and helpful. They will consistently stop in to check on families and offer advice (such as not to order the included kids’ meals – they are reputedly terrible. Adult meals are slightly better, but not much. Bring your own food if you have fussy children). The entertainment system has a good variety to cater to multiple nationalities – which means their English-language options are somewhat limited. But that might not be such a problem since the kids get backpacks, stuffed toys, finger puppets, stickers, activity books and colouring in products.
This long-standing European budget airline is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of moving around the continent on a tight purse string. The network is suitably comprehensive and allows you to go between most of the major hubs albeit through the smaller airports (which might mean less complicated transitions, but can leave you quite a distance from the centre of the city you are trying to reach).
Like most budget airlines this is a bare bones experience – you need to purchase or supply your own food and drinks (you can consume your own snacks on board with the exception of hot beverages), there is no inflight entertainment and the service is friendly but minimal.
If you are planning a long overland train, bus or road trip, this may be a cost-effective compromise.
[For travel tips on flying with wheelchairs and disabilities, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Rex (Regional Express)
Because it services regional Australia, you have to expect that flying Rex with kids naturally comes with its inconveniences. On some routes the planes are tiny which means no change rooms, miniscule toilets, no entertainment system and you board on the tarmac. But for such a small operation, the staff do what they can to make life easier for parents. You are allowed to bring your stroller right to the plane (watch out for those propellers!) and depending how isolated your destination, the air hostesses will even call ahead and pre-order taxis to meet you on arrival. Surprisingly, there is even a tea, coffee and snack food service included in the ticket price, even on short routes under an hour.
Scandinavia's air service will get you from one point to another, but the experience is not particularly memorable for parents. There are very few special services for families. It is not uncommon to experience technical ticketing issues if you are travelling with an infant which can hold you up for prolonged periods of time. Check in of bulky luggage is all self service (you even have to print and attach the baggage tags yourself) and the airline will charge you for large plastic bags to stow your stroller/car seat/baby gear. There is no inflight entertainment on short haul flights, you have to pay for food and drinks and toys for the kids are only occasionally on offer. These sorts of small inconveniences mean that service doesn't translate as being very friendly or helpful.
However, once you have accepted that no one is going out of their way to welcome you, SAS is a reliable option if you are travelling around the region flying with kids especially as they will allow two bulky extra luggage items per child.
Scoot is Singapore Airlines’ budget brand and the prices really are super cheap. If you are lucky, you can fly the entire family from Singapore to Sydney for the price of one return ticket elsewhere. Because it’s so new, the aircraft are all shiny and sparkly which makes it a great attraction for families – cheap and good. Lots of kids onboard also means lots of other forgiving parents (the intolerant passengers should be in the dedicated no-children zones) – which you will need because there are some truly horrendous flight times (the Singapore to Sydney leg departs at a mean 2.10am), there is no inflight entertainment (you can pre-book an iPad but don’t be surprised if you board and discover they have run out) and you have to pay extra for meals (although these are quite affordable).
Operated by Singapore Airlines, flying Silk Air is remarkably unmemorable, which is a good thing. The flights are generally on time, straightforward and fuss-free. You won’t get a huge amount of assistance onboard, but they are typically quite tolerant of children playing in the aisles and don’t seem to worry if kids get a little noisy and excited. (Although we’re not sure what the other passengers think.) Look out for the very cool Etch A Sketch toy that they give out shaped like a Silk Air plane.
In general, “SQ” really is a dream to fly with children. The flights are always on time. The entertainment system is excellent and they have recently just introduced wifi. (Sometimes) the free toys are pretty good. They carry spare nappies, wipes and baby purees in case you run out. And home base at Changi Airport has excellent facilities including plenty of baby change rooms, kids’ toilet cubicles, free strollers and a playground. If you look like you’re a particularly struggling single parent, sometimes they will even offer you a free concierge service to pick you up on arrival in Singapore at the gate, help you collect and carry your luggage and then take you directly to your taxi or car.
If you’re a new parent with a baby, enjoy these luxuries while you can. While the Singapore girls are always polite, their level of interest drops considerably as the kids get older and they are not quite so eager to volunteer to mind your kids so you can eat or go to the toilet when you have a toddler versus a newborn.
Like everything in Switzerland, Swiss airlines may not be the trendiest brand in the skies, but it is reliable and of a high quality. Their staff are helpful and courteous, even if they aren’t proactive about helping out with kids, and snacks are always supplied. While there may not always be gift packs for the kids and the flights are an unexciting experience, you will arrive safely, on time and with the minimum of fuss (plus there is the added treat of Swiss chocolates onboard).
Turkish Airlines may not always be on time, but once onboard they are very welcoming of families. Parents with kids under 5 years old get priority boarding and on the flight the crew are extremely friendly and happy to interact with children. They will look out for single parents and assist you with carry on luggage, extra blankets and bottles to make sure you are properly settled in.
[For more travel tips on travelling solo with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Throughout the flight they are also extra accommodating and will check in to ensure that parents have plenty of assistance whenever they need it.
Virgin Australia has an image for being very relaxed and casual about it's service, so while the staff are having a nice time chatting on the plane and being friendly, you may not get too much actual practical help with your kids. It feels like something of a hybrid between full service and budget airline – the basic fares seems reasonably priced enough, but by the time you pay for all the extras you need when travelling with kids (such as baggage allowances and good flight times) you may as well be flying a full service airline. For instance, they have only just announced that they will eventually be providing free food on flights. It's worth considering whether you really want to pay such high prices for an airline that doesn't want to give you the extras that you will get with much less hassle elsewhere.
Worried the airline you are travelling with your kids isn't going to have enough facilities to help? Then read these suitcases&strollers stories about how you can hire your own personal Inflight Nanny or Holiday Nanny to give you an extra hand.
Wondering if you should bring a car seat for kids with you onboard? See the suitcases&strollers interview with a car safety expert here.
Disagree? Have an opinion? Want to share your experience or tell us about another airline not on this list? We want to hear from you – so fill in the comments box below.