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What It’s Like to Fly Internationally with Kids During COVID-19

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Now is definitely not the time to be taking a casual international getaway. Borders are closed around the world, and quarantine restrictions are often in place for the few destinations that are still open to Americans. But some Americans nevertheless have to travel – even abroad – out of necessity.

American Airlines Plane

My sister is one of those people. She and her husband just made an international move to the United Kingdom in mid-August, with their kids, ages 6 and 2.  Her husband accepted a new position in his company near London at the end of 2019. He traveled there temporarily in February to start the job and take the preliminary steps of preparing to move their family as soon as the school year was over. He returned to the United States for spring break in mid-March, only to find the world entirely shut down just days later. Talk about timing.

Their family’s plans for an international move were put on hold indefinitely. Luckily, they all already had passports in hand before the shutdown. But my sister and the kids were just about to start the visa process in March when everything closed. With visa offices shuttered all spring and well into the summer, they were stuck. With a little luck (and a willingness to drive 4 hours from their home in Charlotte, North Carolina to the Atlanta, Georgia visa office), they were able to secure visas in time to leave the country before summer ended.

Their family of four flew last week from Charlotte (CLT) to Boston (BOS) on American Airlines, connecting onward on British Airways to London Heathrow (LHR). As might be expected, their just-turned 2 year old was a tough travel companion (see my guide to the best and worst ages for air travel for some insight about that). But with some elbow grease and a couple of kind and understanding flight attendants, they made it to London and lived to tell the tale.

Related: First Timer’s Guide to London with Kids

If you are curious about what international flights are really like right now or are in a similar position of needing to take one yourself, here are their family’s lessons learned and best tips.

International travel has ground to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Find out what airplanes and airports are really like if you find yourself in the position of needing to fly internationally right now.

Tips for International Travel with Kids During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Plan for Connections

With the airline sector making massive routes and schedule cuts (especially internationally), nonstop routes are few and far between, even between major city hubs. Having to take an international trip may mean preparing for the hassle and extra time of connecting flights.

My sister had planned to take American Airlines’ nonstop daily Charlotte to Heathrow flight for their move. That flight, however, has now been cut from American’s schedules until at least October.

Charlotte CLT Airport

Their move meant that they had to add an extra stop into their flight plans. As anyone who travels with young kids knows, adding in a connection can mean more logistics and hassles, depending on the connecting airport used.

In their case, changing planes in Boston Logan involved a terminal change, as the BOS-LHR leg of their journey was on British Airways. They had to load two young kids, including one of stroller age, onto a shuttle to a new terminal and re-clear airport security. This cut everything a bit close and made everything more stressful for sure. Luckily, they had gate checked a stroller with them for their travels (successfully navigating American’s obscure stroller weight limit rule because I warned them!), and that was essential for making the change.

If you have to make an international connection right now, make sure you scope out the layout of your connecting airport so you know what to expect. Some airports are better for connections than others – LAX for example can be quite a beast. Some international gateways where changing terminals doesn’t mean exiting security (like ATL) might be a better choice if more than one connecting itinerary is available to you.

Practice Mask Wearing

When air travel started ramping up again earlier in the summer, mask compliance on airplanes was hit or miss. As the summer has gone on, however, airlines have been much more stringently enforcing masking rules. Delta Airlines alone has banned more than 250 passengers for failing to comply with mask mandates.

While most passengers applaud this development (we promote responsible travel here at Trips with Tykes, so we do too!), this requirement can be daunting for travelers with young kids. Most US airlines now require masks on all passengers ages 2 and up. As anyone who has ever spend a few minutes around toddlers knows, getting them to comply with something they find uncomfortable can be very hard!

My nephew had his 2nd birthday while my sister’s family waited for their visas to arrive. So their flight was just days after he turned 2. They practiced as much as they could with masks in the week or two prior, but he was not having it. They were definitely just a bit worried about becoming one of those headlines where families with young kids have been kicked off a plane for struggling with masks.

Thankfully, all went well on the mask front. They had of course practiced mask wearing regularly with their 6 year old daughter extensively before the trip. She wore a mask for both flights like a complete champ.

Covid 19 International Business Class with Child

My niece rocking two different masks and sleeping like a pro in international business class.

As for the 2 year old, they lucked out a bit. For whatever reason, the flight crew on their American flight announced that masks were only required for ages 3 and up (even though the policy for the airline is definitely a year lower). British Airways doesn’t have a published minimum age for masks, so they weren’t sure what to expect there. Their younger toddler with a pacifier in mouth apparently didn’t look like a child who needed to wear one, so there were no issues there either.

I can’t promise that every traveling family will luck out as they did. In fact, they otherwise witnessed pretty firm mask enforcement, with one flight attendant issuing a very stern warning to an adult who allowed his mask to slip below his nose several times. It’s so vital to consider the mask issue if you are traveling right now, especially 2-3 year olds who might not be compliant. Practice as much as you can. Be ready with bribes. And if you don’t have to fly out of complete and absolute necessity like my sister’s family did, perhaps consider not flying at the moment if you think your young child just cannot comply.

One final note on masks – while there is stringent compliance on masks on the plane, don’t expect fellow travelers to be as good in the airport. My sister’s family reported seeing quite a few people in the Charlotte airport not wearing masks, despite the state’s indoor mask mandate. Airport employees were not enforcing it either. In Boston, there was much more adherence to the rule. And in Heathrow on arrival, they witnessed several passengers removing masks once they had cleared immigration and customs, despite still being inside the airport.

Consider the Value of an Upgrade

If you are in the unfortunate position of needing to fly right now – especially with kids – now might be the time to find a way to upgrade. My sister’s family has no airline status and no real mileage balances to speak of, so they inquired about paid upgrades for the international leg of their trip when they got to Boston. The cash prices were somewhat reasonable at about $700, so they bit the bullet.

The upgrade turned out to be quite helpful for them. Their 6 year old slept like a champ in her lie flat seat the entire flight, and they all had more room to distance from other passengers (the cabin was largely empty).

One side effect of being in business class is that they also had a bit more personal attention from flight attendants than they might have otherwise have had in coach. This came in especially handy when they were dealing with the challenge of their 2 year old who kept trying to escape from his seat belt. Because of the pod style seating in business class that separates each seat, my sister and brother-in-law couldn’t reach my nephew during taxi and takeoff to keep him restrained. Additionally, the CARES harness they brought didn’t fit to restrain him in a business class seat either. The flight attendant helped keep a watchful eye and closed the door to the seat’s pod as soon as the aircraft took off to keep their toddler contained.

Toddler International Business Class

Toddler tolerating his business class seat.

Expect New and Different Procedures

Everything about air travel is different at the moment, so even frequent flyers need to be prepared for different procedures and policies when flying. Listen to flight announcements so you know what to expect and ask questions if you are confused!

My sister and brother-in-law certainly noticed that even with the excellent personal service they received, flight attendants were definitely keeping much more distance and minimizing interactions. Additionally, food served was quite a change. On their domestic American flight in economy, the flight crew announced that the drink and snack service was entirely suspended. And on British Airways, food was all much more individually packaged instead of the premium cabin hot meals of normal times.

Speaking of food, you may find it in short supply in airports as well. My sister and her family noticed that a number of restaurants and stores were closed in Boston Logan. The only place they were able to purchase hot food of any kind during their connection was as Burger King.

Deplaning procedures were handled differently as well. Both airlines asked passengers to remain seated as the aircraft reached the gate. American then called each row one-by-one to stand up and deplane. British Airways called groups of rows to keep the aisle clear and moving.

Prep for Quarantine

Arrival London Heathrow with Toddler

Arriving at London Heathrow on their way to their new quarantine home.

Last but certainly not least, if you must travel internationally right now, chances are good you might be subject to a quarantine restriction on the other end of the journey. The United Kingdom has a 14 day quarantine for United States arrivals at the current time.

Make sure you research these rules well in advance. Continue to double check them as your travel date approaches, as the restrictions can suddenly and radically change.

Make all the preparations you can to set yourself up for a comfortable and compliant quarantine. Find out what services are available to you. For example, the UK has grocery delivery services, but a lot of them are not accepting new customers at the moment. As a newcomer, you may have trouble finding out about or breaking into the services you need most if you are quarantined.

My sister and her family have been the grateful recipients of a lot of kindness from strangers in their new work and school communities during this time. My brother-in-law’s boss stocked their new home’s refrigerator for them before they arrived so they had supplies they needed. Others have dropped off furniture at their front door that my sister has purchased remotely. To be sure, their family also made sure to bring a lot of necessary equipment – like a Pack N Play – with them as checked luggage from home. But the support from the community was essential too.

London Quarantine Living

Living the quarantine life, without air conditioning on a warm London August day!

The Bottom Line

If you must fly right now – especially with the extra challenges of crossing an international border and bringing kids along too – it’s definitely doable even in these very changed circumstances. Just like with air travel normally with kids, travelers who prepare extensively and do the research will have an easier time.

Fingers crossed things will change in the not-too-distant future because my family is definitely looking forward to the time when we can pay them a visit in London!

International air travel is operating very differently due to COVID-19 in 2020. If you must fly abroad with kids, find out what families can expect and get tips for how to prepare.

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