When I won’t give up my seat on a plane to a stranger’s child

It’s not all that uncommon for me to give up my assigned seat to a stranger on a plane. I do it for couples, not just for children separated from mothers. I try to take actions that make the world a slightly better place.

I’ve been that mom flying alone with her kids, feeling more than a little desperate to keep them close to me. I’ve carefully selected seats only to have my plans disrupted by the airline when an equipment change erases all the previous selections.

On a recent Icelandair flight from KEF to BRU, I made a selfish choice. When the flight attendant asked me if I would give up my window seat for a child, I said, “No.”

Though I think my reasons were valid, I’m clearly carrying some guilt from that decision. I hate to make a child sad. I enjoy most kids, even on airplanes, and am more likely to help out another mom than glare when her baby kicks up a fuss.

Major exception: when your kid is kicking my seat, I am just one step away from being annoyed, and I will turn around and ask you to stop him or her. Apologetic and helpful parents defuse all of my frustration… unless the kid is old enough to be doing it on purpose and seems inclined to keep it up.

Children are free agents, no matter how hard we try to remain diligent. I police my own kids pretty hard in that regard because, as a traveler with chronic pain, I am being literal when I say, “I feel your pain!”

On a bad day, a rhythmic seat kicking is torture for me. I won’t yell at you or your kid, but I will expect you to do your best to stop the behavior.

And this segue brings us around to my primary motivation for saying no to another mother on Flight 554. I was already in pain.

I select window seats on flights most of the time because I want to get as far away as possible from the jostling at the aisle. Never mind a direct hit by the beverage cart, even a pair of average sized passengers passing in the aisle can result in a brush with my side that hurts. I’ve been smacked more than once by people carelessly removing bags from the overhead bin, too.

I’m sitting in a window seat because I like the view, but even more to avoid actual pain from accidental touch.

I think that alone is sufficient justification for turning down a fellow passenger, though it obviously still makes me feel bad.

In this case, it is also worth mentioning that this was a mother with three kids who looked to be preteens and above. The child in question was probably 12 or more, standing shoulder high to her mother. She didn’t look frightened or upset to be separated from her mom, she looked bored. She had headphones on and didn’t seem to be talking to her family members anyway.

I pointed out that the middle seat in our row was free, even closer to her family across the aisle than mine by the window. I held firm to the fact that I needed to stay where I was to avoid being bumped by other passengers.

I don’t know where the girl ended up sitting, but it wasn’t in my row, though the rest of the family stayed put across the aisle.

If a woman with a toddler had been standing in the aisle with pleading eyes, I would have moved before I even thought to protect my own fragile state. This was at the mere beginning of a two week trip, no less, when preserving my energy was really important.

Some people think it is always obnoxious for any passenger to ask another to give up a seat. Nonsense! The airlines are operating a virtual free-for-all of Darwinian proportions at 30,000 feet. It is easy for even an experienced traveler to end up separated from children who really aren’t in a good position to care for themselves.

Others suggest that families should always be accommodated. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I do believe that commercial airlines should be compelled by law to seat children under about age 12 or anyone with significant special needs adjacent to a caregiver before charging average passengers for the privilege of seats that suck less.

Airlines should profit less on seat selection. It costs them nothing compared with serving food, say, is a pure profit opportunity, and yet it creates real stress for groups traveling together. Unless paying for a reserved seat is an ironclad guarantee that I’m going to get exactly the seat and amenities I’ve selected–read the fine print, it usually is not a guarantee of anything but a charge to your credit card–then the system is a scam.

As a mom, if I can’t sit by my teen, I think, “Gee, too bad.” Then I return to my book. It’s no big deal.

When the situation is placement of my younger child who gets motion sick and has allergies and asthma, I work a little harder for a more satisfactory resolution. I suggest that I must be at least within sight of him lest he struggle with his breathing, though that situation is thankfully very rare.

I also tell whomever he’s seated next to that they might want to keep a barf bag ready, just in case. Maybe it’s just my family, but my kids tend to vomit on the person next to them at least as often as they get sick on themselves!

I’m totally honest with other airline passengers: my son doesn’t always throw up on a flight. It isn’t even most trips by airplane. Then again, he has vomited more than once due to turbulence.

Most passengers and/or flight attendants work together to help a parent find a better solution for a child with that kind of need. Though why the hell any passenger ever has to get involved is part of what makes me angry with the airlines: this is their problem to solve. It doesn’t belong to the poor soul who thought she’d reserved her favorite type of seat and would get to sit in it. Nor can a hapless parent who travels occasionally be expected to navigate the Byzantine world of airline chicanery.

Filing a complaint? No doubt there will soon be a $25 fee for that, too.

As my “more complicated to travel with” son nears the end of elementary school, however, even his “interesting” issues are less of a concern to me than they were with younger children in tow.

At this point, the kid might manage by himself to barf into a bag on his lap; when he was five, that chance was zero. I’m honestly uncertain as to what he would do with said bag once it was full of vomit unless I was there next to him to take it off his hands.

Parents should sit with their kids because this stuff happens, and no one cares as much as a child’s own parent. The parent isn’t trying to offload any responsibilities to other poorly placed passengers. Airline policies are simply inhumane and short-sighted.

It is patently obvious that this is not a black and white situation, but a matter of multiple shades of grey. Like most of life, actually, including whether or not a relatively nice person such as myself, a caring mother and lover of children, gives up her window seat to humor a pre-teen.

This time, I didn’t, but my conscious is clear. Well, mostly. After all, I did take the time to write this piece.

Barcelona 2017: From Boston to Spain on SWISS… with a Business Class upgrade win

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Travel day 1: Transatlantic red eye

Anyone who’s flown within a decade or so is aware that conditions in Economy Class are cramped and uncomfortable, even for short, daytime flights. Getting to Europe from the USA means losing hours as you jump ahead six to nine time zones, and most flights depart at bedtime with a morning arrival.

Full disclosure: I had never successfully employed the “correct” procedure of sleeping on the plane, toughing it out upon arrival, and staying awake all of the first day in Europe. Before this trip, I had always tumbled into a desperate sleep upon reaching my hotel.

Even as a teen—my first visit to London was led by my high school theatre teacher between 11th and 12th grade—I found jet lag really difficult, and staying awake after a night flight really, really hard.

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1

Heaven is a big, soft bed after an overnight flight in Economy

I’ve never been particularly good at sleeping in a seat. Now that I have a chronic condition that includes regularly experiencing fairly significant pain, I was downright worried about the seven hour flight to Zurich (ZRH), where we would change planes for our ultimate destination: Barcelona (BCN), Spain.

First, I was afraid my hip arthritis would go into overdrive from all the sitting,* like it did on two domestic cross country flights this summer. Second, I feared I would sleep poorly, if at all, and thus experience increased pain triggered by fatigue. A double whammy, and one that tripled my anxiety in the weeks leading up to the journey.

You can’t fly direct from Boston to Barcelona. I had the freedom to select** our flights, and I opted for a transfer in Zurich with SWISS International Airlines.

I’d read excellent reports about conditions in Zurich airport on FlyerTalk. I always go looking for the opinions of frequent flyers in the FlyerTalk forums when I book airline tickets that include an unfamiliar layover location.

Transfers can be beastly in the world’s largest, busiest airports. I will pay extra to have a quicker, cleaner, or smoother trip through customs and passport control.

My husband did not appreciate the fact that we flew outbound on SWISS with a return on parent airline Lufthansa. They are code share partners, but not the same airline. This made reserving seats more complicated. He had a little angst about having to view his flights on two different websites/airline apps.

After all was said and done, however, DH was pretty happy with the flights I selected. He has even declared Munich (MUC) his favorite world airport. He’d rather stay home, but, if he must have a layover, he’d like to have it in München. He loves the relaxation area with its chaise longues.

Booking airline tickets

Every time my husband has an international business trip, I check airfares to see if I can tag along. Usually, it is prohibitively expensive for an extra ticket, and the second one must be paid for on our own dime.

Sometimes, he’s booking too close to the dates of travel for the best price. DH also tends to make the shortest possible trip (no Saturday night stays, typically flying on peak weekdays) and is unwilling to adjust his schedule or take a less convenient flight to lower the fare into “bring the family” territory.

That’s his right: he’s a busy man, and he doesn’t enjoy travel. He’s going to go where the conference or university is, give his brilliant talk, eat room service, and get back ASAP to our family home and the people that he loves. I wouldn’t want him to change!

Admittedly, though, I’m sometimes a bit jealous when he makes several international trips in a year, complains about them, and doesn’t even get out of his hotel room to tell me what the city of Such&such was like. Or try the famous insert food here. Or see the renowned site right across the street from his hotel. Sigh.

This time, however, all the stars aligned. DH was invited to a great conference in Barcelona, a world class destination by any standard.

The dates fell just after Thanksgiving, so I knew I’d have family in town to watch my kids if I wanted to join him on an adults only trip.

It was a four day conference, a little longer than some, making the transatlantic flight worthwhile even for a jet lag lightweight like myself.

I booked his ticket, then checked prices for my own itinerary if I went with him. For myself, I looked at a return flight on the weekend instead of his preference, Thursday. It wasn’t pricing out in the thousands; the economy fare was under $500. I booked it immediately.

And then I started thinking… At this price, we can afford a family trip to Europe!

I’d paid for the kids’ passports to take them to Iceland years before, but we’ve hardly used them since. Apologies to Canada, but our passport cards are sufficient to visit you by land or sea.

Checking in with my teen, he shocked me by stating his preference to skip Spain. I nudged him a little, but, in the end, decided to respect his wish to stay at home. He’s kind of like his dad—a homebody—and he’s very much entered into the teen period of finding his own way by rejecting, sometimes reflexively, his parents’ priorities.

If he were studying Spanish, I might’ve insisted, but DS1 would remain with his grandparents post-Thanksgiving.

My little guy was a different story. When we travel, he is my most frequent social companion in the evening. On cruises, he’ll accompany me to formal dinners so his dad can enjoy room service in sweatpants. DS2 has danced in shipboard discos, and sipped virgin mocktails in swanky piano bars. He keeps a full wardrobe of bow ties for such occasions.

Son with mocktail in shipboard bar - 1

DS2 aboard our favorite ship, Crystal Serenity, at (rainy) sunset in Alaska.

When I described Spain’s culture of frequent socializing in bars and restaurants, with families dining together into what we consider the wee hours, he was all in. He didn’t object to missing a week of school, either, especially not in the land that introduced chocolate to Europe.

I had to call to book his ticket separately because DS2 is a minor. The website wouldn’t allow me to make the reservation as it looked like a case of a child traveling alone. We traveled with three different ticket locator numbers and e-tickets. This worked out to my advantage as our departure date neared.

SWISS Upgrade Bargain bid for Business Class

SWISS offers a program called “SWISS Upgrade Bargain” in which, if invited by the airline, one can place a bid in an amount of one’s choice within an airline-delimited range to be upgraded from Economy to Business Class. In my case, the price range allowed began at roughly CHF 780 up to an amount more than business class would’ve cost if purchased outright for my ticket. I always check the fare for a better seat, even when I doubt I can afford it!

This no doubt fills the Business Class cabin while providing some revenue for the airline as opposed to their offering those seats to frequent fliers as a courtesy.

In an interesting twist, of the three of us, only I received an email from SWISS offering me the option to bid for an upgrade. The program rules state that children under 18 aren’t eligible, so my son’s case makes sense, but I am less clear on why DH, with his more expensive ticket, didn’t get the offer. There’s some possibility, he admits, that an airline email went into his spam folder.

At any rate, we had to keep one parent in Economy with our minor child. I suggested we make a relatively low bid and see what happened. If we didn’t get it, we would fly in uncomfortable solidarity in Coach. If we won the bid, I would offer the seat to my husband if I boarded the plane feeling well, but take it myself if I already had pain before we left home.

I didn’t quite forget that I’d placed the bid—I think I offered CHF 810, or about 30 francs more than the minimum possible offer—but I considered it an extreme long shot. Theories online as to how the odds of acceptance are calculated include the notion that one’s initial fare added to the bid might be the determining factor, and my ticket was cheap.

Two or three days before our trip, I got the email: my bid was accepted. I couldn’t reserve a specific seat of my choice under this scheme, but had no qualms about taking whatever SWISS offered. I believed that any lie-flat, Business Class seat was going to be superior to my carefully researched thank you SeatGuru Economy Class window seat.

This should come as no surprise: it was wildly superior. Continue reading