Family travel’s influences on award travel

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Family travel has unintentionally turned into a hot topic this week at Frequent Miler, with Greg’s post yesterday (The baby in business class debate) touching off quite a bit of discussion. That made me reflect a bit on the ways that family travel has been influencing my award travel as of late, especially with regard to my recent trip to Japan. There’s no doubt that our travel continues to evolve and traveling with a baby influences the decisions we make and the ways we use miles and points, for better or worse.

Destination choices

While our Japan trip was somewhat a matter of circumstances, I was certainly excited about bringing our son to Tokyo. At 15 months, he is becoming very curious about anything with sound and light. Tokyo has plenty of both. Personally, I couldn’t wait to stroll him through Shinjuku just to see his reactions.

Tokyo’s crosswalks are fun.

The idea of a baseball game was suggested and I loved the idea of catching a professional contest of America’s pastime in a country that is arguably more passionate about the game these days.

I couldn’t figure out a way to buy tickets to the specific game I wanted online (without paying a big surcharge over the actual cost). I posted in Frequent Miler Insiders asking for info about how to buy tickets and a few people suggested contacting the hotel concierge. I sent an email to the Hyatt Regency Tokyo concierge and sure enough, they were able to purchase the tickets for me for a “butler charge” of about $4.50 per ticket over the cash price. That seemed like a reasonable deal to me. They delivered the tickets to my room shortly after check-in. For those curious, I did not receive Hyatt points on this purchase (made weeks before I checked in).

Since my son is also pretty interested in animals, we decided to check out the snow monkeys (about which I’d previously written) at the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Pretty cool stuff, though it involved a drive up a steep and windy mountain road that I’m not sure I’d soon repeat by choice. The things we do for our kids, right?

Traveling as a family continues to influence upcoming destinations in that we’re thinking about the types of activities he likes to do and places where we might find other parents and kids his age. It even influences how we approach our reservations — whereas in the past we might reached out in advance to ask the hotel about the possibility of an upgrade to that overwater bungalow in Bora Bora, our son’s mobility has us thinking that being on land is a safer choice these days.

Hotel choices

We planned to spend 3 or 4 nights in Tokyo on our recent trip and as it was around the expected peak of cherry blossom time in Tokyo, cash rates were incredibly high. I expected to use Hyatt points, my only real question was how many. In Tokyo, the choices were the Hyatt Regency (12K per night), Hyatt Centric (was 20K, now 25K), Grand Hyatt (25K),.Andaz (was 25K, now 30K), or the Park Hyatt (30K).

I stayed at the Park Hyatt on my previous trip to Tokyo. It is definitely nice and I’d probably stay there again for a night or two for the novelty of it, but I don’t actually love it. I’m not going to pay 30K per night for 3 or 4 nights at a hotel I don’t love. Traveling with a family, I’ve come to realize how incredibly valuable a hotel lounge can be. In addition to free breakfast and coffee/snacks during the day, it is very convenient for access to milk and water. Since our son usually goes to bed between 7:30-8:00pm, we’ve got to be in the hotel at that point. When we don’t have a suite, we can’t really do much in the room, so we end up going to sleep early also. That means that evening appetizers can easily substitute for a meal and we’ll just have lunch out. So we decided we wanted a hotel with a lounge (also useful when he’s napping for hours — it’s a place for us to take turns getting out of the room for a snack and drink without spending money for no good reason).

I settled for a view of the Park Hyatt Tokyo from the club lounge at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo.

 

I figured that the Grand Hyatt was probably nicer than the Hyatt Regency. But was it double as nice? Maybe it was: I’ll never know. Instead, I booked the nicest cheap-on-points place in Tokyo for 12K per night (and used a brand explorer free night certificate for the last night).

In the past, I’d definitely have used 25K points per night (or maybe even 30K) to stay at a “fancier” hotel (after all, I collect the points to gather experiences I wouldn’t otherwise pay for, right?). I don’t regret my choice to stick with the Hyatt Regency for this trip. I was given an upgrade to a nice spacious room (larger than the standard rooms at the Grand Hyatt) and the club lounge had decent breakfast and evening appetizers. Each night there were two hot options — each person could order one of the two options and that plate would arrive with 4 small bites. I didn’t like the choices every night, but there was decent variety. I even got to determine that I have no interest in ever eating tripe. Thanks to the HR Tokyo, I’ll never need to order / pay for it individually at a restaurant someday to know that.

I’ll publish a mini mini Hyatt Regency Tokyo review in the coming days.

Another key moment where traveling with a baby influenced our choice: I received my annual Amex Aspire free night certificate days before the trip began. We planned to spend our next-to-last night at the Hyatt Regency Hakone, but had not yet decided on our last night of the trip. Our flight was out of Tokyo’s Haneda airport and in the afternoon. That gave us plenty of time to stay an extra night in Hakone and drive to the airport. Alternatively, we could head back to Tokyo for our last night.

Initially, I had booked one of the InterContinental properties with an annual IHG free night certificate (an old uncapped cert) figuring that I’d rather use a certificate I got from a $49 credit card than 25,000 Hyatt points (transferred from Ultimate Rewards). But then the Conrad Tokyo opened up for that last night of our trip. We stayed there on our first trip to Tokyo and really liked the hotel. We didn’t have lounge access the first time around and I was really tempted to enjoy all of that on my Hilton free night cert.

We spent a couple of nights at the Conrad Tokyo during our honeymoon a few years ago.

However, reality dawned on me: packing up and moving hotels with a baby isn’t easy. It’s not difficult or impossible, but having to pack everything up and transition him takes time and it becomes stressful on him. I realized that hotel-hopping, something we would have done without a second thought a few years ago, just didn’t make sense. It was worth 25K Chase points to spend that second night in Hakone without having to change hotels.While I didn’t love the Hyatt Regency Hakone (more on that in a separate post). That was a good decision.

Picking the right miles for infant award travel

I published a post a few days ago about how we had flown business class on ANA on the way to Japan and we flew Delta One Suites on the way home. We had to pay 10% of the adult fare to bring our son as a lap infant on the flight to Tokyo on ANA. Due to some sort of confusion / mistake / I’m not sure what, we had somehow added his name to the ANA reservation, but hadn’t ticketed him ahead of time. I didn’t realize he wasn’t ticketed until the day before we were scheduled to fly. In the end, that meant that it cost more than $500 for his lap infant ticket (since we paid according to the last-minute adult fare price).

For the flight home, we booked Delta One Suites via Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles. We originally booked a separate seat for Baby Rey on that flight. I didn’t think to check until about a week before the flight, but at that point I found out that a car seat or child restraint (like the CARES harness) can not be used in Delta business class. Since Baby Rey basically wouldn’t be able to use his seat, we called Virgin Atlantic and we were able to cancel his seat and get the miles redeposited for a $50 fee (60K miles back) and then use 5K miles to book him as a lap infant. That was obviously a much better deal than paying $500+ for a lap infant. In fact, even if we had booked him as a lap infant on the ANA flight when I originally called back in September, it would have cost us about $375 one-way. Paying 5K miles each way via Virgin Atlantic is solid. Note that this fee is the same when booking ANA flights through Virgin Atlantic (5K each way for business, 7K each way for first class).

I thought about using Alaska miles to fly on Japan Airlines on the way home, but we couldn’t justify the additional cost of adding our son (10% of the adult fare as a lap infant or an additional 60K Alaska miles for a seat he couldn’t really use) when it would only cost us 5K miles to bring him in Delta business class. Virgin Atlantic was a clear winner.

Similarly, we have him booked with us on a flight to Europe next month. We could have booked that flight with one of several currencies, but we went with Air Canada’s Aeroplan because they charge a flat 10K miles or $100 to add a lap infant to a business class award ticket.

For those curious, other lap-infant-friendly award programs include British Airways Executive Club (which charges 10% of the Avios price for the lap infant) and Asiana (which also charges 10% of the adult mileage ticket).

Car rather than train

When you go to Japan, you travel by train. If you’ve been or know someone who has, you probably know this to be a truth about travel to Japan. Many visitors purchase a rail pass of some sort in advance.

However, we opted for a car rental. We did this because we thought it would be easier to be able to stop as we wished, which was true. Having a car enabled us to wander around until we found this place to have lunch one day since it kinda had a decent view.

But while a car was very helpful for some of the things we did while in Japan, it was a mistake renting one for inter-city travel. First, car rental isn’t cheap. For a week, it cost us well over $400 to rent a pretty small hybrid (not quite the smallest). Gas isn’t cheap, either. But the tolls are the real kicker. We had 3 main days of long inter-city travel over the course of a week (Tokyo to Hakuba, Hakuba to Hakone, and Hakone back to Haneda airport). We paid $165 in tolls. For those keeping track at home, renting a car was significantly more expensive than a regional rail pass (one of the JR East regional passes along with the “Hakone Free Pass” would have covered all of our major inter-city travel, though some things were easier/shorter thanks to having a car).

All that said, a car often is easier than public transport, and not just because some people don’t like to hear the cries of babies nearby. Renting a car enabled us to avoid carting our stuff through train stations on transfers and freed us up to change plans on the fly. We will likely continue to drive when possible, but on a future trip to Japan I’d re-think that and maybe just rent a car for a day now and then if it is easier for reaching our intended excursions.

Bottom line

As parents still learning the ropes (but improving after 15 months), we’re still learning to adjust our travel expectations and patterns to fit travel with a little one. The biggest change for us has been change of pace. Whereas we used to cover a lot of ground and pack several activities into each day, we’ve now accepted the fact that we can have one major plan each day at most. And sometimes, the plan needs to be patience while our son adjusts to a new time zone and naps so hard that he doesn’t notice his legs are hanging out of the crib.

But at the end of the day, it’s worth it for a lot of reasons. A look at some of those reasons is coming tomorrow.

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