Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shame on you, Ariana Huffington

It seems that Ariana Huffington of the Huffington Post had to be escorted off a United flight at LaGuardia on Saturday night. It seems that she was on her crackberry during takeoff both talking and texting, which left a fellow passenger highly agitato.  The other passenger repeatedly complained loudly that Huffington's blackberry was on when it was supposed to be off, even standing up at one point to yell at the flight attendent.  His problem? "How come she gets to use her personal device but no one else does?"

It was a fair question and when the flight from D.C. landed in New York both Ariana and the anonymous passenger got to talk it over with the cops.

That poor flight attendent.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Flying Baby: Don't Sweat It.

I got an e-mail this morning from a friend who is getting ready to take her seven-month-old baby girl on her first flight. It's a two and a half hour trip to Texas followed by a road trip to Arizona and the poor love is in a bit of a dither. My baby (lovingly known to Facebook friends as "Butters") has flown about ten flight segments over three plane trips in six months. The longest segment was from DCA Reagan to LAX, about five hours. Butters and I have flown from Fairbanks, Alaska to Washington, D.C. in a four-segment flight that took so long that by the time we boarded our last plane in Houston, the gate scanner would not accept my boarding pass because it had yesterday's date on it.

Suffice it to say, I have some thoughts.

First: The smaller the better. Some parents delay taking that first flight because they feel their fragile, newborn baby won't be able to handle the stress of a plane trip. While I think concerns about germs may be valid - all that recycled air and in-flight magazines are absolutely rife with bacteria - good old handwashing and hand sanitizer should protect both you and baby from plane bugs.

As for the stress of being inside the strange space that is the aircraft, remember that for a tiny baby everything is strange. Going to the supermarket could be stressful with it's bright lights, strangers, and aisle after aisle of different colorful objects to look at. Also remember that newborns sleep almost all the time and sleeping is a great way for a baby to get through a flight. When Butters took her first flight at three months old, I got (unwarranted)compliments from people who appreciated how quiet she had been. "There was a baby on this flight?" a few people said and laughed when we got up to debark.

Super tip: If possible, let baby nurse during take-off and landing. The sucking should help to relieve pressure on his tiny ear drums.

Second: Nurse, nurse, nurse. If you're breastfeeding, you're in luck. Flying will be a lot easier for you. Babies love to suckle to reduce stress, and if you've a handy nipple to pop into your baby's mouth, that child is far less likely to bother you or anyone else. If you're not breastfeeding, don't worry. The TSA has changed its rules (AGAIN) regarding expressed breast milk and formula. These fluids are now treated like liquid medications.
  • You can carry them in quantities greater than 3 oz (unlike other liquids).
  • You do NOT have to freeze them.
  • You do NOT have to carry them in a quart-sized bag.
  • You DO have to separate your milk and/or formula from your other gels and liquids, (your other gels and liquids being in the quart-sized bag of course) and you DO have to declare them to the TSA agents before they begin inspecting your carry-on luggage.
  • You will NOT be asked to drink anything. (Thank God that drama is behind us.)
You can also bring on baby food, gel-filled teething rings and juice.

How much can you bring? According to the TSA website, you can bring as much as you want in "reasonable quantities". What's that really mean? Who knows. Just pack as much as you know you will need given the length of your trip, and add one, maybe two, bottles for potential delays. Odds are however much you bring, the TSA agents won't hassle you about it. Just don't tempt them by trying to bring on say, a case of Similac.

Third: Fill that diaper bag. I'll talk more about packing for baby, what to check and how to check it, in my next post, but I did want to say here that you can't carry too many diapers or wipes on a flight. Ever heard of traveler's diarrhea? Babies get that too. Once on a United flight to San Francisco (this was on the plane that had no changing tables, not even in first class) Butters dirtied three diapers in one trip to the lavatory. Seriously. It was like a lame slapstick scene from a Hollywood rom com.

Here's me: bent over at the waist, my butt pressed against the door of the restroom as I balance my baby on the toilet seat lid, clean diaper clenched in my mouth, wiping baby poop with one hand and holding up her legs with the other. I get her in a clean diaper and clean pants (she had leaked of course) and then try to balance her on my raised knee while I wash my hands in the tiny sink. As soon as my hands are dry: "THHHRRRPPPT!" A heavy, wet and muffled sound escapes from my darling baby that sounded to me like, "Back to work, shmuck." This process repeated itself no less than three times. In the end, I ran out of wipes and had to use moistened paper towels.

Not fun. In general, you should pack light, but when it comes to the diaper bag, go heavy.

Fourth: Drinks and snacks. So baby's got her lunch, what about yours? Unless you bought a ticket for baby, she's riding on your lap the whole way. That means that she's blocking your drinks tray. If you're travelling with someone, then you don't got a problem, Jules. Just switch off who's holding her so you can both eat your turkey club sandwiches.

(Side note: if you are travelling in separated seats, this may not prove workable. On that same United flight, my DH was upgraded to the vaunted Economy Plus section and got trapped holding Butters for an hour because the seatbelt light was on. This wouldn't have been so bad, except that there was no baby formula in the diaper bag and Butters got hungry. Oy.)

If you're travelling alone, just ask the person next to you if you can share his tray to balance your drink. People are pretty accomodating I've found, especially if your baby is behaving herself, or even if she isn't, as long as you are making a visible effort to quiet her down, your fellow passengers are likely to cut you a lot of slack. Beyond that, just use your best judgment. You might want to skip the salad on this flight and just have some chips. You can always eat before you leave or after you get to where you're going.

Finally: Boarding the plane: don't be a jerk, wait your turn. I know you're nervous about flying with your precious bundle of joy. I've been there. I'll be there again. In your head, there is a clock ticking away the number of seconds that you have before junior decides that he is hungry right NOW, and the screaming starts.

Relax. Maybe your baby will fuss, and maybe he won't. It doesn't really matter. You still can't board until the gate agent says it's your turn.

Different airlines have different rules about when "passengers with special needs" like you with your baby, and the elderly and handicapped can get on. Generally, you won't be allowed to board before the first-class passengers or the frequent flyers. (Now, if you ARE a frequent flyer or flying first class, none of this applies to you, and frankly I'm surprised that you're reading this.) For everyone else, WAIT UNTIL THE GATE AGENT CALLS SPECIFICALLY FOR PARENTS TRAVELLING WITH INFANTS AND SMALL CHILDREN. Why? Because you don't want to add to your stress levels by getting into an argument that you should and will lose with people who paid more far more money for their tickets than you did for yours. 'Nuff said.

Remember, all babies are different and yours may just not like flying, but in general the sensation of being held close to you, the hum of the engines, and the general stillness of the cabin are all things that baby like. So, relax. Watch the in-flight movie. Order a bacardi and diet and feel secure knowing that people do this flying with the baby thing all the time, every day. Don't believe me? Do you know anyone who's ever flown who DOESN'T have a story about being seated on a flight near a crying baby? Exactly.

Welcome aboard.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Have tits. Will travel. Breast-feeding on the go.

I am not a breast feeder who channels the goddess each time she nurses. I do not feel ultra-feminine or empowered or special by virtue of breastfeeding. (More power to you if you do. Seriously, I think that's great.)
I DO feel more confident as a mother knowing that I can nourish my baby any time, anywhere. In fact I’m nursing as I type this. Usually my instinct to nurse outweighs any prudishness I might feel based on who's in the room.  After all, baby's gotta eat, right? Still, after six months of practice, I occasionally experience bouts of shyness about the act of nursing in public, so I do my best to hide my breasts behind blankets, coats and my trusty Moby wrap.

How does this affect my travelling? Well, in different ways. I don't own a breast pump - basically because I'm too cheap to buy one that really works - though I did borrow one for a recent trip to India. (More on that later.) Until Baby was four months old, she was strictly breast fed. So, that means nursing in stations, airports, on the train, and especially on long flights. And I am happy to report that I have never been confronted or been made to feel uncomfortable because I'm feeding my baby. People, it seems, are pretty cool with breastfeeding.

It helps that breastfeeding equals a silent baby. On flights especially, my sense is that even people who might otherwise be squeamish are so appreciative of any effort you take to quiet your child, they are willing to endure a flash of a shiny, swollen nipple. Once I was even allowed to board a flight ahead of first class because Baby was fussing like mad and the gate agent said to me, "Just board and feed that baby, please."

The nature of commercial flying also lends itself to more privacy than might be immediately apparent. People take their seats, and while they might occasionally glance left or right, for the most part they stare straight ahead. This seems to be part of a group effort to minimize the pyschological impact of being trapped in a big metal tube with so many other people. If we don't focus our attention on each other, we can all pretend that we are alone in the sky. Same deal with the bus.

Even in my beloved café car on the Amtrak Northeast Regional train (the most prosaic name for a train route of all time, btw) where having a baby invites stares and sparks discussions with total strangers, breastfeeding is simply NBD. Now as stated, I am kinda bashful, so I like to slip my coat backwards over my shoulders to create a nursing shield. I am sure many people walk by my seat and have no idea what I'm up to.

It helps too that the law is on the side of breast feeders. Forty-four states (plus D.C. and Puerto Rico) have laws protecting a woman's right to breastfeed in public and private places.

So to my sisters who might be feeling nervous about how exactly to get expressed milk past the TSA, or the prospect of having to pump in a bus station restroom (ick) I say you should embark with nothing but your baby and your nursing bra.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Southwest ups the Ante

Up until now, the rewards programs offered by low-cost carriers in the United States have fallen well short of those of the so-called legacy carriers. 

On March 1, Southwest Airlines -- America's largest low-cost carrier, and already a perennial favorite among budget travelers because it doesn't charge fees for first or second checked bags -- will unveil a new and improved form of its Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program. 

Highlights include:
  • All rewards will be unrestricted, with access to every seat on every flight.
  • Every day will be eligible for reward travel.
  • Points won't expire as long as your account has some activity every 24 months.
Southwest will be keeping its A-List and Companion Pass elite benefits and is also introducing a new A-List Preferred level designed to compete with legacy programs' upper-tier elite levels, with benefits like 100% point bonuses for flights and dedicated phone lines for reservations.

Speaking of points, the new program will be point-based rather than using the credit system that Southwest has had thus far.  Credits will continue to be redeemable under the old system, and flyers with credits left to use up will be able to use their points to acquire additional credits (at a rate of 1200 points for one credit) towards a previous-generation reward.

Bottom line: Southwest has upped the ante.  Combined with its pending acquisition of AirTran, this new Rapid Rewards program makes Southwest a compelling choice for domestic business travelers.

Baby Tourist Rides the Rails

So for those of you haven't heard, in June of this past year, I had a baby girl.  I am happy (but in no way smug) to report that she is healthy, beautiful and gloriously friendly with everyone she meets. Seriously, she's a smile machine.

All through my pregnancy, (as I visited such destinations as L.A., New York, Singapore, Edinburgh, Hong Kong, etc.) I was assured by many loving and well-intentioned associates that the impending birth would be the death of my globetrotting.  "You won't be able to travel with a baby!" was practically the chorus of my 2010.

Needless to say, these loving and well-intentioned associates (some of whom never travel more than 20 miles at a time themselves) were all dead wrong.  My baby travels.  She travels because she's healthy (danken Gott), because her family is scattered throughout the U.S., and because her mother likes to.  At almost seven months, she has been to Alaska, California, Delaware and New York, and she has ridden the train seven times.

Five of those trips were on Amtrak Northeast Regional trains.  Some thoughts on the experiences:

1. It's all about the café car. When she was brand-new, (about six weeks old) I thought nothing sitting in a regular coach seat and holding her in her baby wrap for the whole trip.  Now that she's bigger and we're slightly sick of each other, we like the extra space provided by nabbbing a seat in the café car.  Baby can stretch out on her back on the table and take a nice nap while you sip some it-could-be-worse Amtrak coffee.  (Warning: always keep a hand on your baby lest the train brake suddenly and baby go flying.)

2. There are NO changing tables in Amtrak Northeast Regional trains or Accela trains.  None.  To add insult to injury, there's a depression in the wall of each restroom where you can tell the changing table was supposed to go.  Amtrak loves to tout how family-friendly it is, but I ask you: how family-friendly can you be when your passengers must balance their babies on slippery plastic toilet-seat lids in order to change their diapers?

(Side note: you can also use the folding side panel near the toilet (designed, I guess, for the ease and comfort of disabled passengers) as a changing table, but that requires you to crouch on one knee in the restroom, as opposed to bending over at the waist.  Oh, the choices!)

(Side side note: I also once found myself on a United flight that had no changing tables, but that's a rant for another post.)

3.  People see you with a baby on the train, they will talk to you.  It doesn't matter if you're reading or your baby just fell asleep.  Babies are like celebrities.  In their presence, most people have to stop and say something obvious.  If you take advantage of the café car, this will be especially true.  Also, if you stand up, or move at all, someone (most likely a beaming older woman) will offer you help.  If you don't need help, if for example you are just adjusting your Moby wrap and trying to remember which pocket contains your wallet, this might confuse or even startle you.  Don't worry.  This woman is probably not going to proselytize to you or try to sell you Mary Kay.  Odds are, she's just fondly recalling her baby days and wants a little taste of what you've got.  Be gracious.  Simper.  Say, "Thank you."  Whenever possible, allow her to "help" you.  Because before you know it, you'll be her.

4. Don't be such a big shot: ask for the Red Cap service.  Even if you're traveling light and don't need it, mention to the conductor that you'd like Red Cap service when you arrive at your destination.  You can even couch this request thusly, "I'm not going to need a 'Red Cap' per se, but..." and the conductor will get it.  This will ensure that you have enough time to get off the train, which with a baby in tow can often take a little extra time.  Not much.  Maybe an additional thirty seconds.  Point is, you don't want to miss your stop or have to stand in the dangerous vestibule with all its metal handholds (conveniently placed at chest-height or the height of a baby's skull while being carried) when you could be sipping the last of your not-terrible-when-you-really-consider-it Amtrak coffee and double-checking the seat to make sure that none of Baby's many many accessories are about to be left behind.

5. Amtrak employees are kid-friendly.  While the restrooms leave a lot to be desired, all of the Amtrak employees that I have encountered since I started traveling with a baby have been kind, friendly and patient.  Now it might help that my baby is an established smile-machine and could probably charm a smile out of Dick Cheney himself, and it definitely helps that most Amtrak employees have good customer-service skills in general (in my humble tourist opinion), but it is still worth noting that they have been especially courteous since I strapped a little one to my chest and climbed abroad.  Here she is with her new friend, Greg the engineer.  Greg wasn't even working that day but he graciously watched the baby for me while I fetched myself another cup of you-really-can't-complain Amtrak coffee.