Travel Rewards, Flying With Two Toddlers, And A Free Hotel Stay
This is the story of flying with two toddlers on a plane, a free hotel stay, and why credit card rewards are a good thing.
Here’s a boring (but important) explanation of how Frugalwoods makes money.
Air Travel With Two Toddlers: How Bad Can It Be?
In November, we flew to North Carolina to celebrate Thanksgiving with my in-laws. Two kids, two adults, and 45 individual boxes of raisins.
Being four years old, Kidwoods got a seat all to herself while Littlewoods was relegated to the role of “lap infant.” Both girls were fascinated with the seat belts, the tray table’s up-and-down capabilities, as well as the play-doh, dolls, coloring books, crayons, books, mini farm animals, and small trucks I’d packed. Then we taxied down the runway for takeoff. Kidwoods asked if we were there. How to explain we hadn’t left the ground yet?
After takeoff, Kidwoods lost interest in having her own seat and decided to plant herself in the lap of whichever parent was not already occupied. Littlewoods was disinterested in following her job description of “lap infant” and launched herself into the seat Kidwoods abandoned.
Upon seeing Littlewoods content in her erstwhile “big girl seat,” playing with “big girl play-doh,” Kidwoods climbed off of Mr. FW’s lap, launched herself across me, and tackled Littlewoods in a coup to regain her rightful, paid-for (might I add) seat. On this went for the entire flight, both girls unimpressed at my allocations of IDENTICAL toys in their respective bags.
The one thing my kids reliably, predictably and consistently love? Eating. Knowing this, we packed ten pounds of snack foods for the flight, of which they consumed nine.
Our typical, frugal mode is to make all foods (including snacks) from scratch and to make them healthy. Our typical, parent-survival mode for air travel is to bring only store-bought, pre-made, packaged snacks. The novelty of opening bags of crackers provided–at minimum–15 minutes of entertainment. You’d think these kids had never seen packaged snacks before. When flying with children, novelty reigns supreme.
Here’s what we packed, from a food perspective:
- Granola bars
- Goldfish crackers
- Individual boxes of raisins
- Four water bottles (woe betides ye who tries to get toddlers to share a water bottle… )
And then, the most wonderful thing happened: the flight attendants rolled up with the drinks cart and the most wonderful innovation: water in a can. Yep.
They girls each got their own can. Revered on the same level as birthday cake, water-in-a-can delivered another ten minutes of rapt entertainment and only one can was dumped into my lap. That’s because the other can was dumped in Mr. Frugalwoods’ lap. Ah well, it was only water. In a can.
Transporting two small humans–who are unreliable walkers–through bustling airports at Thanksgiving is a scenario I know many folks wish would happen to them. Enviable, truly.
Trying to have them both walk would’ve been a guaranteed way to end up carrying them both. Knowing that, we took along a double umbrella stroller gotten for free from our local parents’ Facebook group when I was pregnant with Littlewoods.
I KNEW that stroller would be just the thing one day and this was the day. It isn’t fancy, or even particularly durable, but since we were only using it in the airport parking lot and inside the terminal, it sufficed. It’s lightweight, foldable, seats the girls side by side (equality in ALL THINGS), and wasn’t too wide for (most) doorways*.
*except, of course, for the doorway to the family restroom inside the terminal. Obviously that doorway should be narrower than other doorways.
Kidwoods wanted to carry her own mini backpack and, since we’d paid $362.10 for her ticket, I figured she merited a carry-on. She did a great job carrying that little backpack (which, by the way, I purchased for $1 at a garage sale last summer), containing the essentials: snacks, books, toys, and a baby doll. Side note: if you too would like a toddler in your life to tote their own backpack, I highly recommend the Daniel Tiger episode about taking a trip because he–the Tiger himself–packs up his little backpack and then is (annoyingly) responsible about carrying it for the duration of their (annoyingly) adorable Tiger Family Vacation.
Mr. FW’s carry-on was a messenger bag (man purse) containing both of our laptops, reading materials, documents (the kids’ birth certificates*, our boarding passes), water bottles, and SNACKS. My carry-on was my backpack, which had complete changes of clothes for both kids (“gee I wonder why,” asked no parent ever), diapers and wipes for Littlewoods, toys, books, a baby doll, and more SNACKS. Fun fact: this is the backpack I used in college 18 years ago!
*Remember that time a few years ago when, instead of Kidwoods’ birth certificate, I brought our marriage license to the airport and handed it to the agent at the ticket counter? Ahh, memories…
Here’s the rundown of our luggage situation:
- Double umbrella stroller (lightweight, easily foldable for going through security, gate-checked for free)
- Large rolling suitcase (checked for $30 each way, rolled by Mr. FW while I pushed the stroller)
- Carry-on rolling suitcase (rolled by Mr. FW in his other hand)
- Carry-on backpack (carried by me/flung across the stroller handles)
- Carry-on messenger bag (carried by Mr. FW)
- Carry-on kid backpack (carried by Kidwoods)
- One Ergo baby carrier (worn around my waist/flung across the stroller handles)
After gate-checking the stroller, I put Littlewoods into the Ergo carrier on my front, put my backpack on my back, and held Kidwoods’ hand to walk onto the plane. Mr. FW rolled the carry-on suitcase and carried his messenger bag (man purse) and handed over our tickets. This worked better than expected (having low expectations is an excellent way to travel with little kids).
Since this load was all we could reliably tote through the airport, we didn’t bring carseats for the girls. Instead, we bought this carseat online and had it shipped to my in-laws’ house. My in-laws already had one carseat for Kidwoods, they borrowed a pack-n-play for Littlewoods to sleep in, they’d purchased a travel high chair a few years ago for Kidwoods, and I bought this little potty and had it shipped to their house (these are affiliate links).
It’s hard to believe Mr. FW and I used to be the people who went to Europe for 10 days every year with one carry-on suitcase. Yep. One tiny suitcase for the two of us. Oh and my purse (not a backpack in those days) and Mr. FW’s messenger bag (the very same man purse).
We’ve Finally Arrived
Arriving at my in-laws’ house felt like the culmination of a triathlon. There was an awards ceremony, I was handed a martini, Mr. FW a beer, and we sank into their couch in a fog of smug achievement. I forgot to mention that our flight was at 7am and that we’d gotten up at 4am. No matter, the kids didn’t sleep the entire trip there, so a martini at 11am seemed totally appropriate.
Rural Children in Suburbia
Once we finally got there, we had a glorious time at my in-laws’ house and the girls adored the trappings of suburban life. We went to playgrounds, we walked on sidewalks (more fraught than you might think; see below), we went to a shopping mall (!!!), we took them to Panera for lunch, we did the suburbs right. I am a fan of living like the locals.
Wherever we go in the world, I love to do, eat, and act as the locals do. Yes, I know the suburbs of North Carolina are not exotic to me or you, but they were exotic to our rural kids. Further, these suburbs served as an educational opportunity to experience new concepts, such as being able to see your neighbors’ house from your house. Exotic!
Another advantage of going south in late November is that we got to travel back in time to autumn. We left a snow-covered, sub-freezing homestead and landed in a balmy, upper 60’s early fall. Leaves crackled underfoot, we boiled in our long sleeves, and the kids relished playgrounds sans snow.
This trip also provided the opportunity to teach our rural children a number of memorable and enlightening lessons:
1) You cannot go potty outside in the suburbs. At home, if we’re playing in the woods and a kid needs to go potty? No problem! In my in-laws’ front yard? Nope, nope, nope.
2) You cannot pick any flower you see in the suburbs. At home, all the flowers are either grown by us or are wild. Any of them can be picked. The neighbor’s carefully tended front garden of coordinating, fall-hued mums? Not so much. Have you ever tried to stick a picked flower back into the dirt? I sure have.
3) Houses are close together in the suburbs but no, you do not know everyone and you cannot walk into anyone’s open garage and have a look around.
4) Sidewalks are brutal for newly minted walkers and Littlewoods came home with two skinned knees (despite wearing pants). This was the biggest tragedy of all: poor Littlewoods—accustomed as she is to forgiving dirt and grass—could not master the tendency of her sneakers to catch on the rough sidewalks and topple her over.
A Kid-free Overnight Vacation!
While there, my in-laws ushered us out for a night away. Off to Asheville, NC with zero children and no cares, we stayed for a year and a day (more like 24 hours).
Time with my husband is precious. Time to be us and not mama and dada. Time to roam the streets and listen to a jazz quartet during brunch and yes, to drink drinks by the dozen (ok, more like a quarter dozen). I’m so thankful to them, my in-laws so true, who know what a couple needs and will do.
Also, thankful I’m not a poet and you are so glad of that too. I promise to stop busting out the rhymes now.
This fabulous, kid-free overnight stay featured something you’ll all appreciate:
A Free Hotel Stay
Finally, we come to the point: credit card points! Mr. FW and I have a travel rewards credit card leftover from our care-free, kid-free days of international travel. And this card offers one free hotel stay per year (the real victory is that our addled brains remembered this free hotel stay and managed to cash in on it).
While I laud our free stay, I want to caution that travel rewards cards only make sense if… wait for it… you travel a lot.
Our travel rewards card—we have the Marriott Bonvoy—made a ton of sense when:
- We both traveled for work and used our personal cards to book our flights and hotels and then got reimbursed by our employers. If you travel for work and if your company will let you use your own card (and submit reimbursements), DO IT (if you can use a credit card responsibly and pay it off in full every month). This is a superb way to rack up travel rewards points.
- We traveled for pleasure often and went internationally at least once per year. Again, if you travel a lot, travel rewards cards can make a ton of sense because you accrue points when you travel and then you redeem points when you travel.
- If you’re not doing those two things–accruing points and redeeming points–a travel card might not make as much sense for you.
The reason for these cautions is that most decent travel rewards cards charge an annual fee. For us, that fee has been worth it over the years because of all the points we’ve accrued and redeemed. If you’re interested in a travel rewards card, a lot of people love the Chase Sapphire Preferred as well as the Capital One Venture cards.
Since our travel has dwindled in recent years, we no longer use our travel rewards card as our primary credit card. A cash-back card is now our main credit card because it’s so easy to earn and redeem the points because… the points are cash!
Cash-back cards give you money back on every dollar you spend. I especially like (and recommend) category-free, no annual fee cash-back cards because they give you cash back with no restrictions or downsides. More here: The Frugalwoods Guide to a Simple, Yet Rewarding, Credit Card Experience. I also wrote this guide on how to find the best credit card for you.
(note: the credit card links are affiliate links)
A Failure to Plan Ahead: Snow Shovel and Gloves of Woe
As we frolicked in the autumn leaves and ate turkey, Vermont braced for a snowstorm and our flight home was cancelled. No problem, thought we, for we can re-book for the next day. Or not. Or the day after that? Also no. The day after the day after? Bingo. Our flight rescheduled, Mr. FW and I had a dual realization-of-alarm:
Our car was parked in the outdoor lot at the airport and 89 feet of snow were falling on top of it. Plus some ice!
Were we brilliant and had we planned ahead, we could’ve foreseen this because snow in early December in Vermont is like a toddler tantrum when your kid-free friends are visiting: it’s most definitely going to happen.
Being less than brilliant and less than planned-ahead, we came up with a secondary scheme: we bought a collapsible snow shovel and winter gloves from a Walmart in North Carolina and put them in our checked bag. Upon arriving at baggage claim, we unpacked them for Mr. FW to dig our car out of its snowy parking lot grave.
Before we left, our sweet North Carolinian relatives assured us that the airport staff would clear the cars, but we knew that in New England: Everyone Must Clear Their Own Snow. You sign an affidavit when you move here and it is Ironclad.
The other Ironclad rule: You Do Not Take Someone Else’s Parking Spot From Which They’ve Cleared Snow. These two rules form the bedrock of our culture and we are not responsible for any ills that befall anyone who does not abide.
- When traveling with toddlers, know what your kids like and bring a lot of it. In our case, ten pounds of packaged snack food.
- Do not even think about not packing complete changes of clothes for each child in your carry-on.
- If you travel a lot, and can use credit cards responsibly, a travel rewards card can net you free hotel stays, free flights, and more.
- If you don’t travel a lot, but can use credit cards responsibly, a no-fee cash-back credit card is a no-brainer winner. Might as well get money for buying the stuff you were going to buy anyway!
- Keep a collapsible snow shovel on your person at all times.
How do you travel with kids? (correct answer: I don’t)
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