Retro post: Road Trip Through the Yucatán

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The verdict

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

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

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

New Orleans!

The Planning

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

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

The Trip

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The verdict

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

Grand Cayman!

The planning

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

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

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

The Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My review of our trip

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

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

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

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

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I could live with this view!

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

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

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

 

On packing…

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

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

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

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

My favorite items to bring

Here are some essentials that I always have with me.

Health

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

Tech

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

Clothes/ fabric items

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

Kids

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

San Miguel de Allende!

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

The Planning

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

Flights:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lodging

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

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

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

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

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

The Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later that afternoon my husband and other son joined us and we took a funicular up the side of the mountain to see the El Pipila statue (symbolic of a hero of the Mexican revolution, which began here) and to get some gorgeous views of the city and the mountains. We then had a tasty dinner of tacos al pastor and my husband went back to sleep in the hotel while the kids and I walked around watching all the street performers.

The next morning we got up and headed to the airport for our flights home. Getting from the Leon airport to Atlanta was fine. At ATL we got through customs fairly quickly because of our Global Entry, and we headed over “The Club,” a lounge we like there and can access using our Priority Pass. When we got to the gate for Philadelphia however, we were a little delayed. The gate agent said this was because the plane needed a little “extra cleaning.” Uh oh, someone had some kind of accident. The gate agent was trying to lighten the mood, so she had a dance contest and then she asked who could spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” I, of course, raised my hand, and I got it right on the first try! My prize was 3 drink tickets.

After another 15 minutes, they called our names up to the front. Another agent informed my husband that because of their “extra cleaning,” we would not be able to put our bags on the floor in front of us on the plane. At that point I figured it out. Someone had puked, and we were sitting in the puke seats. I asked the flight attendants and they nodded and apologized. I asked if they could move us and they said they couldn’t because the flight was full. I couldn’t believe this happened to us again! (In October our flight was delayed 90 mins after boarding because a drunk girl puked right in front of our seats in the bulkhead and it took them an hour and a half to get “cleaners” to do a good enough job of cleaning it up). The flight attendants asked us if we wanted miles for our inconvenience, and I said, “yes please.” So even though it smelled a little like puke and we couldn’t put our bags on the floor, we finally landed on Philly around 9:30pm, now with 3 drink tickets and 30,000 extra Delta skymiles. We got to the Hampton Inn, got our car, and drove home!

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my drink tickets!

Overall it was a fabulous trip! My only regret was not staying in Guanajuato longer as it was a very cool city. The whole area is a wonderful place to explore and visit, however. It has a beautiful climate, great food, nice people, and lots of Mexican culture. I would love to go back one day!

Why I like to book plane tickets super early

Yesterday I was in session with one of my patients and she expressed some anxiety about buying an international flight for July, wondering whether the best strategy was to book now or wait. It took everything in my power not to go into a full-on discussion of this, but unfortunately, that’s not my role as her psychologist! It’s a common worry for those wanting to get the best airline deal, and there are countless online articles about it. The bottom line is, you can never fully predict if and when the prices will go up and down so its always a gamble (although flight alert apps such as Hopper can let you know when a flight you are looking for has gone down in price, and they will also predict whether it will go up or down in the future based on historical data).

I was never one to gamble, so my preferred strategy is to book as early as possible – sometimes that means 331 days in advance, which is typically when the big legacy carriers release their flights. I know this is not for everyone, but it does work for those of us who have somewhat predictable schedules and know that there is a certain time every year when they can travel. Since I work for myself I can basically take off whenever I want, but my family’s schedules are not as flexible. My husband teaches at a college so the dates of his breaks are known well in advance, and my children’s are also fairly predictable. Given that, here are a few other reasons why I like to book early.

  1. I have been searching airline prices for a long time, and in general I have seen this pattern (not always, but usually): release a very low price when the flights are first released (331 days in advance), then go up (maybe even a day after that), then go up and down until the flight. This has served me well 9 times out of 10.
  2. If you book super early, there is a good chance that the airline will change your flight. If the schedule change is significant (usually more than 30-60 mins), you can change your flight FOR FREE to a different flight, even if originally that other flight was way out of your price range. AND that new flight can be the day before or the day after, thus extending your trip. This has served me well many times. Often when you are booking the cheapest flight (as I tend to do), you get some inconvenient times (like leaving at 5am, or having a really tight or really long layover), but the flights with the more convenient times can be hundreds of dollars more. Once the airline changes the schedule, though, you can pick which one of those more convenient flights works for you! For example, one year my husband and I were taking a quick getaway to Mexico and only had about 3 days there. About a month before the trip I received an email from the airline that they had changed the outgoing flight to leave about 8 hours later, thus we would lose almost a full day! I called them back right away, and they kept looking for flights a little earlier that day but none were ideal. I asked about leaving the day before and they were able to get us on an afternoon flight that day, so we would arrive about 9pm the day before we were originally scheduled to arrive. I had enough Orbucks (Orbitz points) to book a free room for that night, so we ended up actually gaining almost a full day on our trip, all for FREE!
  3. If you are booking Award flights on American Airlines it ALWAYS pays to book as soon as they release the award seats, 331 days in advance. The award seats have a lowest price they will go and will not go any lower, so with American, the lowest they will be is 15k one way for an international flight. If you log on the day they release and find award seats at that price, even if they are not exactly on the day you prefer, book them. The reason is this, AA will let you change award seats FOR FREE  on an award ticket, as long as the departure and arrival cities are the same and the “fare class” is the same (e.g, it still costs 15k miles per flight – you couldn’t change and award ticket that you got for 15k to one that was for 30k). It is fairly common that over time, the airline will start to release more low cost award tickets, so if you have a method for monitoring this (I use expertflyer, I will explain more below how this works), you will be alerted when the other award tickets are released and you can change the flight. Then you can call them and change the flight to the better one.

I recently had a fun, roller coaster experience using all of these methods on a trip we are taking to Mexico this March (are you sensing a theme? We love Mexico!). Some of you may feel your eyes glaze over as I get into the nitty gritty details, but for the one or two of you who are actually interested, read on!

I have been to Mexico five times but only to the Yucatan peninsula. I would love to see more of the country and have really wanted to visit San Miguel de Allende (recently voted most best city in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine). My husband has a certain week off in March for his spring break and for some reason my kids usually get the Friday of that week off for a teacher inservice or something. So if we went that week they wouldn’t miss as much school. When I first started looking for award flights it seemed like an impossible task. College spring break time is almost as bad as the week between Christmas and New Years for finding affordable flights, even for places that aren’t your typical “wooo hoo spring break!” locales. At the time I had about 60k AA miles to spend. That is only enough for 4 one-way tickets internationally, so I theoretically had enough to get us there, but not enough to return. I did have this great perk through my Amex platinum business card, however, which is that if you use your membership rewards (Amex points) to buy a plane ticket on your preferred airline (this is something you have to pick in January and cannot change it for a year), AMEX will give you 50% of those points back, thus giving you a 50% discount (since then it has decreased to 35% points back). So I could use those points flying Delta on the way home.

Now to find the flights. As I have said elsewhere, for international flights I often look for flights leaving from Newark, Philadelphia, or JFK because our home airport of Syracuse is very small and therefore we might have 2 layovers. I searched and searched and found one-way flights from PHL-BJX (the closest airport to San Miguel, about an hour away) for 15k miles each leaving the Tuesday of that spring break week, from PHL at 5am. This meant we would have to drive down to Philadelphia that Monday, stay at a hotel near the airport and get to the airport by maybe 3:30am? Yuck, but oh well. For the return flights, the cheapest I could find on Delta was a BJX-PHL leaving on that Saturday 8:45am from BJX and getting into PHL at 6:41pm. This was also not great because we would need to be at BJX at 6:45 am, which meant leaving our hotel in San Miguel around 5:45am. But this was the cheapest option. The one-way tickets on Delta were $388 per person which translated to 155,812 MR points, so after the 50% back I would have spent 77, 906 MR, which would be 19,476 MR per ticket. The only kind of crappy thing was that we would only be in San Miguel for 3.5 days now, given we would arrive Tues afternoon and have to leave at the crack of dawn on Saturday. Here is how that all changed over the course of almost a year, so that now we are getting 7 full days there!

  1. First flight change: A little while after I booked the tickets, Delta changed the return flight time to an hour earlier – 7:45am! This meant we would have to leave the hotel at 4:45. Are cab drivers even up at that hour? The change was not significant enough to ask for a flight change, so we may have had to suck it up, until…
  2. Flight cancellation: One day in September I pulled up my Delta app to check on a different flight, and in my upcoming trips list the flights to Mexico had disappeared! I freaked out for a minute and then called Delta. They explained that our original flight had been cancelled. I asked why they didn’t contact me to let me know, and they said they couldn’t because I booked it with a 3rd party (amex). I had a hard time believing this because my Delta skymiles # was attached to the reservation, and they have my contact info through that, but whatever. The agent was super helpful and was able to find a flight that left the same day (Sat) at 9:45 am and got to Philadelphia at 8:33pm. Woo hoo! This meant we didn’t have to leave San Miguel at 5:30am. We would still need to leave early, but it wasn’t as bad.
  3. Second flight change: Then one day in November, I was contacted by Delta (by this point I made sure the reservation was linked to my contact info) to inform me that the flight had been changed again. I can’t remember what the change was (I think the layover was something ridiculously short, like 30 minutes), but it was significant enough that Delta would allow me to change my flights again, this time to whatever was open. Since I had wanted more time in San Miguel, I asked about flights on Sunday, and they changed our ticket to leave at 9:45 am Sunday, now giving us another FULL DAY there. I had wanted to check out Guanajuato, another  colonial town in the area that closer to the airport, but in our original itinerary, we didn’t have enough time to do two cities. Now we could leave San Miguel on Sat morning, spend the day and night in Guanajuato, and be closer to the airport to leave Sunday morning, #winning!
  4. I wasn’t thrilled about the 5am flight from PHL to BJX on AA, but like I said, when I originally booked it, that was all that was available in the 15k award level. Enter expertflyer.com. This site offers a search engine that will search award availability for you, and if you pay for their premium service ($10 a month), they will continue to search for any award that might open up for the flights you want. This is well worth the $10 in my opinion. I had expert flyer searching for any award flights on the Sat, Sun, and Mon before that Tuesday we were originally scheduled to leave, and lo and behold! on one day on November a bunch of new 15K award flights were released! I was able to decide between several different flights, but ended up settling on one that left PHL on 3pm on Sat and arrived in Mexico at 9pm. The only problem with that was the layover in Dallas was super tight, 55 minutes! But I figured if we missed the flight we would be able to catch one the next day.  Now we had an extra 2.5 days there! I booked a Hampton Inn near the airport for when we arrived late Sat night for $50 (don’t worry, it got great reviews, these are just Mexico prices), and another hotel in San Miguel for 2 extra nights using Chase ultimate rewards points.
  5. Now I was very happy that we would have 7 full days in our destination, vs 3.5. The only thing that was niggling at me was that 55min layover in Dallas. So, the other day I received a promotion from American where I have “Platinum Pro” status for the next 4 months! This means I get complimentary upgrades for domestic flights and can pay a small fee for myself and my companions for upgrades on international flights. I called to see about getting upgraded to first class on the flight there – at least we would be at the front of the cabin for when we would have to run to our connection. As I was chatting with the customer service rep however, she informed me that the upgrades don’t apply for award flights. Darn! I explained my concern to her that the connection was super tight, and she offered to look for a flight that left Philadelphia earlier. Luckily, she found seat availability on the 12:50pm flight from Philadelphia, giving as a longer layover of 3 hours. But since there is a Centurion Lounge in DFW, I don’t mind that at all! I don’t know how she was able to find this, since that flight had not been available previously at the 15k award level, but I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth!

So there it is, my long and winding road of being able to turn a 3.5 day trip with super inconvenient flight times into a 7 day trip with very convenient flights, with no change fees or money exchanged at all. I hope if you are still here by this point I have convinced you why it sometimes makes sense to book flights way in advance. It’s still a gamble, in that you never know for sure whether you will get a flight change that will allow you to book something else or if more award seats open up, but in my case the gamble paid off.

My favorite travel sites and tools

There’s no doubt about it, the internet has revolutionized the way we travel. For some folks this is a negative as it can take the excitement and mystery out of visiting new places and discovering what’s there on your own. I personally find the good outweighs the bad because the resources we now have at our fingertips allow me to truly make the most out of travel by making sure we don’t miss as much as we used to. I tend to do A LOT of research before I travel to a new place. Here are some of my favorite websites, apps, podcasts, and social media about travel hacking, traveling, and travel with kids.

On travel hacking

These are some of the top websites I go to. You can follow all of them on facebook and they will give you updates when something interesting happens in the travel hacking/credit card world.

  • pointsaway.com When I first started trying to learn about travel hacking my head was swimming from so much information. There were definitely times that I felt that I could’t “get it.” I was able to download and read a free ebook by Casey Ayers (of pointsaway) and it really helped me figure out where and how to get started. I don’t think the book is available anymore (and it would probably be outdated anyway since the points and miles game changes lightning fast), but he does have a nice website that explains how to get started.
  • financebuzz I know the husband and wife team who run this site because I am pretty active on their Facebook group. They are really helpful, nice people and their “FBZ Elite” Facebook group is basically like my travel hacking family. Their website also offers a lot of great information for both the novice and experienced travel hacker.
  • thepointsguy This guy made it big in the travel hacking blogosphere, and he is a good one to follow. I linked to his explanation of how to use the Chase cards for maximum benefit, as that is one of the most important things to understand when beginning travel hacking.
  • mommypoints I just like her because she posts about travel hacking with kids.
  • millionmilesecrets This guy also has a nice beginner’s guide and an active facebook site.
  • flyertalk If you are brave enough to take a deep dive into the world of hard core travel hackers, you should check out the message boards at flyer talk. This is one of the oldest travel hacking forums and has thousands of users. It can be hard to understand because people use codes and shorthand frequently. Often when I have a travel hacking question I will google the question and add “flyer talk” so I can find the right message thread to read what the “experts” are saying.
  • theflightdeal These folks will post super cheap flight deals and “error fares” (when an airline accidentally posts a really cheap fare (sometimes they get cancelled after you buy them). I follow them on facebook so I can see the deals in my feed when they come up.
  • evreward When you are trying to rack up points and miles, a good way to do it is every time you buy something online, you don’t go directly to the store’s website, you go through a portal set up by an airline, hotel, or credit card company and they give you a certain amount of points x your purchase. So it might me for example 3 Delta miles per dollar spent at homedepot. The trouble is, each site offers different incentives and they change daily. So before I go to buy something online I go to evreward and type in the store or website I am planning to shop from. This will give me a list of which airlines, hotels, and credit cards are giving bonuses and how much, so I can use the one that will give me the most reward.

Traveling in general: websites and apps

Here is a screenshot of my “traveling” folder on my phone, with some of my favorite apps. I have the major airline apps so I can quickly view my miles balance, see upcoming trips, search for paid and award fares, and quickly get my scan-able boarding pass when traveling. I also have apps for the hotel chains that I am using right now and have status (Hilton and SPG).


Other apps

  • tripadvisor Review sites and apps are a travelers best friend. My favorite is tripadvisor.com. I use this for reading reviews on restaurants, hotels, activities, and places in general. I will also use yelp on occasion but tripadvisor is my favorite (Yelp is in my “food” folder on my phone).
  • loungebuddy If you’ve read my other posts you’ve heard me talk about how having certain credit cards gets you access to airport lounges. Loungebuddy is awesome because it will give you details about the lounges that are available in any airport, with pictures and reviews. It also knows which ones you have access to.
  • alltrails I love to hike so I use this to find hiking trails nearby (with reviews and maps). I’m not in love with the app to be honest but it’s the best I have found (let me know if you know of a better one!
  • hopper This is an app that will continue to search particular flights for you and let you know, based on historical data, when you should buy and when you should wait and see if the price drops. I always use this when buying non-award flights.

Other websites

Other, non-app websites that I find essential for traveling are:

ITA flight matrix This is what I use to search for airline routes and flights. It’s not flashy and I think google flights works the same but I have gotten used to using this. You can search routes for multiple airports at a time and see what the flights would cost for the various airlines, at different airports, and over a month at a time of dates.

Biddingfortravel.com My good friend (who doesn’t travel hack but definitely is an amazing deal-finder), introduced me to this about 15 years ago. It is a website that explains how to bid on hotels through priceline to get the best deal.

autoslash People frequently ask me where to get the best deals on car rentals. Usually your best bet is to go through BJs or Costco if you have a membership with them. Otherwise you should try autoslash. It finds the best car rental deal for you and will update you if something cheaper comes along.

Podcasts

I love listening to travel podcasts, especially when I have a bad case of the wanderlust. These are my favorite ones.

Amateur Traveler Chris Christensen is the bomb. He’s like the Rick Steves of the podcast world. Each week he interviews an expert on a particular location and they usually give you a sample 1 week itinerary and a ton of great tips. Before I travel to a place I always check his 500+ episode archive to see if he interviewed anyone on that place and then I listen and take notes (yes I am a nerd).

Family Adventure Podcast Another binge-worthy favorite. Eric Hemingway is the host. Several years ago he and his family (of 6 kids!) embarked on a 5 year sailing adventure all over the world (without any sailing experience!). They are back on land now and he does a weekly podcast interviewing families who travel, often full time.

 

 

Change is good

When I started this blog it was primarily to explain the friends and family members how we travel hacked our trips so that they can learn by our example. I have decided to expand it a bit so that it is a blog about all of our travels, not just the hacked ones. I will continue to post about that but will also include some posts about other places we go.

Traveling with kids

The hot topic: how to travel with young kids. Even the most laid back of folks can dread it. A lot of friends that I’ve talked to with young kids are like “ugh, my kids are so annoying they would ruin the trip, why should I take them anywhere?” Ok fair enough, kids can be super annoying. But this argument to me is a bit like being really hungry and wanting a filet mignon, but the restaurant only has a hamburger. Do you say, “never mind, I’ll go without,” or do you re-orient yourself and take the hamburger even though it’s not what you really wanted. In other words, is your trip going to be like it was in the glory days when you and your spouse could wander through a beautiful foreign city all day, stopping for a bottle of wine and a leisurely two hour lunch while you stared into each other’s eyes? Ha! No way.  But if you re-adjust your goals and expectations for a trip, travel with kids can be really amazing too, just in a different way. Will they be super annoying? You bet. But aren’t they super annoying at home too? It’s not like you can escape this. I find that sometimes my kids are better behaved on a trip because they are excited and stimulated by all the new things. And if not, there’s always ice cream!

Ok so here are my top tips for traveling with kids (although you can find many more on all sorts of blogs out there on the interwebs).

1) Flights. Yes, this is the part most of us dread. Three words: electronics, electronics, electronics. Now is not the time to enforce “screen time” regulations. If they want to play Minecraft for 6 hours straight on the plane, I say go for it! I try to bring as many electronic gadgetry as I can and that usually helps.

My other tip has to do with seating. If you are 2 adults and 2 kids, sometimes it helps to have a 3 and 1 seating arrangement. So your partner sits with both kids and you get to sit by yourself (yay!). Then you switch so that you each get a chance to rest and recuperate from the annoyance. I also try to sit near the bathroom, which I know is smelly, but the little ones like to get up and use it frequently which is super annoying but at least if you are right by it it will be easier to go back and forth a hundred times.

2) Lodging. Always try to get a suite or Airbnb type apartment dwelling. I shop around to see which is the better deal, but having separate rooms and a kitchen is so helpful when traveling with kids. My kids go to bed super early and wake up super early, so we like to be able to put them to bed in one room and then we can hang out in another. And when they get up at the crack of dawn they can watch TV while we get a little more sleep.

Having a kitchen so that you can buy some familiar foods and cook at home sometimes is a great thing for traveling with kids. If the kids are exhausted from sightseeing all day and you cannot fathom taking them to a restaurant, give those little gremlins some chicken nuggets and put them to bed early while you send your spouse out for take-out and a bottle of wine to enjoy once they’re asleep.

Staying somewhere with a pool is always a good idea. My kids perk up whenever they can go swimming.

3) Sight-seeing. Have a plan. Look up all the kid friendly things to do ahead of time and make an itinerary. Wandering around aimlessly is not going to work well with most kids. Also don’t feel like you have to stick only to children’s museums and zoos. Most museums and other exhibits have some kind of children’s activity, so keep an eye out for those.

Also, if you have memberships to any of your local zoos or science centers, most of them have reciprocal memberships with places all over the world, so make sure you bring your membership cards with you and look at the list of reciprocals (also zoos often have aquariums as reciprocals). One year we had a family membership to our local science center and even though ours is pretty unimpressive, that year we got free admission to about 4 other science centers around the country – totally worth it!

Take breaks. It’s a good idea to make a morning plan and an afternoon/evening plan and take a break in between. If you can get back to your lodging to rest, watch TV, or go for a swim, you will all be better able to go back out for the afternoon and evening.

4) Food. Don’t be afraid to take your kids to cafes, bars, and restaurants. It seems like a uniquely American idea that we should only take our kids to places like Applebees. When you travel to most places you see that people bring their kids everywhere. So if you want to stop and get a cocktail at a local cafe, just find one that has hot chocolate or some kind of treat for the kids and enjoy! Also bring some kind of small activity or game for them in case they get bored.

5) Babysitting. Once in a while, if you really put your mind to it, you can find a trustworthy babysitter to use where you are traveling. Think really hard about where you are going and which of your friends might live there, used to live there, or have friends and family there. Scan your Facebook friends list to jog your memory. Reach out to them and see if they have someone they recommend for babysitting. I realize this might be controversial but you can always connect to that person ahead of time (do a Skype interview or ask for references if you are really nervous), set something up and enjoy your night out! Don’t forget to pay for your babysitter’s transportation to and from your lodging.

I think it boils down to have a plan but be flexible! Give your kids a little more leeway and expect that they will be whiny and annoying sometimes. We all get anxious and frustrated when traveling. Your kids are just more vocal about it. Remember that when they are whiny they probably need a snack or a break, and you might too.

My travel-hacking history, pre-2017…

So here’s a little bit about what I have done so far using points and miles. The first travel card I ever signed up for was the Capital One Venture Card. This is a great travel card for many reasons, including that every purchase gives you 2 points and you can use your points to simply “erase” any travel expenses. So for example, let’s say you bought a $200 plane ticket with the card. Once you had 20,000 points (you always just divide by 100), you could “erase” the purchase and CO would refund you the cost. I used this card for almost every purchase for probably about 6 or 7 years, and I got some great travel discounts from it. For example I accrued enough points to pay for a $1000 round trip ticket to Kenya when I went with a colleague to do a training. Over the years I used points to reimburse things like rental cars, train tickets, and motel rooms. Eventually I realized that since I had already used the sign up bonus, if I started using other cards as frequently as the Capital One Venture I could acquire even more points. So I put it to rest but still do use it occasionally to pay for things like rental cars that you can’t usually use airline miles and hotel points for.

Future posts in this blog are going to focus on one trip at a time where I paid for all or almost all of the trips using points or miles. But here are some trips that I took over the past few years where I did some travel hacking, before I got really serious about it (there’s more prior to this but I can’t remember so I’ll start about a year ago).

1. Clearwater, Florida, Oct 2015. As stated, used Capital One points to pay for 3 nights at a motel and rental car, so all we paid for was plane tickets to Tampa (about $200 each) and food.

2. Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, January 2016. My family and I rented a car and drove through the Yucatán for almost two weeks, stopping and staying in Merida, Chichen Itza, and Tulum. I planned this trip before I got really into travel hacking so we did pay for a lot out of pocket including plane fare and hotels. I was able to pay for the rental car that we had for 12 days using Capital One points. That said, I did use hotels.com to book some of the hotels (also since it is Mexico, even the really nice hotels are cheap by our standards, so we only paid between $70-130 USD a night, excepting our splurge on a beach bungalow in Tulum). The upshot is that I accrued several stays on my hotels.com account that got me closer to their promotion of book 10 nights and get one night free (which I used later in the summer). Food was super cheap because it is Mexico, so overall the trip was not very expensive.

3. Las Vegas, May 2016. This was a trip planned as a ten-year reunion with my internship class! We had a blast and booked an Air BnB suite in the MGM signature, which seemed to save use money over going directly through the hotel. To fly, I used American Airlines points that I had acccrued years ago after applying in-flight for an American Airlines mastercard. Unfortunately they didn’t have any coach award seats available when I went to book (you have to book these super early to get what you want, like 11 months in advance). So I had to book First Class. But, I felt this was only fitting for a glamcation like Vegas. I used about 50k American Airlines miles for the first class ticket and it was really worth it for such a long flight. The free cocktails, great service, and food were wonderful.

Another perk I got to use on this trip was being able to use the Centurion Lounge at the Las Vegas airport. American Express platinum holders get in for free. It’s a pretty posh lounge with an open bar and free buffet. I was able to use it after I landed and was also able to get in another friend for free. So we had a great time enjoying breakfast and mimosas while we waited for our other friends to arrive.

A third perk was when I rented a car for us with National, since I have the Amex Platinum I have automatic executive status, which means I can book and pay for a mid-size car, but then take any car  I want off the lot. So we were able to find a nice 6 passenger van (since there were 6 of us) and pay only for a mid-size car.

4. Legoland and Clearwater Beach, Florida, June 2016. As a surprise end-of-school trip for the kids we booked tickets on Allegiant Air for Clearwater/St. Petersburg out of Syracuse. Allegiant is a discount airline based out of Florida and they just started offering some direct flights from Syracuse (Clearwater/St. Pete, Ft. Lauderdale, and Myrtle Beach). We didn’t use a lot of points for this trip, except again to pay for the rental car. We did stay at a Hampton Inn, which helped me accrue Hilton HHonors points that I used to book a future trip.

5. Letchworth State Park and Niagara Falls, July 2016. Again, not a lot of points were used, but this was a pretty inexpensive trip given that we camped two nights at the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth State Park, in Western New York. I was able to use my hotels.com free night at the Best Western in Niagara Falls, so overall the trip expense was minimal.

Up next…Amsterdam! Again, not a lot of points and miles were used but some were accrued for future trips…