Help me fly alone with two small kids: airport gate pass edition
May 23, 2014 7:15 AM   Subscribe

In the near future, I will be flying alone several times with a 3.5 year old and a 7 month old. Lucky me. On at least some occasions, I will have someone bringing us to the airport or meeting us on the other end. I hear it's theoretically possible for that person to obtain a gate pass, and help us get to the plane (or meet us when we get off). We'll be fine ON the plane, but having help in the airport would be a real sanity saver. I know that gate passes are not handed out like candy and generally require cause. Does this constitute cause? What are your experiences with requesting / obtaining / being refused gate passes? Does it help to call ahead? Who would you call? Bonus points if you can speak specifically to Chicago O'Hare, Atlanta Hartsfield, or Panama City, FL.
posted by telepanda to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total)
I was given one at Logan Airport once, when I had left a laptop at the gate area and wanted to go search for it. I guess I seemed desperate enough that they wrote me one up without much ado. I think that was at the ticketing counter.

TSA considers you to be just like a person with an ordinary boarding pass, once you have the document. You go through security just as if you were about to fly, and then you are in the gate area.

I'd call the airline, and emphasize the angle of needing assistance with children.
posted by thelonius at 7:22 AM on May 23, 2014

I agree, having help in the airport would be useful. I don't know that they'll give you a gate pass though, because other folks manage to fly solo with little kids all the time, and if everyone traveling alone with kid wanted one, there would be a ton of folks behind security without a ticket, and that ain't gonna fly. One thing you could do is ask the airline if one of the 'wheelchair' assistance people can help you with your kids. You typically tip these folks about $20 for their assistance. You arrange this with the airline, they meet you at the ticket counter, and escort you to the gate.

Take advantage of preboarding. I saw a family with 4 kids this week and they waited to get on along with everyone else. They put a dead halt on regular boarding while dealing with strollers, car seats, getting everyone in and settled and then stowing all their gear. Don't do that to people.

One thing you can do is strap your baby into a Snugli or something similar and put your 3-year old in the stroller. That leaves your hands free to deal with stuff. Just leave yourself a ton of time to get through security (they'll take you separately and help you) and get to the gate ESPECAILLY at Hartsfield. Don't accept flights with short connection times in Atlanta. I'm not kidding. Our flight came in at the ass-end of the airport, late, and people were still harboring hope of making their connections. It takes about 10 minutes to get from D1 to the train that connects you to the other concourses, then it takes about 10 more minutes to travel to the gate from there. That doesn't include potty or little kid dawdling.

I'm going to say that you can do this alone, but you need to plan for it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:38 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Funny you mention the preboarding; on a recent flight, we were loitering near the gate, waiting to preboard, and the gate agent looked me in the eye as she announced on the overhead that "We will not be preboarding families with small children on this flight. Please board with your boarding group. First class passengers please?"

Sigh. Can't win.
posted by telepanda at 7:45 AM on May 23, 2014

I agree, as long as your gate changes aren't short, there's no reason you can't do this, either with toddler in a stroller/baby in a carrier or, better, a two-kid stroller that includes a carrier for the baby; baby's carrier then straps into the plane seat. You keep the kids in the stroller until it's time to get on the plane, and then they get checked in at the gate. I've done it. The only thing that was problematic was, not every plane has a changing table, so do try to change diapers right before you get on if you can.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:48 AM on May 23, 2014

I can speak to the gate pass, but I do have a logistical suggestion.

Get an Ergo to carry the littlest one. If your 7mos old has good head control, even better because you can back carry.

Since you'll be purchasing a seat for the 3.5yr old, bring your FAA approved car seat and purchase a GoGoBabyz car seat stroller adapter. The things are brilliant! No need to gate check anything. Turns your car seat into a stroller and then you can push the older child through the airport.

Your older one can carry a small bag on his/her lap while in the 'stroller' and you can pull a carryon as well. No doubt it's a total hassle, but you can do it!! Also, EarPlanes are really, really helpful. They really did seem to work for my two little ones.

That flight attendant was just mean.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 7:54 AM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Atlanta is a HUGE airport; I wouldn't accept a connection there of less than an hour, ESPECIALLY not with small children in tow. I'm guessing whoever designed Hartsfield must have found a REALLY cheap deal on vacant land in Georgia when they conceived of the airport's design. Although I've been to ATL five times -- I've only ever been to ATL as a final destination, and not as a connection. However, the time it takes to get from terminal D or whatever to the between-terminals train and then to the baggage claim is not insignificant. The reverse is also a pain in the arse because they have *ONE* set of TSA checkpoints (and ONE security line!) for ALL terminals; you go straight from Security onto the the between-terminals train and thence on to your terminal.

Unless you know for a FACT your flights will connect in the SAME terminal at ATL, make sure you have a decent amount of layover time there, or arrive there a good two hours or more before your flight is scheduled to depart.

O'Hare has lots of gates but it isn't too bad; everything is tightly together in the same area (at least in the American Airlines terminal, which is the only ORD terminal I have any experience with -- I've only ever been through ORD as a layover airport).

I would call your airline's Customer Service hotline beforehand, explain your situation, and ask either about a gate pass, or if they offer some kind of assistance to those traveling alone with young children. I suspect the policies will be different at different airports, too.
posted by tckma at 8:18 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So I've done this with almost the exact aged children. It's a .... pain. But if you ever had any interest in baby wearing, this is the time to try it out. I would not wait until right before the trip to try it out, some kids are picky about the type of carrier as are some adults (for example, I HATE the Bjorn, hate hate hate, the Ergo and my mei tai carrier was fantastic though). While it is possible to do this with a double stroller, the nice thing about baby wearing is that it really frees up all your attention to go on the 3 year old because you know your baby is secure and happy, and your hands are free to hold the 3 year old's hands, or push them in a stroller or give them food, etc. Plus my kids were always willing to stay much longer in the carrier than in a stroller. Plus, if you are really lucky, the baby may fall asleep in the carrier in the airport and then you don't have to worry about them on the flight because you don't have to pull them out of the stroller/car seat for the plane ride (only once did someone make me "take them out" of the carrier, but just loosening the straps appeased them.

As far as a gate pass, I'd try it, but you may be out of luck. Contacting the airline is your best bet. I've done both Chicago and Atlanta with them, both are fine. Avoid Newark though, it is confusing and the people there are unhelpful. Never do a layover under 1 hour with kids (hell I don't even when flying by myself), over 2 is not required at either though in my experience, and more time isn't always better unless you can get a meal done in that time.

One other tip? My 3 year old loved traveling with his Trunki. He got to put all his toys/books for the flight in there and then he could pull it or ride on it, and it entertained him and reduced the amount of stuff I had to carry. He was more than happy to pull it or ride it himself through the airport. The few times he got tired, he would just jump on and I'd pull him and it would still be one less hand needed than a stroller. The Trunki plus the Ergo got me through traveling with them alone at your age ranges, even with a connecting flight.
posted by katers890 at 8:23 AM on May 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you do get refused a gate pass, I echo Ruthless Bunny's recommendation of requesting a skycap. They are the most helpful folks I've ever met, and worth every penny. I requested one on the return trip from Orlando to New York after breaking my foot on vacation, and he just made everything go so smoothly, from baggage check to security.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:30 AM on May 23, 2014

My husband got a gate pass at SFO to meet us last time I flew with our (just one) toddler. The idea of it had never occurred to me, but it was not a big deal.

I know this doesn't help for this trip, but we were flying Virgin America, which has always been great for my kid. They still have preboarding (fingers crossed.)
posted by purpleclover at 8:44 AM on May 23, 2014

Seconding Trunki! Travelled with a 1y10m old UK-Australia and he LOVED riding it through the airport. Made the long walks to gates somewhat easier.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:02 AM on May 23, 2014

Best answer: I have done the gate pass at ORD many times.

The pass is issued by the airline, so it's not really a factor of the airport or any other entitiy. It's pretty much a boarding card with no flight information it: just your name and something indicating it's an escort pass. All it really does it get you through TSA and into the gate area, which is your goal.

The check-in staff has the power to do this so the whole thing hinges on whether the desk staff is in a good mood and willing to help. So here's what will give you best results:

1) Show up EARLY. Don't try this when there's a crush of people waiting to check in.
2) Find a checkin desk that's actually manned by someone and not just one of the automated baggage kiosks with a porter running around grabbing bags.
3) Use the AGENT to check in the family. Smile a lot.
4) Have the friend's ID on-hand and ready. Drivers license is good, passport is better.
5) Once everyone is good to go and bags are away, then explain your situation. "I'm travelling alone with the kids. Do you think you could give this family member/friend of mine here a gate pass so I can help them get through TSA and get them something to eat?"

Like others have said, they're not handed out like candy but travelling with two small kids certainly ranks at the top of the list for situations like this. Some airlines are better than others when it comes to families (yay Lufthansa!), but you should be in a good position here. Good luck!
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:49 AM on May 23, 2014

I've gotten a gate pass when I wanted to meet my niece at the arrival gate. I just went to the airline desk and explained that I had a minor child (17) on the plane and I didn't want her to have to navigate an unfamiliar airport. The airline gate agent checked my ID and confirmed the name of my passenger, then they handed me a pass.

Airlines aren't catering to families any longer since that line of business isn't profitable. Business travelers are easier, fly frequently and often at full fare. So yeah, airlines and airline employees are far less family friendly than they used to be.
posted by 26.2 at 10:04 AM on May 23, 2014

I don't know if this is am option for you but when I was flying out to Ft. Sill to meet my husband I called the USO in both airports beforehand and they met me at the TSA checkpoint (departing airport) and at the terminal at the next airport for our layover and helped me wrangle ToddlerJungle and our things to our next flight, it was wonderful!
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 10:59 AM on May 23, 2014

I have done this, most recently a couple times last summer with a 2yr old and 9month old, but not at the airports you mentioned. My experience with the gate passes is that it depends on the airline and the airport. Sometimes I've been able to get them and sometimes not. When I've been successful it's been through a skycap, I checked my bags and then inquired very nicely and politely if it was possible. Either way, if you've got bags to check, definitely check them with a skycap, one less thing to schlep around. I wear the youngest even now at 16months and bring a stroller if not for the toddler, then for all the stuff we are carrying and to have someplace to put kiddos when I use the bathroom. That's *actually* the part I've found to be the most difficult, keeping 2 sets of hands out of disgusting places in the bathroom.

Whether you qualify as 'those passengers needing special assistance' depends entirely on the airline and the person working the at the gate. Southwest has been the friendliest and if you are traveling with them spring for the $12/a tix first in line option rather than wait to board after the A's. I did some traveling last year on united and usairways where yeah, it seemed like they just wanted the people with kids to disappear, on one flight they couldn't even manage to book families with small children in the same row and had to delay takeoff while they fixed the mess. And there were a lot of us.

I've found the TSA lines to be not that big a deal, especially if I'm taking a car seat or stroller and need them to help me get it through. Generally you can wear your baby through security if you don't mind having to do a quick explosives swab test on the other side. Take your time, shrug your shoulders, smile& breathe and ignore any impatient folks behind you. Be sure to pull out any milk, etc. you are carrying so it can be tested (you are allowed to bring it on the plane) Getting on the plane I've found to be the hardest part but once they've taken your ticket and you've walked down the runway they aren't going to leave without you. And even if you get some to go to the gate with you they can't help you get on the plane. But there are usually passengers who will help you set a stroller aside, carry a bag on, etc. And I say this as someone who tries never to assume there will be someone to help me - there almost always is. Often these are other families who are in a similar situation. Definitely inquire at the gate, one time southwest didn't have personnel to help me but there was an employee flying standby who they asked to board with me, it was thoughtful of them. . Safe travels!
posted by snowymorninblues at 11:41 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a frequent traveler.

The absolute guaranteed way is to have your escort purchase a fully refundable ticket. This gets him all the way to the gate with you. He cancels the ticket and money gets refunded. This is a relatively common practice.
posted by Kruger5 at 12:00 PM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you try Kruger5's idea of having a friend buy a fully refundable ticket have them book the seat next to yours as well so that you get an entire row and have a place to put down the 7 month old, even for just a little bit.
posted by furtive at 12:31 PM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Getting a boarding pass should not be a problem. My parents would always get one when they met us at the airport, just because they couldn't wait another second to see the kids. I've never found it necessary for getting help, though. I've traveled with three small children more than once. Check your bags at the entrance and have only the necessities with you, leaving your hands free. People are always so nice. I've never once been in a bind where more than one person didn't try to help me. There was one flight were my cranky toddler kept losing her pacifier and then crying for it. The flight attendants took turns finding and washing it, much to my embarrassment. But it became really funny because she was doing it as we were ascending so, a couple of times, it made it to the back of the small plane and was passed up by sleepy, laughing people. It became a team effort to find the pacifier on the dark plane (night flight). I know that is a during flight story and totally gratuitous but, my point is, don't be afraid to ask for and to accept help. There are more nice people in the world than not.
posted by myselfasme at 1:34 PM on May 23, 2014

We've flown a bit with our two four year olds and one unexpected fringe benefit has been the easing of the way through TSA. The agents perk up when they see our (well-behaved, mostly) toddlers come through and they are unusually nice and respectful. They smile and wave us through the old school metal detectors and then we're on our way. No one in our family has to do the backscatter thing. Also kids under 12 leave their shoes on typically.
posted by werkzeuger at 12:07 PM on May 25, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks all for the helpful hints. A followup:

We survived and it was fine. My dad was able to get gate passes in Atlanta both for our arrival and departure. He didn't get any flack about it, though when he met us arriving, the desk wanted him to have our ticket confirmation number and it took extra time to locate us by our names. (Don't ask me why. But it's good to know.) We could have managed without him, but having the extra hands in Atlanta was a huge help because getting from security to gate is relatively complicated. I took the kids through O'Hare on my own and it wasn't a big deal.

Configuration of Stuff: Checked suitcase, carried baby in Ergo, had umbrella stroller for preschooler (or backpack if he was walking). We didn't carry a carseat - my parents own one carseat, which they brought to the airport for the baby, and for the preschooler we used a CARES harness on board the plane and carried a RideSafer travel vest for the car. This is a fantastic combination of products for travel with a 3yo, btw.

Security: the TSA people have been quietly diverting us into the TSA PreCheck lines, which is nice, because it requires less disassembly of stuff.

Boarding: When I requested the stroller tag in Chicago, the gate agent was all, "PREBOARD PREBOARD PLEASE PREBOARD, HONEY, YOU'RE GONNA PREBOARD, RIGHT?" even though Delta officially requires you to have a carseat to preboard. They didn't give us trouble about preboarding on the way back, either. The extra time was immensely helpful.
posted by telepanda at 8:43 AM on July 11, 2014

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