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Kids and Travel: A Guilty Plea

Scott Vogel

I haven't been a member of the Post Travel section a terribly long time, and thus haven't gone on many trips yet, but recently I was lucky enough to spend a week at a far away destination that I'll be writing about soon. There, I became acquainted with a new culture, a new language and a new feeling I hadn't experienced before: travel guilt.

Now, when you mention a term like that these days, it's usually in the context of tourists or business travelers feeling shame about the carbon footprint their excursions are leaving. But I'm talking about an older, possibly ancient form of travel guilt: the pang of conscience experienced by the parent of a young child who's forced to leave that child behind while on a business or pleasure trip.
It can be quite intense, I found out.

I like to think of myself as a good parent, the engaged sort who's as much a part of my son's life as any man with a fulltime job can be, and I've been lucky enough to have jobs that didn't require me to be away from him for days on end. In other words, I feel like I've earned the right to be away for a week. And yet, there were times during the past seven days when I felt such guilt and longing I hardly noticed the incredible landscape around me, a landscape that's pretty difficult not to notice (you'll see!).

My son, while not exactly thrilled to see me go, was hardly tortured by my departure and seems not to have been scarred a bit by my absence. What I mean is, he had a normal response to a person leaving his life whom he knew would see in a week. Me, not so much.

It's crazy, I know, but am I alone? Has anyone out there experienced something similar when traveling without a person who means a great deal? How did travel guilt impact your trip? And do you have any suggestions -- this would really help me -- for alleviating it in the future?

By Scott Vogel |  December 21, 2007; 7:39 AM ET  | Category:  Scott Vogel
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My son traveleing alone caused guilt this season. Here's the real story:

Twas the Nightmare before Christmas: BA and Our Unaccompanied Minor

Our 15 year-old, son's winter holiday from US boarding school was to take him on a pleasant $7,000 business class journey on British Airways from Washington Dulles International Airport via London Heathrow, to Dhaka Bangladesh--my husband's American Embassy post. Instead, our son's journey with British Airways became a nightmare for my husband and I as British Airways' customer service mishaps occurred repeatedly, one after another. British Airways' customer service individuals operating as computers, reading out candid responses, listing fungible internal regulations, refusing to use their higher powered reason, all played the part of the villain. Only one customer service person out of five who used there reason and real human compassion mitigated the harsh, cold, uncaring--British Airways' internal regulation driven--responses of her other colleagues.

The dark reveille commenced on December 15, 2007. My son's international ticket was purchased. My husband contacted British Airways' customer service to book our son as an unaccompanied minor. Many airlines provide this service to parents who have young children traveling both in the US and abroad. There is an added fee for the service on top of the ticket costs. British Airways advised my husband that a booking could not be made at the time until a name of the designated drop off person could be provided to the airline. Four days later, after my husband received the name of the limousine driver who would be dropping off our son at Washington Dulles, my husband again phoned British Airways to book my son as an unaccompanied minor. Stacy, British Airways customer service representative in Jacksonville, Florida advised my husband that booking our son as an unaccompanied minor was impossible; that regulations required such a booking to occur at least 48 hours prior to a flight, and that nothing could be done to assist us or our son with this $7,000 ticket arrangement.

In response to Stacey's stoic unyielding position, and after requesting that Stacey offer some reasonable alternative, and having not received anything more from Stacey then the canned reading of British Airways 48 hour requirement, my husband asked to speak with Stacey's supervisor. Stacey hung up on my husband. My husband called again, and was soon able to speak to Haran X-6, alleged supervisor and British Airways Customer Contact Supervisor--also in Jacksonville. Haran regurgitated British Airways 48 hour regulation and offered nothing to assist us or our 15 year-old son. We were on our own. He would be on his own for the approximate 25,000 miles journey half-way around the world.

Lucky for us, our son has been an international traveler for the past five years. While accompanied by either parent or airlines assistance, he has grown comfortable with moving in and out of airports, flights, and terminals. With a diplomatic passport and a $7,000 business class ticket, we were certain that he could pull the travel off alone, with assistance from on-flight British Airways personnel and in terminal business lounge assistance. We planned to call the Heathrow Airport British Airways business class lounge to check on his safety.

My husband phoned British Airways to inquire of our son's well being. Instead of being transferred to Heathrow's British Airways business class lounge, the airlines' customer service representative Tracy Z.U. informed us that despite a $7,000 business class ticket in-hand, British Airways turned our son away from the business class lounge. Tracy's only explanation for this rested with British Airways internal regulation prohibiting minors in the business class lounge. After further inquiry, Tracy added, there was nothing she could do to check on his safety, and further it was not her responsibility to care. I was hoping that this seeming hostile response and lack of sympathy reflected only British Airways inability to successfully train its customer service staff; but, my husband and I couldn't put aside the possibility that perhaps our son's skin color--he is African American--had more to do with him being denied access with his $7,000 ticket than so called British Airways' internal regulations. Whatever the rationale, clearly having been informed of all of the facts, British Airways was most certainly unreasonable--let's not mention absolutely uncaring--up to this point.

Just when we had concluded that we were dealing with a company that seemed to lack reason and empathy, that British Airways' customer service individuals had learned to mimic computers; a ray of optimism revealed itself. Five minutes after our phone ordeal with Tracy Z.U., my husband attempted one final British Airways customer service telephone inquiry. A lovely customer service representative responded with cautious reason. Simply checking our son's online information, noting his 15 years of age and the fact that we were concerned parent, the customer service representative contacted the boarding gate, checked whether our son had boarded the London flight to Dhaka, and informed us that he had in fact boarded the flight. The last customer service discussion took less than two minutes.

Warmth, parental empathy, simple reason gave way to stoic computer mimicked response. Our experience shows that British Airways would fare better with customer service representatives who think outside of the box, who truly offer practical positive service to committed customers--customer service that shows the customer that British Airways cares.

Posted by: Kelly D. Hewitt | December 21, 2007 8:06 AM

I'm the Mom who stays at home while Dad does business travel.

We make out like we miss Dad, but in truth - we have a good time while he's gone.

It's kids time. Pizza for dinner - 5 days straight. Rules that don't bother me get ignored.

Of course - everybody has to do their school work, and there is no playing hokey or staying up all night. But generally we kick back when Dad is gone. It's our dirty little secret.

I think the worst for my husband was when he got a call one evening from 13 y/o son asking for a ride home from school. Problem was, Dad was in London.

Now if Dad goes to a trade show he'd better come home laden with swag. We want some fun stuff.

Posted by: RoseG | December 21, 2007 9:10 AM

I recently went to Italy for work and left my 14 month old son at home--it was HORRIBLE. I sat in my room and cried the first two nights, even though I had a lovely junior suite overlooking Mt. Vesuvius. Talking on the phone with him almost made it worse. By the end of the trip, I was truly enjoying myself, but each night I still had a twinge of sadness and guilt. Normally when I am overseas for 7-8 days, it flies by but this trip was much slower.

Posted by: Andrea | December 21, 2007 9:12 AM

You need to look at it from the standpoint of how it benefits your son. My wife and I take at least one long weekend trip by ourselves every year and we don't feel guilty at all. Sure, we miss the kids, but they do fine without us, and it benefits all of us in so many ways:

1. It gives my wife and I a break so we can relax and recharge. This makes us better parents when we come back.

2. It makes our relationship stronger, and it's important for our kids to see what a healthy relationship looks like.

3. The kids have a ton of fun when we're gone. A friend of ours watches them and she spoils them rotten. It strengthens their relationship with her, and I think it's really important for kids to have strong relationships with adults other than their parents - aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends, etc.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 21, 2007 9:25 AM

When I was pregnant, my boss and I worked out a deal that had me off travel for the first year of my son's life... while I was on maternity leave, I got a new boss and that arrangement no longer held. When the baby was 4 months old I was supposed to go on my first trip, which was one week long. My husband ended up taking vacation from his job so he could bring the baby and join me - I could not leave him for that long at that point. The first time I did, he was 6 months old... and I cried while packing, while on the plane, in the hotel room... since then, it's become a little easier but it's still difficult for me. The last trip was the week after Thanksgiving, and I was gone for a week. Because I went to the west coast, we arranged times I would call so that I would not be waking the boy up, my husband would not be calling me at 4:30 am California time, etc. He would get the boy ready and they would wait by the phone (we bought speaker phones for this reason) so I could talk with them. The day I came home, as they were leaving to get me at the airport, my husband told our son - now 10 months old - that they were going to get mommy. He went over to the phone... mommy, after a week, was a voice on the phone. It breaks my heart to leave him but my job entailed travel from day 1... short of finding a new job I'll have to deal with the guilt. I'm lucky that my husband is supportive.

Posted by: Travelling mom | December 21, 2007 10:03 AM

Kelly-what a nightmare!
My father travelled a bit when I was younger, but we knew he had to because of his work. We did appreciate the presents when he returned! We did miss him, but again we knew it was a necessity so it wasn't that big of a deal. If he had acted stressed and freaked out over leaving us, then we probably would have been upset and stressed out. Remember, your kids take their cues from don't need them fretting and worrying, do you?

Posted by: Me | December 21, 2007 10:41 AM

Joined three other men on a business trip to Orlando and we couldn't bring ourselves to visit a theme park without our kids. We were in town for a trade show, but going to the park, sans kids, was too guilt inducing.

Another time I was on a business trip to Brazil and received a phone call from our local police department back home. One of my children had been in a mild incident, and I sure felt guilty that I was there to help/provide a teachable moment.

Posted by: Rick | December 21, 2007 4:40 PM

You will always feel guilty when you leave your child. But I think short trips are a good way of enabling bonding for the parent left at home. Go ahead and cry on the way to the airport, but decide thereafter whether you will enjoy the rare chance to see a new culture and have some "me" time. I also call home twice a day,before school and bed-time. I also leave a couple of notes hidden for discovery at school or in the lunch-box and I try to mail home a couple of cards while away. And then I bring home a gift. In the end, I am often renewed and my child has a collection of cards and gifts that help her imagine a far-away place, perhaps a place that she will visit one day.

Posted by: Dee | December 23, 2007 9:05 PM

From a child who had both parents travel extensively during different times in her childhood, I'm going to tell you there is no need to feel guilty. My sister and I took it as an opportunity to bond and do special things with whichever parent was home and looked forward to the small trinket that the traveling parent would bring home. Instead of being sad that a parent was gone, we were always left with a sense of excitement. My parents used it as an opportunity to instill a love of travel in us, and often used the places that they had to travel for work as jumping off points for family vacations so that we could feel involved in our parents travel lives.

Try and do little things to involve your son in your travels, even a phone call telling of something exciting will do (even if you really just saw it out the window of the car) and try to rest easy with the knowledge that there is no need to feel guilt, because of all the positive your travel can bring for your son.

Posted by: Whitney | December 24, 2007 5:48 PM

While I miss my 2 year old son and husband whenever I'm away on business- I don't feel guilty about that. However, I could not imagine traveling for pleasure without our son. Since he was born, we've traveled with him- whether to the in-laws in upstate New York or to the sunny island of the Turks & Caicos, to the beaches of Delaware or to Southern California. We had 5 years of traveling as a couple, primarily to destinations that were adults-only or not otherwise kid-friendly. Now that he is here, we look specifically for family oriented travel and always have a blast. We usually look for places that include fun for everyone- spa for me, golf or parasailing for my husband, and childrens' activities for our son.

Posted by: plamar1031 | December 27, 2007 4:45 PM

Last May, I traveled overseas to a conference, leaving behind my 8-month-old daughter & 4-year-old son. It was my first trip without them as I typically work from home, and it's my husband who occasionally travels on business. I had been excited about my trip, but upon my arrival in Germany, I found that I couldn't sleep at night. This definitely wasn't just jet-lag related... I lay in bed and was completely weirded out about being all alone & so far from my kids. I hated it! Thankfully, they're all coming with me to the next conference.

Posted by: Erika | January 5, 2008 8:59 PM

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