an update! travel: flying free & travel tips...

it's been a while since i posted about traveling cheap & flying free (here). a lot has changed in those years (eh, mostly adding kids), but the one thing that hasn't is that we still love to travel. and we try to do it as often as humanly possible.

 travel is a puzzle. it's about getting pieces to fit that make sense, and then shuffling in/around all the other details. start with your most important priority (time, location, price, etc.) and go from there. do your research, then do it again. this is my favorite hobby, and also what i've done for work for the last decade, so it's a serious passion of mine. i've learned a lot, but the only way to learn is to sink your teeth into it and go. be adaptive, open-minded, and ready to roll... but also plan! you must plan. 

i will say that this east coast adventure business is possible only because we decided that we would throw away the stable lives we worked for 10 years build and be totally irrational (on paper) to have a crazy adventure. i won't say this is right for everyone, but hey, we figure our kids are young and if we scar them they have time to bounce back. (more on said irrationality here.) 
throw caution to the wind. follow your gut. 
travel is about adventure and risk- you wouldn't catch me jumping out of an airplane, ever, but apparently i'm all about selling most of our belongings and moving across the country just to be together as a family of 4... wack-a-doodle ideas are up to personal interpretation i suppose:) 
we have always had a separate account for travel- just like any other savings account, we put money in each month. we have a set budget, and look ahead at the coming year, then divide what we think we'll spend by 12. we don't spend it for anything other than travel. it's worked well for us the entire 10 years we've been married! i will say- that has become harder since moving here and we travel much more, but much closer... it still works great for big trips, and it's the easiest way we've been able to travel without falling victim to the excuse: "i don't have any money to travel."
eating out
although we're not as stingy as we used to be- let's be honest, sharing 1 meal doesn't work with 4 people the way it used to with 2- we still are cautious. we never get more than 2 meals for the 4 of us. we share meals as often as possible, and rarely get more than 2 meals total, anywhere. we try and cut out drinks and appetizers, and aim for restaurants where tips aren't necessary (i.e.: fast casual instead of sit-down). basically, we never take food home with us- we eat it all up! i'm shocked when i see how much food people waste when they go out to eat! share, people, share! when traveling, we bring most our own snacks, and try and stagger meals to eliminate 1 meal/day, again, supplementing early morning, late evenings, and in between with snacks.
^^ free food! our last 3 (soon to be 4!) trips to disney world have been during their "free dining special." that means all these yummy meals were taken care of for zero dinero. this was at ohana in the polynesian resort- a character breakfast w/ lilo, stitch, and others, and below is supper at cinderella's royal table in cinderella's castle! it saves time waiting in line to meet characters... and is free! (ok, free other than the tip.) the free food special is my favorite, and it's happening again
eliminating wants
we are not big gift-givers. this is huge for us. we spent a year trying to be "normal" and didn't like it. so back to no presents we go! this includes birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc. parties add up. gifts add up. for us, we would rather travel. we give elle a choice by asking if she wants a present and/or party, or if she'd rather we save up for a trip. this year, she chose a trip (smart girl;). when we go on a trip, she gets to pick out 1 present on the last day. that's it. it also saves fighting the "i want this!" battle. we wait until the end, and then go back for whatever it is she chooses as her souvenir. (my souvenirs are pictures- as you can tell, there is no shortage of those anywhere we go:) oh, and jude is 2. he is too young for "gifts," and fruit snacks are as good as gold to toddlers (at least mine). our kids may be scarred someday for having gift-less birthdays, but i'll deal with that repercussion if/when it happens:) 
so this is kind of my thing. i have gone to this site for great advice for years. they're pros on flying free, so i'd look around there. i'm not as good by any means as these guys, but there is one thing what i've learned over the years- don't be afraid of credit cards!!! i can't stress this enough. it's such a no brainer.


put all expenses on a credit card that earns rewards.

pay off weekly.

fly for free.

that's it.

i'm not kidding.

people ask how we travel free. i say credit cards. they look at me, like, 'well, that's dumb. i prefer not to be in debt.'     hey, me too!     we have zero credit card debt, and a dozen credit cards. we each have credit scores well over 800. it works if you use them wisely!!! if you use a debit card, replace it with a credit card. my debit card sees no action. ever. i feel like this is getting all salesman-ish and i hate that. not my intention. nothing to sell, just stating how it's done: credit cards. get them, and get them often. i get new cards a few times a year, and cancel the old. i try and keep at least 1 around longer to keep my credit up. we've had a lot of cards- dozens. none i'm married to, but some i've loved more than others. oh, and please: self-control. you must be organized and level-headed with spending. i have figured out that if the sign-on reward/bonus doesn't equal $400+ (usually i shoot for $500), it's not worth it. don't get the card. you multiply that by 2 (1 card for you, 1 for your spouse), and you have yourselves $1000 in free travel!

traveling locally
we didn't do much of this when we lived in utah- it's actually quite unfortunate. everyone around us did, we just didn't. for us it always was just a "little" more money to go explore farther out- vacation days were sparse, and since we flew free we just flew everywhere outside the state. i'm not a big fan of camping (poor mike) or being in the wild outdoors, like, ever (unless it's on a beach), so i'm no expert on that front. in the 10+ years i lived in utah i never even went to a single national park! it's tragic, really. either way, we were terrible at going anywhere "close" other than vegas. which we loved. and i miss already (more on that below).

now that we live back east, we haven't let a single weekend go to waste. and we both love what we're able to see! sure it's not intensive exploring, but we do what we can with little kids. just this past weekend we went to wheaton parkdowntown silver spring, the national museum of america history, the national museum of natural history, the lincoln memorial, the vietnam memorial, and a whole lot more meandering and exploring in between. we've learned a few things thus far- 1) smithsonian museums are free! free! take advantage of resources that are nearby and right up your alley. 2) parking is free in dc on sundays. it's a nightmare to find, but it's free. the rest of the week it's $20+. (the metro isn't cheap by any means, so we don't use it as much as we probably could. back to sundays though...) we love spending time together just us 4 walking around and enjoying the sights. we don't spend money on sundays, so whatever we can do that allows us to enjoy each others company and have fun is what we do. we walk and have picnics almost every week after church and jude's nap. all this is free, and a perfect way to explore sights together. 3) weekend trips are becoming a favorite pastime of ours. major cities are within a few hours of us- it may not make sense to take the train since we have to pay for 4 tickets, but our car is our lifeline! sure, there are a lot of tolls, but we can do a lot in a weekend with a car and a backpack of food.

tips for traveling with kids
go with what your kids/family do and/or like best. my kids aren't great sleepers outside of their beds. they're better than they were when they were small (mostly elle), but still, not ideal. some people swear by red eye flights so their kids sleep... yah, i wouldn't even consider it at this stage in our lives. i don't sleep on planes, and neither do elle & jude. they're getting better at traveling, but it takes negotiating on our part- sometimes the cheapest flight isn't worth a day of headaches and tears from missed naps.    again, prioritize and go from there!

once jude turned 2 and we had to get him his own seat on the plane, we figured out a genius idea- jude has always been a good car-traveler, so when it was time to start buying seats on the plane for him, we brought his car seat. forcing him to stay in his seat has been a saving grace, and he's really done well everytime we've flown (and we're talking multiple 5+ hour flights)- it's like his mind doesn't process that he can get up, so he doesn't! elle is good about staying in her seat now that she's older, so we've been golden. thankfully, they've been on so many flights they know the drill. i used to (and still would if i had time) pack presents for them to open every hour or so- a tiny toy, book, snack, etc., just to distract them while they fly, which really helps. can i also add? be as courteous as you can. for the love, people, pick up after yourselves. cheerios are not a good snack for the plane. they're so messy! people around you, flight attendants, etc. will be so much more willing to be kind and patient if you show humility and sensitivity. start out by being kind and apologizing for the chaos that may ensue... do your best, but know that kids are all different, as are flights.

no one knows your kids better than you- work your schedule as best you can around what they would be like on a normal day, plan, and enjoy!
hotels are so much more flexible than any other element of travel. they can also be what makes or breaks the trip. we have learned that 95% of the time, we prefer staying at a hotel over staying with people- especially now that we have kids. people are so kind and willing to offer a room, but when we vacation, we want to, well, vacation. it always seems to be worth the extra money to make a trip feel like a vacation by staying at a hotel- whether it's because there's a pool, free breakfast, our own space, etc.

i've never been married to a hotel or chain. each city and situation is different. if you're not planning on staying in the room, get a cheaper hotel in a nicer location. we stayed here & here in hawaii- i'd do the latter again in a heartbeat because it was cheap and only 1 block from the beach! we also split the trip- budget hotel for the first part of that trip, nicer splurge (still on a flash sale though) for the latter part. and oh, it was so worth it:) this was a great way to get a nicer hotel when we knew we'd be staying put, and a cheaper hotel for the days we knew we'd be out exploring.

remember to check for parking rates and resort fees. also, taxes are huge. don't forget to factor those into your rates at check-out. back to parking for a minute- most city hotels charge for parking. sometimes the rates are decently priced and worth saving yourself the hassle of parking blocks away and walking- sometimes not. on our last trip to nyc the concierge told us we could drive 2 blocks and stay for $30 instead of $60/night (and yes, cities are crazy expensive to keep cars! nyc, oahu, philadelphia- get ready to shell out serious bucks for parking). make sure to check the rules and restrictions for overnight parking- many garages are different. also, be sure to look for in/out privileges if you're planning to use the car during the day (although we never do if we're staying in a city- it's not worth the price to park the car somewhere else:)

many cities like philadelphia have great sites where you can plug in an address, then shop for the nearest parking garages and their rates- really helpful! note that those rates are usually per hour/week day, so click through to compare overnight/24-hour rates.

i just started using hotels.com as my go-to (why did it take me so long?), so we're on our way to a free night after 10. i also signed up for this marriott credit card a few weeks ago, which should be getting us additional free nights (although i'm feeling a little suffocated by the restrictions- it'll be good on random trips, but i doubt we'll use it much in large cities due to the crazy high point redemption rates).

oyster is my FAVORITE site for viewing hotels- they have the best pictures, and great overviews of hotels. trip advisor is my next favorite reference.

hotels are also an incredibly flexible element, but watch for the cheapest rate being non-refundable. don't be fooled! don't do it! it's completely normal for me to book and rebook maaaany times before we actually go. do your research. again, prioritize what is most important to you, and go from there.

^^ the mirage in vegas will always be our favorite- it's our "priority" so we use their rate calendar when they're having a good promo, and choose our dates based off when they're cheapest! see? first is location, second is timing. voila! cheap trip. we go for $60/night while the people who check-in when we check-out are paying $350 for the same room.
^^ at disney we are fans of the pop century- it's where we've frequented the most because it's the best deal when using the free dining offer- it's the lowest regular room rate (about $100/night). remember: you get free food, too! and the free food- quick service dining plan- is for anywhere on disney property. parks, hotels, anything. another perk? at disney you can resort hop- we always go to the polynesian or grand floridian to enjoy the beach, hammocks, and restaurants, but save ourselves $500/night on room rates! we're going for the 4th time since elle was born- squeezing in one more trip while jude is free (kids are free until age 3)!
travel has been important to us for our entire time together. almost 11 years ago, before we we were dating, we booked a trip together with 2 of our friends to europe. by the time we made it to europe we were dating and twitterpated, and completely obnoxious to be around (ugh, the worst- i'm so sorry paul & barb), but that's where i realized i could marry mike! somewhere between the beach in cadiz when we first talked about maybe, possibly, considering the option of perhaps being together for a long time, and when i had the most epic meltdown, lost and tired on some bridge in paris, i realized mike could make it for 14 straight days with me and not walk away, and that is no small feat. 
ever since that trip, we seem to do "better" when we're away. when we're exploring and adventuring. it is where our best traits (sometimes our worst, but that's ok) come out, and where we see and learn and grow together best. travel is what helps our relationship grow and learn, and i'm so happy it's stayed so important to the both of us, and now, to us + our crazy kids.

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