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Travels with our toddler

We recently took Matthew on his first overnight train trip; regular viewers of the Matthew Picture of the Day can expect a couple of shots from on board. We took the Capitol Limited all the way to and from Chicago, in a bedroom in a sleeping car. As national network trains go, this is quite a convenient one–although it takes 17 hours to travel the 780 rail miles, via Pittsburgh and Cleveland, most of that is at night, and once you factor in time to eat dinner and breakfast and time to get ready for bed and to get dressed, there’s not that much idle time left. Matthew did well, and the train again proved to be a civilized and relaxing way to travel. He’s old enough to get some fascination from looking out the train window, which is quite an improvement from his previous trip, when he was one, when we went to New York to buy my Brompton. So all total, Matthew now has 2012 Amtrak miles.

Matthew, though, has logged more mileage in the air than by any other means: to date, 29063 miles in 26 segments. Most of this has gone well. We’ve always bought him a seat, even when he was young enough to travel as a “lap child.” In the past, it was common to travel with a young child as a “lap child” and then use an empty seat for him while aboard the airplane, but in recent years, there is no such thing as an empty seat, and lap children must almost always actually be carried on a grown-up’s lap for the whole flight. My advice, then, is not to count on there being an empty seat, but rather, to count on there not being an empty seat, and if you can at all afford it, buy the seat for the child.

Of course, even when you buy a seat for your toddler, and you tell the airline such when you buy your ticket, you may find, when it’s time to select seats, that there are none together. Your toddler might even be assigned a middle seat by himself ten rows back from mommy and daddy. Don’t panic! As crazy as some airline practices might be, they would never actually seat a toddler away from at least one parent. Further, in all the 26 segments we’ve flown with Matthew, the three of us have been separated only once (and on that flight, he slept the whole way through).

This is not because we’ve always bought our tickets early enough to select a whole row of seats together–we often get nothing good left to select from, and we’ve also had flights cancelled and have needed to squeeze on later flights. But if you can’t select good seats when purchasing a ticket, have patience and wait until you’re at the gate. If you are assigned seats apart, nobody will be able to help you get seated together except the gate agents: not customer service on the phone, not the front counter agents where you check in, and, unfortunately, not any agents at an airport that’s not the one where the flight in question departs from, which makes tight connections rather nerve-wracking. I once spent the better part of an hour on the phone with an airline’s customer service department, speaking to the phone agent’s supervisor, only to end up with a worse seating assignment than the computer had automatically given us. The gate agents fixed the problem, as they have in every single other time we’ve had seats assigned apart, with the worst outcome being that one time Matthew and his mommy were together while I was several rows back. So the best thing to do is to be at the gate as soon as the flight is posted, which is usually no more than an hour before departure.

So one way or another, we’ve almost always had a row of three seats to ourselves. The fact that we buy a seat for Matthew does not imply that he stays in the seat for the entire journey–he only does this when he falls asleep. But even if he doesn’t use his seat, having the whole row to ourselves makes quite a difference, as he can be moderately active without disturbing anyone else.

Every time we’ve needed to travel in a car on the other end of our trip, we’ve brought on board and installed his carseat in the aircraft, then subsequently installed it in the car at our destination. Car seats could be obstructions to other passengers, so on single-aisle aircraft, they have to be installed in the window seat, which the gate agents have always given us. Our infant car seat installed almost trivially on airplanes–the seat belt cinched across two hooks just above the baby’s legs. Matthew currently uses a Sunshine Kids Radian 80 carseat, which works quite well for air travel. The seat quickly folds up into the back for storage, making it relatively compact to haul around. With an extra strap, it can be worn as a backpack. The belt path, for the forward-facing configuration, is readily accessible underneath the seat back padding. It fits through X-Ray machines, and we’ve had no troubles from TSA about it.

We’ve frequently taken our stroller along as well, and it fits through the X-Ray machine and also hasn’t given us any trouble at security. Incidentally, the TSA does require that infants’ and toddlers’ shoes be removed for security screening, just like with grown-ups.¬†We had quite the routine down, getting the three of us and our shoes and the carseat and the stroller and a diaper bag and our carry-ons–with laptop computers out, of course–through security. We are grateful for the “family line” when TSA provides one.

We’d check the stroller at the gate, dropping it off and picking it up at the end of the jetway. Although it’s quite handy for movement about the airport, we’ve also found that we don’t always use the stroller much at our destination–sometimes it’s stayed folded up in a rental car the entire time. So we’ve experimented recently with stroller-free traveling: we didn’t bring it along on our last airplane trip, nor on our train trip to Chicago, and both of these worked out rather well.

For the one airplane trip in which we did not need to subsequently travel in a car, we used the CARES harness. This allowed us to put Matthew in the middle seat instead of the window. One strap for the CARES harness does need to be installed underneath the tray table for the seat in the next row back.1 In part because Matthew wasn’t used to this harness, it did seem like it was harder to get him to cooperate with getting strapped back in when we needed him to be, compared to his carseat. On our recent Amtrak journey we left the carseat at home–there is no need or way to install a carseat (or harness) on a train–and we rented a carseat with our rental car. That worked out fine, so perhaps we’ll use the CARES harness more as we seek to haul around less stuff as we travel.

  1. In a small number of situations, where the tray tables stow flush with the seat back into a cavity, and the strap around the tray table would not follow the contour of the cavity, that the tray table–of the person in back of the child–would not be able to be opened if the harness were in place. []

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