Sample Chapter from Parentonomics by Joshua Gans
The best thing you can say about travelling with children is that they are worse than baggage. Baggage can be hauled around and has no expectation of being treated well. If it gets lost it is a pain but not a disaster. Children, on the other hand, are baggage with mouths and legs. The mouths let their feelings be known while the legs give them the ability to get lost without the assistance of airline handlers.
The most surprising thing about travelling with children, however, is how poorly various travel businesses – in particular, airlines – cater for them. Yes, it is true that some of the better airlines throw activity packs at children, while some long-haul flights have kids’ movies and games. But entertainment is relatively easy for parents to deal with themselves. It is the rest of the experience that looms large; especially in relation to food. Food permeates the travel experience. Access to it and the ability to administer it effectively and cleanly are what separate the good from the bad travel experiences.
Delays, missed connections, and being lost are all tolerable so long as food is on hand. Consider the following story recounted by futurologist David Houle after he was stuck on the tarmac in Chicago:
So let me get this straight: after more than three hours of frustrating delay, someone can just spontaneously give everyone a little chocolate to turn the whole event into an emotional outpouring and the basis of fond memories. It was cheap but regarded as one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed. So why can’t travel businesses get their act together and focus on food; especially when there are children involved?
Actually, not all aspects of travel lead to food issues. By choosing the right destination, an array of options present themselves. What is curious are the schemes resorts and hotels employ to cater for children on the ground.
At one of the places we regularly go on family holidays, we are attracted by the policy that kids ‘stay free and eat free’. Now, ‘stay free’ is really a slogan in name only. It means they won’t charge you for your kids if you can stuff them into your room. Obviously, there are considerable minuses with doing that, so you end up paying for larger accommodation and non-free stays.
But ‘eat free’ is another matter. Now Child No. 1, as I have mentioned before, really likes to eat. We hear howls of complaint if a third course isn’t forthcoming. So if she could eat free, surely that was going to be an advantage to us?
Well, not quite. For starters, one might have assumed that if you went to a restaurant where the kids ate free, the portions for them would be small. Not so: they are on the larger side of meals I have seen for kids and usually include dessert. But here is the thing. If I thought that we would be receiving a massive subsidy from the families with kids who ate an average amount, I was gravely mistaken. This is because those families still order the maximum amount of food for their kids, even if it doesn’t get eaten. Yes, there is a social loss from this, but there is no implicit subsidy coming our way either.
So who is paying for the kids’ meals? You would like to think it was the parents. Again, not quite. The restaurant might jack up prices for parents’ meals or drinks, or somehow it could be built into the resort charges. Sadly, however, that can’t be the case. As we ate our meal, I noticed plenty of tables free of kids. Those people were paying the same as us for the meal and, even if they were getting a discount on the resort charges, the meal itself was a worse deal for them.
A natural thing to ask, however, is what were those people doing there? The resort has plenty of other restaurants that are not part of the ‘kids eat free’ deal. All they’d have to do is avoid us to get a better deal. But the problem is this: those other restaurants cannot be cheaper, in terms of price at least. If they were, then savvy parents might decide that it would be worthwhile paying for the kids – especially if, unlike us, they could get away with feeding their kids very little.
What this means is that to confine the families with kids to the kid-designated restaurants, the ‘free of kids’ restaurants have to be at least as expensive, if not more so, just to make sure. So, who is really paying for the ‘kids eat free’ deal? Well, it’s the adults without kids, who don’t want to eat with someone else’s! Our kids eat free so that someone else can eat free of kids and pay for it. I know this because on some evenings, we get a sitter. On those occasions, we go out free of kids and end up paying more.
One final little puzzle. As I note later in this chapter, airlines do not appear to think enough about mess when giving meals to children on planes. The same is true of the ‘kids eat free’ restaurants. We went to a nice Chinese place at the resort one night and our daughter, who was two years old at the time, appeared to happily eat up all her fried rice. ‘Wow, she’s doing well. This place is great.’ It was only after the meal, when she was removed from her high chair, that we saw how well she had done. There was a nice layer of rice over her, the chair and the floor. Let me be clear, this was (mostly) a mess that the restaurant had to deal with.
But there is a clear alternative for them and I do not understand why they don’t exercise it. The alternative is ‘take out’. As it was a Chinese restaurant, I observed plenty of people taking away food during our meal. I wondered whether we could still get the ‘kids eat free’ deal if we did the same. But apparently not. One explanation was that they were just trying to sell the adults more alcohol. Again, not so. Indeed, the whole operation is so efficient that you could be out of there in 45 minutes (not conducive to the leisurely consumption of high-margin items).
Another possibility was that a take-out option would be subject to abuse (you know, ordering too many meals or something). Again, not necessarily. Since all the customers were staying on site, it is not hard to imagine a simple voucher system that could be used to prevent abuse.
So I am left with the thought that they must require the kids to ‘eat free’ on site because that will demonstrate to those adults who mistakenly happen upon these places one night that they should never do that again and should instead pay for the ‘free of kids’ places. It is like the crammed seats in economy, which are there to show business class passengers why they should pay more. It is nice to see how our kids are pawns in the exercise of resort market power.
It is really in the air that food becomes a key issue for parents. This is not to say that airline travel involves an absence of food. Far from it. Indeed, the main activity for our children on planes is eating. All the other things one might try, from computer games to books, lack food’s sure-fire attention grabbing power. But there is one small problem: airlines do not know what the heck they are doing.
Let me explain. By far the most sensible option would seem to be pre-ordering a child’s meal for your child. Now, a rational person would think that, in preparing such a meal, the airline would give careful attention to the general needs of children and parents and structure an offering that, while certainly not lavish, would cover all the bases and get the job done.
Well, throw rationality out the window, because here is what actually happens. Let’s suppose that you actually end up getting the child’s meal that you ordered – and this is a big suppose because it might well not come, or worse, might come for one child but not the other. But say you actually get the children’s meal; what’s in it?
Here is the offering of a well-known Australian airline:
• One muffin
• One fluorescent, sugary bar claiming to contain fruit
• One packet of corn flakes
• One cup of milk
• One fruit cup
• Cutlery, plastic of course
• One bowl
• One paper napkin
If that selection seems reasonable to you then you are clouded by ‘ground-level’ thinking. Here is what happens to this meal at altitude. First, child tries to insert little straw into box of juice. If successful, child, not understanding the subtleties of fluid dynamics, lightly squeezes box upon picking it up, causing juice, if you are lucky, to squirt in their face and, if you are not, to squirt over their heads into the row behind. It does, so very quickly that child is without juice – and remember, this was the first thing they reached for.
They then ask for the bar, which is your cue to say, ‘How about eating something healthier first?’ Why you say this at altitude is beyond me. But you do. Then child goes for the muffin. However, only 30 per cent of muffin reaches their stomach. The rest forms a layer of crumbs over themselves and their seat.
Still hungry, they go for the corn flakes, attempting to pull the lid off the milk cup – with predictable consequences. Some milk ends up in the bowl. More milk ends up in the child’s lap, along with the muffin crumbs and the corn flakes that flew all over the place as, in this case, I tried to open that stupid little packet.
Ditto all this for the fruit cup, but substitute pieces of fruit for corn flakes and juice for milk.
Finally, we get to the bar, which promptly sticks to the child’s teeth. They complain. You then reach for the toothbrush you carry around for such emergencies ... OK, so you take your finger and attempt to scrape the fruit confection off their teeth but end up getting it all over your hands; now you have little option but to turn into a five-year-old yourself and just wipe them on the seat.
Let us understand precisely what has happened here. There are no winners. The child has not really gotten food. The parent has not been relieved of stress. And the airline has some serious cleaning to do, which will affect their turnaround time.
But just think, all this could so easily have been avoided. First, you could be on an airline that does not provide meals. That forces you to find your own solutions, which would basically involve jelly babies (clean sugary fun). Second, you may not order the children’s meal, in which case an adult meal comes, and the child refuses to eat. They are hungry (just as with the child’s meal) but things are cleaner.
Finally, the airline may just give an ounce of thought and (a) supply juice in a pop-top plastic bottle rather than a box and straw; (b) provide a cookie that doesn’t leave too many crumbs; and (c) include some fresh fruit, such as grapes. Why not top it all off with a little toy, like McDonald’s does? Then we’d all be happy.
Of course, at the other end of the flying spectrum is the ‘low-cost’ airline route. There you have no expectations of being given food. Instead what you hope is that you will be charged through the roof for something.
Before we come to that, the low-cost route has another issue when you travel with kids – just getting a seat. In many such flights, there is a lack of assigned seating. Now I can imagine a world in which no assigned seating might make sense. If there is a commuter flight with mostly lone travellers, they would get on the plane and sit in the nearest available seat. It probably means that you can load people on quicker.
But for a flight to a holiday destination, with mostly families travelling, the whole thing is a disaster. There is no appreciable saving in time, because the large chunks of families scramble to get seats close to their children. Now I had fantasised about not doing this; going to the back of the queue and being separated from our children for the whole flight, leaving them as some other sap’s problem. Sadly, the issue is that, as in musical chairs, I would likely end up sitting next to someone else’s children – and that was a lottery I was not willing to play.
Anyhow, on our one and only experience with this, we had a ‘prized’ orange pass, which meant that we would be first to board – being with kids got us that. It was clearly better than the blue pass or, worse, something called the silver pass (I do not know who you would have had to offend to get stuck with one of those). But you may have noticed my earlier foreboding. The ‘prized’ orange pass was only prized in the sense that there were a couple of people with the other passes. Actually, from a scarcity (but no value) perspective, the other passes were rarer.
I was not really aware of this and we had positioned ourselves well to get on the flight at the top of the queue. Unfortunately, 15 minutes before boarding, due to one of our adult party being in the bathroom, I watched the ‘tipping point’ occur. It occurred to someone that they could just stand in line right then, and they did. Within seconds, as if someone shouted ‘fire’ in a cinema (or ‘shotgun’ in this case), there was a rush to the queues. I thought the worst that might happen would be that we were at the back of the prized orange queue. In dismay I now saw that the orange queue accounted for more than half the passengers! Nonetheless, we stood in it.
Fifteen minutes into standing in this queue, Child No. 1, who was seven at the time, asked, ‘Why are we just standing here?’ I told her that it was because of the ‘tragedy of the queue’. Everyone wanted to be at the front of the queue, so we all moved to get there. ‘But we aren’t in the front of the queue,’ she said, pointing out the obvious. Well, we weren’t quite at the back either. So we were standing there so we wouldn’t be at the back. ‘And what’s the problem with being at the back?’ I argued that it was because we wanted a better choice of seats.
Now we had become savvy enough to realise that there was another opportunity to jump the queue, as we walked across the tarmac to the plane. We weren’t going to do this, but we were certainly going to maintain our relative position against the ‘blue passers’ nipping at our heels, unencumbered by children. One got through, but we broadly succeeded.
On the plane, the true inefficiency of this system emerged. People who boarded at the front were going back. People who boarded at the back were going forward. They collided. It was chaos. We staked out our row and wanted to maintain a spare seat. (There were only eight on the flight.) Fortunately, Child No. 3 put on a wonderful screaming performance and repelled all challengers.
Being seated, we could then contemplate the food situation. We had intended to buy food on the plane, to save the hassle of carrying it on with us. Big mistake. We were in the middle of the plane and by the time the food cart got to us, there was no food. Certainly no real food, like sandwiches or meat pies. We got some potato chips and a lolly bag. Now you might think ours was an ‘out of meal-time’ flight, but no, it was the prime time 12–3 pm run. Lunchtime. Hence the high demand for food; but that didn’t explain the low supply..
Then I had an idea. I would try to procure a sandwich from the row ahead. I said, ‘I’ll give you $15 for your sandwich.’ The woman I was negotiating with pondered this and then said ‘how about $30?’ I said, ‘$20?’ She said, ‘No deal.’ I said ‘Are you really going to eat a sandwich that is now worth $20 in cold hard cash?’
Actually, the last paragraph didn’t actually happen, but pondering the potential for it left me with that strong memory. I also wanted to remember to bring more contra onto the next such flight I had the misfortune to travel on. I think you could make a killing.
While food can relieve much of the stress associated with travel, it is useful to reflect on the ultimate source of that stress: other passengers. Now I don’t mean that they actively cause problems. Instead, it is their very existence and the general desire by parents to be considerate of them in confined conditions that generates stress. You might not personally care that your child is being loud, mobile or messy, except for the fact that this so immediately impacts on others who have no obvious avenue of escape on a full flight.
But what happens when they can escape? My belief is that all bets are off in the consideration game. This happened to us once when we were travelling with just two children – Children No. 1 and 2, when they were aged three and one respectively.
The flight in question was about two hours long and fairly – but not completely – full. An enterprising agent at check-in had offered us the strategic option of two aisle seats either side of a centre seat that we did not book. At that time, children under three generally sat on their parents’ laps to travel.. The agent figured that this seating arrangement would virtually guarantee a vacant seat between us, so we could use the extra space.
Sadly, the inevitable happened; someone was assigned the centre seat. He was a man in his twenties who had got his ticket at the last minute. He was the last person to board. The air host immediately offered him a seat further back, which he refused. This frustrated the air host but we didn’t seem to have any other option, so I scooted over and gave him one of the aisle seats. I figured the other seats were too far back or something.
After take-off, I got up and noticed that there was an empty middle seat just three rows back. This was the one this guy had refused, presumably in the hope I would do just what I had done and give him the aisle. Sure, we had been strategic, but I was still outraged. Now I understood the air host’s frustration at his earlier intransigence. For me, the weight of travel stress was suddenly lifted from my shoulders. I decided that I was going to torture this man for as long as he stayed in my domain.
My first act was to take out the air sickness bag and say to the three-year-old sitting on my lap, ‘OK, now we don’t want to have a repeat of what happened last time, do we? Here’s the bag, right here. If you’re feeling sick you need to get it so that you don’t throw-up over the nice man here.’ Child No. 1, who had never thrown up on a flight before, took some interest in the air sickness bag but dutifully agreed to use it should she need to. She also obliged me by having a loud discussion about what being sick on an airline meant, in all of the gruesome detail that can accompany three-year-old expressiveness.
The man looked nervous at this but was unmoved. I now gave Child No. 1 free reign to play as she wished, making no attempt to stop her bothering our fellow passenger. This amused me for some time, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted more.
Next up I swapped the three-year-old for the one-year-old and decided to feed him some lunch. I seated him on my lap facing the increasingly disconcerted man and started spooning in his pureed meal; pretty poorly, too. He finally saw the writing on the wall and disappeared. I did not see him again until he returned at the very end of the flight.
It was the least stressful plane trip I have ever had with kids. When you take away the need to be considerate to others, air travel becomes a bearable experience.