Travelling by plane is miraculously quick, and pretty convenient—most of the time. Every so often you bustle the kids through security only to find your flight is delayed by several hours. Very few things drag like a long wait in Departures. Traditionally, airports have been concentrated retail zones, with little to do but shop until you drop. In recent years offerings have diversified a little, and in some airports these days you can sip a martini while you listen to a jazz pianist, or book yourself in for a facial.
Airports have been slower to offer distractions for the kids. A wise family always packs with the possibility of a delay in mind. Colouring books and tablets should be stowed near the top of your hand luggage, and it’s a good idea to pack a travel pillow in case someone (not necessarily one of the kids!) starts to get sleepy. If there’s space to spare, it’s a good idea to pack a change of clothes for everyone. If your kids work up a sweat playing in Departures, or get messy during a meal, some fresh clothes will stop them getting too uncomfortable on a long, cramped flight.
Preparation can only take you so far. Some delays call for improvisation. Here are some tips:
The chances are you remember the first time you flew, but do you remember the first time you were in an airport? As a grown-up, it’s easy to see the bland architecture and generic airport shops and forget that an airport is a magical gateway to anywhere in the world. Take a moment to explain the Departures board to your kids. Do they know what countries all those cities are in? Which country would they most like to visit? Do they know what things people eat there?
Although a lot of airports are designed to keep your focus on shopping and dining, if you go straight to your gate you can easily find somewhere to watch the planes taxi back and forth or surge into the sky. There’s lots to see on the tarmac besides planes, too. Refuelling can be pretty dramatic, and the luggage handling process is surprisingly entertaining, especially if you can spot your bags!
If you’re travelling at Christmas, the airport is likely to be fairly crammed, but most of the year round, an airport is as wide open as a playground. You should be able to find plenty of room to play physical games or just to do a bit of running and jumping and generally getting as tired out as possible. If your kids enjoy colouring, arts and crafts or just making a mess, you can probably find space for that too. Most airport bookshops carry colouring books and other activity kits, but if you can’t find anything, you can improvise by picking up some magazines. It’s fine to bring a pair of nail scissors in your hand luggage, but if you forgot them you can pick up a pair at a pharmacy in Departures. If you’re using open floor space in an airport, make sure that people have room to get past you, and watch for the occasional electric cart.
Most airports now provide free wi-fi, although pay attention when you’re logging on because some only allow you to use it for a limited time or for specific purposes. So long as you’re connected, you’ve got all the usual distractions from YouTube to games. If your kids are into Pokémon Go, airports are the ideal place to play. Older kids can explore safely, and airports are good locations to scout for new Pokémon. Don’t forget to check your airport’s social media channels. Most airports have Twitter, Instagram or Facebook accounts which are regularly updated with news about what’s going on in the airport. San Francisco International’s Insta feed has live updates on the activities of their therapy animals, who go from terminal to terminal providing moral support for nervous flyers!
See what the airport has to offer kids
If you’re in an airport you haven’t visited before—or even if you’re in your usual airport for the first time in a while—don’t forget to find out if there are any activities for kids laid on by the airport. Slowly but surely airports are catching on to the demand. Singapore’s Changi Airport has a four-screen cinema showing the latest movies free of charge, and a kids’ play room with arts-and-crafts materials ready to go. KL International in Malaysia has brought a section of rainforest indoors, so passengers can experience the country’s wildest terrain during a layover.
Of course most airports don’t offer quite as much excitement. Small jungle gyms or activity areas are increasingly common, though. For older kids, some airports have a museum where you can explore the history of aviation or the country you’re in. If all else fails, there are always the shops. Lots of airports have toy stores and sweet shops. If you’re in a country where your pound is worth a bit more than the local money, you might find a bargain.
If it’s been a few years since you last flew, you might be impressed by the quality of food on offer in airport restaurants these days. There’s a lot more variety, prices are fairer, and most restaurants will offer something nutritious which appeals to kids. Dining in Departures is especially tempting because airplane food never seems to improve. If you’re not hungry yet, you can still pick out snacks for the plane. Remember that food doesn’t taste the same at altitude. Something salty, like nuts, works best.
Rest & Recuperate
Don’t try and battle through a monster delay without taking a few breaks. If your partner’s on hand, take turns with the kids while the other recuperates. It’s also easier if one of you stays with the bags, rather than carting them everywhere you go.
Getting compensation for your delay
A long delay isn’t just a headache. It can cause you to miss connections, lose bookings and miss out on your precious holiday time. If a delay costs you money, you should speak to a legal expert. They’ll be able to tell you whether you’re entitled to compensation and help you to claim it if you are.