MacGyver meets family travel

There will be other posts about my weekend getaway with the big girls to Legoland and Southern California. Posts about how grown-up these kids have gotten, posts about Post-It notes in bathrooms, and posts about how the best part of our vacation involved a night in the hotel.

For now, however, mere hours after we’ve gotten home, I leave you with this demonstration of how I MacGyvered our trip:

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You know MacGyver, that fictional character (who headlined a television show of the same name) who could fashion something useful out of just about anything? He would have been proud of the degree to which I kicked ass Friday as we arrived at San Francisco International Airport for our journey to San Diego and beyond.

As we unloaded the car (backpacks for the girls, a backpack for me, and a small duffel bag), I realized I needed to bring their booster seats for the rental car. The seats were within our carry-on allotment (we had purchased three tickets; the girls’ backpacks fit under the seats in front of them), but the girls refused to carry them through the terminal. Instead of fighting with the kids, I furiously searched through my back for something to lash them together. I found three hair ties. That was all I’d need.

In a matter of moments, I had fashioned the hair ties into a carrying handle. The handle did the job—both to and fro.

A total MacGyvering.

I’ve railed on these pages (and elsewhere) about the idiocy of the mean-spirited #CarryOnShame campaign that encourages travelers to shame other travelers when it appears people are violating airline carry-on policies. If one of those people had seen me schlepping the seats around the airport, undoubtedly they would have snapped a pic and shamed me.

In the end, however, my MacGyver move was both ingenious and totally in accordance with the rules. #CarryonShame, my ass.

New effort to stock airports with kids’ books

The Read on the Fly team, with Erin Kirkland in blue

Read on the Fly, with Erin Kirkland in blue

Family travelers get shit done. How else to explain the latest exploits of my buddy Erin Kirkland, the woman behind the travel blog AKontheGO?

Erin, who lives in Alaska and is a fellow member of the Family Travel Association, recently kicked off Read on the Fly, an initiative to stock boarding areas at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (TSAIA) with a library of children’s books. As Erin explains it in a post on her blog, she was inspired to start the program after cleaning out books from her son’s closet and realizing the books could be put to good use in a second life.

The goals of the project are to promote literacy and keep kids happy while they’re waiting to travel with their families. As of right now, the program will maintain six different mini libraries in the Anchorage airport, and will stock these libraries with books suitable for children ages 0-16. When kids are flying with their parents, they can either borrow books to read at their gates, or take books from the shelves and bring the books with them on their respective journeys. The hope is that kids will return the books they borrow. If they don’t, Erin plans to collect donations to keep libraries robust.

(Airport officials actually gave Erin security clearance so she can tend to the libraries whenever she likes. How cool is that?!?!)

Erin notes that Read On the Fly is truly a collaborative effort among AKontheGO, Alaska Airlines, and TSAIA, not to mention the long list of individuals and businesses who have offered books, time, space and effort to push this project to fruition. She adds that the bookshelves were designed by volunteers from the Alaska Aviation Museum, and likely will be built by those folks, too.

Eventually, the plan is to expand Read on the Fly to other airports. For now, however, the focus is on Anchorage. If you want to be one of the founding donors, click here. You also can email the Read On the Fly team at readontheflyak@gmail.com and let them know how you want to contribute. FWIW, I’ll be shipping some books north next month.

Oh, and if you’re as eager as I am to see the program in action, Erin says it launches formally this June.

Delta launches Atlanta airport facility for Autistic kids

Ball pit in the multisensory room.

Ball pit in the multisensory room.

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and I’m sure parents with children on the autism spectrum rejoiced last week when Delta opened Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s first multisensory room.

The project, a partnership with autism advocacy group The Arc, provides a calming, supportive environment and includes a mini ball pit, a bubbling water sculpture, a tactile activity panel, and other items children can interact with to help calm them and prepare them for travel. The room is located in a quiet space on the F Concourse, one of the busiest airport terminals in the country.

In short, it’s the perfect facility in the perfect spot for parents traveling with kids on the spectrum.

I was hipped to this news by buddy Damon Brown, who blogs about these sorts of things for Inc. magazine. In a post published yesterday, Damon noted that the room isn’t just good news for Autistic kids, but also for anyone who struggles with the sensory overload of today’s airport experience.

In related news, as I wrote in my weekly travel roundup column for AFAR.com, The Arc also sponsors “familiarization tours” during which pilots and flight attendants lead autistic children and their parents aboard parked planes to help alleviate any fears and uncertainties about the boarding process. The program is called Wings for Autism. For more information, click here.

Great new tool for organizing family travel

This tool will change my traveling life.

This tool will change my traveling life.

Considering the chaos that is traveling with two (soon to be three!) kids under the age of 7, I’m a huge fan of tools that help organize family travel.

I’ve blogged about some of these tools previously. My new fave: The Qliplet.

Essentially, this tool is a carabiner on steroids. It’s a heavy-duty clip for consolidating bags or other items and holding them to larger objects. It also has a super-strong rotating hook that can be used for other stuff—everything from (more) totes to jackets to milk jugs (really) and more. The hook also can be used to support the carabiner.

The device went on sale at a discounted rate through an IndieGoGo campaign (from parent company, Lulabop) this week. I got to review device earlier this summer and found it useful, durable, and helpful, all at once.

I certainly put a prototype of the Qliplet through some paces. First I took it on a daytrip with the girls to our local children’s museum, and attached it to my backpack to carry L’s water. Next I clipped it to our jogging stroller and attached it to a different backpack while I took R on a run around the neighborhood. After that, just for fun, I hooked it to the back of our buggy and tried to see how much weight I could put on the carabiner part of the tool. I gave up after it easily handled 35 pounds.

The story behind Qliplet is pretty neat; the tool was invented by a mom and former professor of entrepreneurship as a way to manage the needs for lugging additional stuff after the birth of her first child. The inventor’s name is Mina Yoo. (You can learn more about her here.)

In all, the tool seems like a good investment. I’m sure I’ll be using mine frequently once we start schlepping a newborn everywhere later this year.

I’m looking forward to enjoying how much easier the tool makes my traveling life.

What are your favorite family travel tools and why?

Potty breaks while traveling solo with kids

Too old for the men's room? Then what?

Too old for the men’s room? Then what?

I travel a ton alone with my girls. And considering that they are developing female humans and I am a grown male, sometimes potty breaks while we’re out and about can be a bit, well, dicey.  Naturally, then, when a reader wrote in recently with a question about how to handle this very scenario, I figured it was time to address the point here.

The bottom line: There’s no good answer here.

At the heart of this issue is the question about the cutoff age for children of the opposite sex being in a restroom. There’s no hard and fast rule here, but generally speaking, I’d say the age is somewhere around 4 or 5.

This is the age when kids start to internalize differences in body types; the age when daughters might notice certain parts near the urinal, or when sons might feel the need to comment about sanitary napkin pails. It’s also around the age when strangers (in this case, other grown-ups) might become uncomfortable with your kids seeing them doing their business.

I know at my gym, the rule is that no opposite-sex kids over the age of 4 are allowed in locker rooms. I know other gyms and YMCAs have that same cutoff. Personally I use that as my barometer.

Of course it’s not always so easy; especially when complying with this (totally arbitrary) rule could put your child in danger. Let’s say I need to use the men’s room in a crowded airport—do I leave L standing by herself outside?

Sometimes, sort of, yes.

My first choice in this situation always is to look for family restrooms. These usually are private rooms that comprise one toilet and one sink—and have a door you can close and lock so you and the kids can do your thangs without fear of interruption. Many airports offer this amenity (one at PDX recently saved R and me during an extended flight delay), and a growing number of shopping destinations do, too.

If I can’t find one of these wonder rooms, I usually have the girls “give a pee-pee concert.” This is our code for my Backup Bathroom Plan B.

In this scenario, I go into the bathroom to do my business and have the girls stand right outside the door, belting out “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “Let it Go,” or some other tune so I can hear that they’re safe. As soon as I’m finished, I race outside to meet them. Then I clean my hands with a wipe or their antibacterial gel.

I’m sure this strategy looks—and sounds—completely absurd to passersby. Still, it satisfies all objectives: I get to pee, we respect the privacy of other men, and the kids stay safe outside.

The Concert Plan certainly can backfire. My kids know that if they need me for any reason during a pee-pee concert, they are to scream a secret word (I’m not sharing it here to keep it secret). One time, one of the kids lost a hairclip and thought that constituted an emergency. I rushed out to find everything under control. My pants, however—let’s just say they didn’t fare so well.

(Obviously, there also are potentially more serious outcomes of this scenario, as well.)

Again, the rub here is that there’s no right answer. I’m sure other parents have other ways of dealing with this challenge. I suspect there also are some parents who scoff at social mores and bring along kids of the opposite sex when they must.

What’s your strategy? When do you think kids of the opposite sex are too old to accompany mom or dad into the bathroom? Please leave your thoughts in the comment field below.

Luxury family rooms coming to airports near you

 

The Family Room inside the Centurion Lounge at SFO.

The Family Room inside the Centurion Lounge at SFO.

American Express has talked about how “membership has its privileges” for most of my life. Now, with the company’s new Centurion Lounge program for Platinum Card holders (such as moi), I totally get it.

The lounges, currently available at four airports around the country, are the ultimate in VIP airport swank: Modern hangouts, free food, free drinks, free WiFi, and a host of other amenities for business travelers (heck, most of the lounges even have shower stalls).

My favorite part of the new spots: The “Family Rooms.” These facilities—available at three of the four lounges right now—boast beanbag chairs, toys, games, video games, giant televisions and a host of kid-friendly movies. They also have fun and colorful wallpaper. And soundproof walls so crazy kids won’t disturb grownups who are relaxing elsewhere in the lounge.

By the way, lounge-facing walls of these rooms are all glass, so, technically, parents can sit outside and drink hand-crafted cocktails while the kids blow off steam inside.

Official Centurion Lounge terms and conditions stipulate that so long as the Platinum Card holder is present, he or she can bring in a spouse or domestic partner and all children under the age of 18, no matter how many kids there might be. That means that when the four of us Villanos travel together, all of us can get in to these lounges free of charge.

I haven’t actually experienced the rooms with my kids yet, but I have visited Centurion Lounges at San Francisco International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, and have admired the facilities in both spots.

(As of now, the other lounge with a family room is at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.)

With that in mind, I’ll tell you this: The next time I book a trip for the lot of us, I’ll be inclined to book from an airline that flies into or out of a terminal with a Centurion Lounge. I pay more than $400 per year for my Platinum Card; it’s nice to know my entire family now can benefit from some of the privileges of membership.

What are some of your favorite airport lounges?

Family travel rights in the sky, part 1

We should see this together.

We should see this together.

Our flight back to SFO from Walt Disney World Resort (well, really from MCO) earlier this month was one of the worst family travel experiences in recent memory. I had checked our seat assignments hours before our 9 a.m. departure and the four of us were sitting together—L with me in one row, R with Powerwoman in the row behind.

Then, 90 minutes before our scheduled take-off, the airline split us up, and put R by herself.

Normally something like this would just be an inconvenience. But in the case of our family, it was a REALLY BIG DEAL. Because R is 2.

Let me repeat that so it sinks in. About 90 minutes before we were scheduled to take-off for a 5.5-hour flight back home, United Airlines split up our family and sat the 2-year-old passenger all by her lonesome.

You can imagine my shock when I saw the change. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than the last few weeks, you probably also can picture the outrage. Normally in these types of situations I go all “Johnny Brooklyn” and curse and wail and rant and rave and speak so excitedly little bits of spittle come flying out of my mouth.

This time, however, especially because the kids were RIGHT THERE, I kept my cool, and repeatedly (and respectfully!) requested that the flight attendants put my family back together.

In the end, to the airline’s credit, they managed to get us back to 2-and-2. They didn’t solve the problem until ten minutes before takeoff, but, technically—and to be totally fair—they did ultimately solve the problem.

Still, the entire debacle got me wondering what our rights as family travelers really are.

So I started digging. And I started making phone calls. And I started talking to experts. The reporting effort is still ongoing, but I wanted to report the first part of my findings ASAP. So here goes:

  • Currently there is no federal regulation requiring airlines to keep together families with confirmed seats. I thought for sure the FAA would regulate this. I was wrong; that agency only oversees family travel issues as they pertain to child safety seats. The folks at the Department of Transportation have some guidelines for airlines to follow about the ages of unaccompanied minors, but there is no formal law on the books that they enforce either.
  • In this vacuum of legislation, airlines establish and enforce their own policies about keeping together families. These policies vary widely.
  • United’s formal policy on the subject indicates that the airline will do whatever it can to keep families together. At the same time, the airline has a policy that stipulates no children under the age of 5 are allowed to travel unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. When I pressed a spokesperson to explain how separating a 2-year-old from her family would NOT be in violation of the unaccompanied minor rule, he suggested that because our daughter was ticketed with us, technically this was not a violation of the policy.

Obviously there is much more research to be done. Once I have spoken with every major airline and every major industry organization, I’ll compile my findings into an easy-to-read post. I may also put together an infographic or chart that helps explain these disparate policies.

So far, at this point in my reporting, I know this:  There’s nobody at the national level looking out for us family travelers, and we have very limited recourse when we feel we’ve been wronged.

Personally, I think that needs to change. Quickly. And forever. What’s your take?

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