Saturday, February 7, 2015

Flying between China and the US... with a Toddler

Flying with a toddler is not for the faint of heart. Flying 14 hours with a toddler (plus airport delays) should give anyone a prize. It's not something I would wish on anyone, not even my worst enemy (if I had one). When we got home, I thought "I never want to do that again. Ever." Only problem is, it's the only way to get back out of China, so one day, we'll face it again...

I did quite a bit of research, googling the title of this post, trying to find anything to help. Some things gave good advice:
-pack lots of new toys
-wrap them individually for extra interest and a few more seconds taken up
-pack lots of snacks

Ryan's advice was to just not think about it, since it was going to be miserable. He may have been the wiser of us two. ;)

Traveling during the holidays in the winter added its own dimension. I'll go through our experiences, both to document them and maybe give some people advice on what to prepare for. But the big things we learned?
- If your toddler is in your lap, don't fly over your night if you can help it. She may sleep, but you won't, and you'll be exhausted when you arrive!
- Don't fly through Chicago in the winter. Just don't.
- Do pack lots of good food - you won't regret it!
- Pack light. Your toddler doesn't need all of her favorite stuffed animals... her best one will do and you won't want to lug them around, especially the one that plays songs if it's accidentally poked!

But, on to looking back at our adventures...

It started on Saturday, December 20th. Our flight didn't leave until 6 PM, so we spent the morning on final packing, some cleaning up, and got to relax while the little one got a good nap. It was great, and we were thinking overnight flights were the way to go!

We headed out around 2 PM, stuffing a taxi full of luggage and pointing out the airplanes ( Fēijī ) as we got closer to the airport. Hadassah was super excited to see them. I'd been talking to her for a week, telling her that we were going to fly on a  Fēijī soon to go see Grandma and Grandpa. She'd get excited. I'd even tell her we were bringing a pillow for her to sleep on, pretending to close my eyes and snore, and she'd copy my snore back. I think she got some of the idea...

Shanghai's Pudong airport is fairly well set up, and the best part is the large carts they have for free. We were able to use them all the way from the curb 'til security, which helped with our all of our heavy bags.

We were in high spirits, until we had to wait for 45 minutes, trying to solve the debacle of them having no record of Hadassah being a "child in lap" on my ticket. I had called the airlines to make sure she got on when we booked the tickets, I'd seen the fee for it go through on our credit card statement, and when we'd tried to check in online the night before, it had told us we couldn't because we had an child in lap. But, "we have no record of her" is all we kept hearing. Finally, after being transferred to another agent, with 2 more coming up to help and making phone calls, they told us the ticket for her had been issued but never confirmed, whatever that meant. We would have to pay the fee again to get her on our lap, which we could later call up and dispute with the airline if we had indeed paid it before.

Lesson learned: always print out any record you have of your tickets, especially if you are traveling with a baby.

We got through security and had just enough time to get supper and let Hadassah walk some, as she excitedly watched airplanes take off and land out the window. Then, it was time to join the long line boarding the airplane.

We were excited to start! We were going to see our family! We'd counted down the days, and it was here!

The knowledge that it was going to be a long night began when we changed Hadassah into pajamas at her normal bedtime. It was just an hour after we boarded, which looking back wasn't enough time for her to calm down and realize we were going to be in a new place for a long time. She didn't want to go to sleep, so we walked the aisles some, and eventually she finally nursed to sleep.

Which was great, but very uncomfortable for me... Any movement I made had the potential to wake her up, as she was not used to sleeping with me. So I froze in one position, as my back and legs and shoulders got tight and numb. But, it was worth it if it meant Hadassah slept!

Lesson learned: it might be worth the money to book a separate seat for a toddler on such a long flight. But when it's $1000 more to spend, it is hard...

So as the night went on, we felt more and more like this...

Hadassah woke every hour or two, always very confused, wondering where we were. She would eventually nurse back to sleep, after some distraction, but she didn't really want to play toys, even if they were new (after all, it felt like night to her!) and we wanted to keep her quiet as possible, since many around us were sleeping. 

It didn't help that we had turbulence almost our whole flight. So when she woke up crying and I was trying to calm her down, I stood up once to walk, knowing that would do the trick, but a flight attendant told me to sit down. I understood - it was dangerous - but it was hard, knowing that her crying was disturbing others. Thankfully, though she had quite a few short crying sessions, she had no major meltdowns, and we were able to to quiet her some way or another. She definitely nursed a TON more than she had in a long time! But, a different place allowed for different practice than we had at home!

There were also about 6 other babies in our section, so I didn't feel too bad if Hadassah cried, since often another one was too. All-in-all, it was amazingly quiet for that many young ones in one area!

When she did sleep, I tried to distract myself from the pain in my back and legs and keep myself from moving by watching movies on my personal screen. Ryan was great about putting my earphones in so I didn't have to move. ;) But I didn't enjoy how American Airlines had their entertainment: you couldn't start and pause what you wanted to watch whenever. They had different loops going for the different shows, so you could "join" them. So I never actually made it through a whole movie, as Hadassah would wake up before one finished, and I couldn't pause it and start back the next time she slept... 

Lesson learned: Go with an airline that has the ability to pause and restart entertainment, or maybe bring your own. I don't usually watch a ton of things, but it's the best way to pass the time when you can't move.

When we finally touched down in Dallas, after about 12 1/2 hours of flight, it was early morning body time. And Hadassah couldn't yet move... I'd forgotten how many LINES you have to stand in and wait for things as you collect luggage and go through customs! Thankfully Dallas was set up well, and the workers were very friendly. The system was efficient; we got all of our bags, went through customs, and there was someone waiting to take our bags and check them for our next flight very smooth. There were more minor meltdowns, though, which I completely understood...

Lesson learned: If you're traveling with a baby, they may swab your hands for suspicious chemicals. I had that done 3 times over our trip, before I asked why they were checking me. Something to do with if you're carrying liquids for a baby, they're more suspicious that you might be trying to smuggle in a bomb. Weird. ;)


We had a few hours for a layover - which turned into even longer - but there was thankfully a play place for children in our terminal. It was so good for Hadassah to be able to move, play with new things, and just be a toddler!

Our connection flight was supposed to leave at 8:45 PM the new time (we'd landed around 6 PM) but as we sat at our gate, we kept not seeing our flight appear on the screen. We kept asking, and they kept saying it was delayed... it would be after the one currently on the screen...

It was frustrating. We were exhausted, we were so close to family and rest, but we had to wait and wait. Hadassah made friends with a little boy waiting with his mom, and they switched toys to play with something new. :) Ryan got me a real chocolate sundae from McDonalds, after having too many experiences in China with either the ice cream being sour, or the chocolate syrup being grainy and not sweet... So that was a highlight: we were in the US again!

And when all we wanted to do was lay on the floor (we were currently on hour 27 or so with no sleep), there was a sweet little one to spontaneously snuggle us. She really did SO well over the whole trip, all things considering! We were tired, but we were together, and she seemed to enjoy the time with mommy and daddy.

But we definitely felt out of it. This was our attempt to look how we felt. Not pretty. ;)

Finally, around midnight our new time, we were on our way to Montgomery! It was a fairly smooth flight, with Hadassah conking out on takeoff and sleeping nearly the whole 1 1/2 hour flight.

And my parents were amazing to pick us up at the airport though it was after 1 AM! But we were there - we were home! It felt so good to be in that airport again, the place of so many happy reunions when Ryan and I were courting and engaged but living hundreds of miles apart...

Jet lag was crazy. I covered some of it earlier. Hadassah was ready to play just after I was finally able to sleep, and she never fully got back to sleeping well our whole trip. Tiring. So good to be with family and friends in Alabama, Atlanta, and Indiana. But tiring.

Fast forward to Monday, January 5th. It was time to leave...

This time, we set out early in the morning, pulling out of the driveway just after 5 AM. Ryan's parents were so kind to go with us to the airport, on a workday morning nonetheless, and help with all the luggage.

Again, we had to wait for at least 30 minutes, as a new employee tried to figure out how to handle a "child in lap." Guess it's not a common thing, and we're still not sure what the trouble was, but at least we had the grandparents there to do songs and fingerplays and get some extra snuggles with Hadassah. She was a bit more reserved that morning, as if she knew she was going to have to say goodbye...

Going through security in Louisville was the easiest ever. We had taken our time, getting breakfast before we went through, as our flight was delayed by an hour. But as we joined the really long security line, I saw our flight on the screen was showing it's original, earlier time. I panicked for a moment - it was supposed to leave in 20 minutes! I said something to Ryan, and as if the security worker heard me, she just then directed us to the shorter, "pre-check" line. We didn't have to take off our shoes, take our electronics out of the bag or anything. It was incredible!

Lesson learned: sometimes things actually work better than expected!

We hurried to our gate, only to find that the screens were wrong and our flight was still delayed. It had something to do with the amount of hours to rest the crew needs before starting a new flight, and they'd been in late the night before. It did make us nervous about making our connection to Shanghai, but we figured maybe that one would be delayed too, with the way things were going...

So we had time to let Hadassah walk and watch planes, and she was her happy little self.

Lesson learned: leaving first thing in the morning actually works better for us all - we've all gotten sleep (maybe not a full night, but some!) and are ready to tackle the adventure.

The delays kept getting longer. We sat on the plane for a while before take-off, and then once we landed in Chicago we sat on the plane for about an hour before a gate opened up. The temps were below freezing, and planes were being delayed in leaving as they had to be de-iced, so the planes that kept arriving had no where to go. We used up a lot of toys and books we had planned to save for the long flight to China, and pretty much gave up hope of missing our connection.

Lesson learned: buying cheap new-to-you little toys and books from thrift stores is definitely a great idea! I was so happy to have been in the land of great thrift stores again!

But we were going to try. When we finally got into the gate and off of the plane, we hurried to a screen listing departures, saw the gate our flight was at and took off running. Immediately we heard on the intercom "Ryan and Anna Wolfe, please come to gate K16. In two minutes doors will be closing." Nothing like that to get your heart racing! We were at K2, so it was possible... I told Ryan to run ahead and tell them to wait, as I had a backpack full of kids books plus Hadassah in the ERGO, and am NOT the runner of the family!

We arrived breathless, (Ryan got there first, and the first thing they said to him was "where's your wife?") and they kindly helped us with our boarding passes and told us to breathe. We couldn't believe it - we'd made it! We were praising God.

But as we sat and sat and sat and sat... for hours on board the plane going no where, we kind of wished we hadn't made it in time. A lavatory wasn't working. That got fixed only to announce that the water line was frozen. They finally got a heater to come try to de-ice it, but nothing worked. Finally, to everyone's relief, they said we could get off as they continued working on it. They handed out lunch vouchers and told us to check back after we'd eaten, that maybe they'd be able to leave around 4 PM.

It being 1 PM or so, we took our time. One thing AA did well was their vouchers. They were generous, and even gave us enough for three people since we had a baby. We enjoyed a delicious late lunch with pizza, an awesome hamburger, and Caesar salad. It might be our last meal in America for a while, so we may as well go all out!

After time to let Hadassah enjoy the sparkly floor nearby and repack some things, we set out to check the status of our flight. But the gate area was deserted. We asked an attendant at another gate, and she reacted with surprise when we gave our flight number. "Oh - that one's been canceled."

What? No notice?? I guess if we'd stayed in the gate we would have heard something... But she directed us to their re-booking area complete with phones. It took about 30 minutes, complete with the phone randomly dropping the call and him calling us back on our cell phone, but we were booked on a direct flight to Shanghai leaving the next day. During that time, Hadassah fell asleep, as it was way past night time... Horray for ERGO carriers!

Now what? We ran into someone I recognized as sitting behind us on the flight that never moved, and she told us we needed to get our luggage, and only then would we be given hotel vouchers.

We made our way downstairs, Hadassah still asleep, and found the luggage just sitting in clumps. But all 200 lbs was there, and we paid $5 for the last little luggage cart. One way Shanghai's airport was better - their carts were bigger and free!

We carefully maneuvered back upstairs, only to see the line we needed to be in was at least 200 people long. What??? It was nearing 5 PM now, and we were exhausted. We joined the line, and a worker soon told me to go sit down, that my husband could stand in line for us. Guess I was pulling off the "I am completely exhausted, done with everything, and have a baby asleep on me" look rather well.

A few workers stopped to ask Ryan what we needed, and he kept telling them we already had a flight booked - we just needed hotel and meal vouchers. We were contemplating just leaving and paying for a hotel ourselves as Hadassah woke up, but a minute later another worker came up, took pity, and went off to get us vouchers.

We pulled our winter jackets out, but didn't feel up to digging through to find gloves and hats. Regretted it a bit once we felt the sub-zero air outside. We'd forgotten how cold COLD is! But we finally made it onto the shuttle and into our hotel...

They gave us a room at the Marriott. Incredibly comfortable, especially after cramped planes and busy airports all day! We snuggled and played with Hadassah on the bed, finally relaxed...

The generous meal vouchers covered a nice dinner and the deluxe buffet breakfast the next morning. Not airplane food for sure! It was a bright spot amid exhausting travel... we ate and slept so well, and were ready to face it again the next day...

Lesson learned: People do go out of their way to help and give you more vouchers when you have a baby! So thankful!

We even got to see what will probably be the only snow we see this winter. Seeing the landscape all white again brought back good memories of our newlywed year, but still gave me no desire to move back to the land of snow. ;) I think I'll always prefer the south! But, we got a picture in and Ryan even threw a snowball to make things legit.

We got to the airport two hours before our plane was to leave, thinking that would be good enough. We went to the self check-in, now flying United Airlines, only to scan our passport and be told "your ticket and itinerary do not match." What??

The airport was crazy. A lot of flights had been delayed or canceled, and traffic was bad as cars slid off the road, a grandpa in line behind us said, as it took them so long to get to the airport they missed their flight. We finally got to an attendant who could help, who told us our ticket had been booked, but not fully bumped over. Huh? It was hard to be too upset, though, given how many people had to be re-booked. She was kind, made lots of calls, and after 45 minutes we had tickets and boarding passes for the flight we were aiming for. Again, that "child in lap" took the most time to figure out...

We finally got to weigh our bags only to find they were all overweight! Either the scales were wrong, or the kids books Hadassah's had read the day before and I'd stuck in the checked luggage to lighten our carry-on load pushed them over. So Ryan kept throwing things to me, and somehow we got them all stuffed in our carry-ons and ready to go.

Lesson learned: pack less books! But, when you live in China and cheap (thrift store!) English kids books are hard to find... it's hard to bring less.

We were on the run again. We had 40 minutes before our flight left (it was already boarding) and the lines for security stretched longer than ever. Our hearts sank as we thought of having to be rebooked again. But then the lady who had just helped us came running up, and said "follow me. They called and told me they're waiting for you, but I have to get you through." She started unhooking barriers and leading us straight through, past the dog to sniff luggage and it's disgruntled security officer owner. "What are you doing??" he asked but she was undeterred. She lead us to get our things scanned, and sent us on our way. The amount of bins we had to use to get through security renewed our desire to pack WAY lighter next time, but finally all was put back together, and we started to run. 20 minutes 'til take-off!

Hadassah rather liked the bouncing as I ran, and we made it. We made it!

We had to sit for about an hour before the flight took off, due to a broken lavatory or something... Now I know: travel time will ALWAYS be longer than you think! But we were finally in the air, squished in the middle of the center, but at least the flight attendant had asked people to move so we were together. And the people on either side of us didn't complain as we got out every hour or two...

The flight was smoother than before. We walked more due to less turbulence and it being day. Hadassah got bored more, as she was awake more, but she loved looking out at the beautiful mountains outside the window as we crossed Alaska. It was nice having a place to stand in the back of the plane and look out! United's entertainment system was even worse, as they just had a few screens in each section for everyone to see, with no choice of what to watch. But most of the movies were actually pretty good, and it gave something to watch. We did miss the personal flight tracker we had with screens in each seat, though, as Hadassah had loved touching the buttons to get to the Fēijī and it had kept her occupied for 10 minutes at a time before!

But, we made it. Hadassah did amazing all things considered, slept some especially as it got to be our body's night time, and though we were counting the hours that seemed to drag, finally we were there. It was around 4 PM Shanghai time, though it felt in the middle of the night. But not as bad as before... flying this way was definitely easier, and recovering from jet lag was too. Somehow the way the body works flying with the sun.

We got through customs, collected our luggage, and stepped out into the cold-ish night. Immediately the smell of cigarette smoke overwhelmed us, and I knew we were back. Back to pollution and cigarette smoke on every street and in every taxi. It was hard for a few moments. But, we were home...

Lesson learned: coming home, even if it's in a foreign country, will always be a relief. Back to your own space, your own little family's routine, and a house set up for a toddler. It was a blessing to be back.

And the discomfort of flying does fade with time. Soon after coming home, I didn't want to think about ever doing it again. Now, I look forward to the next time we can see family... they are worth making the trek. I'll just try to not think about the flight required...

Lesson learned: (passed on from an experienced friend) When flying between the US and China, just expect everything to go wrong. That way when it doesn't, you'll be pleasantly surprised.


  1. Ugh. UGH. UGH. I can't even imagine!! But I did want to mention as far as the inflight entertainment systems--I've been on United flights where it's been great, with *huge* selections of videos, music, everything. So I think it depends on the plane, rather than the airline. Next trip, you might try seeing if their websites detail which plane type has what, and book by plane type instead of by airline (if you have that option). Hope your next trip is less... adventurous!!

    1. Great tip, Hannah. I hadn't thought of that, but I think you're right. I'm learning a lot more to look into - it's so easy to just go for the cheapest price, but when the trip is that long, paying a little extra for a tad more comfort is probably worth it! Great to hear from you. :) Anna