June 22, 2016

Our experience: Flying with your toddler won’t kill you

How to fly with a toddler Depending on how it goes, you might wish it had, but it won’t.

Spoiler Alert: We survived flying with an active, task oriented, curious, very mobile toddler!

We took two trips this year that required flying, changing time zones for one. The flights ranged from pretty good to Are we there, yet??

We flew Alaska Air for the first time in a decade, and discovered they were both pretty infant-friendly, and had a nifty 20-minute baggage guarantee that meant we waited zero time at baggage claim. I LOVED that. There were no other children on our Alaska Air flights but the flight attendants were actively engaged with us as parents, and offered us coloring books and crayons. They also encouraged us to belt JuggerLB in when appropriate, reassuring us that safety was more important than avoiding crying. All of that was really helpful in calming my slight case of nerves since it was our first flight and I didn’t know how ze would react to all of it. This flight was only about three hours so it was a useful data point in seeing how an airline might handle parents flying with children, and how JuggerLB handled travel.

We then crossed time zones with United, which had no baggage delivery guarantee, but was pretty quick. On the flip side, they misplaced our stroller for a while, and that gave us a bit of a scare. They weren’t actively unfriendly towards kids, but they definitely didn’t have anything for them either. While we were prepared to entertain JuggerLB, every little bit helps.

Booking midday and midweek flights

At this stage of life, I’m finally all about the Tuesday / Wednesday / Thursday flights.

We flew with JuggerLB as a lap infant but since the midday and midweek flight was only partly full, the flight attendants shuffled seat assignments to make sure we had a seat for hir anyway. As long as we didn’t get the absolute back row, we didn’t care where they put us. On Alaska, at least, it seemed to be such a routine thing they didn’t even mention it to us. The drawback of booking a midday flight is that it cuts into both morning and afternoon naps, and for a shorter flight, JuggerLB isn’t about to sleep and miss a minute of travel fun.

Getting to our destination with plenty of daylight, whether in a new city or getting back home, was a new and delightful change. We typically get in late at night when we travel and I much prefer the midday arrival. We had time to settle in and have a leisurely dinner without cutting into a full night’s rest.

Things I found especially useful

For quiet play, I left all the chiming or electronic toys at home. Instead, we packed board books, plastic rings, colorful window clings. Your mileage may vary from airline to airline but on one flight, we were offered a small box of crayons and coloring book which we happily accepted, and everyone was given snacks and drinks in plastic cups which came in very handy for more toddler distraction.

We packed multipurpose washcloths for cleaning up spills, to hold taut and form a pretend tray for LB to stack toys on, and save my clothes from sticky accidents. Drool bibs were a must because a teething toddler is drippy drooly, empty water bottles doubled as toys, and hir velcro tabbed shoes were entertainment for a solid ten minutes at a time.

We had our own snack bag: crackers, pretzels and cheese, raisins and pre-cut fruit all staved off the hunger between milk sessions. Ze was being weaned off bottles for our first set of flights but travel was not the time to be fussing about cups with those uncoordinated hands. SFO TSA was remarkably efficient, by the by, they simply sent us through with hir, and scanned all hir liquids, the stroller, and the car seat, and even helped me carry the car seat over to our pile of stuff after the security check. Pleasant and helpful – never knew they could be so good!

Plastic baggies were huge time-savers. I stored clean clothes, extra empty bottles, diapers and wipes, and medicine in them. When things spilled, as they do, the wet stuff went into the plastic bag and we moved right along.

First flight recap

LB was bouncy-excited about a plane full of hostages to hir. They were all in one place and couldn’t escape!

We were lucky, the flight attendants were already rearranging the passengers for weight distribution so they graciously made sure that we had an extra seat for LB. Wonderful surprise! We did lots of in-seat play, focusing on keeping hir attention on us and our games, taking advantage of that third seat to move more freely and keep toys on the seats. Ze zeroed in on rearranging the seat back reading material for at least 20-40 minutes, so we were scrupulously careful about not letting hir actually touch the seat back. The people in front of us weren’t crankypants and giving us the evil eye to begin with, like some child-haters do, and we weren’t about to give anyone cause for it.

When the wiggly was uncontainable, the two of them did lots of walking up and down the aisle, waving and smiling. Ze made a friend of most people with hir smiles, and more probably with hir generally quiet play. I think ze hollered in excitement about three times and cried once. But ze completely missed takeoff and landing, impervious to the pressure changes, and may that forever be the case.

Second flight recap

We did all in-seat play, due to unexpected turbulence, but we had a few unlooked for perks. The plane wasn’t full, again, so the attendants rearranged seating to give hir a seat which the person in our row was offering to do (random nice people!) when he thought we’d been separated, AND the middle seat in front of us was empty. That meant we could let hir play with the seat back materials and also use the tray. We don’t let hir use or touch the trays if people are in the seat. Ze likes to bang things on the tray, or bang it up and down, and that’s just rude.

We thought we needed the iPad but we never even got to most of hir regular toys because ze was having so much fun pulling out the safety cards and rearranging them. I’d brought some cool window clings that ze didn’t quite know what to do with so we spent half an hour with me placing them on the window and hir removing them. Those things probably won’t be able to cling to anything ever again.

Third flight recap

I felt like a terrible parent when we realized that ze was having teething pain after we took off. Ze has never noticed take off or landing, I should mention, so far ze has had good luck with the change in pressure. May that always be the case! Since ze hadn’t been drooling or teething for a few days, I’d packed up all hir medications and checked the bag. ERROR. I won’t be making that mistake again! An hour into the flight, ze was huddled, miserable and feverish, and in need of Motrin.

We lucked out in sitting near a lovely family with an infant of their own, and who hadn’t foolishly checked in their medications so they gave us their travel bottle. I offered to pay or replace it but they waved me off. It’s amazing how nice some people can be.

We had some trouble getting hir to take all the meds but the side effect of hir discomfort was that ze took two catnaps on the long flight. That’s totally abnormal and was clearly because ze wasn’t feeling well but it got us through the flight somewhat less exhausted than if we’d had to entertain hir for the full 5 hours.

Fourth flight recap

No such mercy on this flight, though. Not that I’m wishing JuggerBaby was sick, even if ze is easier when sick. I just hoped that ze would have found it old hat enough at this point to relax and nap. Instead, ze played hard and grouched harder. There was some crying on this flight, and that sucked. We took it in turns to play, feed, and distract hir, wishing heartily for time to pass faster.

Obviously we made it back safely and each in our respective pieces but you couldn’t have sighed a bigger sigh of relief than we did once ze was fed, clean, and put to bed. HOME SWEET HOME.

:: Do you find flying stressful? What makes it easier? 

June 20, 2016

Emerald City 2016

Emerald City Comic Con 2016: We'll definitely do this againOur travel cost breakdown

Lodgings, 48,000 StarPoints / $0 (cost if paid out of pocket, $859.65)*
Airfare for 3, $350
Rental car, $250
Boarding, $450
Taxi, $50
Groceries and eating out, $240
Gas, $20
Gifts and things, $100

total: $1460

* This is why I love my SPG American Express. We pay a $95 annual fee, and redeem an average of $500-$1000 in hotel room value per year.

On food.
Meals were eclectic. Usually our lunches or dinners are the highlight of the food experience but it was flipped this trip. Lunches were picked up from a food truck (meh) and sandwich shop (awesome). Dinners ranged from fantastic Indian food, to average sushi (which still makes me sad to this day, I was so looking forward to it), to sandwiches from the amazing deli. We supplemented with the free Noosa yogurt they kept handing out at the convention center – JuggerBaby is a HUGE FAN.

Breakfasts were the fun stuff. PiC would take JuggerBaby out for an adventure every morning and they’d bring me back some yummy tidbit from Pike Place or something thereabouts. Favorites: Piroshky Piroshky, The Crumpet Shop, Honest Biscuit and Top Pot Donuts.

On tourist stuff and having fun.
We were in town for Emerald City Comic Con and to meet up with local friends. It’s great to be centrally located or located close by one another so we can easily spend a little time on the Con floor and then get back for JuggerBaby’s nap or to have dinner with friends. We still haven’t been to the Space Needle but I’d like to one day, just to do it.

:: Have you visited Seattle? Do you have any must-see or must-eat recommendations? What’s your usual travel budget for a longer than a weekend trip? 

May 30, 2016

How we spent a week in Hawaii for $1000

Aloha in our lives: Hawaii is a wonderful family getaway if you can make it affordableHawaii is awesome.

But Hawaii is also very expensive. It’s a high COLA and it’s only somewhat cheaper to have fun there if you’re resident because you can take advantage of the kama’aina rates. Otherwise, it’s expensive to buy groceries, eat out, and get around.

Part of this was possible because – well, I was going to say “we lucked into basically free accommodations” but that’s not accurate – our accommodations didn’t cost anything out of pocket but it wasn’t precisely free. We offer home-cooked meals, the guest bedroom, and rides to and from the airport to a variety of friends and family. This costs money, time and effort on our part but we don’t begrudge the hospitality because we have learned to set boundaries and offer only what we can truly give.

On occasion, and without any hints or nudges from us because we don’t expect it, some friends will offer us the same, either in their home or wherever they’re traveling.

In this case, friends happened to be traveling to Hawaii, had a free room in their rental home, and offered it to us. We were responsible for all our other costs, but we were welcome to stay for free and that was most excellent.

When free isn’t exactly free

Now you know me – when someone says “I have a free room for you in Hawaii”, I’m gonna say, hold on, lemme see if I can afford that “free” room. It costs something to get there, to get around, and to survive there, ya know! But it’s Hawaii and it’s been years since our last real vacation where I wasn’t pretty much working the whole time so of course I was going to find a way to make it work.

And indeed I did.

Our travel cost breakdown

Lodgings, $0 (est cost for 1 week, non-fancy: $2100)
Airfare for 3*, $35 (cost if we paid cash: $1500)
Groceries and eating out, $230
Gas, $20
Rental car for 1 week, $130
Taxi, $50
Boarding, $450
Gifts and things, $150

total: $1065

How did that happen?

After a few hours of research, I settled on flying United, hoping to snag a pair of fancy First Class / Coach class combination flights. The extra stop and short leg in Coach class meant that it was a Mixed Class booking and therefore would cost fewer miles.

If that worked out, I theorized that we could manage not buying a seat for JuggerLB who, even several months ago, was already unbearably wiggly. I succeeded in piling up enough miles with a couple of credit card bonuses, but failed to finalize the booking because we weren’t allowed to combine all our miles into one account to book the two seats at the same time. Drat.

Never mind, thought, we still had enough miles then to book three coach class seats which gave us the wiggle room that was sorely needed with JuggerLB.

The car rental nearly torpedoed my hopes when I saw the rates trending around $300-400 for the week. Put together with the fee to board Seamus, I just couldn’t see spending $1000 before we even left the airport.

ENTER: credit card membership benefits! It turns out if you hold a specific kind of CitiCard, you get complimentary Hertz Gold membership status and also extra discounts. I hadn’t seriously considered Hertz because they tend to be the most expensive but after combining that with our AAA membership, I saved us 60% on our week-long rental. And we were back in business!

Actually, those were the four biggest expenses, in order: accommodations, airfare, dog boarding, and car rental.

We simultaneously economized and didn’t.

On food. We treated our friends to a few meals out, at varying levels of expensive, and they bought enough groceries to provide us breakfasts and light lunches. We supplemented with deli lunches and other small desired delicacies.

We loaded up on mainland treats for our friends’s kids and some of our own foods for the week so that we wouldn’t have to pay $9 for a box of cereal or $7 for a jar of peanut butter.

On boarding. We could have gone with a cheaper sitter but we know and trust this one, and I’m still traumatized from losing Doggle in the hands of an irresponsible sitter. Seamus was in good and caring hands with this person and that’s the only way you’re going to get me to leave him behind.

On tourist stuff and having fun. Having a kid that still has to nap twice a day seriously limits your options when most attractions take half a day or more because of traffic or distance. We used to skip one of the two naps on occasion for special occasions but JuggerLB has hit a phase where skipping a nap means being too tired means ze will bite, usually me, and it HURTS.

I would have loved to swim with dolphins but, in the end, couldn’t bring myself to pay nearly $300 for less than an hour of fun.

Making a virtue of my cheapness and JuggerLB’s required rest periods, we enjoyed the sun and the water that was practically at our doorstep, free movies, and the free ice cream social. Also the free parking. I hate paying for parking so much that I celebrate a little extra when we travel and don’t have to pay an astronomical amount to leave my car in a safe space for a while. Oh, and each other. We had a lot of fun just hanging out together, chasing JuggerLB, and relaxing. I haven’t gone 24 hours without thinking about working, working, or thinking about work problems in I don’t even know how long.

I’d also forgotten how much the aloha spirit and relaxed island attitude toward time melts away my stress. There’s something magical about island time: it seems to pass three times more slowly. It was totally worth all the work and trouble to make it happen. Though technically I guess you’d say we paid $1000 for three of us to go and one of us NOT to go to Hawaii.

:: Have you visited Hawaii? Is it your kind of vacation? If not, what is? 

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December 9, 2015

Contemplating international travel with a baby

At some point, we’ll likely take LB back to Asia to meet relatives. That sounds all yay family and fancy-like but every single time I say it, and I test it on myself every so often for desensitization purposes, alarm bells of Preparation, Will Robinson, Preparation! go off in my head.

Dalek

We haven’t even flown domestically with hir yet, I’m not at all prepared to wrassle a child this active and interested in everything on a flight for double digit hours.

It finally sank in why my friend said Travel as much as you can in the first year. It’s all much harder after that. Oh. Some of them, when they can move, they MOVE. This one does. Holy mopeds, this one does.

Logistics

Passports: US passports for any minor child under 16 costs $105 and is good for five years. I don’t know in what world a child looks even remotely similar five years on but I’m not volunteering to pay that price more frequently.

Among other things, they require both parents to apply in person (or one parent goes, the other parent sends a signed, notarized form), proof of US citizenship, and evidence of the parental relationship.

Flights: Ze is a lap child until the age of two but since the last time I received sage travel advice, ze has become even squirmier. Even if we manage to squeeze in a flight before hir second birthday, I think our sanity demands a separate seat. This means an extra cost whether we manage to swing award flights or pay out of pocket.

Packing: Holy CATS I’m not looking forward to this. Bright side? Ze isn’t going through 11-20 diapers a day anymore. Less bright side: hir diapers are huge now, in comparison, and we still have to carry a supply of them. Also the stroller since it would be lovely not to be incapacitated by hefting this most-healthy, not-yet-walking, heavy child for miles. And of course, there’s the car seat thing. Traveling with a kid still in a car seat is most definitely anti-minimalist but I will do my best. It feels like Stroller City around here so I’m totally against buying an umbrella stroller to add to the mix, but I’m open to any other suggestions to keep the mess down.

Health check up: Ze was an absolute trooper for hir flu shot, after being given something to bite down on like any good ole Wild West character, but the battery of injections needed to go to Asia makes me cringe. Still, better a jab than a multi-week illness. *For the record, I got all the jabs and still got sick when we traveled to Asia as a youngun. If I wasn’t so sick, I would have been extremely bitter.

On the plus side

I suspect this will make for a good story, no matter how well or badly it goes. So as long as we survive, I’ll be excited.

There’s really no economic payoff on this choice, but I don’t think we expected there to be one. (Though, can you blame me for checking?) Oh but naturally it’s going to set off all my travel planning / deal hunting neurons and I’ll be obsessed with that for a good long while. You always need a good obsession to chew on.

Meeting family should be good. Right?

July 29, 2015

SDCC 2015 recap

SDCC6

Preparation for this year was brutal

Badge purchasing was organized by lottery system.
Hotel booking was a lottery system.
Parking passes were sold on a lottery system.

It’s a flipping miracle that we got passes, secured a hotel room through the lottery system for friends, and secured a parking pass.

Our rental vehicle was booked for the week and I let out a sigh of relief on June 28th.  All was set, I thought. Then I quickly sucked it back in because with my luck….

Sure enough, I’d booked the wrong dates for the rental and rebooking was estimated to be $1800. A panicked call to Enterprise + a reasonable service rep = corrected booking. Whew.

Oh wait.

At the last minute, our lodging plans changed and we needed to book a hotel for ourselves. Two weeks before Comic-Con. Now THAT was a hoot. 99% of the hotels in our desired region were booked out and the hotels that were available were the Embassy Suites for $800/night, the Doubletree for $900/night and the Indigo for $1800/night. Awesome.

We needed both a baby and pet friendly hotel and I was not paying over $500 a night for four nights of an average hotel that would then charge for parking and a pet fee for Seamus, no way, no how!

Ten hours of searching, and 6 bookings later, we booked an average hotel somewhat near downtown that didn’t have recent reports of bedbugs. (Ugh!) Clearly, our standards had changed. And it was going to cost nearly $1700 for the whole stay. *clutch throat* I’ve never spent that much on an entire trip to SDCC, forget just on hotel! But it was a last minute change, it couldn’t be helped, and I refused to let it ruin our plans. One side effect of having been a extra frugal Con goer, and spending next to nothing on hobbies, is that our savings are absolutely solid and our cash flow can bear a hiccup or two even in the four digit range.

Packing was a bummer this year because I still don’t fit most of my clothes and that includes my standard Con wardrobe of geeky shirts.

Comic-Con commenced…

Left: BADGED! Right: a fantastic cosplay.

Left: BADGED! Right: a fantastic cosplay (I didn’t know the character, unfortunately).

We didn’t get Preview Night for Wednesday which, in retrospect, was for the best. Logistics were already well nigh incomprehensible, trying to make it to town and ready to hit the floor on Wednesday would have been excruciating stress.

Thursday was our first day on the floor and it was yet another bust: Seamus hurt his paws before we left. While one paw was responding to home treatment, the other significantly deteriorated in just the two days since we left San Francisco. I made the call to give up an afternoon at Con and take him to a San Diego vet to head off a major infection. I was grouchy about the loss of floor time but it was the right call. He responded to the medications overnight, allowing his paw to actually start healing. Hallelujah! And it was “only” $110.

With Seamus all set, we headed out Friday for our full day on site with a lighter step and clear conscience. Despite all the missteps and mishaps leading up to this day, it was wonderful.

SDCC photos courtesy of @ashleyserena

Left: I’m really not sure what’s happening here. A unicorn/centaur Colonel (KFC)? Right, top: Ashley on the Iron Throne (Game of Thrones Experience) Right, bottom: Tribbles! All photos courtesy of @ashleyserena

The Kelly Sue headed panel on writing, and then on their company Milkfed Criminal Masterminds, were both fantastic.

We browsed a discount TPBs booth where I impulse bought $45 worth of comics for myself and a friend. Browsing wasn’t even on the list of things I thought we’d have the freedom to do but LB was so incredibly cooperative. Ze was just hanging out, enjoying the sights and sounds, and it was awesome. I picked up gifts for three people and got myself a new t-shirt. We took a dozen pictures of LB and PiC hanging out and having a good old time, and had silly pictures taken at promo booths.

I was sad to miss the panel with Congressman John Lewis, the last surviving member of the “Big 6” from the civil rights movement, who marched in Selma on Bloody Sunday. Even typing that makes me tear up at what people had to go through to be treated like humans. But I’m really happy that it happened.

There were many other fun and wonderful things this year, and we missed many of our regular visits (Marian Call’s concerts, for one) but this trip renewed our enjoyment of the event. Every year we’re aware it might be our last, but as long as we can go, we will.

July 17, 2015

Getting antsy: must travel

For a hermit/homebody, I’ve sure been doing a lot of travel deals scouting.

It’s a restless, bargain hunting soul that’s trying to rev up the trip planning machine. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as nailing a deal combination that gets you to a Must See Destination for way less than expected. Add to that the desire to travel before the Wiggle Worm doesn’t fly free anymore and you get a particular sense of urgency. So I figure why the hell not? I’ll figure out how to juggle travel and work and an increasingly active baby.

Destinations we’re stalking bargains for now through 2016: San Diego, Hawaii, Seattle, Asia, Chicago.

***

All my flights of fancy trips are big time-consuming things, requiring lots of time off and probably a lot of patience, possibly more than either of us have.  No reason not to dream, though, right?

Someday trips:

Take the whole family on a road trip across the States. Take a few months to do it properly and go through: the Eastern Seaboard (visit friends, eat seafood), Louisiana (visit friends, eat seafood), Tennessee (visit friends, eat BBQ), Montana (just because), Iowa (visit friends, food?), Utah (I’m told the drive is spectacular, but what food is there?), Colorado (visit friends, food suggestions?). I think other states were suggested on Twitter: Massachusetts, Kentucky, Washington. Am I missing any?

Australia for a month. Maybe Australia + New Zealand for 6 weeks? I’m hearing that food is expensive in at least Australia, though, which isn’t awesome because travel is all about food for me.

Japan for a month for all the Japanese food I can think of, particularly sushi. Katherine at Feather Factor has blogged about some really neat ryokan I’d love to try.

Iceland. Peru. Thailand (again). Italy (again). Galapagos. 

***

Then again, I get the yearning for home after two weeks abroad, almost like clockwork, so maybe these month(s)-long journeys aren’t truly my cup of tea.  The trek across the States could happen if we got truly brave and did an RV, maybe, so Seamus could come with us. Missing home is much worse when missing the dog is part of the mix. Being away is much better when your whole chosen family’s with you. 

June 17, 2015

A taste of San Francisco

Thanks in large part to PiC, our reputation as hosts for the SF Bay Area remains untarnished. If there was a Great Hosts Club, I think we’d be eligible to join. A dear friend spent a weekend with us and with a bit of planning, a lot of flexibility, and a soupcon of adventurousness it couldn’t have been more perfect.

It could have been actual perfection if we had miraculous recoveries from our various health issues but other than that, it was perfect.

Most of the time was spent catching up, talking about life and money and kids and travel and just, oh, everything under the sun. We tend to fail miserably at exploring our own city but having guests is an excellent way to kick us out and discover.

When we ventured beyond the front door….

Remember the Nopalito fail? We redeemed ourselves with take out.

The painted tiles are gorgeous. Who knew?

SF1

16th Street painted tiles

My suggestion of NOT trying to cross the bridge and get an excellent view of it: great!
Our first visit to Crissy Field

SF3

Crissy Field, view of a foggy Golden Gate Bridge

I had forgotten what delectations can be had from Arizmendi Bakery (a co-op).

SF2

Cheese bread, peach strawberry scone, oat scone

We actively practiced respecting our limits, not being fools or pushing ourselves too much. One of the stupidest mistakes I make when traveling or hosting is failing to recognize when my body’s about to bow out. Another is failing to flock to the birds of my feather: those who are considerate of all physical limitations and find ways to have fun without catastrophic regrets.

So this weekend? Mutual respect, good memories, happy plans to make more.

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