Friday, November 30, 2012

Baby's First Flight

We're headed to Maui again on Sunday (weather permitting), so for this week's Flashback Friday I thought it would be fun share the story of Baby's first trip there in May and his first time ever flying on the airplane. Traveling with kiddos- a topic you may have noticed I've been avoiding. It's a tricky subject and something people can get very opinionated about. Don't believe me? Check out one of the numerous threads on FlyerTalk or if you dare, start one of your own asking whether or not you should bring your newborn, infant, toddler, or even teenager along in a premium cabin on an aircraft...go ahead, I dare you! Don't like unsolicited parenting advice and being judged? Yeah, neither do I, but that's pretty much what you sign up for when you decide to travel with children, and EVERYONE has an opinion on the matter.

Anyway, here it goes...this is our story. I'm not going to tell you what you should and shouldn't do when it comes to traveling with baby and raising your kids, I'm simply sharing our experience and what's worked for us, so far. I offer my advice in an attempt to be helpful, nothing more, so take it or leave it. There are good parents out there, and there are bad ones, then there's the rest of us who are just trying to get by, having really no idea what we signed up for, but somehow, someway, figuring it all out as we go along.

Baby's First Flight SMF-SFO

Tickets and Seat Assignments
At the time my husband and I were both Premier Golds with United and we prefer to travel in First Class, especially on domestic flights when it is free. We bought our no-status infant his own seat, so upgrades were one of the many things he was dependent on us to provide for him in his early young life. Knowing how companion upgrades work (or don't) on United we split the itinerary to better our chances- Adult 1 and baby on one record and Adult 2 on their own. For whatever reason United's system does not like upgrading groups of 3. Back in May, merger issues were still being figured out and among those issues were companions being automatically split upon check in. That happened to us, so instead of 2 records, we ended up with 3. My husband and I got upgraded to First Class, and the baby was left to fend for himself in Economy Plus.

First on the list
Ok, so obviously that's not how we left things. On our first flight it was a non-issue as there was no First Class on the United Express EMB-120 Brasilia but another issue arose when our infant carrier/rear facing car seat didn't quite fit on the small plane. We made it fit! We did not however leave the baby in it. You know that moment as a parent when you start out all idealistic and opinionated about things and then "stuff" happens and then all of a sudden you're like "whatever"...well, this was one of those moments. As a trained pilot, a seasoned frequent flier, and buy-baby-a-seat advocate I really didn't want to "lap-child" our son, but we didn't really have a choice. The weird angle at which we had to shove the infant carrier between the seats was beyond design specifications, therefore defeating it's purpose, so baby CJ's first flight was in his dad's arms. Luckily it was a short (and smooth) 45-minute trip from Sacramento to San Francisco.

My baby's first flight from San Francisco to Maui was in First Class. I had to wait until I was a teenager to enjoy that privilege; He was only 3 months old. Lucky guy! We installed his infant carrier in Row 6 next to the window and I sat in the aisle seat next to him. Dad sat in coach until after takeoff. Once we were at cruise altitude he joined us up front for a free meal and a Mai Tai, he held the baby, and we put the car seat in the closet that was conveniently located right next to us. I love the United 767. When nap time came, it was my turn to sit in coach. I hadn't been in the back of the bus on a flight to Hawaii in years, but this strange and unfamiliar place known as E+ wasn't bad at all. I watched part of a movie, read a magazine, and slept- all luxuries for any new mom.

On the return trip our itineraries were still a three-part mess, but a sympathetic gate agent helped us upgrade the baby. Again we found ourselves in Row 6 on a 767- those same seats next to the closet that no one else wanted. It turns out those are the best seats on the plane, especially if you are a nursing mom. No one in First Class wanted to switch with us and with the lone seat being on the other side of the cabin and a couple rows ahead, all three of us hung out there in the back for most of the flight.

Baby's First Time in Fight Class

CJ's first trip to LA brought him his first VDB (Voluntary Denied Boarding) opportunity, and after warming up to the idea of lap-childing once we did it SMF-SFO, I jumped at the opportunity to earn an easy $200. We sold the baby's seat. We also later applied for and received a refund for the unused portion of his ticket. Luckily, it was only a short 1 hour flight home; Three people crammed into two regional jet seats is not the way to go and something I wouldn't look forward to doing again, at least not for less than $293 ;).

The Gear
Traveling with kids equals traveling with stuff, lots of stuff. Our above referenced infant carrier/car seat was part of a Graco Quattro Tour Sport travel system. I'm not sure if our exact model (pictured above) is still in production, but Graco as well as other manufacturers offer many similar designs. There is a base that gets installed in the car, the infant carrier snaps into that, snaps into the stroller, and can also be used on it's own as a car seat without the base. The carrier/seat comes with you on the airplane, the stroller gets gate-checked (get your tags from the gate agent prior to boarding to avoid being a nuisance to other passengers) and the whole set-up is quick, easy and truly the way to go until your child grows out of it (which happened to us at around 6 months). We still use the stroller portion because of its very generous storage capacity and it has held up surprisingly well after numerous trips to the beach and miles and miles of long neighborhood walks pre-jogging-stroller-investment.

Next there is the diaper bag stocked with plenty of diapers, wipes, a change of clothes, pacifiers (you can never have too many), special wipes for the pacifiers in case they get "compromised", any medications you use to comfort and/or sedate your child, a blanket, and perhaps a small toy. At this age our little guy was more into people and faces than he was his toys, but if your child has a special stuffed animal or comfort item, it would be appropriate to bring that along. It turns out that contrary to popular belief, really young children don't really need that much to stay entertained, they're usually happy just to be with you, so enjoy your pre-iPad, pre-gameboy, pre-kindle/nook/every-other-electronic-gadget-under-the-sun days and use the time for bonding.

Now for a little TMI. That other black bag in the family picture- a Medela Freestyle and included accessories. Highly recommend; a bit pricey but worth every cent!

TSA and Other Travel Related Issues
TSA was a non-issue for us despite traveling with ice packs and quantities of liquids over 3 ounces. I wasn't forced to drink my own breastmilk, no one touched my me or my baby, and I didn't even have to opt out of the nude-o-scan like a normally do; we got to go through the old-school metal detector. If your collapsed stroller doesn't fit through the x-ray they can hand inspect it and if you want to bring any liquids over 3 ounces just put them in a baby bottle. The screeners will put the sealed container in a special machine to make sure it isn't hazardous and you're good to go. The 3+ ounces in the baby bottle technique hasn't been tested with any clear varieties of adult beverages (I was nursing at the time), but the thought did cross my mind. It's probably not worth the risk though in case alcohol sets off their machine, but there is no reason you couldn't use a baby bottle to bring some extra water or even a non-alcoholic mixer of choice along for yourself. Hydration is important.

Breastfeeding. Being honest, it was the worst 6 months of my life. It's time consuming, messy, often painful, but it's what's best for baby and that's what we did, even while traveling. For CJ's dining pleasure we brought along plenty of milk from the freezer stash at home, but that sure didn't help me out very much. See when you're nursing, going for long stretches of time without "relief" hurts...bad. Luckily in SFO there is a special family "comfort" lounge next to the bathrooms in the central part of terminal 3 that my little black bag and I were able to visit. On the way home, there was a nursery in T5 at LAX (in the ladies room across from  the escalators serving the tunnel to/from T6). It's a long walk to there from the United gates, but we didn't even make it that far. You know those aforementioned moments as parents where you feel really strongly about something, but then "stuff" happens and you're like "ok whatever, f*** it"? Well another one of those moments came at 35,000 feet on the way home from Maui. The something I felt strongly about was breastfeeding in public and the "stuff" was the intense pain I experienced from being engorged. The pain won. My little black bag and I weren't about to visit a not-so-sterile airplane lavatory, so without anyone else noticing, I snuck the baby under a blanket and he got to enjoy a warm meal off of mommy in the privacy of row 6- those glorious 2 seats in the back of First Class next to the closet that no one else wanted (and probably still don't want after it's been revealed what goes on there). There were only two other times I breastfed my son in public and both were at LAX, the second worse airport in America for nursing moms. In case you were wondering, America's worst airport, not just for breastfeeding, but in general, is EWR.

"Don't bug me, I'm eating"
As for any crying, screaming, or other behavioral issues, so far we haven't had any. Maybe we're just lucky, but after 11 flights and almost 12,000 miles, I'm proud to say my little guy is yet to make a sound aside from a coo or a giggle while on board an aircraft. Our strategy is to offer a bottle or binky during takeoff and landing to help him equalize the pressure in his ears. Ear pain is a major reason why kids cry on airplanes, and after years of observation, it is amazing how many people don't know that. Our pediatrician gave us a prescription for some ear numbing drops; I'd never heard of them before, and while we've never had to use them (or any other drugs), they stay in the diaper bag just in case. Be sure to ask your doctor, and if your little once isn't such a great traveler and you are open to the idea, you may also want to consult with him/her about off-label usage of a certain popular antihistamine that encourages "sleepy" time. We try and stick to a schedule as much a possible while traveling and so far that approach has worked out well for us. Obviously travel disrupts the "routine" that babies seem to love so much, but we still try our best to offer meals around the same time we would at home and encourage naps whenever possible. While I wouldn't go as far to say "never, ever" wake a sleeping baby, it's usually best not to disrupt them, even for meals. If they're passed out, just leave them.

CJ's first time in the ocean at Baby Beach

All said and done, the hassle or slight inconvenience of traveling with children is well worth it in my opinion. The picture above is my son getting dunked in the water at the same beach where I learned how to swim. It is so special getting to share that. I made four trips to Hawaii before I was a year old and have been going back and forth ever since. Our trip on Sunday will be CJ's 3rd time to Maui and there's still time left before his first birthday if he wants to tie the record. I was lucky enough to grow up between two states, Hawaii being one of them, and I have fond childhood memories of swimming in the warm ocean, eating poke, drinking POG, playing in the sand, and long days spent at the beach while the rest of the country was covered in snow. I can't wait to share all those experiences and more with him as he continues to grow.

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