A busy maiden voyage
First of an occasional series on traveling with a baby.
I hate schlepping. My packing habits originate from a New York state of mind: I’ll bring whatever I can carry while running up the block or squeezing into a crowded subway car, and no more. This lightweight logic has served me well on everything from two-night jaunts to Chicago to two-week journeys through China.
It all changed three months ago, when my son, Felix, arrived in the world.
Felix himself? Not so big. But his paraphernalia (car seat and base, click-in stroller, hands-free carrier, diaper bag) surpassed maximum legal carry-on specifications on the day he was born. When he was 10 weeks old, my husband, Matt, and I decided to fly from San Francisco for an East Coast family tour of New York and Philadelphia on all manner of planes, trains, and automobiles. Felix, after all, had a much-anticipated date to visit four great-grandparents, three grandparents, one aunt, one uncle, plus an assortment of great-aunts and second cousins.
Being the anti-schlepper, it was the journey I dreaded.
Over the years, I’ve watched countless parents in airports bogged down with the equipment necessary (and not-so-necessary) for safely transporting their children from point A to point B. Many were consequently rendered less mobile, while their nimble children ran around and dodged their orbit; others, clutching infants to their chests, looked frayed around the edges even before departure. The families who looked most comfortable had security checkpoints dialed down with almost military precision: Older children helped younger ones, and all carried their own backpacks.
But everyone told us that traveling with babies in the first year was a piece of cake. “They’re not mobile yet — they can’t run away from you,’’ one neighbor said. “You can take Felix wherever you want, so you better do it now.’’ Thus motivated, I became obsessed with streamlining our travel operations.
The first problem: Which gear was truly necessary? Over the past decade, my travel bag of choice has been the Patagonia MLC (which, appropriately enough, stands for “maximum legal carry-on’’), a marvel of soft-pack luggage that converts from backpack to messenger bag and never needs to be checked. Though it wouldn’t be all I was carrying anymore, it would be big enough to transport a week’s worth of clothing and toiletries for Felix and me, plus a laptop and reading material.
First leg: San Francisco to Chicago, then on to Harrisburg, Pa. Matt and I each carried MLCs on our backs, and divided and conquered on the rest: car seat with Felix asleep in it, clicked into a lightweight collapsible frame stroller; car seat base, for easy removal from car to car; a shoulder bag with in-flight baby items. As we would be sleeping in three cities, we also brought a PeaPod, an ingenious baby sleep tent that folds into a small satchel. We also packed an Ergo baby carrier for hands-free carrying.
Navigating from home to car to airport parking to shuttle and through security to the departure gate for the first time was a flurry of clicking in, clicking out, carrying, opening, closing. Once we checked our stroller and car seat at the gate and boarded the plane, it was a relief to be seated. The next hurdle: the fear of being those people with the screaming baby. The advice we got — feed on ascent and descent, use the finger or pacifier in a pinch — worked like a charm.
From Harrisburg, we rented a car, easily clicking in our car seat and base for stop number one. For stop number two, we hopped on Amtrak to Philadelphia (trains are lulling for babies). For stop number three, I boarded another train with Felix, for New York’s Penn Station, while Matt took a work-related detour to Washington. Alone, I handled the business of baggage by relying on the kindness of strangers. A train conductor helped me get on, and a group of British tourists helped me disembark.
Strangely enough, the whole experience restored some of my lost faith in travel. Everywhere I went, people wanted to see the baby, smile at the baby, talk about the baby. Fellow passengers introduced themselves as mothers and fathers, and imparted all kinds of wisdom.
By the time we headed back to San Francisco, we were relaxed as could be, facile with feeding (get the window seat), finding elevators (follow the baggage carts), and in-flight baby changing tables (Virgin America’s are nice). We had learned to slow down, taking our time to take in Felix’s first flight, his first train ride, his first stroll through the streets of Manhattan, dodging taxicabs and pedestrians alike.
On this maiden voyage, we also brought along a box of earplugs, which Matt offered to our fellow passengers at every turn. Some took them, others didn’t; almost everyone smiled or laughed. Which brings me to the most important piece of gear for traveling with a baby: a sense of humor.
Bonnie Tsui can be reached at www.bonnietsui.com.