Flying “economy light” works great for minimalist packers who don’t mind middle seats. Also known by such names as “basic economy,” or “low fare” or “saver,” the concept is simple: In return for a lower price, you give up the privilege of checking in bags (unless you want to pay extra) or stowing them in the overhead compartment; anything you bring must fit under the seat in front of you. You also forfeit your ability to choose your seat, meaning you could wind up anywhere on the plane and next to anyone, although you can adjust your assignment to unsold seats right before flying.
This is a fare class that clearly is not aimed at families, much less families with kids too young to sit alone, much less families going on a 10-day trip. But when my husband and I saw an airfare that would allow us to fly from San Francisco to Paris for less than we typically spend to see relatives on the East Coast ($475 per ticket round trip, with the outbound flight a nonstop), we couldn’t resist. We hoped that by acting early we could fix any unfortunate seat assignments, and that by packing smartly we’d manage to fit 10 days’ worth of clothes and other necessities, plus our feet, in our allotted underseat spaces. And, despite some panicked moments the travel gods threw in to humble us, that’s pretty much how it worked.
First, the seating. With this class of airfare, you are assigned seats upon check-in, 24 hours in advance. My husband had called both Air France and Delta — the partner through which we’d bought our Air France tickets — explaining that we had kids who were 9 and 12, and needed to sit together. The answer was the same: You’ll find out in advance, and then you can switch things around. One representative said, “The gate agent is your friend. Get there early.” But I couldn’t imagine that any passenger who had paid more to be able to pick their seat would be willing to relinquish it to us.
Thankfully, Air France posts seat assignments 30 hours in advance, giving passengers a few more hours to make adjustments. That’s valuable time for panic-stricken parents. When we looked at the seating, the kids were indeed positioned far from us, even each other. One had a middle seat; the other had a window seat. I began to catastrophize. Oddly, my husband and I were seated together. It would hardly be romantic, however, with our children mentally reviewing all the instructions about stranger danger.
We stared at the computer, trying to figure out how we could reconfigure the seating. Then we started clicking desperately around the seating chart, aware that other people were also at their computers trying to snag available seats. And indeed, that happened. We created one satisfactory setup, but when we refreshed, the seats disappeared. My heart pounded; with nonrefundable tickets, what were we going to do?
I called Air France yet again and this time heard something no other representative had told us before — not all available seats show up on the computer. That’s why a gate agent might be able to help us out. But as it turned out, we didn’t have to resort to pleading with gate agents. Persevering at the computer, we managed to place one adult with each child. Since my husband and I were already seated together, we substituted one kid into that coupling (which was a little scary, because you first have to give up the seat to move someone into it) and put that “kicked out” parent with the other child in one of the few two-seats-together arrangements we saw. Our rows weren’t close to each other, but that was okay.
Now for the second challenge: How to pack for a 10-day trip with only underseat luggage? I sought advice from my friend Rebecca Labau, an American who married a Frenchman and spent several years living in France. She said, “Wear the same shirt for several days and just swap out the scarf. In all the photos, it will look like you’re wearing something different.” So, rather than bringing a new outfit for each day, we prepared to wash shirts in the sink and let them dry while wearing the alternate. We each brought two pairs of pants, knowing that jeans are durable enough to be worn several times before washing. I brought one dress, one sweater and a trench coat. And I shivered at daring to bring only two pairs of shoes: sturdy Vans and a pair of zip-up boots. It is possible — and even, I found, liberating — to pare down what we usually pack. Marie Kondo would’ve approved heartily of our curated selection of clothing.
Luckily, the kids’ clothes, like them, are small, so they could bring more. (I don’t think we could have done it if they were still in diapers.) We had a bit of a dilemma when one daughter realized she had packed only one pair of pants, but it was warm enough most days for her to wear her shorts; she brought three pairs. Our Airbnb had a washer-dryer (the same machine washes and dries; it took many YouTube videos to approach this with any kind of confidence), so we wound up not having to do the sink routine.
My husband researched like crazy, and the winner for luggage was the Hynes Eagle 38L Flight Approved Weekender Carry On Backpack (around $50). We ignored the weekend in its name and bought one in a different color for each of us for our 10-day stay. It’s a soft backpack that also unzips as if it were a suitcase when you place it flat. It has enough zippered pouches to keep things effectively organized. The best part? The slender, deep pocket for a laptop or device situated under the shoulder straps. It makes it easy to pull out the device at security, and when you wear the backpack, the straps make it impossible for someone to steal from that pocket.
The backpack made long walks relatively ergonomic for all of us. I pushed aside some minor discomfort in favor of the joy of freedom from the obnoxious roller bag. Once at our destination, it was easy to find things in the suitcase because it contained one layer, unlike the confusing depths of larger bags.
Packing this way would have been much more challenging if we’d needed cold-weather gear. And it’s not for anyone who likes to bring back souvenirs other than tiny Eiffel Towers and the like — unless you’re willing to pay for a checked bag on the return trip or mail them. (Even postcards can be an expensive affair if promised to the multitudes, with postage at $2.) But other than that, if this airfare makes it possible to travel with your children, I’d recommend jumping on it. One day, after settling in back home, I looked at the whiteboard where we’d roughed out our itinerary and saw a new addition. “I miss Paris,” my youngest daughter had written in a scrawl.
Mailman is a writer based in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter: @ErikaMailman
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