Advice for families flying to Orlando's airport: An interview with Christopher Elliott
By Robert NilesGuest Q&A: Christopher Elliott is one of the nation's top travel writers, appearing on the MSNBC website, in National Geographic Traveler magazine, and in dozens of U.S. newspapers. He's also an Orlando resident. As both, Chris is the best expert on flying into and out of what is the world's top airport for theme park vacationers.
Published: October 21, 2009 at 9:46 AM
Chris asked me to do a Q&A for his website a few months ago. Today, we're switching places and I'm asking the questions, specifically, on advice he has - as a travel pro and consumer advocate - for families flying to Orlando for a theme park vacation.
Robert: If I've got a choice (and based upon where I live, I might not have much of one), which are the best airlines, in your opinion, to fly with in and out of Orlando?
Chris: Orlando is one of the easiest airport in the world to use. There's no bad -- only varying degrees of good. I think the discount airlines, like Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, are particularly easy to use at Orlando International Airport. But that's not to take away from legacy airlines like Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines. Even the international carriers are a breeze to use. If I had one piece of advice, it would be to avoid the regional jets, which are smaller, more cramped and frequently delayed.
Robert: When I travel by myself, I like to cram everything into one carry-on, to avoid airline baggage fees. But when I'm flying with the kids, I prefer to minimize my carry-ons, since schlepping them through the airport gets tougher with the kids in tow. What's the best strategy for packing to visit Orlando with kids? At what age can I reasonably expect a child to be able to handle his or her own carry-on in the airport?
Chris: I have three kids and we travel through Orlando all the time. I observe the same rule you do. When I'm flying solo, I have no checked luggage. When I'm traveling with kids, we try to stay away from the airlines that charge for the first checked back -- so we tend to use JetBlue or Southwest. Our oldest started carrying his own bag when he was about four, maybe three. It was important to him to have his own luggage, because he felt like he was a real traveler. Our middle child, who is now four, can handle a regular-size, carry-on rollaboard. Our daughter, who is almost three, has her own backpack. I probably wouldn't entrust a carry-on to a child younger than three. If they still use a stroller, they're probably not ready to carry -- or roll -- a bag.
Robert: What should I be sure to pack when visiting Orlando that many folks forget?
Chris: Sunblock and an umbrella. It rains all the time here. Not for long, but long enough to get really wet. And sun protection... that's how you tell the tourists from the natives. The tourists look like lobsters.
Oh, and contrary to what you might read in a tourism brochure, Orlando does have a winter. You will want to pack warm clothes if you're coming here between November and March. At least a sweater and long pants, if not a light jacket.
Robert: And what should I leave out?
Chris: Unless you're catching a cruise at Port Canaveral or dining at Victoria & Albert's, leave the formal wear at home. Orlando is pretty casual.
Robert: What's your opinion on bringing your own car seats, as opposed to renting ones with the car? How old does a child have to be in Florida to not need a car seat?
Chris: I would bring your own. I believe the law is that under three, you are required to have your own integrated seat and under 5, you're required to have your own seat. [Florida seat belt/child seat laws - Robert] We have seats for all of ours. Airlines don't charge you for the seats, and there's one other benefit, which is that your child is sitting in a familiar seat when they're in the rental car. That can make a huge difference.
Robert: How can I enlist the help of gate agents and attendants, instead of their scorn? What I can expect (or hope) that they can do to help me when I'm flying with kids?
Chris: I think the trick is to prepare your children for a flight. Tell them what to expect. Remind them how they are expected to behave -- for example, that they should keep their seatbelt on at all times. Give yourself a lot of time at the airport. I would take the minimums that are posted on your airline website and double them if you're traveling with kids. I think that well-behaved, relaxed children are far less likely to incur the scorn of an agent. Also, use the child-friendly TSA checkpoints at Orlando. They really work.
But you should know this: The good people working at Orlando airport know how to handle children. It is what they do. So even if your kids misbehave and throw a wild tantrum, you can be reasonably sure that it isn't the first time these folks have seen it. Nor will it be the last.
Robert: My favorite tip when traveling with kids on a plane is to take off their shoes when we get to our seats. Kids seem more comfortable in just their socks and - this is the biggie - they're far less likely to kick the seat in front of them. (Kicking hard plastic hurts your toes when you don't have shoes!) Do you have a favorite go-to trick you recommend for parents flying with kids?
Chris: For our kids, it's all about the food. If you can give them a familiar treat while they're flying, they're far less likely to have a cow. Remember that airlines serve almost no food on domestic flights, so the snack is very, very, important. Games are key to keeping the kids happy, too. Puzzles, coloring books, video games -- you name it.
Robert: What's the thing that's most likely to confuse or frustrate first-time visitors to the Orlando Airport? What can visitors do to avoid confusion at the airport?
Chris: It's easy to get confused between Terminal A and B, especially when you're going to pick up your luggage. [Here's a terminal map - Robert.] Just follow everyone else. They know where they're going.
Robert: One thing that many visitors to the Orlando area might not know about is the toll roads. Is it worth buying the little toll box thingie that some car rental companies try to sell you when you visit Orlando? Or should I just plan on paying as I go on the toll roads? If I'm going to do that, how much change should I have on hand when I leave the airport?
Chris: Yes, by all means. You can get them at the grocery store and some car rental companies also offer them. They're worth it.
Robert: How can I avoid getting ripped off on my rental car in Orlando?
Chris: Try to negotiate a pre-paid price that includes taxes and all fees. You can do that at sites like Priceline and Hotwire. Resist the upsell at the airport -- the upgrade to a larger vehicle, the insurance, the navigation system, the fuel-purchase option. All of those can add to the cost of your wheels.
Robert: Typically, how long does it take to get through security at the Orlando Airport, when I'm ready to fly home with my family?
The TSA publishes average times on its site. [Here's the link, but it is currently down. - Robert] It normally takes us about 10 minutes, if that. They're very efficient.
Robert: Let's say my return flight is delayed, and now I've got an hour - or more - to kill with the kids in the Orlando Airport. Where should we go and what should we do?
Chris: Ah, well, you're in luck. They have a whole shopping mall at the airport, with some specialty shops you can't find anywhere else. I would head for the food court between the terminals and then explore both sides. It's really incredible. Just a word of warning, though: The mall isn't in a secured area, so you will have to give yourself some time to get screened again.
Robert: Any other tips for Orlando visitors, especially first-timers or those who haven't been in a while?
Chris: Give yourself an extra day and try to get out of the tourist trap areas around the attractions and I-Drive. Orlando has a lot to offer, including great museums, parks, restaurants, local beaches, and, of course, the Kennedy Space Center.
Thanks to Chris for answering our questions. You can read more great advice from Christopher Elliott at elliott.org.
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