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Advice for families flying to Orlando's airport: An interview with Christopher Elliott

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Published: October 21, 2009 at 9:46 AM

Guest 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.

Christopher ElliottChris 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.

Readers' Opinions

From Brian Emery on October 21, 2009 at 1:19 PM
Thanks Robert..
From James Rao on October 21, 2009 at 5:07 PM
Good stuff. Thanks for sharing!
From Amy Tupper on October 21, 2009 at 6:27 PM
I'm sorry, but I must vehemently disagree with Mr. Eliott's assessment of the TSA process at OIA. First of all, I'm unsure why they put the 'Frequent Traveler' & 'Families' signs out there because they are rarely adhered to by the flying populace, nor do the agents enforce it.

The setup they have is more like a cattle call than an organized series of lines. This can cause serious bottlenecks during times of high volume.

OIA could take a lesson from their friends down the road in Tampa. You don't go through the TSA screening until AFTER you ride the tram to the terminal, and they have two or three distinct lines for you to get in. It's a MUCH smoother process.

From Amy Tupper on October 21, 2009 at 6:39 PM
Also, it should also be noted that Sunpass (that toll box thingie) is no longer offered in 'box' format. It's a $4.99 sticker that gets permanently affixed to the windshield in order for it to work. Unless the local drug or grocery stores had the older style in stockpile, you'd be hard pressed to find one.

Unless Sunpass has changed back to the old box style again without telling me, (which is entirely possible). :) As a frequent driver of FL's toll roads, and one that gets new cars every 3-4 years, I'm glad I have the box that can move from car to car. I've often wondered if local car rental companies offered Sunpasses to their renters.

FYI, for those that have never driven from OIA to the theme parks, you WILL pay at least one toll to get to your destination, unless you want to take local roads and go a bit out of your way (and risk getting lost or confused). The 417 is the most expensive, it's the most direct to WDW, but it's also the least backed up.

From 71.122.70.244 on October 21, 2009 at 7:45 PM
I really like the suggestion about taking shoes off the children to help them relax on the flight - - - Good one!
From Scott B on October 22, 2009 at 5:00 AM
Interesting read. I was just went through there last month with my wife (6 months pregnant at the time) and my two year old daughter. The airport is amazing. Everything is a breeze when you are there. I have never had issues with security. The family option is great!

I don't know, I guess since I live in the Boston area and have to deal with Logan airport, I see anything else as an improvement, which is why I am so impressed by Orlando.

From 64.140.238.130 on October 22, 2009 at 8:30 AM
I have flown into OIA 5 times in the past 2 years and in my opinion I feel that traveling into OIA is a breeze and that everything usually goes according to plan...

Leaving from OIA is another story. We are the 'typical' Disney vacation family. The family that goes for a week and usually arrives on a Saturday and leaves on a Saturday. If you rent a car then you really should plan on getting to the airport about 2 1/2 hours before your domestic flight. The line at the security checkpoint for us has been at least 30 minutes on 3 of the 5 occasions. We have flown Southwest 4 out of the 5 times and the line to check bags has been about 45 minutes 3 out of the 4 times. The rental drop off surprisingly is fairly quick, maybe 10-15 minutes. So between checking bags, dropping off your rental and going through security you are talking about 90 minutes. Then you still have to take the tram over and walk to your gate.

From Jason Jackson on October 22, 2009 at 8:36 AM
MCO (OIA) is one airport I wouldn't mind having a lay over in...too bad it is usually a destination. A fun airport to spend time in!
From 92.20.129.182 on October 25, 2009 at 3:25 PM
i am from scotland and lots of british and irish visitors fly into Sanford as apposed to Orlando International. do you have any advice for people like myself who use that specific airport?
From Beth Olliges on October 26, 2009 at 11:25 PM
My biggest tip for the Orlando airport would be NOT to depend on the flight information posted on the big electronic board outside security. One time our flight home was listed as delayed a couple of hours (I don't recall the exact time frame), so we hung out in that "lobby" area (near the Disney, Universal, and Kennedy Space Center stores). We finally went through security with plenty of time to spare (according to the time posted), caught the tram, and made our way to our gate about the time we figured boarding would begin. The boarding area was completely empty, and the gate agent called out to us, to verify if we were the two passengers she was looking for. We said yes, and she said "Get on the plane NOW!" We ran over and just barely made our flight -- which was leaving at least a half-hour earlier than the posted "delayed to" time. So my advice is: even if your flight is listed as "delayed," go to your gate anyway!

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