A fun part of being a parent is experiencing the first things with your kids – first steps, first words, first time they can get up and get themselves a drink of water. A bad part about being a parent is experiencing the first things with your kids – first teeth, first trip to urgent care, and one I just experienced, first time on an airplane. All things being equal, I think the first trip to urgent care was less painful. For me at least.
Taking your family across the country is as old as the country itself. When the trip was first being planned, my dad assumed we would drive from Michigan to Colorado. He also must have assumed I was crazy. Even if the kids were terrible on the plane, I’d rather put up with a terrible two hours than two days.Actually, the airplane ride itself was not that bad. Given my kids’ ages (Lucy age 6, Evie age 4, and Brooks age 2) they were about as good as they could have been. They were a little loud, a little whiny, and kicked somebody else’s chair a few times, but that is what my wife and I expected out of them and were pretty prepared to handle. Getting off the plane we were probably at a stress level of four. What were were completely unprepared for is the endless hellscape that was the airport.
The airport we departed from in Traverse City, Michigan was tiny – 6 gates in total. We unloaded our bags, checked our car seats, and got through the TSA checks in about 20 minutes. The kids had snacks and were happy, the adults had coffee from the literal only coffee shop in the airport. Everybody was well behaved. Strangers commented on how adorable the kids were. Safe to say we peaked too soon.
As soon as they made the boarding announcement Brooks threw himself on the floor and started crying. We hadn’t even sat down in our close airborne quarters yet and already I could feel every other passenger on the flight beginning to hate my family. I mean, if he cries at the fact that group two is now boarding, what is he going to do when we’re taking off or hit some turbulence? Scream uncontrollably and crap his pants? I mean, he’s still in diapers so the pants crapping is happening one way or another, but hopefully with at least some dignity. Like going off into a corner and grunt and avoid any eye-contact. Not in a fit of rage at 30,000 feet.
Lucky for us, Brooks was fine on the plane. I did have to change his diaper in the airplane bathroom, which had a little fold out changing table that somehow felt more undersized than everything else in the undersized bathroom. Rumor has it that joining Mile High Club is the riskiest thing you can do in an airplane bathroom, but a wrong move there and you’re not getting doodoo all over yourself. At least I hope not. Anyway, we’re all doodoo free when the plane landed in Denver. Little did we know it was about to hit the fan.
Between me, my wife, and the three kids, we had three carry on bags, four personal bags, and because we needed to rent a car while we were there, we checked our three car seats. We’d all wear our own backpacks, my wife and I would take the carry on bags, and after we picked up the car seats we’d get a cart to get them to the car rental. A good plan in theory, but if theories were correct they’d be facts now wouldn’t they. According to research I did just now and definitely not while we were planning the trip, the Denver airport is the largest airport in the U.S. by land area (54 square miles don’t ya know). By my calculations, Brooks walked about fifteen toddler-sized steps worth of that. In our planning, we accounted for how many bags we couldn’t carry on, and who was carrying the bags, but did not plan on carrying kids. Fools.
So we had to carry the 2 year-old, ok, fine. I could carry him, my backpack, and a carry on. The two girls still had their backpacks, my wife could pull the other two wheeled bags. That lasted for about five minutes (or 0.000005% of the distance we needed to cover in this city-sized airport) until we hit our first escalator. I don’t know if it was the weight of her backpack or her complete lack of understanding how an escalator works, but as soon as Evie put her first foot on the first step, she fell down. As I ascended away from her, my first thought was “dear God, I hope she doesn’t get something caught in the steps.” My second thought was “Uuuuuuuuuggggggghhhhhhhhh c’mon!” My wife scooped her up and got her up the stairs. At this point, both of them were crying (at no point in this journey was there not at least one person crying), and we are not yet a quarter of the way to where we need to be. Safe to say the stress level had maxed.
We pressed on with my wife and I now with a child each, our backpacks, and carry ons. At one point the weight of a person became too much for my wife and I had two kids and a bag scooped up and headed down a concourse walkway like I was Magnus Ver Magnusson doing a stone carry. Lucy was the only kid now pulling her weight, or a carry on bag with wheels as it were. If there was ever an opportune moment for her to ask for a puppy this was it. Couldn’t possibly cost any more than airport food.
Lucy was also the only one keeping her shoes on her feet. The little guy was wearing crocs, which are as easy to fall off a kid’s tiny foot as they are unfashionable. At multiple points he kicked them off on purpose. Not sure if it was for fun or for spite. Travel tip: when you travel with kids only put them in shoes with laces. Who cares how uncomfortable the shoes are if you’re going to carry the kid anyway. They also don’t make kids under 12 take their shoes off at security, so might as well put them in snow boots. Sure, they will be heavier, but you’ll also never have to scoop them up off the airport floor while holding a kid and two bags.
Not only is the Denver airport huge (and quite possibly the 7th circle of hell), it is also under construction and the directions on where things are located are poorly marked. At one point signs for baggage claim were pointing both forward and to the left. After some meandering, we found our baggage claim, and after stopping at two different service desks we found where our car seats actually were. Apparently they count as over-sized luggage and can be picked up at a location several baggage carousels away from the one listed for your flight. This stress level goes to eleven.
After getting the car seats I went to find a baggage cart. I assumed they were like shopping carts, just find where they are and grab one for free. They are actually $6. In that moment they could have cost $100 and it would have been worth it. I piled on the bags and car seats and set off for the rental car. I made it about 50 yards and everything toppled over. I re-stacked, rearranged, and got moving. This time I made it about 15 yards before everything toppled over. Car seats don’t stack well, and despite the fact that all luggage I’ve ever seen has been square or rectangular, somehow, the apparently poorly designed baggage cart narrows at the front making it triangular. $6 piece of crap.
While re-re-stacking the cart, an airport employee took pity on us and asked us if we knew how to get where we were going and pointed us into the right direction of the car rental shuttle. Not the car rentals, but the shuttle to the car rental. Because our half hour trek across the airport wasn’t enough, we need to load our stuff on a bus so we can unload it again so we can load it into our rental car. So whoever designed 54 square miles worth of airport couldn’t squeeze in a couple hundred yards worth of rental car parking lots? In an airport where you need to take an escalator up, another one down, multiple moving walkways, a tram, and an elevator just to get to your gate, why not take a shuttle while we’re at at? Why not find a way to work a boat in there somewhere? Perhaps some kind of luggage barge. Actually, now that I think about it, a gondola would have been super helpful. I would have much rather loaded the kids and bags in a gondola and let the pilot float my family across the airport. I’ve never been to Venice, but I assume that is how their airport is. If it isn’t, did I just have a billion dollar idea?
Without any nautical assistance we got to our shuttle bus and loaded our bags. My wife asked me what we were supposed to do with the baggage cart. “See it in hell,” I replied.
Finally loaded into our rental car and headed into the Rocky Mountains, taking in the scenery of the snow-capped range was absolutely beautiful. Though perhaps not as beautiful as the brewery we stopped at and the foam-capped pint I enjoyed. In the moment, it was really a toss up.
For the flight back home we got to the airport three hours early and prepared to go both painfully slow and slow painfully. Nobody fell and nobody cried. A low bar to be sure, but one I will absolutely consider a win for clearing. The kids were kids on the plane, but this time we were one of three families with little kids. All they had to be was not the most annoying kids on the flight. They were probably the second most annoying. Don’t know if I’ve ever been so proud.
After we got back to Michigan and quickly made our way through the comfortable little 6-gate airport, I realized two things. One, we should have put more effort into preparing for the airport than the airplane. Two, on our next trip, we’re driving.