Flying with young children is no easy feat. You’re stuck in cramped quarters for long periods on a schedule that’s only sometimes conducive to the family dynamic. That’s on top of the dreaded look you may inevitably get from some other passengers when you step on the plane with a little one.
So, when I wanted to take a trip from New York to Zambia in October with my 4-year-old, I was more than a little nervous about making the two-day journey. Fortunately, my fears were slightly thwarted when I realized I would be flying on two airlines — British Airways and Emirates — that were recently named the top child-friendly airlines.
After what turned out to be an overall pleasant experience, I realized that U.S. airlines could learn a thing or two from these airlines to make family travel a more positive experience.
Not everything that works on a long-haul international trip translates perfectly to domestic flying. However, here are some elements of the flights that I’d love to see from some of the U.S. airlines.
While we used a mix of Chase Ultimate Rewards points and cash to upgrade to business class on all our flights, which would have given us priority boarding regardless, families on both British Airways and Emirates were allowed to board even earlier than that. In fact, we were usually the first on board, along with the other families traveling.
Given that you have to get to the airport early these days anyway, getting out of the terminal and onto the plane is key in easing into the flight. My husband and I could get our son settled in his seat with snacks and entertainment before doing the shuffle around other boarding passengers.
It allowed some breathing room to retrieve various items from the overhead compartment needed during the flight without the anxiety of stopping the entire line of people trying to find their seats.
Family priority boarding is not only a potential time saver, it’s also an anxiety-reducing practice that all airlines should have for young families.
Loaner airport strollers
Although plenty of travel-friendly strollers can fit in the overhead bin of an airplane, sometimes you don’t want to travel with one. For example, since we were going on safari in Zambia, a stroller wasn’t necessary at the destination and was more of a pain to manage than it was really worth.
However, airports can be big and tough for getting your kid(s) and all their things through without a stroller of some sort. Emirates alleviates that problem by offering a complimentary stroller to use within the airport.
In the Dubai airport, there was an entire stand just past security filled with strollers you could use. I likely would have left my stroller behind if I had known this was an option. It’s an incredible offering, as you can let your child chill while cruising through the terminal and pass it off to the gate agent once you’re ready to board.
You can also secure one to reach baggage claim easily when landing.
Related: When to bring a stroller on a trip (and when to leave it behind)
Hearty kids’ meals
Airplane food isn’t often something to write home about. However, both British Airways and Emirates had dedicated kids’ menu options with simple foods they’ll actually eat. While my 4-year-old didn’t consume everything, there were enough options to keep his belly full.
Additionally, they always had snacks available to satisfy that in-between-meal toddler appetite. This was a marked difference from the one leg we flew with American Airlines, where for the one meal, I was told, “Sorry, they only have the adult food as an option.” My 4-year-old is a pretty good eater, but he wasn’t about to chow down on a beef and brie sandwich.
What’s more, when you preorder a kids’ meal on British Airways (which I did), there’s a “Feed Kids First” policy to ensure your child doesn’t have to wait very long for their meal. This means they’re settled eating by the time the adult food rolls around, which equals a more pleasant dining experience for the parents.
On Emirates, you’ll have the option of choosing a baby food offering by the organic brand Ella’s Kitchen for kids younger than 2 years.
Few things will get you through a long flight with a kid than bribing them with toys. Both airlines provided little packets filled with activities like coloring books and puzzles. In fact, the Emirates packet turned into an adorable duffle bag we used for the rest of the trip.
My son’s feeling of receiving a special gift made this offering so memorable. It turned the flight into an exciting adventure rather than an arduous one. When you can shift a toddler’s attitude to a more positive one, it makes for a better flight for all.
We were big fans of Emirates’ photo keepsake, too. A cabin crew member took onboard family photos with a Polaroid camera and placed them in a cardboard frame to give us and other traveling families. It was just another little experience that made the long-haul flight more fun.
Related: Your guide to flying with kids of every age
Extensive children’s programming
When traveling, we have no limits on screen time. So, flying on two airlines with extensive children’s programming to keep him entertained for hours was clutch.
My son was thrilled to watch endless amounts of “Paw Patrol” on Emirates and found a BBC cartoon “JoJo & Gran Gran” on British Airways that he watched repeatedly. Both airlines offered more than 100 children’s programming options, which were life savers for keeping a toddler entertained on such a long journey. It even allowed me time to watch the entire first season of an HBO series, which was a bonus.
Don’t underestimate the power of an airplane’s cameras and maps, either. My son loved toggling between the different views to see where we were flying over.
A children’s play area in the lounge
One of the perks of flying business class was that we had access to the British Airways Concorde Room in London for an outbound layover and Emirates’ massive business-class lounge in Dubai and London for return travel. While the British Airways lounge didn’t have a dedicated children’s area, it was roomy with large couches for my son to relax, plus restaurant-like service that ensured us he was well fed.
Both of Emirates’ lounges we visited went above and beyond for children with a separate, well-stocked play area.
In Dubai, there was a huge room for kids to play games and run around in. The same was true in London, where the children’s play area had ride-on suitcases, a TV playing kids’ shows, “Peppa Pig” toys, a seating area shaped like a double-decker bus and two stations with interactive iPad programming. My son even made a friend during our six-hour layover, and they had a dance party in the room without disturbing other business-class passengers.
Related: The best US airport lounges to keep the kids happy
Welcoming and helpful service
At the end of the day, what makes the biggest difference is the attitude of the cabin crew toward kids and families. There was a genuine sense of feeling welcome as a family on British Airways and Emirates, and the crew was always there to help.
A flight attendant named Victor came up to us on our first leg with British Airways and said, “If there’s anything you need for your family, please let me know.” That offering was tested when my son started to cry a bit in the middle of the night. Instead of being made to feel bad that I would wake other passengers, Victor came over and again offered to help however he could.
Emirates provided a similar level of service, with multiple crew members addressing me, my husband and our son directly when we first boarded. Additionally, they spoke directly to my son, asking him questions about his trip and getting him excited to fly.
A woman walked around with a bag of activities that she handed out to the kids on board as well. I even noticed one flight attendant warming up a milk bottle for a family with an infant. Also, for most of the flights, the crew was willing to serve my son’s food whenever was best for him, even if it wasn’t during the prescribed mealtime.
This warm welcome and continued support throughout our flights made my husband and I feel like we could breathe, knowing the crew had our backs if my son had a mid-flight meltdown. Thankfully, besides a few moments of tears here and there, all went smoothly, which was probably aided by all the things these airlines had done to set traveling families up for success.