Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Family (page 1 of 2)

6 Years Since our First Miles and Points Trip

On the first day of July my wife and I celebrated our 6th wedding anniversary. It’s crazy to think that we have already been married that long. Six years and three kids later, things are very different than they were when we were first married. But I’m sure that is the story of most married couples.

A honeymoon to remember

Today I find myself reminiscing about our honeymoon, a two-and-a-half week adventure where we spent thousands of miles on a train and saw the majestic mountains of Colorado, the sleepless streets of New York, and enjoyed fresh seafood and live music in laid-back New Orleans. It was a trip that we could not have and should not have afforded, save for one small detail: it was the very beginning of my travel hacking. You can read some of my original retelling of how the trip came to be in a previous post.

I do regret a couple things. Well…regret isn’t the right word; I just wish I would have had a better understanding of how eager issuers were at the time to sign anyone with a good credit score up for new credit card products. Hotel credit cards were off my radar. If I’d only picked up one, we may have had a much nicer stay in New York.

Rest in Peace, amazing Amtrak deals

The heart of our trip was made possible by two cards: the Chase Amtrak Mastercard (no longer issued) and the Chase Sapphire Preferred. In the “good ol’ days”, Amtrak was a Chase transfer partner, and a lucrative one at that. This was back when Amtrak still issued awards based on zone and not based on the cash cost of a ticket.

We were able to get $3,500+ worth of first-class train travel for all of $70. It’s rare that I can pull that much value from two card offers these days, but some trips come close (SEE: The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia).

These deals are long gone. You can still get an Amtrak card, sometimes with an elevated 30,000 point bonus. That is still a recipe for a decent trip in a sleep car on a long-distance train, but it is nothing like it used to be.

Looking forward to when my wife and I can get away again

One of the most difficult things about jumping into parenthood has been the lack of time as a couple. This also translates to the inability to get away as a couple. We know this will change eventually as the kids become more grounded and we feel comfortable leaving them with our parents for a couple days, but we are not quite there yet. And even then, we won’t be able to do it often. My wife and I do fondly remember the trips we were able to take as a couple and how glad we are that we had those opportunities. I know we will have them again someday.

Walking Away from a Trip – Lessons Learned

I’ve been pretty silent of late, which has been primarily because of how busy work has been over the past month and a half. But added to that has been two weeks of deliberation over whether we would take a trip, or simply walk away from it. But now I finally have a bunch of thoughts to pen.

The travel hacking hobby allows us to do so much more than we otherwise could. My wife and I have had the ability to travel often during the past couple years, and I have started taking our older kids on quick getaways now and then, our most recent being to Sacramento. We also visited Disneyland, and while there is really no way to make a trip like that close to free, we were able to cut a good chunk of the cost.

Sometimes this means I try to plan “once-in-a-lifetime” trips at a fairly regular pace. I’d say we could do it on the order of once per year if I play the points game well.

Planning a trip to Europe

Back in February I broached the subject of taking the older two kids to Europe. In our initial conversations, my wife seemed supportive of the idea. It would give her needed time to plan a few aspects of our household that we hadn’t gotten to since the kids had been home.

I was initially looking at a 12 day adventure, but then upped it to 15. Our previous longest trip was four full days, so this is definitely a step up. After locking the flights in for a grand total of $0, the hotels easily fell into place over the next several weeks, all on points. We were looking at a completely free vacation in terms of lodging and air travel.

Fast-forward to a mere 2 weeks before the trip, and the misgivings are setting in. My wife is feeling conflicted about us all being apart that long. I had already told the kids, and the ball is rolling to get passports before we go (having adopted kids delayed and complicated things paperwork-wise, so we ran out of time). I decided to play things out and see if we would both come to consensus on the idea.

The departure day finally arrives and we say goodbye in Santa Rosa. The older two and I finish the journey to the city by bus. I’m feeling conflicted at this point, but I had other pressing concerns (work in the City being one of them), and decide to press forward and keep discussing things as we go.

Walking away at the last second

After spending the weekend in the Bay with the kids (while also working…definitely a difficult mix), we came down to the very day of travel. We woke up in a hotel with amazing views of planes taking off and landing at SFO, and the kids were super excited. I was not.

I’ve rarely felt so conflicted about anything. The trip was a big mess of various concerns. I had pragmatic reasons for planning it, those being giving mom time with the little one and time to get a bunch of household stuff done that she has wanted to do for literally months. But my wife wasn’t 100% in agreement with the idea. It was simply too long a time. That should have been enough to easily call it off, except I kept coming back to the big factor on the other side: the disappointment the older two would inevitably feel. How could we bring them this far along and then pull the rug out from under them? I simply didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t a precedent I wanted to set with them. At the very bottom there was the personal reason of me loving to travel, plus the fact that I knew we would lose some miles and cash should we cancel.

In the end, I finally pulled the plug. There was no other option. The moment of clarity came way too late.

What was the damage? Well….it could have been much worse than it was. I didn’t know this would be the case, but I got the two kids’ tickets back in the form of a Delta voucher for $464 each that is good anytime in the next year. This salvaged the roughly 66,000 Ultimate Rewards points I burned on them. I’m still waiting to hear back about my ticket (booked separately), but my guess is that it is a total loss. The 13,100 points I spent on the Norwegian Airlines intra-Europe flights are a total loss.

We also have to factor in the cost of getting expedited passports, the last minute cost of traveling home, and one hotel cancellation that may result in a charge (remains to be seen). I was technically a few hours after the cancellation deadline. All in all, the loss will be about $700 worth of points and maybe $300 cash.

The real damage was having to tell the kids we weren’t going to go. Getting them excited and working toward that goal as a family for the last two weeks just made it all that much harder. This was the main reason I had deliberated so much, since I didn’t want to face them and tell them this. There were tears, of course, and questions about why. I cried with them. The trip didn’t really matter to me at all any more. Seeing them hurt did. I had set them up for major disappointment. My heart still aches.

But in the end, I believe it was the right choice. This was simply too much for all of us.

Lessons learned

With fare sales, transient award availability, and other deals in constant flux, the typical motto of those who like to travel hack (or just cheaply) is “jump now and figure the rest out later.” While possibly good in some cases, this isn’t always the best advice. Our initial discussions about the trip idea had been during a period where I could take advantage of a great fare sale, and they were far more abbreviated than they should have been.

Our takeaway from this is that both of us need to be completely sure about something before I go ahead plan it. Especially a mostly non-refundable plan. And more especially if there is any way we could let the kids down. I know this isn’t always avoidable, and life will bring disappointment, but this could have been avoided in our case.

My wife and I are in agreement on most things. She and I both want her to have a break from time to time, and she needs time to plan things for our house. She is a very “all or nothing” person, and needs large chunks of time to be able to accomplish some things. Kids, especially our very needy adopted kids, make this nearly impossible. She was looking forward to an open week in which she could get a lot done. What she wasn’t looking forward to was being apart for so long. It took me too long to face the reality that I need to honor her emotional needs above all other concerns, even pragmatic ones and the emotions of the kids.

We’ll have another chance

This was my attempt at a consolation for the kids. The Eiffel Tower will still be there. We can ride the canals of Amsterdam and walk the streets of Bruges a different time. We may have an opportunity fairly soon, or it could be years from now. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to go other places as well. This didn’t stop the tears, but I made them a promise that I would take us to Paris some day, and hopefully all five of us will go.

The beauty of this hobby is that making a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip is not as hard as someone trying to save cash to do it. Walking away from one doesn’t hurt quite as bad, either. I’m thankful this wasn’t a case of shelling out $4,000 on a non-refundable trip and then having to pull the plug. It hurts to lose point and miles, but at the end of the day, my forfeited ticket was free. Completely free. I didn’t even pay a credit card annual fee for the points.

Conclusion

Everything about this was an important lesson. We have other trips in the works, which I’ll lay out in a separate post, so we also have something to look forward to. We may pencil a couple more in this summer, but right now my wife and I are reassessing our next couple months. I’m also taking a much needed week off since that was already the plan. It’ll just be the first time embracing the stay-cation.

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.

Conclusion

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!

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…

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.

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