Late last night, I arrived home for the first time after 39 nights. After more than a month on the road with a now 13-month old baby, I have some insight into why people have said that traveling would be a lot different with a baby and what they meant when they said that the first six months are the easiest time to travel. That said, we lived to tell the tale — and not only that, we had a fantastic time. This trip was different than previous trips in many ways and it certainly taught us a little bit about what it’s like to travel as a family. We’ve got a long way to go and I’m sure that the veteran parents are familiar with many of these lessons, but here are some of the key things we’ve learned about travel with a baby and using miles & points to do so.
1) Extended stay properties for the win
I’ll admit something here that is probably somewhat heretical among mile-and-point enthusiasts: I’ve always liked Hyatt Place. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy all the swanky luxury my points can buy and have stayed (and will stay) at places where I’d never dream of paying the cash rate. But there’s something about the relative cleanliness, sterility, and familiarity of a Hyatt Place that never made it feel like an extended stay property in my mind. A couple of surprise Priceline or Hotwire stays years ago at dingy, run-down hotels that were probably more of a reflection of my cheapskated-ness than they were representative of all extended stay properties had distorted my notion of what most long-term-stay hotels are all about.
In reality, we’ve discovered that extended stay brands like Residence Inn / SpringHill Suites and the like can be gold mines for family award travel. Not only do rooms at extended stay brands often offer the additional crawl / play space that comes in so handy in entertaining a tiny tot for an hour or two in the room (and practicing walking — he took his first steps on the trip!), but they often have a fridge (great for keeping milk and leftovers), a stove/microwave for heating things up, and sometimes a dishwasher (which is nice for bottles every now and then). And they often cost fewer points. Even when all else is equal, the extended stay property can just be a better value for me, which is a major change from the way I’ve used miles and points to travel for the past few years. Pictured above is the first floor of a 2-level loft suite at the Residence Inn La Jolla, just north of San Diego. The staff is great and the breakfast is extensive. The rooms aren’t nearly as nice (and if I’m being honest just aren’t nearly as clean) as the Hotel Republic in downtown San Diego, where I spent a few nights previous to this, but my son slept like a baby in a separate room here whereas he was awakened multiple times in the night when sharing a room with us.
2) Hotel hopping with a baby is a pain
My wife and I have never been great packers. Maybe that’s not true: I feel like I’m awesome at packing a suitcase to its absolute limit without breaking the scales (though I have broken a few bags). The above picture shows two suitcases on the bottom that had 48.5 and 49lbs in each (which I somehow managed without even using a luggage scale at home). Then you’ll also see a car seat and a bag full of toys, bottles, and other assorted paraphernalia to come on the plane. I kid you not, that picture was only the stuff I carried through airports in my right hand. And no, my wife wasn’t empty-handed. We surely bring too much.
And I can say that last sentence with confidence because in the past 39 days, we have stayed at 14 different hotels as well as 3 friends/family member homes. We packed all of those bags more times than I prefer to count. Each time took us at least an hour or two to pack up. Added together with the time spent prepping the baby for movement, putting a car seat in / out of a car, etc, we felt like we lost way too much time in transit. Hotel-hopping, which was at one time no big deal and fairly common for us, has got to go for at least the next few years.
3) Access to laundry is a huge win
I’ve never really thought before about whether or not my hotel has laundry access, but when traveling with a baby it is nearly essential. I’m sure many families enjoy AirBnB properties specifically for access to laundry, but I was thrilled to find a number of chain hotel properties with laundry, some free and others paid. The Grand Hyatt Kauai, Andaz Maui, and Hyatt Regency Maui all had laundry (Hyatt Regency pictured). The aforementioned Residence Inn La Jolla had laundry as well, and it seems obvious in hindsight that extended-stay brands have this available more often than upper-end brands. Laundry came in really handy and will now be a factor in choosing one hotel over another as it’ll save us time over looking for a nearby place to do it (and hopefully help us pack less in those suitcases).
4) I need to concentrate more earn with Marriott
I can’t believe I said it, but there you have it: I need to earn more Marriott points. That’s because I’m finding Marriott particularly good for those extended stay brands. Before having a baby, I don’t think I had ever stayed at a TownePlace Suites or SpringHill Suites, and maybe only a time or two at Residence Inns. I’m now often finding them to be a great value and I’ve had a few really nice Residence Inn stays, including in San Jose, CA last month and one at Midway airport last fall. While they aren’t all quite as points-cheap as the Albany locations above, many are available for 17.5K or less in places that are convenient enough for me. Since we’ll need a car seat for a while yet, we’re usually renting a car, so I don’t even mind if it’s a few miles away from where I need to be. Thankfully, Marriott is an Amex Transfer Partner and Chase Transfer Partner, so it should be easy enough to rack up points. I’m surprised that I went from being fairly uninterested in Marriott to much more Marriott-focused than I’d ever imagined, but they have some good extended-stay brands.
5) Loyalty has its benefits
The above statement is no newsflash for a miles-and-points blog, but yet it stood out for me on this trip. Greg put together Marriott Bonvoy Titanium status with 75 nights last year. My wife recently asked me what Titanium status gets beyond the Platinum benefits we already enjoy. While the first things that came to mind weren’t wildly different than Platinum status, in hindsight I left out a big one: United Silver status. That would have gotten us free access at check in to the Economy Plus seating that really came in handy in the photo above. Instead, we used airline incidental credit from my Ritz-Carlton credit card — but at $89 each, “free” would have freed up that credit for a better use.
Furthermore, the guaranteed 4pm late checkout that comes with Marriott Platinum status (or Hyatt Globalist, which also applies on guest of honor stays) came in really handy with a baby. Our son usually takes an afternoon nap, but the exact timing is still a little unpredictable, especially given the way we crisscrossed time zones this past month. That 4pm late checkout made it easy to get nap time in even on check-out days. Any parent knows how that can make or break the rest of the day.
6) Phones should not be plugged in. Garbage cans should be shelf-level.
At checkout one day, the agent mentioned a long-distance phone call that didn’t ring any bells for us. In hindsight, I realize that in the past month or so my son has developed a love of anything with buttons. I now suspect that he might have picked up the receiver and gotten the right combination of digits on the keypad to make a call out. Thankfully, the front desk removed the charge — but I proceeded to unplug phones from the wall jack in our next couple of hotels as soon as we got into the room.
Garbage cans are also a lot of fun for a baby who is cruising from one surface to the next in an attempt to get enough confidence in his legs to walk. More than one mess of discarded objects scattered about the room taught me to put garbage cans at shelf-level from the get-go.
7) Hotels have cribs. And pack and plays.
I’ve been surprised by how many of my childless or new-parent friends didn’t know this, so I realized after publication that I should have included it: every hotel at which we’ve stayed since our son has born has had some sort of crib or pack and play. Many of the nicer hotel shave a proper crib with metal or wooden bars. Our son hates those. He is a mover and shaker at night and constantly makes rounds around the edge of his sleeping quarters. He just hits his head all night on the bars and wakes up (we eventually had to go with bumpers on the crib at home).
The good news: almost every hotel that has given us a proper crib has been able to replace it with a pack and play upon request. That surprised me — I kind of figured they had what they had, but that’s apparently not the case.
Also, we had one experience prior to this trip where we arrived at a hotel that was out of cribs. I thought we were going to have to book elsewhere (and take the loss on our nonrefundable hotel) as he was too little to sleep in bed with us.
To my surprise, the desk agents all picked up phones and began calling around other hotels until they found one that could lend them a pack and play. Within half an hour, it was delivered to our room. So don’t give up if you need one — it totally makes sense that hotels lend that kind of thing to each other in that situation, but I wouldn’t have thought of it myself as a solution. Now I’ll know.
8) There’s just nothing like it
Like any parent, I could go on about how much fun it is to show my son the world. The truth is that I know he’s too young to remember these experiences, but I at least hope we’re showing him enough to build a curiosity within him to see and know more and a fearlessness of the new and unknown. Maybe it’s pie-in-the-sky thinking right now, but we’re awfully fortunate to be able to earn the miles and points to get him out to see places and meet people.
Speaking of meeting people, never has there been a better conversation starter than a baby. While I think we feared the worst in terms of glares we would get carrying our son on airplanes and complaints from patrons in restaurants when he gets fussy, the few times we’ve experienced those reactions have been far overshadowed by the smiles and friendly interactions we’ve had with strangers who want to say hello or let us know that they know. If you’re thinking about traveling with a baby but you’re concerned about the reactions you’ll get, don’t be. Not every flight has been easy and not every night has been smooth sailing, but after 39 days on the road, we were ready to take a bump voucher last night and extend one more night if that says anything (though we did ultimately get on the plane). Not only is it doable, it’s enjoyable. We look forward to new lessons learned on each trip, but this one taught us that while our travel may be slower, we won’t slow down our travel plans. If anything, we just keep thinking of more places to bring our son — which is a result of the travel bug that bit us long ago and we hope will infect him, too. Here’s to many more years of earning the miles to incubate that virus.