My mission was to survive a 17-hour non-stop flight from New York to Bangkok -- in economy class -- with my toddler daughter Ella. The tactic was simple -- just wing it and hope her genes meant that she was as good a long-haul flyer as I am. The results were as follows:
Lessons to be Learned From Flying with a 22-Month-Old Child:
Lesson #1: To Purchase a Seat or Not Purchase a Seat? That is the Question
Yes, it's true -- I could have spent the $1,000 to purchase a seat for my daughter but I declined and decided that as this was her final overseas trip (yes she has already done several) before she turns two and will actually have to pay for a ticket, I would take the money-saving option.
This in itself could have spelled "nightmare," especially when an elderly and very kind Bangladeshi man sat down right next to my husband and me in a center row with only three seats. He looked more shocked at the prospect of having to travel in such close proximity to a baby than I was to discover that although I had booked two aisle seats (hoping that nobody would take the center seat between us), we weren't going to get that spare seat after all.
Flying with anything on your lap for 17 hours, let alone 30-pounds of energy and restlessness, is close to impossible. Ultimately my decision to pre-request seats in the middle section paid off when the steward, seeing the look of absolute despair on my face, moved Mr. Bangladeshi to the only two spare seats on the plane directly across from us just before take off from JFK.
Next stop would be Bangkok, Thailand via the North Pole (no really -- they fly over the top of the world and then south over Russia, Mongolia and China etc.) Okay, so far so good, but as it was midday and my daughter Ella is an active, shall we say somewhat rambunctious "big girl," there was still the matter of entertaining and feeding her.
Lesson #2: Which Airline to Fly
I will say upfront that I paid for these airline tickets in full so unfortunately no kind PR person at Thai Airways (tel. 800/426-5204; www.thaiair.com) comped my flights. It may be a generalization, but there is something so endearing and kind about the flight staff of Asian-based airlines that really makes even a 17-hour flight from hell bearable. That Asian hospitality begins the minute you step on board and no request is too great. The flight attendants offered to sterilize my baby bottles for me, gave us extra meals for Ella and snacks for me at 4am (I think that was New York time). They also entertained Ella, gave her toys to play with, looked after her during my bathroom breaks and were more than happy to show me photos of their babies when I visited the galley. I'd like to see that level of service on a U.S.-based carrier.
Lesson #3: Learn From Other, Smarter Parents
Yes there are better, more adept flying parents out there and the best lesson is to observe. I noticed one couple with two children under the age of three who had cleverly brought every imaginable toy, craft and child distraction with them. There were sticker books, finger paint that only appears on special paper (so no spills or mess), toys and DVDs. Food is also an issue when traveling with a small child and although I had prepared several of her favorite snacks, the best decision was to bring Ella's dinner from home (which the flight attendant kindly heated in the first class microwave for me). One thing I did forget was a full set of additional clothes (apart from pajamas) and after Ella spilled something resembling ketchup all over her pants, I soon realized that the smarter family seated in front of us had a full supply of extra outfits on hand. The first eight hours of the flight were made up of walks up and down the aisle, visits to the galley, pointing out exciting features (like the lights and buttons) to Ella and trying to balance head phones on her tiny, delicate ears. The in-flight video screens are great but hardly a distraction for more than ten minutes to an active toddler.
Lesson #4: Sleeping is a Luxury
When the chance of catching a couple of hours of sleep finally looked like becoming a reality, I was horrified to hear Mr. Bangladeshi snoring like a freight train. I also discovered that the airline had stopped giving away those handy eye patches and I had not so cleverly packed mine with my toiletries, which of course were safely tucked into my suitcase in the luggage hold. Ultimately sleep is not really an option, unless you are one of those people that has the ability to slumber anywhere under any condition. The two to three hours I did manage to get while my daughter slept with her head on my lap and her legs dangling over my husband's knees were less than satisfying but much appreciated.
The Final Lesson: Is Long Haul Not Too Long?
At the time I may not have said so, but flying non-stop really is the best alternative, although I reserve the right to retract this statement based on my experience in a few weeks' time when I will be doing the same flight in reverse without my husband to share the burden and straight after a eight hour flight from Australia to Bangkok. Ultimately we arrived in our destination (Phuket) after some 24 hours of travel door to door and Ella went straight to sleep and didn't wake up for eight hours -- an absolute godsend. I can't promise that it will be pretty, but at least you can be rest assured (when you arrive of course) that you will reach your destination earlier and your child will forgive you. Eventually.
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