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Holiday Travel With a Child is Exhausting (Trip Report)

It’s the holiday season and that means it’s time to travel. While I never liked flying during the holidays anyway, our first attempt with a baby had me even more afraid. Though things went well, it was still an exhausting experience.

On the way out, we chose Southwest because of the good flight time, cheaper price (when factoring in checked bags), and the ability to buy an infant fare for our son to have a seat. We paid $294.60 each with him paying $300.60 for the refundable fare.

We started the morning way too early and headed to LAX. (Oh how I wish there were better flight options to Indy from Long Beach.) We got to Terminal 1 at 545a and saw a long line out the door. I assumed that was security, but it’s a different world these days. That was the crazy long line to check a bag. It moved quickly, but to show you how long it was, it still took us 30 minutes to get through. This was about halfway through.

After shuffling 2 pounds to get under weight on one bag, we had to drag them over to the CTX machine for scanning. Then we headed up through security and went in the short but slow-moving family line.

Security took longer than we would have hoped because there was a backup to hand search the car seat since it wouldn’t fit in the x-ray machine. But we finally got out and went to our gate. It took us an hour from the time we arrived to get this far.

Our airplane was coming in from Phoenix on an early morning flight, and it was a couple minutes late. It was then time to board as the sun rose to create the nice fiery backdrop above.

December 22, 2012
Southwest 480 Lv Los Angeles 715a Arr Phoenix 930a
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 9, Runway 24L, Depart 10m Late
Phoenix (PHX): Gate D5, Runway 7R, Arrive 6m Early
N237WN, Boeing 737-7H4, Canyon Blue, 100% Full
Seat 14E
Flight Time 52m

We hadn’t purchased EarlyBird check-in on purpose. I wanted to see how well the family boarding process worked. When Southwest changed its boarding process, they moved family boarding to between the A and B groups. People were angry that they couldn’t get on first at the time, so I wanted to see for myself.

When I checked in at exactly 24 hours, I got A58 but my wife and son were in the B group. I just decided we would all board together after the A group got on. Sure enough, when our time came, the front rows were full, but there were plenty of open rows behind. It made perfect sense to me. If you want something better, pay for it. But if not, you’ll still be able to sit together on most flights.

We taxied for just a couple minutes and soon launched into the morning air. It was a really short and uneventful flight to Phoenix. We landed and taxied for about 30 seconds into our D gate. The little guy had fallen asleep on the way down, so we hung out until others got off. Then we hopped off and found our connecting flight a couple gates down in the fancy D concourse.

December 22, 2012
Southwest 839 Lv Phoenix 1050a Arr Indianapolis 410p
Phoenix (PHX): Gate D1, Runway 7L, Depart 5m Late
Indianapolis (IND): Gate B4, Runway 23R, Arrive 4m Late
N497WN, Boeing 737-7H4, Bags Fly Free Sticker, 100% Full
Seat 15E
Flight Time 2h47m

We again looked to board with the families on this flight and there were a lot. I later found out there were 6 lap children alone plus a few paid infants (including ours). One flight attendant quipped, “for a second I thought we were coming out of Salt Lake!”

Once I got my boy’s car seat installed, we could finally relax a little. Our captain came on and said it would be a very quick 2h45m flight with great tailwinds. We were thrilled to hear it.

We took off and I had the chance to log on to the internet on Southwest for $5. The Row 44 system worked great. It’s not high speed internet like you get at home, but it was certainly fast enough for me. I tried streaming TV as well for $6, but I had no interest in fiscal cliff talk so that eliminated half the channels. The only sports on was skiing and that left an infomercial on the local NYC Fox station. Pass. But it did work flawlessly.

My favorite part of all this was the flight tracker. Southwest puts a little header on every page that shows the time to destination along with the weather. The captain was quick to announce that the weather in Indy was the same as Phoenix, just subtract 40 degrees.

Our little one was in no mood to sit still, so we had our hands full the entire flight. He wasn’t crying or screaming… unless we weren’t playing with him.

As we got toward the end of the flight, I finally had enough time to evaluate the new Evolve seating. This is Southwest’s plan to use thinner seats and add a row to each airplane. For me, the legroom was just fine. But after a couple hours, my hamstrings were feeling sore. I’m not sure if the cushion was too hard or just shaped oddly, but it wasn’t too comfy.

Soon enough, we were descending. My son fell asleep again on descent (apparently we need to find a flight that will descend shortly after takeoff to get him to sleep) but he woke up screaming half way. Clearly his ears were hurting. Once on the ground, he was better. Unfortunately, there was a delayed airplane at our gate which meant we had to sit around for awhile. That’s why we ended up arriving late. Overall, Southwest did a great job and we were happy.

For our return, we were originally flying Southwest back from Indy, but then my brother-in-law got engaged. The wedding was in Chicago, so we had to change course. Fortunately, American had failed to put any blackout dates on a Southwest sale so we picked a prime flight home for only $129.60 a ticket for my wife and kid. Mine was $148.80. Wow. And even better, we could just pocket the Southwest credit for a future flight with no change fee.

So we left downtown Chicago early on Sunday since having worked here, we knew that there’s always a chance of traffic on the Kennedy. This time, there was none and we got there with plenty of time to spare.

We used the kiosks to check our bags and then sat in a fairly short security line before heading toward our gate. It feels weird flying American out of Chicago having worked for United, and American’s terminal is definitely inferior. The corridors are long and narrow so it takes a long time to walk to your gate.

Once at our gate, we grabbed a seat and waited. It was a beautiful sunny day – the first time we’d seen the sun in nearly a week.

December 30, 2012
American 1063 Lv Chicago/O’Hare 9a Arr Los Angeles 1130a
Chicago/O’Hare (ORD): Gate K13, Runway 32L, Depart 14m Late
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 42A, Runway 24R, Arrive 19m Late
N963AN, Boeing 737-823, Silver, 100% Full
Seat 27E
Flight Time 4h10m

Boarding was something of a mess. We waited to hear a pre-boarding call, but there wasn’t one. First they called up elites and that was probably half the airplane right there. Then when they called group 1, I went up to the gate agent to ask if there was any pre-boarding for families. She looked annoyed and said that there was no family boarding. Then she went back to checking people in. It was just her and she was making everyone test their carry-on to see if it fit in the size-wise container. Those that didn’t, she tagged and had to hold up the line while she did. The whole thing seemed to frustrate people and looked really inefficient.

By the time we boarded, there were a ton of people on board. So we tried to get down the aisle toward our seat in the next to last row without knocking too many people with the car seat. Clearly people were annoyed with us despite our best efforts. We set up the car seat to face backwards as you’re supposed to do at this age and the flight attendant came and told us we had to face forward because we couldn’t block the recline of the person in front. That is not American’s policy, but fortunately we didn’t have to argue. The person in front of us was our friend and said there were no issues with her reclining so the flight attendant walked away.

I was hoping for an airplane with the new Boeing Sky Interior but it wasn’t to be. Our airplane was over 10 years old and had the old interior with bulky monitors in the aisle. One of the monitors had a flicker to it and too much red tint. They came by with free headsets. I took one but I never used it.

We were ready to go when the captain came on and told us that our nose gear strut needed more nitrogen. He said it would take 30 minutes, but they worked faster and we were less than 15 minutes late. After taxiing around the airport to get to our runway, we were in the air and on our way home.

There was one flight attendant on our flight who was strange, to say the least. He brought the cart down the aisle and when he got to us, simply barked “beverage” – I assumed it was a question.

I asked for a ginger ale and he just repeated four or five times “ale of ginger, ale of ginger….” Weird. Then it was time to focus on the task of entertaining the munchkin. About halfway through, we had gone through some light chop but the seatbelt sign stayed off. Then around Denver the sign went on and it immediately smoothed out. Go figure. The captain left the sign on for the duration of the flight.

During the second beverage pass, when the same flight attendant got to our row, he threw down napkins. My wife didn’t have her tray down so he threw one on her leg. I had my computer open and he just threw it on the keyboard. We didn’t even want any more drinks, so he moved on. When he went to pick up trash, he came through saying “CO” over and over. That, apparently, stands for “cans only.” Then he came by again with “ABC” which is “anything but cans.” So weird.

The only other thing of note on this trip was that I was able to put Gogo wifi to great use. The family behind us had a scheduled 35 minute connection from American to American Eagle. That alone should be illegal since you have to take a shuttle bus to the Eagle gates, but with us arriving nearly 20 minutes late, there was no chance. I whipped out my computer and started doing a little concierge work. I found them a good option in case they couldn’t make their original flight. Once we landed, however, they were paged by the agent on the ground to come to the front. American held the airplane.

Overall, it was a good trip. Southwest did a great job except for the long bag check line and the somewhat uncomfortable Evolve seat. American was just tired and not impressive. I know some airplanes at least look better on the inside. Some day I’ll see it.

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