Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Adoption (page 1 of 2)

Our First Time Flying with Kids

On Saturday my wife and I *finally* returned to the U.S. with our kids. The adoption trip was long, and we almost didn’t get to come home on the Southwest flights we booked. But in the end it all worked out exactly as we hoped.

The trip was our first time flying with kids. We’ve traveled plenty as a couple, and at this point the process is routine. But traveling with three children is an entirely different experience. We were a bit worried how our kids would react to their first time on a plane. Overall, our trip went quite well, something for which I am extremely grateful.

Much of our success is likely due to the fact that our children (thankfully) didn’t have any severe anxiety about flying and are well behaved on the whole. But part of our success can likely be attributed to some proactive measure we took. Here is the rundown on our first time flying with kids.

Combating kids’ fears of flying

Our kids were a bit nervous about their first flight, but they were also excited. I tried to play off the latter as much as possible. Over a few weeks before the trip, I took some time to show them some photos of us on previous flights, some YouTube videos of takeoff, and pictures of airports.

Even with those measures, they still expressed some doubts and fears. The question at the forefront of their minds was the safety of the experience. They seemed a bit incredulous when I explained to them that flying is safer than driving in a car. That age-old issue of perceived versus actual risk.

Since statistics are impossible for them to fully comprehend, I switched to relying on personal experience. I told them that I have flown a good amount (LOL – a mere 120,000 miles) and have never been on a flight that has had serious problems. My one diverted flight doesn’t really count since it was due to a medical emergency.

Checking all the baggage and navigating security

We arrived at SJO airport with our six checked bags, one carry on, and five personal items. This was waaaay more luggage than I’ve ever wanted. We brought FOUR checked bags to Costa Rica. Sadly, we had to buy one more to fit all our kids’ stuff. Adding in my mother-in-law’s bag finished the half dozen. I hope to never, ever travel with this much luggage again.

Fortunately, we were flying Southwest, so the ridiculous amount of luggage didn’t cost us anything. The kids were eager to roll around a bag, so that took one off our hands. The toddler worked against us, though, as he insisted on carrying the backpack we’d (over)packed for him, but needed mom to help hold it up with one hand.

The kids curiosity morphed into restlessness at the check-in counter since things took so long. One bag was 55 pounds, so we had to do the last-minute shuffle with the contents (I’m sure everyone else in line hated us). Since the three kids were pretty much only getting in the way, I finally had them go wait with grandma. This is when I reminded myself that I needed to talk them through everything.

Taking time to explain things

Kids definitely do best when you explain the plan to them ahead of time. It was amazing how much better things went once we got all of us into a routine during our stay in Costa Rica. Knowing what is coming next helps them immensely.

When we are about to do something new (such as flying), I try to explain the situation and experience as much as possible. I also try to brief them on potential problems we may encounter. This is a great thing to do for activities beyond flying, but it definitely helped us during our first time flying with kids.

As we navigated the airport and plane, I did my best to explain each part of the process to them. First, it was the security experience. Then waiting at the gate (or going on little walks in the terminal) before boarding. Finally, boarding the aircraft. Talking them through things really helped everything go smoothly and made our first time flying with kids much easier.

 

Boarding our first flight!

One of the benefits of flying Southwest is the family boarding process. Even though we were assigned boarding positions in the high Bs, we still took advantage of the Family Boarding offered between the A and B groups. Our kids were 3, 7 (barely), and 10, and going by the book, they should have only let one of us board with the youngest. However, the gate agent was very gracious, and we all boarded together.

The kids were super excited as we walked the jetway.

first time flying with kids

I was ecstatic that this was the dominant reaction instead of fear.

Since there were plenty of empty seats when we boarded, we were able to settle into a single row across the plane. Arranging seats as a group of six on a 737 is easy. I sat with the older two while mom and grandma managed the toddler.

first time flying with kids

The kids oohed and aahed a bit at the other planes, especially any they saw moving. San José airport isn’t all that busy (compared to say, SFO), so we only really got to see one other plane take off.

Taxi and takeoff

The kids’ excitement went up a few more notches the instant we started moving. They were both glued to the window. I was just as excited, but more so because taking off meant we were actually headed home.

Our three-year-old was hands-down the most excited. He didn’t take his eyes off the window. Every single plane he saw as we taxied was just as exciting as the previous one. He probably shouted “avión!” a dozen times.

No, he was not seated like this for takeoff

The looks on the kids’ faces was priceless when the plane started accelerating down the runway. Like with everything else, I tried to give the kids a little heads up that we were about to take off and what it would feel like. When the engines spooled up and we started hurtling down the runway, they were all smiles.

Once we were airborne, there was even more excitement as they pointed at the buildings below and at the hills of their beautiful country. With all the change that had happened to them in so short a time, I was thankful to see them smiling and laughing.

Soon we’d climbed into the clouds. With nothing left to view, the kids started digging through their bags for stuff with which to play.

What can you pack besides electronics?

This may be a hard road, but we’re trying to heavily limit our kids’ electronics intake in general. We had an iPad on hand with a couple movies loaded on it, but we hoped the kids could entertain themselves with other things for most of the flight.

My wife packed all three kids’ backpacks with various toys, drawing pads, and snacks. We made sure to hide them so that they would be a surprise for the trip. As we were leaving the hotel, we gave them the backpacks. Even then we made them wait to open them until we were seated at the gate.

The whole idea worked quite well. They *loved* discovering what we had packed for them, and their new toys kept them entertained for quite a while on our flight to Houston. I did break out the iPad for music.

A definite winner was the Boogie Board drawing pad (which I guess is technically electronic). The kids could draw as much as they liked, but without the hassle of pens or pencils and paper. It even allowed us to play several rounds of tic-tac-toe and other games.

In the air – our first time flying with kids

My biggest concern was our *very* active three-year-old who has trouble sitting still for anything. Two 4-hours flights might have been a very long day.

Things started out well.  The little man had two adults to help entertain him, and he had snacks to eat. I got my hopes up that it might be smooth sailing the whole trip.

Alas, this was too much to ask. About an hour into the flight we had our first round of tears. He was getting squirmy, and mom finally had to hold him for a bit. How upsetting that is. Luckily, he doesn’t usually throw a fit for more than minute or two, and soon he was back to playing with his stuffed dinosaur.

There were a couple more incidents of excessive squirming and a few more bouts of tears due to making him sit so long. Fortunately, his crying is subdued enough that I wasn’t worried about it bothering other people too much. It wasn’t an intentional choice, but we’d also managed to sandwich ourselves between two other families, one of which had a lap child. I’m sure they understood completely, if they even noticed.

When a patch of turbulence hit, I got a bit worried. I thought our kids might freak out. But they really didn’t react at all. Granted, it wasn’t all that strong, but I was thankful that this wasn’t an issue (NOTE: on our second flight, a patch of turbulence did end up making our ten-year-old scream). The more frequent comment we got was that it didn’t feel like we were moving at all.

The fact that Southwest also loaded us up with snacks every chance they could (I don’t remember this from previous experiences?) really made the kids’ day. Sure, we didn’t think that a diet of chips and coke is the best thing for them, but hey, we wanted them to enjoy the experience.

My daughter did remark that she enjoyed flying much more than driving (yay!). Why? Apparently, it was because I wasn’t telling them “I can’t talk right now” at all. San José traffic and Costa Rica’s mountain roads often required all my concentration, and this is my standard response when they barrage me with questions.

Teaching our kids basic flying etiquette

I couldn’t help myself on this one. As things seemed to be going smoothly enough (i.e. our first time flying with kids was in fun mode and not survival mode), I figured it would be good to start teaching the kids good flying etiquette.

We ran through the basic stuff first: getting out of the aisle, stowing under-seat luggage, not reclining the seat before takeoff. I also ran through seat items such as seatbelt use, air vents (I had to help them, obviously), and the reading light and flight attendant call buttons. I instructed them not to tough the latter.  The older two listened well and did just fine.

Later on, I tackled some other items, such as being gentle when opening and closing the tray table and not using the seats in front of you as a hand hold getting up or down. The latter is a major pet peeve of mine. It turned out that the kids never asked to recline the seat (nor did the people in front of us), so we didn’t have to deal with that at all.

They did well, and I’m sure they will get even better on subsequent fights. But on Day 1, I already feel like they are air travel all-stars.

Landing in Houston

The kids became excited as we started to descend. This quickly turned to a bit of anxiety for our eldest. She did *not* like the feeling of descending in the airplane.

We had a brief freak-out moment as the plane touched down, but this quickly turned to relief as we were now back on terra firma. I failed to explain that taxiing and waiting to deplane part, so we did endure some complaining about not getting off the airplane all that quickly.

We did end up with a dirty toddler diaper on the final part of the flight. I figured we could change this quickly before we got to customs. We had no such luck. As this was our kids’ formal entry into the U.S., the process took quite a while. Customs at Houston Hobby Airport is still worlds better than customs at George Bush Intercontinental. I’m thankful a 3-hour customs ordeal was *not* part of our first time flying with kids. We’ll have to save that for later (or get them all Global Entry).

The final part of our adventure included navigating security, chowing down some pizza, and then rushing to catch our connection to the Bay Area. Five hours later we touched down in California. I never thought I’d ever say I was happy to be back in Oakland.

Final thoughts

Overall, our first time flying with kids ended up going about as smoothly as I’d hoped. We prepped them pretty well, and it paid off. The older two thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and I’m certainly not afraid to take our toddler on another flight, either.

Most of all I hope that this means they’ll all quickly become great little travelers!

Endings and New Beginnings

Today our fledgling family is finally making the trek back to the U.S. after our several weeks in Costa Rica. It’s been a fun, exciting, and soul-searching experience. It’s been frustrating at times. But also joyous. So much change in so little time.

Leaving as two, returning as five

Adoption is definitely the toughest thing we’ve ever done. It is hard to describe the mix of feelings. The kids are a joy, yet it is hard to go from having tons of time together to having literally all of it demanded from you. In the end, it it totally worth it.

Our last couple weeks here were a nail-biting experience. I became anxious as our projected travel date loomed nearer and nearer, and we didn’t yet have all the documents we needed. Fortunately, our in-country liaisons went to bat for us and we were able to receive the final visas on Wednesday.

They told us we could travel Thursday, but there was really no reason to go through booking last minute flights (besides saving two days). It would have been a real challenge to hack six tickets. I almost wanted to do it just for the experience.

So today, Saturday, November 4th is the day. You should have seen how much we had to pack. And how long it took. We’re never traveling with this much stuff again.

Southwest is the best

It’s been a while since I’ve flown the busiest domestic airline in the States. Southwest used to be my first luv in the world of flying, but I’ve since found that I’m pretty keen on most airlines.

Somewhere along the way I forgot just how stellar Southwest’s customer service is. I guess time made my memory a bit fuzzy. Previously, I’d detailed how I was banking on Southwest to get us home by locking in fully refundable award tickets at a good price. Through Twitter I’d confirmed that they would change the names of our kids to what appeared on their passports.

Yesterday I finally got around to confirming this with them and providing them with the necessary info. Things went at smooth as butter, even when they messed up our middle son’s middle name. The Twitter rep had that fixed within 3 minutes. At the end I was able to easily input all the passport details and check us in successfully. We even got a decent boarding position.

Praise the Lord for reasonable companies that look out for customers. I’m so happy our flights today worked out.

Always looking forward

Today is the end of one chapter for our children and the beginning of a new one. Even as we wait for our first flight as a family, I’m already dreaming of taking my kids to other far off places around the world. But this may not come for a while. We need a period of adjustment at home, and they need to learn English. It’ll be a little while before we do any serious globe-trotting.

Still, here’s hoping today is the first step toward our kids becoming great travelers.

Hotel Punta Leona Review – Stellar Price for an All-Inclusive

My wife and I are in the process of moving from just the two of us to a family of five. After literally years of waiting, we are now in Costa Rica adopting three beautiful kids. Our focus during these weeks in Costa Rica is on bonding with our kids. But this doesn’t mean we can’t take them on a few trips to see their own beautiful country. In other words, we’re taking a couple overnight trips while we’re here, and the first was to Hotel Punta Leona.

Our adoption coordinator set us up with a great rate at the hotel for a couple days midweek. Hotel Punta Leona was running a special, and we were able to book a room for $158 per night, all meals included. For a family of five, this is *amazing*.

Arriving at the Hotel Punta Leona

The Hotel Punta Leona is located on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. It is about an hour and a half drive from SJO airport, and a little bit further than that from San José itself. A good portion of the drive is on Costa Rica’s only real freeway, so it is a lot easier to access than many other places in the country.

The turn off to Hotel Punta Leona is a little north of Jacó. Once you turn off the highway, the road is dirt essentially until you arrive at the hotel property.

The facilities reception have a manned security gate. After explaining that we had a reservation, the guard let us through half a minute later. It’s not that Costa Rica isn’t safe. I’ve just noticed that many places have manned security or attendants, including parking lots and other places that would be totally mundane in the U.S.

Check-in went smoothly, except for the fact that the hotel was currently without a computerized reservation system. The front desk even had to use one of the ancient, manual sliding credit card machines. With my Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card that doesn’t have a nicely embossed front. Didn’t work so well. She had to manually write the numbers and other info.

Selvamar Room…for the 5 of us!

The Selvamar rooms are located a distance from reception and the rest of the facilities, so we had to hop back into the car and drive a couple minutes.

I knew going into this that the room was going to be small. It didn’t disappoint.

It was a fairly standard hotel room with two full-size beds, a desk, TV, and in-room coffee.

The bathroom was adequate. Overall, it was a tight squeeze for all of us for two days. But it was a deal!

The Selvamar rooms are at least in a nice setting. There rooms are arranged in groups of 4 with walkways and gardens in between. At dusk there were monkeys to watch swinging and climbing through the foliage above.

And there were iguanas along the path at times. Even though our daughter is a native Costa Rican, they totally freak her out!

There was also a small pool close to the restaurant and Selvamar rooms. Given the much nicer facilities elsewhere, we never used it.

Hotel Punta Leona Restaurant – Carabelas

Included in our rate were all meals at the restaurant near the Selvamar Rooms. It was a quick two-minute walk away.

Everything at Carabela’s is buffet style. I’d rate the food as above average as far as buffets go. Most tasted super fresh. The beef at our first lunch was amazing. There was typically enough variety that anyone would be satisfied.

They had starters and a nice salad bar.

Every meal featured a chef at the grill or stovetop making part of the meal. The first evening it was churrasco.

Soup.

And other entrees and sides.

Soft drinks were self serve. You could also order beer or wine. A server kindly offered both evenings, but we declined.

In the mornings we had an immersive breakfast experience with the local wildlife. We were approached by both monkeys and a coatimundi.

I had a good laugh when a monkey stole some food from a guest on our first morning. I wasn’t laughing when the same thing happened to me the next day!

Hotel Punta Leona Facilities

The facilities of the Hotel Punta Leona are spread out over a fairly large area. The main highlight for the kids were, of course, the large pools.

hotel punta leona pool

Compared to the other hotel at which we are staying for the bulk of the time in Costa Rica, they were wondrously warm.

There is also an activity center with foosball and other games if you happen to be at the resort during a downpour. Fortunately, the rain that had been a fixture every afternoon let up for both days we were at the coast. On the other side of the pool there is another restaurant. Our all-inclusive rate included snacks here from 10:00 to 5:00. We enjoyed some pizza the first afternoon, and then a raccoon that got a bit too close for comfort.

I promised our six-year-old that I’d take him to mini-golf. On our second afternoon we got the chance. What wasn’t explained to me was that some of the activities cost extra, and this was one of them. I’d figured that most of the activities listed on the paper given to us at check-in were part of the resort package and included in the rate.

So, we ended up paying about $11 for three of us to play mini-golf. Which ended up being a hysterical experience. After trying for maybe a minute to instruct them (as best I can…I’m no golfer), I gave up. They ended up racing through the entire course is a matter of 15 minutes, often swatting the ball as hard as they could and sending into the grass beyond the hole or onto another section of the course. I was content to watch and laugh while proceeding through the course behind them.

This was the worst mini-golf hole ever.

Some of the other activities and facilties offered by the hotel include a butterfly house, a morning nature walk, pool volleyball, and bingo and karaoke in the evenings. We didn’t take advantage of any of these. Turns out that basically all kids want to do is swim.

Playa Mantas

The bulk of the fun was had at Playa Mantas over our stay. We went swimming there the afternoon we arrived and the following morning. The waves were super calm, and the water was heavenly. I’d never swam in water so warm.

Now I finally understand why people enjoy beach destinations so much. I might have to revise my list of places I want to visit to include some more beach destinations. Growing up on the north coast of California has left me with a poor view of “going to the beach”, where the outing typically means a cold breeze and sand flying in my eyes. I’ll pass.

In contrast, this was like a tiny sliver of heaven on earth. I’d enjoyed walking in the surf in Florida in May, but this was even better. I could have swam all day. Unfortunately, swimming ended up resulting in a little incident that cost us a bit of time and money.

Playa Blanca

The final morning we paid the other beach a quick visit. It is a bit further from the facilities of Punta Leona, but it is a whole lot more beautiful than Playa Mantas.

However, there were red flags out warning against swimming. Luckily, we weren’t there to swim, but simply to play in the sand for a while and enjoy the beautiful setting. Afterwards we headed back, ate breakfast at Carabelas once again, and then took off.

Conclusion

Overall, we had a good stay. Although it would have been nice to rent a larger room for the 5 of us, we really couldn’t beat the rate the hotel gave us for the single room under the September kids promotion. In contrast, I sent the hotel an email asking what the day-use rate would be per person. We realized that it isn’t all that far away from San José. I almost spit out my coffee this morning when they quoted me $85 per person over 6 years old!

Leveraging the Southwest cancellation policy for adoption flights

My wife and I are now three weeks into an adoption trip of about 6 weeks in Costa Rica. We are thoroughly enjoying both our 3 kids and their beautiful country.

But it’s definitely a long trip. We can’t wait to head home and get things back to normal, albeit a new normal.

So I couldn’t keep myself from booking our tickets home. It may seem like it’s a bit early since we don’t know when we can come home yet. But with the stellar Southwest cancellation policy, there is no downside to booking now. I’ve actually leveraged their generous policy twice on this trip, so I figured I’d provide a rundown.

The fantastic Southwest cancellation policy

Southwest Airlines has one of the best cancellation policies I’ve ever encountered. Award tickets are completely refundable, up until just minutes before the flight. In a nutshell:

  • Tickets purchased with RapidRewards points are 100% refundable.
  • Tickets can be cancelled up to 10 minutes before the flight.
  • There is no cancellation fee!
  • Even if you “no show” your award ticket, your points are redeposited. Any taxes and fees will be added to your travel funds and usable toward future travel.

The Southwest cancellation policy for revenue tickets is good as well. Here everything depends on which fare type you purchased. For Wanna Get Away fares, the following applies:

  • Fares are non-refundable, but the funds will be saved and can be applied to purchase of future travel for the original ticketed passenger up to one year from the original flight date.
  • There is no cancellation fee!
  • In the event of a “no show”, the fare is forfeited. Note that if you can show up within 2 hours of your original flight time and still fly standby on the next flight as part of the unwritten “flat tire rule”.

Business Select and Anytime awards are completely refundable (or you can choose to keep the reusable travel funds). Even if you “no show” one of these tickets, your travel funds will be deposited in your account and will be usable for future travel.

Southwest cancellation policy - fare rules

Considering that many other airlines sell completely nonrefundable tickets or charge a hefty fee to refund a fare, Southwest’s policy is extremely generous.

Leveraging the policy on our way to Costa Rica

My wife and I flew to Costa Rica on one-way United award tickets. This allows us plenty of flexibility in deciding when to book tickets back. I *really* didn’t want to lock us into a date on United, since their change policy is so bad.

However, I failed to realize that Costa Rica requires proof of return flights. Oops. At the ticket kiosk in Houston we were given a final screen of “please see agent” rather than collecting our tickets. A United employee walked over and informed us that we had to have proof of return flights.

Southwest to the rescue. In only a few minutes I had award flights back to the U.S. booked on Southwest using my wife’s points. I didn’t really care that I’d only booked us back to Houston. We wouldn’t be using them anyway, and I cancelled them two days later. But it was enough to present to the agent and get us through check-in and onto our flight.

Do note that booking a ticket on another airline could have worked as well, but I would have had to cancel within the 24-hour refundable booking window.

Leveraging the Southwest cancellation policy for our return flights

Just a few weeks later I decided to lock in our return flights. By “lock in”, I simply mean locking in a good rate. The tickets are obviously 100% refundable under the Southwest cancellation policy.

Generally, our adoption agency doesn’t suggest that people book flights back until they have their final Visa appointment. This is obviously to save adoptive parents time and headache by avoiding tickets changes. But with the fantastic Southwest cancellation policy, there is no downside to booking now!

There was one more complication, however. Given that we aren’t 100% sure of what our children’s names will be on their passports, booking airfare is problematic. Name changes are typically not allowed.

I reached out to Southwest on Twitter and explained our adoption situation to them. An agent confirmed that we could change the names of the kids once we have their information. I sent our record locator over once I’d booked the tickets, and the agent added a note to our account. I was extremely happy Southwest was this gracious.

I also had to guesstimate our return date. I decided to play it safe and book a bit further out than we hoped to be here. Southwest also (sadly) doesn’t publish a SJO-HOU-OAK fare every day of the schedule, so I had to pick one of the few days this route is available.

If we do end up taking these flights, all five of us will fly home for 62,000 RapidRewards points and $290, which is a deal!

Be aware of the Southwest change policy!

Unlike the Southwest cancellation policy, the Southwest change policy is no longer as friendly as it once was. When changing a fare, you’ll be warned that the fare will become non-refundable! This kinda goes against the grain of the rest of Southwest’s policies, so make sure you keep this in mind.

If you still do want to change a ticket, you still won’t be charged a fee. Unlike most other airlines, change fees don’t fly with Southwest. You will still pay the difference in fare, if applicable.

Conclusion

The Southwest cancellation policy is definitely something to have in your back pocket. It has come in handy for us on multiple occasions, including twice on just this trip.

With Southwest, what’s not to LUV?

Featured image courtesy of BriYYZ under CC 2.0 license

4 Checked Bags…You Can Obviously Guess Why

Today is a big day. My wife and I are *finally* headed out to adopt our kids in Costa Rica. It has been a long-awaited trip. We packed over yesterday and today…and ended up with 4 checked bags. *sigh* Life is never going to be the same.

When I travel by myself, I travel fast and light. One carry on and a personal item is all I need. When my wife and I travel, we typically check a single bag. We would avoid this, too, except that my wife often has to bring some supplements and liquids and cooking items that are pretty much impossible to get through security.

But 4 checked bags? I thought I’d never see the day.

Going from 2 to 5

I’m kidding. Mostly. Obviously, it would be nice to keep up how we currently travel, but I knew long ago that things would change oh so drastically. You can’t keep up the same pace with kids in tow. I’m sure we’ll still travel (I already have ideas), but it will almost certainly be less frequently. Not to mention much harder to hack! But this is the life we want, and we cannot wait to meet our precious children (we’ve already been Skyping with them).

Preparing for this trip has been a chore. The longest my wife and I have ever been gone was for a month-long adventure in Europe. We checked two bags for most of those flights, and had to do laundry multiple times during the trip.

But this adventure is even longer. We are estimating that we should be in Costa Rica for six weeks!

With all of our clothing, plus kids clothing, plus toys and games for the kids, plus gifts for various people involved in the process and in our kids lives, four full checked bags is understandable.

Bright and early start

Morning came early at the awful hour of 3:00 a.m. It was pretty brutal. But we are flying out of our upstart little airport (which is a huge plus), and the 6:00 a.m. flight is the most reliable. Currently, it is on time as we sit here at the terminal. We *did* have one time where it was canceled, however.

We should get to Houston with plenty of time to rest and have a comfortable overnight before continuing on to San Jose tomorrow.

Conclusion

I hope to blog a bit while we’re away, but that is looking fairly doubtful. Even this week has been nigh but impossible. All of our focus will be on the kids while we are in Costa Rica. This is a critical time for all of us, as we will be beginning to bond as a family.

#Snyder2to5

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