Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Family (page 1 of 2)

Visiting the California Railroad Museum

During a long weekend in Sacramento with my older two kids, we visited the California Railroad Museum. It is located on the north end of Old Town Sacramento in a brick building (part of which is actually an old roundhouse, which is super cool).

Admission to the California Railroad Museum

The California Railroad Museum is managed by the State Park system. Adult admission is $12, while kids between 6 and 17 ring up at $6. Kids 5 and under are free.

The museum didn’t feel busy when we arrived, but there was a line of several people.

In the meantime, we decided to examine the small steam engine that greeted us.

The kids were excited. I don’t believe either have ever traveled by train, and they were very interested in seeing what trains were all about. After paying the admission, we decided we’d explore the place floor by floor.

First Floor

All the coolest stuff is on the first floor. Ok, that may have already spoiled floors two and three. But it’s true. You can’t really stick full size locomotives or railcars on the upper floors without some more serious engineering, so it follows that all of those at ground level. Which makes the first floor the coolest.

The first section focuses on the history of the railroad in California. Specifically, it highlights the Transcontinental Railroad. As a kid, this was a section of history I thoroughly enjoyed, and the fascination with the race to span a continent has not faded. I started to read every part of the exhibit.

California railroad museum

The kids quickly grew bored of this and ran ahead while I was engrossed in the details of the Central Pacific Railroad, the company racing eastward from California. If you’re not familiar with this section of American history, the Federal government offered financed the construction of the railroad by offering $16,000 per mile of track. The Central Pacific Railroad was the company constructing track eastward from California, eventually meeting the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah.

The kids eventually arrived to drag me further into the museum. I seriously could have spent most of an hour in the first rooms.

The railroad revolutionized the economy in California by linking the Golden State with the rest of the country. The next area focuses on the development and impact of the railroad in our own state. One section in particular highlights Sacramento, including it’s role in the Pullman strike.

california railroad museum

Further along there are a variety of locomotives and railcars, some historic, others new.

You are able to walk inside several. One of the kids’ favorites was the bullet train.

I also enjoyed the mail car. There were park staff inside who explained how the sorters managed the mail as the train clicked along the track, picking up new bags and delivering sorted ones.

Dining and Pullman coaches

The most interesting cars at the California Railroad Museum were the Pullman sleeper car and the dining car. I’d read about Pullman cars and knew that they were the standard for sleeper cars in their time, but it was way cooler to actually experience one!

The general layout resembles Amtrak’s modern Roomettes. I may be dreaming, but the beds in the Pullman look both wider and more comfy. You lose the privacy of the modern version, though, as you only have curtains to block out your car companions.

Connected to the Pullman sleeper is an exquisite dining car from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe named “Cochiti.” It has quite the kitchen! No, the cook is not real.

Displayed in the car are a large number of china sets from various trains. Unlike air travel where every pound counts, train china was designed to be beefy so it wouldn’t slide off the table as the train swayed.

There was also a menu displayed. If only prices were still this reasonable. Caviar for $1.75, anyone?

We spent a good amount of time on the first floor, but eventually it was time to check out the other sections of the California Railroad Museum.

Second Floor

The second floor of the museum contains some exhibits on high-speed rail, the museum theater, and…the simulator. This was a big hit with the kids. Both of them were up for waiting in line to drive a simulated Japanese bullet train. This might not sound as thrilling as an airplane simulator, but it was still fun for them.

The goal of the simulator is to take the train from one station to the next. You get to release the brakes and pull out of the station, carefully managing the throttle based on what section of track you’re on.

Later, the simulator skips to full speed, which is approaching 200 mph!

Finally, you get to stop the train at the next station. The goal is to park it as perfectly as possible and at the end it’ll tell you how how far off you were.

I as so engrossed watching my kids that I completely forgot to take pictures. Sorry.

Third Floor

The third floor of the California Railroad Museum is geared toward both kids and collectors. There are a large number of model trains displayed in cases, including many of the pieces that you’d use to set up a really nice diorama.

Maybe alluding to the Empire Builder Amtrak service?

There are also several full dioramas featuring moving trains at various scales. We enjoyed watching these.

The last section is the children’s play area. You also get a good view of the first floor laid out below you.

At the very end we stopped for a bit and played with the toy trains. There were a bunch of other kids there and it was sorta wild, so my two ended up wanting to head out pretty quickly.


Our visit to the California Railroad Museum made for a great half day excursion. I enjoyed reading the history of the railroad in California, seeing a variety of rail cars, and watching my kids enjoy themselves. I highly recommend the California Railroad Museum as a must-see if you are ever in the Sacramento area!

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!


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…

Planes, Planning, and Potty Training

Yes, my already limited blogging frequency has taken a nose dive. But life has been a bit different of late. With the combined demands of three kids and a full time job upon me, I’ve hardly had time to keep up any writing, either here or for Points with a Crew.

If you recall, we finally arrived home after seven weeks away in Costa Rica on November 5, 2017, now a family of five. Our trip home on Southwest Airlines included a great miles and points angle. You can read our adoption story here if you’re interested (although our family blog suffers from lack of attention as well).

But now back to the title. You might be wondering what planes, planning, and potty training have to do with each other. Let me connect the dots.

Planning my first trip with the kids

Yup. That didn’t take long. It took me less than three weeks being home to plan our first getaway. I honestly thought I’d make it a bit longer. I’ve actually partially planned three trips, but I can’t reveal the other two quite yet. When you have over a million points and miles in the bank, they kinda burn a hole in your pocket.

The idea started from one simple desire: I think it’d be cool to fly Boutique Air. Never heard of them? Yeah, I hadn’t either until earlier this year.

Boutique Air is a small carrier that flies entirely Essential Air Service routes. They fly primarily Pilatus PC-12 aircraft. Simply taking a flight in one of these planes is the main draw I have to them.

I’m used to flying on mostly Boeing 737s and Embraer E175 aircraft, both of which are of reasonable, unremarkable size. The biggest plane I’ve flown on is the A380. The smallest plane in which I’ve ever flown is a Saab 340 on PenAir between Arcata and Portland (sadly, the route  has been discontinued). It has about 34 seats.

But the Pilatus PC-12 is substantially smaller than that, with a mere nine seats. Awesome, right?

So what does potty training have to do with this?

As I hesitantly broached the trip idea with my wife, she was surprisingly behind it. I only wanted to take the older two kids, and just for a weekend away. One of her immediate thoughts was that it would be the perfect time to start potty training our three-year-old. Boom. That settles it.

So I booked myself and our older two on a round-trip flight on Boutique Air from Oakland to Merced. We’ll drive to the Bay, park, enjoy a super quick flight, visit my grandparents for two nights, and the fly the short hop back and head home. Meanwhile my wife will be reading enthralling titles to our little one, such as “Where’s the Poop?“. Honestly, she is looking forward to only having one kid for a couple days, even if much of the time will be spent with him in the bathroom.

We haven’t told our kids any of the plans, but we plan to this weekend. The older two aren’t crazy about long car trips, but I am hoping to drive the morning leg super early so that they can sleep through half (or more) of it. My parents always did this with my siblings and me when we were little. I’m really looking forward to our little getaway.

The closest I’ll ever come to flying private

I figure that flying private is something that’ll never be a part of my future. So flying on a tiny 9-seater Pilatus, often used as a corporate aircraft, will be about as close as I can get. Look for a review of the experience on Points with a Crew in about 2 weeks.

Given that our bank account has taken a hit after spending almost two moths out of the country, planning a trip that is free or close to free is a must. But this is the beauty of miles and points. Given that a round-trip between Oakland and Merced is as low as $37 on Boutique Air, you really can’t beat the price.

I covered our $111 airfare (total for three people!) with the remainder of our Arrival miles, and I’ll use some cash back earned from gift card reselling and manufactured spending to cover most of the cost of parking and gas. Lodging is covered since we’re staying with family. Easy peasy.

Restraining myself from planning more

Like I mentioned above, I already have two more trips in the works, one of which is pretty nailed down. Given that we’re now free from waiting for our adoption to happen, the schedule is wide open. Which ends up being a problem. Since I follow fare and award deals pretty closely, every time I come across a new one, I want to pull the trigger. We need to wait a bit more. Our kids definitely need some time to adjust. We’ve only been home a matter of weeks.

Eventually, I do hope our kids will enjoy travel as much as my wife and I do. They were champs on our first flight, and my daughter remarked that she much preferred flying to driving. But we still need to get them into a rhythm at home, and taking frequent trips, even just for a weekend, might hinder this goal.

So I’m content now looking forward to our quick weekend blast down to the middle of the state and back. Here’s hoping our youngest potty trains in a weekend. 🙂

Featured image courtesy of Boutique Air under CC 4.0 license.

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.


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.


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!

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