This summer, our blog is going to delve deep into the subject of family travel. There are a few things I need to get off my chest. I’ve purposely avoided scouring the internet for similar commentary in order to avoid the influence of the many family travel pioneers before me.
Before kids, Monica and I would travel light, order drinks on the plane, linger in the sit-down airport restaurant during our layover and board the next flight just before they closed the doors. Now, we leave the house three hours before a two hour flight, and arrive in our destination in the same time-zone feeling like we just flew in from Dubai.
We took our son to Europe before having another child because we knew we didn’t want to make that trip with two kids. In fact, we didn’t bother to potty train him until after the trip because we knew it would be easier to just have him relieve himself in his pants than use the restroom during the times approved by the crew.
We all know that no one likes to sit near a crying baby on a plane, and you should know that the only thing worse than sitting near a crying baby is being the parent of that baby. When given the opportunity to choose our seats when our kids were babies, I would intentionally get the back rows – non-reclining – next to the bathroom aisle because when you fly with a baby, you want these seats. Here’s why:
- In the back row, no one can see who has the crying baby.
- When our baby craps its diaper, we can blame the bad smell on the restroom.
- No one behind us – fewer people to annoy.
Flying with kids is torture. Some airlines are better than others in terms of giving families the chance to board early, which is a double edged sword because you are then sitting in a confined space longer. My son has asked “are we there yet” when we haven’t even lifted off.
The big differences in family airline travel are with the airports themselves. We are very lucky to live in the Tampa area which has one of the country’s top 3 airports in every survey. When you approach security with a baby and a stroller in Tampa, the seas part. You are welcomed to the handicapped lane as if you’re a World War II liberator with shrapnel in your leg. In Tampa, they know that getting family’s through security quickly gets everyone through security quickly.
By contrast, the TSA at Los Angeles International looks at you like, “What are you doing here with those tiny helpless humans? What is that contraption with wheels?” And, bar-none, the absolute worst airport security system I’ve seen is in Cleveland, where I go to see doctors. Let’s talk about Cleveland Airport. They have 3 security lines. Each about 100 yards apart. The middle line is for TSA pre-check, meaning, the people who need the least scrutiny, have the least distance to navigate. Fine. Good for them. But when you find a long line at Gate C, they tell you, “No lines at Gate A.” Which every time I’ve been told that has been a total lie. Gate A is one of the levels of hell in Dante’s Inferno. They act like they weren’t expecting airline passengers at all. TSA is screaming at you to take off your shoes. They still do the liquids in zip-lock baggies like it’s 2007, which- I’m sorry – if I board with four or five nefarious friends, I can mix whatever volatile substances I want (great, now I’m on a watch-list). I once went through in a wheelchair after surgery, and the airport “helpers” didn’t even know where to go. I recently went through, alone, with only a backpack, and it was honestly like the people who designed their system have never been to another airport. It’s easier to drive to Akron and fly, frankly. Cleveland, I love your city, I do not like your airport.
For my family, travel has gotten even more tricky after my arteries started exploding. I’m not allowed to lift more than 35 pounds. I follow this rule to the utmost extreme, because you don’t have to warn me twice about the risk of “spontaneous rupture resulting in death.” We get some strange looks when my wife is struggling with our luggage while I stand by with a dumb look on my face. We are generally lugging enough snacks to feed our family for a month should we ditch on a desert island. And we have tablets, battery packs, headphone, crayons, action figures and other toys to fit any mood. Two kids, two more carry ons.
This talk of luggage brings me to a pet peeve. It pertains to picking up your checked luggage at the airport. Before you shake your head condescendingly and say, “I always carry on my luggage.” When they let me carry on clothing for 4 people, plus snacks, drinks, and car seats, I’ll stop checking bags too. When I have the privilege of flying alone, I’m struck by how liberated I feel, with just my little bag that fits under the seat. It feels sinful.
Anyway, picture yourself waiting for the luggage belt to start. When that thing cranks up, fellow passengers suddenly crowd the belt like they know their bag is going to be the first one off the plane. There is absolutely no way they are not aware that they are blocking access to the belt by people whose bags are actually there. Of course, I’m a Zen kind of guy – so this behavior shouldn’t bother me. But, for love of god, everyone take one giant step back until your bag shows up.
My best friend, we’ll call him Dan – because that’s his name – expresses his irritation at this scene more vocally. (He’s also an airline pilot, so he hates passengers.) Dan has two levels of speaking voice: “loud” and “why is he shouting?” Dan likes to stand there and make a remark like, “There should be a law against stepping up to the carousel until your bag is actually there.” People invariably turn and pretend to not be doing exactly what he’s pointing out, while I just smile and try to stand as if he was just my seat-mate on the plane and not the best man in my wedding.
As I mentioned, the only time we check bags is if we’re flying with the kids. To small children, a luggage carousel is the greatest ride on the planet. I can’t believe there isn’t a playground ride based on this. Kids need this. And it’s a little-known fact that the metal plates and bearings in a luggage carousel are lubricated by the severed fingers of toddlers. True. Look it up.
By the time my son turned 7, we no longer had to worry that he would mistake the platform for a ride. In fact, he became our little reconnaissance man, watching out for our bags… while crowding the belt to the odd disdain of bystanders also crowding the belt. And once, he paid a price for his enthusiasm. Perhaps the first time we’d flown to Atlanta without immediately getting on another plane, our son exuberantly spotted our big green, thrift-store duffel bag, and waited patiently for it to reach him. Something to know about children is that their peripheral vision is not fully developed. In fact, as far as they are concerned, nothing that isn’t in their frontal cone of sight even exists.
As my son reached for our bag, a young guy (also suffering from lack of spacial awareness) pulled a rolling suitcase off the belt. As the bag lurched free from neighboring luggage, my son was hit – full force – in the face – by a 30 lb suitcase. Blood-curdling (aka REAL) cries pierced the magnolia perfumed Southern air. Our son crumbled in agony as a hundred pairs of eyes watched the mortified young man decide whether to attend to the injured, apologize to the parents, or just simply run.
It’s a circus just loading up the car and taking the kids to the grocery store, much less across the country. So next time you get on a plane, be kind to the flying families. Offer them a reassuring smile. They didn’t leave home thinking that getting hit in the face with a suitcase was a possibility. Chances are, one of the parents is contemplating a last minute one-way ticket to a different city. Even Cleveland.