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Emirates SFO-DXB—16 Hours with a Toddler!

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In light of the recent Etihad mistake-fare windfall and last month’s Emirates Fare Sale to Italy, the TPG Team traded stories about their own long-haul economy sale-fare experiences. One of our favorites comes from TPG’s newest team member, Leigh Rowan, who recounts his and his wife’s recent 16-hour adventure in Emirates economy…with their 18-month old son. 

Back in mid-October, I was searching for fare deals on some of my (other) favorite travel sites when I came across a fare sale on Emirates for flights from San Francisco (SFO) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK), connecting via the carrier’s hub in Dubai (DXB). Tickets were pricing out at $514 in economy—not quite the sheer craziness of $187 round-trip to Abu Dhabi, but at roughly $300 less than the usual SFO-BKK fares, this was still a good deal to one of our dream destinations on an airline with a wonderful reputation (at least in terms of in-flight service).

Our one hesitation was that this trip would be the long route to Bangkok, requiring us to fly via the Middle East rather than direct to Asia. Nonetheless, after some quick, excited research and a flurry of calendar-consulting, my wife and I booked tickets for ourselves for a nine-day trip to Thailand for what we felt would be a perfect—albeit quick—family vacation.

Bangkok Royal Palace
We couldn’t wait to see Bangkok’s Royal Palace, even if it meant 22+ hours in economy

Our Foolish Mistake

There was but one glitch in our plan: amidst our ticketing euphoria, we’d foolishly forgotten to book one of these cheap fares for our active, strapping 18-month old son. As frequent family travelers on long-haul flights to Europe, we’d become so accustomed to holding our son on our laps that it didn’t even cross our minds to book him an actual ticket (as opposed to a lap ticket) for these flights—which would not only be the longest he’d ever taken, but also some of the longest flights in the world. After a quick call to Emirates the following day, we managed to sort out a $113 lap ticket for him—because by then, the fares for our exact itinerary had risen to a hefty $1,500.

Our Pre-Flight Game Plan

Though I was still thrilled about our Asian destination, by now I was fearing the worst for our epic journey in economy. How on Earth would we keep our lively 18-month-old distracted for two flights—16 and six hours, respectively—with a three-hour DXB airport layover in between? Up to that point, my son’s longest journey had been a mere 10 hours, and he’d always been a champ. He’s a great sleeper, and he’s always a crowd pleaser on planes, but still 10 hours in a metal tube ain’t 16.

We swung into strategy mode. My wife hit the Internet and found incredible resources, lists and tips/tricks, and compiled a sample schedule of in-flight activities for our son, broken down into 15-minute increments. She bought cheap throwaway toys—a plastic slinky, paper puzzles, a magnet fishing game, etc.—and dedicated the bulk of our carry-on bag to them. (We also decided to break a long-standing family rule and allow our son to use an iPad for small periods of engaged, quiet time.)

Meanwhile, I called Emirates to request bulkhead-row seating, figuring (correctly, as it turned out) that the extra leg room and space would allow us to more easily entertain our 28-pound child without inconveniencing others. During our late-November outbound flight to Dubai, we noticed that several families with kids 6 and under were seated in bulkheads (as well as a few solo flyers with Skywards Silver bag-tags) and figured it was standard practice for Emirates to reserve these rows for such passengers. I was lucky to have arranged for them ahead of time, since according to Expertflyer and the many calls I made to Emirates call centers, most of Emirates‘ bulkhead seats are blocked for airport release only.

Emirates Bulkhead Availability via Expertflyer
Expertflyer often shows Emirates bulkhead seats (in this case, rows 8 and 23) to be fully blocked. A call (or 4) to their help center will tell you otherwise!

Onboard Experience

Our 16-hour SFO-DXB flight was aboard a three-class Emirates 777-300, with 304 standard economy seats in a 3 x 4 x 3 configuration. Even way, way back from the magical array of eight closed first-class suites, the Emirates economy-cabin experience is truly amazing, especially in our bulkhead seats 17 B/C. Prior to takeoff, my wife and I were each given a simple amenity kit of socks, an eye mask and ear plugs in a pouch that can do double-duty as a holder for an iPod or MP3 player, and several Emirates flight attendants came down the aisles with giant red shoulder bags full of Emirates-branded kids’ entertainment kits with coloring books, stuffed animals, blankets, toys and more. With the delivery of each kit—three in all—our son became more wide-eyed in grateful awe.

Emirates bulkhead seat
Our bulkhead seats (17 B/C), the Emirates pillow/blanket combo, and their small Economy amenity kit.

We were served dinner promptly after takeoff from SFO, and though we had pre-reserved a child meal for our son, it wasn’t delivered. Instead, the helpful flight attendants asked us if they could bring us infant (read: jarred baby) food or an adult meal. We opted for the latter, and happily, our son enjoyed his tasty rice pilaf.

According to our calculations, we’d have to entertain our son for 4-5 hours before he’d get tuckered and (hopefully!) fall asleep. Every Emirates seat features the carrier’s impressive on-demand entertainment system, and we soon found that our son loved watching all of its available cartoons about trains, cars and other vehicles; it was six hours into the flight before they lost their appeal and his eyes began to flutter. Eager to get him down, we strapped him into our baby carrier and walked him up and down the aisles and through the aft galley, attracting the unwanted attention of about a dozen (otherwise delightful) flight attendants who smiled at, reached for, and talked to him—keeping him awake all the while. When he finally fell asleep an hour later, we settled him onto a makeshift bed of extra pillows and blankets on the bulkhead floor in front of our feet.

child sleeping on the bulkhead floor
Getting a little shuteye while shut in between the bulkhead wall, seats, and magazine holders.

It was now seven hours into the flight, and my exhausted wife and I tried getting some shuteye, but each only managed about an hour or two. When our son awoke four hours later, he was already starting his sleep deficit for the trip—so fortunately found a new distraction in the entertainment system: live feeds from two cameras mounted on the plane, showing the clouds and skies around us, as well as the landscapes far below. Toggling between these views provided almost two blissful hours of toddler engagement, about an hour shy of a smooth landing over desert fields of Iranian oil wells, Dubai’s iconic Burj Khalifa, and finally, the bright lights of DXB. With sighs of relief, we realized that our epic 16-hour voyage with a mostly lap-bound toddler was over.

Emirates InFlight Entertainment
Emirates’ ICE system showing us approaching Dubai…15+ hours after we left SFO!

Well, except for that three-hour layover at DXB, and a six-hour redeye to BKK—but whatever. Check back soon for details on the Dubai Airport Emirates Business Class Lounge, which I was lucky enough to visit with my son—but my wife, sadly, was not.

The Verdict, and Final Thoughts

Though we had spent most of the six weeks between ticket purchase and this flight worrying/stressing about how we would keep our son busy, once onboard our overall experience was extremely positive—especially given the low price we paid—and much easier than we’d anticipated. The food was pretty good, the service was stellar (all sleep-time interruptions aside), and I would highly recommend bulkhead rows in Emirates economy to other parents with lap-bound toddlers.

With some simple planning – internet research, poring over previous family-centric posts by my colleague Jason Steele, and creative packing lists—you too can make your long-haul economy class lap child experience a joyful one.

However, if you can snag yourselves and your kid(s) paid seats for around $500 (or less), then by all means—do that!

In an upcoming post, I’ll highlight how I status-matched to Emirates Skywards Silver and got an operational upgrade at the gate in BKK, as well as how we elected to bank Emirates miles for this trip.

Have you taken an infant or a toddler on an ultra-long haul flight before? If so, please share your tips, tricks and secrets in the comments below!

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