Wild, wild (mid)West 2.0: The Packing


33 days in a Toyota Highlander with 5-8 nights of camping. How do you pack for that?

When we did our last out West road trip in 2018, we flew to Las Vegas and rented an SUV. We put all of our car camping gear in four (free) checked bags, evenly distributed so we had 50 lbs of gear per bag. Our clothes and toiletries were in our carry-ons. Once we get to Vegas, we were upgraded to an Audi Q7 and that was the car we used for the whole trip. We actually found it quite comfortable and had everything we needed for lots of car camping. The Q7 is actually the same size as our Toyota Highlander, so I knew I could make the same thing work this time.

All the gear. Semi-thorough list below!

Of course now I had the luxury of packing up the car at home. I have watched some youtube videos on Van and SUV conversions, and I got some good ideas. For example I got these cheap plastic drawers from Target and put them in the trunk so we could have easier access to a lot of our smaller supplies. I put the drawers towards the trunk door, and added two thin, plastic bins from the dollar bin at Target on the sides. I also added our trusty Trader Joe’s cooler bag. This served as our cooler for our last out West trip, and it worked great!

Organization is exciting!

Each drawer is organized thematically. Drawer one has general supplies such as first aid, headlamps, laundry supplies, batteries, and mosquito repellant lanterns. Below that, drawer two that has stuff you will want in the tent: a broom, pillows, small lanterns, and also propane for stoves. Drawer three has plates, bowls, cutlery, and reusable plastic bags, and drawer four has our camping pots and pans, a one-burner stove, and some camping food such as ramen and pasta. Between the drawers are snacks, paper towels, and paper plates. To the left is a bin with sunscreen, bug spray, and a spot for umbrellas. To the right is a large frying pan, an axe, and some other random things.

Behind the drawers is a significant amount of space. We were were able to fit a 2 burner Coleman stove (we couldn’t find ours that we have had for at least 16 years 😢 so we borrowed one from a friend) and our sleeping bags. We also put a large tote that has all of our clothes in packing cubes. Each person gets their own color. There is also a packing cube with towels and a couple reusable shopping bags. On top of that are our camelbacks, and to the side is a bag with our shoes. Trekking poles are under the seat.

Finally, in the backseat we have a plug-in cooler (it has both an AC and car adapter), and a Jackery power bank that is fully charged and so will be back up power. I also bought seat back organizers for the kids and made sure to clip in extra USB ports for their devices. On top of the car we did add our soft-top carrier, where we stored our tents, air mattresses, camp chairs, and a tarp. I have no idea how we got all this stuff in the trunk of the Q7 last time!

So there you have it! For reference sake, here is a list of the things we have with us in the Highlander:

  • 2 tents
  • 4 air mattresses
  • 4 sleeping bags
  • 4 camping chairs
  • tarp
  • 2 burner Coleman stove
  • 1 burner propane stove
  • 2 small propane tanks
  • french press
  • camping pots and pans
  • camping plates, bowls, and cutlery
  • plug in cooler
  • soft cooler
  • camp pillows
  • small LED lanterns
  • Jackery power source
  • 3 sets of trekking poles
  • 4 camel backs
  • water bottles
  • collapsible water jug
  • paper towels
  • paper plates
  • non-perishable food
  • snack food
  • bug spray
  • sunscreen
  • laundry line
  • laundry detergent strips
  • fabric softener
  • headlamps
  • mosquito lamps
  • rain ponchos
  • clothing
  • hiking shoes and sandals
  • step stool
  • hammock
  • Various charging cords
  • Toiletries
  • Yeti coffee cups
  • Probably some other stuff I am forgetting!

St. John, US Virgin Islands


The planning

I have been intrigued by St. John, the Caribbean island that is mostly a National Park, for years. Back in January 2020, before the pandemic hit, I booked us a week long trip for the Christmas-New Years break to St. Thomas, at a condo near the Red Hook ferry to St. John. I couldn’t find any reasonable Airbnbs on St. John and figured we could take the ferry over a few times. Well by October 2020 it was pretty clear the pandemic was getting worse and we didn’t want to travel at that time. We were able to easily cancel our Airbnb and airline tickets.

For the original trip our airline tickets to St. Thomas were booked using a LOT of AA miles since it was the Christmas-New Years break, plus a voucher I had earned and gotten refunded (more on that later). Since I had booked the trip pre-COVID and canceled it because of the pandemic, AA redeposited all of the miles without any fees. In October I looked up tickets to St. Thomas for the end of May, hoping by then the pandemic will have calmed down and we would be vaccinated. The cash price for the tickets was only $250 for non-stop, round-trip flights out of Philadelphia! I was able to use my voucher to cover 3 of our tickets and just paid cash for the 4th, so we got 4 round-trip tickets for a total of $250!

The voucher was one I had received for $800 for volunteering my seat on an over-booked flight way back in 2018. I used it once to book two of our return flights from Belize in 2019, but we ended up canceling those flights and returning home early due to a water main break on the island we were staying on. AA redeposited the voucher and I used it to pay for one of the flights to St. Thomas for the original Christmas break trip (because that’s how expensive the tickets were then). When I canceled that flight due to Covid, they refunded the voucher again and this time I was able to use it to cover 3 round-trip tickets because they were so cheap! Not a bad deal for taking a later flight to DC one time.

When I re-booked this trip for the end of May, I decided to try my luck again finding an Airbnb on St. John, since I knew that was where we would want to spend most of our time. Luckily I found a really affordable one in a condo complex with a pool and great reviews!

The trip

Since our flights were out of Philadelphia on a Tuesday morning, when the kids got out of school Monday we drove down to the Hampton Inn Philadelphia where I got a park and fly deal for $132. The next morning we shuttled over to the airport early and the kids and my husband got to go to the Centurion Lounge without me. I have had an American Express Platinum card for years which would have gotten me in but over the pandemic I cancelled it since I couldn’t justify paying the fee when I wasn’t using most of the perks. My husband was targeted for the 100,000 point bonus offer about 6 months prior, so he did open his own Amex Platinum, which means he could get himself and 2 guests (the kids) in for free. We could have paid $50 for me to get in but even though the food is awesome it wasn’t worth it for me so I stayed out. Meanwhile I ended up paying $24 for a cappuccino and some avocado toast with egg at an airport stand, so maybe it would have been worth it after all!

We had seats in the bulkhead thanks to another Amex perk that covers airline incidentals. I used this to upgrade all of our seats to main cabin extra. Luckily the flight was only about 50% full, which eased some of our Covid-anxiety. Everyone stayed masked and the flight was great, except my seat, a window seat, had dried up orange goo all over the window, window shade, and tray table! I chose to believe a baby sat there and got baby food every where, but I had to laugh when AA did their intro video showing the “enhanced cleaning” process with some actress spraying down all of these surfaces with antimicrobial spray. “Um…AA…you missed a spot!” I didn’t feel like causing a fuss so I used my own antibacterial wipes to clean it off, followed by a lot of hand sanitizing.

Travel is back!

We got into St. Thomas early and took a cab to the Red Hook ferry over to St. John, only a 15 minute ride. The main port, Cruz Bay, was busy and hot. We walked up to our rental car place and picked up our jeep. I was really glad I was able to get one because I waited until 2 months before our trip and every other rental place on St. John was totally booked! Currently St. John is a bit overwhelmed with tourists because it’s a tropical destination where Americans can travel to. We ate a late lunch at the famous “Woody’s” while we waited for our Airbnb to be ready. After we checked in my husband and I went to the store for groceries and then we swam in the pool, had a light dinner, and went to bed. Our Airbnb was an awesome one bedroom apartment with a pullout sofa and a back patio overlooking the water, steps away from the shared pool.

For our first day we headed over to the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center in the morning. It wasn’t super impressive as far as NP visitor centers go, but we did get stamps in our NP passbooks. Then we headed up the windy north shore road to Maho Bay beach, where we heard the sea turtles are. After parking and setting up our stuff we donned our snorkeling gear and headed straight for the water. I swam around for about 10 minutes looking for turtles when all of a sudden I looked to my left and shouted “Holy s%*t!!!” into my snorkel. I was flanked by two sea turtles, one directly under me and one over me and right to my left. They were about 6 inches from me and seemed to be joining me for my swim. We continued to snorkel for a few hours, seeing several more turtles and some rays.

The next day we hatched a plan to hike up to Caneel Hill from the spur trail next to our Airbnb, then hike down to Solomon beach and back home. We packed all of our gear with us and hiked a little ways up hill to an amazing lookout. We then hiked down for about a mile, eventually reaching an almost deserted beach, Solomon beach. It was so pretty but there was some loud construction noise from a building next door. I think the construction project was to rebuild the famous Caneel Bay Resort which was destroyed in Hurricanes Irma and Maira. We hung out there for a while and then hiked over to the next beach, Honeymoon Beach. Also beautiful but more crowded.

I was pretty nervous about the steep hike back up in the sun, but we had no other options. We packed our things and headed back. It was pretty brutal. I had just hiked a high peak in the Adirondacks the weekend before, but this hike in the sun and humidity made me feel like I was going to pass out. We took lots of breaks and drank lots of water and finally made it back! We spend the rest of the evening recovering in the pool.

Solomon’s Beach. All to ourselves!

The following day we had booked a boat tour which left from the opposite side of the island in Coral Bay. We left a little early to check out that part of the island and stopped to have a picnic lunch at Salt Pond Bay. After this we caught our boat, which was a double-decker pontoon boat with a slide! The captain took us to some cool snorkeling spots, including a shipwreck, a WWII anchor, and snorkeling next to mangroves. Despite the weather report predicting sun, we caught in a rain shower that lasted about an hour. It was kind of nice not to have the sun beat down on us so hard as we had all gotten pretty crispy in the sun the past few days.

That evening we went home and the kids ate dinner while we went out to an anniversary dinner at a Spanish restaurant called La Tapa. We love having Spanish food for our anniversary as we went to Spain on our honeymoon. It was delicious!

The next morning we picked up some local food – patès (like Jamaican patties) and fried chicken and ate it picnic style at Peace Hill, overlooking Hawknest and Trunk Bays. The food was delicious and the views were incredible!

Afterwards we headed over to the Annaberg historic district to see the ruins of a sugar mill. We found a little path nearby and decided to take it and do some snorkeling from the beach. This was some of the best snorkeling of the trip and it turns out this was Leinster Bay. Next we spent the late afternoon at Trunk Bay and found out why this beach is so popular. Powder white sand and gorgeous blue water, and they they the famous snorkeling trail with signs underwater about some of the aspects of the coral reef. My son and I saw two rays and lots of other fish. 

The next day we headed over to the other side of the island to check out Hansen Bay. Although all beaches are open to the public in the Virgin Islands, the lady who owns the strip of land between the beach and the road asks for a donation to park there and use their paddle boards, kayaks, and chairs. It was great to be able to paddle around and they also had great snorkeling where we saw some Caribbean reef squid. Because it was Memorial Day Weekend they had a local caterer come by and grill lobsters on the beach. We bought one to try and it was so good! That night my husband and I had reservations for a new restaurant in Cruz Bay called Shaibu’s garden oasis which had received some great reviews and had vegan food for my husband. It was delicious!

The next day we tried Hawksnest bay in the morning and went back over to Maho bay in the afternoon. We needed more sea turtle action and they did not disappoint! We had several more sightings. 

For our last full day we woke up early and drove back over to the other side of the island to do the iconic Ram Head hike. I highly recommend this 2.4 mile out and back hike to a peak lookout. It’s not too strenuous, has incredible views and really cool cacti.

After the hike we cooled off in Salt Pond bay for our last beach swim and then headed back stopping at a bar/restaurant called Shambles for lunch. We worked on packing and cleaning up the Airbnb and then we took the kids back to Shaibu’s for our last dinner.

The next day we got on the ferry, headed over to the airport, and waited for our flight, which took off on time, and bonus, I got a whole row to myself. One of my kids came and sat with me so we all got to spread out between two rows of three.

Our first trip in 17 months and it was damn near perfect. We LOVED St. John! We are huge national park fans so the fact that most of the island is a National Park with hiking trails and natural beaches was so nice. It was great exploring one or two beaches each day and seeing how they are all different. The snorkeling was some of the best I have ever done. Swimming with sea turtles at Maho bay was pretty magical. In fact, although we liked the boat trip, I don’t think it was necessary as there was so much great snorkeling right off the beaches. I have been to so many places where you really need to take a boat out to the good reefs, but St. John is not one of those places. 

Our Airbnb was awesome. We loved having the pool right there and even though it was for the whole condo complex most of the time we had it to ourselves. The food in St John was expensive but that’s pretty typical for islands. The town of Cruz Bay was small and there wasn’t a lot to do there, but that was totally fine with us, more beach time! I’m also really glad I switched our plans from staying on St Thomas and taking the car ferry over to St John a few times to just staying on St John. This is a place I for sure would like to come back to one day!

Wild wild (mid)west 2.0: The Planning


It’s time for another epic road trip out west! In 2018 we took advantage of the Every Kid in a Park program to do a 3 week long road trip to visit National Parks in the Southwest USA. In 2021 when our other son was in 4th grade we decided to do a 2nd road trip to visit a bunch of national parks, this time through the Great Lakes and northern mid-west region.

For this trip, we decided to use our own car, a 201x Toyota Highlander to drive around the Great Lakes, out to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, and back through North Dakota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We had dozens of free hotel nights due to credit card perks, so the goal is to stay for free at every hotel throughout the trip and camp some nights too.

The plan

This itinerary is actually a week longer than our last trip, for a total of 4 weeks! We plan on using the same camping gear we used last time, since it worked pretty well for us and fit in an SUV similar in size to the Highlander. I will make another post later with our gear and how we pack the car. Our itinerary is below.

Day 1-3: Syracuse – Cleveland. We plan on driving to Cleveland and staying at the Metropolitan hotel for 3 nights (Marriott certificates). We will explore the city and spend a day and a half at Cuyahoga National Park.

Day 4: Cleveland – Sand Dunes National Park. We will drive to this newer national park and spend the day.

Days 5-7: Chicago: We will stay for two days and three nights in the Windy City and do some sightseeing. Hotel will be free with Marriott certidicates.

Day 7: Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve always wanted to visit Madison because I’ve heard such good things about it. We will stay one night in a hotel using a Marriott certificate.

Day 8: Madison – Minneapolis-St. Paul: we will drive up along the northern Mississippi River, stopping at sites along the way, and end up in Minneapolis.

Days 9-10: Minneapolis-St. Paul. We will spend a few days exploring the twin cities. The hotel will be free using Hilton free night certificates.

Days 11-12: Badlands National Park. We will drive out to South Dakota and stay at our first campground at Badlands National Park.

Days 13-14: Black Hills, South Dakota. We will continue camping and exploring this area including Mt. Rushmore, Missile silo national monument, and Wind Cave National Park

Day 15: Devil’s Tower National Monument. As a huge Close Encounters fan, I can’t wait to visit this alien landing platform 😁. We’ll stay the night in Riverton, WY (hotel free with points).

Days 16-18: Grand Teton National Park. We’ll drive out to Jackson, WY where we will stay at Springhill Suites for free with points.

Days 19-21: Yellowstone National Park. We’ll camp for 3 nights at this iconic national park.

Day 22: Bozeman, MT: we’ll visit a friend who lives here and stay one night in a hotel with a Marriott certificate.

Day 23-24: Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We’ll drive to North Dakota and spend a day and a half at this park. We will spend one night in a hotel using Chase Ultimate Rewards points and one night camping.

Day 25: Fargo. We’ll drive out to Fargo and spend the night, staying in a hotel using a free IHG night certificate.

Day 26-27: Voyageurs National Park. We’ll drive up to this National Park in Northern Minnesota and stay two nights at a hotel booked using Chase Ultimate Rewards Points.

Day 28: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. We’ll start to explore the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and camp one night.

Days 29-30: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We will continue to explore the UP and camp another two nights.

Day 31: Mackinac Island and Ann Arbor. We’ll stop at Mackinac Island on our way home and stay overnight at a Holiday Inn using an IHG free night certificate.

Day 32: Drive home!



We lucked out this year because the kids’ holiday break from school was 2 full weeks. That meant we could squeeze in another adventure style trip. Belize had been on my list for a while and 9 days seemed to be enough time to explore both the interior, rainforest area and one of the islands.

The planning

Similar to last year’s trip to Costa Rica, because we were going to be traveling over the Holiday break, flights were going to be expensive, even with points. Flights from Newark to Belize on AA leaving the day after Christmas were 37,500 miles each, one way. I booked those, spending a total of 150,000 AA miles. Yes that is a lot of miles, but when you want flights to a tropical destination on one of the busiest days of the year, you bite the bullet and spend the points.

After that I was out of miles, however I did have a $750 AA voucher from volunteering to give up my seat and take a later flight on a work trip to DC a few months prior. I used that to book mine and one of my kid’s flights home (plus $98 to make up the difference). I then bought the two other return tickets through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel site using about 56,000 Ultimate Rewards Points.

I bought these tickets around February 2019 and a month or so later my husband was chosen to receive free Platinum Pro status from AA for 4 months. They do this about once a year, where they choose some AAdvantage members and give them status temporarily, hoping to entice them to book enough flights to keep their status for the rest of the year. Since I had received this the before, I knew that we could go into our flights online and upgrade our seat assignments to “main cabin extra,” for free because of his status. These are the seats in the front of economy and they come with priority boarding, a designated carry-on spot for your luggage, and free booze on the flight. So we did that and were able to snag those seats for free. Pro tip – if you do this while you have PP status, the seats will stay there even once your status expires.

For the flights home since we were on 2 separate tickets only my husband and son received the premium seating. However this fall my husband upgraded his Hilton Honors card to the Aspire for a 150,000 point bonus. This card comes with a $250 a year airline credit. You choose your preferred airline and then use the credit to pay for things like seat assignments and checked luggage fees. We needed to spend the $250 by the end of the year so I made his preferred airline AA and I purchased seats in main cabin extra for about $80 each for my son and I so we could be closer to the other two. These fees were then reimbursed by Amex for the credit.

For the lodging, I chose a small local hotel in San Ignacio called the Rainforest Haven Inn. Standard rooms were about $60 a night, so I chose a 2 bedroom apartment for $75 a night! That way we would have more space and the boys could have their own room. In my research on this part of Belize it seemed like there were some swank but pricey jungle lodges away from town or these inexpensive, but nice local hotels in town. I liked the idea of staying in town so we could walk to things, so I chose the inexpensive, in-town option.

For Caye Caulker, I chose a 2 bedroom Airbnb cabana that got good reviews that had a small pool shared with a few other cabanas. For more about how to book Airbnbs and not get scammed, check out this article I wrote for FinanceBuzz.

The trip

Our flight left Newark, NJ at 6am, which meant we needed to get to the airport around 4 or earlier. I chose to get there earlier because we couldn’t check in online since we were traveling internationally with kids. I also had a bag to check full of donations for kids in Belize through the Pack for a Purpose program.

We took an Uber from my mom’s house at 3am and got to the airport at 3:45. When we checked in, the AA rep asked for the kids’ birth certificates. Luckily I had them! This is really important to know if you are bringing kids to Belize and something I only knew through the many travel online groups I am in. Each country has different requirements for this and Belize is very strict that you prove your kids are yours, or that they have permission to travel with you, because at one point there were a lot of child abductions from the US to Belize. This is especially important if your kids have a different last name than you. I have heard stories of people being stopped from boarding their flight because they didn’t bring documentation such as birth certificates.

Luckily check in was smooth and with TSA precheck we got through the security line in 5 minutes. Our flight to Miami was on time and we landed early. Our layover was short but fortunately the Centurion Lounge at Miami airport was right across from our gate. Since my husband has cancelled his Amex platinum card and you can only guest 2 people in per card, I took the kids over there for a quick breakfast. It was so ridiculously crowded though! We could barely find a place to sit to eat our food. In fact the table only had one chair and I had to stand and eat. These lounges have becoming more and more crowded over the years as people get more into credit card points and miles. We quickly ate and went back to the gate where we boarded our flight and took off.

My husband still had about $48 to spend for his recently acquired American Express Hilton Honors Aspire Card airline credit after we paid $30 to check the bag with the donations. In order to use up the credit we bought a bunch of snacks on the plane to bring with us to San Ignacio.

We landed in Belize on time and spent about 45 mins going through immigration and customs. I had set up a shuttle service through our hotel in San Ignacio and the driver was a very nice Dutch guy who has lived in Belize for 11 years. It was a 2 hour drive to San Ignacio but we got to see some of the countryside. We got to town around 3:30 and checked into our room/apt. It was nice and spacious.

We had no idea that the Belizeans celebrate Boxing Day on 12/26, so most shops and restaurants were closed. Belize has an interesting mix of British and American influence. For example they drive on the right, and they use pounds, miles, and Fahrenheit. But then they maintain some British traditions such as this. Luckily there were a couple restaurants open so we got some dinner and headed back to our apt to get to bed early since we had been up since 2:30am.

The next day after breakfast we started our first tour which was a trip to the Belize zoo and then cave tubing. We went to the zoo first. It is very well done and features most of the native animals of Belize in the natural habitat. We got to see spider and howler monkeys, tapirs, peccaries, leopards, pumas, ocelots, margays, pelicans, a scarlet macaw, a toucan, and more. One of the zookeepers hung out with us and brought meat for some of the cats so we could see them up close while he fed him. And we got to hold a boa constrictor at the end!

After this our guide took us to a local restaurant where we had a traditional Belizean lunch of rice and beans, stewed chicken, and potato salad. Plus we got to try soursop juice (a local fruit) and their local beer, Belikin.

Next we headed over to the cave tubing place which is in a national park. We geared up with our life vests, helmets, and tubes and did a 45 minute hike through the jungle while our guide told us about the various fauna.

Pro-tip: our guide told us never to do this activity on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday because that’s when the cruise ships come in and they take people on excursions to go cave tubing. He said it is so busy the river becomes like a freeway of people in tubes. It was already pretty busy given that it was high season so I imagine had there been a cruise excursion it would have really impacted the experience in a negative way.

The river and jungle were beautiful and we splashed around at the mouth of the cave while our guide hooked our tubes together and waited for a time to go in where there were less people. As we floated through the cave he told us about how the Mayans used to use the caves for ceremonies and sacrifices and they would smash their clay pots when they were done as part of the ritual. The stalactites and stalagmites were so cool and you could see lots of shimmering crystals on them.

About halfway through he pulled us over to a spot where we got out of our rafts to go on a little spelunking adventure. We walked in the dark with our headlamps through the cave and walked over to an open ring with stairs. He pointed out some ancient petroglyphs carved into the stalagmites – a spooky face!

He then took us to a spot where the guides had brought over some shards of ancient Mayan pottery and we got to pick them up and look at them closely. The next part was our favorite. We swam back to where the tubes were in the dark river of the cave. He took us to a little semi-enclosed grotto and had us turn our headlamps off for the full experience. It was pretty epic!

We got back to the tubes and floated out of the cave and then down the river through the jungle for a bit, seeing orange iguanas along the way. The kids hopped out of their tubes and swam along side of us. When we were done we got some fresh coconuts from a guy selling them at the entrance and mom got a little rum in hers 😊

We headed back to San Ignacio and had a nice dinner at a really good restaurant in town, Cenaida’s. We were pretty tired after all the day’s adventures so we went back to the room and chilled out.

The next morning we decided to do a cooking class at our hotel. The person leading it took us over to the San Ignacio market. Saturday was their busiest day and it was buzzing with activity. He showed us some of the native fruits, vegetables, and spices and talked about how they use them in their cooking. We also got some freshly made pupusas and soursop ice cream!

Afterwards we walked back to the hotel and started class. We spent the morning learning to make the classic Belizean dishes of stew chicken, rice and beans (cooked in coconut milk), potato salad, fried plantains, fry jacks, and bread pudding. Then we got to eat it all for lunch and try various hot sauces. The company that makes a lot of the hot sauce here is called “Marie Sharp’s” and the hotel sells all of their products. The food was delicious and the kids had a blast learning how to make it. My husband even got to practice his kneading technique from watching the Great British Baking Show on Netflix.

We needed to rest after that huge meal but after that we walked uphill to a fancy hotel that houses the Green Iguana Project – an iguana sanctuary. The guide taught us about their work trying to help the Iguana population that gets hurt when hunters hunt pregnant mothers, and then we got to feed some iguanas in their enclosure.

After this we trekked uphill some more to the Cahal Pech Mayan ruins. The park was very quiet with only a handful of people but the ruins were pretty large and we had fun exploring and climbing all around them, trying to imagine what they used each structure for.

Later that evening my husband and I walked 20 feet across from our room where the hotel does rum tastings. Unfortunately about 10, very inebriated twenty-somethings joined us for the tasting. We still had fun and our host didn’t charge us since he said they usually like to offer a better experience.

The next morning we got up super early to meet our tour group for a day trip into Guatemala to see the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal. We took a 15 minute bus ride to the border where we had to wait in line for about an hour to pay the exit fees to leave Belize and enter Guatemala. After that we took an hour and 45 minute bus ride up to Tikal. It was cool to see the Guatemalan countryside as went. It was very lush and green and we passed by a large, beautiful lake called Peten Itza.

At Tikal we met our local guide who took us through the site and taught us about the ruins. Tikal is pretty extensive. They started uncovering in about 1955 and they believe it was built around 300 BC. It is currently a UNESCO world heritage site.

I liked that for some of the structures you could climb they put up wooden stairs so you didn’t have to try to climb the original Mayan stone steps. It seems like that will preserve them more and also the guide said too many people were falling off the steps. It was fairly crowded, probably because it was the holiday week. However they also really limited the vending, unlike the large site, Chichen Itza, which is overrun with hawkers.

We spent about 3 hours exploring the ruins and then on the way back stopped for lunch in a small town nearby. We were starving after all that walking and climbing! We headed back to Belize and getting through the border took another hour.

After buying our hot sauce souvenirs from the hotel we decided to do a street food dinner. We got tacos, salbutes, tamales, and stuffed jacks for four people, all for $7 USD! Plus they were delicious!

Caye Caulker

The next morning we got up early for our 8am ride back to Belize City to catch the 10:30am water taxi. The taxi took off on time and we were all excited for the island part of our trip. When we landed in Caye Caulker we were hungry and tired, and the sun was very hot. We walked with our luggage in the heat about 15 minutes to our Airbnb. When we arrived, there was a large family there with about 4 kids, drinking and partying around the pool. The Airbnb was made up of 4 cabanas around a shared pool and patio area. The housekeepers were getting our cabana ready and told us it would be about 2-3 hours before it was ready. We decided to go for some lunch while we waited and we asked them where we could drop off our laundry. The housekeeper then told us there was no water but it would be back on around 5 or 6. We figured this may have been a routine thing, and didn’t think too much of it. After all, the water main by our house breaks about once every year in the summer, and we are used to being without water for 3-4 hours while they fix it.

We dropped off our laundry at a local woman’s house who also told us to check back around 5 or 6 when the water would come back on. We walked back to the middle of town and found a restaurant to eat lunch. It took forever to get our food but we tried to stay in a good mood. After lunch we walked up to the area called “The Split,” where I had heard most people go swimming and snorkeling. At this point I was starting to sour a little on Caye Caulker. The split was not what I had imagined. It was mostly taken over by a beach bar with a loud DJ and it seemed like in order to hang out there you had to order food and drinks from them. Plus it wasn’t really a beach, just a concrete area with sand on it with no shade, and you had to climb down a ladder, like into a pool, to go into the water. We walked around a little more and didn’t see any other promising areas for beach swimming.

Back at our Airbnb the cleaners were almost done and we talked to them a bit more. They told us the kids of the other family were really loud and that they were also staying through the end of the week. Great. They had left for the afternoon though, so we got on our bathing suits and took a dip in the pool. A little while later the cleaners told us that they had heard that the water pump for the entire island’s water supply was broken, and they needed a part from the States, which would not arrive until at least the end of the week. “So we may not have water for a week?” I asked the cleaning lady. She nodded. At this point I started to freak out. No water at all on an island for a week did not seem like a good idea. At the same time the owner of the Airbnb, who was off site, sent us a copy of the notification that the Belize Water Service had sent him, confirming that they were waiting for a part from the U.S. that wouldn’t come until the end of the week but they would try to fill the tank with some emergency water in the meantime.

I started panicking and thinking about how we could leave but my husband tried to keep me calm and that maybe we could wait it out. We went to the store and bought some extra water. The cleaning people gave us buckets to fill with the pool water to flush the toilet. I started to think about what the pool would be like after a few days with all these people who can’t shower using it and no fresh water to replenish it. I also read in the host’s guidebook that the only beach-like areas, were the Split, which we had seen, and another place north of the Split called Koko King, which was another beach club that you could use if you purchased food and drink. It said they had a sort of manufactured beach and they would ferry you across the split in their boat. At this point I was not thrilled that our only options for swimming were spending money at a beach club (likely lots of money as they are always over-priced), or crammed in a small pool with our boisterous neighbors. I looked up one way flights on AA (the airline we were using to fly home), and they were over $1000 each. This situation was bad but there was no way we were going to spend over $4000 to get home. It seemed like our best option was to wait it out and hope for the best.

We decided to head out for dinner and I tried to calm my anxiety and not think of all the Mad Max scenarios playing in my head about what this place would be like after 3 days with no water. We walked around the town a bit more. It was crowded and I didn’t feel the “laid back vibe” I had read about this place. Also I had heard Belize didn’t really have beaches but I figured they would at least have somewhere nice to swim. It wasn’t looking that way.

We made our way back to our Airbnb and found our neighbors on the patio in full-on party mode. This was not exactly the relaxing vacation we had hoped for. Inside the house I texted my friend who has traveled extensively to tell him about the water situation and ask his advice. He was pretty clear: “Get out. These things never go well. If you can leave do it.”

I went back on google flights to see what we could get to fly home. United had a one-way, nonstop flight back to Newark the next day for about $400. That wasn’t too bad. I checked what they were charging in miles. It was only 20k miles per ticket plus about $65 in taxes and fees. That was a really good deal. I looked at flights for the 1st and 2nd of January and they were over 40k miles each and had connections. If we were going to get out it had to be the next day. I only had about 2,000 United miles in my account, but Chase Ultimate Rewards will transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio and will post instantly. I had plenty of these points to transfer over to United to buy the tickets with miles.

I called my husband in from hanging out with the neighbors and we discussed our options. I even called my friend to talk it though. In the end we decided flushing the toilet with pool water, sharing this space with very nice but very loud neighbors, with a pool that was bound to get disgusting and no good beach to swim in, was just not worth it. We pulled the trigger and booked the flights for the next day.

The kids were very upset and we tried to explain that it wasn’t safe to be in a place without water for that long. We explained that at the restaurants they would not be able to wash dishes and food properly and there was a good chance we could get sick.

I also let our Airbnb host know we were leaving and I cancelled the one snorkeling excursion we had planned. Luckily that company refunded me because I canceled before 24 hours. I was pretty bummed to miss this because it seemed amazing and honestly the only reason to visit this area, but at this point it seemed like the right call.

I had difficulty sleeping because of the noisy neighbors and my nerves, and at one point in the middle of the night I got up to go to the bathroom and tried the faucet and some water came out. Now I was extra upset. Had they fixed it already? I just spent 80k miles on our plane tickets that could have been used for something else! I woke up my husband and showed him but he convinced me we should still leave. He said this was likely the emergency water they brought over to fill the reserve tank a little, but that would likely run out again soon as well.

The next morning we packed everything up and it started pouring rain, making the sandy roads filled with big grey puddles. We caught a golf cart taxi to the center of town and had breakfast a famous “stuffed jack” place. It was pretty good. We took some pictures of the island and then boarded the water taxi back to Belize City. Once there we took a cab for the airport and had a relatively easy time getting on our flight to Newark. We had a lot of Belizean dollars left but we spent a lot of them on the cab ride, lunch at the airport, some drinks, and some more hot sauce to take home.

Our impressions of Belize

We loved our time in San Ignacio. There were so many fun, adventure activities to do there, including exploring caves and ancient ruins. We also thought the people were nice, the food was good, and the town was very affordable.

We did not like Caye Caulker much at all. There is no beach for swimming or snorkeling and to hang out at the two beach-like areas you would have to spend money at the beach clubs. The food was also over-priced in much of the island. We had heard this was one of the nicest Cayes in Belize because of the “laid back vibe” with golf-carts and bicycles instead of cars. Well we didn’t think the vibe was laid back at all! Granted this was the busiest tourist week of the year so our impression could be skewed. But we also kept comparing it to another small, golf-cart island that we have been to several times –  Isla Mujeres, in Mexico. Isla  has gotten more crowded in recent years, but is still much nicer with a gorgeous beach and great, affordable food and lodging. In our opinion, they are similar locations, but Caye Caulker can’t hold a candle to Isla. It seems like Caye Caulker is best as a jumping off point for snorkeling and diving excursions out to the reef, rather than a tropical island destination in its own right. After doing some more reading, I found out that Caye Caulker, like so many places these days, has fallen prey to over-tourism. Apparently the Split used to be nicer until the bar took it over and started over-charging people for food and drinks.

Looking back, even if the water main break hadn’t happened, we would have liked to stay longer in the interior of the country. We probably would have done 4 days in San Ignacio and maybe 3 days in Guatemala near Tikal so we could do more than just a day trip there. Than we could have stayed 2 nights in Caye Caulker, just enough to have one full day for a boat trip snorkeling excursion before leaving the island. Hindsight is 20/20 but hopefully we can help someone else out who might be reading this when planning their trip to Belize.

We were definitely bummed that our trip took a turn for the worse at the end, but we had a great 4 days in San Ignacio and given that this was our 7th family trip of 2019 and the only one where something negative happened, we figured we had a good run! We feel lucky that we had the points to cover our trip home and that we didn’t have to stay and spend more money in a situation where we would have been miserable. It took a little leg work, but in the end we were able to get all of our money refunded for the cancelled Airbnb and cancelled flights home. Our Airbnb host refunded us for all the nights we didn’t use and 50% back for the first night since we didn’t have water. For our cancelled flights, I called and then sent a very nice letter to American Airlines, explaining the situation, and given that there was a disruption of an essential service they were super helpful and refunded both the voucher that I used and the points used through Chase. So in the end, we didn’t lose any money at all. My advice for trying to re-coup  from these situations is to be as nice as possible with the companies you are working with. It doesn’t always work out in your favor, but I have good luck being super nice and patient.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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!)


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.


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.



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!