How To Fly Long-Haul With Kids On Budget Airlines Without Losing Your Mind

How To Fly Long-Haul With Kids On Budget Airlines Without Losing Your Mind

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.

Picture: Getty Images

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.

Simon Sharwood is the Australian editor for The Register, a veteran traveller and an enthusiastic cyclist.


  • Best tip for water – take an empty bottle with you through security and fill it up on the other side. Its just liquids you can’t through, not the containers for liquids 😉

    • nope, containers as well, even if you skull the water down you can’t take the container through.

      • I’ve never had a problem getting an empty water bottle (even once an empty thermos) through security screening and onto a plane. Most airports have water fountains you can use in the gate area to refill the bottle (which can then be taken on the plane). If it’s small or pliable enough, most planes (especially long haul) have drinking water near the toilets – and you can go and fill and refill your bottle until you get to your destination.

      • The only restriction is taking anything containing more than 100ml of liquid. The actual containers themselves are fine if empty, regardless of size.

        I’ve recently taken an empty insulated mug (approx 500ml volume) onto 3 long-haul flights in my carry-on. No problems flagged whatsoever. Have a look at the TSA list of what’s OK and what’s not.

    • Not true. Most airports will make you dispose the bottle as well. One notable exception is AKL (and presumably other NZ ports). If you try this, make sure its a bottle you don’t mind losing.

      • I’ve never had to dispose of the actual bottle out of all the places I’ve been to – New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Canada, Japan, even USA wasn’t a problem at all.
        I haven’t found anything on the internet suggesting airports where you can’t take in a bottle, in fact the Melbourne airport’s website suggests you empty your bottle and fill it up after security

        Re: #5) Bring water – I got stung at the KL Low Cost Carrier Terminal when I loaded up on drinks prior to my flight on Air Asia only to find there was a security checkpoint just before the boarding area so I had to surrender them.

    • Never had a problem in Australia, Singapore or Europe with an empty bottle in my bag so…

      I even had an Australian litre bottle which I took to London via China (where we got rescreened), then all through Turkey, Greece and France (flying between each) and back again with no questions asked at any stage. Admittedly the bottle had had it by the time I threw it out at Brisbane but at least it made it home! 😉

      The US I could be different though given the paranoia and poor training of the TSA.

  • Ignore any announcement or condition about ‘no outside food allowed’ – I take my own food aboard most flights and have only had staff inquire once – I just say I have severe food allergies (lie) and that I cannot eat their food.

    Two reasons – firstly I like to eat what I want, not the junk they serve as ‘food’. Secondly, I am a tightarse, this is why I am flying budget in the first place.

  • An easy way of extending the battery life of the ithingy is to buy a recharge pack suitable for an iPad – I bought one specifically for travelling, just to top up batteries enroute – worked a treat with the kids iPad…

  • I’ve never ever ever had a problem taking an empty waterbottle onto planes- almost always a non-disposable one. This includes travelling through Australia, Asia, Europe and the US. As long as it’s empty and generally clear it’s never been an issue.

    Another tip: let them bring their favourite cuddle toy and if you’ve got room a pillow, long haul flights overnight are no fun on non-budget airlines let alone budget airlines. Something that makes them a little bit more comfortable and homey will help them sleep!

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