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FAQ: Intro to Miles and Points

I have had a ton of questions on miles and points, since that’s a huge part of both our travel scheme and how we justify much of our expenditures.

Here’s the main principle to take home with you:

Miles and points are alternative currencies, just like cash.

You know when you get the credit card solicitation in the mail and it says “comes with enough miles for a free ticket”?  I want you to stop thinking of it as a “free” ticket, and start thinking of it as 25,000 points you can spend on something.

Here’s why.

Say you take that 25,000 points and you use it to book a ticket to Orlando, nine months from now, in the off season.  If you paid cash for that tickets, you might spend $300.  So… great!  You got $300 value for your 25,000 miles.

Now say that you use your 25,000 points and use it to book to a high demand, low lift destination like Jackson Hole in a month.  If you were to book that revenue, that is paying cash, you might pay $600.  In this case you got $600 of value for your 25,000 miles.  Clearly, you got better value out of your miles in this case than in the first case.

A metric we use a lot is the cost per mile, or CPM.  (In reward programs that use points instead of miles, the analog is cost per point, or CPP.)  Just like any currency exchange, there is a buying CPM (the rate at which you earn miles) and a selling CPM (the rate at which you spend miles).  If you calculated your CPM for the previous two examples, you would be looking at your selling CPM.  You take the money you would be spending (in this case $300) and divide by the points you are spending (25,000).  In the first case you are getting 1.2 CPM and in the second case you are getting twice that for 2.4 CPM.  When looking at your selling CPM, higher is better, because it means you are getting better value from your miles.

You can also look at your buying CPM, which is what we look at to determine how good of a deal a trip is.  The buying CPM has a good baseline, because most airlines will sell you their miles for some cash, and you can do a simple calculation to determine what their CPM is.  United, for example, will sell you 10,000 miles for 376.25, for a buying CPM of 3.8.  For the examples above, on a BOS-MCO round trip, you would be “buying” your miles along with the trip for 12.8 CPM.  And for a BOS-JAC round trip, you would get around 13.9 cpm.  If you earn any mileage bonuses due to fare classes, promotions, or elite status, this CPM will improve.  In buying CPM, lower is better.

Obviously, there are other issues at stake here – where you would like to go on the dates when you would like to go, what the award availability is like, etc.

The point here is that instead of treating miles and points as “free,” treating them like a cash equivalent can help you get the most bang for your buck out of both earning and using them.

You can also apply the same analysis to spending miles and points to purchase other items like hotel rooms, rental cars, and merchandise.  Look at the price you would have paid in cash for the item, divide by the number of miles.  Does this seem like a good value for your miles?

I haven’t written about miles and points yet on this blog because I’m not sure how much interest there is in this community.  If you would like to see more on the subject along with how we think about it as a family, drop me a comment here, on Facebook, or in email at amy@strollerpacking.com.

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Looking for a place to let your kids get the wiggles out at the airport?  Our Airport Playscapes series is here to help!

Airport Playscapes: Tel Aviv

Location: Just past immigration, turn right around the “wheel” and take the second “spoke” down toward the VAT refund counter.

A collection of colorful, child-friendly vignettes from around the world.  A few have items to climb on or under.  There is also a TV room showing cartoons in Hebrew with cushy benches to sit or lay on.

Airport Playscapes: Tel Aviv

Airport Playscapes: Tel Aviv

Airport Playscapes: Tel Aviv

Airport Playscapes: Tel Aviv

TV Room

Airport Playscapes: Tel Aviv

TV Room

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FAQ: Breastfeeding while Flying

FAQ: Breastfeeding While Flying

I made a snarky post on Facebook yesterday about the latest headline that Delta Airlines told a woman through Twitter that she should bring pumped milk rather than breastfeed onboard a flight.  I will say here what I said there: I have never covered up to breastfeed on an airplane.  I have never had anyone – flight crew or passenger – say anything to me about it.  I know these incidents happen, but they are isolated.  The vast majority of your fellow passengers and flight crews are just grateful that you have a (nearly) foolproof way to keep baby happy and quiet.

So let’s talk about it a little bit so that you are prepared.

First of all, if you are just starting out with this breastfeeding thing (or haven’t started yet), know that it’s a learning curve.  It gets much easier.  The first couple days of breastfeeding, I literally had to just take my top off.  I couldn’t even handle clothes.  I couldn’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t need to pull my whole breast out from my shirt and make a big old scene.  You will learn.  It comes with practice.  You might have to experiment a little with what combination of clothes works best for you, but you’ll get there.

So, for me, once I got the hang of manipulating clothes and getting baby latched on, I felt like I was so much more discreet when I just did it rather than trying to keep a large tent arranged just so.  I never covered up when nursing in public anywhere, let alone on a plane – not because I was trying to be an activist, although I do think it’s good to normalize breastfeeding – but because I was actually able to be more discreet and more comfortable that way.  In fact, as my friend Emily points out, it’s actually pretty easy to breastfeed discreetly on an airplane – everyone is facing forward, and anyone who can see you is probably trying to see what you are doing.

Legally, you have the right to breastfeed in public.  Any passenger or flight crew who tells you otherwise is misinformed.  You may feel like these confrontations happen all the time because they make headlines.  But think of the thousands of breastfeeding women who are flying every single day, and incidents like this one only happen once a year or so.

The biggest piece of advice I have is to do what makes you comfortable.  If you are super comfortable with your Hooter Hider, use it!  If you like to bring pumped milk, do it!  If you feel better when you just rearrange your clothes a little, you can do that too!

Here’s a gallery I had put together of some of the exciting and awesome places I breastfed my babies.  In public.  Without a cover up.  I hope it encourages and empowers you.

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Free Travel Guide Resources

Free Travel Guide Resources

Many travelers I know plan a trip and then immediately run out and purchase one or more guide books from Amazon or your local bookstore.  At $15-25 a pop, this can get really expensive really fast.  Since we travel on a budget, this cost could quickly become a non-trivial portion of the trip cost.  Not only that, but travel information is constantly changing.  You can be all but guaranteed that your purchase is not an investment for the future – it will likely be useful just for this trip, and then become outdated after that.

Here are a few free resources that I like to use for trip planning and execution.

1. Wikitravel

Wikitravel is an amazing place to start.  Usually the articles are pretty short and contain real highlights, as opposed to a 300-page book that has an overwhelming amount of details when you are just starting out.  You can print pages of interest yourself, for a more lightweight and more disposable source of information than a published book.  Set your print options to print four pages per sheet of paper, and double sided if you have that option.  The text will be small, but you will further decrease your weight and your printing costs.

As with all things Wiki, pages may be edited by biased sources, particularly more obscure pages that don’t get a lot of traffic.  Keep your thinking cap on, and trust but verify any information that you are banking on to be correct.

2. Your local library

Your library likely buys the new copy of whatever travel guide you need as soon as it is published.  Let them make the investment for you.  Save time and hassle by requesting the books that you would like online and have them sent to your local branch.  Get several different brands, because you might like the style or information in one versus another.  Our favorites are Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, although we also like Fodors and Rick Steves on occasion.  We’ve discovered that we don’t really prefer the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness books, but if they are your style, more power to ya.

I absolutely take library books abroad in my luggage and then return them after the trip – make sure you manage your due dates so that you have enough time to do this without owing a fine.

3. TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor has two very powerful resources going for it.  One is the online reviews written by people with recent experience. Reviews are available for hotels and restaurants, but also for sightseeing locations and tours.  Utilize negative reviews as well as the positive ones – check out what went wrong and decide if you can deal with the downsides, especially if it’s a money saver.

TripAdvisor also has forums where you can ask specific questions if they aren’t already answered by reviews.

4. FlyerTalk

FlyerTalk is known for being the most prolific online community for frequent flyers, miles and points junkies, and commercial flying nerds.  But there’s also a whole forum for destination information, which includes posts and responses from travelers and locals living around the world.  A very powerful resource, and our favorite forum for tricky, off-the-beaten-path questions.

Again, information on FlyerTalk can be subjective if coming from a single individual.  Trust, but verify – that is your mantra.

A word on ebooks

Ebooks and eTravelGuides can be a really good option for travel, because they don’t increase the weight that you carry – being stored on a device that you are presumably carrying anyway.  To keep the costs down, and to avoid purchasing a book that you turn out to dislike, try to borrow the hard copy version from the library first, make the selection of which ebook you like best, then only purchase the one or two that will be most useful for you.  You can also check to see if your library lends ebooks and borrow it without having to purchase.

Free tools abound for travel planning, and these are a few of our favorites.  Remember – keeping costs down ensures that you’ll be able to travel more often, so be smart about incidental purchases!

 

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The Miracle of White Noise

The Miracle of White Noise

How do you pack four or five people into the same hotel room, including two or three who normally don’t sleep very well anyway, and expect to get a good night’s rest?

Enter: the white noise machine.

The beauty of white noise is that it covers up the little strange sounds in your hotel – banging pipes, traffic, your loud-sex-having neighbors (that was our last trip), and perhaps most of all, all the rustling, coughing, and snorting of your small and large roommates.

Full disclosure: my kids sleep with white noise machines at home.  I know some people are a bit opposed to them, because they don’t want to become dependent on them.  I can certainly understand that point of view, but I’d still encourage you to make an exception for travel situations.  A few nights with a machine does not a habit form, and the benefits here definitely outweigh the risks.

On domestic trips, we take one (or two!) of our white noise machines with us.  We have a small fleet of these little guys right here:

This model has a selection of sounds, a good dynamic volume range, a pleasant white noise sound, a sleek profile that’s easy to stuff in a small bag, and is quite affordable.  (The affordability factor also makes it replaceable, in case you were to plug it into a 220V outlet without a converter.  I mean… who would do such a thing?  Speaking of which…)

On international trips, because we tend not to take a power converter with us, we use iOS or Android apps, specifically White Noise Lite, which is free and includes an easily readable clock feature.  We like the “airplane cabin” setting.  That might sound like we are just super psyched for flying more and more and more, but no… I find that the airplane cabin has the most pleasant sound balance, with good low tones in addition to high ones.  This quality is surprisingly tough to find when pumping sound through little phone or tablet speakers.

(You could obviously use an app on domestic trips too, but we’d rather have the use of the phone/tablet instead of tie it up after kid bedtime whenever possible.)

White noise is definitely the best tool we have in our arsenal to combat a range of strange sounds while staying in a new place.  It really does ensure that we all get the best sleep possible.

This post contains affiliate links.  If you make a purchase after clicking, I receive a small commission, and you help our family on our quest for adventure!  I only recommend products that I use and love.

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Airport Playscapes: Philadelphia

Looking for a place to let your kids get the wiggles out at the airport?  Our Airport Playscapes series is here to help!

PHL Philadelphia Airport Playscape

At the entrance to the A Concourse

Location: Entrance to the A concourse

Sponsor: Philadelphia Children’s Museum

Simple wooden mockups of an airplane, baggage tractor, and air traffic control tower are good for small kids, but will also entertain a slightly older child with an imagination. There is plenty of opportunity to get the wiggles out… the space is fairly large and open, contained by a low wall, and features a mid-size slide.

PHL Philadelphia Airport Playscape

Air Traffic Control

PHL Philadelphia Airport Playscape

Airplane Passenger

PHL Philadelphia Airport Playscape

Baggage Tractor

PHL Philadelphia Airport Playscape

Route Map

PHL Philadelphia Airport Playscape

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The #1 Way to Save on Travel

This is the secret.  How can we afford to travel so much?  I’m going to give it to you.  Ready?

Be infinitely flexible.

That’s it.  That’s how you do it.

Infinite flexibility means absolutely never saying “we need to go from xxx to yyy and we can only travel on these two days.”

Infinite flexibility means traveling in the off season.  It means Norway in April, the Swiss Alps in January, and Southeast Asia during the monsoon.

Infinite flexibility means going where the deals are, even if it means going to Madrid twice in one year because it’s cheaper than a domestic transcon.  Or planning your stop in Andorra the weekend before the ski slopes open so that all hotels are 80% off.

Most of the time, infinite flexibility means taking the extremely expensive summers off.  It means that the guidebooks don’t give you accurate information on opening hours or closure days because they assume you are going during the popular summer months.

A corollary to this is that you might miss out on a few seasonal attractions or events by coming in the off season.  And you will have people ask you, “Why bother visiting if things are just going to be closed?”  And my answer to this is because the alternative to going in the off season might be not going at all.  The alternative might be believing that a single trip abroad needs to cost 20% or more of your annual take home pay.  Or it might be that the alternative to taking multiple off-season trips per year is to take one prime-season trip every 5 years.  And none of these scenarios seem like the ticket to me.

When it comes to travel, I think there’s a significant argument to be made for quantity over quality, and that’s how we choose to operate as a family.

Admittedly, there is a certain learning curve for how to follow the off-season deals and get notified about mistake fares, fare sales, and hotel points breaks.  But those things can be learned or followed on blogs and forums.

An attitude of constant flexibility, of seriously not caring where you go or when must come from within you.

 

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FAQ: The Time Change Conundrum

What do I do about the time change?

The easy answer to this is “nothing.”  Let your kids do what they are going to do.

But since you are probably looking for more than that, and you know I have more to say on the topic, I’ll elaborate.

First of all, when your kids are still in the infant year, in that crazy time when night sleep still looks depressingly like day sleep – short and infrequent – I really do mean it when I say let the kid do what they are going to do.  Expose your baby to as much daylight as possible when they are supposed to be awake – light is powerful.  Expect to be awake for the most part on your home schedule, especially for the first few days.  Be patient – with yourself, your baby, and your partner.  Cut yourself some slack.  Don’t schedule a whole bunch of activities at times when they expect to be sleeping.  They will probably slowly adjust over the course of 2 or 3 days.

So let’s talk about kids older than a year.  For the most part, night sleep has probably stabilized by this time (I know there are a few of you rolling your eyes at me right now), and you probably have some semblance of control.

For domestic trips, or trips with only a few hours of time change (i.e. perhaps to the southern hemisphere), consider not adjusting your kids.  If they normally go to bed at 8, and a two hour time change makes them go to bed at 10 and get up at 9, maybe just roll with that.  If they start to adjust on their own, due to factors like daylight, more power to them, and you can roll with that as well.

If the time difference is more than 2-3 hours, you’ll probably want the kids to adjust, either by a little or a lot.  My best tips for large time differences are these:

1) Wake them up early.

This is the easiest way to change the kids’ schedule.  You wake them up early and they should be in a fairly good mood because they’ve just slept, even if it’s not enough.  When they get tired, you can put them down, which should be earlier… and you are well on your way to sliding their schedule around.

2) Let them stay up late.

This is the second easiest way to change the kids’ schedule, only slightly less preferred because as they get more tired late in the evening (or what they feel is the evening), they could get cranky.

3) Avoid “putting to bed early” or “sleeping in.”

But if you find a way to force your kids to sleep when they aren’t tired, could you please put some of it in a bottle and send it to me?

4) Be prepared for a meltdown.

I don’t want to scare you here, and make it sound like a meltdown is inevitable.  But tired kids are cranky kids, and it could happen.  Remain calm, remind yourself that this too shall pass, and everything will be all right.  The positive side of the meltdown stage is that by that point their sleep schedule is probably so messed up that it’s really malleable, and they will probably easily adjust quite readily after it’s over.

5) Beware of electronics.

On various trips we have given TV or movies and thought, “Well, he’ll just fall asleep watching this.”  Yeah, no, that doesn’t happen.  The blue light from electronics sends all sorts of “it’s actually daytime” signals.  The action and story are stimulating.  I know it seems harder, but turn off the electronics when it’s time to get some sleep.

6) Consider not adjusting.

Even if the time difference is large.  One time in Bangkok we operated on a schedule of 1:30am to 2:00pm.  The fortunate thing is that in Bangkok, a schedule like that actually works to a certain extent.  It perhaps wasn’t the trip we had envisioned, but we still had fun.  And we appreciated the cooler temperatures that being active at night afforded.

In the interest of science (and hoping to save our sanity on an early redeye from Newark to Milan), we did a little time change experiment on our last big trip.  We successfully shifted the kids about 2 hours in the direction we were about to travel by putting them to bed a little early and waking them up a little early for several days before the trip.  The result?  It didn’t really seem to help.  Our 2.5 year old son didn’t sleep on the red-eye at all, watching too much TV, and our 1.5 year old  daughter fell asleep at about the “normal” unshifted time.  They ended up adjusting pretty well once we got there – my son because he got completely, meltdown-level messed up and needed a reset, and my daughter because we kept her exposed to daylight and woke her up “early.”  But I don’t think that the purposeful pre-shift had anything to do with their eventual adjustment.

Unfortunately, I know that “they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do” is a frustratingly vague answer.  But hopefully it helps you feel comfortable in the uncertainty and can help you go in to your trip with an air of confident flexibility and faith that everything will be all right, no matter when you end up sleeping.

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The Time Change Conundrum: A Preview

“How do you handle the time change?” has to be one of the most frequent questions we get asked.

In most cases, the answer is “we don’t.”  We mostly just let the kids do what they are going to do and try not to fight it too hard.

For domestic trips, this often means that they don’t adjust, since there’s a maximum of a 2 hour time difference.

For international trips, in the past we’ve just let them be.  During the infant year, when their sleep schedules are SO unpredictable anyway, we just let it roll.  We get up and get going when there is somewhere to be, which usually, but not always, has the effect of sliding their schedules enough so that we can nominally function during the day.  We’ve had varying levels of “success” with this approach from Bangkok, where they did not adjust at all and we lived from 2am-2pm everyday, to Bali, where they made a 12 hour time shift in about 1 day and a half.  When we travel to Europe, they tend to adjust about halfway, usually after a really rough first day.

For our upcoming trip, we have an early redeye – it departs around 6:30pm Eastern and lands around 8:30am CET.  By that math, my kids shouldn’t even think about going to sleep (according to their normal bedtime) until 4 hours into an 8 hour flight.  And then you take into account how difficult it is to go to sleep on the plane… we are poised for disaster.

To combat this, we have decided for the first time ever to shift them a little bit while still at home, by 2 hours or so.  Hopefully this will make them more inclined to sleep on the redeye.  Hopefully this will have the happy side effect of helping them adjust a little more than usual.

We are also doing a lot of talking to Andrew about how we are going to go to sleep on the airplane, and that when we wake up it will feel like it’s too early.  It’s the first time he’s been able to handle a simple explanation like this, at 2.5 yrs.

I will post after the trip and report on the details of what we did and how it worked.

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What to Do Before You Go

We are gearing up to go again, and I find myself making a to do list of the things that need to be done before we leave on a trip.  I figured I’d share my to-do list with you, so that you can make your own checklist.  This is useful for anybody who is traveling, not just those who are traveling with kids.

1) Hold the mail.

The US Postal Service allows you to hold mail for 3-30 days, and you don’t have to worry about asking a neighbor to bring it in for you.  All you have to do is fill out the online form, easy peasy.  Head on over to this website: https://holdmail.usps.com/holdmail/  I usually just have them deliver the mail on the day we are expected to arrive home or the day before that.  If you are going for a longer time, you might consider picking up your mail from the post office.

2) Hold the trash pickup.

Our current trash service doesn’t offer vacation holds, but our previous service did.  They would give us a credit on our bill if we called in and told them we would be gone.  It’s worth asking if you don’t know.

3) Make sure the furnace works and setup the vacation program.

We heat with a wood stove most of the time, so it’s rare that the furnace runs while we are home.  We always check to make sure that the thermostat and furnace controls are working before we leave during cold seasons.  Then we set the thermostat to 52 degrees for the duration – warm enough that the pipes won’t freeze, but cool enough to be energy efficient.

For international trips

4) Make copies of your passports

Keep the copies of your passports somewhere in your luggage that is not near your actual passports.  This is in case you were to lose your passports or the bag they are normally carried in.  When you are in country, you can leave one set in the safe in your hotel room and carry the other set with you on your person.

5) Manage your credit cards

As I explain to my parents, travelers’ checks are a think of the past.  You will use credit and debit cards for money access while traveling.  This gives you the best exchange rates and is relatively secure – if your card is lost or stolen, you can call and have the account locked.  There are several steps to getting your credit cards ready for travel.

First you’ll want to call your credit card company(ies) and report your travel.  You just call the number on the back of the card and get to an operator.  Tell them you’ll be traveling internationally.  They’ll notate the dates and countries you’ll be traveling to.  Some cards (like American Express) don’t require you to make this call.  Some cards allow you to do this online through the secure message center.  If you do not call and report your travel, there is a chance that your credit card company will flag your international activity as fraudulent and block your account from making further charges, which can be a pain.

I make sure I have at least two types of cards along (two of Visa, Amex, or MasterCard) and a debit card to withdraw foreign currency from an ATM.  Make sure you make a call to authorize the debit or check card too!  Since this is your method of accessing cash abroad, this is the most important one.  If you have a secondary checking account at a different bank, I would bring it along just in case.

While you are on the phone with your credit card company, ask about the foreign transaction fee.  Most credit cards have a fee that they slap on to each transaction in addition to the exchange rate.  It’s usually given as a percent of the purchase price.  Some cards, like the Chase Sapphire or Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer Card do not have a foreign transaction fee.  Check with your credit card companies and choose the card with the lowest fee to be your primary card while overseas.

Then of course there’s packing… but that’s a whole other post…

 

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