Start 'em early! Author's son planespotting at SFO. Photo: David Delagarza

Start ’em early! Author’s son planespotting at SFO. Photo: David Delagarza

“That’s insane.”  That seemed to be the reaction most people, many of whom were seasoned fliers, had to our plan.  My wife and I had schemed it up over a year ago while she was pregnant with our first child.  We had always enjoyed traveling, and I had gotten into collecting miles and points when we found out that we would be adding a baby to the mix.  We didn’t want to stop traveling once the baby was born, so we booked one of the most ambitious itineraries we could think of – flying to New Zealand, with stopovers in Japan and Australia. And, yes, we would be taking the baby with us.

11 months prior to the trip, we had the miles saved up. We had accumulated enough to book the trip in business class (at least prior to the recent United Airlines MileagePlus devaluation.)  After diligently researching and waiting for availability to open up, I finally found a business class route that would work – at least until I saw the infant fare. United charges 10% of the cabin fare for lap infants on international flights.  For economy cabins, this can add up to a couple hundred dollars.  However, for the premium cabins, we were looking at paying nearly $1,000 each way.  Although I did briefly consider footing that bill, we decided to go in economy and use the extra miles to put our son in his own seat (when we could find the award space) and stay in some nicer hotels along the way.

Routing - Image: GCMapper

Routing – Image: www.gcmap.com

Our outbound itinerary ended up beginning with Denver to Tokyo Narita on United’s 787 Dreamliner.  We had a 20-hour overnight stopover before continuing onto Singapore aboard Singapore Airlines’ A380.  The final leg took us from Singapore to Christchurch, New Zealand on Singapore’s 777-220ER.   50 hours, four countries, and 14,000 miles just to get there.

Our return trip was a bit easier – Christchurch to Sydney on an Air New Zealand A320, followed by a 23-hour stopover in Sydney before continuing onto San Francisco on a United 747-400, connecting to Denver on a United A319.  The only hitch was that I was unable to find any kind of routing that made sense for the return trip once my son was born, so he was going to fly home as a lap infant.  It was sure to be quite the adventure.

In pajamas, ready for the long flight - Photo: David Delagarza

In pajamas, ready for the long flight – Photo: David Delagarza

Denver to Tokyo Narita on United’s Dreamliner

United eliminated early boarding for families with small children in 2012, but we certainly could have used it.  Between managing the baby, hauling the ample luggage we were carrying, and wrestling the car seat through the Dreamliner’s narrow aisles, we took a while to get into our seats and get situated.  Just getting my son’s car seat buckled into the window seat took several minutes   I felt that we were very much in the way and holding other passengers up the entire time.

Once we got situated in our seats (25 A/B/C – the last row of the forward economy cabin) I found they were actually surprisingly comfortable for economy seats.  At 6’1”, I am accustomed to having my knees jammed in the seat in front of me; this particular seat at least gave me several inches of room – a real life saver for such a long flight.

Being in the final row also has the benefit of being able to recline with impunity, not to mention the added benefit of the additional storage under our seats, which was key with a baby – they come with a lot of stuff.  SeatGuru lists these seats as questionable due to proximity to the lavatory – however as I soon discovered on this flight, this was actually a benefit when flying with a baby.

Snack time at FL390 - Photo: David Delagarza

Snack time at FL390 – Photo: David Delagarza

The 12-hour flight over to Tokyo was smooth; the Dreamliner was every bit as quiet as advertised, and my son cooperated surprisingly well.  He was entertained by the constant stream of people waiting for the lavatory and made a number of new friends on board.  We hit a bit of a snag on arrival into the Tokyo area, as severe weather (snow) had led to the temporary closure of Narita airport.

This led to a diversion to Haneda across town, followed by a long wait on the ground before finally flying back to Narita four hours behind schedule.  All in all, we spent 16 hours on the plane from the time we left Denver until we finally arrived at Narita.  At least it was a comfortable plane with good in-flight entertainment.

Some #AvGeek spotting at Narita - Photo: David Delagarza

Some #AvGeek spotting at Narita – Photo: David Delagarza

Onward to New Zealand on Singapore Air

After a somewhat jet lagged and restless night at the Narita Hilton, we headed back to the airport for our flight to Singapore. The boarding process with Singapore Airlines was a totally different experience than we are accustomed to. We were the first people to get on the plane. A flight attendant helped us carry our luggage, get the car seat installed, and got us hot water to warm my son’s bottle.  We were completely settled by the time anyone else boarded in our cabin.  After seeing how easy it could be, I really wonder why United abandoned early boarding for families, as it really did save everyone time.

Our seats for this flight were 73 A/C/D in the economy cabin at the back of the A380 upper deck.  This “mini cabin” was great – with fewer than 100 people in our section, it really felt like a much smaller plane.  The flight attendants were always close by, the food service was prompt (and tasty), and the lavatories were generally available – something I never really concerned myself with too much pre-baby.   After taking a bottle at takeoff, and some solid foods shortly thereafter, my son slept for much of the flight. The Singapore crew impressed us again by staggering meals between me and my wife (without being asked) so that one of us could handle the baby at all times. The seven-hour flight went by quickly and we arrived in Singapore at sunset.

First flight for both of us on the A380 - Photo: David Delagarza

First flight for both of us on the A380 – Photo: David Delagarza

After an all-too-short layover in Singapore, we boarded an SQ 777-200ER for our final leg into Christchurch.  This 10-hour ride was an overnight flight, and was the most challenging of the outbound legs for us.  Perhaps my son was tired of flying, maybe he couldn’t sleep because of jet lag, or maybe we just didn’t keep him well-fed enough, but I spent a good portion of the flight pacing the aisles trying to keep him calm. During several long periods with the seat belt sign on, there was not much we could do to calm him down while confined to our seats and, as the screaming ensued, I felt like I was “that” guy.

At one point, I found myself pacing the mid-section lavatory area with two other dads doing the same thing I was doing.  We exchanged some knowing nods, which made me feel a bit better.  My son finally nodded off, we managed to get some sleep, the flight eventually ended, and our vacation ultimately began.

Christchurch – Sydney – San Francisco – Denver

If this were about my actual vacation, I would probably fill up two or three full posts about our two weeks in New Zealand.  It’ll have to suffice to say it was an incredible trip that exceeded every expectation I had, and I cannot wait to go back.  But this is about my journey to and from my vacation, so I shall continue with the rest of the airline story…

In many ways, the return trip was much easier – “only” 20 hours of flying, only one long-haul flight, and 5,000 fewer miles.  However, for this trip, my son flew as a lap infant, which was a very different experience.

Our first leg home was Christchurch to Sydney on an Air New Zealand A320. This flight went really well.  My son ate well on takeoff and then slept about three out of the four hours we were in the air.  A well fed baby is a happy baby, indeed.

Air New Zealand's IFE system gets inspected - Photo: David Delagarza

Air New Zealand’s IFE system gets inspected – Photo: David Delagarza

Flying Air New Zealand was a great experience as well.  Like Singapore Airlines, we were the first on the plane with our baby, which reduced the overall stress level for everyone. The Hobbit-themed safety video was hilarious.  The AVOD system includes the ability to order drinks directly through the seatback television (the flight attendants loved that feature).  I wish flying were always so comfortable and easy.

We had 23-hour stopover in Australia, during which time we stayed at the Park Hyatt Sydney using the points we “saved” by not flying in a premium cabin.  The following day, our 14-hour transpacific flight back to the US was on an old United 747-400. Since we were back on United, we were back to boarding with everyone else.  Yet again, we were in everyone’s way getting situated.

For this flight, I had reserved bulkhead seats with an infant bassinet which was mounted to the bulkhead in front of us soon after take off.  Getting the bulkhead seats without paying for Economy Plus was a bit challenging, and required several calls to get worked out.  United’s 747s do not have AVOD in the economy seats and the IFE is played over flatscreen televisions mounted to the bulkheads.  I found sitting in the bulkhead seats to be like sitting in the front row of a movie theater – for 14 hours. Definitely not my favorite seats.

Bulkhead bassinet on United 747 - Photo: David Delagarza

The only lay-flat option you’ll find in Economy on a United 747 – Photo: David Delagarza

I had hoped that the bassinet would provide some relief from having a lap infant on a very long flight.  Unfortunately, our son being old enough to crawl and stand up, he would have none of it.  Try as we might, he refused to sleep (or even sit down) in the bassinet.  We ended up using the bassinet as storage and we held him on our laps for the duration of the flight.  For this particular flight, we would have done much better to reserve window and aisle seats toward the back of the plane and hope for an empty seat in the middle. The flight was not full, and many of these seats were indeed empty.

Getting my son to sleep on this flight was a challenge. About five hours of flight time went by, much of it frustratingly with the seat belt sign on, before he finally went to sleep.  I became very familiar with that 747, walking up and down the aisles with my son.  After fourteen hours, I was happy when this flight finally came to an end.

Final Thoughts

Long-haul flying with a baby is a different experience than I am accustomed to. Prior to the baby, I typically aimed to move fast in airports, carry on next to nothing, and pick a restful window seat far from the lavatory.  However for this trip, I found myself needing to do the exact opposite.

One of the things I was afraid of was raising the ire of other passengers on the flight.  I expected lots of glares and nasty looks – maybe even a rude comment or two.  However, my experience was the opposite – people actually were very understanding and extremely helpful.  On multiple occasions, other passengers insisted I go ahead of them into the lavatory to change my son’s diaper.

Some people offered to hold things for us as we struggled to manage our baby and all our luggage. Others helped us keep him entertained during the flights.  I’m sure some of our seatmates were not exactly thrilled about their 8-month-old neighbor, but everyone was exceptionally nice.

Father and son before the last long-haul segment - Photo: David Delagarza

Father and son before the last long-haul segment – Photo: David Delagarza

As parents who both work full-time, we have to pay someone to watch our baby for the majority of his waking hours.  The time we spend with him at home is typically filled with distractions that take our focus away from him – dishes need to be done, laundry needs to be washed, food needs to be cooked, and something always needs to be cleaned.

We have found that the actual one-on-one time we get to spend with our son is extremely limited and very precious. In this philosophy, the time we spent with our son on the flights was actually a good experience.  We were not distracted by anything else, and we had nothing to do but interact with our baby (especially on the AVOD-less 14-hour United 747 flight.) Sure, there were portions of the flights that were not so fun, and we did question our sanity several times.

However, our baby will only be this age for a limited time, and I am truly grateful I got to spend some quality time with him at 30,000 feet.  Toddlerhood is just around the corner, and I know that won’t be the same experience.

This story was written by David Delagarza (@davedlg) for AirlineReporter.

ASSOCIATE EDITOR - DENVER, CO. David is a civil engineer by training and trade, but his head is in the clouds. A licensed private pilot and skydiver, he grew up around airplanes and airports. He calls Colorado home, but travel is in his blood. You can find him sitting in coach with his wife and toddler on the way to their next great adventure. Email me at davedlg@airlinereporter.com

http://www.airlinereporter.com/author/davedlg/
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10 Comments
Jacob Choi

Can i just make a small amendment? SQ only has 777-200ERs and no LRs. Also, your baby looks adorable 🙂

Jacob –
Good eye! It was an ER, specifically a 777-220ER, not an LR – definitely no need for that kind of range on that route! Not sure how that LR slipped in there.

And thanks, I wholeheartedly agree, but I may be a bit biased.

very cute baby. i would imagine the jet-lag process taking place.

The outbound jet lag was surprisingly easy for all of us. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact we started off by flying way east to Tokyo (-8 hours) then flying back west to New Zealand (-4 hours). After one tired day and one good night’s sleep, we all felt great. On the other hand, when we got home, it took us a week to start feeling normal again.

Kudos to you for doing this David, with your young baby. He’s so cute, next to the A380!

I’m curious, how did you research available seats and “wait” for the availability to open up? Any tools you used or just United’s website?

Thanks! Searching for the award space involved lots of persistence on United’s website mostly. I searched for dates sooner than I was looking for to get an idea of when award space would open up and then looked around a lot once the ‘window’ opened for the time period I needed. I did set some specific alerts using ExpertFlyer, but none of those really panned out.

Brigette

Thanks for your article. I am originally American but live in Melbourne with my Australian husband. We are expecting and planning to fly back to Washington, DC next year for a visit with a 3-month old. I’ve never experienced the new United Dreamliner, but this now does the MEL-LAX route. The old 747 was a nightmare with no personal tvs and worse service than other available airlines so I generally tried to avoid the old planes. I had also heard that getting a bassinet was very hard to do. How did you accomplish this? Do you have any information on how the Dreamliner compares with bassinets to the 747s? Money-wise, purchasing a 3rd seat isn’t an option for us. Thanks for your help!

That’s a nice upgrade, going from the old 747-400 to a brand spankin new 787-9. Having flown long haul on both products, you’ll love the 787.

To get booked into the bassinet took some persistence. First thing you need to know – bassinet seats are bulkhead economy plus seats and UA does not block out these seats or reserve them in any way for parents. On the 787-9, the bassinets are located in seats 16ABC, 16DEF, 16JKL, and 27DEF. Check the seat map for your flight and if these seats are already reserved, you may be out of luck. It took me three phone calls to United before I got the bassinet location booked. The first two representatives held the line that I would have to pay for economy plus to the tune of about $150 per seat, but told me that a ‘bassinet had been requested’. This did not change our seat assignments! Finally, I called and talked to a representative who actually changed our seat assignments, without additional fee, to accommodate the bassinet request. Bottom line, call and don’t give up until you actually have a seat assignment in a bassinet location.

I don’t really have any information on the 787’s bassinets, as we were fortunate enough to have a seat booked for my son when we flew the 787. Obviously this is preferable to a bassinet as he slept much better in his car seat than in the bassinet.

Thanks so much for your advice. I booked our seats many months ago but our trip is finally almost here! After a long conversation with the United call centre person and their manager, I secured the seats w/o paying for economy plus! Now I realised that I have no idea what to bring for an inflight bassinet. Should I bring my soft travel bassinet to put in the airplane bassinet? (Valco Cocoon). Or do you just put babies directly in? Is there a mattress usually? Are there straps or a harness for them? Thanks!

Hi Bridgette – sorry I missed this a few weeks ago! Hopefully I’m still catching you in time for your trip. Working with UA definitely takes some persistence and, often, multiple calls, but you can usually find someone to help out eventually.
As far as the bassinet goes, it comes with a thin mattress pad, and has some straps to contain your baby (see this photo) You will likely want to bring some blankets to line it with. I wouldn’t worry about the straps much, as during turbulence you will be asked to hold your child in your lap and the bassinet must be uninstalled for takeoff and landing.
Have a great trip and let us know how it goes!

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