Saturday, 2 February 2019

Long haul with a three year old

In August, E and I took our long-anticipated trip back to the UK, with a stopover in Singapore each way.  Here’s how we got on!
Flights NZ to Singapore

With all my planning for the long haul flights, I’d completely overlooked the fact that first we had to get from Wellington to Auckland, pretty late at night by E’s standards (he has a regular 7-7.30 bedtime and is not a child who copes well with late nights).  This first flight, an hour’s hop, was at 8.45pm. While the adrenaline of being at the airport got him through the first part, once we were on to the flight he wasn’t a happy boy due to tiredness – and my child is LOUD. While he’s usually well behaved on flights, and understands the seatbelt rules, he really didn’t want to stay put at all so it was quite a job to convince him to keep seated.  He calmed down soon enough, and luckily, while we checked our bags straight through from Wellington to Singapore, we could check the stroller to Auckland then re-check it at the gate.

We hopped on the free inter-terminal transfer bus at Auckland, went straight through security then I got him in his PJs, handed him a snack and strapped him in to his stroller for the walk to the gate. He was asleep in minutes.  He doesn’t usually use his stroller in ‘real life’ anymore (at this stage he was 3 years 9 months), so much so that I’d already debated not taking it, but just an hour into the trip I was so grateful that I’d decided to take it. I think he’d have slept all the way on to the flight had I not forgotten that we’d need our passports as well as our boarding passes – I was carrying him by this stage and had to put him down.

For the Auckland – Singapore flight we were with Air New Zealand, and had booked a Skycouch, basically a set of three seats that transform flat like a couch, or bed.. E was still quite grumpy for takeoff and his meal, but once the seat had been converted to the couch/bed, he was able to lie down and had about 7 hours sleep, a real achievement on an overnight flight – even I got a couple of hours (unheard of). I would recommend the Skycouch for anyone travelling alone with a small child, but that’s it – once the child got any bigger, or if there was another adult there, it would definitely be too small for comfort, and would feel like a waste of money.  I found the staff quite abrupt and rude on this flight too, in contrast to the usual Air New Zealand helpfulness. The Dreamliner we were on was new, clean and smart.

Singapore stopover

As we had just short of 24 hours in Singapore, I’d booked us into the Crowne Plaza in Singapore Airport.  It is incredibly convenient, located in Terminal 3 of Changi Airport and well signposted, just a few minutes’ walk from customs.  We’d arrived early in the morning so our room wasn’t ready yet – instead we headed up to the pool. This was the one downside to the hotel – the pool was icy cold, even in the Singapore heat, and wasn’t much fun to hang out in. After a short swim we gave up and went for a wander round the airport. Changi is a perfect location for a stop off with a pre-schooler; there’s so much to occupy them, from riding the ‘magic train’ (the electric train that runs between terminals) to the photo opportunities to the shops. We then headed back to the hotel, grabbed a late breakfast buffet as an early lunch, then checked into our room and crashed out.  The room was great, luxurious for an airport hotel, with a beautifully deep bath and very comfortable bed. I forced us up and out in the afternoon just to try to keep on Singapore time, bribing Eli with Mcdonalds from the airport terminal for tea to get him out.

As our next flight was leaving at 2am, I bathed E and put him in PJs before checking our luggage in early - around 8pm Singapore time, another real bonus of staying right there at the airport .  After a couple of walks round the airport in his buggy he was asleep again (and once more I was grateful I’d brought it); we both then got some more sleep in our hotel room before getting up to go through for the next flight.

I’d absolutely recommend the Crowne Plaza for short stopovers.  Any longer than, say, 24 hours and I’d get frustrated with the cold pool and not being closer to the city, but for a short, stretch-your-legs and get-some-sleep stop, it was the perfect location.

Singapore-Manchester flight

I’m going to say it right from the start: this was a GREAT flight, and easily the best of the whole trip. The plane was new and clean, we got three seats for just the two of us, and the staff was incredible.  It was my first experience of Singapore Airlines, but purely based on this flight I’d be happy to never fly with anyone else again.

Once E had woken up (he slept for another five hours but there was still seven to go when he woke up, which was slightly worrying despite the arsenal of distractions in my backpack for him), we loved the snacks available in the galley kitchen, and the way the cabin crew looked delighted to see us every time we walked up there, even though they couldn't possibly have been! The food was great, and the entertainment systems worked well with lots of choice.  E didn’t find much on there that he wanted to watch but I think that’s more his temperament than a fault of the system. He was given free rein of the iPad but even then his attention span was limited, to my dismay. We did lots of colouring – and special mention goes to the Water Wow books, magic colouring using a water-filled pen which is genius.

A great flight, almost enjoyable which is no mean feat flying long haul with a three year old.

Manchester Airport

We were down to earth with a bump at Manchester Airport. I’m not sure what has happened to it in the last 10 years or so but it’s gone incredibly downhill; it’s unwelcoming, unclean, unfriendly and tough to navigate through.  Especially following on from the amazing Changi airport and the great flight we’d arrived on.

The immigration agent asked my relationship to E (we have different surnames), then wanted proof. Luckily I’d thought ahead and had both copies of his birth certificate, plus a witnessed letter from Andy (my husband and E’s father) attesting that he was aware I was taking him out of the country by myself.  The guy still wasn’t happy – he seemed to have his nose out of joint that I’d pre-empted these questions, and warned me to keep it with my passport next time (just for information, this is not necessary and not a requirement but an argument with immigration is not an argument I’m prepared to have). Next, we needed two pound coins for the luggage trolley which angered me so much – which non-national arriving in the UK would have two pound coins? The card machine was broken, so that wasn’t an option.  Just as I was standing with two suitcases, two hand luggage bags, a buggy and a tired three year old, wondering how on earth I could carry it through, a kind family I’d spoken to in the passport queue took pity on me and gave me the coins. I could have cried with gratitude and tiredness, and sheer anger at Manchester Airport. Thank goodness our family were waiting on the other side of the doors, and seeing E break into a run when he saw Grandma was worth all the hassle.

Top tips
1.    Include late night transfers in your planning - it's not just the long haul flights you need to worry
2.    Check stroller only through as far as each airport you are transferring through - you might be
grateful to have it in between connecting flights
3.    Take a stroller even if your child is borderline too old for it - I've realised it's definitely better to
have it and risk not using it than vice versa
4.    Take a letter for immigration if you are travelling by yourself with a child. I used this template, and
had it witnessed by a friend who is a solicitor.
5.    Skycouch is potentially great, and you could get more sleep than usual, but only if you are
travelling with a small child. If you're alone you'd be better upgrading to premium economy with
the money; if you're with anyone bigger than a small child it will just be a waste of money.
6.    Book early check in at your hotel if you are due to arrive early in the morning
7.    Drop luggage off early if you are staying at Changi airport, then you can get longer sleep before
going for your flight.
8.    Take pound coins for Manchester airport - I'm stockpiling already for our next visit!