Flying with discount airlines and on basic economy tickets

One thing that I see over and over again in my travel groups is that people don’t quite understand how discount airlines and basic economy tickets work. I wanted to write a quick post explaining this to help people understand that with a little planning, these can be a great deal!

When frequent travelers talk about “discount carriers” versus “legacy carriers” we are distinguishing between two types of airlines. In the USA, the three main legacy carriers are American Airlines, United, and Delta. Southwest and JetBlue are somewhere in the middle between legacy and discount, but for purposes of this article I am going to focus on the “bare bones” of airline tickets, which in the USA are Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant. Note that other countries and continents also have their legacy and discount carriers, with similar differences, but these are beyond the scope of the post.

The reason why Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant offer such incredible deals on flights is because their business model is that you pay for a seat but anything else is extra. This includes your seat assignment (choosing where you will sit), a checked bag, and a carry-on bag. Spirit even charges you to print your boarding pass at the airport, however if you check in online it’s free. Also when you fly these planes, expect to have very thin seats with a tray table about the size of a paperback novel. Oh and if you want soda or snacks in the air you need to buy them, but water is free.

In the last few years, the legacy carriers have jumped on the bare bones flying bandwagon and now offer “basic economy fares” with most of the same limitations as the discount carriers. If you buy one of these tickets, you do not get to pick your seat in advance. You can bring a carry-on for free and get the same beverage and snack service in the air. You also do not get a free checked bag when traveling overseas and you forgo any ability to upgrade.

I am a big fan of both the basic economy tickets and the discount carriers, because frankly I don’t care that much about luggage or leg room. I much prefer to spend as little money as possible on a ticket.

When we fly on a discount airline where we have to pay for a carry-on, we try to pack everything into one carry-on for all of us, and then put a lot of our stuff in our personal items, which is usually a Jansport sized backpack. I have also on occasion just packed everything in my personal item. If you google “personal item luggage” you can find specially made luggage that fits the personal item dimension restrictions for most of these airlines, although I tend to just use a back-pack.

If you think there is no way you can do that, I assure you can! Packing cubes and rolling your clothes make a huge difference. Check out my page on packing for other ideas. It helps to think about what you really need and if and how you can do laundry at your destination.

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The magic of packing cubes. Three people in one carry-on for three days

The seat assignment is no big deal to me if I am traveling alone or even with other adults. It can become tricky when traveling with kids. What tends to happen is that parties who are booked together will be seated together, even though the airline can not guarantee this. I spent about 10 minutes on the phone with a Frontier representative recently because it was unclear whether their policy is to sit children with their parents regardless of a paid seat assignment. While it was clear he was not allowed to tell me over the phone that we would be seated together, he assured me I should not worry about it, and chances were extremely high we would be seated together. If we were talking in person I am sure he would have been winking at me. So that is something you may have to take your chances on, but some of the airlines do have policies stating that they will not separate parents and children, even on basic economy tickets.

If you do feel that you want to pay for a seat-assignment or luggage, you can use on of the credit cards, such as several from American Express, that will offer you a certain amount of “airline incidental fee” reimbursement to pay for these add-ons and you will get reimbursed as one of your perks (the Platinum, Gold, and Hilton Honors Aspire cards all have this, and it offsets the annual fee). The problem here is you have to pick a “preferred airline” each year and you can only use this reimbursement for that airline, so choose wisely.

I think if you know what you are getting into, and you know how to pack light, these fares can be an awesome way to get somewhere you want to go, cheaper.

Amsterdam, Ghent, and Paris!

Flights to Europe have been incredibly inexpensive this past year. Now, much of that is for off-peak travel (i.e., non-summer). However if you use google flights explore you can probably find round trip flights to many destinations for under $500.

My husband and I really wanted to get back to Europe and we were pretty open to the destination as long as we could find flights under that $500 range. Since we would be going over the summer break, it was a little trickier, but I managed to find round-trip flights direct from JFK to Amsterdam for $500 on Delta basic economy.

Just a heads up about Basic Economy or Economy Light. These are the tickets that the legacy carriers like Delta, AA, and United sell for less than a regular economy ticket. They are meant to be similar to budget airlines like Spirit or Ryanair. It is carry-on only, no seat assignment, and no upgrades. I love to book these flights, especially when I travel solo because I never check a bag anyway, I never have status for upgrades, and I don’t usually care where I sit since I’m short (i.e., leg room is not an issue for me). So for me it’s a no-brainer.

When I first booked the tickets I asked the kids if they would be ok sitting next to a stranger if it meant we could go to Europe and they both gave a resounding “yes!” However, as the day came closer they started to get cold feet. Since we were actually flying on a KLM plane and they have a policy of seating parents and children together, even on basic economy seats, I was pretty sure we would be seated together. However they cannot guarantee this if the flight is full. Delta did just start a policy allowing people to play for seat assignments on Basic economy up to 7 days before their flight, so I ended up doing that for $28 a person to ensure we sat together.

For our lodging we decided to go with Airbnb again. The hotels are pretty pricey this time of year and we just love Airbnb. It’s so nice to see what it’s like to live in an actual neighborhood and to spread out in a multi-room apartment.

The trip

The kids had a half day for their last day of school, so as soon as my youngest was dismissed at 11:30 we picked him up and headed down to JFK airport. The drive was actually totally fine and we ate sandwiches in the car. Good thing we saved money that way because what happened next at the airport ended up costing us.

Our flights didn’t leave until 10pm but we wanted to get to the airport 4-5 hours early in case we hit any problems driving down or driving through the city. We got to the park and fly lot around 5:30 and to the airport around 6pm.

I had really wanted to see the new TWA hotel at JFK. It’s meant to be an homage to 60’s era air travel, and so it’s all designed in a mid-century modern style (even the workers are dressed up in vintage TWA outfits). I made us reservations in advance for the pool bar and the sunken lounge, but when we got up to the pool bar we were told we would have to leave our bags at the front desk  It was really hot out and the kids didn’t have bathing suits so they didn’t want to hang out there, but I did manage to snap a few pictures.

 

 

We then thought about hanging out in the sunken lounge but we were all hungry so we thought we could go instead to one of the Priority Pass lounges or the restaurant that gives you a credit with your PP card, Bobby Vans in Terminal 8. However when we got to the air-train the kids and my husband were nervous about going all the way to T8 when our gate was at T4, so we decided to stay at T4 and just pay to guest the kids into Delta sky lounge. My husband and I each have Amex Platinum cards that get us into Delta sky lounge as long as we are flying Delta, and the kids would be $29 each. However I knew that if we paid for food for all of us at airport prices it would be way more than $58, so this sounded like a good deal to me.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans…

We went through security at the TSA precheck line and it moved fairly quickly except they flagged my 8 year olds backpack. No big deal, we’ve been flagged before randomly for a quick hand search. Well apparently his bottle of powdered miralax set off the “liquids” alarm in the x-ray (he has been needing to take it every night and we didn’t want to worry about finding the same thing in Europe). Next they swabbed the bottle and it set off the explosives alarm!?!

The TSA agent asked whose bag it was and my husband said it was my son’s. He said someone needed to get patted down, it didn’t matter who, so my husband volunteered. They swabbed his hands, and the explosives “alarm” went off again. I seriously think their equipment was malfunctioning.

At this point we had been standing there for 15 minutes at least. I know TSA agents have a crappy job, and they’re not all bad. In fact the ones if our home airport at SYR are always awesome, but these workers…well, let’s say efficiency and timeliness were not their priorities. Thank goodness we had given ourselves plenty of time, if we had gotten to the airport in the normal amount of time we may have missed our flight!

They patted down my husband, went through my son’s bag, took my husband to a private room to pat him down again, and then had to call the explosives expert to check out the miralax. When he finally got there he ran it through the x-ray again, checked everything else out, and finally let us go on our way.

The priority pass lounge, Wingtips, was right near where we were at security but I had heard from friends it was sub-par so we decided to stick with our original plan of the Delta sky lounge. We walked all the way down the terminal to get to it. When I went to check in, the agent told us that unfortunately we could not get in because we were flying KLM, even though it was a Delta ticket! I was so annoyed. My husband really wanted a lounge for he WiFi because he had papers to grade for his online class, so we hoofed it all the way back to the Wingtips lounge over by security. When we got there there was a sign out front that said “Priority Pass not accepted tonight.” Strike 2!

We were so hangry at that point we just bit the bullet and went to the first airport restaurant we could find. My husband and I needed a stiff drink fast, and we were all starving. Of course, they were out of 60% of the items on the menu. And…our bill was $180 (with tip). I’m not kidding. For two chicken sandwiches, a salad, a chicken tenders appetizer, fries, and some drinks. Ughhhh!!!! Well, I guess that’s the karma I get for bragging to everyone that I haven’t paid for airport food in three years due to lounge access.

The plane was a 747 and kind of old. It had in flight entertainment but my headphone jack was semi-functioning. We didn’t take off until 10 and I really wanted to get some sleep so I took some meds and it was lights out. Luckily everyone slept but it’s a relatively short flight to AMS so before you know it they were waking us up and serving breakfast.

Amsterdam

We landed at Schiphol airport around 11:15am and customs was a breeze. We followed our Airbnb host’s instructions to get to our apartment in the de Pijp neighborhood near the Albert Cuypmarket and we arrived there around 1pm. She was very gracious and had us put our bags in her flat on the first floor while she finished getting ours ready. While we waited we walked around the Albert Cuypmarket and got some street food, including huge stroopwaffels for the kids.

I discovered this market on my first trip to Amsterdam and loved it! Not only can you get local and other ethnic foods but there are several great fabric and sewing stores, plus other random items you might need. I also really loved the de Pijp neighborhood which is out of the very touristy parts of Amsterdam but still walking distance. It’s a pretty lively place with lots of young people and outdoor cafes.

 

 

Our Airbnb was on the 4th floor up extremely narrow and steep stairs, which are pretty common for Amsterdam. The apartment itself was adorable, with a little balcony and a loft sleeping area for the kids.

 

 

After we settled in and rested for a bit we walked over to the Van Gogh museum for which I had bought tickets ahead of time. Since I had been there before I walked through it quickly with my 8 year old who was a little bored so my husband and older son could spend more time. It’s a nice museum in that it organizes much of his work chronologically so you can see how he developed as an artist as well as how his struggles with mental illness affected his work and his relationships (they have many of his letters to friends and family on display).

 

Afterwards we walked over to a Dutch restaurant I had booked online with the Fork, an app similar to Open Table that seems to be used more widely in Europe. Because I booked with them we received 50% off the meal! We were eager to try some Dutch food (which actually isn’t super common in Amsterdam), so we got bitterballen, herring, and stampots, which were meat over mashed potatoes and vegetables- Dutch comfort food!

 

After we walked around a bit we headed back to our apartment. Our host left us wine, beer, coffee, eggs, stroopwaffels, and crackers. This is  not unusual and another reason I love Airbnb’s. The good hosts often go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. Unfortunately between the jet lag and the fact that the sun doesn’t set until almost 11pm, we had a hard time getting to sleep.

The next morning we had tickets for the Anne Frank House at 11:15 so we walked around for a bit and took pictures of the canals. My son read her diary a few months ago so he was excited but also nervous that he would be sad. When my husband asked me to look on my phone to see where it was, my son remembered from the book and said, “it’s 263 Prinsengracht!”

 

Sure enough, he was right, and we made our way through the museum and annex with the audio tour, which was very well done. I had been here before, however it was just as moving as the first time. It is also very well done, if a little crowded.

Afterwards we headed over to the cafe, Winkel 43 for some sandwiches and their famous apple pie, which was out of this world! Next we walked toward the center of the city to see the main square and palace. We decided to pop into the Museum of Amsterdam which gives an overview of the history of the city.

 

We then walked back to our Airbnb and had some snacks and drinks on the terrace while the kids rested. Our Airbnb host graciously offered to babysit for us so we could go out alone. So we took the kids over to Febo, a Dutch fast food place where you can actually get some things out of the vending machine.

With the kids safely in the house with our host, my husband and I went over to one of the local cafes in de Pijp for a beer. We then had a fancy steak dinner with wine, because you know, no kids. After this we walked up to the red light district since my husband had never seen it. There was also a small red Light District district at the end of our street (Govert Flinckstraat if you are interested). The red light district is definitely something to see if you are in Amsterdam but the neighborhood gets really loud and annoying at night. We didn’t stay very long.

The next day we got up early to do an early morning canal boat tour that I booked through Airbnb experiences. The boat had about 15 people plus the captain and was very comfortable. He also served us coffee, tea, juice, pastries, and stroopwaffels as he gave us a tour of the city while talking about it’s history and how the city had changed since he was a kid growing up there in the 80s. He said they have really cut down on the drugs and prostitution since then. He also showed us how they integrate public housing into the nicer neighborhoods, which also cuts down on crime.

 

After our boat tour we walked over to a pancake restaurant, Moak, and then went to Rembrandt’s house, which was very nicely preserved as he would have lived there.

 

Later we went back to our apartment to rest for a bit and got some street food at the Albert Cuypmarket for lunch. My husband and older son both had herring broodjes (sandwiches), but my younger son and I opted for frites (fries). We then walked over to the Rijksmuseum, the large museum which houses many of the Dutch masters paintings, including “the Milk maid” by Vermeer and “Night Watch” by Rembrandt. We saw a good portion of the museum and then my husband and older son wanted to go to the MOCO modern art museum that has some pieces from Banksy and Warhol. My younger son was pretty museum-ed out, so we hung out on the grass in front of the Van Gogh museum and played games until they were done.

 

That night for dinner we got some Surinamese takeout near our Airbnb at a place that our host recommended. It was ok but we were not huge fans.

Ghent

The next morning we went to the train station and took the Thalys train to Antwerp, which was about an hour, and then we boarded a local train to Ghent, about 30 minutes. It was very hot that day. We had dodged the bad heatwave that hit Western Europe a few days prior, as it never made it to Amsterdam, but this was the tail end of it.We checked into our Airbnb, which was a gorgeous, large, brand new two bedroom apartment. It had a washer and dryer, a huge bathroom, large beds, Netflix, and a balcony. It was pretty awesome to be able to spread out. And it was the cheapest Airbnb of the trip!

 

After we checked in we walked into the historic city center and got our bearings. After we explored a bit we had a very nice dinner on the patio of a great Belgian restaurant. We got to try some unique Flemish dishes such as chicken in pastry and fish stew, and of course we had some beer and waffles for dessert! It was nice to let the kids run around the square while we enjoyed our beers. The town square has a little amphitheater and there was a folk singing duo singing American songs, such as “Sound of Silence” and “Rawhide.” There was a large audience singing along with songbooks. It was pretty funny to watch Europeans sing this American folk music!

 

The next day we grabbed a quick breakfast and met up with our free walking tour. That lasted about 2 hours and took us to all of the historical sites.

 

After our lunch of Flemish beef stew and McDonald’s chicken nuggets (two stops), I really wanted to check out the Dr. Guislain museum which is housed in the first asylum in Belgium, so we walked over there after lunch. The main exhibit was on the history of psychiatry and then they had some really cool outsider art exhibits. The kids were a little freaked out so we took the tram back to town and then took the boat tour that was included in our Ghent city card. This is a really great deal, and if you go to Ghent it is definitely worth buying. We bought two 48-hour passes for my husband and myself, because kids get in most museums for free. It includes admission to all of the museums and historic sites, one boat ride, and free tram and public transportation. It easily paid for itself with two museums.

 

After the boat tour we got some more Belgian waffles and eventually made our way back to our apartment to chill out for the night.

 

The next morning my son and I purchased food from the grocery store for a few breakfasts, saving some money on eating out. After we ate we walked over to St. Baavo’s Cathedral to view the famous Ghent altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers in the 15th century. It was stolen by the Nazis and eventually returned to Belgium, dramatized in the movie, “Monument Men” with George Clooney. We also went up to the top of the Belfry and got some amazing views of the city.

 

Next we did the tour of Gravensteen castle, a 12th century castle built by Philip of Alsace. They have an audio tour that takes you through the various rooms done by a comedian who cracks some jokes throughout. It was pretty cool to be in a real castle that old, and we again got some great views of the city.

 

Our lunch was fries with gourmet toppings and of course more beer. We took a museum break for a little shopping. The kids found a cool toy store and I found a great fabric store with lots of amazing European apparel fabric, most on sale for 30% off!

 

Afterwards we visited the Ghent Museum of Design which had an interesting exhibit with various artists’ interpretations about what will happen with the meat industry over the next several decades as well as traditional design exhibits such as furniture.

 

Finally we landed at the House of Alijn museum. The building used to be a children’s hospital but is now a museum showing every day life in Belgium, which was pretty interesting. It is also geared towards children so has lots of interactive exhibits.

 

For dinner we went to an all-you-can-eat ribs restaurant called Amadeus. It was an interesting concept. They just keep bringing you racks of ribs and baked potatoes. Luckily they let us pay the child price for the kids but still brought them extra food.

Paris

The next morning we packed up and caught the local train to Brussels where we were going to catch our Thalys train to Paris. We accidentally sat in 1st class but the conductor was super nice and let us stay there as long as the kids were quiet (which, thankfully, they were).

When we got into the station at Paris we decided to take a taxi to our Airbnb in Le Quartier Latin (the Latin Quarter). We had some trouble retrieving the key and getting the door open but fortunately some really nice Parisiennes helped us. In fact, I found everyone we came across in Paris to be super nice and helpful! It definitely bucked up agains the stereotype of Parisiennes being rude.

This was my least favorite Airbnb as far as the space, mainly because it was on the first floor so did not have a balcony. But it did have a washer and dryer and air conditioner, and the location was unbeatable. It was steps away from Rue Mouffetard, which is a mainly pedestrian street with lots of bistros and shops. Right outside our door there was a fromagerie (cheese shop), amazing bakery, wine stores, a great little bistro, and more. You could not beat the location.

 

We were pretty close to the Pantheon so after we settled in we walked over there and checked it out. It was cool to see the tombs of Rosseau, Hugo, and Curie. Next we walked over to Jardin de Luxembourg. The kids loved watching the little sailboats in the fountain. Afterwards we walked over to a children’s playground. You did have to pay a small entrance fee but the kids had fun running around while we rested.

 

We had crepes for dinner and delicious gelato for dessert along the Rue Mouffetard.

The next morning we took the metro to the Louvre where we met our guide who I had hired through Airbnb experiences. She set up a family scavenger hunt, and had little notebooks for the kids where they had to complete some tasks such as finding certain things, and they received points for the task. She also taught us about the artwork as we went, and she was amazing at zooming us through this monstrous museum to all the highlights, such as the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, Psyche Revived, the Raft of the Medusa, and Liberty Leading the People, among others. She also took us on a brief tour of the old castle section, as well as the section housing the apartments of Napoleon III. There is no way we would have been able to find all of these famous works without her, so for that alone she was absolutely worth it. She also kept our 8 year-old engaged for the whole three hours though the activities she offered. I highly recommend hiring a guide if you are going to attempt the Louvre. It is so huge and hard to navigate, as we learned after the tour when we tried to view some of the exhibits on ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

We spent about 5 hours total at the Louvre and were pretty exhausted, but we decided to walk home along the Seine and try to see some of Notre Dame, which unfortunately had been damaged by a fire several months ago. The kids were excited to see the Font des Artes bridge, where people used to put locks on the railing to symbolize their love, however they were disappointed to find most of the locks gone and replaced with plexiglass. When one of the railings started to fall down the city took all the locks off work lock cutters and put up the plexiglass to discourage the practice. You could still see locks on the lampposts and at other spots alone the Seine, however.

It was cool to see Notre Dame even though much of it was blocked off. We stopped at a cafe for some ice cream and eventually made it back to our Airbnb. We had a great little dinner at the bistro around the corner, including duck, French Onion soup (gratinee), and creme brûlée for dessert.

The next morning we took it easy and had some leisurely coffee and pastries by the Airbnb. We were so fortunate that apparently the best bakery on Rue Mouffetard was right around the corner, so we got breakfast from there every morning.

Next we took the metro over to the Eiffel Tower and took some pictures outside. We had heard that going up in it isn’t really worth it, so we skipped that and walked over to the Arc d’Triomphe and the Champs Elysee. From there we took the metro to the Jewish quarter. My great grandparents were Polish Jews living in Paris in the late 19th century. I am not sure where they lived but we assumed it was somewhere in this neighborhood. We saw some cool Jewish butchers and bakeries and had lunch at a deli.

After this we walked over to the Bastille monument and along the way we stumbled into Place des Vosges, the first public square in Paris, which is now a very relaxing city park. The older architecture was incredible.

We then walked up to the 11th arrondisement, to Atelier des Lumineres, a large gallery space which features immersive digital art and sound installations. Basically you walk into a large warehouse room where they are projecting moving images along the walls and floor. The current exhibit featured the work of Van Gogh, and had two smaller shows, one of Japanese art and one about the universe. It was pretty incredible and so nice to get out of the heat and rest a bit. If you want to get a better sense of what it was like you can visit their website here: https://www.atelier-lumieres.com/fr

I would absolutely recommend this if you are visiting Paris. It was also pretty nice that they happened to be featuring Van Gogh after we had just been to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, so the kids could identify his works as they appeared.

We were pretty tired by this point so we took the metro back to our Airbnb. We let the kids have some iPad time while we went over to the bistro next door for some beer and people watching. Later we walked up the street to have crepes for dinner and walked around the Latin Quarter a bit. Finally we hit the sack at our Airbnb.

Back to Amsterdam

The next morning we of course hit up our local patisserie for some last minute pastries, and then we took a cab to the Gare du Nord train station. That was pretty easy but unfortunately our train back to Amsterdam was delayed about 45 minutes. We got off near our airport hotel to drop our bags, and then took the train back to the city center.

We had wanted to visit the maritime museum because we heard it was great, but by the time we got to Central Amsterdam it was already 4:20 and the museum closed at 5pm. Instead, we walked over to the rooftop terrace at the science museum, NEMO, to get a bite to eat and chill out for a bit.

This is a very cool kind of slanted roof on the waterfront with a decent view of the city. They have a restaurant with fresh, tasty, and inexpensive food, as well as a bar. Plus there’s a few science-y fountain type things for the kids to play with. It’s also free to the public. This is a great place to go and chill out a bit and have a drink while the kids play.

After we relaxed there for a bit, we walked over to the Artis zoo which has a museum all about microbes. It was open late and also appealed to my science loving son. It was a little pricey but pretty cool. You can look through various microscopes to see bacteria and other microbes as well as other exhibits.

We strolled back to central station and took our train back to our hotel. The next morning we got up early and had breakfast there as they had a great spread and we headed over to the airport. We ended up checking some bags since I had bought fabric and wine, and I was able to get four free checked bags with my Delta credit card. And the best part…on our full flight, the seat next to me was empty! So for the price of a basic economy ticket I got the whole row to myself to stretch out. Great way to end the trip.

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Yaaasss!!!

Impressions

It was a fabulous but exhausting trip. All that city walking and sightseeing can really wear you out! I was happy to be able to get back to Amsterdam since my first trip in 2016. It is definitely one of my favorite cities of all time. It’s beautiful, the vibe is chill, the people are nice, it’s got great food and lots to do.

We liked Ghent but it would have been cool to take a day trip to Brugge as well. We could have done this easily on the train however it was just too much moving around for the kids so we decided to stay in one spot. You could definitely see most of the highlights in a day, and the Ghent city pass is absolutely worth it to get into the museums. I loved the Belgian food and beer and this was also our best Airbnb – it was huge!

In two and half days we only got a small taste of Paris. I would love to come back and spend a week. I have heard people get disappointed by Paris because it’s so dirty and crowded, but to me it was just a large city, like New York, just…French. Having grown up right outside of NYC, the big city vibe doesn’t bother me, in fact it feels pretty comfortable. We found the metro easy to use. I also found that everyone I met in Paris was super nice and helpful. I definitely didn’t come across any of the rudeness that they are known for.

I also loved the location of our Airbnb in Paris, right off Rue Mouffetard in the Quartier Latin. Every morning we could grab fresh pastries and in the evening my husband and I could relax with a a drink at the cafe while the kids stayed in the apt because it was only about 200 feet away. I was also happy to see my French came back pretty well (I took 5 years in high school and college). I could pretty much understand everything written and about 50% of what was spoken. If I see a cheap flight to Paris in the future my husband may have to hold me back from booking it…

The kids did ok but definitely got some museum fatigue. I loved having the Airbnbs to be able to go back and rest in our own spaces. Overall, another fabulous trip!

Retro post: Road Trip Through the Yucatán

In January 2016 we took a 12 day road trip through the Yucatán peninsula with our then 5 and 7 year olds. We had been to the island of Isla Mujeres (off the coast of Cancun) with them twice as toddlers and were ready to venture out further into the Yucatán for some more adventures.

We left a few days after Christmas and since we were visiting family in NJ we flew out of Newark. We made sure to pack light with one carry-on each (and during the trip I still felt we still had too much stuff!)

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Our flight connected in Charlotte and was delayed, so that we missed the connection. Luckily they were able to rebook us for about an hour and a half later, and we arrived in Cancun in the late afternoon. We headed over to the easyway car rental company. I had done a lot of research about renting cars in Cancun, as the internet was full of horror stories. Much of what I read suggested to stay away from the companies that sound like typical US companies, such as Alamo, and that they lure you in with the promise of a cheap daily rate and then pile on the extra insurance. I read that easyway was a local company that was more trustworthy. I also read that the rental cars have special license plates that make them easier to spot for shakedowns, whereas easyway doesn’t use those plates.

We finally got our very, very basic car. There was not even a cigarette lighter to charge our devices, and headed out on the toll road to Merida, a 3 hour drive. The road is pretty well maintained but flat and boring. We were exhausted so the kids fell asleep and we finally got to Merida around 7pm. We checked into our cute little hotel, in the traditional Spanish style with an open courtyard in the center, and then walked over to a nearby plaza that had several restaurants. The plaza was lively with lots of outdoor seating, and we ate at a burger place before finally crashing back at our hotel.

The next morning we walked around the city and the kids took pictures with the go-pro cameras they had gotten as gifts for the holidays. They ended up taking some really amazing photos! It’s cool to see the little details they focused on, whereas the adults are used to taking pictures of the large things, like historic buildings. I felt that their photos give an even more authentic view of Merida.

The architecture and colors are gorgeous in Merida, but it got hot quickly so we went back to the hotel for a dip in the pool. That afternoon we took a cab to El Gran Museo de el Mundo Maya, which had some excellent exhibits on the ancient Mayans. That night we ate dinner at a great traditional restaurant, which in was the house where Andres Quintana Roo once lived.

The next day we headed out of the city a little bit to take a tour of an old sisal plantation. Sisal is a fiber used for ropes made by a plant similar to agave, and the region was once booming with this industry. The tour was well done, and after the tour they showed you around the plantation and took you via a small train thing our to the cenote on their property! This cenote was underground in a cave, and it was so much fun to splash around! After that they offered us a Yucatecan lunch which was delicious, and we headed back to the hotel.

That night was New Year’s Eve and we learned that it’s actually a fairly quiet holiday in Mexico as most people celebrate at home with their families. We decided to take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the city and we got to see some gorgeous mansions all lit up. Afterwards we headed over to the famous restaurant, La Chaya Maya, which has traditional Mayan food. The food was delicious but the service was awful. There were two ladies right next to us making homemade tortillas, yet our server never brought us any! Talk about a tease! The kids were exhausted and my oldest literally fell asleep at the table, so we had a quiet New Year’s drinking wine in the hotel courtyard after the restaurant.

The next morning we checked out of the hotel and took the slow road to Valladolid, through little Mayan villages. We drove through Valladolid and up to the ruins at Ek Balam. These ended up being my favorite ruins of the trip. They had a large temple you could climb, and the site was not very crowded at all. They also had their own cenote you could bike to but it was getting closer to evening so we headed back to our hotel.

We got to our lodge, Mayaland, in the early evening. This is a large property that abuts Chichen Itza, so they have their own back entrance to the ruins! You can even see the observatory right from the hotel lobby. We ate at the hotel’s buffet dinner which was fun because they had traditional dancers for entertainment. After dinner we went for a night swim in one of the hotel’s pools and then to bed.

The next morning we woke up early and had breakfast before getting into Chichen Itza right when it opened. It was so nice to be there before the big crowds came in the tour buses. As we headed over to the big temple, Kulkulcan, the crowds grew larger and the heat got more intense, but it was truly breathtaking to see the temple in person, as well as many of the other ancient structures. By mid-day the heat and crowds started to get pretty bad, so we drove a few miles into the town of Piste. There is a cenote there run by a collective of Mayan women, cenote Yodkoznot. It was an open sinkhole-style cenote and they had steps going down into it and also offered life vests. It was not very crowded, in fact we even had it to ourselves at one point!

We also ate lunch at their little restaurant and the food was absolutely delicious. After we rested that afternoon we drove back into town to have dinner at one of the little restaurants and we let the kids run around the town plaza for a bit.

The next morning we drove back to the town of Valladolid and had breakfast and walked around the town square. It was a very cute little town and I would have liked to stay longer but my youngest was having a meltdown after he dropped the onyx jaguar he got at Chichen Itza and it broke.

We drove about another hour south to the ruins at Coba and everyone seemed to be in a better mood by then. These were the oldest ruins we saw on the trip and definitely impressive. There are two main areas separated by about a mile, which you can walk or hire a bicycle taxi to pedal you over. We chose the latter, which was a good choice because the bike driver also functioned as a tour guide and he taught us some Mayan words. You can also climb the main pyramid at Coba but the kids were too scared to, so I stayed with them while my husband climbed to the top. He said it was exhilarating.

After a quick lunch at a restaurant near the ruins we drove out to the beach town of Tulum where we had rented a beach bungalow for the next 6 days. Our bungalow was in a little cluster of about 5 other bungalows on the property and was on the beach, about 40 feet from the ocean! We also found out via Facebook that friends of ours were in town so they met us on the beach and the kids made a beeline for the water.

We loved our little bungalow however we were a little annoyed but how Tulum was laid out. There was the main little Pueblo about 5 miles from the beach, and then a small road along the beach with jungle restaurants and boutique hotels on either side of the road. The road was jam packed with cars, taxis, and bicycles, so it took forever to get anywhere.

We spent the next several days enjoying the beach and exploring the town a little. The ruins at Tulum were nearby so we headed over there one morning. This was my least favorite site as it was very small and very crowded. Although the scenery was gorgeous as they are perched on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. If you plan to check these out I would recommend going first thing in the morning before it gets too crowded.

One of our favorite experiences at Tulum was going to Zine, a dinner and a movie restaurant in the jungle. They had a receiving area where you choose your movie and dinner, and then they take you to a private screening room with a large movie screen and comfy chairs and cushions. They brought you popcorn and drinks while you waited for food and when that was ready they quietly brought it in while the movie played. One side of the room was a screen door so you could see and hear the jungle while you watched your movie. We had a great night and never would have expected this type of place in the jungle! Sadly, I don’t think this place exists anymore.

On one of our last days we drove over to Xel-Ha, a large “eco-park” where you can go snorkeling, tubing, zip-lining, and cliff jumping. We took tubes through a mangrove forest into the main lagoon, and then the kids practiced snorkeling. We also bought the “all inclusive” package where you can eat at the breakfast and lunch buffets and drink at the bars. Unfortunately later that evening my kids both felt sick and started vomiting. We finally got them to sleep and then I spent a miserable night with my head over the toilet as well. It seemed that we had gotten food poisoning. Well at least the kids and I, my husband was spared.

The kids felt better the next day but I was wiped out and just laid on a lounge chair on the beach. The day after that we finally started making our way back to Cancun for an early evening flight home. On the way we stopped at a little zoo called, Crococun, which was fun for the kids as they got to pick up and pet some of the animals.

After that we dropped off the rental car and boarded our flight back to the US!

The verdict

Overall it was a fabulous trip. We love the people and culture of the Yucatán and it was great to see some cities such as Merida and Valladolid, as well as have some time at the beach. As I mentioned, my favorite ruins were Ek Balam and I would have liked to have spent more time in Valladolid and some of the other small towns.

We were not big fans of Tulum. The beach was beautiful but the restaurants along the beach road were very over-priced and seemed to cater to the boho-chic set. The prices for food in the Pueblo were a little better (still expensive for Mexico), but you had to drive into town, and as I mentioned, the one road in and out was always clogged with cars and bicycles, making the ride into town super annoying. So while I would return to Merida and Valladolid, and I would like to explore some more of the Yucatán, I probably wouldn’t do a return trip to Tulum.

We also thought it was a great trip for kids! They loved the ruins, the beach, and Xel-ha (despite the food poisoning), were all fun for them. Mexico is known for being very child and family friendly and we definitely found that to be the case on this trip.

New Orleans!

The Planning

I have been to 44 of 50 states and the only state I haven’t been to east of the Mississippi is Louisiana. I have wanted to go to New Orleans for so long but the opportunity never presented itself. This year the school district decided to give a full 4 day weekend for Memorial Day sand New Orleans was definitely on the short list for a trip we could do quickly.

For the flights I booked one ticket using some delta gift cards I had bought for my Amex Platinum airline reimbursement, my Delta companion pass benefit (with the delta platinum Amex card), and some Delta sky miles. For the hotel, after searching lots of reviews I chose the Drury Inn because it had a pool, seemed family friendly, had suites, and offered free breakfast and a managers reception (more complimentary food and drinks). I booked this hotel using Chase Ultimate Reward points.

The Trip

Our flights out of Syracuse left at 6pm, so we got the kids out of school right at dismissal on Wednesday and drove straight to the airport to make use of our Priority Pass restaurant credit. Priority Pass contracts with some airport restaurants so that you get a certain amount of $ credited per person to your bill (usually $28). This is particularly useful when you are at an airport with no lounges (like our home airport), or if you are in a terminal with no lounge nearby. They add restaurants frequently so always make sure to check your PP app to see what lounges and restaurants are available where you are.

Unfortunately, the only place with the credit at our little home airport is Johnny Rockets. Fortunately they recently added a bar. So we were able to order $112 worth of food and drinks for free (before you think this is a ridiculous amount for Johnny Rockets, remember this is an airport restaurant so the prices are incredibly marked up). We came pretty close to the $112 mark but didn’t quite reach it.

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After we felt thoroughly disgusting from all that grease, we went to our gate and boarded our flight to Atlanta. At ATL we had a two and a half hour layover so we headed over to the PP lounge, The Club. With it being a holiday weekend, the place was pretty busy but we were able to get in. We were still pretty full from Johnny Rockets but the kids ate some snacks and my husband and I ordered some drinks.

We didn’t leave ATL for New Orleans until 11pm, so when we landed we were exhausted. We took a Lyft straight to our hotel and checked into our suite. It was pretty nice with a sofa bed for the kids and a separate bedroom with a king size bed.

The next morning we slept in a little and then headed downstairs for the free hot breakfast. This was one of the reasons I booked this hotel. They had a huge hot buffet with sausage, biscuits, and gravy, eggs, and waffles, as well as pastries and fruit. After eating we walked over to the French Quarter. It was about 10:30am and already so hot. We found our free walking tour guide and then did an hour and a half walking tour through the French Quarter and St. Louis cemetery. I’m a big fan of the film Easy Rider, so as I walked around the cemetery the song, “Kyrie Eliason” kept going through my head as I remembered that iconic scene with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda having an bad trip with two prostitutes (to be honest that song was in my head throughout the trip!) I also learned from the tour guide that you have not been allowed to film in that cemetery since that film was released, specifically because of that scene, which they filmed without permission from the church.

 

 

After our tour we headed over to a great little restaurant, Napoleon House, which is known for their Pimm’s cup cocktails and Muffaletta sandwiches (said to be the best in the city).

 

 

We were so hot and tired by this point that we headed back to the hotel to take a dip in the pool and rest in the a/c. At around 5:30 we headed back to the breakfast area as they offer a nightly happy hour where you each get 3 (weak) cocktails and can eat from the buffet. They had hot dogs, baked potatoes, chicken fingers, nachos, soup, chili and other snacks. It wasn’t anything to write home about but definitely great for the kids to fill up while the grownups enjoyed their cocktails.

A friend of mine happened to be in NO for work that night, so she met us at the hotel and we walked down Bourbon street with the kids. It was still pretty early but my oldest said it was too loud and “everyone’s drunk,” so my husband took the kids back to the hotel to go to bed and my friend and I went over to Frenchmen Street for dinner. We went to this great jazz club/restaurant called Snug Harbor and had a delicious meal. The band that night was actually a teenage ensemble and they were amazing! We listened to them for a bit and then walked around some of the artisan markets on Frenchmen before heading home.

 

 

The next morning after breakfast we walked down to Cafe du Monde to try their famous beignets and chickory coffee that I have been hearing about for years. There was of course a line but it actually moved really fast and before you knew it we were popping those hot delicious sugar pillows into our mouths. So incredibly good!

 

 

After that we walked over to 1850 House and took a tour of one of the apartments in the historic Pontalba building that is set up to look as it would in the mid-19th century. Following this we walked around a bit more and visited the antique weapons store and then the Historic Preservation Museum. This museum is free, stretched over two buildings, and really well done! I highly recommend a visit if you are in NOLA. The first building took your through the history of the city. The staff was so nice and helpful and got some scavenger hunt type worksheets for the kids, which my 8 year old loved. In the 2nd building across the street they had an exhibit on the French quarter, an educational exhibit with things to touch and smell for the kids, and a modern art exhibit.

 

 

After this we were getting hungry so we decided to head over to the Treme neighborhood to check out the famous, Willie Maes Scotch House for fried chicken. Our one mistake was actually walking there from the French Quarter. It’s only a 1.5 mile walk but in that heat and humidity it was brutal. Plus when we got there we had to wait in line for about an hour (they do have some shade and free water bottles in coolers while you wait). We didn’t eat until about 3pm, but it was so worth the wait. It was definitely the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, plus lots of great southern sides such as Mac and cheese and fried okra.

 

When we were done we took a Lyft back to the hotel and the driver had an adorable puppy with him that we got to snuggle with in the backseat as the driver gave us more suggestions for things to do in the city.

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When we got back to the hotel we rested and then had our cocktails and snacks again. After that we decided to take the street car through the garden district over to an ice cream place that our Lyft driver recommended. It was fun to see the old southern mansions from the open windows of the old-time trolley.

 

The ice cream place, Creole Creamery, did not disappoint. They had a ton of great flavors such as “A chocwork orange,” lavender honey, and Thai basil coconut. After our ice cream “dinner” we walked over to Magazine Street which has some shops and restaurants but my youngest started whining so we took a Lyft back and put the kids to bed.

Later my husband and I went out to walk around the French Quarter and get some drinks. It was fun except Bourbon street was honestly pretty loud and gross (we literally had to step over puke, and that was only at 9:30pm!). We decided to finish the night with a sazerac from the famous bar of the same name in the Roosevelt hotel. It was sublime.

 

The next day we headed over to the aquarium after breakfast. It was very nice with some great exhibits but it was rather small so we finished the whole thing in about an hour. Afterwards we took the riverfront cable car down near the French Market. We tried to have lunch at the famous jambalaya place, Coops, but the kids weren’t allowed in (over 21 only). So we walked through the French Quarter to the oyster place, Felix’s. My older son tried his first raw oysters, and he was not a fan!

 

We had bought the Audobon Experience pass which gets you into the aquarium, the insectarium, and the zoo, with one imax movie pass as well. So after lunch we walked over to the insectarium and spent about an hour there.

 

Following this we headed over to the Steamboat Natchez, the tourist-y steamboat that will take you up the Mississippi a little bit. I had bought tickets ahead of time using Chase ultimate rewards points. Another perk of using these points is you can us them to book activities such as this, and even museum tickets. I’m glad we didn’t pay anything for the tickets because to be honest, the boat was pretty hot and crowded. It was cool to see the engine room and the paddle wheel, and to get up river for a bit.

 

We were so hot when the trip was over, luckily we docked right next to the aquarium and so we were able to duck into the imax theater to use our movie passes to see a film called “Hurricane on the Bayou,” about Katrina and how the destruction of the wetlands and the construction of levees actually contributed to the level of devastation.

That night after the kids went to bed my husband and I walked around the warehouse district which was near our hotel. We checked out the popular restaurant Cochon, but we couldn’t get in (and reservations were full for the rest of our trip). Luckily they have a sister bar next store called Cochon Butcher, which had some delicious small plates and cocktails.

 

On the morning of our last day we took a Lyft to the zoo. I was worried it was going to be too hot to walk around but they did a really nice job designing it so that most of the paths were in the shade and they had several indoor (air conditioned) spaces throughout. We walked around for about 2.5 hours and then were pooped and took a Lyft back to the hotel.

 

Next we walked down towards the National World War II museum which was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. We hadn’t eaten lunch yet so we stopped at this great place called Auction House Market which was like a high end food court. It had a bar in the center and then various food stations around the perimeter serving various things such as empanadas, dosa, Thai street food, etc. It was a great choice for us because everyone could get what they want and we could eat quickly.

 

The WWII museum was pretty epic. It was fairly crowded since it was Memorial Day weekend, so that was the only downside, but despite the crowds it was still an incredible place. They did such an amazing job walking you through the details of the various battles such as D-day and Midway island. They interspersed text with film and artifacts, as well as recorded oral histories from veterans. We also got to see a little write-up of my grandfather’s unit in Burma, “Merrill’s Marauders.”

 

I cannot recommend this museum enough. If you do get to go, you should allot plenty of time to see it all, at least half a day and if you spent a full day there you would still probably be fine.

Following this we had the kids eat dinner at the hotel’s happy hour and when we got them settled in bed my husband and I went out to dinner at Muriel’s in Jackson Square for our anniversary. The meal was ok but then afterwards we got to meet up with friends from my travel hacking group for a drink in the French Quarter. We had a great time chatting travel and points with them and then headed home to bed.

 

For our last morning we walked back down to the French Quarter. We had wanted to check out the pharmacy museum but it was closed so we went to the voodoo museum instead. We walked around a bit more so my older son could pick out a souvenir, which he found at the flea market.

It was getting so hot that we decided to just head to the airport a little early and hang out in the air conditioned lounge. Since my husband and I both have the Amex Platinum and we were flying on Delta, we were able to go into the Delta sky club. We technically had to pay $29 for each kid, but the clerk only charged us for one! They had a great spread, including muffaletta sliders, pasta salad, chicken salad, jambalaya, hummus, cheese, crudité, and treats, so it was worth it to us to pay the $29 to have free food and drink and a nice air conditioned place to rest before our flight.

The verdict

I loved New Orleans, but man was it hot! And this was only late May! I would love to go back when the weather is cooler. I liked our hotel for the free meals for the kids and the location. The French Quarter was fun but crowded. Their free history museum was great. The highlight of the trip was definitely the World War II museum. If we went back without kids I would make sure to do more historical activities, go to some jazz shows, and spend more time at the WWII museum. I’d also skip the steamboat. There is definitely stuff for kids to do there but they also limit what you can do. The food, of course, was amazing. Overall a fun trip in a city that definitely deserves more time to visit.

Grand Cayman!

The planning

Last year I took the kids to Florida for their spring break and Delta called me a few months before our trip and asked if we would change our flights for 30,000 miles each. Of course I changed the flights (to ones I liked better than our originals) and we banked 90,000 skymiles! I also had what I call “puke miles” from our unfortunate luck sitting in seats near or where someone puked on our Delta flights to Spain and home from San Miguel de Allende. By combining all of those points o was able to book three round trip tickets for the kids and I to Grand Cayman for their February break.

For lodging, I looked at Airbnbs. Similar to Turks and Caicos, Grand Cayman is known for being crazy expensive, and I just couldn’t afford the hotels. Plus as always I love having the space and amenities of an Airbnb. I found two that I liked and was really torn. One was right by the famous Seven Mile Beach, and had a washer and dryer, which is so helpful on a beach trip with kids. The. second was further down the island, closer to Rum Point, right on a snorkeling beach (and you know I love snorkeling) and had a pool! Which to choose?!? I decided to just book both and do three nights in the first one and three nights in the second. That way we could do the 7 mile beach attractions first and the other side of the island second. The only downside was paying the Airbnb fees twice.

Originally my husband had to work that week but in the Fall when he got his teaching schedule for the spring, he ended up only teaching one class on Mondays and Wednesdays and the rest online. I asked him if he would want to fly out and meet us on Tuesday, that way he could teach Monday and only miss one class that week. He agreed. I ended up getting him an AA basic economy flight Tuesday morning from Syracuse to Grand Cayman using Chase ultimate rewards. I was also able to get him on our same return flight home on Delta – I even got him seats next to us! I honestly can’t remember how I booked it but I think I used Delta miles and I may have transferred some from Amex membership rewards (I need to start writing some of this down!)

The Trip

The kids and I spent the weekend in NJ and then drove out to the Philadelphia airport after lunch. We were able to pop into the Centurion lounge and get another bite to eat before our flight to Atlanta. I had the kids find the gate as I am trying to teach them to read airport signs and learn how to navigate themselves. Our flight to Atlanta was uneventful and we were able to take the shuttle to the airport Hilton Garden Inn, booked with 20k Hilton Honors points. In the morning we enjoyed a free hot breakfast thanks to my Hilton Honors gold status and we took the airport shuttle back to the domestic terminal, and the international shuttle all the way to the international terminal (the ATL airport is SO HUGE!)

At Atlanta we had time to visit the Priority Pass Lounge, The Club at Atl, for some more refreshments, before we boarded our flight to Grand Cayman. Everything was on time and we landed around 2pm, went through customs, and got our rental car. We made it to our Airbnb around 3, after driving on the left, eek! It was a nice and clean two bedroom apartment in an area called West Bay, on the west end of 7 mile beach, away from all the big resorts.

We were starving so we went to a little restaurant for lunch and chatted with the Australian server for a while who gave us some local tips. I was prepared for food to be expensive like it was in Turks and Caicos. So while our lunch was delicious it ended up running us $75 US with tip!!! We had to make sure to hit up the grocery store soon.

After lunch we drove about 5 minutes to a beach called “Cemetery Beach” because it’s behind a cemetery. It wasn’t crowded at all and the kids swam while I watched the sunset. After heading back to the Airbnb to clean up I went to the grocery store for some supplies ($43 US, not too bad actually) and we had an early night. The kids liked this Airbnb because there is a big TV in their room with Netflix and YouTube on it.

The next morning my husband was to board a 6am flight in Syracuse with a connection in Charlotte to get to Grand Cayman around 12:30pm. He texted me in the morning saying he was at the airport and the flight was delayed for an equipment malfunction. He eventually took off about an hour later, but while he was en route to Charlotte I was biting nails as he only had 10 minutes to make his connection! Turned out he made it with 5 minutes to spare. The kids and I went back to cemetery beach for a little snorkeling before he arrived, and we got caught in a torrential downpour!

The sun came out, literally and figuratively, after he arrived. That afternoon we returned to the same beach and snorkeled for a few hours. Did I mention this happened to be my birthday?? That evening we fed the kids at home and hired a babysitter that our Airbnb hosts recommended. My husband and I went out to a fancy dinner at an Italian restaurant. Everything was fabulous. The food, the view of the moon over the water, the service…it was a wonderful ending to a great birthday.

On our third day after breakfast we visited the Cayman Turtle Farm, which was only about 4 minutes from our Airbnb. They are a turtle breeding farm and while they do release some of the turtles into the wild, they mainly sell the meat as it is a local specialty. In their informational video they said this keeps people from poaching turtles in the wild. They had several large tanks of turtles and some touch tanks where you can pick them up. They also have an entire other section where you can snorkel with turtles and swim on their pool which has a waterslide. That would have been an extra $100 however, so we decided to skip that part.

One helpful hint if you are in the area. A lot of the tour excursions from the cruise ship show up around 10am, when we did. If you want to avoid the crowds, go later in the afternoon after these folks have gotten back on the ship. We left after about an hour and a half and ate lunch at a nearby restaurant on the water. After that we rested and then later we headed back to the turtle farm for about a half hour since our armbands got us in all day (and it was much less crowded this time). Then we had some more beach time and dinner at home.

After dinner we headed over to an upscale shopping area (almost all of this part of Grand Cayman is upscale), called Camana Bay. It was fun to walk around and we got some delicious gelato. The kids had fun running through a fountain, and they got soaked!

The next morning after breakfast we drove to the office of the boat tour company for our trip out to Stingray City. We took a shuttle bus to the boat and they drove us out to Stingray City. This is the quintessential Cayman activity. The story is that the fishermen used to stop at this sandbar to toss their scraps, and so the stingrays started hanging out here once they realized there was food. Now hundreds, of not thousands of tourists flock here each day on tour boats, in order to kiss and hold these ultra calm sea creatures. We anchored in a circle with about 10 other boats and there were already hundreds of people in the water. That plus the choppy water that day made the experience somewhat stressful. You could stand in the water but the sea was pretty rough so you were treading water for a lot of it. The guide holds a stingray and gathers his group around so that everyone can get a turn kissing the stingray, getting a “back massage” from it, and feeding it. Although it was definitely a circus act, it was pretty cool to hold one of these guys up close. My youngest was very scared so he stayed on my back the whole time and then I went back on the boat with him while my husband and oldest son played with the stingrays for a little longer.

After about 20 minutes they gathered everyone up and then we stopped at two snorkeling stops. Unfortunately because the water was so choppy the snorkeling was tough. The guide even said he normally goes to the barrier reef but it would have been to difficult to snorkel so he picked another spot. I did manage to get some good videos, including some of more stingrays.

After our boat tour was over we went to a burger place for lunch and then we drove down to the east end of the island to our next Airbnb. This place was in a condo complex right on the beach and it had a really nice pool. The ocean view from the balcony was spectacular! The condo itself was nice too, with 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, and a fully equipped kitchen. We spent the afternoon hanging out at the pool and we ate dinner at the condo.

The next morning after breakfast we drove north to check our Starfish point. This is a little beach all the way on the northernmost tip of the island. In the crystal clear water are a bunch of starfish. Afterwards we headed almost next door to a place called, Rum Point. It was highly recommended in everything I’d read about Grand Cayman, but I was a little disappointed that this beach was pretty much a tourist trap. It’s a private beach club and so you can use their beach loungers but you can’t bring in any outside food so that you would only buy from their restaurants. I wish some of the guidebooks had mentioned that because we brought our own food!

There is a little public beach right next door so we camped out there for a bit and ate our picnic lunch. The water was very calm and shallow. There wasn’t much of a reef but a lot of sea grass. I did buy us each a mudslide from the bar as they supposedly invented them here. I have to admit they were pretty delicious.

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The place itself was packed with tourists so we left after lunch and headed back to our condo to rest and swim in the pool for the afternoon. We had dinner at a little place called “the Czech inn” (run by, you guessed it, a Czech).

On our last morning we decided to go back to Rum Point to swim, since the water was too rough at the beach near our condo. We stopped at “the Blowholes,” an area of rock and coral where the water spews up like a geyser when the waves come in. We then drove all around the north end of the island and back to Rum Point. It was actually much less crowded this time which made it more enjoyable. You can sit in their beach chairs and unlike other beaches I’ve been to, they don’t make you buy a certain amount of food and beverage to use them. The coolest thing about it was we got to see two sea turtles swimming in the water near the dock!!!

After a swim we headed back to the condo for lunch, and once we ate and showered we drove over to the Pedro St. James castle, a national historic landmark. This was actually a really cool site, inexpensive, and we were the only ones there! They first show you an multi-media film about the history of this building and the Cayman Islands. It was so elaborate, we actually felt like we were on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney. They even misted you with water during a “lightning storm.” Afterwards you could tour the grounds and the Pedro St. James Castle, the oldest and largest building on the island, which has been restored to look as it had in the 18th century when it was built. The whole museum was very well done and we learned so much about the island.

Afterward we went to their bar and did a rum tasting and talked to a local to learn even more about how the island has changed since the 60s with the massive development of the last 40 years. On our way home we stopped by a great jerk stand for our only reasonably priced meal of the trip, and the kids got to have one last swim in the condo pool. The next morning we left at 5:30am to head back to the airport! Good bye Grand Cayman!

My review of our trip

I had read somewhere that Grand Cayman is kind of like South Florida, and I agree, it was definitely the most developed Caribbean island I’ve ever been to. There were lots of strip malls, high end stores, and no shortage of multi-million dollar homes. It was a little weird to be amongst all that money, but the upside was that everything being so developed made for nice roads and easy amenities. We also did meet some locals and they were very nice. The island has an interesting, insular history and lacks the problems of its neighbor Jamaica, although apparently the boom in development has led to an influx of immigrant workers which has led to some issues for the locals.

The beaches were gorgeous and there were lots of opportunities to snorkel, although the reef did not seem very healthy. We also got to interact with a lot of wildlife such as the turtles, stingrays, and starfish. The island was quiet and easy to get around. You could see most of the major sites in a few days.

I wasn’t sure whether splitting our time between the two Airbnbs was a good idea or not, but in the end I’m glad we did. It’s only about 20-30 minutes between the West End, (where our first Airbnb near Seven Mile Beach was), and our second Airbnb in Boddentown (which is kind of in the middle but closer to the east and north ends), but there is actually a fair amount of traffic on the island. Plus the driving is already stressful with driving on the left and all the traffic circles. So I liked that at our first place we were 2 minutes from Seven Mile Beach and 4 minutes from the turtle farm. We were also very close to our boat tour. For the second half of our trip, we got to see the quieter part of the island and we were closer to Starfish point, Rum point, and the blowholes. I did like that

the first place had a washer and dryer and the second place had a pool.  Also the first airbnb was cleaner with better

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I could live with this view!

amenities but the second one was right on the beach with an amazing view. It was almost a toss-up but if I went back I would stay in the second one for a week. It was just so amazing to have that view every day.

What I didn’t like about the island was how expensive the food was, although we anticipated that and so we brought some dry food from home and also shopped at the grocery store there. I also did not like how crazy busy some of the sites were when the cruise ships were docked. If you are headed to GC (not on a cruise) I highly recommend you look at the cruise schedule before you do some activities such as stingray city.

Overall, it was a lovely trip and we got to cross another Caribbean island off our list. I’m not sure if we will ever be back but I would definitely recommend it as a great vacation spot for families looking to escape the winter weather for a week.

 

On packing…

Like many frequent travelers, I love to talk about packing. I want to share some of the essential items and products that we bring with us when we travel, and the things that I have learned to keep home. But before I get to that, I feel the need to step on my soap box for a minute to explain why we only bring carry-on luggage. Many people have opinions about this, but I feel very strongly that nine times out of ten it is best not to check a bag. Here are my reasons why:

  1. No lost luggage. It’s happened to me about 10% of the time I have traveled, and the airline has always gotten my stuff back to me, but when it happens it’s a huge inconvenience.
  2. You have less and smaller luggage to cart with you as you travel in other modes on your trip (not on the plane). It’s so much easier in Ubers, taxis, trains, subways, boats, etc to just have your personal item and maybe a large backpack (which is what my husband and use for our luggage).
  3. When you are coming back from a foreign country you have to claim your bags at the point of entry, then re-check them, which adds more time to the already drawn out customs and immigration process. Since we don’t live near a major airport we are almost always entering back into the US on a layover. This means we have to clear customs and immigration within the time frame of our layover, and sometimes this can take over 2 hours! Having global entry to speed us through helps, however if you are trying to get through everything as quickly as possible to make it to your next flight, it is so much easier not having to claim and re-check your luggage.
  4. Unless you have a credit card for a particular airline that will allow you to check luggage for free, most airlines will charge for a checked bag, at least for domestic travel.
  5. Just having less stuff when you travel is usually a good thing.

There are of course some exceptions when I will check bags. If I am traveling somewhere where I know I will want to bring a lot of stuff home (such as fabric from Europe), I will stuff an empty bag in my carry-on and check a bag on the way home. Also you can read about how we fit 3 weeks worth of car-camping gear in four checked bags on our trip to visit many National Parks. Finally, if I am traveling somewhere we we are bringing a lot of items to donate to local charities, it makes sense to check a bag.

I highly recommend that no matter how long you are traveling for you try to fit everything in a carry-on. If you roll your clothes up tightly you will be amazed by how much you can fit and the rolling actually keeps the clothes from getting wrinkled. I also wear the bulkier items on the plane, such as my biggest shoes and my outerwear (sweater or jacket or coat, depending on the season).

My favorite items to bring

Here are some essentials that I always have with me.

Health

  • Medicine in non-liquid form. The most important being chewable pepto bismal and imodium caplets. Lots of tummy troubles can happen when traveling, so bring plenty. It’s small and easy to pack. But you can also get chewable Tylenol!
  • Travel size bottles of sunscreen (if traveling somewhere sunny). Sunscreen tends to be very expensive in other countries, so I like to stock up at target on the small bottles (so they can go through TSA).
  • OFF bug wipes with DEET. These are a great way to bring your own bug spray in a way that passes TSA and takes up very little room! My youngest son is like a bug magnet so I always like to have this for him.
  • Baby powder. My kids always get chafed in their crotch area on beach vacations and when hiking. It also helps get wet sand off.
  • Little pocket tissues and antibacterial wipes. Have these in your bag as you are sight-seeing. You never know when you will need toilet paper (hence the tissues) or need to wipe something down (the antibac wipes)!

Tech

  • Headphone splitter. Very useful if two people want to watch the same thing on the same device.
  • Portable chargers. It is extremely likely that your phone will die while you are out and about exploring during the day. Then you will be sad because you won’t be able to take pictures or have access to GPS!
  • Multiple charging cube. One of those plugs that has several usb ports (I bring one with 6). Between everyone’s devices, cameras, and portable chargers, you will likely be charging at least 6 devices a night!
  • Go pro camera (if snorkeling) or doing some other outdoor activity.
  • Outlet converter if traveling to a country with different electrical outlets.
  • Make sure your phone has these apps: a currency exchange, google translate, and something for reviews such as tripadvisor or yelp.

Clothes/ fabric items

  • Some sort of waterproof hiking sandals. I bring my keen Rose sandals on pretty much every trip! You can hike in them, go walking through the city in them, and go in the water with them. They are the best!!!
  • Travel towels. Also called camping towels. These things are the best when traveling because you never know when you’re going to stop by some little swimming hole and need a towel! They’re quick drying and pack up small.
  • A packable rain jacket can be helpful, as well as a very small umbrella (if you have room).
  • A portable tote bag. I like the ones that you can squish up small so that it takes up little space but can be useful for taking things to the beach, pool, etc.

Kids

  • Some small games. Don’t go crazy with the games and activities because chances are you will be so busy the kids won’t have time to use them. We like to bring Uno and one or two other small games.
  • A notebook they can use as a travel journal and some pens and pencils.
  • One comfort item, like a stuffed animal. It can be stressful to be away from home and this helps the kids feel more secure.

San Miguel de Allende!

Even before Travel + Leisure voted San Miguel de Allende (SMA) the best city in the world, I have wanted to visit. So for my husband’s spring break this year, I started the planning a year ago (as I usually do).

The Planning

Warning: this is a bit long and geeky, so if you want to just hear about the trip, skip ahead to The Trip.

Flights:

At that time (April 2017), I had 60k American Airlines (AA) miles saved. Not enough for 4 round trip tickets, but enough to get us there (one way). I looked at all the combinations and somehow figured out if we could get there on the AA miles, we could come back on Delta using the 50% points back option I have written about before using the Amex business platinum card. The only issue was, because we had to go this exact week, I didn’t have a ton of flexibility, so the best I could do initially was flying out of Philadelphia at 5am on Tues, getting to Mexico around 3, and then flying back out early on Sat on Delta. That would only leave us with 3.5 days in SMA. Not ideal, but WTH. I booked it.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Because I booked so far in advance, I ended up being able to change the flights several times (for free!) and ended up with 7 full days (8 nights) and way more convenient flight times. This is how:

For the AA award flights, I knew that AA would let me change to flights to something else for free as long as the departure and destination cities were the same and the award level was the same (i.e., they had to be “saver” Awards). At booking no other awards that week were available, but I knew there was a good chance more would open up over the 11 months until we went. Enter expert flyer. This site monitors award flights for you (for a small fee), so I entered in all the possible flights I wanted that left on Sat, Sun, or Mon of that week and crossed my fingers. Lo and behold, about 6 months later a bunch of award flights opened up. I quickly changed them to a flight that left on Sat afternoon. Again, you can do this for free on AA as long as they have the award seats and open.

For the flights home, it was a little different. These weren’t award flights per se, rather I used American Express points to book a revenue flight. So basically the flights were $482 each on Delta, for a total of $1928. That translated to 192,800 Amex Membership Rewards (MR), but when I paid that I got 50% of my points back, so total points spent was 96,400, or 24,100 per ticket. It is a lot but since it was Spring Break week everything was jacked up.

Now initially Delta had us leaving SMA at the crack of dawn on Sat. Which is tough because it’s a 1.5 hr drive to the airport! At some point though, Delta actually cancelled the flight altogether! Once I realized this (they didn’t contact me directly, which was frustrating), I called and was able to get on a later flight that left around 12 on Sat. Cool! Much better than 5:30am. But then at some point they changed the flight, to the point where the layover was like 30 mins. That’s impossible on an international flight coming home where you have to clear customs (even with global entry and TSA pre check). So I called and asked to be put on a flight on Sunday instead (my preferred departure date). “No problem!” said Delta. Once an airline makes a flight change, as long as it’s more than about 30-60 mins, you can ask for whatever flight you find is more convenient for you, and they will usually get you on it. Many times I’ve asked for flights to day before or day after to extend my trip and they’ve always obliged.

This is one of the reasons I book so early. There is a greater chance you will get a flight change to your cheap but inconvenient flight to one that is more convenient but was originally out of your price range! Also, going back to the AA flight awards (to get to SMA), I knew that 15k per person for the award was the lowest they would ever go, so I booked them even though it wasn’t “ideal,” with the knowledge that there was a good chance better award flights would open up later if I monitored for them. And it paid off! So our initial 3.5 day trip with terrible flight times became a 7 day trip with reasonable flight times, all for free! Oh and since I was given free platinum pro status from AA in January through May of this year, I could move us to the “premium seats” for free, so I got us in the bulkhead in economy, which my husband and kids prefer.

Total miles used for air: 60k AA miles and 96,400 Membership Rewards (MR).

Lodging

Initially when we were only staying for 3.5 days, I booked the super-LUXE Rosewood San Miguel for a total of 115,000 Ultimate Rewards (UR) Points (28k points/night). This is a lot of points but considering that at the Rosewood rooms start at $600 a night, it’s a great redemption!

“But Deb, aren’t you always saying how you stay in Airbnbs and cheap local places?”

Yes! But I knew SMA wouldn’t have a ton of activities for kids so I wanted to book a place that had an awesome pool. Plus all the reviews said Rosewood is very family friendly. Also I don’t know if it was because I booked super early or what but when I checked later after I extended our trip to add the extra days, they had gone up significantly! Back to the drawing board.

I looked up various hotels in the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, read their reviews, and ultimately settled on a small hotel called Casa Mia Suites for a total of 12,600 points for 2 nights! (6,300 per night – Mexico prices!)

I also had to book one night in Guanajuato, and after some research I picked a hotel that was not available via Chase Ultimate Rewards, however since it was only $107 a night I used my hotels.com account to add to my “book 10 nights, get one night free” account.

The Trip

We left on a Friday evening right after the kids got out of school (and as more snow started falling in Syracuse) to make the 4 hour drive to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, after 15 minutes on the interstate we came to a dead stop and that’s where we sat for two hours! Apparently we missed a 30 car accident by about 5 minutes (it was so recent even though we were using Waze it didn’t re-route us yet). The department of transportation closed the highway for 2 hours and we just had to wait for them to clean everything up. It was awful and frustrating to sit there for that long, but I just kept thinking he lucky we were because if we had left 5 mins earlier we could have been in it! That definitely would have ruined the trip. We arrived at the Hampton Inn PHL airport around 11 and went to bed. I booked this Hampton Inn for the Park and Fly option. We could leave our car there all week. Also, I had received a challenge from Hilton Honors that if I had 5 stays in Hilton properties between Jan and April I would get an extra 2000 HH points per stay and 10,000 HH points at the end of the challenge. All these little Hampton Inn airport stays count, so their plan to build brand loyalty worked for me!

In the morning we took the shuttle to the Philadelphia airport early to check out the brand new Centurion lounge (for Amex platinum card holders). It was nice and clean and empty! Plus we were able to eat both breakfast and lunch there (Israeli food!) and get some preflight artisan cocktails.

Our flight to Dallas took off on time and when we arrived we had about 2.5 hours to kill. Time to hit Centurion lounge #2 at DFW! This one was so crowded! We barely got a table. But they had delicious Mexican food and we were able to get the children’s room to ourselves for about 45 minutes so my youngest could play Xbox. Finally around 6:30pm we boarded our flight to Mexico!

By the time we got to Mexico around 9:30pm everyone was out of sorts. We were of course staying at the Hampton Inn at the airport, but we were too tired to understand their Spanish about the shuttle, so we took a cab. After some more miscommunication we eventually made it to the Hampton Inn BJX (only $50 US a night). We crashed and were disappointed the next morning to learn the pool was closed until the evening. The breakfast was amazing for a Hampton Inn though! Pancakes, Chilaquales, picadillo, and some other Mexican specialties. Around 10am or driver came and got us to make the 90 minute drive through the gorgeous desert to San Miguel!

We arrived at our first hotel, Casa Mia Suites, and it was adorable. Right in the center of town and we had a little apartment with a full kitchen on a lovely Mexican courtyard. We headed into town to find it vibrant, busy (it was a Sunday and we learned later SMA gets swarmed on the weekend), and beautiful. We had a delicious Mexican lunch, walked around, napped, visited an amazing folk art toy museum and then had dinner later.

The next day was similar in that we did lots of exploring and eating. We visited the craft market and soaked in the town.

The following morning we checked out of Casa Mia and were picked up to do a horseback riding excursion in the country. This ended up being the highlight of the trip. The kids were nervous as they have never ridden horses before. But they bravely got on their horses (they each had their own guide in front, holding the reigns), and off we went. The ride was about 2.5 hours through the desert with amazing vistas and down the sides of a canyon. The kids had an absolute blast and were so proud of themselves for conquering their fear! After the ride we had an authentic and delicious Mexican ranch lunch, and then were driven back to SMA, where we checked into the Rosewood hotel.

The Rosewood is the ultimate luxurious accommodation and the swankiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. Truth be told, I found it a bit over the top, but the pools were great and the huge room was nice to spread out in, with big comfy beds and turndown service.

The next day we spent the morning at the botanical garden, El Charco Del Ingenio, which was another treat. It sits above SMA and has nice walking trails with indigenous desert plants. There was also a greenhouse, an observatory, and a children’s playground. After that we had some delicious fish tacos and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming at the hotel.

That evening our good friends came to meet us in San Miguel! They happened to be traveling to Mexico City the same week and I enticed them to come to SMA to hang out with us for a few days. We all went out for dinner at a restaurant that was highly recommended but ended up having terrible service. Luckily we all laughed about it and redeemed our meal by going to the churros restaurant for dessert.

The next day the six of us met at noon to do a San Miguel food tour. The guide took us on a walking tour of the city, stopping at 6 food stops to try various things including Peruvian ceviche, Yucateco pibil, enchiladas mole, a vegan taco, ice cream from a street stand that has been there for 50 years, and churros filled with carmelized goat milk. The kids did great on the tour even though a lot of it involved waiting for food. That evening we got a babysitter from the hotel and had a grown up night where we met our friends at a mezcal/tapas restaurant.

The following day some of us had a bit to much Mexico in their stomachs, so our friends went to visit a local hot springs and we stayed at the hotel, enjoying the pool. We met up with them for dinner at a delicious Peruvian restaurant that was on our food tour, and for and one last evening stroll through San Miguel.

The next day we left early to head to Guanajuato city, the capital of Guanajuato state and another old colonial town. My husband was in very rough shape this day. Luckily, even though we arrived at this hotel at 10am, they let us have our room early. The kids and I ate at the breakfast buffet at the hotel while my husband rested. He did try to go out with us and we visited Diego Rivera’s childhood home and had some drinks at a cafe. But he was too sick to continue sightseeing, so he and my youngest went back to the room and I went out with my oldest to explore the city.

Guanajuato is a beautiful place! I wish we had allotted two days to see it. It is an old mining town built into the sides of the canyon and there were cool tunnels and passageways throughout. It also houses the University of Guanajuato so there were lots of college students and coffee shop culture. They also love Don Quixote, so there were statues of him all over the city. It seemed like a very European city with circuitous alleyways and cobblestone streets. We visited an art museum and had a delicious taco lunch.