Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Kids (page 1 of 5)

Treating My Daughter to American Domestic First Class

My daughter and I spent last weekend in San Antonio with friends that we met while in Costa Rica on our adoption trip. We and the Minors were in Costa Rica at the same time, adopting our kids through the same agency. We were even staying at the same hotel while in country. They adopted a girl about our daughters age, and the two became fast friends.

Our trip to San Antonio was planned to get the girls together for the first time since all of us have been back in the U.S. (SEE: Planning a Surprise Birthday Trip). The trip was be short and sweet, as we flew out Friday and headed back Tuesday.

During our first flight on the way to the Lone Star State, my daughter remarked how cool it would be to fly in first class. I’d previously told her about my solo trip to Australia and how I’d flown in first class and business class on the two international long-haul flights (SEE: United Polaris First SFO to ICN: A review, AND: Asiana business class review Seoul to Sydney). Obviously, it sounded amazing to her. I had to break it to her that domestic first class really isn’t all that amazing. But it is certainly a step up from economy.

A case of perfect timing

A couple weeks before we booked our trip to San Antonio, I’d accepted a status offer from American Airlines. I wasn’t sure I’d even bother with it, as I basically never fly American, but I decided to jump on it at the last minute before the offer expired. The offer gave me American Gold Elite, the lowest tier status, and eight 500-mile upgrade certificates. The status is only good through September.

As it turns out, the offer worked perfectly for me. The cheapest flights out of Sacramento to San Antonio happened to be on American Airlines, and the status offer meant that I could apply my 500-mile upgrade certificates to our flights. As I ended up booking a flight for work on American Airlines as well, I ended up only applying 4 of the certificates to upgrade one leg of our outbound flights.

Honestly, as I was only a Gold member, I didn’t expect them to clear. Especially given that American A319s only have 8 first class seats.

But amazingly they did. I was excited, knowing that my daughter was in for a treat.

Springing the surprise

Our first class was on time and uneventful. We spent half an hour in the lounge in Phoenix, and then we headed to our next gate. I handed my daughter her boarding pass to scan for boarding. Once heading down the jetway, I asked her which seat she was in.

She told me “1F.” That’s it. Not another word. She had no idea what that meant. I see that I need to teach her some basics about seat numbers. Row 1 is pretty much always first or business class (unless you’re on my least favorite type of plane).

I’ve tried to clue the kids in to the boarding process and general plane etiquette. But they still have very little idea about seating. My son may have put two and two together on this one, but the fact that we were in row 1 didn’t even register with my daughter.

Until we got on the plane, that is, and she saw that Row 1 was the first class section. The excitement was instantly off the charts.

We had a great flight of ~850 miles to San Antonio. While I’ve recently flown United domestic first class on the ERJ-175, this was my first time on American (and it might be my last, as my upgrades on my work trip haven’t been clearing so far).

She enjoyed a glass of ginger ale, a rare treat, and I enjoyed a glass of wine and a nap. Wine consumption for me is pretty much limited to when I’m flying.

It was a real airplane nap, something I haven’t had in a while. I woke up super groggy after 45 minutes as we were coming in for landing. My daughter said I looked like I was dead while I was sleeping and that my tongue was hanging out. I’m going to hope that is mostly her own fabrication.

Conclusion

I had to break it to her that on our return we wouldn’t be flying in First. Can’t get to used to life of luxury now, can we? 😉

Planning a Surprise Birthday Trip

Surprise trips are one of my favorite things to plan. Our honeymoon trip was a total surprise for my wife. She found out step by step along the way until I finally gave let her in on the rest of the plan about a week into the trip. I pulled the same thing on our 2015 trip to Niagara Falls, Toronto and the Canadian Maritimes.

So I’m excited to be planning another surprise trip, this time for our daughter.

Special friends from a special time

When we were in Costa Rica on our adoption trip, we stayed at an extended stay apart-hotel for the entire trip. Well…I guess we took a couple brief excursions (SEE: Hotel Punta Leona Review – Stellar Price for an All-Inclusive). But we were still renting the apart-hotel as well during that time.

The cool thing was, there were two other families adopting through the same agency we were that were in country at the same time. Both were adopting kids around our kids’ ages. But one family was adopting a girl particularly close to our daughter’s age. They became fast friends during our time together at the same hotel, and it was a sad day when we finally headed back to the U.S. and they stayed there to finish up the adoption process.

The girls keep in touch via FaceTime, but it is still tough to be 1,000 miles apart. But little do they know their parents have a plan in the works.

A birthday visit is in the works

As it turns out, their daughter’s birthday just happens to be the Fourth of July. We are unfortunately unable to visit on her birthday as it falls in the middle of the week this year, but we have settled on a plan to get them together this coming weekend.

Matthew, the father of my daughter’s friend, graciously had offered to fly our daughter out to Texas. Kels and I decided that we weren’t ready to let her fly by herself, so I’m headed out there with her. He is footing our tickets one-way, and I used the American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards to get us back.

Neither of the girls know. It was a surprise for our daughter up through the 4th, and a surprise for her friend until we arrive. I definitely can’t wait to spring this one!

The Minors are an adventurous family, and you should check out their Instagram. It’ll be so cool to get back together.

San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront Executive Studio Suite Review

Pros: Fantastic location, beautiful lobby, great loyalty recognition, room had an awesome airport view

Cons: Lounge wasn’t serviced well in the evening

Our final night before we called off our original trip to Europe (which was subsequently re-planned) was at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront. I wanted to be in close proximity to the airport for our flight out the next day, and it was a great option. It would also be the final night for finishing off my Marriott Platinum challenge (SEE: Fast track status: how to sign up for a Marriott Platinum challenge).

Arrival at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront

We didn’t have to travel far to the hotel since we’d been staying in SF for free the previous two nights. There were a couple reasons I wanted to be in a hotel that night. First, I needed to be able to clean the apartment, launder the linens and towels, and tidy up in general, and I didn’t want to rush through all that during our last morning. Second, I wanted the kids to be able to enjoy themselves after two days of being cooped up with just their math books, activity books, a few toys and a couple movies while I was in all-day work meetings. I knew that a swim in the pool would make their day. Plus, I was still split on whether we’d actually head out on the trip and I wanted them to enjoy some part of our excursion to San Francisco.

The most cost-effective option to get to the hotel was (amazingly) Uber from the city. We paid right about ~$30 to get to the airport hotel. BART to the airport would have cost us a hair more, and then we would have had to walk through the terminal and take the airport shuttle. After thanking the Uber driving we walked inside to a beautiful lobby with a great view of the Bay.

san francisco airport marriott waterfront lobby

There was no check-in line when we arrived at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront. I had decided not to check-in early with the Marriott app, hoping to ask for an upgrade to at least a bay view room from which we could watch the planes land. The agent at the front desk said that wouldn’t be a problem and soon we were on our way to the 10th floor with our room keys.

Sweet first impressions

The agent failed to tell me that he had gone beyond just an upgrade to a bay view room; we were given a corner executive suite with a stunning view of both the airport and runways! My kids were thrilled. To date this is the best Marriott upgrade we’d been given, and I didn’t even hold Platinum status (although I do now).

The suite had two queens beds in the bedroom area, which was separated from the living area by a doorway.

The living area for its part was furnished sufficiently, with a couch, armchair and a table and chairs for four.

san francisco airport marriott waterfront suite living space

The best part of all was the view, of course. I’ve already touched on that. Watching planes coming and going at SFO from the comfort of our room was awesome. You can sit and eat (or work) and catch every wide-body that touches down at SFO.

The room had the other typical amenities, like a desk and TV.

Oddly, there wasn’t a second TV in the living area.

Most suites I’ve ever been given have more than one TV if the bedroom and living areas are separate (or a creative solution like this Hyatt House hotel). But this is a small concern to me. We hardly ever turn it on anyway.

I don’t know the occupancy of the suite, but it would have been sufficient for our family of five. With a couch, a table and chairs, a desk and plenty of space, it is ideal for a family. The primary difficulty would be guaranteeing that you get the room, short of paying the $350 the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront was asking that night.

Bathroom

The bathroom was the only awkward part of the room. For starters, the door didn’t lock. This really isn’t an issue if you’re traveling as a couple. But with two of my kids, it could have been a bit awkward. Luckily, the toddler wasn’t along to pull it open on me.

The suite had only a glass shower, which was fine. I actually prefer this. But note that there isn’t a tub, in case that is a necessary amenity for you.

I never really care what the branding is of the bathroom amenities as long as they give you some. The only ones that ever really wowed me were at the Park Hyatt Milan.

M Lounge at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront

Since I have Marriott Gold status, we were granted complimentary access to the M Lounge. Typically, lounges offer a light breakfast in the morning and snacks in the evening, plus some other amenities. The M Lounge offered a good amount of seating.

We arrived a little late, and there wasn’t much to be found in the lounge. They had a few canisters of snacks, consisting of gummies, M&Ms and Chex mix. Not really anything you could even being to call dinner. I prefer when places will at least have crackers, veggies and other light fare that you can eat enough to say you had dinner.

Well…the options here were let the kids eat snack food or go pay for dinner at the hotel restaurant. I did what any dad would do when mom is not around and let the kids eat Chex mix and gummies for dinner. We fortunately also found some yogurt, which ended up being the main staple. I’m sure it was in the cooler as part of breakfast, but I still considered it fair game. Our other choices were milk, butter and a single type of soft drink.

The lounge space itself was nice enough. The one problem was that people continued to come through, and no one was there to either clean or restock any of the snacks.

Finally, just when we were about to leave, an employee came by with more of everything to refill the canisters.

Breakfast

Breakfast in the morning was a bit better in the M Lounge. Selections included eggs and bacon, fruit, yogurt and other items. The selection wasn’t huge, but we found it sufficient.

The one downside was that the place was a zoo. This is the one reason I didn’t take any photos during breakfast. It always feels awkward to me trying to take photos at a hotel or lounge buffet with people all around me.

Alternatively, you could eat in the hotel restaurant. But free food at the lounge with Marriott elite status is a perk. I’m not going to turn it down.

Swimming Pool

If your kids are anything like mine, the most important amenity of a hotel is the pool. We definitely made time for a morning swim.

The pool at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront isn’t very large. But it’s nice enough. There is also a sizable hot tub.

The plus was that we had the pool to ourselves when we visited. We stayed about an hour before heading back up to our awesome suite to watch some more airplanes.

An avgeek paradise

The San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront sits to the south of SFO with enviable views of the airport, runways and bay. It’s in an ideal location for an aviation geek. If you decide to visit, make sure to book a room with a Bay View and/or ask for an upgrade at the desk. The view of the airport is really the hotel’s best feature.

We were in a corner suite on the airport side, so our views not only included runways 28L and 28R, but San Francisco Airport itself. We could watch jets land and take off at our leisure.

Given the dirty state of the windows, the photos aren’t the best.

san francisco airport marriott waterfront view

You could probably get some great shots from the waterfront walk along the Bay in front of the hotel, which is another great spot to hang out. How I wished I had a decent camera to take some photos of the airplane landing action on 28L and 28R.

Final remarks

The San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront is now in the running for best SFO airport hotel. The other one I’m really partial to is the Staybridge Suites San Bruno, where we burnt our IHG free night certificates last year (SEE: Why the “best value” redemptions might not actually provide the best value).  The benefit of Staybridge is that they offer a full breakfast and a better evening reception that can double as dinner. I wasn’t impress with what the M Lounge had to offer.

san francisco airport marriott waterfront dusk view

Still, the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront has a lot going for it, especially given its amazing location near SFO Airport and its runways. For those with a love of airplanes, I’d highly recommend the hotel. Elite recognition was also good, given that we were upgraded to a suite without top-tier Marriott status. I’d happily stay here again.

Europe, Take 2

A few weeks ago I called off a trip to northern Europe with our older two kids (SEE: Walking away from a trip – lessons learned). It was a hard decision, given the investment and excitement we had all put into it. But it was the choice that was needed.

My wife and I talked a lot that week after we got back from our adventure-that-wasn’t-meant-to-be. The older two kids talked a lot with us, too. More than a few times they asked where we would have been and what we would have been doing, had we gone. I tried to keep my mind off it.

After a couple days, we came to the decision that a trimmed down version of the original plan would still work for all of us. I soon found an appropriate window and started the cement in plans once again.

Why we decided to re-plan the trip

The long and short of the matter was that the length of the previous trip was the biggest hurdle. It was originally going to be ~12 days, but turned into 15 based on when I found the cheapest tickets. Then we changed the plan to include a couple days in the Bay prior to our flights out, so the grand total came to 18 days. It was just too long.

So, once we found a window that trimmed the total length down to 8 days, my wife and I were far more settled. Fortunately, the kids tickets were reusable (cash value, although paid with points). Mine actually was, too, but I didn’t get the memo in time for it be of any use for this trip (SEE: Two weeks later, Air France responds to my service request). Prices had gone up since it wasn’t the great sale I’d caught before, but they weren’t terribly more. Luckily, I had a small stash of Delta gift cards (thank you Amex airline credits) that I used to cut much of the additional cost.

The main reason we desired to re-plan an abbreviated version of the trip was how awful of a letdown the last experience was for the kids.

Setting the kids up for disappointment

Life will brings its disappointments. Part of maturing is learning how to handle disappointment, and it is not my plan to shield my kids from this. Experiencing disappointment helps build confidence and resilience. Kids have to learn how to overcome setbacks.

But directly causing significant disappointment to your kids as a parent is a bit different to me. This was all my fault. I’d gotten the kids all geared up to go. We even traveled to the Bay Area to get passports, as the post office was less-than-helpful when it came to figuring out everything we needed to process them (the fact that the kids are internationally adopted was the main complicating factor). I’d set their sights on something, built up their hopes, and then crushed everything at the last minute. Holding my crying kids that day tore my heart out.

I know I’ll fail the kids at times. It’s inevitable. But they also need to know that I’m not going to play games with their emotions. If forces outside my control change our plans, they will have to cope with that. And I hope they understand.

What I want them to understand is that I will follow through on what I tell them we will do. We are also still in a phase of building trust. The kids have progressed by leaps and bounds over the eight months they have been with us. Our relationships are so much different than they were a matter of months ago. We are closer. We understand each other better. Communication and affection continue to grow. But we still have some distance left. I hope that being able to still take them on this adventure will help mend any breach of trust I caused.

Is it worth going overseas for “only” a week?

This is always a question in my mind. Quite a while ago, I would have quickly said “no”. To spend all that time and money (or miles) to head over to another continent for just a week seemed silly. That was at least how I approached our trip to France, Italy, and Ireland last year (SEE: Thirty Days in Europe).

But slowly my mind has changed. An analogous change of mind is whether it is worth spending miles to fly in a premium cabin. I used to think there was no way that was worth it. In most instances, you can fly twice for the same number of miles.  Both of these previous opinions were left in the dust when I planned a five night trip to the land down under (SEE: The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia).

That trip ended up being very much worth it. In any other circumstance, I would have wanted to spend a minimum of 3 weeks to make the trek “worth it”. But given that I spent ~$300 out of pocket for the whole five days, it was a win all around. When you’re not spending a ton of cash for airline tickets, a week trip overseas is actually within the realm of reason. You can easily spend more on two days at Disneyland as a family.

As we are currently on our adventure, I can say that a week will be perfect. It is long enough that we can see a couple different places, yet short enough that they won’t get burnt out. By the end of our 8-day road trip, the kids were definitely ready to get home (although this was most likely a function of how much we had to drive during the last couple days).

Looking forward

With summer upon us, there is not a lot planned on the travel front. June will be the month of dance, then the kids will attend a couple vacation bible school programs and camps during July and August. We will likely pick things up again this fall.

With a pocket (er…AwardWallet account) full of miles, a lot is possible. I’m currently working on a rough schedule of trip ideas for the next couple years. This’ll give us more concrete goals on the earning side, as well as let me burn through points that have been aging for a while. But more on that later. For now, we will enjoy France.

Featured image courtesy of Eric Chan under CC 2.0 license

My Kids Magically Fixed United

Let’s face it…traveling anywhere when you live on the beautiful California Redwood Coast is a chore. I have a love/hate relationship flying out of the Arcata airport. The convenience cannot be understated. But that is when things go smoothly. When things go wrong, and they go wrong far too often, it can be a major pain in the neck (SEE: My Second United Horror Story).

Lately I’ve taken to booking out of a bigger airport if time is of the essence, typically if I am flying across the country for work. But for our recent trip to the Southwest, convenience won.

Flying out of Arcata Airport worth the deal

For our trip to the Southwest, I booked last minute tickets for a steal: $91 and 22,500 Avianca LifeMiles for all three of us. The beauty of this plan was that we got to fly out of Arcata. The nerve-wracking part of the plan was also that we were flying out of Arcata.

Over a total of about 15 flights that I’ve flown in or out of Arcata, no fewer than 3 have been canceled. A solid 20% cancellation rate. That’s horrible. Delays or cancellation have thrown a wrench in our plans enough times that I literally prefer driving to the Bay to fly most places these days.

Given this experience, there was a bit of trepidation as our trip approached.

Wait…this was an Arcata flight, right?

I kept my eye on the United app during the day of our planned departure. The previous legs serviced by our aircraft were on time, so things were looking good. Our plane landed at the Arcata Airport right on time while we were still driving north. It looked like everything would go smoothly. And there was no fog to stop us this time (SEE: My Second United horror story)!

Boarding was quick in Arcata, as the plane was barely half full. Amazingly, there wasn’t any message from the captain stating the SFO tower had requested we stay on the ground. Too often they don’t have a spot for us and the flight gets delayed until SFO air traffic control can slip our landing into the incoming traffic. This time we were off the ground well ahead of schedule.

Maybe it was because we’d taken off “backwards”. On all other flights in or out of Arcata, the everything is operated off of Runway 32. This time we took off in the opposite direction, from Runway 14. This allowed me to get the shot of the airport as we circled around to the west.

Besides a little turbulence, the flight was fantastic. We were even in economy plus, and I had two seats to myself, so there was room to spare. These ERJ-175s are a much better ride than the tiny CRJs. I couldn’t believe it when we arrived in San Francisco a ridiculous 29 minutes early.

This has never happened on any flight I’ve taken out of Arcata. I’m pleased if we are even remotely on time. Had we really just flown the same little route that is so constantly plagued by delays???

I told the kids this was the best flight I’d ever taken out of Arcata. They didn’t seem to care in the slightest. Figures their first time flying outta here would go more smoothly than I’ve ever experienced.

Being treated like we’re in first class

To top things off, the service was ten times better than it’s ever been. While the flight attendants pretty much never offer drinks on the short hop to the Bay, they do bring by snacks. The offering consisted of only pretzels…unless you were my kids. The flight attendant offered them the last two stroopwafels from the morning. Lucky ducks. All they did was munch snacks and stare out the windows.

Then near the end of the flight the first-class flight attendant brought me two more snacks: Oreos and gummy bears. Do kids hardly fly? Or do the Skywest FAs single them out for special treatment? I’ve never really observed either. It’s like they knew we try to limit our kids sugar intake and were working against us.

To top it off, the flight attendant on the plane to Tucson handed me an small bag of Haribo gummy bears for the kids. I didn’t even know they had these on the plane! Or maybe they were her own. I have no clue. I just know people kept handing me candy for the kids, our flights were empty, and far more ahead of schedule than I’ve ever seen them. If this is the new United Airlines experience, sign me up every time.

Conclusion

I’m not sure what happened to the old United Airlines I’ve come to love endure, but this was definitely my best flight ever out of Arcata. And a great start to our week-long road trip.

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