Babies and first class: why is this an issue?

Earlier this week, I saw a story about babies and first class air travel posted on Facebook. The Facebook poster asked our own Heather Poole (flight attendant, mother, and new book author!) for her thoughts on the story, and she replied, “I’m fine with babies in first class. Usually they just sleep.” Columnist Brett Snyder is a frequent flier and new dad wondering if he should use miles to upgrade his first flight with the baby. Reading the article and the many comments, I wonder: why is this (or really any story about babies and airplanes) a contentious issue?

Long before I even thought about having children, I thought the same about babies in first class that I thought about anyone in the front of the plane: must be nice for them. Sure, it might be a waste of money to give a premium seat to someone whose legs don’t touch the ground and who can’t enjoy the free Champagne, but it’s the parents’ choice to splurge on the ticket. If the parents are more comfortable, the kid might be happier and thus quiet — a win-win for everyone on the plane. Does the child “deserve” to sit up front? Perhaps not, but airplane seating has never been based on merit. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a passenger is a passenger, no matter how small.As the veteran of nearly 20 flights with an infant in Europe, the US and trans-Atlantic, I’ve been fortunate to fly a few times with my daughter in business class. While the roomy seats and meals make a 10 hour flight easier with a baby, more valuable is the ability to skip check-in and security lines, board the plane early, and spend layovers in a spacious lounge with a place to heat baby food or change a diaper. Some of those perks used to be standard for all passengers with small children, but have now gone the way of the hot meal in coach. Some airlines still make travel easier for parents: JetBlue is one of the only US-based airlines to allow you to gate-check a stroller of any size and check your first bag free (checking a bag becomes inevitable with a baby). Gulf Air offers free “Sky Nannies” on long-haul flights for young children, and Lufthansa offers a guide service (for a fee) to escort families traveling through their German hubs. Turkish Airlines (my most frequently-used airline while I live in Istanbul) always offers a “baby meal” and blocks off empty seats when possible to give us more room.

I’m also fortunate to have an easy baby who so far (knock on wood) has been very well behaved on every flight. This is in part very good luck, but also due to the fact that I watch her constantly and head off any signs of crying before they start. I’ll hold and feed her as often as it takes, even if it means I rarely rest anymore on a plane. Many of the same people who’ve given me “the look” when boarding with an infant have complimented me after on her behavior. Brett also notes in his article: “Don’t just sit there while your baby screams. Do everything you can to calm him and people will be more understanding.” This is good advice, but does it really need to be said?! I’d never dream of sitting by idly while my child disturbed other people and I’m embarrassed by any other parents who would consider such behavior acceptable. Still, I recognize that even with the most watchful parents, sometimes a cranky baby is unavoidable but I hope that when/if that day comes, my fellow passengers will see how hard I’m trying to make the flight easier for all of us. Better still, if I anticipate a difficult age for my baby to fly, I’ll look into alternative methods of travel (or postpone until an easier time).

If we are going to ban babies from first class, or even segregate them from adults on all flights, why stop there? Why not a separate flight for the armrest-hogs, the obese, the incessant talkers, or the drunk and belligerent? I’d like a plane full of only frequent flyers, who know not to use their cell phone after the door closes, who don’t rush the aisles the minute the wheels touch down, who don’t recline their seats during drink service or bring smelly food (or nail polish) onto the plane. Start flights for only considerate, experienced travelers and you will find me in the front of the plane, with my baby on my lap.

For more about (considerate) travel with a baby, read my past “Knocked Up Abroad” stories here.

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SkyMall Monday: Cell Phone Handset Battle

If you’ve used an iPhone, you know that holding it up to your ear for a long period of time can be uncomfortable. If you need to be on a lengthy call, cradling the iPhone in your hand can get tiresome. Speakerphone is not always a viable option and headphones can be unsafe for your ears. Thankfully, SkyMall offers two options for adding a handset to your iPhone. This week, SkyMall Monday pits the iPhone Desktop Handset against the Retro Cell Phone Handset. Two handsets enter; one handset leaves.

Let’s meet our contestants (or, you know, take a look at their product descriptions):

iPhone Desktop Handset

This is the stand that transforms an iPhone into a more comfortable desktop handset phone. With the handset in one hand, your other hand is free to navigate an iPhone’s applications, such as calendars, e-mail, and the Internet.

Sorry, I started giggling after “your other hand is free to navigate.”

Retro Cell Phone Handset

Send your phone back to the 20th century with the vintage styling of the Retro Phone! This must have, mobile phone accessory has classic looks and functionality. Simply connect your cell phone via the 2.5 mm or 3.5 mm audio jack and alleviate erroneous touch-screen or key activation! The Retro Phone will give your phone a new dimension of classic cool while also reducing the effects of harmful radiation from your phone.

Because radiation wasn’t an issue in the 20th century!

Now that we’re familiar with the combatants, let’s dial in.

And there you have it. The iPhone Desktop Handset defeats the Retro Cell Phone Handset 3-1. In the end, though, haven’t we all lost?

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

Gadling gear review: Samsung Focus Windows phone

Remember when buying a cell phone was easy? You simply walked into a store, found a device that was the right size and price to fit your needs, bought it, and walked out the door. You usually didn’t have to buy another one until that phone died, and the thought of upgrading on an annual basis was nearly unheard of. The increase in demand for smartphones over the past few years, spurred on by the introduction of the iPhone and Android, has changed that landscape dramatically however, and now we seem more aware of new alternatives that can deliver the best mobile experience possible. One of those alternatives is the Samsung Focus, which runs Windows Phone 7 – Microsoft’s answer to Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems.

From a hardware standpoint, the Focus hits all the right notes. Powered by a 1Ghz processor, the interface is responsive and snappy, which is important considering that Windows Phone does some very different things from the competition. The phone comes with 8GB of on board storage and a microSD card slot allows for quick and easy expansion. A 5 megapixel camera, with LED flash, takes excellent photos and video, which are displayed on a very crisp and detailed 4 inch Super AMOLED screen

Of course, all of that hardware doesn’t mean much if the operating system that runs on it isn’t up to par. Fortunately, Windows Phone 7 is a powerful and interesting take on the mobile OS, which is designed to put the information that is important to us at our fingertips. Those familiar with the desktop version of Windows will recognize a “Start” menu that grants access to installed apps, but it is the new hub-based interface, code named Metro, that is truly unique and different. These hubs are highly customizable and display information on an interactive start screen that lets us know at a glance if we have unread e-mails, Facebook status updates, or Twitter messages that require attention. It is all very slick, well designed, and easy to use – so much so, that the next version of Windows for PC’s will integrate Metro in some fashion as well.These days, consumers rate the value of their smartphone based on the apps that are available and in this area, Windows Phone lags well behind the iPhone and Android. That said however, you’ll find options for most of the top apps from those devices are available here as well, including travel apps from Kayak, XE Currency, and most of the major airlines. The Marketplace, Microsoft’s version of the App Store, also has versions of Angry Birds, Netflix, Yelp, and many of the others apps you’ve come to know and love. Windows Phone may lack the large numbers of apps available on the competition, but there are still plenty of alternatives available to fit your needs.

Using the Samsung Focus around town, on the AT&T network, resulted in good performance, with no dropped calls and decent, if not outstanding, voice quality. Data was fed to the device via 3G network or WiFi quickly, allowing for web surfing, answering e-mails, and sharing photos on Facebook. Everything functioned as you would expect and in this arena, the phone held its own with the iPhone and Android devices.

So how would the Focus fare as a travel companion? In this area it is a bit of a mixed bag. The battery life is solid (6.5 hours of talk, 300 hours of standby) and Windows Phone uses the Bing search engine, also owned by Microsoft, to deliver good local search options and maps, complete with turn-by-turn navigation. The device is actually excellent at multimedia playback, allowing users to listen to music or watch movies on the go, and integration with XBox Live opens the door for the potential for some great games as well. Additionally, the great camera in the Focus is nice for photos and video as well, although I wouldn’t recommend it over a dedicated point-and-shoot.

But the Focus is also larger than the iPhone, which makes it a bit more challenging to stuff comfortably into a pocket while traveling. The large screen may look beautiful, but it expands the dimensions of the device as well. More importantly, the Focus isn’t a true world phone, which means it won’t roam on all mobile networks when traveling internationally. That could be a problem for some travelers, who don’t want to carry a second phone while abroad. The new iPhone 4S does offer that functionality, and the upcoming Windows phones from Nokia will also feature cellular chipsets for connecting globally as well.

Consumers looking for a true alternative to the iPhone or Android will definitely want to give the Focus and Windows Phone a look. Recent updates to the OS have brought even more features to the device and its unique, innovative interface presents important data in a completely different way from the competition. The Focus is also quite affordable, running just $49 with a new contract from AT&T.

Gadling gear review: Grace Digital Audio Eco Pod

Grace Digital Audio is probably best known for its line of Internet radio devices, but the company also produces a line of waterproof cases for smartphones and mp3 players as well. In fact, we positively reviewed their Eco Extreme case back in 2010, and now are similarly impressed with their new Eco Pod as well.

As an active traveler and avid outdoor enthusiast, I almost always cringe when I tuck my iPhone into my backpack with just a regular case to protect it. With that in mind, I was looking forward to seeing what the Eco Pod would bring to the table in terms of protection, and I wasn’t disappointed by what I found. The case’s solid construction and durable poly-carbonate parts definitely give you the sense that it can take a lot of punishment, while still ensuring that your smartphone or music player will remain safe and working properly.

The interior of the Eco Pod is spacious, offering plenty of room for nearly any smartphone or mp3 player on the market. In fact, it is even large enough to store most point and shoot cameras as well, which give the case added versatility for travelers. The Eco Pod also has space for stashing a pair of earbuds and a handy column for winding the cable. Two elastic bands hold your devices in place, while an audio cable plugs into your phone or mp3 player’s audio jack, passing sound through to a similar audio port on the exterior of the case.

Once the Eco Pod is closed, two large and rugged latches lock into place, completely sealing the inside. With those latches closed tight, the case is water proof and rated to withstand being submerged at a depth of three feet for up to 30 minutes, although Grace Digital Audio is quick to point out that the Eco Pod’s waterproofing is designed to protect electronic devices under normal conditions and isn’t intended to actually be used underwater. Still, your gadgets will be well protected during unexpected rainstorms or from accidental submersion just fine. In my testing, not a single drop of water found its way inside the case, even while running it under a kitchen faucet.
The Eco Pod comes complete with a set of waterproof earbuds that are designed to plug directly into the audio jack on the outside of the case. I’m not a big fan of earbuds in general, but the included set were more comfortable, and provided better sound, than I was expecting, and they worked well for listening to music and taking phone calls, while the device stayed safely locked inside the case. A simple rubber knob, located next to the audio jack, adjusts volume while on the go, and is easy to use, even while wearing gloves.

Grace Digital Audio provides multiple ways for carrying the case while in use as well. An integrated strap with a carabiner on the end easily latches the Eco Pod to the outside of a backpack for instance, while a slot on the case allows it to be worn on a belt as well. I personally found it a bit too large and bulky to be comfortably worn in that manner, although others will no doubt appreciate the option. That same slot can be used with an optional bike clamp, which lets you connect the Eco Pod to your handlebars. I didn’t have the chance to test it on either of my bikes, but I think it would be fantastic on longer rides, where a smartphone’s navigational options could be put to good use.

Hikers and cyclists aren’t the only outdoor enthusiasts that will find this case intriguing however. I think paddlers in particular will find the Eco Pod a fantastic addition to their gear closets, as it seems tailor made for kayakers who want to listen to some music, or take phone calls, while out on the water. The rugged and waterproof case can easily be secured to the deck of their boat, allowing for quick and easy access when needed, while still keeping the gadget inside safe and functioning properly, even in the wettest conditions. The fact that the Eco Pod also floats, doesn’t hurt its functionality either.

For travelers looking to protect their electronic gadgets on the go, particularly smartphones and mp3 players, the Eco Pod is a great, and affordable option. I was very impressed with its build quality and well thought out design, and while it is a bit bulky, it also functions like armor for whatever is secured inside. The MSRP of $49.99 is a small price to pay for protecting that fancy iPhone or Android device from harsh conditions that we can encounter while visiting remote places.

Pocket WiFi device offers cheap service in Europe

Using your US-based smart phone in Europe can make for some expensive phone calls. US service providers have international plans that can help but the average roaming charge across Europe costs US travelers $19 per MB. Connectivity is another issue as travelers struggle to get and stay online with phones, laptops, tablets and other wireless devices. Tep is a convenient and affordable service is now available and more than just a way to avoid roaming charges.

“At long last there is an alternative to expensive mobile phone roaming charges and the hassle of finding WiFi internet connections aboard,” said Tep Founder Tomas Mendoza. “Our star service, the pocket WiFi, gives business travelers the power to go anywhere connected with their laptop and Ipad, a priceless service when not being connected can cost time, money and business.”

The Tep pocket WiFi device offers an on-the-go connectivity service across 16 European countries anywhere, any time for $7.95 per day. This isn’t fixed WiFi hot spots, this is 3G on the move that can be used for multiple devices: laptops, tablets, phones.

“No longer will business travellers across Europe be held hostage by mobile phone operators making excessive profits out of their need to use their phones and stay connected” added Mendoza.

The company also rents phones and the simple three-step process is easy. First, users visit the Tep website, choose their Tep service, select travel dates and provide a delivery address. Next, the company delivers the device to their home or destination. Once received, users simply turn the device on to begin use. A pre-paid mailer is provided to return the device after use and all personal information is erased after return.

“With the number of broadband enabled mobile phones hitting the one billion mark this year, and with 70 percent of all consumer devices connected to the internet by 2014, TEP is providing a service that will allow consumers to get the most out of these devices, rather than being prevented from using them by profit-hungry operators,” Mendoza said.

$7.95 a day with unlimited wireless Internet usage stacks up pretty nicely compared to plans offered by hotels or Internet cafe’s and beats any US-based service provider’s International plans that we have heard of.

Flickr photo by Ed Yourdon

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