Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Life (page 1 of 4)

A Full Travel Year: Reflecting on 2018

Every year I like to take stock of where we went, what we saw, and the amazing experiences we were blessed to have. I ended up taking the kids more places than I anticipated this year, including two international trips. The older two have been great travelers, and I hope to have many more adventures with them. Soon enough their younger brother can be added to the mix as well.

Disneyland!

We kicked off the year with a trip to Disneyland in southern California. I’m blessed to have a coworker whose sister works for Disney. She was able to get us all in for close to free one of our two days. We also stayed at the Disneyland Resort, thanks to my in-laws, something I never thought we would have done. I was looking at points hotels close to the park for our stay.

Disney is the sort of vacation that makes you want to take a vacation, at least for me. The kids had a blast, but there is *so* much to do and see that we ended up running ourselves ragged. But they had a wonderful time, which is what matters the most.

Our week-long road-trip across the Southwest

When I initially called off our first planned trip to Europe, I decided the older kids and I would still spend a week away, but enjoying our own country. Given that spring is the best time to visit the Southwest, and there are amazing rental cars deals available, we hopped on a plane to Tucson and made our way back to California day by day. Stops included Saguaro National Park, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Lake Tahoe.

The road trip was a blast. Sadly, I’m not quite done with those trip report posts (Overview). Even though the two had previously gotten car sick frequently [SEE: Trying (and failing) to help our kids with their constant carsickness], they did amazingly well on this long trek. I’m not sure how often we will road trip, but I’d like to work that into our plans now and then. Most of the time I think about traveling to some far-flung place, when there is still plenty to see and experience close to home.

Paris and Luxembourg

I ended up deciding to rebook a shorter version of our European adventure that was amenable to everyone. Instead of being gone 19 days, we would keep it to 8. This meant we’d really only get to spend six days in Europe, given the long plane rides each way. We could have spent all that in Paris and still not seen everything, but I decided that splitting the time between the French capital and the small principality of Luxembourg would be most ideal.

I’m infatuated with small countries, and Luxembourg was as interesting as every other one I’ve visited (SEE: 5 Reasons to Visit San Marino). The kids and I had a blast exploring the old city. The highlights of the trip were still back in Paris, though. The Eiffel Tower was everyone’s favorite. Except for climbing the stairs. The kids will always remember how I made them hike the tower.

Quick trips with the older kids

Summer brought two shorter trips, my first solo adventures with each of the older two. My daughter especially liked how we got upgraded to first class on our way to San Antonio to visit her friend (SEE: Treating My Daughter to American Domestic First Class).

When it was my son’s turn, I settled on Atlanta, mainly because of the great summer deal I came across, and the fact it cost us barely $7 out of pocket for the flights. But I’d never visited the city, and I figured it was as good a city as any to explore. Sometimes you chase specific destinations, sometimes you just let the deals take you places. We had an amazing time at the Delta Flight Museum and the Georgia Aquarium. Our downtown Atlanta accommodations were also pretty swanky, not to mention free (SEE: The American Hotel Atlanta Review).

Experiencing China

The capstone trip of the year was definitely our adventure in China. This was my first time visiting Asia, and it was an incredible experience on the whole. We spent 5 days sightseeing in Beijing, taking in the history of the Chinese capital. Standing on the Great Wall was probably the highlight for me (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 3 – Mutianyu Great Wall Excursion). It is a truly incredible experience.

Then we traded cold northern China for balmy Hong Kong for a few more days. This eclectic city is like no other I’ve ever visited, and it is just the sort of place I’d love to stopover in for a couple days at a time. From the food to the hustle and bustle to the exquisite skyline of the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island, I hope to come back. We had our first Michelin-starred dining as well: a dim sum restaurant that set us back about $25 for all three of us. Cheap and delish.

Conclusion

Now that the year has drawn to a close, I’m looking forward to a travel-filled 2019. We have more than a couple trips in the works, including a quick getaway over New Year’s. More on the rest of our adventures later. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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.

Reflecting on Our 2017 Travels

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

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

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

 

Australia in summer

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

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

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

Vancouver in winter

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

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

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

Banff in spring

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

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

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

Solar Eclipse in Summer

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

Costa Rica in autumn

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

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

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

The nerdy statistics

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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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