American in Spain

International Travel With Kids

December 6, 2013

We just got back from our first transatlantic pond hop as a fully formed family of four. The offspring were very well behaved, considering the adventure we went through. I'll be using this post to vent some of my frustration with our voyage.

It began when my mother dropped us off at the curb of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Just like she was for the first fifteen minutes of our car ride to the airport after saying adiós to her grandfather, Nora was wracked with inconsolable grief for the first fifteen minutes. She's not good with goodbyes. Check-in went smoothly, and we were given our boarding passes from Charlotte to JFK to Brussels to Bilbao. "BIO-BRU-JFK" read our baggage tags, since they write them in reverse order, destination first. When we got to the TSA security checkpoint, the officer asked if either of our kids had "pre-check" on their boarding passes. Nora did; Ian didn't. So he sent us 150 meters down the terminal to another checkpoint. There, a woman informed us that "pre-check" was a randomly bestowed honor that meant that you didn't have to do so much of the security theatre performance, and could leave your shoes on and not remove your laptop, etc. I'm not known for my ability to mask my "OMG that's so stupid!" emotion, but I did my best. The lady suggested that I take all our six or seven (traveling with kids!) carry-on items through with Nora, and that my wife take Ian through the regular rigorous path, thus sneaking all our crap through the pre-check loophole. I think it took about ten of those little plastic trays to get all our crap through the machine, and that wasn't counting the stroller, which they let us take around the scanner to get briskly frisked and "wanded" on the other side. In the end, it took us way longer to get through the pre-check line than it took my wife and son to walk through the regular line. With the baby, they let us take quite a bit of liquid past security, although they did take away the bottles briefly to scan them.

We got to our gate with 45 minutes to spare. Pretty quickly, they came over the intercom and mumbled that there was a weather problem between Charlotte and New York City that was going to cause an hour delay, and that we could leave the boarding area as long as we checked back every twenty minutes. The black woman that was sitting next to us loudly talking into her mobile in a Jamaican or some other British-African accent, began yet another phone call that ended with, "Okay, I will come bring you the money," and she asked if we could watch her bags for "just a moment" while she ran to the security checkpoint to hand some money to her daughter. Aware that the security people tell you never to do that, I sort of shrugged noncommittally, and she thanked me and ran off. Ugh.

Thirty minutes later, they started boarding the plane, without the usual "passengers traveling with small children" first class treatment, so we ended up being almost last in line. Before we got to the gate, I spotted a US Airways employee walking into the "US Airways Employees Only" lounge and stopped him to tell him that a woman had abandoned some bags. He told me, in the most disinterested tone, that it was not yet his shift for another five minutes, but that when he finished his coffee and began working, he'd call it in. Just then I saw a police officer meandering by and told him about it. He seemed more concerned and began digging through the pockets of the bags. And they were big "abuse of the one overhead and one under seat" carry-on rule bags, too. Just as we were getting our boarding passes scanned, the woman came racing back, saying, "Sorry, those are my bags!" The cop gave a "You'd better not do that again!" scold and walked off, happy to not have an actual incident to deal with. The woman said, "I had to stop to get something to eat," and I imagined her spending 30 minutes unburdened by luggage eating in an airport restaurant while I was supposedly watching her bags for her. Grrr…

On the plane, we discovered that two of our seats were adjacent, but the third was six rows further back. Part of traveling with children involves playing the "But I have to fly with a baby!" card and asking other travelers to accept minor inconveniences to save yourself an even bigger inconvenience. I really hate doing that. Anyway, I asked the man with the seat next to our adjacent seats if he wouldn't mind switching seats with me so that I could sit with my family. He didn't like the idea at all, but I had the long end of the Common Decency Lever, which left him no choice but to accept an inconvenience he didn't deserve or be a total asshole. He moved back to the other seat.

Ian slept and Nora and I played UNO, and then she watched a little bit of Ponyo on an iPad. When we were about to begin our descent, my seat switching buddy tapped me on the shoulder, and, wielding the Common Decency Lever with a vengeance, explained that he would like to switch back to be closer to the door because he had a connecting flight. I ceded my seat and went back to a much less comfortable position squeezed in between two American-sized travelers, one of whom was reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography. Upon disembarking, we would all learn from the airport televisions of Mandela's death.

Not five minutes later, my decency archenemy returned to inform me that my daughter needed to go to the bathroom. I told him that if he wanted to sit next to my daughter, he had to accept the responsibilities that go with it and escort her to the bathroom his own damn self, but not aloud. When I returned Nora to her seat from the bathroom and she inquired about why I wasn't sitting with her anymore, I resisted the urge to say, "This man has a more important connecting flight than ours, honey." Not really…I'm more passive aggressive in retrospect.

Upon landing, we immediately found the first person behind a desk with a computer and asked where we needed to go to catch our Brussels Airline flight that had begun boarding 15 minutes earlier. We got back the common preface to all other conversations we'd have with airline personnel, "Did you have a flight delay or something?" She told us that we were in Terminal 8 and we had to go to Terminal 1, but that there was no way we'd make it in time. She then amended her assessment to, "Well, you might get lucky if that flight is delayed for some reason." So off we sped to the AirTrain, the train between terminals, station, which was at the very, very far end (it must've been!) of Terminal 8.


JFK has eight terminals, and the AirTrain goes around in a circle, but due to ambiguous labeling, we got on the train going to Terminal 1 through 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2 rather than the one going directly to Terminal 1. The same thing happened when we actually got to the check-in area of Terminal 1; if we'd turned left, we'd've run right into the Brussels Airlines desk, but we went right and did the whole circumference of the enormous room before getting to Brussels Airlines. The lady at the desk told us that we'd missed the flight, and that the next one they had was the same flight the following day, but that we'd have to rebook, which we'd have to do with United Airlines. This made no sense to me, because none of our flights were with United, but then most of the airline booking and pricing is a mystery to me. She said we'd have to go to Terminal 7, so we headed back towards the AirTrain. On the way there, we got a big wave from my bag-leaving friend from the Charlotte airport.

Nerd Sidenote

The "free" wifi at JFK is actually a "sponsored" wifi system, which wants iOS users to go download a free app from the App Store which the browser will then somehow sense the presence of and log you in. I was instructed to go download the Amazon app and return immediately to Safari for detection. This never worked over the 15 minutes I was attempting to get it to work. However, an interesting sidenote is that, because the wifi router needed to allow access to the App Store, not only could any apps be purchased, but push notifications worked. This is due to the way that Apple requires all push notifications to go through their servers. It was interesting to see a bunch of notifications, messages from people, flight statuses, etc. pop up in the iOS notification center, but not be able to act on any of them because I didn't really have full, open internet connection.

The people at the United check-in desk were extremely confused as to why anyone would send us there, and explained that US Airways had been responsible for getting us there on time, so they'd have to rectify the situation back in Terminal 8, where we started. Keep in mind we are pushing a hungry baby and semi-dragging an equally hungry four year old. About this time, we're visualizing wasting a whole day in an airport hotel despite being in one of the awesomest cities in the world.

Back in Terminal 8, we finally found our first semi-competent airline employee. After a few minutes of searching, he told us that he could get us on a flight to Madrid leaving in 90 minutes. We immediately said, "The bassinet! We had a bassinet reserved. That's very important!" He told us that he couldn't reserve that from his terminal, but that he could book us on that flight and then we should go down to the baggage claim desk to make sure our bags got redirected and inquire about the bassinet there. So we did. The lady at that desk said she found our bags in the system and sent them to Terminal 7, where Iberia is, but that we'd need to talk to an Iberia employee about the bassinet. At this point we had to make a pit stop and feed the baby.

By now, we knew the JFK AirTrain system like the back of our hands, and easily navigated to Terminal 7 and found the Iberia desk. Our check-in clerk there was a young man who, upon seeing my wife's last name, Matamoros, informed us that he was born in Matamoros, Mexico, but had never seen that surname. He proceeded to fill the silence between his mainframe commands in his clearly inferior Spanish about how his parents stopped speaking Spanish at home after immigrating to the States and how none of his childhood friends were latino, so he lost most of his Spanish growing up. He told us that the only bassinet was reserved, but that he did manage to move us to a four-seat row with one empty seat. We would later learn that, unlike Lufthansa, Iberia's policy is to not kick someone off the coveted leg-room bulkhead row to allow a baby to have a bassinet.

Our passport control agent in Madrid was so gobsmacked by Ian's cuteness that we pretty much had full Jedi mind control over her. Between her baby babbling, she accepted without question that Nora and I, the US Passport carriers, had residency in Spain without a shred of documentation. Which was good, since I would discover a couple days later that I'd left my residency card at home in Spain. It turns out that being pretty really does open doors in life!

<a href="" target="_blank" class="flickr-image" title="What Iberia calls a "salad""> <img src="" alt="What Iberia calls a "salad""/>

Perhaps we've been spoiled doing most of our pond hopping with Lufthansa. Flying with Iberia reminds of my honeymoon cruise with Spanish cruise line Pulmantur. It's okaaaay, but other companies provide so many more little niceties that when you go back to the Spanish company, you realize just how much better your experience could be if they cared a little about the details. The seats were uncomfortable, there was no personal entertainment monitor per seat, the communal monitors didn't even play a full length movie, the food was barely edible (the beans and shrimp and lemon "salad" thing was disgusting!), the flight attendants a little less polite, the refusal to acknowledge a baby as a travel trump card. And don't even get me started again on the same damn Airbus A320 from Madrid to Bilbao; I had to sit angled sideways taking up half of Nora's space. Flying Iberia is just a slightly worse experience at every level.

It seems so counter-intuitive that it would be so much cheaper (like less than half!) to take three flights rather than only two, but that's the way the airline prices seem to work out. Or how flying through Madrid is almost never an option for me when trying to get from Bilbao to Charlotte or back. However, it's also pretty nice that the system has a built in mechanism for rerouting passengers through partner airlines to fill planes, even if the new route was never offered at a reasonable price in the first place. We got home one hour earlier than previously expected due to avoiding the four hour layover that awaited us in Brussels. Also, the flight from Brussels to Bilbao today was delayed two hours, so we would've gotten home even later.


Glad to be home!