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While I am always happy to share my own traveling stories with my family, there are tons of other great traveling families out there with kids of different ages, different numbers of kids, and who have had different experiences than us. As part of my “Little C’s Traveling Friends” series, I am sharing different families’ stories so we can all learn from their experiences. If you would like to be a part of this series just shoot us an email at email@example.com.
Clay and his wife did not even have their first flight until they were both in college, but since then they have managed to travel all over the world. Once they started a family (and kept growing it!), Clay learned more about miles and points so his family could venture without having to spend a ton of cash.
Tell us a little bit about your family?
My wife Jen and I are about 40 and have been married ten years. We both grew up in small towns and didn’t travel much at all prior to college. In fact, neither of us flew on an airplane until college. I had never seen snow, and she had never seen the ocean! Once we were in college we both made up for it and we lived all over the United States before we ended up in San Diego where we met and got married.
At that point, we were already in our 30’s, so we didn’t wait long to have kids. Still we managed to squeeze in several trips before starting our family. Nothing too crazy, but some relatively easy-to-get-to destinations like Hawaii, Monterrey, Big Bear, Lake Tahoe, Breckenridge, Catalina island, Palm Springs, et cetera.
We moved to Florida for my work and I saved up a ton of Delta miles through that Amex (my only travel card) to get us to Europe just before our son arrived in 2007. It took 5 flights each way, but we got there and back and did a bus tour for 18-35 yr olds through nine countries. Jen turned 35 on the tour, so we were the old married couple.
Fast forward and we now have three kids: Cayden is 6, Hannah just turned 4, and Chika (whom we adopted while living in Japan) is 2.
I am a non-military US government engineer (civilian) and I am currently working on a 3-5 year tour in Japan. Japan is a great place to live with young kids as it’s extremely safe, very polite, and an awesome place to travel around as well as see neighboring countries. We live in the suburbs which is about an hour from everything…Tokyo, the ocean, and the country (Mt Fuji). We had Cayden in an international preschool when we first got here and he is now in fully Japanese elementary school. He’s the only gaijen (foreigner) out of 900 students that attend his school.
How has your traveling pattern changed (or not changed) since you have had kids?
We used to stay in B&B’s and do lots of activities each day. We didn’t care about the number of connections as long as the flights were cheap. Now we stay mostly at hotels with suites and preferably a kitchen (or fridge at least), or vacation rentals/condos. We really enjoy vacation rentals that are kid-friendly like the one we stay at in Kauai. It includes a pack-n-play (crib), high chair, stroller, kid’s floats, and even baby wipes. This really reduces the stuff we have to bring with us all the way from Japan.
We learned on our first family trip to Breckenridge that activities are very tough to do with young kids. I had plans to hike, mountain bike, etc., but almost none of that happened. Now we focus on chill time at the pool or beach and some light activities. If we do a hike or spend time at the beach, we realize it won’t last longer than 1-2 hours. I took another person’s advice from your blog and we limit big activities to no more than one every other day.
When flying we avoid connections if at all possible. Even a short 45 min hop from LAX to SAN is painful after a 11 hour flight from Japan. The kids just don’t understand having to get back on the plane after a long flight. I know some families like red-eyes so the kids will sleep, but our kids get way too wired when flying and they DO NOT sleep. As a result, we avoid red-eyes if at all possible.
Where all have you traveled with your children, and what have been some memorable experiences on some of those trips?
Since Cayden was born we have traveled to: Breckenridge, San Diego (4 times), Key Largo, Tybee Island, Savannah, Hilton Head, Orlando/Disney, Cocoa Beach, Japan (home now), Okinawa (2 times), Kauai (2 times), and Oahu. Cayden and Hannah have flown transpacific 12 times (most before Hannah turned 3).
In 2011, when we left for Japan. It was just weeks after the tsunami, and our friends and family thought we were crazy. It was a rough travel day in many ways. For the long Dallas to Narita flight we were squeezed in middle seats among a group of 70 college students who bought tons of liquor from the duty free shop and the plane became a bar. My wife breastfed Hannah while a girl sat in the lap of the guy beside her.
We spent almost 6 weeks in a hotel in Japan looking for a house, and I brought the family on two different four week work trips to the States. As a result, the first year after we moved to Japan we racked up a total of 3 months as a family living in hotels.
We moved to Japan with the plan to enjoy the adventure, not just sit tight and save money. As a result I took the family on two separate work trips to San Diego in 2011 and 2012 (which cost us a ton). We love Hawaii and it’s a great way to get to the states with 1 nonstop flight and “only” 8 hours. We met up with grandparents in Kauai in 2011 and we flew Space-A (free military flight) to Oahu in 2012. In early 2013, our lives changed forever when we were blessed enough to adopt a little baby girl (Chika) from Japan. The adoption process required us to not leave Japan until it was finalized and that took over a year. We still managed to vacation on Okinawa and drive down to some beaches in Japan. We finally got her passport in March 2014 and immediately planned a trip to the States.
What are some tips for traveling with kids that you have learned along the way?
We learned from a bad vacation rental in Breckenridge to always use TripAdvisor or similar ratings. They have a category where you can look at reviews from families and we always check those. It has paid off many times.
Also, we go out of our way to stay in hotels with a door to the bedroom (Embassy Suites, Residence Inn, Hyatt House). It makes it easier for the kids when getting over jetlag as well as allowing us to stay up after we put the kids down instead of us all going to bed at 8PM.
We have learned that for the kids under 2, the carseat is great to have on flights as it provides a certain comfort level to be in their own seat. We bring our heavy Britax seat as it is what they are used to, but it is very heavy to lug around the airport. We bring a Jet umbrella stroller and gate check it. I advise other parents new to travel to not let their toddler run the aisles. It is a very short term gain in peace because eventually they will bring out the drink cart or turn on the fasten seatbelt light and the toddler will not understand why they can no longer be free and roam the aisles. I also bring our Ergo baby carrier (like a Baby Bjorn) so I have a way to walk around with the baby without killing my back. I use it to get the little one to sleep and avoid the crying.
For seats, we prefer bulkhead seats if available, or the very back of the plane where they tend to seat other families. It’s more relaxing to be surrounded by other parents who understand and don’t give us the stink-eye if our kid cries for 5-10 min before falling asleep. Always call the airline and ask about the bulkhead seat and bassinet if traveling with an infant. They often block that area off for parents of young kids and you may get lucky.
How do points and miles figure into your family travels?
Before we had kids we used Delta miles earned with the co-branded Amex to travel to Europe. It involved taking 5 flights to get to London with our limited miles. After we had kids we just gave up on the idea.
We kept accruing miles when we traveled between the US and Japan and used those to do a short trip to Okinawa for the family. It wasn’t until I met a coworker who is a points/miles guru that I really started researching credit card sign up bonuses. We have signed up for 10 cards or so in the last 6 months and earned roughly 500,000 miles and points.
We put them to good use on our recent trip to San Diego and Kauai. We saved a ton on lodging in San Diego and we got to experience the hotel of a lifetime at the Grand Hyatt Kauai using points. I used 150,000 Chase points to book 9 award nights at the Hyatt House in San Diego and 7 nights (points/cash) at the Grand Hyatt Kauai.
We stayed the last 8 nights in Kauai at a condo with the grandparents. Knowing I was going to spend a lot of nights in Hyatt hotels, I did the Diamond Challenge (now not available in the same form) and booked my Mom a neighboring room in San Diego to meet the 12 night minimum. We used a suite upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Kauai and when we arrived, they upgraded us to a top floor oceanfront suite. We were just doors away from the Presidential Suite! Our lodging only cost us about 10% of the going room rate and we saved thousands!
We chose the Grand Hyatt Kauai based on a Mommy Points review and it was the most amazing hotel for kids. After that hotel stay, Jen and the kids are now fully on board with the point chasing! With a family our size, using points for air travel is difficult, but they are great for lodging. Hyatt points are an incredible value and now that we have Diamond status, we will be staying there whenever we can. I also like having the points/miles in case an emergent trip to the US comes up, or to help fly the grandparents out to Japan. I am very excited about trying to get the Southwest Companion Passes when we return to the States. It sounds like a great way to redeem points for air travel for large families like ours.
What future trips are on your horizon?
We are currently trying to plan a trip to Guam and I already see there is a Starwood and a Hyatt there so we have point friendly options. This year is probably our last year in Japan so we plan to make the most of it. I hope to utilize the perk of being able to fly Space-A on military flights more this next year. You have to be very flexible, but it can save a ton, and it can be more comfortable than first class in some ways. On the cargo planes they let you sit/lie anywhere you want… on the floor, in a sleeping bag, you name it!
My main advice to people new to flying with young ones is to just accept the fact that it may be one of the hardest days of your life, but it is just one day. That day will pass and you will be somewhere beautiful or interesting on vacation. My mindset is that if you set your expectations very low, it can only improve!
Once you get one long travel day under your belt, you know you can do it and it gets easier to plan the next trip. Traveling with the kids is totally worth the stress. Our kids have experienced things that they will remember the rest of their lives, and have gained an appreciation for other cultures and countries. That is something that never would have happened if we gave in to one bad travel experience and just stuck to nearby road trips.
Thank you so much to this awesome family for sharing their story and we look forward to hearing about more about their traveling adventures!