Direct flight, Non-stop flight, a Stopover or Layover with Family- Choosing the best option for YOU

Air travel makes the world more accessible and enables an ever-growing number of people to enjoy unique sights and experience diverse cultures. Getting to our chosen destination throws up so many options of how you route your journey. 

When making travel plans, you might wonder whether a stopover or layover with children is a good idea or not.  Breaking up a short-, mid- or long-haul flight with either a stopover or layover provides interesting options to make more of your trip. A non-stop flight certainly has its advantages, however, a layover gives the opportunity to get rid of pegged up energy, and a stopover may provide the opportunity for all sorts of great activities- even a quick city tour. 

The answer isn’t straightforward, as choosing between a non-stop flight, direct flight, a layover or a stopover depends on your travel preferences, as well as the temperament of your children. A few factors to consider when making this decision include cost, time, convenience, and overall trip experience, ie are you in it for the journey or the destination.

Family Flight Advisor the answer to all your questions about flying with kids baby toddler teen hanson-discussing stopovers and layovers with kids

There are several tips and tricks to managing each, so it is up to you to weigh the pros and cons and choose what is best for your family. Here we’ll discuss several tips flight routings, as well as help you to consider different factors in making your decision.

Direct vs Non-Stop flight- what’s the difference?

Firsty, to you and me a direct flight and a non-stop flight seems to be the same thing and in our daily language, these terms are often used interchangeably.  The airline industry, however, has a distinction between them: A direct flight is a flight with no change in flight number, but it may include one or more stops at an intermediate point(s). At these stops passengers may be allowed to disembark and embark or it may be just a technical stop for refuelling.

A non-stop flight is, as the name suggests, a flight with no stops between two airports- your point of origin and destination.

Family Flight Advisor- flying with kids, baby, toddler, teen

For example the Air New Zealand flight NZ2 from Auckland to London has a layover in Los Angeles; some passengers have their final destination in LA, while others carry on to London on the same plane.  Yet, all passengers disembark in LA for a 2 hour layover in LAX transit lounge. This is a direct flight, in aviation terms, but the flight search and booking engines display it as a layover flight. However, for this flight you won’t have to be concerned about missing your connection.

Stopover vs Layover- what’s the difference?

A long-haul trip can be broken up in a couple of ways:

When it comes to connecting flights, if a journey by plane is broken to change aircraft, this is called a layover or a connection. A layover (connection) lasts under 24-hours and can be as short as 30 minutes for domestic and international flights, where the flight stops to refuel and drop off passengers and pick up new ones.   

If a journey by plane is broken requiring a longer stay for the passengers, this is called a stopover.  A stopover is much longer, though, and lasts beyond 24-hours.  It often requires a stay in the location of the stop prior to continuing the journey to the final destination.

Is a Direct Flight better than Connecting Flights when Traveling with Kids? 

Now that we hopefully understand the differences between direct flights, non-stop flights and connecting flights and a stopover, we can weigh up the advantages of each:

More often than not, just considering the stress-point along a journey, a non-stop flight is the most practical for families with children:

1) You only have to pass through security, immigration, board and disembark, pick up luggage, and everything else, just once.  The fewer time you have to do each of these, the less chance of leaving something behind.

2) There is just one take-off and one landing to be concerned about the ears and equalising for your little ones, especially babies.

3) A non-stop (but even, to an extent, a direct flight) you eliminate missed connections because of any delays.  This is stress you really don’t need when you have more than 2 new seats to secure on the next available flight. 

4) Non-stop flights are more environmentally friendly: the highest emissions of a flight are during take off and landing. Once a plane reaches cruising altitude, it cruises along pretty efficiently.

5) You are only having to deal with one timezone change, instead of two or more.

Saying that, a stopover can provide you with amazing experiences in places that are just too far for a weekend break, but fit perfectly in to break up a long journey.

Pros and Cons of Stopovers and Layovers with Children:

A non-stop flight tends to provide a more stress-free experience, but there are some pros and cons to consider in going for a layover or stopover:

1. Cost of flights on non-stop vs connecting

Depending on your travel budget, the cost might be an important factor to consider.

Non-stop flights are usually more expensive than flights with connections, for long-haul. Connecting flights tend to be cheaper, because they offer both the airline and the passengers greater flexibility and the airlines are able to fill them to run more efficiently throughout the year.

TIP: Although, costs with stopovers and layovers can actually reduce the price of airfares, be sure to include the costs of hotels or any activities- even buying food and drink at the airport- which you might incur, when you are comparing actual costs.

2. Time spent on your journey vs at your destination

It rarely is anyone’s choice to spend more time in the transit portion of a journey: you are left with less sleep, possibly having to pass multiple customs checks, longer transits, stress over flight delays, and worries about checked-in baggage correctly being transferred to the connecting flight.

Do you need to maximise the time at your destination? Or can you make the journey part of the holiday?

A well-planned stopover can really add to your travel experience, even with kids and having to take a slower pace.

A stopover is a perfect way to get a flavour of a destination that you are a little uncertain of or don’t think it will give you enough to warrant a dedicated trip. It’s a sort of an appetiser or a dessert to your main meal. (If you fall in love, you can always come back for more.)

How much of the time your sacrifice of your vacation is really dependent on you.

Here’s some inspiration:

On a couple of recent trips we have opted to connect at Schipol Airport, Amsterdam and would recommend for other families as well:
3-4 hours: spend time at the Schipol Rijkmuseum, admiring the handful of paintings by masters; playing at the Science Musuem’s outpost,
4-5 hours- enjoy some decent Dutch shopping in the airport complex, having cleared immigration and customs. (You may need a visa, depending on your nationality.)
6 hours + – Hop on a train to Amsterdam or Utrecht (our favourite) and have a lovely couple of hours or day – there is something for everyone that will leave a lasting impression. We loved the Miffy Museum in Utrecht when we had an 8 hour layover and the Nemo Science Museum in Amsterdam to kill 6 hours waiting.

Monika Roozen, our editor

3. Comfort and time to relax and recharge

We’ve already touched on how going non-stop takes a lot of the stress out of flying by avoiding unnecessarily additional security checks, flight changes, delays and so on.

The option of a layover can be tempting for quite a few. It does depend on your family’s temperament: can’t imagine a 10-hour flight on a single plane? You have a very active toddler, who hates sleeping or watching cartoons?

A layover or a stopover will suit your family better. However long the layover is, you will get the chance to move around, get your heart-rate up (hopefully for the right reasons), stretch and perhaps even find some form of pampering.

Tip: choose a transit location where you can make the most of your transit time. For example, for a shorter connection (2-3 hours) find an airport with play areas, things to do at the airport (Singapore and Munich are well-known for the fun they offer) or for longer stopovers, go somewhere with the city easily accessible for a fun day trip or a nice hotel available.
Just imagine a nice, comfy bed to sleep flat in after a long-haul, when you know you still have another long-haul ahead of you all! 😉

4. Layover waiting time aka the dreaded connection time

This is perhaps to most difficult to balance: making sure you have enough time to get your connection without rushing, but not having so much time that you are all bored out of your wits.

Based on our experiences, I would recommend a minimum connection time of 2-3 hours with kids:

  • you won’t necessarily be the fastest off the plane,
  • you may have sleeping or very sleepy kids to carry or herd through the terminal (the more tired the more tantrums!)
  • you’ll have to have at least one toilet break
  • you’ll be navigating the terminal with probably more bags and kids than hands
  • you want to be at your nex gate early so you can take advantage of early family boarding

The time of day will matter (see below), as will how big and complex the airport is and anything over 3 hours you should have a plan for how to have fun.

TIP: Don’t forget to check out the airport lounges that you can have access to! If you’ve got 3 hours plus, this can be a great option and well worth the cost (depending on the facilities they offer.)

5. Choose your timings well to make the most of your little break

Not all layovers and stopovers are created equal!

A day-time 4-hour wait at the airport – with facilities, shops, and restaurants open, vibrant, lively atmosphere, natural light, even after a 12 hour red-eye, where you all barely slept -will be infinitely easier, than the same 4 hours at night at an airport. During the day you can enjoy a meal, pick up a bit of the lively vibe of the airport, stretch, shop

Even airport lounges aren’t all 24-hour access (and most will have a time-limit of 2-3 hours)

Saying that, some airports have wonderful cosy corners, where you can snuggle up for a bit of rest: Helsinki Airport has sleeping pods to hire, or lovely seating areas; Paris CDG has great facilities scattered through the airport, but you will need time (and a very good sense for navigation) to get to them; Amsterdam Schipol Airport’s family room is amazing.

7. Are all your flights on a single booking?

Booking all your flights on a single booking can turn out more expensive, but it will protect you against delays.

The benefit of booking the whole journey in a single booking:

  • You check your luggage in all the way (otherwise you have to clear immigration and customs to exit the terminal and go through the check-in, security and immigration process again.)
  • the airline has a duty to deliver you to your end destination, irrespective of delays;
  • any insurance claims are easier to deal with if, for some reason, you aren’t able to go or have break your journey.

For a layover, booked on separate tickets, leave plenty more time for transfer between your flights, especially if you are transferring terminals airports! It’s not unreasonable to leave yourself 6-8 hours if you are transitting internationally on separate tickets.

Two vitally important points to remember when routing with separate tickets for different legs of your journey.:

  1. Make sure you check visa requirements, whether they are applicable.
  2. Check the luggage allowances for each of the carriers you are taking. (They can vary significantly between airlines.)

7. Do you need to change airports?

Changing airports can be one of the most stressful things you can include on a trip, especially if you are unfamiliar with the location and have time pressure.

Often a need to change airport arises if you route part of your journey with a budget carrier. It can save you lots of money.

If you opt for this, seriously consider making an adventure out of it and scheduling in some sort of sightseeing, visiting (long-lost) family or friends nearby.

Tips for managing layovers with children

If you do choose a flight with a layover or stopover, here are a few tips to help create a more positive experience for you and your children.

How long do you have? How far is your next departure gate?

Some airports are huge and you will need your time to go between gates, pass through any security and immigration. Whatever the airport states, I tend to add 20% on for “child time”.

Here’s a bit about making queuing fun with kids.

If your connections are tight, head straight to your next gate. Once you are there, you can establish your “base”  near your connecting flight gate. Look for a space that is relatively uncrowded, where your children can spread out and play to make the most of the time you have, with one parent staying with bags and kids and the other having the opportunity to move around.
Keep an eye on boarding, so you can take advantage of early boarding for families with kids.

Explore the airport in tansit
Helsinki Airport- Schengen terminal

The transfer desk

You didn’t get an ideal seating arrangement? The transfer desks in the terminals can sometimes help troubleshoot, as they have a better overview of the check-ins at the time than when you originally checked in to your flight. It’s worth a try.

Important matters first

The most important are food, drink, toilet stop and exercise.

During your layover, take care of important matters: Use the washroom, visit the food court, grab some snacks, run around.

Keep yourself and your kids well hydrated and fed.  Pay special attention to hydration: While travelling, it’s easy for adults and kids to forget to drink enough. In order to avoid dehydration, have your kids sip on water during the layover.

TIP: Don’t be tempted by carbonated, caffeinated drinks as they aren’t as effective at rehydration, than water. [1]

Also, keep your kids well-fed in order to avoid meltdowns due to low blood sugar. Even if you pack snacks for layovers, you may want to budget for something more substantial to eat. Airport food courts usually have a variety of menu options, which may be more tempting for your kids than the airline food. Some airport restaurants may even offer free meals for kids.

TIP: Have a food holiday and give your kids a bit of leeway in what they can and cannot have. Eggs for dinner? A naked hamburger (just the meat patty from the burger)? …By all means, if it means that they have a decent meal that is going to keep them satiated for longer.

Explore the airport

Take frequent walks, if you are not sleeping. Adults can take turns, while one is stays to watch the carry-on bags. Walking great exercise, much needed after sitting in your airplane seat for many hours. Your kids will likely have difficulty sitting still any longer after a long flight too. So, moving around during your layover is always a good idea.

Airports, especially big international hubs, are in real competition to create a special expereince for transit passengers through their offerings.

TIP: You can make walking the terminal with your kids fun. Do a Frankenstein walk, gallop, skip, do a scavenger hunt or play “I Spy”.

Find the play areas

Playground areas at the airport can be a fun spot for your children. Many airports nowadays provide specially designed play spaces for kids.

For instance, within the United States, airports such as Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston feature cool play areas that kids can enjoy. International airports in Amsterdam, Helsinki, London Heathrow, Warsaw, and Sydney feature fun playgrounds for children as well.

Some airports such as the Vancouver International Airport and the San Francisco International Airport even have museums. The one in San Francisco includes a kids’ spot, while the one in Vancouver features a large collection of architecture and art.

TIP: Play areas are usually located outside the main airport areas and out of sight. To not miss the fun, you’ll have to look online or ask for an airport map.

Have fun!

Avoid boredom and transform the waiting time into a fun and entertaining experience: you can organize some games for your children. This can be a card game, a board game, or even an airport scavenger hunt game.

As an example, a scavenger hunt works well at the airport because it gets you moving around to find the listed objects. Aside from that, there are many other games that can be played at the airport, including I Spy, Bingo, the Alphabet Game, a race with obstacles and so on.

Deploy the digital babysitter

Maybe you limit the screen time for your kids at home, but while travelling, it is ok to not be so strict. A kid playing on a tablet will have fun, stay entertained, and let you rest. Having a tablet, or a smartphone with headphones, ready for each kid at the airport is certainly a good idea. When your children are tired and waiting, a game or movie will kill time much easier and in a much more contained environment.

TIP: Use dedicated children’s headphones to avoid hearing loss, especially in such a noisy environment, where the child might turn up the volume beyond healthy levels. (READ about: Choosing the right headphones for kids)

Clothes for travel and spares

It is always a good idea to have a set of pyjamas and a change of clothes packed in your carry-on bags. This can prove to be a big deal when it comes to making you and your kids more comfortable. Pyjamas are great for the kids to transition into “sleep time”. For example: You can change kids into PJs just before a night flight or at the airport for a longer layover.

A spare change of clothes or two will give you a piece of mind, both for dealing with spills and accidents as well as being a back-up, in case your luggage gets delayed.

An airport lounge can be bliss

Airport lounges can be a wonderful haven of quiet from the hustle and bustle of a busy terminal.

The advantage of a lounge is that there are snacks and drinks included in your entrance fee (whether you are using airline benefits, membership points or paying at entry). Some offer really good food, that works out more cost-effective than eating at the food court.

TIP: Just remember, that most people come here for a quiet retreat and maybe getting some reading or work done. If your kids have got rid of their pegged up energy, then an airport lounge can be a great place to kill some time.

Take a shower

A shower can be incredibly renewing for the tired parent (and sometimes the kids too). Depending on the airport you are connecting in you may find showers readily available to all passengers, in airport lounges ot provided by an in-terminal hotel.

TIP: Although lounges and hotels give you a towel to use, have a microcloth, pack-towel with you to allow you to comfortably take advantage of other shower facilities. Such a towel can also double up as a blanket or extra cushion on your flight.

Book a hotel room

If you and your kids have to deal with a long layover, booking a room at the airport hotel can make a big difference. You will be able to rest comfortably, take a shower and have a nap. This can help you and your kids arrive at the destination less tired and stressed after your air travel and hit the activities and sights more refreshed, with less of jetlag even.

Many airports do offer short-term, on-site accommodation options. Among them are included Guangzhou, Heathrow in London, Tegel in Berlin, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Bergamo in Italy, and Bandaranaike International Airport in Sri Lanka. Sometimes you need to take extra steps for layover accommodations, such as leaving the airport and finding transport.

TIP: when weighing up the different options, make sure to account for all costs and time involved.
For example, Some of the London “Heathrow airport ” hotels are off-site and can take as long as an hour to get to and from and they don’t even provide free transfer.

Have an adventure, explore the city

If your family has to deal with a long layover or stopover, you may consider getting out of the airport to explore the city.

A city break in a layover can be lots of fun.

There are usually direct, fast connections from airports to major cities. However, it is best to prepare in advance for such an adventure and know how far away the city or the attraction is located via public transport. Also, in the case of international travel, getting out of the airport may require having a transit visa.

TIP: You may choose to explore on your own, but booking a guide in advance is a great way to max out on the time you have available! We’ve found that some guides will even offer airport pick up.

Here’s an example of a layover with kids in Warsaw, by our editor, Monika

Some locations even encourage stopover tourism!

If you do plan to leave, check if the airport has a left-luggage facility. It is much easier to explore the city with your kids if you don’t have to carry luggage around.

Long layovers/layovers with free perks

If you have to endure a long layover with your kids, pick one with an airline that provides free perks. There are some companies that offer you free perks for layovers over a certain number of hours: You may receive a meal voucher for dinner, drop-off to the airport, shuttle pickup from the airport, free overnight accommodations, and more. These advantages could come in handy, especially if you travel with young children.

Airlines that offer layover benefits include (though check if the perk is boarding class-based)

  • Ethiopian Airlines,
  • Qatar Airlines,
  • Gulf Air,
  • Etihad Airlines,
  • Royal Jordanian,
  • Royal Air Maroc,
  • Emirates Airlines,
  • Hainan Airlines,
  • China Eastern Airlines,
  • China Southern Airlines,
  • Air China,
  • Xiamen Air,
  • Air Canada,
  • Kuwait Airlines
  • Turkish Airlines, and
  • SriLankan Airlines.

SHARE your hints and tips, your favourite and least favourite experiences below in the comments!

[1] Rehydration after Exercise with Common Beverages and Water González-Alonso, J.; Heaps, C.; Coyle, E. International Journal of Sports Medicine 1992; 13(05): 399 – 406 DOI: 10.1055/s-2007-1021288

Kerwin McKenzie

Rarely without his next flight booked, this ex-airline exec, turned travel writer is a public speaker in the travel industry and passionate about bringing information to his audience to make travel easier for everyone. A true expert on aircrafts, layouts and most things to do with flying.

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