Travel Tips (Mistakes) We've Learned When Traveling to America with Kids
We just got to my dad’s house in Denver last night after a grueling 28 hours of flying and layovers. This is my wife and daughter’s first time in America. I’ve done this trip a few times, but this is the first time I’ve traveled with a child. I’ve learned a few things over the years and a lot of things on this trip–mostly mistakes that I would like to post so that others won’t go through what we went through. I know there are some that will say they were stupid mistakes. So be it. But it looks like other fellow travelers had similar problems.
Tip: Dual citizen kids need two passports.
I thought when we registered Jian as a U.S. citizen and got her passport that we needed nothing else. We found out less than a week from our departure that she also needed a Korean passport to get out of the country. Luckily, Korean passports get processed in only a couple of days.
Tip: Register with the Visa Waiver Program
There was a lot of excitement when South Korea was inducted into America’s Visa Waiver Program. It meant no more long lines at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul registering for a visa to vacation in America and the nail biting involved in waiting for approval. So South Koreans don’t need a visa to stay in America less than three months for vacation. Nonetheless, they still need to register with the Visa Waiver Program and pay a $14 processing fee. Get that done ahead of time. Website is here. Also, print out your approval. They would like to look at that when you check in with your flight.
Tip: Snacks and lollipops
Two years old may be the worst age to go flying. They don’t understand why they have to wear a seatbelt. They don’t understand why their ears are popping, and it hurts! They don’t understand that they shouldn’t scream while everyone is trying to sleep. You have no time to teach them on the fly, so the most effective solution is distraction. Bring some snacks. Normally they don’t eat this many snacks, but this is vacation time. Indulge. Lollipops also help with alleviating the air pressure effects. Get sugar free lollipops.
At the airport
Tip: Bring a stroller
There’s no way we could have done anything without a stroller. We mostly used it to push around our carry-on luggage. If the stroller is a reasonable size–not something in the jogging stroller range–you can check it at the jetway going into the plane. The downside of this is that you have to wait after disembarking to get your stroller back. This is one of the many slow downs in traveling with a child.
Tip: Expect slowness
Traveling with a toddler will slow… you… down! Anticipate that.
Okay, now to get into our story. We wanted to save money on this trip, so I got some cheapo flights. In hindsight, that was a good idea for a single traveler but not with a child. Incheon Airport was no problem. We got on the Airport Limousine bus at 5 a.m., checked in at 6. Easily changed our money.
Tip: Change all your money at Incheon Airport
Incheon Airport has the fastest easiest process in exchanging money. I went ahead and got some bills in Japanese Yen and U.S. Dollars. That way I didn’t have to worry about changing money at any other point in our trip. The last time I was at Tokyo’s Narita Airport (2008), the process for changing money involved some irritating paperwork. Kill as many little annoyances as possible by getting it all done in Incheon.
Going through security and immigration was easy. It also helps that Incheon has children’s playrooms, so we played with Jian until it was time to board.
Tip: Check with Duty Free on the rules of your destination
We were going to get some Korean liquor at Incheon. We told them our route. They warned us that Japan would confiscate our alcohol. I remember during my 2008 trip I had bought some alcohol at Incheon and ran into problems with Japanese customs. I was able to keep it, but I forgot the details on why.
Tip: Put the child between you
On our first flight, which was Jian’s first plane ride, I wanted her to sit by the window to get the full experience. The downside of that was that my wife was the only person who could maintain her. So she was frustrated in getting Jian to put on her seatbelt and keep it on. And when wife is frustrated, that anger gets refocused on the husband. From then on, we made sure that Jian sat in between us so we could work in tandem.
Tip: A toddler can sit on your lap during take off and landing
This is an unwritten rule. Even though a child two years and older must have a purchased seat, if she is still two years old, she can sit in a parent’s lap during take off and landing. It’s a much easier way to maintain control of the squirmy one.
Bring a cup with a lid and a straw. Only one of our planes gave children covered cups. So have a lidded cup handy. A system I have when dealing with airplane meals, especially the main meals, is to unwrap everything first and put the trash in one little area. Get everything organized and set up–butter that roll, I mean. Then eat. Anticipate messes. Fortunately, we had no disasters with Jian’s meals, even though the guy in front of us spilled his entire entree on his lap.
Before landing I started filling out some paperwork for the airport. I pulled out my pen and started writing when I noticed ink on my hands.
Tip: Don’t bring pens with ink cartridges
I’m a true idiot because I had made this mistake before. I love free flowing pens with ink cartridges. I hate ball point pens. Yet those are the best pens to bring. Other pens tend to explode with the air pressure.
Narita Airport, Tokyo
So, since we were cheapskates, we had a flight route that involved two stops. The biggest one was at Narita. We got a little cafeteria lunch. The lady behind the counter was Korean, so she was very helpful and generous. She even bought Jian some chocolate. EJ used this as an opportunity to unload some Japanese coins we had accumulated over the years. And she got rid of every single one of them.
Tip: Get a day room for long layovers
Narita’s not a bad airport for layovers. They have a lot of services. I made sure to reserve a day room for EJ. They’re 1,500 yen for the first hour and 750 an hour after that for a single room. Only one adult can be in a single room, but children can stay too. EJ isn’t a sturdy traveler, so I made sure to get this set up for her. She has already said that it was the best idea I had the entire trip. After a couple hours of closing her eyes, she was refreshed enough for the big flight over. In the past, I had taken advantage of their foot massage services. There are also coin operated massage chairs.
In the meantime, I played with Jian in one of the playrooms and did some shopping.
The long flight
We made sure to get three seats together for the big flight from Japan to America. Jian was much better behaved on this take off. In fact, she behaved better on this leg than we expected. But she did spend much of the time clinging to Mommy, which meant that Mommy got no rest the entire trip.
Now, we went on American Airlines. I don’t like flying American because the flight attendants have the worst reputation for service. On more observation, I say they act more like stern school teachers. Nonetheless, even when they are asking people what they’d like to drink, there’s an aggressive tone in their voices that is so freaking unnecessary.
American is upgrading their 777 fleet next year, and the improvements look good. On this trip, though, still the same ole planes. The entertainment system is something. But it already looks antiquated. I put the Disney Channel on for Jian, and she was content. She didn’t like the ear buds, so she just looked at the visuals.
Minor tip: Get comfortable ear wear for children
Jian did have moments when she screamed while everyone was sleeping. We got a few looks from passengers, mostly males. But come on, folks! She’s a two year-old. You’re a grown man. Man up and deal with it. To her credit, Jian didn’t feel the need to run around the aisles. She stayed put the entire time.
The iPad helped a lot on this trip. I loaded it up with her Cocomong videos and some new kiddie apps to discover. She loved the new Daniel Tiger app. It’s charming. Poor Mommy, though. Even though Jian was occupied, she regularly glanced over to Mommy. If she saw her sleeping, Jian yelled, “Omma!”
You don’t go to sleep on Jian’s watch.
LAX: The nightmare
Tip: Plan at least a three-hour gap on your first landing in America
You do want some serious layover time on your first landing in America if you’re going to fly somewhere else. The reason is that you not only have to go through immigration. You need to retrieve your bags, go through customs, get your next boarding passes, check your bags back in, and go through security. With a child it goes even more slowly. It didn’t help that the plane had to be towed to the gate and that we had to wait ridiculously longer to get our stroller this time.
Immigration we easier than we thought. Even though those are the most humorless people, we got through the line quickly. As we were getting processed we heard our names being paged on the PA. They told us to find the person in the purple vest at the baggage claim.
I found the person in the purple vest. She said they had already processed our boarding passes and had us on express passes. I tell you, the woman in the purple vest was the most amazing person. If American Airlines employees had her attitude, they’d win all customer service awards. I really should try to track her down and tell her bosses what a great job she did. She plays a major role in this tale.
So we waited for our bags to some. And waited. And waited. Purple Vest came by and saw that we were still waiting, along with others who had very narrow windows for their next planes. She got on her radio and bitched out the baggage crew. It was forty-five minutes before our bags even showed up. So a leisurely stroll started to become more stressful. While we were waiting, Purple Vest commented on how we got on a flight plan with such a narrow layover window.
“Did you use Expedia? They tend to do that.”
Tip: Don’t trust Expedia
We got our bags and went to the express line for customs. Despite being at the front of the express line, with our fluorescent orange boarding pass covers, the customs officials ignored us for a good while. We got through the first section. I had remembered that we had bananas. Oops!
Tip: Don’t bring fruit
I felt uneasy when EJ insisted on bringing bananas on the flight. I thought I had told her that fruit was not allowed to go through customs, but I guess she missed that. I had forgotten we had them in our bags until we got to customs, so that slowed us down further. We got to the X-ray part of the line, and it was still going at a leisurely pace. I was getting very impatient at this point. They did a long thorough check of our snack bag. When greenlighted, I quickly got our bags reloaded and ran off. EJ ran behind with Jian in the stroller. We had to exit the building and go to the next building. We had to take the elevator upstairs and go to the end of the hall on the right to re-check our bags for the flight. While we were checking our bags, EJ said, “Joe, your computer bag!”
I had left the computer bag at customs. I made a very public scene of cussing and frustration. I gave EJ her boarding passes. “If I don’t make it back, board without me.”
I ran to the elevator. I tapped my foot impatiently as it slowly went back down. When the doors opened, I sprinted faster than I ever had in my adult life. As I was running, I heard, “Mr. McPherson! What’s the matter?”
It was Purple Vest. She was helping another group going on the same plane as us. I told her that I had left my computer bag at customs. She walked back with me and got on her radio. She was getting them to find my bag. As we neared the building, a man in a security uniform said, “Joe McPherson?”
He had my bag. Purple Vest said, “Someone is looking out for you.”
She rushed me back to the other building. I retrieved EJ and Jian, and we went to the other side of the hall to go through the TSA security check. Purple Vest got us to bypass the line. TSA didn’t care. They still worked slowly–not in a careful manner, in an “I don’t give a shit” attitude.
I got out all my stuff, removed my coat and belt and then noticed that I still had a bottle of premium sake I bought in Tokyo.
The guys at baggage check said I didn’t need to worry about it. But I should have checked it with the other bags.
Tip: Check any liquor purchases with your bags or put it in your checked luggage
I turned to Purple Vest. “There’s nothing I can do, huh.”
“I wish there was.”
I handed her the sake. She looked at me. “What do I do with this?”
We ran through the concourse, went down the escalator by the Chili’s and got to the shuttle station. They saw our boarding passes and said that the plane was leaving in three minutes. They doubted we would make it. Nonetheless, they asked the shuttle driver if she could make it.
She booked it, even skipping other stops, to get us to our flight. As she was stopping in front of our gate, her radio said, “We closed the gate.”
“Really? I have the passengers right here.”
That wasn’t a “10-4″ as in, “Okay, we’ll get them.” It was a “10-4″ as in, “We got it, and we don’t care.”
So, we missed our flight.
The shuttle driver said we could stay there or take the shuttle in front of us to return to the main terminal, which we did. When we got back, the guy looked sorry, and he got us boarding passes for the next flight in five hours.
EJ. Was. Pissed.
She was tired, and she went through all this just to have us fail. And she blamed me for it. The only part I contributed to our failure was forgetting the computer bag. Which may have made the difference. Also may have not made a difference. I’m banking more on the slow ass baggage crew.
We got our boarding passes and went back upstairs to the main area. We got a seat, and I took out the laptop. LAX has free wi-fi, so I hooked on to that and called my dad on Skype to tell him about our situation. By this point, I was smelling quite ripe. We had been traveling for 18 hours with no sleep. I had also gone through a significant adrenaline episode and some serious exercise while running around the airport. Jian was having a good time playing with a little boy around the nicely decorated Christmas tree. I calmed down while talking to an expat/Kiwi couple. It helped me center. EJ was in a fighting mood, so I let her berate me for the next three hours. After it was out of her system, she was a little less ornery.
While I was hunting for some yogurt for her, I found that I was in the background of what looked like a TV shoot for a teenage reality show. This line of young ladies were walking down the concourse, arm in arm, with a TV crew in tow. So my gloomy self got on tape.
EJ and Jian both were asleep. I got out the laptop to check my mail. Purple Vest showed up.
“Mr. McPherson, what happened?”
“Missed it by five seconds.”
I saw her talking to other people. It looks like the slow baggage crew fucked them over too, and they missed their flights.
We knew we had to get some food for Jian when she woke up. So an hour before boarding, we got a table at Chili’s. I had worked as a bartender and server for Chili’s in the past. And even though they are a soulless corporate chain, I admired their system. I opened the menu and was disappointed. Nothing really looked kid friendly. We got one of the wraps and the mini burgers. When the food came out, EJ and I gaped at it.
So much fries! No wonder we’re so fat in America.
We barely ate any of it before we asked for a doggy bag. We didn’t pack the fries.
The final leg of the trip went without event. Jian was cranky at first, but she fell asleep in my lap. She didn’t wake up until we landed. When EJ saw the lights of Denver, her mood had lightened. We got off the plane and waited for our stroller. EJ commented that it was just as cold in Denver as it was in Seoul.
So, when we entered LAX, it was full of beautiful people, TV shoots, and lots of spoken Spanish. In Denver–cowboy hats. It was just as much culture shock for me as it was for her. This was only my third time in the Mile High City.
We followed the signs to baggage claim. Dad was outside waiting for us, and we went together. Our bags had arrived before us, and they were sitting there waiting for us at the unclaimed baggage office. Our first stroke of luck the entire trip. EJ’s black mood had lifted, and we were ready to finally start our vacation.