It has to be done, we told ourselves. The only real alternative for getting from Portland, Oregon to Vientiane, Laos is by sea, and I don’t see that turning out much better. So, hopping the Pacific by air it is!
Trans-Pacific air travel, by itself, is no small feat. It does, after all, involve crossing the world’s largest body of water, which tends to suck up a good portion of your day (or eliminate an entire day, altogether, as is the case with us).
Not surprisingly, some of the world’s longest flights can be found traversing the skies of the Pacific. The fifth longest nonstop flight in the world departs Los Angeles and arrives in Singapore 15 to 18 hours later (depending on air currents), covering 8,770 miles. Our second flight (of three) — the real meat of our journey — will cover a measly 7,300 miles, by comparison, yielding just under 15 hours of flight time.
Piece of cake, right?
Let’s add some baggage, shall we? Ten pieces sounds like a nice round number.
What the heck, let’s throw in a 15 hour time change, a 13-hour layover in China, and another five-hour layover in San Francisco just for fun.
No, still too easy.
How about we throw in a 2.5 year old toddler?
Now we’re talking!
But you know, if we really want to get this party started, we should really think of throwing in a three-month-old infant, too.
Bingo! Now, that’s a party!
Many of you might think I’ve painted a pretty grim picture right from the start. I know this is the perception of many of the dozens of parents we’ve talked to about overseas travel while back in the U.S. It’s floored us how many otherwise-adventurous parents of young kids simply refuse to take a long haul journey for fear of the unknown or anticipation of extreme hardship.
“What if one of my kids has a total melt down at 30,000 feet?” …
“What about flipping night and day on the kid?” or …
“What will other passengers think?” are just some of the many concerns we’ve heard.
I realize all kids are different, and ours (particularly Noe) tend to be a bit more accustomed to air travel than the average two-year-old (this will be Noe’s 39th through 41st flights). Fortunately, both our kids have demonstrated some level of tolerance so far for long-haul air travel. That’s not to say that it’s easy. I wouldn’t say traveling with little ones is “easy.” But it’s far from the hardest thing we’ve ever attempted. And many aspects of journeying by air with the kid(s) are, dare I say, rather enjoyable.
Being that I like keeping track of these sorts of things, I’ve kept a log of Noe’s flights since birth. To date, Noe’s traveled over 50,000 miles by air and spent a total of 5 days, 3 hours, and 3 minutes flying. And in all that time and distance there has not been a single case where Noe has made us feel self-conscious with respect to other passengers (with the exception of the occasionally stinky diaper).
On the other side of the coin, in all those 41 flights there have been few other young children in the cabin that have bothered us to any notable extent. I can think of two specific cases to the contrary — a screeching newborn experiencing inner ear issues during takeoff, and a tantrum-prone toddler a few rows back. Both cases were short lived, and neither had a significant impact on our experience. It also bears mentioning that flight noise at 30,000 feet drowns out a lot of the riff raff, even without noise-canceling headphones.
With that said, it would be disingenuous to say that we don’t still get a little adrenaline rush prior to making a long journey with a little one. We frequently encounter lots of other kinks that have nothing to do with Noe or Riley or their temperament, such as navigating baggage restrictions, unexpected delays, running out of diapers, visas and permits, seemingly never-ending security and immigration lines, long layovers, etc., etc. Sure, we’re likely to experience many of these issues with or without kids. But with kids in tow, a tiny mole hill in the road can often feel like a mountain to climb.
But you know what the funny thing is? Whatever the issues we encounter, no matter how much things seem to suck in the moment, the second those wheels kiss the asphalt and the plane grinds to a halt at our final destination, the trials and tribulations of the journey seem to instantly melt away — and we’re here!
After weeks of preparation for our return to Laos with the newest member of the family, D-Day (Departure Day) was finally upon us. We made a point to finalize the bulk of the packing over a week prior to getting to the Portland airport so that we could enjoy our final week with family and Christmas festivities without a bunch of travel logistics hanging over our heads. Regardless, the morning of departure still left us with plenty of last minute loose ends to tie up.
Laos isn’t always an easy place to get things we need. If something is available, it’s often difficult to track down and two to three times what you might pay in the U.S. for similar quality. With two little ones (and a boatload of hand-me-downs from cousins and generous friends) we were intent on taking full advantage of our baggage allowance. Baggage policies have become the unexpected bane of our air travel days over the past couple of years, as policies become increasingly opaque and conservative, and we find ourselves on carriers we’ve not flown in the past. No matter how well we plan our trip, we always seem to encounter at least one issue with checked-in (and carry-on!!!) baggage. With ten bags along for this trip, to say we felt a bit of trepidation at check-in might be a bit of an understatement.
—and that’s ten very large pieces of luggage. Each ticket holder (Lori, Noe, and me) were allowed two pieces of checked-in baggage (up to 50 lbs. each), along with one carry-on, and one personal item each. For his part, our lap-baby, Riley, was allowed one piece (his trusty portable crib), in addition to a gate-checked portable stroller. Due to a discrepancy between Alaska Airlines (Leg #1), and China Southern (Legs #2 & #3), the stroller ended up being checked through from San Francisco to Vientiane, which meant that in the end we had eight pieces of checked luggage, two rolling suitcases for our carry-ons, and a backpack each as our personal item.
The minimalists in us found all this one very bitter pill to swallow, but in our minds it was better to bring hand-me-down clothes and toys for the next 12 months at no cost to us than having to purchase new Chinese-made stuff in Vientiane for much more than we’d pay in the U.S. Still, having to take TWO cars to the airport to accommodate everything made our stomachs turn (even though we would have had to take two cars anyway for Grammy and Grampy to see us off and take the car we were borrowing from them back home). Yes, when you have not one but TWO borrowed all-American over-engineered car seats in a car, there really isn’t a lot more room for anybody else back there.
First Leg: Portland (PDX) to San Francisco (SFO)
Our first flight went off without a hitch. We’ve really been digging afternoon flights, particularly with little ones, and our 3:35pm flight out of Portland was no exception. We’ve found that early morning flights are far less pleasant with a little one, for one reason or another. Plus, afternoon flights (especially flying internationally) give us much needed breathing room to finalize packing, square up naps and feeding, and get everyone on a good footing without feeling hurried.
We grabbed our boarding passes at the ticket counter (yes, you get to do everything the good-old-fashioned way when Alaska Airlines is the first leg of an international journey at PDX!), waved to our checked-in baggage as each piece zipped down the conveyer, and bid our final adieus to grandparents. Minutes later, we were through security and doing our final water fills and bathroom visits before boarding. Gotta love PDX.
Our outbound flight back to the U.S. in August was new territory for us as it was the first time Noe had his very own assigned seat for the entire trip. Yet again, wading in unfamiliar waters, we now have a seated toddler and a lap baby to contend with on this journey, at least for the first flight. We’ve called ahead to reserve a bassinet for Riley on the long-haul flight, but we’re a little uneasy that we don’t have assigned seats or really anything in writing to that effect. All this will need to be sorted out in San Francisco. Otherwise, we’re in for a very long flight sharing and wearing a baby. Fingers crossed!
Our flight out of Portland leaves on time at 3:30pm on New Years Eve, and what a stunning late December afternoon it is! Off the right-side of the aircraft, that’s Mt. St. Helens in the distance, the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, and a clear view of downtown Portland in the center of the image. Current weather conditions in Portland: Clear skies, light winds out of the north, and a cool (but sunny) 45°F (28°c). Not a bad way to close out 2018.
We trace Interstate 5 for much of the route, and in minutes, find ourselves peering down at our home town of Roseburg, where we just spent the better part of the last five months.
Lori and I have said our goodbyes to family and friends a time or two over the years. It’s always harder the longer we stay, and this time was particularly bittersweet leaving with two grandkids and in the midst of big changes for our family that I’ll talk more about in future posts. But we know by now that the hardest part is always in the run-up, and once we’re in the air, all seems right in the world — at least for the moment in our little corner of it.
Just over an hour later, we are treated to a beautiful sunset over the Pacific just before our A320 banks hard right for a southern approach into SFO.
So, how’d the kids do? Better than we ever imagined.
Despite having been on so many flights in the past couple of years, Noe hadn’t been near an airport in five months. He was obsessed with airplanes before our trip back to the U.S., and is even more obsessed now. The difference at 30 months (versus 25 months old) is that everything is awesome now — the clouds, the ground crew, the control tower, the pilots, luggage, ticket counter, other passengers — everything (and nearly peed his pants when he got to meet the captain in the flight deck before departure). It helps that he’s been devouring Richard Scarry “Busytown” books where airports feature prominently (his favorite is this one which we gave him as his Welcome Riley gift, along with a toy airplane). He’s also matured a ton and doesn’t need to be told not to completely relieve the seat pockets in front of us of in-flight magazines, safety cards, barf bags and whatever other contents they might be hiding. For a number of flights he would also freak out upon take-off. Now, Noe just sits there stoically, the palm of each hand resting on each leg, looking straight forward until the landing gear raises and clunks into position. Then, it’s game on like nothing happened.
As for Riley… Well, Riley’s a freak.
Really, the kid’s a freak of nature. Noe was a good enough infant on his first handful of flights at three months old. He sucked down mom’s milk on takeoff and landing and thrashed around under Lori’s nursing cape before working up an ungodly sweat and proceeding to fill his pants without fail. Yet, the kid rarely cried for more than a moment or beyond what was manageable for us.
Riley’s first flight, on the other hand, went something like this: I bounced Riley on my lap until Lori got her area situated. Then, I handed off Riley to mommy, and in minutes he had passed out (the kid is kind of a narcoleptic). Lori opted to hold Riley rather than wear him in a carrier assuming he would need to be fed like Noe did during initial ascent. But nope. The kid just kept sleeping, all the way up to cruising altitude. He did wake briefly to eat and play, but it was the same freakish narcoleptic nonsense on landing. Even all stuffed up from his first cold, the changes in cabin pressure didn’t seem to affect him in the least.
First flight in the can. Woohoo! 1 hour, 15 minutes — no big deal. We’ll see how the kids do on the 15-hour Big Daddy flight across the Pacific.
Five-Hour Layover at SFO
When we first saw our return itinerary several months ago, we were a bit concerned about having two long layovers. In hindsight, having a five hour layover in San Francisco, and a 13-hour layover in Guangzhou (Canton), China wasn’t so bad. As it turns out, we needed every one of those hours at SFO.
In Portland, Alaska Airlines was able to check all our baggage through to our final destination in Vientiane, but they were not able to issue us boarding passes for our SFO-CAN and CAN-VTE legs of our journey. For those, we’d need to visit the China Southern Airlines ticket counter at SFO when we arrived. There was also the outstanding issue hanging over our heads of securing a bassinet, which was our highest priority.
So, we deplane in San Francisco, bypass the restrooms, and beeline it to the China Southern ticket counter in the International Terminal (which is a considerable jaunt from Alaska Airlines gates, to say the least). For this leg of the journey, having the stroller on hand proves a lifesaver.
We promptly arrive at the ticket counter, but there is no sign of activity. It is, after all, five hours before departure (our flight arrived a bit early). So, we camp out in the food court at the end of the departures hall and start the tedious process of feeding ourselves and our toddler.
Then, all of a sudden, Lori receives a last-minute email containing an official document from her employer that apparently is necessary for processing our visas when we get to Vientiane. We’re beside ourselves. If the folks at her work had sent this document mere hours earlier, it would have been an extremely simple task to print at the house we were staying at. But no… now we’re en route with the clock ticking and a million things to get done, let alone find a public printer in one of the largest airports in the world.
This same exact thing happened two years prior during our initial move to Laos, and ended with me spending the better part of an hour on a wild goose chase through Bankok’s massive Suvarnabhumi airport trying to unearth the apparently single, solitary printer. And just for the folks who haven’t had to deal with Laos immigration, no, they will not take a digital copy on your iPhone.
I leave Lori and kids to ask around about the printer when I happen to notice that a substantial line has suddenly materialized at the China Southern ticket counter. And…the counter was open. And…worst of all, there are HALF A DOZEN TINY BABIES IN LINE. HOLY CRAP. Even though this is scheduled to be a large, wide-body aircraft (B777-300) there are just three known bassinet seats on the entire aircraft. We’ve received verbal confirmation over the phone that one bassinet is reserved for us, but nothing has been formally assigned. I run back to tell Lori (everyone needs to be there for check-in and I’m currently phone-less) and race back to the ticket counter to grab a spot in line.
The process ends up being one of the more painful of our air travel experiences, ranking up there with the endless BS we endured at check-in with AirAsia in Malaysia (on every one of the five flights we flew with them), and the greedy and nonsensical BS we put up with with Lufthansa in Brussels. Apparently because Riley’s lap ticket was purchased after the rest of ours (he was, after all, not born until well after our outbound flight in August), there’s much difficulty in issuing our boarding passes — an hour’s worth of difficulty, in fact. So, we wait there with a hungry toddler (who had suddenly been pulled away from his food and forced for the moment to make due with a half dozen raisins), and an infant…who is just kind of chilling (at one point we kind of wanted him to fuss a bit to hopefully expedite the process, but no…he just hangs out. However, Noe ends up fussing enough for the two of them).
After a good long while, we finally receive our boarding passes. Yay!
“And the assigned bassinet?” I ask.
Oh, problem. Of course. First, there are none left, which doesn’t go over so well with the two of us. Then, all of a sudden, there is one available (because we reserved it, duh), but it is not near our seats. (Awesome! Someone else can deal with the infant.) Then, our seats are going to have to be split up. “No, no, no. We reserved this stuff months ago,” We reiterate. The ticket agents (there are three of them now, hovering around the computer shaking their heads) plug away some more, discussing all the while amongst themselves in very grim-sounding Chinese.
While this is all going down, another issue crops up before us — they are weighing everyone’s carry-on bags!!! “Um, that’s not good,” we whisper to each other. Lori looks over at one point and sees the display on one of the scales for another another passenger’s bag: 12 kg.
“No, no, too much! Too much!” the ticket agent tells a small group of English-speaking Asians.
The seemingly bewildered group explain that they are missionaries heading to Nepal and everything in their bag is essential for their work. “Essential!” After much back-and-forth, they are finally ordered to open the bag and ditch any-non-essential contents like food items. They finally unzip the bag, and everyone (including the owner of the bag…ha) is stunned by what falls out. Three of the largest cheese wheels I’ve ever seen! In the end, the ticket agent lets them keep one of the wheels, you know, because they’re missionaries and all.
What we also learn from this exchange is that 7 kg (15 lbs.) is the max weight for carry-ons on China Southern. We’re not sure what our carry-ons weigh (which Alaska had not batted an eyelash at), but know they are well over that. Worst of all, we have neither our checked-in baggage or family members to absorb any additional weight we might need to jettison, and certainly nothing like 2kg cheese wheels to handover to the ticket agent for “disposal.” I slide the bags out of view of the agent and Noe yells, “One suit-case! Two suit-case! Mommy-Daddy suit-case! Mommy-Daddy have TWO suit-case!” I shoot Lori a look and she promptly stuffs the last of the raisins in Noe’s mouth.
All of a sudden, our three ticket agents (now, with big smiles, of course) notify us that we have three seats together, AND, they are in front of — wait for it — a bassinet! We cross our fingers thinking, “Okay, just give us the boarding passes, don’t look at our rolling suitcases, come on…”
The agents pause for a moment.
“Alright,” we thought, “Here it comes. Crap. Crap. Crap.” By this time Noe is full-on losing it. This could be very, very bad.
Suddenly, we hear, “And, here are your boarding passes. Sorry for delay. Have nice flight!”
We smile, nod, and proceed to get the heck out of there as quickly as humanly possible. But before we can, we are stopped by one of the agents. “Sorry, sorry! Excuse me! One last thing.”
“Your baggage claim tags!”
I immediately grab them, thank the agents, and scurry away as quickly as my feet and our stuff allow.
It’s still unclear to us whether they didn’t weigh our carry-ons because we were only connecting through SFO, because we had been dealing with their BS for over an hour, or because they simply forgot. It really doesn’t matter. We were half way back to the food court before the next person in line had made it up to the counter.
After another 15 minutes of sleuthing while Lori fed Riley and Noe happily finished his yogurt, I finally happen upon the one little shop offering printing service. $5 and an additional 15 minutes later, we have a hardcopy of that all-important document guaranteeing smooth re-entry into the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (we hope).
After another round of security, and a short wait at the gate, we settle into our bulkhead row of seats (with bassinet, thank you) and ready our little corner of the cabin for takeoff. 15 hours. It’s been years since I’ve been on that long of flight, with or without kids.
To Be Continued…