Q&A: How to make light work of a long haul

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Q. We are planning a trip to see relatives on the West Coast of America, but are worried about taking our two-year-old toddler and five-month-old baby on a long-haul flight, and about dealing with the jet lag afterwards. How can we make the experience as painless as possible?

Q. We are planning a trip to see relatives on the West Coast of America, but are worried about taking our two-year-old toddler and five-month-old baby on a long-haul flight, and about dealing with the jet lag afterwards. How can we make the experience as painless as possible?

Rachel Pass, Kingston-upon-Thames

A. Time-zone changes, worries about deep-vein thrombosis and a cramped environment are quite enough to put adults off long-haul flights, let alone the prospect of having to deal with small children at the same time. But if you plan ahead, there's no need for the journey to turn into a nightmare.

First, don't pay more than you need. Check out what deals different airlines are offering, through a discount agency such as Quest Travel (0870 444 5552). Transatlantic flights offer highly competitive fares for adults, but the extra savings for youngsters are less generous. The company says that generally, two to 11-year-olds pay (or at least their parents pay) half or two-thirds of the adult fare - precise rules differ according to airlines, and also between seasons. Under-twos are charged a relatively nominal sum - perhaps a flat fee of around £35-£55, or 10 per cent of the adult fare, but they don't get their own seat.

In practice, airline staff will try to provide extra room for infants, but the only way to guarantee that is to buy a seat for them - or take advantage of the new deal through British Airways (0845 7733377, www.britishairways.com). The airline has recently introduced free toddler seats on some long-haul flights, which can be fixed to the bulkhead so that your child faces you, and can be adjusted from horizontal to upright. You have to book these in advance on a first-come, first-served basis.

Find out in advance if the airline has a children's menu, and ask if they will heat up milk or provide baby food for you. A friend who took a charter flight to Jamaica had a terrible time when the air crew refused to heat up a bottle for her, so it's worth making sure. BA offers a "Kids Eat First" scheme, whereby you get to feed them before you start on your own meal. American Airlines (0345 789789, www.aa.com) keeps jars of baby food on board for all flights.

Then there's the eight-hour time difference. Toddlers can find it harder to settle in a strange environment, so the best thing you can do is to stick as closely as possible to your normal routine. Restricting naps the day before to tire your children out may just result in them getting overtired and fractious, so you're probably better off just letting the toddler run around the airport (within reason) before the flight. Make sure as well that they don't have too many sugary sweets or other hyperactivity-inducing substances.

All airlines that fly from the UK to the US West Coast follow the same pattern: daytime flights outbound, overnight inbound. Having to keep your toddler occupied for hours on end can be a real pain - plan how to keep the toddler entertained. Some airlines offer "goodie bags" of children's toys and puzzles, but it's best not to rely on these, so buy something special in advance as a surprise for them to open on the plane.

Stickers, a new story book, or crayons and colouring book are all ideal. You might want to pack some snacks too, as the food is unlikely to come round immediately, and chewing and swallowing can help reduce the pressure on their ears during take-off and landing.

On the return overnight flight, sleep is likely to be less of an issue for the baby; if you pre-book a "sky cot" in conjunction with a bulkhead seat, then with a bit of luck your baby should go off to sleep as normal.

Jet lag can be a big problem. The time difference means that the day is stretched by one-third, with a lunchtime departure from the UK and mid-afternoon arrival at the Pacific. Your main aim should be to keep the children on the same cycle as you. Going west on the way out, this shouldn't be too bad. Keep them up longer than usual after the first day so that you all get on to the right time. Coming back may be worse, but at least you'll be in your own home when it hits.

Q. We're hoping to head for the south of France this July - specifically to a friend's home, which is near Montpellier. But with a girl aged seven and a boy of four, we're keen to avoid the summer nightmares of British airports or French motorways. I remember hearing something about a new high-speed rail line to Marseille - could that solve our problem?

Andrew Seymour, Glasgow

A. Your timing is perfect. On 10 June this year, the extension of the high-speed Paris-Sud Est line opens from a point near Valence all the way to Marseille, with a branch to Nîmes. The most formidable performance is on the run from the French capital to Marseille - "Three hours from Paris to Marseille is pretty amazing," says Brendan Fox, editor of the Thomas Cook European Timetable - but connections to Montpellier are improved too. The March edition of the timetable (price £9.50) previews a summer-holiday special train leaving London Waterloo each day shortly before 1.30pm, and arriving in Montpellier - after a change in Lille - a few minutes after 10pm. An early start from Glasgow on the first London-bound train should get you to Waterloo in time, enabling you to cover the whole 1,000-mile trip in a single day.

The big problem is booking the thing: Rail Europe Direct (08705 848 848, www.raileurope.co.uk) accepts bookings only two months before the date of return travel. If you need to confirm arrangements before then, you might just decide to get no-frills flights fixed up with Ryanair (08701 569 569, www.ryanair.com, from Prestwick airport via Stansted to Nîmes.

Send your family travel questions to S F Robinson, The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall,London E14 9RSO rcrusoe@independent.co.uk

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