The grizzly toddler in row eight isn't enjoying his flight. He was quiet and happy until now but his patience has run out and he's begun telling the world just that. Passengers sitting near him must wish they weren't. I know how they feel. I used to be one of them. But now I'm one of the aforementioned toddler's parents and the shoe is on the other foot.
Most of my travel has been done with just a backpack and a Lonely Planet for company. But three years ago I met a man, had a baby, married and acquired a stepson, in quick succession. This is our first overseas trip together and, because I've often done my best to avoid sitting next to kids on flights, I've been worried for weeks about how I'd cope.
As any parent will know, travelling with a child is vastly different to going it alone. Packing, entertainment or coping with changes in routine can have everyone tearing their hair out before leaving home. But for me, the excitement of being on the road again, if only to Sydney, outweighed the potential problems. Until it came time to pack, that is.
A lifetime spent struggling to pack lightly for solo travel made doing so for four people a nightmare. Clothes were sorted into piles, looked over, put away, washed, packed and so on until the suitcases would close. And that was without all the space-consuming baby paraphernalia. We left most of this behind, knowing everything would be available across the ditch and we needed only enough for the flight and first day or two. This paid off later when negotiating public transport with the kids; their gear and a pushchair required more hands than we had.
The kids were upbeat en route to the airport, retaining their good moods even after the flight was delayed. The infant fell asleep on cue, a video game kept his brother happy and all was calm, even after their father owned up to a fear of flying.
On board, the eldest, already a seasoned traveller, kept himself entertained while the infant was absorbed in a movie and didn't notice take-off . He laughed throughout the landing, loving the feel and sound of the wheels hitting the runway. But the part in between was not so easy. Somewhere over the Tasman the grizzling started, as did the dirty looks from fellow passengers. I ignored them.
In a pre-departure survey of friends experienced in flying with children, coping advice ranged from taking a portable DVD player to giving the infant a mild sedative. All valuable suggestions, but the latter seemed best left as a last resort. Instead we tried every trick in the book to keep him happy, eventually giving in to food treats and his dummy. Never again will I disapprove of parents who use food as a bribery tool. Luckily, the cabin crew was attentive and the plane barely half full, allowing us to spread out. Still, adult tempers flared and I was glad the flight was short. We tumbled into arrivals before a real fight ensued.
The two-hour time difference between New Zealand and Sydney had a huge impact. The infant, used to waking at 6.30am, woke two hours earlier. He'd adjusted by week two, but until then it was a struggle to rise when he did. The only consolation was his grandparents being on hand as willing babysitters when it all got too much.
Sightseeing trips with kids, I discovered, are a major undertaking. It can take a couple of hours just to get out of the house. Consecutive days out were too much for the kids, so we adopted a routine of outings on alternate days. The other days were largely spent playing cricket and soccer in parks close to home, and this also kept the adults sane.
When we did head out there was no shortage of options. Like any big city, Sydney has a vast array of family-friendly activities. Day two found us on Manly's Shelly Beach, a bustling family spot with plenty of seaweed for the kids to throw once they tired of the water dragons lazing in the sun along the promenade. On other days, a Lego exhibition at the town hall, toys galore at Parklea Markets and animals at Featherdale Wildlife Park thrilled the little ones. Night-time drives to check out the spectacular Christmas scenes many of our neighbours proudly displayed around their houses were also popular.
The delight on the kids' faces at all these new sights made the effort to get there worth it. I'm already thinking about where we'll go next.
Packing tips for families
* When it comes to nappies and other baby gear, take only what you need for the flight and the first day or two. You can stock up at your destination.
* Take plenty of toys and books for the trip. A good set of portable art supplies with crayons, markers and some paper can be helpful, as can any toy your children play with for hours at home. You could also put aside a couple of new toys in case of a meltdown.
* Airlines usually allow young families to board first. A good idea is to send one parent on with the bags while the other stays at the boarding gate for as long as possible. That way the kids can run around and burn energy until the last minute.
* If your kids nap, use their schedules to your advantage. Try to leave an hour or so before their nap time. Most kids can entertain themselves for a little while, and once they fall asleep you'll have an hour or two of peace. No parent wants to deal with grizzly children and dirty looks from fellow passengers for an entire flight.
* If you can, choose your seats online before departure day. May out aisles and windows and think about where to sit. Do you want everyone in the same row or would you rather spread out if you can?
* If your fare doesn't include meals it's worth paying extra to have this option. Eating will keep the kids amused for a while. And children's meals often come with toys or stickers. If you don't want to pay extra take plenty of snacks - you'll need to buy these after passing through security.
* Keep the baby wipes handy; they're invaluable when travelling. You can use them to clean hands, faces and toilet seats.
* Take something for the kids to drink or chew on during take-off and landing to minimise the problem of sore ears.