Friday, July 07, 2006

Travel to Thailand With an Infant: Planes and Trains

So before we left, my moms tried to search for information about traveling to Thailand (or anywhere really) with an infant, aka me. All they could find was basic stuff about whether or not to give your wee one Benadryl on the plane, not to drink the water, and how to get babies to clear their ears on takeoff and landing. So now that we are back, I'm going to let them use my blog to post some of the info they want to share with other folks who might be thinking of doing a similar trip. I think they are going to start with reviews of the airlines and the overnight train:

Long-Haul Flights

For our long-haul flights, we flew business class using American Airlines frequent-flyer miles. This involved a very extended routing- IAD to LAX to NRT to BKK on the outbound, and BKK to HKG to LAX to IAD on the inbound. I'll start by saying next time we will probably fly Thai Air or Singapore Air's "premium economy" service direct to Southeast Asia from New York or Newark rather than trading an extra 10+ hours each way for biz class.

American Airlines- First (between IAD and LAX)

Although AA is my preferred airline in the states, there is nothing particularly special about flying them, even in first, when compared to the long-haul flights (or even short haul) on asian carriers. Just your basic to and fro. Gus had a seat on these legs although he didn't use it ont he way back (red-eye) and just slept in his mom's lap. Even though he was ticketed, we were never offered service items for him (towel, meal, etc). Not a big deal to us, but I know parents who want all the meals they paid for. You can't check in online for an infant, which makes sense, even if they are e-ticketed. No problems with gate checking the stroller- in fact AA was the only carrier that realized the grey bag that said MacLaren on it with a gate check tag on it was, in fact, a stroller and actually returned it planeside without asking.

Japan Airlines- Business (long-haul from LAX to NRT; short haul NRT to BKK)

JAL was our favorite airline of the trip. Although the ticket counter staff were not the friendliest, the gate agents and flight attendants were wonderful. The "shell seat" in business allowed enough room for Gus to share a seat with either of us with both mom and gus having enough room to lay down in the seat. We had the bulkhead/bassinette seats but did not use the bassinette because we didn't think he'd sleep in a big mesh basket sitting on a shelf on the wall. The downside of these seats (other than no storage room in front) was that the bassinette position is in the "downstairs" cabin of business class, and they kept turning the lights on and off at weird times, interrupting sleep. We "preordered" diapers and got a JAL Baby Cruise bag, which included premium (Nepia brand) diapers (6 on the long-haul, 2 on the short haul), JAL baby-cruise-branded Nepia wipe packets, and a disposal bag. We could have gotten a baby meal also, that comes complete with airplane-shaped spoon. Halfway through the flight we were brought a tray and allowed to pick a new toy from a selection of airplane-related toys (that are probably not safe for under-threes, but...) Changing tables were in about 1/2 the bathrooms, and the flight attendants were helpful with getting in and out of the bathrooms, putting the tables down, etc. Flight attendants were also great about helping us deal with the fact that one of us had Gus on our laps or in our seat the whole way, such as by placing both food trays on one tray table, serving meals late or early, etc. They brought the stroller to us planeside in NRT and BKK, but only after being asked upon landing. Overall, both flights were fantastic and we had great service. Other than the ticketing agents, the only negative to report about JAL is that the biz lounge at LAX (shared with Qantas) is tiny and staffed by thin-lipped librarian-types who were not welcoming at all and seemed a bit annoyed at the baby's presence. The small size also created a pin-drop silence where we didn't feel comfortable with a baby who, although not crying, does make some noise sometimes. So we just got snacks and headed out, no lingering

Cathay Pacific- Business (long-haul HKG to LAX, short-haul BKK to HKG)

Although we were excited to fly Cathay based on the rave reviews it generally gets, we were a little disappointed with their baby-related service. We did not use the bassinette because we wanted a non-bulkhead seat for the storage space -it is convenient to throw the diaper bag, toys, etc under the seat in front- but it turns out the biz seats dont have any room for underseat space on any of the seats. Not a big deal, but something to know in advance. As with JAL, we also preordered diapers for these flights and received a mesh mustela bag for each flight. The bag, although it was fancier in a zippered mesh bag as opposed to the plastic JAL baby-cruise one, was a little lacking in content. The bags, for both long-haul and short-haul, each contained the same things, including a mere 2 PetPet diapers for each flight. 2 diapers doesn't cut it on a 14 hour flight. The bags also had no wipes. Instead they had samples of Mustela diaper rash cream and mustela baby facial moisturizer. Although I'm sure those are great products, wipes would be handier. Honestly, i seemed more a way to promote Mustela than make diaper changes convenient.
We were most disappointed that we received no/little help with the baby. In fact, the flight attendants were so inattentive to the point that when Mom 1 was holding Gus and couldn't put her tray table down because of it, the flight attendant ignored Mom 1, talked only to Mom 2, and wouldnt even bring or offer Mom 1 food or drinks unless Mom 2 asked, and even then did so slowly and begrudgingly. Quite a change from JAL. No help with changing tables, etc. One other thing to note is that Cathay requires the use of infant seat belts (the kind that loop through the adult seatbelt) so ask for it right away- Gus had already settled in and fell asleep and we had to wake him to put on the belt when they finally gave it to us and told us it was mandatory. On both flights, we had to wait until everyone else was off the plane (cuts down on one of the perks of biz class- being one of the first off the plane) before they brought the strollers. In LA, even though the stroller bag had a huge "deliver to passenger at gate" tag on it, they did not bring out our stroller with the rest because it was in the stroller bag and they didnt know it was a stroller. Which I guess would be fine, except then what's the point of tagging it? The seats were similar to JAL, a bit narrower and no footrests, but still comfortable. On the plus side, the food on Cathay was great, better than JAL, and the Cathay HKG business class lounge was superb. They have 2 bars, showers, a game area, and a noodle bar where you can order from 4 kinds of fresh noodle dishes. It was also huge, bustling, and had other children in it, making it a more comfortable atmosphere for us.

Short-Haul Travel Within Thailand

Bangkok Airways- coach (Chiang Mai to Samui; Samui to Bangkok)

This cute airline, selling itself as Thailand's "Boutique" airline, was fine. It flies planes about the size of a regional jet here in the states, brightly-colored, cheerful looking planes that fly to touristy places, such as Siem Reap, Koh Samui, etc. Our only baby-related difficulty with them was that, when I called their local (US toll free) number before booking online from the states, I was told there was no charge for infants under 2. Upon arriving at the Chiang Mai airport to check in, we were told that we did need a ticket for him to sit as a lap baby. It was inexpensive (10% of adult fare), but a hassle to arrange for the ticket at the last minute. The planes were simple and small. Unlike US carriers, they served a meal on all flights, even the 1 hr flight from Samui to bangkok. We actually skipped the meal coming back b/c of the roaches we saw crawling around our seats, but we were in the bulkhead directly behind the galley. At first I was surprised that roaches would live on a plane, but then I thought that most airplanes probably have 1 or 2 that you usually just dont see. This airline offers, but does not require, an infant lap belt.

Overnight Train, Bangkok to Chiang Mai

For less than about $30 per person, we were traded one hotel night and take a 13 hour train ride. We were in the first-class car (all westerners) with airconditioning. The compartments are tiny, with a small sink, a window to the hallway and a window to the outside, and a large sofa-type seat that converts into 2 bunks. We had 2 adjacent compartments with a connecting door, and opening the door made it much more spacious. There were built-in racks and compartments for luggage, but these were used by the staff to store the blankets, linens, etc. On request, the train attendant made up (and took down) the beds. Clean linens, but thin blamkets. Not a bad ride- the train was a bit worse for wear and not quite as nice as some sleeper cars in the US or Europe, but not bad. Just old. Meals were available for purchase if you wanted, but we just bought snacks and brought them along (incuding dunkin donuts from the train station). Gus slept fine on the train, although the bunks are not ideal for a baby- the wall next to the bottom bunk has a big net (to hold water bottle, book, whatever) and a big metal hook (used to hold the seat in place when it is not a bed). Gus got caught in both of them when he wiggled around in his sleep or when trying to get to sleep, so the only option was for him to sleep on the outside (no railing), which meant his mom didnt get much sleep because she was trying to make sure he didnt fall out of bed.

Next review: hotels

Hanging in the Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge

Boarding the Bangkok Air Plane

Giant "JAL Baby Cruise "Baby

The train compartment.

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