Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Flying with kids: choosing a flight

I'm currently in the process of planning my summer-trip to Sweden with the kids. And yes, this means I'm planning way ahead since we won't be traveling until July sometime, but I'm a planner, and that's what I do.

So I'm looking around for flights, and for me that means I'm using a travel agent. I know there are lots of places you can easily buy airplane tickets online, from sites like Expedia, or from the individual airlines, but I just prefer using a travel agent. Part of the reason is that I get lost in the wealth of choices and options sometimes. For example: Will prices be cheaper a week before or a week after my panned travel-date? Does this or that airline have departures on the days I want? I could find out by myself, but I really prefer letting someone else dig through the flight schedules and figure it out for me.

There are a lot of things that I take into consideration when choosing a flight for my family, but the most important consideration for me is:

1. PRICE
This is at the very top of my list, and yes, it is in all-caps because it is that important. Flights from Vancouver to Stockholm are not cheap, and traveling with kids means we'll be paying for more than one ticket. It's definitely worth it to shop around, and if you have more than one airport in your vicinity, then check if flights are cheaper from one or the other.

When we traveled to Sweden for Christmas, KLM had a pretty good deal from Vancouver to Stockholm, and that's what we picked. However, just like last summer, prices for flights from Vancouver to Stockholm are very high this upcoming summer. And just like last summer, prices out of Seattle are a lot better. So it looks like we'll be traveling with Iceland Air again from SeaTac airport in Seattle, and that's fine by me. Even with the 3-4 hour drive (or more depending on traffic), the price is just so much better that I won't even consider a Vancouver departure.

For this summer's trip, price pretty much determined what airline we picked. However, sometimes several airlines will have prices that are about the same range, and then there are other factors to consider:

2. Transfer times
If you're catching one or more connecting flights on your trip, transfer times are definitely an important thing to look at. When you're traveling with kids, you do not want to spend too much time waiting around airports, but you don't want to be too rushed between flights either. I'd say that 2 - 2 1/2 hours is my ideal transfer time: it leaves a bit of room in case of delays, but not too much so we'll get bored at the airport. 

3. Departure and arrival times
Child-friendly departure times is nice. When you're traveling with kids, it might be challenging to get on a flight that departs at 6 am, or 9 pm: after all, you might just end up with sleep-deprived, very grumpy little ones on board. Though if you're lucky, they might just fall asleep as soon as you sit down and stay asleep for the flight (yea, right!).

Another thing to consider when it comes to departure and arrival time is if it will affect how you get to, or from, the airport. For example, will you need to catch a train, bus or other flight to get to or from the airport? Check the schedule and other details for that too before you decide on a flight.

When my family flies to Sweden, we always need a connecting flight from Stockholm to SkellefteƄ, the town where my parents live. Since there are only a few flights per day to SkellefteƄ, I try to pick a flight that puts us in Stockholm at a time when there are connecting flights for us to catch. (And I try to avoid arriving on Saturdays, when there are almost no flights at all to our final destination.)

4. Airport preference
I know lots of people who really like Heathrow. I don't. I will specifically tell the travel agent I deal with not to book us on a flight through Heathrow or anywhere else in the UK. (I guess if/when we're heading to London, I'll have to change this policy...) The reason is that so many people I know have experienced severe delays, and lost luggage when traveling through Heathrow. I just do not want to risk it, and usually there are other options.

On the other hand, I love Keflavik, the main airport in Iceland. I think it's a perfect airport when traveling with kids. The main reason is that it's a small airport, so getting from one gate to another, even when you have to go through security and immigration, is usually a breeze. The security people are friendly, the airport itself is nice and new-ish, and it just has a pleasant vibe to it. My second favorite airport is Schiphol in Amsterdam.

Flying out of Vancouver to Stockholm, I occasionally end up having to choose between fairly similarly priced flights going through Schiphol (with KLM), or Frankfurt (with Lufthansa). If price is not an issue, I'd always pick the flight through Schiphol, because I've found it to be a nicer airport (with nicer security people for example) that is also more kid-friendly than Frankfurt.

5. On-board service
Are meals free or do you have to pay? Does the airline offer kids' meals? Can you bring a stroller or car seat on board? Does the airline have cots for infants? These are the kinds of on board services you might want to take into consideration when choosing a flight. Personally, I'm not going to turn down a flight that seems otherwise good because they don't offer free meals, for example. But back when my kids were babies, I would have taken some of these services a bit more into consideration.

You can find more information about the various services offered by different airlines on my airline resources page.

6. Sticking with one airline for your entire trip, or not
If you are catching several flights to get to your destination, it can be a definite plus if they are all with the same airline. In case of flight delays or cancellations that cause you to miss a connecting flight, it is usually a lot easier to get help with getting your family on another flight if you are dealing with one airline.

For example, on our most recent trip to Sweden, a delayed KLM flight caused us to miss our connecting SAS flight from Stockholm to SkellefteƄ. SAS basically told us we were out of luck: they would not just re-book us on another flight, and we'd have to pay full price for a set of new tickets.

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