Back in April, I wrote about taking my nine-month-old on a series of long-haul flights to New Zealand. I concluded that piece with the rather ominous sentence, “Toddlerhood is just around the corner, and I know that won’t be the same experience.” As it turns out, truer words were never spoken.
The genesis of this trip was a Twitter post from one of the airfare alert websites: Denver to Beijing on United Airlines. Cheap. Very Cheap. Heck, the miles alone were worth a substantial portion of the ticket – not to mention this trip would push me up to elite status with United. My wife and I had been considering visiting China to see some friends, but we hadn’t seriously thought about going this year. The availability of cheap tickets over Labor Day made us reconsider. Some quick discussions and a few clicks later it was settled – we were going to China for a week at the end of August. Does anyone else get that pit of the stomach feeling when buying plane tickets for a big trip?
The next decision to be made was whether to bring our fifteen-month-old son with us. Conventional wisdom seems to be that fifteen months is just about the worst possible age to fly – they are too old to sit still, but too young to pacify with electronics. AirlineReporter Associate Editor and fellow father Blaine Nickeson’s exact words were, “It would be AWFUL. I’d strongly recommend against it.” Other friends told me horror stories of their young toddlers on much shorter domestic flights. No one that I talked to had ever even considered taking their children of that age on long-haul international flights. I myself was firmly set against taking my son along. I’m still not sure how she did it, but my wife talked me into taking him with us. Here we go. Again.
Before we could travel to China, we needed to secure visas for all of us – my son included. Although the visa process was straightforward, I should note that it was very expensive. Further complicating matters was that unless you happen to be in a city with a Chinese consulate, you cannot send visa paperwork directly to the consulate. A visa agent must be hired to handle the paperwork on your behalf. Between the $140 per person visa, the visa agent fee, and FedEx shipping both ways, we paid nearly as much to get our visas as one of our tickets. China offers a free 72-hour visa for people transiting the country enroute to another country. This was not an option for us, but may be a good option for those who do not need to spend much time in China.
Off to Beijing
The alarm went off at 3:00 am the morning of our flight – I always end up wanting to go back in time and kick myself for booking 6:00 am flights. We had hoped after being woken up our son would quickly go back to sleep in his car seat – that didn’t happen. Instead, we were dealing with a wide-awake toddler at 3:45 am. Definitely not the way I had hoped to start what would be a very long day.
We got to the airport and were quickly checked in, but got stopped at TSA because of the milk we had brought for our son to drink. After doing some research, we had chosen not to buy any milk in China, relying instead on shelf-stable ultra-high-temperature (UHT) milk along with powder formula that we brought with us from home. Because UHT milk comes in opaque, non-reclosable containers, the TSA inspectors did not want to let us take it through security. After numerous explosive trace detection swabs and getting the checkpoint supervisor involved, we were eventually allowed to take it with us. However, a week later on our way home, we ended up having to throw the milk away at the the SFO TSA checkpoint.
The first leg of our journey was a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Denver to Washington Dulles airport. This flight was rough. Flying with a toddler is indeed very different than flying with a baby. My son was not too happy about flying at a time when he would normally be asleep and took every opportunity to let us know that. Milk cups were tossed, toys were thrown, and he refused to sit still. He finally fell asleep – 10 minutes before we landed at Dulles airport.
I had a sense of dread as we rushed through the Dulles airport to our next flight. The very short 45 minute connection did not help my mindset. We had just experienced what was probably the most challenging flight of my son’s life and we were in for 14 more hours of it. By the time we made the very long walk to the opposite end of concourse C/D, the flight to Beijing was already boarding. We rushed onto the plane – a United 777-200ER – and took our seats in row 25.
I had made a bit of a gamble in choosing our seats for this flight. Although my son was booked as a lap infant – a “luxury” we’ll only be able to take advantage of until he is 2 – we would much prefer him to have in his own seat. After watching the seating charts for our flight on other days, I realized that while regular economy almost always flies full, the Economy Plus section typically flies with a number of empty seats. I paid for Economy Plus window and aisle seats at the back of the section next to the lavatories, hoping the seat in the middle wouldn’t get filled. Fortunately, the gamble paid off, and we indeed had a empty seat in our row, easily justifying the price for the premium seats.
All things considered, the flight to Beijing went pretty well. On the flight, we got our first taste of something we would experience throughout the trip – in Chinese culture, people have a very different relationship with children in public than we, as Americans, are used to. Throughout the flight, lots of people wanted to interact with our son. When he was fussy and we were walking the aisles, strangers would pick him up and play with him. The older woman sitting behind us held him a couple of times and kept him entertained. It was a bit disconcerting for me to have strangers interacting with my child in this way, but at least I knew no one was going anywhere.
The flight was not without its challenges. Toddlers are toddlers after all. One of my son’s favorite games on the flight was, “throw everything within arm’s reach into the aisle so that daddy can fetch them.” I spent a fair amount of time pacing the aisles and lavatory areas trying to keep him calm. At one point, my son decided that he was hellbent on getting through the curtain and into the business class cabin – you and me both kid.
We arrived at the Beijing airport tired, but generally in good spirits. That quickly changed when I realized I had left my wallet on the plane. I wrote about my (positive!) experience getting it back last month. Still, the missing wallet was not the end of the world – my passport was safely tucked away elsewhere and my wife had other credit and ATM cards that we could use.
Our time in China was amazing, albeit a bit of a whirlwind. We saw the major sights in Beijing – the Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square, the Summer Palace and, of course, the Great Wall of China. We took the bullet train out to Shijiazhuang, a small-by-Chinese-standards city of 10 million where our friends live. We got to experience Chinese bureaucracy first-hand, waiting four hours to complete our mandatory foreigner registration.
The night before our flight home, we stayed at the Hilton Beijing Capital airport hotel, a five-minute shuttle ride from the airport. The morning of our flight, we decided to take the shuttle over to the terminal and get checked in so that we could avoid the long lines and go back and relax at the hotel prior to our flight.
Unfortunately when we got to the airport, we were told that United does not open their check-in counters until three hours prior to the flight. So we went back to the hotel and returned to the airport once the check-in counters had opened. Of course, by the time we got there, the line check in was 45 minutes long. After standing in that line, and the long security line (babies have to go through a special, longer line at this airport) we made it to the gate just in time for boarding.
Our flight back home routed through San Francisco on a United 747-400. We were in seats 59 B and C, which are in one of six rows without a middle seat at the very back of United’s 747. If you are flying with a lap infant, these are great seats to be in. It’s always nice not to have to force a stranger to sit next to your cantankerous child on a flight. We’ve also found that close proximity to the lavatories is helpful considering the many trips to the bathroom, the need to get up and walk around, and the continuous stream of people coming by to keep our kid entertained. These particular seats also have a gap between the window seat and the side of the fuselage which is a great place to store all the various things kids need during flights.
All things considered, the flight went really well, however when we arrived in San Francisco everyone was tired and cranky – parents included. We spent another brief layover rushing through immigration, customs, and security. We made it onto our flight back to Denver just in time for boarding. This flight was rough. In Beijing, it was now 1am, our son wanted to be asleep, and a lot of fussing and crying ensued. Others on our flight seemed horrified at the thought that we had just gotten off a 12-hour flight with this child. Yet again, he fell asleep 10 minutes before we landed in Denver.
Our Experience Flying With A Young Toddler
After flying nearly 50,000 miles with our son in the last fifteen months, we’ve gotten pretty used to flying with him. The best flights have been those that are daytime flights on whatever time zone he is currently adjusted to. Things can get pretty difficult when he needs to sleep. We have found that we really need to be scheduling flights with longer layovers – everything takes longer with a baby, and toddlers are actually even slower.
We always bring lots of entertainment options – toys, books, and videos are all good options at keeping him entertained, but ultimately nothing is as good as us interacting with him one-on-one. We also bring a lot of different kinds of snacks on board with us. Good snacks are themselves an activity that keeps him busy, and God help us all if he ever gets both tired and hungry at the same time on a flight.
My son definitely seems happier on widebodies over narrowbodies – the most difficult flights on this trip were our domestic connections. I suspect it’s because it’s easier to get up and walk around with him, more people are coming by and interacting with him, and it just feels less cramped. Either that or he is just a natural AvGeek by birth and just likes the big planes.
I have also realized that children are a universal language. I really feel that people are kinder, more friendly, and more accepting when kids are a common interest. As I mentioned before, people in China are incredibly excited to interact with children in public places. We had no real means of communication with most people we met, yet our interactions were universally happy and positive – a lot can be said with a just a smile. Our trip would not have been the same experience had my son not been present.
I’m also excited to raise my child as a world citizen. Although he will not remember the trips we have gone on this year, he will grow up knowing that he has been to all these places. If I have my way, my son will grow up traveling and will have a solid worldview to go with it – at least that’s my hope.
So, flying with a 15-month old? It’s not always a walk in the park. Is it worth it? I think so. Am I looking forward to the day I can put a video on and let him entertain himself for a few hours at at time? Definitely.