Children, First Class, disability & who “deserves” to sit where in an airplane

Because I at least try to be a considerate and thoughtful traveler, I regularly look up phrases to suggest “the best way” of doing things. One such example? Parents traveling in First Class whilst their children trail along in steerage a lesser service category.

What I find most fascinating about the search results is the concurrent expression of two opinions that lead inexorably to parent shaming without a solution:

  1. Children don’t belong in First Class unilaterally!, while
  2. Parents who “abandon” their kids in Economy while riding up front themselves are monstrous jerks who should be drawn and quartered (or at least shot.)

Essentially, the sum of those two arguments leads to the conclusion that parents ought never travel in First Class while their children are under age.

Here’s where I’ll swing back around to a point I’ve stressed on this blog before: I often purchase tickets in premium cabins because of my health. Chronic autoimmune illness makes that option more comfortable—but also safer and healthier—for me.

I live with chronic pain.

Every day, I probably ache in at least a few joints. Travel—otherwise one of my great joys—can make my symptoms worse. A larger, more adaptable seat does help. More room, easier access to a lavatory, and the simple comfort of a foot rest or extensible leg support makes the difference between a successful trip and a multi-hour torture chamber.

Note that the acquisition of a more comfortable seat is something I do in addition to taking the most powerful opioid painkillers I’ve got. In transit, I will still suffer more pain than my daily average with these interventions. I choose the world-expanding possibilities of travel in spite of the cost, but the calculus for any given trip can be complex.

If there were legal protections on a minimum amount of space per passenger on a plane, the actionable facts in this argument could be different. If I were guaranteed a seat in Coach that provided enough room to shift position and freedom from being kicked and elbowed by even a plus-sized seat mate, I’d be open to debating the courtesies of keeping younger travelers out of the pointy end of the plane.

Since that is a pipe dream, however, the traveling public is going to have to tolerate my presence in Premium Economy and better, when I can afford it. And, where I go, there also will travel my children when I deem it desirable that they join me.

Given these facts, which option is preferable to the segment of society that objects to children in First Class and kids seated away from their folks?

My own choice is usually dictated by my finances.

When I score an awesome cheap fare up front, I typically book my little guy (middle school aged, so not so terribly tiny) in the seat next to me. He is delighted by the idea of a luxury trip, though modern domestic First Class is a far cry from gold-plated splendor. I prefer having his company to sitting alone.

Then again, I do actively discourage any sense of entitlement to this, my more peer-influenceable child. He has also known the joys of sleeping in a cramped Economy seat on a too-long/too-short transatlantic flight, and he knows full well how to wait his turn in the interminable queue to board, settle quickly into his seat and stow his own carry on, and then keep himself to himself en route to make the uncomfortable as tolerable as possible for everyone else aboard the jet.

The older teen would rather sit on his own regardless because he’s way too cool to be seen with me, so he’s stowed in steerage unless a really high Coach fare is actually a poor value compared with the mileage earning and family togetherness opportunities of a bargain up front.

Don’t gasp–it does happen! Leisure travelers who covet rock bottom fares and business travelers whose companies pay top dollar tend to prefer flights on different days and times.

Always check fares in all classes before booking! You may find First Class for less than Coach. It’s rare, but I have seen it* myself.

This summer, I’m accompanying my husband to a conference in the UK and we’re bringing the little guy along. On the way out, his ticket, purchased with frequent flier miles, is in Comfort+ (i.e., Premium Economy) while his father will be four rows ahead but behind the magic curtain in Delta One.

My own flight, also bought with miles, will be on a different date, itinerary, and airline entirely. We don’t have that many miles on any given airline at one time. Also, I often depart ahead of time to allow a day (or more) of recovery before entering full “tourist mode” and because I enjoy travel so much more than DH does. He rarely takes even a single day off concurrent with his business trips.

It’s a transatlantic redeye, so the kid is expected to sit, settle, and sleep. His “solo” presence is unlikely be a bother to anyone at all under these circumstances, even offering his adjacent seatmate a bit more space due to his small stature. Purchasing the equivalent to his dad’s company-paid Business Class seat was simply out of our reach.

To be clear: I, personally, am not talking about abandoning a toddler 40 rows back from his responsible adult companion. Perhaps non-parents need to be told, too, that there is no single age when every child will be ready to sit alone. As with staying home alone without direct supervision, I’d judge the right age to be over six years at a minimum and by the age of 13 for almost everyone.

Our return to the US presents a completely different set of circumstances. The lo-o-o-ong nonstop flight from Ireland to the Pacific Northwest should see the boy wide awake and therefore more likely to want or need something from a parent, if only to ask if my usual strict limit of one sweet drink per flight could be adjusted, “just this once.” I also found a relatively low fare in a premium cabin whereas Economy on the direct flight I wanted was rather high. In this scenario, I’m opting to pay to seat my child up front next to me.

It’s been argued that children don’t appreciate the “best parts” of the premium cabin experience. For many travelers, that appears to be getting drunk! True, my son won’t be sipping champagne, and he isn’t overly inconvenienced by the cramped conditions in the cheapest seats so the extra room is “wasted” on him.

Both of us will enjoy easier access to the lavatory, however, and the better service offered by less harried flight attendants. My younger son is outgoing and friendly; he will appreciate plenty about traveling with a more gracious level of service. The fact that different elements of Business Class will tickle his pre-teen fancy doesn’t make his experience count for less.

Where will my teen be during this jaunt? Well, he would rather fly alone to visit his grandparents sooner and leave the UK to the rest of us. Somehow, I’ve produced offspring that aren’t as interested in foreign travel as I am. After a bit of practice sitting in Coach 20 rows behind me, he graduated to a solo flight with Unaccompanied Minor service around age 12. Now, though still in high school and underage, he’s old enough to manage his own passage through the security gauntlet and onto a direct flight without paying for the airline’s hand-holding.

My solo teen might also annoy those who like to complain, but he’s not an intrusive passenger with his slim build and quiet habits. On his last trip to visit Grandma, he texted me joyfully upon landing from his ultra cheap middle seat that the guy by the window didn’t need to pee even once. Never having to get up once makes a great flight by his metrics.

Glasses of wine and water on airplane tray tableFeel free to compare that behavior to the tipsy adult who spills his third drink all over you and your laptop. The guy may offer to pay for your dry cleaning, but you’ll be wearing stained and sticky pants for the next half a day regardless.

*This actually seems to be most likely around holidays when families travel to be together. What a great way to treat yourself if clan gatherings are a source of great stress as well as joy for you.

If there were a way to get him booked into a hotel without an adult in the event of delays or flight cancellations, I would trust him to make connections, too. The boy is downright competent!

Take advantage of services offered: treat yourself like a friend

Using myself as an object lesson once again, I’ll remind anyone with a less than perfectly functioning self to make use of the services that are offered to you. More than that, be proactive, and request what you need.

It’s amazing how many ways there are to make the trials of modern travel easier, but also amazing how loathe some of us can be to ask for help.

Today’s case in point: having a difficult joint act up while waiting in the Dublin Airport 51st & Green airside (past security) Lounge. This is a lovely, bright airport lounge. There are quite a few worse places to pass a few hours. Its design, meant to evoke the Neolithic tomb Newgrange, immediately made both myself and my husband think of 2001: A Space Odyssey when we (on separate occasions) entered.

Evocative–and attractive–as the long, white entry corridor is, it’s enough to strike fear into the heart (or knee, foot, hip) of an individual struggling to walk without pain. The toilets are 2/3 of the way down, back by the reception desk. Sigh.

I thought about going to ask for a wheelchair escort when the pain struck, then sat down, determined to ignore yet another annoying infirmity. Then I had this thought: if my husband were here, he would demand help for me, because he thinks I deserve it. And he’s right!

If I were watching a loved one struggle with pain, even mild pain, I would seek help, and I would insist s/he make use of it. Why should I do any less for myself?

Am I suggesting that I’m the center of the Universe, that everything revolves around me and my needs? Well, no. But I would argue that treating myself as less than I would a friend or casual acquaintance isn’t brave or valiant, it’s unloving and unwise.

Self advocacy doesn’t equate to self indulgence.

Kvikk Cafe at KEF airport is not so quick, but the server may fill your water bottle if you ask

Maybe Kvikk is Icelandic for, “Learn patience, grasshopper.”

I timed it: 13 minutes waiting in line to pay for a coffee drink I then needed to make myself at an automatic espresso dispenser at the Kvikk Cafe in KEF (Keflavik airport serving Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik.)

It wasn’t the best cafe experience I enjoyed during my second visit to Iceland.

At least a Kvikk Cafe purchase earns you a seat nearer to the C gates.

Like many European airports, there is no seating at most of the gates themselves. Presumably, you’re expected to wait and spend lavishly in the large commercial hall you pass through after the obligatory* Duty Free Cathedral Promenade.

Customer service in Iceland is usually very good and seems always to be given with courtesy and a warm smile. Servers at Kvikk Cafe may also fill your water bottle from their tap behind the counter if you ask nicely after the crowd thins out.

Tap water is Iceland is some of the best tasting water you will ever enjoy. Mysteriously in light of this fact, the Icelanders overlooked installation of bottle filler fountains when they upgraded their major airport in recent years to meet the demands of the tourist boom.

Perhaps they thought they weren’t needed since filtering wasn’t a requirement? But I saw no drinking fountains in KEF, either. I avoid buying bottled water on principle most of the time; in Iceland, the idea is positively outrageous.

If anyone knows of a drinking fountain anywhere in Keflavik airport, please share this information in the comments.

water fountain bottle filler - 1

Water fountain with bottle filler

Update: We found one bottle filler on our return flight via KEF! Look near the toilets in the food court.

Your alternative? The bathroom taps, but they are the automatic style and only dispense heated water. It will probably still taste better than what comes from my faucet at home, but isn’t what I want to put in the plastic water bottle I chose for my traveling convenience.

*Seriously so, IKEA floor directional arrows style. The direct route from security to gates is via the Duty Free Shop with its stink of imported perfume.
Note: I find almost all perfume to be merely a source of expensive, unpleasant odors, but I’m very chemically sensitive. I suppose local, organic Icelandic perfume would be no better.

Managing chronic pain on the 12+ hour flight to New Zealand

Since developing chronic pain that accompanies an autoimmune condition, I’ve continued to indulge my love of travel, but learned to adapt my bookings and my belongings to minimize pain and maximize comfort.

 

Flights of six hours or so are regular occurrences for me and my family. I’ve had a couple of very painful trips of this duration, but, more typically, I can tolerate them by adjusting my medication slightly and employing a few aids such as wrist braces, inflatable cushions, and hot water bottles.

 

This winter, I faced the longest single flight I’ve ever taken: 12 hours and 40 minutes just for one leg from Los Angeles, CA to Auckland, New Zealand. The combination of traversing the United States from our New England home (6.5 hours), crossing the Pacific (12.7 hours), then connecting to our final destination of Christchurch, NZ on the South Island (1.4 hours) made for a total time in the air of 20.5 hours.

Of course, one must also add to that total the requisite airport waiting time required by international flight connections, customs, security, and the necessity of allowing adequate buffers in case of delays. At least two full days of my calendar were bound to be eaten up by this voyage in each direction.

After considering many options, I elected to travel in two distinct stages for both directions of travel. This meant parting ways with my husband entirely for the domestic portion of our trip. His schedule doesn’t allow for an unnecessary day spent in transit where tighter connections are possible.†

I was away from home for a total of fourteen days; DH, by taking his domestic and international flights serially on the way out—and heading home on a red eye straight off the international leg—traveled for twelve days.

Though this post isn’t really meant to be a trip report, it must be said: even two weeks is barely adequate for visiting the antipodes. If you can squeeze more days out of your schedule, use them for a trip of this magnitude.

New Zealand is awesome, and well worth every hard won vacation day.

My itinerary outbound:

BOS-PDX on Alaska Air 33, Saturday 16:20-20:10

Three night stay with family in the Pacific NW

PDX-LAX on Alaska Air 568, Tuesday 10:50-13:22

LAX-AKL on Air New Zealand 5, Tuesday 21:40-Thursday 07:20*

AKL-CHC on Air New Zealand 527, Thursday 09:00-10:20

My itinerary for the return:

CHC-AKL on Air New Zealand 574, Friday 20:00-21:20

AKL-LAX on Air New Zealand 2, Friday 22:50-13:35**

Overnight hotel stay at the Crown Plaza LAX

LAX-BOS on Virgin America flight 1360, Saturday 07:05-15:34

Itinerary adaptations to reduce pain

I’ll repeat what I feel was the single most important adaptation I made to my itinerary to accommodate my autoimmune condition and its symptoms: I took extra time.

Travel. Stop. Recover. Repeat.

Heading west, I took advantage of family who live near the Portland airport who don’t seem to mind my visits, spending three nights at their home. This sleepover gave me time to recover from the initial cross country flight and ease my body’s adjustment to a change of three time zones.

NZ Crowne Plaza LAX hotel room - 1Upon arrival in New Zealand, I had already acclimated from the Eastern to Pacific zone (USA West Coast) which represents half of the total time shock. Though the flight is lo-o-o-o-ong, most of the travel between California and New Zealand is in a southerly direction. You only drop three more time zones on that 12 hour flight.

Heading west is also usually less difficult in terms of jet lag.

Continue reading

Parking lot rescue: prepared citizens can help themselves and others

Picture a silver sedan in a bustling Trader Joe’s parking lot.* Two ladies—perhaps a mother and her adult daughter?—are huddled to one side of the closed trunk, but at the hinge end of the lid instead of the part that opens.

I walked right past them to unload groceries into my van. I was parked in an adjacent space. When I finished putting my things away, I noticed that the ladies hadn’t moved. Their heads were together. It looked like they were trying to solve a problem.

I asked if they needed any help.

Rescue scenario: a trapped set of keys

Here’s what they told me: the younger lady dropped her keys as she pushed down on the lid to close her trunk. The falling keys became trapped between the trunk and its lid. Without the keys, she couldn’t unlock and release the lid in order to free… the keys!

This sedan didn’t have a button inside to release the trunk. It didn’t have a fold down rear seat that opened into the trunk. Even a lady’s slim fingers were too thick to reach fully into the space where the keys were trapped.

It turned out that more was required than simply fishing them out. The keys were actually being pinched between two different parts of the car.

While I was hearing this explanation, another passer-by asked if he could assist.

An aside: This is my America! We help each other in times of crisis.

The ladies filled him in on the scenario while I grabbed the first vaguely tool-shaped object in the back of the van: a 12″ ice scraper. The flat edge could slide between the lid and trunk. They went to work trying to dislodge the keys.

While the original pair and the new helper made this attempt, I delved deeper into the array of equipment I keep in the van for emergencies.

Ammo can in the van: a tool box

Here’s a peek at a collection of useful tools in my vehicle at all times. It’s part of my personal ethos to be prepared. Some gear is switched out seasonally—like the larger SnoBrum† and a full size shovel—but these items never leave the van. Continue reading