Waiting for a delayed flight is bad. But with children in tow it can become a nightmare.
Approaching 20 million passengers will be climbing into planes at British airports this summer. For many the long-anticipated holiday will be the highlight of the summer. But regardless of when (or with whom) you travel, the risk of severe flight delays can never be discounted.

Every summer throws up its airport horror stories: last August for example, 2,000 people spent up to 24 hours stuck in Gatwick over one particularly bad weekend. Through the whole summer, one in five holiday flights were more than an hour late, according to the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority), though in the opinion of Chris Gordon, managing director of the Sunsail group, the situation is probably even worse at some airports. "You have about a 25 per cent chance of being delayed for over two hours at Gatwick," he reckons.

Delays are annoying enough when you're alone but just a couple of hours of delay can turn your holiday into a murderous ordeal when you are travelling with small children.

Friends of mine recently booked an expensive, upmarket family package to Sardinia this summer only to find themselves stuck on the tarmac for three hours in a plane full of screaming children. The toilets were filthy and the film being shown - Heaven Can Wait - was not riveting viewing for the under fives.

Likewise, what should have been a relaxing week at Club Med in Sicily this summer was ruined for me by delays on both inward and outward journeys. My three-year-old daughter was so fatigued by travelling on the way out, that she threw up on arrival and was cranky for the next 48 hours.

Travelling back was even worse. The airport was in total chaos. Our flight wasn't even displayed and no one could tell us anything about when or even if it was due to leave. We were waved through into the boarding lounge where we found that there was no bar or shop open to buy food or water and we just had to sit and wait on the dirty floor. This journey home obliterated many of the benefits of what had otherwise been an excellent family week.

Don't assume that this kind of problem is the tour operator's fault though. In fact operators are as much at the mercy of the charter companies as customers. Chris Gordon of Sunsail gives an example of the kinds of problem he faces: "Recently a group of our clients were flying to Pervesa in Greece. They checked in and we sent them through to the departure lounge after being told the flight was on time. Only then did the charter company suddenly give our flight to another operator's clients, leaving our clients to wait five hours for the next available plane. Given that they were in the departure lounge, we were unable to contact them."

Clearly then, no one is safe. There are, however, steps you can take to make the situation less stressful for all the family.

First of all, when booking, bear in mind that wherever you go in the Med this summer, you should put aside a full day to get there and another full day to get back. And don't assume that just because you choose a family specialist company they will have your travel arrangements under control - no one can do anything about flight delays so it's up to you to come prepared.

If you get delayed in the UK the scenario is not quite so bad as there are plenty of restaurants (my kids always enjoy the airport's soft play area and the leisurely lunches offered by Planet Hollywood when we are delayed at Gatwick). If you live more than an hour or two from your departing airport, it is worth booking into one of the many guesthouses or hotels near the airport, particularly if you have an early morning flight. Also look carefully at the length of transfer the other end - the shorter the better as a couple of hours in a bus can seem an eternity for a small child after they've been hanging around at an airport all day.

FAMILY STRESS: HOW TO AVOID IT

n Say no to night flights. Most children will be even worse at having to hang about if they haven't had a good night's sleep.

n Don't rush to the airport. On the journey home, insist that your rep checks your flight's progress before you get transferred to the airport - it's so much better to be stuck in your resort rather than marooned in a small airport with small children.

n Keep your hand-luggage carefully. Take enough supplies of mineral water and food, plus things to amuse the kids such as colouring books and small toys. Leave your swimming things in your hand luggage so that you can go for a last dip if you are delayed in the resort. Also pack each child a small blanket in your hand luggage as airplanes on night flights often run out.

n Put some money by. Save enough foreign currency to last your family for another day.

n Don't charge through. Once you've checked in, stay in the main part of the airport until you're really sure that your plane is there and getting ready for boarding.

n Don't make any promises. The "when will we be there?" chants will probably have started before you even reach the airport. Don't make things worse by telling the kids what time you're due to arrive or promising that they can go to the pool that afternoon. The chances are they won't.

n Think positive. Once you've resigned yourself and your family to a full day of travelling either end, try to make these days part of the holiday. Kids love to plane spot, so find yourself a good vantage spot to watch take offs and landings. Some of the bigger airports also have soft play areas.

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