Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Reflecting on Our 2017 Travels

Twenty-seventeen has been a year of immense change for us. The most profound was going from a couple to a family of five. Instantaneously. Life is a whole new adventure now. But we had been waiting for this for years.

I’ve already written about how much different family travel will be, and how much harder it will be to travel hack for 5 rather than for 2 (SEE: Travel Hacking with Kids: A New Frontier). But we’ll do it. I have the resolve to make it work, and by all observations, our kids will shape up to be great little travelers (SEE: Our First Time Flying with kids.

We’ll see what the future holds. Here are the trips that highlighted 2017:

 

Australia in summer

Winter here is actually summer down under, so my favorite summer trip was a quick 5-night stint in Sydney and Canberra. I had a blast. From Sydney Harbour to the Blue Mountains, it was a fantastic experience.

I spent two nights in Sydney and one in Parramatta, in the suburbs.

In Canberra I stayed at the Park Hyatt (my review). It’s a beautiful building, but I honestly wouldn’t do it again. Everything else is out of my price range. High tea for $62? No thanks.

Vancouver in winter

Here we go visiting Canada again when it is a frozen wasteland. Actually, Vancouver is much milder than Quebec, so winter wasn’t all that bad of a time to visit.

Plus, there were some fun experiences to be had. One of my Christmas gifts to my wife was going to Bright Nights in Stanley Park. Sure, we didn’t need to go that far to see a big Christmas light display, but it was reason enough to head north.

We had some unique experiences here, including walking along a beach with snow on top of the sand. Our day drive to Whistler was also one of my favorite things we did.

Banff in spring

Spring is Canada is basically still winter. Actually, it’s even colder than our mild California winter. But that didn’t keep us from planning a trip to Banff National Park in April.

The pros were that there were very few people and the snow-capped peaks are spectacularly beautiful. The cons were that we couldn’t do much hiking and that we got to walk on top of Lake Louise instead of gazing at its gorgeous turquoise waters. No matter when you go, Banff is utterly picturesque (SEE: Banff, Alberta in 14 photos).

In any case, our stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs was unforgettable. It’s my favorite hotel at which I’ve ever stayed. And we did it all for $99.18 for 3 nights in a huge suite! Major travel hacking win. Banff (and Jasper) are on our list for a return trip, this time in early autumn.

Solar Eclipse in Summer

This was spectacular. If you ever get a chance, go see a solar eclipse. Another will be passing over the United States in 2024. Don’t settle for anything other than 100% totality. A 98% eclipse is still a partial eclipse. The two minutes of totality is worth the effort to experience.

Costa Rica in autumn

The culmination of our 2017 travels (and of over 3 years of waiting) was our adoption trip to Costa Rica. My wife and I were matched with 3 beautiful kids in June, and we traveled in September to meet them.

Even though there is a ton to do in Costa Rica, the bulk of our focus was on bonding with our kids. We only took 2 overnight excursions, one to the Pacific coast and the other to the Caribbean Coast. We also did a day trip on the last week with grandma so that she could see monkeys.

Parenting in hard. I’m sure every parent knows that. But there are some unique challenges that come with adoption. Not to mention the fact that most parents don’t go from 0 to 3 kids literally overnight. Life has been fun, but boy has it been hard and exhausting at times.

The nerdy statistics

Since I’m a geek and track both my hotel nights and flights, here are some of my stats from 2017:

  • Flew over 36,000 miles and stayed over a quarter of the year in hotels (yikes!)
  • Added my third continent, Australia
  • Added 13 new airports, 2 new countries, and 2 new states
  • Flew my first long-haul business class and long-haul first class products
  • Adopted 3 kids! Oh, I guess that isn’t a travel statistic.

Final thoughts

Overall, 2017 has been a year of firsts and changes. It was our final hurrah as a traveling couple, and also the beginning of a new era of family travel. Now that we have kids, I guess it finally makes sense for me to write for Points with a Crew. Except having kids means I have way less time to write, so it is a catch-22.

Here’s hoping 2018 brings some great first family travel experiences!

My Second United Horror Story

Almost two years to the day after our first debacle (SEE: Our First United Horror Story), United managed to leave me high and dry again. Well, it wasn’t all their fault. But the whole experience was still frustrating.

Last-minute work trip

Work sent me to Needles this week. I booked a flight from Arcata to Las Vegas and rented a car to make the 2 hour drive. After departing on Thursday, I am in the process of returning today (and things are looking fine to make it home on time…so far). Hotel, rental car, I had everything quickly and easily booked for the trip. What could go wrong?

Things started with a minor delay notification just as I arrived at ACV. This was expected, as I had been monitoring the inbound aircraft for a few hours. It had been delayed a couple legs prior, so I expected departure from Arcata to be 20-30 minutes late. Really not bad compared to what our little airport often experiences. Assuming that was the extent of it, I would still make my connection in SFO.

Hmmm….I can’t see the runway

After going through security at ACV (which can be an ordeal, SEE: Getting the full pat down from the TSA at Arcata Airport), I sat down and thought I’d be waiting maybe 15 minutes for our aircraft to arrive. I chose to sit by the window to have a good view of the CRJ-200 landing.

But then I realized that the fog was so thick I couldn’t see the runway. This was mildly concerning, but no one had said anything about the flight being canceled.

It was barely 10 minutes later when another announcement came over the PA system: our inbound aircraft had been diverted to Medford. They could not safely land the plane due to the thick fog.

Making alternate plans

I gave myself 3 minutes to collect my thoughts and look up alternate flight options out of ACV, STS and SFO. As it had not been this foggy when we arrived at the airport, the blanket had just rolled in. Who knows when it would clear up enough for an aircraft to land. In any case, I knew I’d be missing my connection to Las Vegas for sure. If I was lucky, I could still get on one of the other two departures out of SFO that evening.

I decided to call United while also heading to the check-in counter. As expected, there were plenty of other people there already. Fortunately, I got a United rep on the phone within 3 minutes, which beat waiting in a long line to get rebooked.

I asked the rep about the status of the flight and what my options were. There was one more departure out that day, but I didn’t know if I could get a seat on it. Or if the fog would cooperate.

While I was on the phone, the cancellation announcement came over the PA. Now I had to make a call: cancel the trip or drive to SFO. I chose to roll with things as long as I could. Time to multitask.

Rebooking a flight, booking a car

I walked to the National counter and asked the guy for a car. He had a grand total of one. I was glad I got there first. Meanwhile, I fed the United rep the flight number I wanted out of SFO, a 10:20 p.m. departure nonstop to Vegas. It’d cost a bundle for the rental car, but I could still get to Las Vegas and to my hotel by midnight.

But her reply stunned me: there were no seats left on the flight. Now I started to panic a bit inside.

She offered to book me on an 8:56 departure out of SFO to LAX, with an 11:15 connection to Las Vegas. I hesitated. Could I make it to SFO in time? It was currently 3:25, so that gave me about 4:30 to reasonably make the flight, and that would still be cutting it close. I’ve never driven that quickly to the Bay, and I need to tack on an additional 30+ minutes to my typical time, as I was in Arcata and not Ferndale.

I decided to risk it. In any case, if I got stuck in the Bay, I could always get a hotel and be on the first flight out the net morning (assuming it isn’t full, too). I’d have to pay extra for that as well, but at least I’d still make the appointments I’d set up.

Pedal to the metal

Key in had, I dashed to my rental car, threw my bag in, and took off. With any luck, I’d have a shot at making the flight.

My heart sunk when the navigation forecast an 8:40 p.m. arrival at SFO. With a scheduled flight time 16 minutes later, there was no way I’d make it. But maybe I could make up a little time?

It was a race against the clock. I did 10 over the posted limit most of the way (don’t be like me), and the arrival time slowly walked back minute by minute.

Fortunately, I’ve driven 101 south the Bay numerous times in the past few years. I know the road really well, and this was a major advantage. The only poor ingredient is being in an unfamiliar car. But the Kia Soul I’d been given handled well enough.

Glimmer of hope?

Traffic was amazingly good the whole drive. I didn’t get stuck behind any big trucks, and only for a couple minutes behind slow moving cars with no passing lane. The navigation kept walking back the arrival time, and I became more hopeful.

When I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, my forecasted arrival time was 8:04. I might actually do this.

Stupidly, I didn’t pre-pay the gas tank (SEE: The ONE rental car mistake I always make). This meant I would burn 5 minutes at the gas station. I banked on there being one easily accessible off of 19th Avenue as I headed through San Francisco.

This turned out to be exactly correct. I was in and out of Chevron in the fastest time ever. It still cost me 6 minutes.

The rest of the drive was easy, and I returned the car promptly at 8:10. Receipt in hand, I took off toward the air train at a sprint. I had about 35 minutes to get to the terminal, through security, and to my gate before the airplane door closed.

Will I make it?

I missed an Airtrain from the rental car center by seconds. Luckily, the next one was in the distance already, and headed toward us.

It took about 20 minutes for the Airtrain to arrive at Terminal 3. I tore down the escalator and to security.

Even though security took maybe 12 minutes, it felt like forever. If I missed this flight, I wasn’t getting out of San Francisco until the next day.

At 8:42 I was finally free of the TSA. Time to sprint. Luckily, the gate wasn’t too far.

I arrived at the gate at 8:45 and there were (amazingly) a few people still in the boarding line. They turned out to be a family flying standby who were discussing seating arrangements with the staff. It sounded like the middle school aged kids weren’t with their parents. I was glad that their discussion had bought me a minute or two. I had made it.

We pushed back on time. Actually, 4 minutes early. But then air traffic kept us on the ground for a few minutes. In any case, we took off close enough to on-time that I was confident I’d make my connection. I’ve never been happier to be on a plane.

No, I don’t want to spend the night in LA

We touched down at 10:22, giving me plenty of time to make my 11:15 connection. Or so I thought.

The Boeing 737-900 came to a stop sooner than expected . I don’t know exactly where we were, but we were not next to a gate. By my guess, we were west of the International Terminal still.

Which is exactly what my phone confirmed. The captain came on after a minute and said that our gate was occupied and that we were hanging out here out of the way until they push back. Great.

The minutes ticked by, and my tight (but reasonable) connection evaporated. I would be hard pressed to get on the plane to Vegas.

To make things worse, we were going to park at Terminal 8. My next flight was out of Terminal 7.

It seemed to take people forever to get off the plane. I was in an exit row and aisle, which is not too far back. Finally, I pushed past one guy (a major no-no deplaning) taking his sweet time gathering his stuff into his luggage in the aisle, and hurried down the aisle and off the plane.

Another sprint it was. Until my lungs felt like they were on fire, then it was walk fast for 15 seconds to catch a breath and then sprint again.

I would have been the last person on the plane, had the guy in front of me hurrying to gate had his boarding pass out and ready. He didn’t, and he told me to go ahead.

It’s a (post) Christmas miracle!

The instant I set foot on that plane a wave of relief washed over me. I’d actually made it. I’d be in Las Vegas that night (well, the next morning, as we landed around 12:30 a.m.). Everything looked so bleak when I started my drive, but it turned out fine.

I made it to my hotel about 1:45 a.m. and to bed by 2:00. Never has a pillow felt so good.

Final thoughts

I hope to never do this again. Ever. But with flights as fickle as they are between San Francisco and Arcata, I’ll undoubtedly face another situation like this.

I’m glad everything turned out well. I managed to get 6 hours of sleep, and I still made my work appointments.

As convenient as ACV is compared to the Bay, I have a love-hate relationship with our airport. It is situations like this that end up costing extra time, money and inconvenience. I was fortunate everything turned out well enough in my case. But it may not in the future.

Braving Back-to-Back-to-Back-to-Back-to-Back Trips!

Yes. There are 5 backs in there. Looks like we’re going to start 2018 off with a bang!

This wasn’t the plan, trust me. It sorta just happened. We planned one major trip for January, thinking that was plenty. But then the rest slowly got penciled in, so here we are. It all starts with a fury this week.

Work trip to Needles

This one was the second-to-last addition. The company I work for was recently contracted for a small project in Needles, so I get to fly in and out of Las Vegas for a single-day site visit. Due to the flight schedule between Arcata and Vegas and the 2-hour drive to Needles, I have to make it a 2-nighter.

Work isn’t my concern. That part will be easy. It’ll just be the first time I am completely away from the kids for even one night. I’m a bit nervous to see how they’ll do.

And it starts later today. I’ll be on my way to the airport after lunch.

New Year’s celebration

I took advantage of the Best Western promotion to plan New Year’s Eve away with our older two kids. Originally, I was eyeing the first weekend in January, but we have relatives coming up then. Honestly, New Year’s works even better.

If you know me well, you know I shut down about 10:00 p.m. Sometimes 9:00, or even 8:00 p.m. Staying up late is not my thing. But I already know the kids want to party til midnight, so I’m trying to make this as painless as possible for all of us.

And taking them to a hotel with a pool where they can have fun, eat (a little) junk food, and stay up late sounds like the best plan. My wife can put the little guy to bed and welcome 2018 by getting some quality shuteye.

MLJK Weekend with the older two

This one is still tentative. Given the busy schedule of the rest of the month, it may get axed. But it may be a necessity to give mom some time to catch up around the house. And continue potty training the youngest.

My first little weekend getaway with the older two went really well. They didn’t really care for the 5-hour car drive, but they enjoyed the flight. So what’d I plan? You guessed it: another 5-hour car drive. Yeah…haven’t told them yet.

I decided that it wasn’t worth burning miles for a trip that short. Either we’ll find a good points deal in the Bay, or we’ll stick with my plan to maximize my IHG Accelerate promotion at a Holiday Inn in the Sacramento area. I can offset some of the out of pocket cost with cash back, but not the whole thing. The latter (and preferred) option depends on how our January budget looks.

Disneyland!

This was the big surprise trip for the kids for Christmas, and the original one on the schedule. We didn’t expect to take them so soon, but I have an “in” that can get us a steep discount on the tickets. Since this is the biggest cost (free flights and hotel is cake), it made the trip much more doable.

back to back trips disneyland

My mother-in-law did chip in as well, so we are staying at a Disney hotel for part of the trip, which will be a first for me. I am no Disney guru. Travel hacking Disney is a whole new level of obsession.

And then right back to LA

This time it is mom’s turn. It’ll be the first time that my wife has done a solo trip since we’ve been married, if I recall correctly. Maybe ever. She has done a few with her mom, but I can’t think of a single time she has flown or stayed in a hotel solo.

So what is the impetus for this? A day of exercise and dancing with Derek and Julianne Hough was enough to make her jump. It looks like that her first extra cash from starting work again will be put to good use for a one-day intensive in Los Angeles.

The only tricky part is how close it is to the other trip. If only we’d picked the next weekend for our Disneyland trip. Kinda locked in at this point. Looks like we’ll be heading home Wednesday and turning right back around to Oakland on Saturday.

What’ll the kids and I be doing? Good question. I not 100% sure yet. I booked a hotel (for free with Wyndham points) in SF for two nights in case we want to stay there. We may just go back home to Ferndale for Sunday, but that would mean even more time on the road.

After that?

Our kids don’t know it yet, but I’ve asked my parents to watch them for two nights in February so Kels and I can have a romantic weekend. Well…mostly romance. We’ll also be headed to Global Entry appointments. In any case, I’m definitely looking forward to this.

We have one more trip that is in the works, but I can’t spill the beans on that yet. Hopefully I have it all finalized sometime next month.

Final thoughts

Are we crazy? Probably. Do I think we can make it through these with flying colors? Absolutely. Lack of confidence is rarely my issue.

But in case you start wondering if I’m still sane, feel free to drop me a note once we’re on the other side. 🙂

Christmas Surprise: We’re going to Disneyland!

Back when I planned our quick trip to visit my grandparents, I mentioned that a couple more trips were in the works. Well, it’s time to let the cat is out of the bag: we’re going to Disneyland next month!

The trip is one of the gifts we decided to get the kids. As Kels and I have sought to prioritize experiences over material things, gifting a trip for Christmas is much more up our alley than buying the kids a lot of stuff (but they did get a lot of stuff, too).

But given that Disneyland is an expensive destination, so how are we able to afford this so quickly?

Travel hacking a Disney trip

Scoring discounts on Disney is not for the faint of heart. The general consensus is that you really can’t get better than 10-20% off on Disney hotels and admission. And the cost of entry is ridiculous. Entry for our family of 5 to one park for one day would cost approximately $485. And we’re looking to go for 2 days on a Park Hopper pass, which will set us back at least twice that. No matter how you slice it, this isn’t an easy trip to take for cheap. Forget about free.

A strategy I would employ is picking up a couple cash-back cards with a decent bonus to offset the enormous cost of taking your family to the Magic Kingdom. If you’re new to the points world and haven’t applied for many cards, pick up a Chase Sapphire Preferred card if you haven’t (SEE: 5 Reasons the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the Best Starter Travel Credit Card) and then look into a Capital One Venture and/or Barclaycard Arrival+. I don’t typically recommend these cards out the gate, but they will get you most of $1,000 in flexible points you can use toward Disney tickets.

Some warehouse clubs offer Disney gift cards at a slight discount. Factoring in the use of a cash back card, you probably can’t do better than ~5% off using this strategy. It’s something, but it’s still not much. In all honesty, there is no easy way to hack Disney like airfare, where you can get a couple sign up bonuses and fly to Europe in business class for less than $200 out of pocket.

But there are ways. You’ll just need to search a bit harder for them. Disney will never be my forte. When I attended the Family Travel 4 Real Life conference this past May, one session was completely dedicated to hacking Disney. It’s is own world.

If travel hacking Disney is of interest to you, let me point you to a few other resources:

So…how are we able to take our family of 5 to Disneyland next month?

It’s who you know

As is the case with many things in life, sometimes it’s more about who you know than what you know. Turns out that I have a coworker whose sister works for Disney corporate. She can walk most of us in for free for one day (possibly all of us if she can have a coworker meet her at the park, which she is trying to make happen). This means our tickets will either be free or heavily discounted. If we don’t all get walked in for free, the remaining two that we need to buy will be ~50% off.

Since my mother-in-law loves Disneyland, we invited her along. My one and only time visiting the park in Anaheim was with their family, long before my wife and I were married. They used to go annually. We got them tickets last year as their Christmas gift.

I’m not sure how she put it all together, but my mother-in-law managed to work some magic for all of us. She has had a Disney Visa card for as long as I can remember, and the tickets for the second day are part of a package she booked in conjunction with a Disneyland hotel. Apparently now was the time to put the points to good use. I’m not complaining.

So now that we will be out at most a mere $150 for tickets for two days, we just have to put the travel together.

Flights south

This part is cake. We had a number of options, so it was all a function on convenience, timing, and maximizing point redemption. Since there were so many of us, it makes the most sense to fly out of the Bay Area rather than Arcata or even Santa Rosa. Alaska has reasonable nonstop flights to John Wayne Airport (Santa Ana), which is the closest to Anaheim and Disneyland. I’ll happily avoid the pit that is LAX.

For the 6 of us I spent a mere 19,600 Amex Membership Rewards (before my 50% back perk dies!), a $75 Alaska voucher, and $28.40 cash. Not much out of pocket. Cash prices would have been $470 for all six of us.

Thanks to a promotion, the kids will each be earning a bonus 5,000 Alaska miles as new Alaska MileagePlan members. This means our family will earn a total of 20,000 Alaska miles for our quick trip. It’s basically like trading our MR points for Alaska miles. Totally, totally worth it.

What about hotels near Disneyland?

There are a number of hotels available near Disneyland, but I quickly focused on a couple options for the six of us. The one that made the most sense was the Homewood Suites about a mile from the park. The points redemption rate was reasonable, and it could fit the six of us.

I also eyed the Howard Johnson across from the park, as we have a good number of Wyndham points, but it would tougher to swing for 6. For 5 I’d do it in a heartbeat, and request a crib. The Best Western right across the street also seemed like a decent option, but I don’t have enough points to swing it. Since we are going to be in the park all day for 2 days, the hotel is little more than a place to crash and sleep, so staying at a more budget place was an option on the table.

But all my ideas got tossed out the window with my mother-in-law’s plan.  Now we’ll be staying on-property, just a quick walk from the park. I’ve never stayed at a Disney hotel (and never planned to!), so this will be a whole new experience for us.

Our one night of airport hotel is at the Embassy Suites SFO for 42,000 Honors points. I wish San Francisco airport hotels were cheaper, but they are in line with the rest of the area. The advantage here is free breakfast for all of us.

Conclusion

Disney is high on many families travel lists, and with the cost of tickets so high, it is often a vacation that they must save long and hard to make happen. Fortunately, thanks to family and friends, we have a nice shortcut. If not for these, we’d be saving for a Disney vacation for at least a year.

Images courtesy of Tuxyso and Norberak Egina under CC 3.0 license

A Successful First Getaway with Kids!

If you recall my post a couple weeks ago, you’d know that I took a quick weekend getaway with our two eldest kids. Mom and the toddler stayed behind to hold down the fort (and work on something very important).

Now we are on the other side of that adventure, and we are not only all alive, but everyone involved had a great time. Sure, there were a couple low points, such as both kids vomiting (at different times) during our five hour drive to the Bay Area. But hey, not everything had to go perfectly.

Ever present car sickness

One thing I noticed is that the kids really, REALLY prefer air travel to car travel. We had several bouts of car sickness while in Costa Rica, and things really haven’t improved since we’ve been home. We don’t give them Dramamine when running errands locally, but I failed to have it on hand for our drive south, which turned out to be problematic.

Beyond the upset tummies, the kids are prone to headaches while in the car. Like, all the time. We’ve read this could also be motion-related, but I hadn’t ever heard of this until the past couple months. The headaches are worse than the nausea, as we end up with grumpy kids for the whole trip rather than one good puke.

I thought about axing the idea of taking a weekend night away each month with the older two after our drive, but they did a lot better on the way home. I’m planning to just power through, and pick places a bit closer to home. We need to get them used to more time in the car. I’ll just make sure we always have Dramamine on hand. And Ziplocs for puke-catching.

Visiting my grandparents

After our adventurous drive to the Bay, we chilled in the airport lounge before almost missing our flight. You can find my write-up on our experience over at Points with a Crew:

After almost missing our flight (yeah…read that review), we arrived safe and sound in Merced where we were greeted by my grandma and grandpa, our kids’ tatarabuelos. The kids were initially shy, as is typical, but they did warm up well to them.

For my part, I really enjoyed catching up with my grandparents. Both have had some health issues in the past year or two, and it was good to see them doing well. Grandma plans to come up soon, so the kids will get to see her again.

Riding a horse!

This was one of the biggest highlights for the kids. My grandparents live outside Merced, in a little town called Cathey’s Valley. It is a blip on the map between I-5 and Mariposa along the highway to Yosemite.

The plus to living in the county is that they have 5 acres. And they have a knack for acquiring horses. When I was a teen, they had four. Now they have seven.

Fortunately, one of them was ride-able. This made the kids’ day!

Since the little guy didn’t come on the trip, grandma and grandpa sent us home with a stick horse!

Conclusion

Our two nights were over too quickly, and soon we had to head home again. The return drive up 101 was long, and the kids complained. Overall, I still think it was a success and would be willing to do it again.

The travel horizons are already looking way more full than I originally  intended. More on that in another post…

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