Traveling with a Child Play-by-Play: This is What It’s Like
5:30 am: Budapest is beautiful in the rosy morning light. The airport shuttle taxi arrives on time, an auspicious start. We’d set two alarms and David got up early to help us get ready, so Spencer and I sit happily in the cab as it passes through the quiet early morning streets. The red geraniums in the iron window boxes are so soft and bright they practically bleed into the air. Spencer and I go over the basic plan together: Two airplanes, then auntie’s house! He affirms. “Not grandpa house, auntie house.” I emphasized for the three days beforehand that we were going to auntie’s house first,so he didn’t freak out when our long sojourn ended at a strange house in New Jersey with two people he hasn’t seen since he was three months old.
6:15 am: Arrive at the airport. Uh oh, it’s really busy. The kiosk refuses to print my boarding pass. Lines are 45 minutes. Good thing I checked in online last night and emailed myself our boarding passes. Good thing I have carryon only. Spenny and I proceed to security. Because he’s a toddler (and I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m alone), they wave me to the front of the line, and I’m in the boarding area in five minutes. This is one of the few perks when traveling with a child. SCORE.
6:30 – 7:30 am: We now have an hour to kill. He’s excited to be in an airport (he loves airplanes), so we stop for a coffee and cookie while we wait for our boarding gate to be posted. He asks for a package of brightly colored macaroons, and whether or not it’s a good idea, I accede. I want him to think of long trips as the special holiday they were for me as a kid. He almost never gets the impulse buys he begs for, so he’s ecstatic when I say yes.
7:45 We get to the boarding area. I’m now paying for the sugar rush. The trouble-making gleam is in his eye. So I’m trying to move a few things for the flight out of my main backpack and into the recyclable grocery bag for easy access when he discovers a new sticker book, one of his “trip presents,” while I’m distracted. He demands that I start unpeeling stickers for him right now. Fortunately, he’s content after two stickers. Then we’re boarding.
8:00 Again because of his age, we get to board first. (Some airlines have started saying “children under 2” when they start pre-boarding. Because this is ridiculous, I ignore it and march my 3-year-old up there.) I’ve never been turned down. Again, the emailed boarding passes save me from fumbling through my purse.
8:15 On the plane. Ohmygod. I left the thumb drive with all of Spencer’s movies at home. How could I have forgotten? FAIL.
8:30 Take off. On his fourth trip, Spencer is now used to putting on the seatbelt for take off, so I don’t have to fight him. I do have to remind him several times that we can’t touch the seat in front of us, because that would “give the person in front of us owies.” I remember being well-acquainted with this rule by the time I was six, so I’m hoping that practice makes perfect. We do not annoy anyone. We spend our first 1.5 hour flight drawing on his Magnadoodle and playing with stickers. Because I don’t expect to get any time to read or do other productive things childless people do on planes, I’m happy. Low expectations are key.
Traveling with a Child: The Transfer
10:00 We land in Heathrow. Now begins the toughest 1.5 hours of the whole trip. First, let me say that while I hate Heathrow for the long transfer journey, Charles de Gaulle and Schipol aren’t much better. A certain amount of chaos is unavoidable at a huge hub. I WILL say that 1.5 hours for the transfer is an absolute minimum if you’re traveling with a child. We take a train to the transfer area, wait in line for security, walk, go through passport control, and take another set of elevators and trains to get to our next flight. Several things are happening at this point:
-I’m carrying Spencer and the backpack, because I didn’t want the extra bulk of a stroller or the time lost waiting for it after the flight. At about 70 pounds, my weight load is maxing me out and I’m really struggling. Maybe a stroller would have been a good idea. Luckily, my strain is visible to everyone around me, and I again get skipped to the heads of lines. I didn’t have to wait at passport control at all. For some reason, they hadn’t given me boarding passes for my next flight, so I magically get passed to the head of an “information line” that takes care of my boarding passes and passport control at the same time. This has never happened to me before, and I won’t bank on it in future, but I wouldn’t have made it to the gate on time otherwise.
As I’m rushing to make a train, a man offers to carry one of my bags. Saints in heaven, I do not hesitate to let him. As we run, he tells me that his wife recently took a trip alone with their kids. He knows what it’s like. Something he says about his job sparks my curiosity, and I discover later that he’s the head of Starbucks for the EU. Thank you for your kindness, Kris Engskov.
12:00 – We arrive just in time for family pre-boarding. Spencer of course, got stressed when I did during the transfer, and it now takes him a little bit of time to settle down. I noticed that it helped when I really listened to him while we were scrambling, no matter what else was going on. Even though we were rushing, we stopped a few times so that I could fix his wedgies. He was visibly calmed whenever I remembered to show him that I was paying attention.
Traveling with a Child: The Long Flight
12:30 – Boarding our 6-hour flight. Oh boy. They put a man with a bad leg next to me. I feel so bad. I know I’m going to have to ask him to get up at least three times during this 6 hour flight so that my son can go to the bathroom. Of course, there’s nothing either of us can do, and he’s very gracious about it every time.
12:45 – Blessedly, Spencer goes to sleep right after take-off. We were lucky to be able to time this flight close to his nap time, and the rocking and noise from the plane always helps him sleep.
12: 50 – One of those guys who pounds the vending machine is operating the entertainment console on the back of my seat. Is he playing whack-a-mole?
12: 55 – It smells like old church carpet in here.
1:00-3:00 – Spencer sleeps, I try variously to read, watch a movie, and nap. I fail.
3:05 – Spencer wake up three hours before landing. He eats and drinks, he’s in a good mood. So far so good.
4:05 – Two hours to go and we’re a little antsy. He’s asking for milk though I just used our call button for it ten minutes ago, and I’ve also just made the man with an injured leg get up so we could go to the bathroom. I tell Spencer he can have more after we get off the plane, he seems ok with that.
4:30 – In absence of milk, Spencer graciously consents to eat crackers. I’ve held off on more candy. He gets two gummy bears every time we get onto our next transportation leg. These little treats and gifts are everything. I know we’ll have to transition back to “normal, no treat time” after the travel, but the only thing that matters right now is flight survival.
Traveling with a Child: Hanging On Til the End
5:30 pm – 6:30 p.m. Landing. Time warp! The six hour flight put us in NYC at 12:30, which is 6:30 pm back in Budapest. Now things are going to get tricky, because unfortunately we still have a long way to go. We have border control, and an airporter bus that takes us through New York City to Penn Station, where we’ll board the train to my friend’s house in New Jersey. I’m starting to think this leg was too ambitious. Spencer will want to be sleeping soon. But if I can stay in a good mood and not get stressed, I’m hoping he’ll play along. Luckily, I don’t have to wait for our luggage. Passport control takes about 15 minutes, and I’m in the hot July air outside. Sweet.
7:15 p.m – 9:15 p.m. Boarding and taking the airporter bus. Spencer’s excited to be outside. Good. It’s hot outside as we wait for a crowded bus. Bad. By the time we get onto the bus, Spencer is exhausted, but amazingly not cranky. He gets his two gummy bears. We watch movies on the iPad. We look out the window.
Our only hiccup is when Spencer sees the Disney characters in Times Square. He demands to get off the and see them. He physically strains toward the door, jabbing himself in the chest and saying “I’M getting off,” implying that I can do whatever I like, but his plans are set. Somehow, I console him after a few minutes. I tip the bus driver and ask him where the entrance to Penn Station. He points across the street. Okay.
9:30 p.m. – 12:00 a.m. Penn Station is body to body. I find the ticket queue, and luckily the line is going fast. We get our NJ Transit ticket quickly. The lady at the window is brisk but helpful; she points us down to the platform, and we make it onto the train with two minutes to spare.
I am thanking God for the blessings that are making this trip go smoothly. Our good attitudes are helping us stay upbeat. I’m not going to press my luck again. Getting from JFK to Penn Station in the middle of the day requires two hours, minimum. At least it does on an airporter bus. A taxi would have been about $50 more expensive, maybe 30 minutes faster, without the stops in between.
Spencer falls asleep on the packed commuter train. First, he takes his sandals off. His feet reek, and he doesn’t want to put a blanket over them. I’m embarrassed. Luckily, he falls asleep immediately and the blanket goes on. Sorry NY commuters for the temporary stink!
We ride for an hour, the train thins out. We switch to the final train, which is luckily exactly across the platform. Spencer doesn’t wake up. I listen to a drunk guy ask the conductor whether he’s coming or going. You and me both, buddy. At one stop he stumbles off the train, and I hope for his sake it’s the right one.
12:30 a.m – 2:30 a.m. By the time I ooze out of the train doors into the Philadelphia station, my muscles, nerves, and outlook are all very fragile. We have now been traveling for 19 hours. I go into the station and sit down on a bench. Because I didn’t know which train I’d make, I haven’t been able to tell my friend exactly when I’ll arrive. Not wanting April to wait, I gave her a time that ended up being 30 minutes later than I actually arrived. And guess what, I can’t connect to the train station’s wifi. Spencer wakes up as I’m rummaging around in my bag for the phone, and this time I know he won’t settle down. I’ve asked enough of him, and I just rock him while he cries. April, the sainted face I’ve been dreaming about, runs into the waiting area, and we embrace. I’m so lucky she came inside. I’m not sure I could have managed lugging those 70 pounds out to the curb and standing there while holding a screaming babe.
In the car, Spencer is giddy, suddenly revitalized, and talking to April’s three month baby. We make it home, and April and George order pizza. I go into our bedroom to settle Spencer for the night, and the next thing I know it’s morning.
Thank the lord, we’ve made it. But not without the kindness of strangers, a stubbornly good attitude, and the generosity of dear friends.