Three lessons from our first flights with three kids

We got home a few hours ago from our first official airplane trip as a family of five—and all of us lived to talk about it. But because family travel is so organic, because every trip is different, Powerwoman and I learned some new things about flying with our brood. Here are three of the most salient lessons.

You can never be too prepared

This was the third round of the whole flying-with-baby thing, and Powerwoman and I thought we had everything covered with extra diapers, extra wipes, extra outfits, and plenty of pacifiers. What we neglected to remember was that our big girls might need backups, too. Imagine our surprise, then, when L spilled an entire glass of apple juice on her sister at breakfast this morning. Thankfully, we were able to find the ONLY kiosk at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) with kid-sized pants AND kid-sized shirts (the girls opted for bedazzled numbers; they are ridiculous). Still, for about an hour of searching and calming a wet and upset Little R, we were not exactly jazzed about the oversight. The lesson: Always bring a pair of backup clothes for every child, no matter how “big” you think the big ones might be.

Shrieking and crying are two different things

Baby G’s nickname has become The Happiest Baby on Earth. Just because she’s happy, however, doesn’t mean she’s quiet. About a week before we left on our New York adventure, G rolled out a new habit of shrieking. She practiced this shriek again and again over the course of both flights. At first Powerwoman and I were nervous about what fellow passengers would say. It turns out that shrieking bothers other travelers a heck of a lot less than crying. In fact, most of the other passengers (except for one crotchety old man) laughed when she shrieked, even going to far as to comment about how much it seemed she was enjoying the flight. The lesson: Just because your baby is noisy on a flight doesn’t mean it’s going to irritate other people.

In a pinch, airplane food doesn’t suck

Normally I like to bring TONS of food on plane flights to control what the girls eat. This time, however, we were rushing to get out of the house to catch our flight from San Francisco International Airport to EWR and I left most of the best snacks in the refrigerator at home. Of course I didn’t discover my blunder until we were on the actual airplaine. D’oh! Once I stopped berating myself for this mistake, I accepted that the only alternative was airplane food. And it wasn’t bad. We opted for a bunch of cheese plates, which came with grapes and apples. No, the kids weren’t stuffed to the gills, but the food provided ample nutrition until we landed in Newark and were able to get other stuff. The lesson: Sometimes, even with the pickiest eaters, airplane food is enough to sustain you.

I could go on and on about other lessons from the flights but these were the three that stuck out most. For you, dear readers, I hope the general takeaway is that even we “experts” still learn stuff. Nobody’s perfect. That’s one of the things that makes family travel so much fun.

What lessons have you learned about flying as your family has grown?

Wandering Pod debuts in Businessweek

Family travel isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek. Yet a few months ago, a friend of mine who is an editor there approached me to see if I’d contribute to a section they were doing about traveling with kids.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance. The resulting story appears in the May 2-8, 2016 issue, which hit newsstands this week.

My piece is short and sweet; it appears as a three-panel, illustrated “as told by” piece near the back of the book. In the graphical account, I (re)tell a story I first shared on the pages of this very blog–a piece about how Powerwoman and I kept L and R occupied with paper chains on a flight from San Francisco to Maui. Want the scoop? Check out the Instagram pic below.

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

When crying babies mean free flights

Crying baby, from the video.

Crying baby, from the video.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 (maybe 20?) years, here’s a news flash: A whole lot of people hate flying on airplanes with crying babies.

I’ve been on flights where other passengers have thrown me dirty looks for simply boarding with one of my babies. I’ve seen fellow flyers accost parents about their babies before the babies even make a peep: “You’re going to keep that child quiet on this flight, right?” they ask pre-emptively. I’ve even heard travelers tell flight attendants that they “WILL NOT SIT NEXT TO THAT BABY UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.” (FWIW, most of the people who do and say this heinous stuff are straight men.)

And this is what makes this week’s new campaign from JetBlue so frieking brilliant.

The campaign, released in conjunction with Mother’s Day, comprises a 3-minute mini-documentary video about a recent JetBlue flight from New York to Long Beach—a flight on which the airline gave people significant discounts on a future flight every time a baby cried.

As the film explains, the first cry netted passengers a 25 percent discount, the second cry 50 percent, the third cry 75 percent, and the fourth cry a free flight. Of course all passengers aboard the flight in question received free tickets for a future flight. And interestingly, the babies on board actually managed to last more than four hours into the 5.5-hour flight before notching that fourth and final cry.

But, really, the stunt wasn’t about crying babies or free flights. It was about changing public perception, about incenting passengers to cheer for crying babies instead of passively encouraging them to mock and jeer the all-too-familiar condition of tots being tots. As a whole, the campaign takes a look at current thinking about babies on planes, turns that thinking on its head, and tells the haters to suck it—ALL IN THE NAME OF A DAY CELEBRATING MOMS.

I can’t think of a better message to jolt people into transforming their POVs. Even if the impact is minimal, the statement needs to be heard (and heard and heard and heard again). On behalf of family travel gurus and parents with babies everywhere, thank you, JetBlue. The next time Baby G cries on a plane, I’ll laugh and think of this.

United reverses policy on family boarding

She thanks you, United.

She thanks you, United.

You have to respect a company that admits past mistakes. That’s why I’m loving United Airlines today.

The carrier announced that on Feb. 15, it will resume policies that allow families traveling with young children to board flights early. The move reinstates a policy that the airline had embraced for decades but curtailed back in April 2012.

(It also undoubtedly has inspired invisible choirs to sing “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah, and has sparked families to exclaim, “It’s about fucking time!”)

According to a report in The Chicago Tribune, United was the last “holdout” among major airlines on the subject of early boarding for families. The article lists how other airlines handle the issue and I recommend clicking through (here’s the link again) to read the list. To summarize the info box, some airlines let families skip in front of everybody while others let the first class and elite passengers onto the plane first, then give families a head start on the rest of the passengers.

My favorite part of the announcement was when, Sandra Pineau-Boddison, United’s senior vice president of customers, told the Trib that the move comes as part of a larger effort by the Chicago-based airline to be more attentive to passengers’ needs.

“It takes a little bit of the stress out of the travel situation,” she said. “Some things are just the right thing to do.”

What Pineau-Boddison didn’t say but implied: “We were wrong.” No matter who’s speaking, it takes courage to admit that sort of thing. Well done, United. Well done.

Congressmen push to make family travel more accessible

Get it together, legislators!

Get it together, legislators!

Every now and again, our elected officials actually do something I can get behind. Case in point: the FAA Reauthorization Bill, which includes a push to make into law new rules that would require airlines to allow families to guarantee seats together on planes.

In other words, the legislation aims to make traveling with children more accessible for everyone.

I don’t just support this because of my involvement with the Family Travel Association (though, I admit, the FTA will be supporting this legislation in a HUGE way). I support the bill because I’ve been separated from my kids on a flight before, and it’s about time we did something to prevent it from happening to other families.

Technically, the bill is H.R. 3334. The formal name for it is the “Families Flying Together Act.” It’s been introduced before. And, much like that first, time, the legislation is being championed by U.S. Representatives Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

H.R. 3334 is expected to be added as an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill, which the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will consider later this month. If all goes well, both 3334 and the bill itself will be voted into law later this year.

There’s a lot of work to do before then, though. First is convincing lawmakers that this is something which warrants attention. Next is inspiring other traveling parents to get behind the effort as well. To this end, Davis and Nadler have been circulating a letter to their colleagues outlining the merits of their addendum to the big bill. Here’s a (lengthy) snip from that letter:

As airlines change policies and increase fees for a variety of basic services, it is becoming more difficult for families with small children to sit together on commercial flights. There are increasing reports of parents being separated from their children when they arrive to board an aircraft. Often the only ‘recourse’ is to rely on another passenger to voluntarily change seats. This inconvenience for everyone involved is complicated by the fact that a passenger might have to vacate a seat for which they [sic] paid a premium in order to allow a parent to sit next to their [sic] child.

This scenario also has the potential of being unsafe and traumatic for the families involved. It is not in a child’s best interest, nor does it serve the other passengers on board, to allow small children to be seated alone and separated from their parents on a flight. It is simply common sense to ensure a small child does not sit unattended, next to strangers, on an airplane.

H.R. 3334, the Families Flying Together Act, would require each air carrier to establish and make publicly available on their [sic] website a policy ensuring that families purchasing tickets are seated together to the greatest extent practicable. Further, it would also require airlines to notify passengers traveling with small children if seats are not available together at the point of purchase. These common-sense reforms would increase transparency for consumers and vastly improve the flying experiences of families with small children.

Flight passengers deserve predictability and transparency, particularly for something as basic as a seating assignment. H.R. 3334 does so in a way that prioritizes the safety and well-being of small children without being overly burdensome for airlines.

The issue at hand is clear. For the first time in a while, we actually might be able to do something about it. Now it’s time to come together and do something about it. If you want to get involved, call your representative and ask him/her to support H.R. 3334. At the very least, share this post with other traveling parents to raise awareness of this golden opportunity to make a change. Thanks in advance for your support.

Jim Gaffigan on traveling with five kids

The challenges of traveling with multiple children are real. Powerwoman and I are reminded of this whenever we leave the house these days with L and R and (now) G in tow. But, really, we’ve got nothing on Jim Gaffigan.

The Gaffigans meet Rapunzel (from "The Jim Gaffigan Show" website).

The Gaffigans meet Rapunzel (from Gaffigan himself).

Yes, THAT Jim Gaffigan. The comedian. The guy who played my favorite role on the television show, “My Boys,” back in the day. The guy who made millions on the “Hot Pockets” skit.

You see, Gaffigan has five kids. And apparently, as we call can watch on his new reality show, “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” he and his wife take them on the road when Gaffigan is touring. Ostensibly to promote the show, Gaffigan opened up to Kelly DiNardo in a recent Q&A for The New York Times about the rigors and realities of traveling with a handful of offspring. If you read nothing else about family travel today, you should read this piece.

Why did I love the story? For starters, it’s funny, just like Gaffigan. Example: “Traveling with 3- and 4-year-old boys is like transferring serial killers from a prison. You have to be constantly aware.”

The piece also offers some really useful tips. Like the part where Gaffigan says he makes his older kids write a single-page diary entry about every city they visit. (I’m *totally* trying that with L.) Or the part where the comedian admits that his kids—like all kids—struggle on international flights.

But my absolute favorite snip from the piece is where Gaffigan defends international family travel. His perspective: “There’s this perception that with international travel it’s not worth it because [kids] don’t get it. I think they do. And I think they see their parents behave differently in different cultures. My kids are pretty good travelers. I think they’re more sturdy because of it, more resilient.”

All told, the piece will take you five minutes to read. Check it out.

Tips for holiday air travel with kids

Enduring delays in mid-air.

Enduring delays in mid-air.

I dole out a ton of advice on this blog about traveling with kids. Sometimes, I like to spread the love. That explains my latest piece for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia—a story that lists five tips for holiday air travel with children. The piece went live earlier today.

The story culls advice and insight I’ve gleaned from six years as a family traveler. Some of the suggestions relate to ideas I’ve mentioned here before. Some of the suggestions are brand new.

The bottom line: We can’t just board a plane and expect our kids to entertain themselves.

Flying with kids at any of time of year requires effort on the part of us parents. Well during the holidays, when airplanes and airports are at their craziest and busiest, it’s even more important for us to stay cool, stay calm, be flexible and be ready to tackle any delay, cancelation, sickness or angry fellow passenger that comes our way.

My No. 1 tip (which you may have read previously in these pages): Bring art projects. Kids love making things at home, so why not put them in position to make the same sort of stuff at 35,000 feet? When we fly during holidays, I bring construction paper and Scotch tape so the kids can make paper chains. My job in the assembly line is to rip the paper into perfect rectangles; from there, L and R take turns making circles, taping circles and stringing the chains up around our seats.

Sometimes we leave the chains for the next passenger (or the cleaning crew). Other times we hand them to flight attendants, who love the thought. Whoever gets ‘em, the process usually kills at least 90 minutes. On a long flight—especially during holiday season—that’s practically a lifetime.

Get me a flying nanny

Adra, courtesy of Yahoo Travel

Adra, courtesy of Yahoo Travel

When I win the World Series of Poker, I’m hiring a flying nanny for a family trip.

Above all else, this is what I took away from a recent Yahoo Travel article by friend and colleague, Jo Piazza. The story, titled, “Confessions of an Airline Nanny,” offered up a Q&A with Sara Adra, one of the flying nannies employed by Etihad Airways.

According to the piece, these “Mary Poppins in the sky” (as Piazza puts it) play entertainment concierge, personal chef, and more. They tackle everything from managing carry-on bags to preparing kids for bed and “distracting” kids when they’re feeling spent. And who the hell wouldn’t want that on a flight with kids?

Specifically, Piazza’s piece notes that many flying nannies are skilled puppetry, origami, face painting, and magic tricks. The story quotes Adra recounting an anecdote about a time when she dressed a 4-year-old passenger up in a flight attendant uniform. It also offers up some of Adra’s “expert” advice on soothing crying babies in mid-air; not surprisingly, she mentions offering the child a pacifier.

The piece is a fascinating perspective into the life of the rich and famous, a look at how someone else might mind your kids at 35,000 feet.

It did not mention how much extra flying nannies cost, though I’m guessing it’s a lot.

The part of the story that stuck with me most was the part where Piazza asked Adra about her “duties” in this job. Her response: “I am there to help any family to have an easier flight—whether that means to cater their meal times differently to our serving times, to distract the child with coloring competitions and other fun games while mom and/or dad take a break or even help mind the children while the single traveling parent takes restroom breaks and a quick stretch.”

For me, the notion of “taking a break” on a family trip seems like an incredible luxury. Someday, dear readers, even if only for a few brief moments, I wish all of us can experience it at the hands of a flying nanny.

Elsa and Anna take to the skies

Let it go, let it go.

Let it go, let it go. (Pic courtesy of WestJet)

Thankfully my kids have grown out of their “Frozen” fetish and grown into “My Little Pony” and similarly inane adorable girly things.

Otherwise, they might have freaked out upon glimpsing the newest plane from WestJet.

According to a company blog post, the plane, a 737, is custom-painted with “Frozen” themes and scenes, inside and out. On the outside, Olaf is toward the nose and Elsa and Anna are on the tail. Inside, the entire cast appears on the outside of overhead bin doors, and “snow” is everywhere.

To be clear, the plane makes a bold statement. It’s a marketing play, plain and simple. It also serves as proof positive of what I’m sure is a healthy and productive relationship between the airline and Disney Parks. That said, especially for the Villano girls, “Frozen” is yesterday’s news, which means WestJet is about a year too late to guarantee this paint job is on trend.

Still, the effort raises some fascinating questions about kids’ preferences and family travel overall. Do kids really get MORE excited about flying in planes with their favorite characters? If so, how much more? I’ve scoured the Internet for data on the subject and can’t find any.  If you find some, let me know.

Meanwhile, here in our house, we’ll keep hooves peeled (get it?) for the day an airline unveils an MLP plane. When it happens, people, we’ll book like the wind.

How much extra would you pay for a seat on a themed plane?

Hilarious look at flying with kids

Jamie Kaler and clan at 35,000 feet.

Jamie Kaler and clan at 35,000 feet.

As a family travel advocate, I like to focus on the positives of traveling with kids. The fun parts of road trips. The creative strategies of enduring plane travel. The secret ways to have sex with your partner in a hotel room while the kids sleep.

That said, I certainly can appreciate an honest take on some of the (undeniable) challenges of family travel.

This is why I loved a Babble.com essay by actor/comedian Jamie Kaler that was published earlier this week. The piece, titled, “The one rule you must follow when traveling with toddlers,” offers a hilarious perspective on the inherent insanity of flying with kids. Like Kaler himself, the essay is snarf-your-coffee-and-pee-your-pants funny.

Here’s a fun recap of Kaler’s best one-liners in the piece:

  • On kids in general: “To me, kids are like Vegas. You should have to travel ‘to’ them, and you’re not able to stay for more than three days.”
  • On schlepping a bunch of crap to the airport when you travel with kids: “Getting them to the airport is a disaster: 250 pounds of luggage, and only 5 of those pounds are mine. It’s like I’m a personal valet for the babies from Downton Abbey.”
  • On the hardest part of family travel: “[It] is not just the horror of planes, trains, and automobiles, but the constant fear that your kid is going to get hurt. You see, our house is child-proofed; the world is not. And kids are stupid.”

My personal favorite part of the essay is when Kaler talks about the “inevitable” delay at the gate that seems to make time stand still. He writes: “It feels like that moment in The Matrix when Keanu Reeves is dodging bullets in slow mo. Except that every bullet hits you. And it never ends.”

I loved Kaler on “My Boys” back in the day and have enjoyed his stand-up routines over the years. This piece, though—this piece takes the cake. I dare you to read it and keep a straight face. Once you do, and once you clean up the coffee you snarfed (or you change your underpants), use the comments field to tell me what you think he missed.

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