Getting to the Gate – Gate Passes
The first time CR set out with Baby Flyer alone, it felt overwhelming all over again for both of us. I set out to see what I could do about helping her for as long as possible through the airport. Since you can’t go to the gate without clearing security, and you can’t clear security without being a ticket passenger, this proves to be a bit of a problem.
Luckily, there are a couple ways to work around it. The most standard way is to plan ahead and ask for a “gate pass.” A gate pass is basically a ticket that allows you to pass security, but not to actually take a flight. I recommend calling a few days before the flight to explain the situation, and then arriving early for the flight and asking again at check in. It will be at check in that they’ll actually be able to issue the pass. Ask politely, let them know it’s your partner/spouse’s first time flying alone with baby. If there are any other special circumstances that might weigh in your favor, go ahead and let them know these as well.
Remember that you will have to go through the full security process even though you’re not flying, so be prepared for that.
The other way is to purchase a ticket you don’t intend to use. Generally speaking, a ticket allows you to access the airport on ‘the day of travel.’ So, if you have a ticket for 5pm, you can arrive first thing in the morning, clear security, and hang out in the airport all day. (Not that I want to admit that I’ve done that….but I’ve done that)
This means if your family is flying, at say, 8am, you can book a ticket that departs at noon, and cancel it after you send them off safely, but well before ‘your’ flight is set to depart.
The key to doing this is to find a reasonable refundable flight. If you have airline miles, you can also book an award ticket for this purpose, as long as the fare rules say it is refundable as well. Be sure to call the airline to cancel well in advance of the time your ‘flight’ leaves, and if you can, book with a credit card that has good customer service, in the event you have to deny the charge. American Express, especially their charge cards, are good for this.
Most importantly, however, is to not exploit this process. I’ve only done it one time this year, because you don’t want the airline to see a pattern, especially if you’re a frequent flyer and have a mileage account at stake. A time or two per year likely won’t raise eyebrows, but I wouldn’t do much more than that. Asking for a gate pass is the safer option, though they’re not guaranteed to give you one.
Family Getaway: Chicago
Chicago is one of our favorite ‘weekend cities.’ For several years running, we’ve visited in the late fall for a night or two. We have a few traditions we try to keep up when we’re there, but mostly just enjoy the sights and architecture, and relax away from home.
This year was our first time going as a family of three. As would be expected, the experience was different than prior visits, but we had a blast!
It started with a great deal on our flights, just $71 per person from LAX-ORD round trip. For more on the flight deal, check out CT’s companion blog post at Cruising Altitude. We didn’t upgrade our seats, but on account of our status with American Airlines, we booked complimentary ‘main cabin extra’ seats in the bulkhead row.
Since the flights weren’t booked full in main cabin, we used the ‘infant block’ trick- two adults on the same reservation and one lap child, and ended up with the row to ourselves, which was very comfortable and convenient. Baby Flyer has just started to crawl and cruise, so it was nice to be able to let her roam around a bit in the row without disturbing other passengers.
Even with her new found mobility, she was a good travel citizen, and we kept her well occupied when she was awake.
We decided to rent a car for the weekend. We like National on account of our Executive membership, that allows us to pick from a range of upgraded cars. This weekend we chose a nice Buick Enclave, which was great to haul around the baby gear. In addition, the car seat installed easily, and it was comfortable to drive.
After looking around at the options, we booked two nights at The Palmer House, which is a Hilton property. It’s located right downtown in the loop, just a block or so from Millennium Park, which is one of our traditional destinations.
This hotel, as we learned, is the longest continually running hotel in the US. It is also, incidentally, the birthplace of…. the brownie. You learn something new every day. The property itself is impressive. It is 24 floors, and occupies nearly an entire block. The main lobby has a beautiful soaring atrium, with ornate columns, and an intricately painted ceiling.
What made our stay truly memorable, though, were the people at the hotel. It started with a check in agent who, when she realized that our reservations for adjoining rooms (one for us, and one for CR’s parents who had met us for the weekend) had been mixed up, and the rooms were on different floors entirely, went out of her way to accommodate us. Way out of her way. Long story short, we ended up spending the weekend in the expansive and luxurious penthouse suite. It’s easily the nicest hotel room (if you can even call it that) that I’ve stayed in. The accommodation included three bedrooms, four bathrooms, and expansive living areas that were easily double the size of our house!
Even without this windfall, I’d recommend this hotel if you’re looking to stay in a central location. It has a distinctly historic feel, and the service is above and beyond. We had complimentary breakfast due to my Hilton status in the executive lounge on the 23rd floor. Each morning, we were welcomed by our server Ernest, who kept things running smoothly and offered great service, and a few laughs. Baby Flyer especially enjoyed ‘talking’ with him.
The central location of this hotel puts you a block away from Millennium Park, which has one of the nicest, most expansive and creative playgrounds we’ve visited. The Maggie Daley park consists of numerous themed play spaces, with activities appropriate for kids of all ages. We were really impressed by the level of imagination and attention to detail in the design, and spent time there both days. Baby Flyer especially liked the swings, and climbing around the wooden boats in ‘The Harbor.’
We have three main traditions when we come to Chicago. The first is to take pictures at ‘The Bean’ in Millennium Park (Pictured at the top of this post). We have them from each trip, including some taken last year when we were expecting Baby Flyer.
The second is to go to ‘The Green Zebra‘ in West Town. The Green Zebra is an upscale vegetarian tapas restaurant that we’ve always had good meals at. We stumbled on it our first visit, and now make it a point to go back when we’re in town. The service this time was especially friendly and personal, and we all had a great time, especially Baby Flyer, who always enjoys a good window seat.
Our third stop is to spend some time in the Oak Park neighborhood. In the past we’ve done the Frank Lloyd Wright tours, but the last few trips we’ve just stopped by Lake Street to grab lunch and do a little shopping. Especially in the Fall, this area is charming. As an added bonus, it’s also half way back to the airport, so heading out here early on the day we flew out let us miss the traffic.
Overall, Chicago is a great family getaway. You can see and do plenty without having to go far from downtown, and if you don’t rent a car, many attractions are walkable. We look forward to getting back to Chicago in the future as a family and exploring even more of the city!
This post is part of Budget Traveler’s Sandbox’s #TravelPhotoThursday, #CityTripping at Wandermum, #WeekendTravelInspiration, and #FlyAwayFriday at Time Travel Blonde. Check out these linkups!
What is a Bassinet & How to Get One
One of the most asked about topics in baby travel is always, ‘What about a bassinet? How do I get one?’
First off, bassinets are only available on wide body (two aisle) aircraft. They are also an amenity that only applies to international flights. So, if you’re traveling domestically, you’ll need to either fly with baby on your lap, or purchase a seat for them.
For flights where bassinets are provided, the basic concept is that on certain planes there are bulkhead rows (the rows with a wall in front of them) that have fold-down shelves for installing removable bassinets for infants to sleep in on long flights. Some airlines may also provide infant ‘seats’ for these locations, which are much the same idea, but just resemble a light car seat, rather than the flat bassinet. Bassinets are provided after the plane is in flight, and collected before landing by the flight attendants.
Bassinets may not be used during takeoff and landing, and generally you will need to remove baby from the bassinet when the seatbelt sign is on.
Seats in the bassinet rows are extremely limited, and there may only be 2-4 available on any given flight. Further, the seats in these rows may be considered ‘premium’ and subject to extra fees. They also may have extra legroom due to there being no seat directly in front of them, and as such, may be in high demand by elite travelers.
Each airline handles the assignment of these seats differently. At the time of booking, I recommend calling the airline to inquire which rows and seats have bassinet capability. It’s obviously easiest if you can get assigned those seats from the start. Some airlines may ‘block’ these rows until the day of the flight, so they can accommodate lap infants and travelers with special needs. If this is the case, ask when these seats are released, and how they can be assigned. It’s a good idea to get to the airport early to check in, since this is likely when you can get a bassinet confirmed. On a few airlines there may be a small charge for the bassinet itself.
American: Bassinets are available on a first come, first serve basis at the gate for travel only on 777-200, 767-300, 777-300 and 787 aircraft. Bassinets are not available in First and Business class cabins.
United: Bassinets are large enough to hold an infant weighing 22 pounds (10 kg) or less. A limited number of bassinets are available for use, free of charge, on international aircraft only. Bassinets are available for customers traveling international segments in United BusinessFirst® or United Polaris business class on select 757, 767, 777 and 787 aircraft and in United Economy® on 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 aircraft. Bassinets are not available for customers traveling in United Global First℠, United Polaris first class, United First® or United Business® at this time.
Delta: Onboard bassinets, also known as SkyCots, are available free of charge for passengers assigned to a bulkhead seat on equipped aircraft for some international flights. SkyCots can be requested by contacting Reservations before arriving at the airport and then speaking with the gate agent at the boarding gate, but cannot be guaranteed due to a limit of two SkyCots per aircraft and weight restrictions. Infants permitted to use a SkyCot must weigh 20 pounds or less and be no longer than 26 inches in length.
Other domestic airlines that only fly single aisle aircraft (Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue,Frontier, etc) currently do not provide bassinets.
For more information about International (Non-US) Airlines, see the links below:
British Airways, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Qantas, Japan Airlines, LANTAM, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia, Singapore Airlines, Thai, Air New Zealand, ANA, Eva Air, Air France, KLM, Swiss, Finnair, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar
As you can see from looking at the various policies, the key to obtaining a bassinet seat is to ask, and then ask again, and then again. Annoying, yes, but on a long haul flight, having the option of a place to put baby down to sleep is worth it! It’s baby’s first ‘lie-flat seat!’
Airport Babywearing 101
When it comes to babywearing (wearing your baby in a wrap, sling, or carrier), there are plenty of options. While we don’t consider ourselves ‘babywearing’ experts by any means, over the past 9 months, we have gained quite a bit of experience with babywearing through the airport. Simply put, we LOVE it! It’s so convenient. BabyFlyer is safe and secure and we have both of our hands free to carry our bags, hand over tickets, or even have a bite to eat.
The first time we flew as a family of three, I honestly did not know what to expect. Part of me was excited, and the rest was a combination of anxious and nervous. As is the case with most of our flights cross country, we had an early departure out of LAX which meant for an even earlier wake up. We assumed BabyFlyer would fall back to sleep on the ride to the airport and would potentially (hopefully) continue to sleep as we transferred her into the carrier and navigated through the airport. However, that was not the case.
While she was peaceful the entire time, all the lights along the 405 (if you’re familiar with LA, you know how bright it is) caught her attention and she stayed awake the whole way there. Once we parked at the Parking Spot (we always do self-park, typically roof top), we slipped her into the carrier and she continued to be intrigued by all the lights on the shuttle ride to the airport. It wasn’t until a few minutes into our time at the Admirals Club that she fell asleep in the carrier.
You can babywear through most all of your travel experience, except when the plane is taxiing, taking off, and landing. Because of safety regulations, you will need to have the baby in your arms, or in a car seat if you’ve bought your baby their own seat.
So far, I’ve tried three different carriers: the Solly Wrap, the Sakura Bloom Ring Sling, and the Ergo 360. By far, I enjoy the Ergo 360 carrier the most for airport travel. While everyone is different, and what worked for BabyFlyer and I may not work for you and your little one, below are my two cents on each of the carriers.
Solly Wrap: Perhaps it was BabyFlyer’s early fussiness when being worn and once she was happy in them we missed the peak time to use this wrap, but we honestly never got into using it much.
Before BabyFlyer was born, I thought we were going to use this wrap a ton. We even practiced with a stuffed animal once. The material is lovely, super soft and very flexible. When your baby needs more head support, you can pull up part of it over the back of their head. In practice though, it always felt like she was going to slip out, and no matter how tight I put it on, it would gradually become looser and BabyFlyer would get lower and lower. Plus, I dont enjoy the feeling of my clothing being bunched up, and this wrap would always have a few too many wrinkles and my shirt wouldn’t fit how I liked it.
This wrap, and ones like it, come in many patterns and materials. It’s stylish, and easy to rave about this wrap. I wanted to love it, but based on my experience using it, I chose to not fly with it.
Sakura Bloom Ring Sling: We were given this sling by CT’s sister, and started using it once BabyFlyer was a little older and we were able to wear her in a hip carry. Both BabyFlyer and I loved this carrier. She loved that she was able to look in the direction we were going, and I loved how easy it was to use and cozy she felt in it. Once you know how to use it (I watched the videos on the Sakura Bloom YouTube station) it’s fairly simple and quick to take your baby in and out. You have to make sure you have the bottom band cinched fairly tight and pulled up high enough between your baby’s legs to get a safe and secure fit. The few times I didn’t have it tight enough, it felt like BabyFlyer was going to slip out of the bottom.
I flew with this carrier once, and while it was great through the airport and on the plane (you can use it to prop up your arm up while holding a sleeping baby and as a cover while nursing), I currently fly with our Ergo 360, because the metal on the ring sling makes it so you can’t wear it through security. Since BabyFlyer enjoys both carriers, it made sense to us to eliminate a step at security. We try to stream line the experience as much as possible.
Ergo 360 Carrier: Three words- we love it! Especially for traveling. It’s comfortable and BabyFlyer feels secure, especially when bending over to pick up luggage. When she was younger, we used the infant insert but now that she is older (9 months), we been using it without the insert for a while now. Since it doesn’t have any metal, we can wear her through security (we usually have TSA Pre-Check). Once we are in one of the airline clubs, we take her out and let her play for awhile before putting her back in for boarding. Since sometimes boarding is delayed and we always have a diaper bag with us and typically an additional small carry on, I tend to wear her in the ergo during boarding and take her out once we are on the plane.
The straps are padded and the back buckle helps make sure the straps stay on your shoulder. The back strap can be a bit tricky to buckle, but with a little practice it’s certainly doable. Everything about this carrier is adjustable which makes it great for people of different sizes to wear it. My brother in law who is 6’4” has worn it, as has CT who is 5’4”.
Even though the Ergo is bulkier than the ring sling, the benefit of getting through security more easily, and that it’s an all around good choice to have with you on vacation, has made it our favorite.
Overall, picking the right carrier for your travel can make a big difference. It’s also good to practice with whichever one you plan on using for flying at home before you go. Both you and your baby need to get used to putting it on and taking it off, and to get comfortable using it for extended periods of time. Once you get used to it, though, you won’t want to go back!
Wishing you Happy Travels & Smiling Babies!
Ten Tips for Easier Family Travel
1) Don’t panic.
Seriously. Travel with infants seems daunting as a rule. I’ve had many, many people visibly shudder when they think about having to take a baby on even a short flight. However, it’s just like any other challenge in learning how to be a parent- it can be accomplished with the right preparation, practice, and most importantly – attitude.
2) Leave it at the counter.
As a rule, you don’t need much in the airport or on the plane. Take advantage of most airlines’ generous baby gear checking policy. In the new world of ever increasing baggage fees, you can still check a stroller and a car seat for free! What’s even better- you can put other bulky items in the car seat bag or stroller bag, also for free. Think diapers, bulky toys, etc. We’ve found that on average, even with layovers in our itineraries, we don’t need the stroller or car seat in the airport while our baby is still small enough to be comfortably worn in a sling or carrier. The times we tried taking the stroller with us, it ended up just being used as a luggage cart, while we carried the baby anyway! So, ditch the extra gear at the counter and travel light.
3) Change is good.
Most people pack well for the baby on flights, but may forget about themselves. Put it this way- if baby really needs an emergency change of clothes mid-flight, you just might need one as well. Throw at least an extra shirt in your carry-on.
Be prepared for at least one in-flight diaper change on an average domestic flight. There are fold-down changers on every plane, but not necessarily in each restroom. Ask a flight attendant if in doubt. As everyone knows, there’s not much room in there, so just bring what you need for the change- not the whole diaper bag. There are also many products marketed with this in mind- like this one, that include the changing mat, and room for just a few items.
4) Timing is everything.
When possible, try to plan flights not only around your baby’s schedule, but also yours. Think about the logistics of the day and don’t set yourself up for failure. The overnight flight might sound appealing because baby may get some sleep- but you won’t! Being overtired yourself, or stressed running through an airport on a short layover, can be as bad or worse than a tired baby. Keep in mind that you’ll need to be at the airport well in advance of the flight time, so even a 9am flight can mean an early morning wake up.
5) Take the pressure off.
Babies’ ears can be bothered by the change in pressure in the cabin during take off and decent, especially on older planes where the pressurization systems may not be as calibrated. Feeding them, or offering a pacifier, will help them adjust and prevent the pressure from turning into pain. Sucking and/or drinking will also help them relax during what is usually the loudest part of the flight.
If your baby uses a pacifier, the last thing you want is for it to fall on the floor of an airplane. It will be dirty at best, and rolled off several rows away never to return at worst. We suggest getting a clip/leash like THIS one. Also useful, are pacifier ‘pouches’ for storage on the go, and wipes in case it does hit the ground. You can also use the wipes to clean the ‘touch surfaces’ of your seat on the plane when you board.
6) Seat selection.
Seat choice is overall a matter of personal preference, but here are a few hacks and guidelines to keep in mind when traveling with a child, especially a lap infant.
First off, I should say that as a matter of safety, if you can purchase a seat for your infant and install a car seat on the plane for them, it’s preferable to do this. It’s also generally more comfortable to have a place to put the baby down, and if you’re traveling with a partner, results in a row to yourselves. However, it goes without saying that air travel is expensive, and the ability to have your baby fly for free (or nearly free) for the first two years can’t be overlooked, and many times makes the difference between being to afford the trip or not.
That said, here are some things to think about when flying with a lap infant:
-Aisle or window? In general, it’s nice to be on the aisle in case you need to get up more than usual- to walk, soothe, or head to the bathroom for a diaper change. However, if you’re planning on feeding baby in flight and want more privacy, the window may be best, especially if you’re traveling with a partner who can take the seat next to you.
-Upgrades? If you can manage it, whether by cash, miles, or status, moving to a bigger or extra legroom seat can make a big difference in you comfort level. Keep in mind though that lap infants, and people traveling with children are not allowed in the emergency exit rows for safety reasons, so main cabin extra/premium economy or bulkhead seats are your best options in economy. If you can move to first or business class, that’s even better.
-Flying in 1st? Yes, babies are (with a very few exceptions on some foreign airlines) allowed in premium classes, and you have every right to sit with them there. Fellow premium travelers generally are fine with, and even complimentary of, a baby traveling with attentive parent(s). No one expects babies to be silent the whole flight, but it’s a good idea to plan ahead and have age appropriate toys and activities to use throughout the flight- small interesting toys, even new toys just for the trip are great.
-Seat choice hacks? There are a few. If you’re flying international on a wide-body plane, most airlines offer ‘bassinet’ rows in economy, which are non-exit bulkhead seats with fold down bassinets in front of them. Calling ahead, and/or asking at the check in counter and gate may get you assigned one of these. After takeoff, the flight attendant will provide a bassinet so you have a place for baby to sleep. It’s baby’s first ‘lie-flat seat!’
If you’re flying in the US as a party of 3 – 2 adults and a lap infant- find a row that’s empty and have the adults book the aisle and window seats, leaving the middle empty. On some airlines this automatically ‘infant blocks’ that seat, meaning it will be one of the last filled on the plane. If it’s a completely full flight at boarding, and the seat does get assigned, I promise you won’t have a hard time switching with that person for the aisle or window.
7) Stay active.
As motioned above, bringing a good selection of (space-efficient, quiet) toys is important. With older kids, new toys to be given throughout the flight to keep things interesting can be a hit. Boredom is the #1 cause of fussiness, generally more even than tiredness, since on average, babies sleep well on planes. It’s the wakeful and playful times that require the planning for. Some of our favorites for young ones have been soft ‘stuffable’ toys with lots of textures, like Freddie Firefly or Peekaboo Forest, and simple but entertaining Baby Paper. Also, think about packing a few snacks for them (if they’re eating yet), and you too!
8) Get the gear.
You really don’t need to invest in too many extras to travel with a baby. A well-packed diaper bag and some kind of carrier you probably already have will get you by just fine if you’re a once or twice a year traveler. However, if you’re going to be making it a habit to head to the airport or the car rental on a regular basis, here are some things we’ve found particularly useful:
A light, simple car seat. And I mean LIGHT and simple. The Cosco Scenera NEXT Convertible Car Seat is the current choice for travel. It makes a good second car seat as it’s reasonably priced, and only weighs in at just over 9lbs! It’s FAA approved, if you do end up bringing it on the plane, and installs fairly easily in rental cars (or, you know, taxi vans in Mexico). It does come with the straps necessary to use LATCH systems, but I generally just install it using the seatbelt. I suggest practicing installing it a few times first at home, just so you’re comfortable.
Speaking of car seats, think about getting a fairly sturdy padded, car seat cover for checking the seat. These will check for free, along with a stroller. It’s not necessary to invest in an expensive bag for this purpose. Getting one of the ‘one size fits most’ bags like the Zohzo Bag works well, since it will take a beating being checked over and over. We find that it’s fairly easy to carry with the light Cosco seat mentioned above, but if you’re going to be checking one of the heavier seats, I’d recommend getting a bag with wheels.
If you are planning on taking a car seat through the airport, we also recommend car seat rollers like the Brica System, or straps that attach your car seat to your rollaboard bag. These work great if you’re planning on checking the car seat at the gate (get a light ‘gate check’ bag for this to keep it clean), or if you’re going to be taking the car seat on board. You can use the rolling seat as an efficient stroller going through the airport.
As mentioned above, babywearing is a great idea to get through an airport. Keeps your hands free, and baby close. Look for carriers that don’t have metal (like the ergo baby, or a wrap) and you shouldn’t even have to take them out of the carrier when you go through security if you have TSA PreCheck, depending on the country. In Mexico we had to take her out, but in pre-check in the US, she gets to stay put.
9) Make the most of the layover.
There may be times when it makes the most sense to power through and take a longer nonstop flight, but it also may be more expensive, or impractical. Layovers can be a great way to break up a trip, and give time to get organized for the next segment. If you’ve been on the fence about getting a lounge membership, this might be the time to go ahead a do so. Lounges in the US provide comfortable spaces to hang out in a quieter setting, food and drinks, family bathrooms, and some even have kids’ rooms with toys, computer games, etc.
10) Make (good) memories.
Travel with babies doesn’t have to be all worry and stress. A well planned itinerary leaves time for fun too! Airlines generally are glad to see their youngest flyers, and are in the process of reviving traditional welcome gifts- many have ‘wings’ to hand out, and American offers a “Junior Aviator Logbook” that gets filled out by the flight crew. Many international airlines offer activity books, or other mementos for kids on their flights. In the ‘above and beyond’ category – if you find yourself taking a flight with Etihad or Gulf Air, they have debuted on-board ‘flight nanny’ services to help parents keep their kids happy in flight. Yes, this is really a thing!
We’re all so busy these days that a travel day can be some of the longest time you might spend as a family without the usual distractions. A little patience and planning ahead go a long way toward making it a memorable experience. Enjoy it!
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