The Practical Traveler's Advice For Family Flying

Read Michelle Higgins' Piece, "Are We There Yet? When Families Fly"

Boarding a flight with kids can be a nightmare for everyone. And as airlines cut back on amenities and pack cabins, flying as a family has grown more and more difficult. Michelle Higgins, the New York Times' Practical Traveler, compiled a list of family-friendly airlines and flying tips.

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BRIAN NAYLOR, HOST:

No milk, no coloring books, no pre-flight tours of the cockpit and certainly no sympathy for most airline passengers traveling with children. Flying can be a hassle for just about everyone, but families may endure some of the worst shocks, especially over the busy holidays.

If you've traveled recently with children by plane, what advice do you have? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Michelle Higgins, the Practical Traveler for The New York Times, joins us from WNYC, our member station in New York. Earlier this month, she wrote a column entitled "Are We There Yet? When Families Fly." Michelle, thanks for joining us.

MICHELLE HIGGINS: Glad to be here.

NAYLOR: So how tough is it out there for families on planes these days?

HIGGINS: Well, even as recently as a few years ago, you know, families could count on a handful of common courtesies like boarding before other passengers, landing a roomier seat in the first row of coach, bringing certain strollers on board and being able to get a cup of milk on board, for instance. But these services and courtesies are fading fast as airlines try to maximize capacity and slash services for all passengers on board.

NAYLOR: So what are some of the challenges that travelers with - families with children are experiencing now that they didn't just a few years ago? Lack of milk on some flights, I guess, number one.

HIGGINS: Right. As - and as recently as four years ago, some airlines were still routinely calling families to board first. The idea was that getting the kids on early was not just a courtesy for families, but it kind of - it benefitted everyone on board by getting them out of the way. But that's not the case anymore because more and more airlines are charging for early boarding. So the only way to really guarantee that you're going to - your family is going to get on board early is to pay for it. So you should check with your airline to see what they offer. American and United both allow passengers traveling in coach to pay extra to board first.

NAYLOR: Such a treat. I did notice the other day. I was flying on Southwest, and there were some families who could board first, and then there are others who were allowed to board after the first, sort of the A row of - the A grouping of passengers. I guess each airline has a different policy, and some are probably better than others.

HIGGINS: That's right. While each airline says that it allows families to board towards the front of coach, generally they have different policies. So American, for instance, doesn't call boarding for families regularly anymore. Now, passengers who want to board first have to ask the gate agent or pay $10 a person to guarantee a spot in the first boarding group in coach.

Southwest, which you mentioned, also allows passengers to pay to get in that group A boarding. That is the, you know, the first ones to get a seat on that - those planes. And otherwise, they do allow families to come after the A boarding and before the rest of coach.

NAYLOR: Mm-hmm. And the advantage, I mean, for travelers is just - it's a courtesy, but, you know, families are traveling with strollers and car seats and everything else. It kind of - it makes sense to give them some time to stow all that stuff.

HIGGINS: Well, especially now that the overhead bins are so crowded because the airlines are charging for checked bags. So getting on board first isn't just about getting settled in the seats and getting the kids settled. It's also about getting all of the gear that families inevitably need on board, you know, with them so that they have - they're - they have it accessible if the kids need a snack or, you know, some entertainment on board as well.

NAYLOR: Let's take a call now. Charice(ph) joins us from Binghamton, New York. Thanks for calling TALK OF THE NATION.

CHARICE: Hi. How are you?

NAYLOR: Good. What's your experience been traveling with children or flying with children?

CHARICE: We found that with little children, if you can bring the car seat into the plane and set it up for the kid - the child to sit in the car seat, it really calm the child down. They knew what to do. They knew that they were sitting for a long time. And it made – they were more comfortable, and we were more comfortable. So that was a really useful tip that somebody gave to me.

NAYLOR: Now that's, of course - you bought that seat.

CHARICE: Yeah. We bought the seat and, you know, for an 18-month or - when our son traveled. And he was calm. He slept, you know. Otherwise, you - another time when we flew, he was running around and he didn't - he wasn't comfortable sitting on the chair. So, yeah. Yeah, you do have to buy the seat unless you know that the plane is not going to be...

NAYLOR: Thank you, Charice. And, Michelle, you've written, also, airlines are not always seating families together in the first place.

HIGGINS: That's certainly one of the biggest sticking point for families because they really need to be sitting next to the kids. And sometimes they'll board the plane and find out their seats have been separated. Or because flights are filling up so fast now and you can choose your seat online in advance, if you book kind of later in the game, there may only be middle seats in separate rows. So, it's very challenging for families because once onboard, they're often left to themselves to sort out and swap with passengers who are willing to give up a seat. And that's increasingly challenging as flights are packed to the brim.

NAYLOR: So there may not be a seat or maybe it's only a middle seat or something, and you're hesitant to give, you know, take a middle seat and give up your aisle or whatever.

HIGGINS: Right. And flight attendants I spoke to say that it used to be easier to move passengers around, to accommodate families when they were separated for whatever reason because, you know, the planes were empty or there was more wiggle room. But now with a middle seat, you know, if you are trying to swap with someone for a middle seat and you need to sit next to your child, it's very difficult to get someone from the aisle or the window, for instance, to, you know, give up that choice seat and be stuck in the middle.

NAYLOR: Obviously, passengers who have not been parents themselves, I think, probably. Let's take a call from Miranda(ph) in Berkeley, California. Miranda, thanks for joining us.

MIRANDA: Hi. I was just going to say I've flown six times cross-country with my daughter in the last year. She's one now. She was 3 months old when we started flying. And we've only had wonderful experiences. I've never gotten a seat for her. And the flight attendant and the people at the front desk, before a fight takes off, have always found us an extra seat.

NAYLOR: Wow.

MIRANDA: A lot of times, we even have the entire back row to ourselves. And I think - I've flown only on Virgin America. I'm not sure if they have a particular policy about it, but we've had just a wonderful experience.

NAYLOR: All right. Well, a good endorsement for Virgin. Thanks very much, Miranda. Do you find that the policies vary, Michelle, quite a lot from airline to airline?

HIGGINS: Well, in terms of policies, they're generally the same. But in some cases, like Virgin America, for instance, they have - families do tend to prefer them over some other carriers because each seat has a TV in front of it. So depending on the age of your child, that can be very valuable on a long flight and can make the flying much more pleasant. They also do offer, you know, you have to pay for it, but they do offer kid-friendly, you know, entertainment on board as well as meals. So they have kid-friendly movies you can pay for as well as some TV that is free and kid-friendly meals. And that's not the case with all of the airlines.

NAYLOR: In fact, you wrote that in at least one case, the flight attendant didn't have - wouldn't give milk to a mom with a child, saying that it was - well, you tell the story. I mean, it's just amazing.

HIGGINS: Right. Well, the family was flying a long flight. They were flying from Newark to Hawaii with a stopover in Los Angeles. And, you know, they brought milk on board for the kids, who I think at the time were about 18 months old. And, you know, it just didn't last the entire flight, whether the kids drank it all or if it spoiled right towards the end. And so they asked, could I have a cup of milk? And the answer was, well, the milk is for passengers for their coffee.

And so, you know, she ended up giving the child some water and, you know, went through it. But it's - it reinforces the message to families that if you don't have it, don't expect the airlines to provide it. You really need to bring all of the supplies on board these days.

NAYLOR: All right. That's a good tip. Let's take a call from Chris in Prescott, Arizona. Chris, what's your experience been flying with children?

CHRIS: Hello. I recently traveled to South Africa with my wife and two small children, 6 and age 3. And we flew down with Delta Airlines. And on the way down, the children were not allowed to sit in our laps. And on the way home, we flew with South Africa airlines - much more accommodating. They let the children sit in out laps so that we could comfort them. I, you know, and it wasn't during the taxiing and takeoff. It was - when we reached cruising altitude, the stewardess walked by several times to remind me that my son wasn't allowed to sit in my lap.

NAYLOR: Wow. Did you have a seat for him?

CHRIS: (Unintelligible) said, well, if we had a problem he needs to be in his own seat, to which I replied, well there's all sorts of people milling about in the cabin, and they'll need to be in their seats as well. And she just couldn't adequately explain it to me. And I'm wondering if, with the South African airlines, do they operate under a different set of rules or how is it that works?

NAYLOR: Chris, thanks very much. Michelle, do foreign carriers have different standards than American ones do?

HIGGINS: Well, foreign carriers generally seem to be more family friendly, from what I've found. They offer more, you know, perks for families, bassinets onboard, particularly because sometimes the flights are longer when you're flying from the U.S. to a foreign destination, but also because, you know, they're competing on different routes that cater more to families. So I think I wasn't clear on whether it was the South African airways that was asking him to have the child in the seat or if it was the domestic carrier.

NAYLOR: I think it was - I think he said it was Delta.

HIGGINS: It was Delta. Yeah. And that's interesting. I haven't heard that before. But it kind of goes to - it speaks to how parents are often given mixed messages. You know, they take the airline one time and they're told one thing about keeping the child in the seat. And on another, they might now have that rule imposed. So, oftentimes, it's up to, you know, what kind of flight attendant, what flight attendant you get on your trip and what, you know, what they expect out of passengers.

NAYLOR: Michelle Higgins is the Practical Traveler columnist at The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I want to read an email here from Jay(ph) in Oregon, writes, I have two kids, ages 3 and 5, and I think boarding early is crazy. The last thing I want to do when flying is to spend extra time sitting trapped on a plane. And I guess that's one point of view also. It's tough to keep the sometimes antsy kids happy on board and getting there early makes it that much tougher.

What I'm wondering, Michelle, do you think that airlines are, in fact, trying to discourage families from traveling? It's maybe less lucrative or more hassles than it's worth?

HIGGINS: Well, I think it really comes down to a matter of resources. American carriers have lost about 55 billion over the course of the past decade according to the Air Transport Association. You know, as operational costs like fuel and employee benefits have, you know, outpaced revenues. And so they've done everything they can to, you know, make up for those losses by cutting service and adding fees. And for families, that just makes things more complicated and compounds the cost.

If you talk about baggage fees, you've got to start multiplying in terms of families. Early boarding, you're probably not going to get it. You know, hoping to sit together, you can't count on it anymore unless you paid extra. You know, 'cause the few empty seats, you know, aren't really there anymore.

NAYLOR: Lauren(ph) from San Marcel(ph), California. What's your experience been flying with children?

LAUREN: Hello.

NAYLOR: Hi. Yeah.

LAUREN: Hi. Hi. Yeah. I recently flew with our three kids, from California to Hawaii. We have a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old. And one of the tricks I like to do is when, at the end of the flight, especially if you're landing sometime in the evening, the attendants always tell you that you have to turn off your electronic devices, and that's really hard because if the kids are watching DVDs on the DVD player, you have to turn it off. And you usually have about 30 or 40 minutes still to go that you have to entertain them. So I always stop at the dollar store, pick up a couple packs of glow sticks.

HIGGINS: And at that point, when we're in our descent, I break them all open, and the kids entertain themselves with that. And on that last flight, we starting passing the glow sticks back through the cabin, and by the end of - by the time we landed, all the little children on the plane had their glow sticks, and the parents were happy and all the passengers were happy.

NAYLOR: Well, that sounds like fun. It must have been a fun flight.

LAUREN: It was. It was. It kept them busy. I do it every time now.

NAYLOR: All right. Well, thanks for that tip.

LAUREN: All right. Thanks.

NAYLOR: Michelle, it's always good to be prepared, I guess, to bring toys and other things to keep your kids amused.

HIGGINS: That's a really good point. You know, bring as much on to entertain them as possible. You know, in terms of younger kids, you know, the real challenge is that age between, you know, the toddlers, the age between when they have the attention span long enough to, you know, watch TV or play with a, you know, tech, you know, an iPod or something like that onboard versus the little kids that can just sleep on the flight. So there's that tricky age in between that's especially - that you especially need, you know, a bag full of surprises, essentially.

You know, one thing that I found is ice can actually be a big saver onboard because flight attendants often have ice and little plastic cups and little straws, and that can be a big entertainment for toddlers.

NAYLOR: And, you know, we talked about flight attendants not, you know, saying milk was for their first-class passengers. I mean, they're certainly a harried bunch these days with a lot of responsibilities, and some of them probably are not having good days or a good flight. So what's your advice for dealing with flight attendants who may not be the most cooperative or friendly?

HIGGINS: Right. Well, just remember that it's really not that they are holding back on passengers. Many times, it's simply that the airline hasn't offered them the tools to, you know, provide passengers what they're asking for. The flight attendant I spoke with who flies on American says she used to have five to six cartons of milk on each flight for coach, but that was five or so years ago. Now, on her flight, they don't serve milk after 9 a.m.

NAYLOR: Michelle Higgins is the Practical Traveler columnist at The New York Times. We posted a link to her article at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us from our New York bureau. Michelle, thanks very much.

HIGGINS: Thank you.

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