Australia for 5 – Family travel to Australia – Destination Penrith

Australia is on the destination list for many families.  The culture, the beaches, the wildlife, and the friendly people are a universal draw for families looking to travel.  Our family is lucky enough to travel to Australia every year and enjoy this amazing country.  Family travel to Australia is rewarding with a huge array of possibilities.

How to get there:

We fly into Sydney via Chile as we complete what we call the Triangle of Awesome.  We travel to Chile for work so our travel plans are a bit unique.  Flying into SYD is relatively straight forward although it can be expensive.  We use Google flight tracker to keep up on the cheapest fares.  Find out how to use this great tool in our flight tracker post.
Rental cars can be quite expensive and if you plan to stay longer than a week I would highly recommend a peer to peer car sharing program called Drive My Car. You can save a boatload of money over regular rental rates.

Where to stay:

Depending on your goals and travel plans you have quite a few options for accommodations. We have always spent our time in Penrith as it is near the Penrith Whitewater Center where I train.  In Australia real estate is very expensive creating a vibrant rental market.  You can rent a house or condo by the week in most suburbs from a leasing agency or use AirBnB to find your pad.  We have used both and find its a bit cheaper to rent by the week from a leasing agency.  It can be expensive to find housing; for a 2 bedroom condo with a community pool and wifi we pay $1050AUD per week.  We use Western Sydney Accommodation for our go to as you pay less fees than with AirBnB.

What do do:

Penrith is good sized town nestled between the Blue Mountains and Sydney giving you options to travel in either directions to find a vast array of experiences.  Here is a few we enjoy:

Penrith Whitewater Stadium

For us this is a no brainer as my kayaking career keeps me at the whitewater center daily.  They offer exciting rafting and kayaking trips most days of the week over the summer.  It was the site of the 2000 Olympic Games for canoe slalom and is free to visit and watch the rafters and kayakers navigate the artificial whitewater channel.

Penrith Panthers Rugby

If you find yourself in Australia during rugby season (March-September) then lookup to see if you can watch a rugby game live.  They are super fun to watch and enjoy the spectators.  The games we have seen have always been packed of people and very exciting.  If you get general admission and want to actually get a seat show up a few hours early as it fills fast.  You are quite close to the field which gives you all the more appreciation for the intensity of the game of rugby!

Blue Mountains

Heading into the mountains from Penrith you quickly climb into the Blue Mountains.  In this beautiful mountain range know for steep cliff, eucalyptus forests and waterfalls you can find vistas, hikes, and overlooks everywhere! Specifically we enjoy visiting the 3 Sisters and Wentworth Falls.  There are hikes of various difficulties that your family can enjoy and see the Australian outback.

Featherdale Wildlife Park

My daughters favorite place in all of Australia.  Featherdale Wildlife Park is a koala bear conservatory that is a small wildlife park that has a free range policy with their kangaroos and wallabies.  You can get up close and personal with them which all the kids really enjoy.  You also can get close to koalas, they used to allow you to take a picture nearby to one, but since have changed their policy requiring a fee to take a picture with the koalas.  Its a pretty small park, but has a cool variety of animals including Tasmanian devils, wombats, echidnas, dingos, and kangaroos everywhere plus a huge variety of birds.  Its a bit expensive for the size but the interaction with the critters makes it worth it for us every time we go to Australia we go visit at least once.

Beaches

Beaches are EVERYWHERE and they are all incredible.  You can find any number of them with variety.  The beaches are sandy, clean, fun, and bountiful.  They do a great job of having life guards and often will have a designated swimming zone that is watched by life guards that avoids dangerous rip tides.  Depending on the season, wind, and tide there can be a lot of blue bottle jelly fish that wash up in the surf which can make swimming painful.  When you arrive at the beach an easy way to tell if bluebottles are around is look for them on the beach washed up at the high water mark.  If you see a ton of them swimming could be a bit more exciting as their sting is not dangerous but can be painful for the kids.  Our favorite beach is Dee Why as it has a great parking, beautiful water, good surf for the kids, is less crowded, and a great burrito place just up the street.

Australia is a huge country/continent and there is MUCH more to do than listed above but if you are in or around the Sydney area this should give you an idea of where to start.  If you and your family travel to Australia during the summer, our families favorite TV show called My Kitchen Rules starts in early Feb and we absolutely love it; imagine a US show like Master Chef with Aussie, Frenchy, and Irish judges.

 

Africa for 5 – Family travel to Africa – Destination Durban

If you are looking for sun swept beaches that extend into the horizon South Africa has 1,600 miles of coast with both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.  We stayed on the coast for a week of fun and sun, it was incredible.  Family travel to Africa can be a wonderful experience.

How to get there:

We flew into South Africa via Johannesburg then took a flight from JNB to Durban.  From Durban we rented a car and ended up in a small ocean front town an hour south called Scottsburgh.  The roads were great, but make sure you have coins as there is a toll directly outside of the airport that accepts only coins.  Luckily for us a motorist behind us helped out as we didn’t have any coins at all.  Driving through Durban can have a lot of traffic so if possible plan accordingly to avoid it.

Where to stay:

Our goto site AirBnB got us a nice place called the Pearly Shells that had a kitchen with plenty of room for the family at an affordable rent.  Although it was a bit dated, we enjoyed the stay and felt secure.  It is recommended anywhere in South Africa to lock your valuables in the safe while gone and we always keep our passports on us when we go anywhere.

The vista from our porch at the Pearly Shells Holiday Flats.

What to do:

If you like the ocean this is the place for you.  There were MILES of untouched beach.  It is recommended due to safety concerns not to spend time on desolate beaches so we tended to stay at the beach in town.  Surfing, swimming, tide-pooling, and sunbathing became the afternoon tradition.

Shark Cage Diving KZN

My wife has what I consider a sick perversion to really want to swim with sharks.  She did it once in Australia and we checked out Shark Cage Diving KZN to see if they had any opportunities.  Sure enough they had a group that she, alongside my 11 year old son, could go do some cage diving.
The beach head was a few miles south of town but the entire crew was EXTREMELY welcoming and friendly.  After a safety brief, donning of wetsuits they were off in a boat while the other kids and I went tide-pooling.
Their report was that it was fantastic.  They saw a ton of sharks, got to spend a lot of time in the water and all the guides and staff were super helpful and accommodating.

uShaka Aquarium World

During a rainy day we headed back up to Durban to checkout the uShaka Aquarium World.  Turns out its an aquarium and a waterpark which seems like an interesting combo.  We opted for just the aquarium and started browsing.  We were interested in this aquarium specifically as they are doing a lot of work to help the penguin population in South Africa rebound and continue.  They had a great presentation with the penguins that the kids really liked.  Other than that it was a bit of a let down, there was not a lot to see and the costs of entry seemed like a lot for what you actually got to see.  We also had the singular experience of eating in the park.  It was the first time that I have been unable to eat food that I ordered.  We ordered a round of hamburgers from one of the restaurants and whatever the meat was, or what they put in it, made it inedible.  That was quite surprising to us because before then all the meat we had eaten in South Africa had been notably good!  For us Shaka Aquarium would be a pass in the future or as a recommendations.

 Croc World

Just 1km from our house was Croc World.  After reading about it and seeing their conservation efforts we thought it would be fun to see.  It did not disappoint! They have a TON of crocs just as the name implies.  They have a bunch of presentations including dangerous snakes, croc feeding, baby croc handling, and snake safety.  Each presentation was unique and engaging.  Its a conservatory and we were happy to visit and would go back again!  There is a great restaurant onsite which has an incredible view of the Indian Ocean.  The kids really enjoyed getting to handle the baby croc and found the presentations engaging.  If nothing else we learned which snakes to be sure to avoid in South Africa!  They had a great snake exhibit and one of the largest crocs in captivity that had be relocated from a nearby village after attacking humans.

Destination Family Factor

Family travel to Africa in Durban and the surrounding area have a ton of things to do, and amazing coastlines, and friendly people. Food and shops were accessible, activities were close, and the beach was amazing.

A memorable  week in South Africa.

Lounge Review – Strata Lounge in Auckland

Strata Lounge AKL

Up the escalators near the rest of the premium lounges is the Strata Lounge

A few weeks ago we were able to pop into the Strata Lounge in Auckland, New Zealand during a trip from Santiago, Chile to Sydney, Australia.  We had a quick 2 hour layover but the timing lined up perfectly for breakfast time and we were happy to tuck into a corner of the Strata Lounge for a quick visit.

The size:

We were there pretty early in the morning and it was deserted! There were a handful of other people, but there were plenty of tables with chairs and couches for lounging.  I am sure this club could handle a rather large crowd without feeling cramped as even the space between tables and couches felt particularly spacious which was a welcomed change after 12 hours of row 37 on LA801 (SCL-AKL).

Staff:

Everyone we interacted with were very friendly and the service was attentive.

The food:

Excellent.  There was a marvelous selection of breakfast foods including sausage, pancakes, noodles, roasted tomatoes, hashbrowns, breakfast cereals, toast, smoothies, cheese and meat platters, and more.
We didn’t sample the alcoholic beverages, but the coffee was fantastic, there was a great variety of juices for the kids.  We felt it was in the top 5 of food selections we have ever found in a lounge.

Electricity:

There were electrical outlets at each couch grouping which made a quick recharge quite convenient.

Kid Factor:

They had an enclosed kids room with toddler toys, bean bag chairs, and a TV tuned into the cartoon station.  It was especially convenient as all the walls were glass so you could easily keep and eye on the kiddos while enjoying the comfort and quiet of a nearby couch or table. Its such a huge relief to have a place where the kids can stretch out a bit and move around with out worry about them breaking something.

The “fishbowl” kids room

Access:

We gained access via our Priority Pass from our American Express Platinum card.  Keep in mind that with the Priority Pass through Amex gets the primary cardholder plus 2 guests. As we travel with a family of 5 we require 2 Priority Pass cards which we got by signing up my wife as an authorized user on my Platinum account.

Overall:

Awesome- they received the priority pass lounge of the year in 2017 and we could tell why. They had TV monitors displaying flight departures with average walk time to get there which is always welcomed in a new airport so you don’t leave too early or too late for boarding.  The food was fantastic, it was super clean, people were friendly, and we enjoyed it!

Booking Report – Santiago, Chile to Sydney, Australia

Santiago to Sydney for a family of 5

As our wanderlust continues to meld with our work/travel/training lifestyle we found ourselves at an impasse last fall.  We love Australia; for us its a perfect continent.  I can work and train at the Penrith Whitewater Stadium (the home of the 2000 Olympic Games) which is a fantastic venue for both work and slalom kayak training.  The wife and kids LOVE the country as we are close to the beach and its a very outdoorsy place similar to our home in Idaho. We also love Chile.  We work there teaching kayaking from Christmas till the end of February.  This year we combined them into what we are calling the “Triangle of Awesome” with the addition of a flight from Santiago to Sydney.
The triangle of awesome

A great way to avoid winter!

The flights to Chile are covered from work and based off the way we fly it costs the same to fly home from Chile as it does from Australia.  So getting down and back was covered, we just needed to figure out how to get from Santiago to Sydney.  A few quick searches yielded one way plane tickets in excess of $1200 per person which is WAY out of our budget.

 So we moved onto points-

Latam is the main flight provider with LA801 which goes from Santiago (SCL) to Auckland (AKL) then onto Sydney (SYD).  Checking on milage charts it would be a spendy flight with Latam miles (169k per person) as they only book roundtrip tickets.   Moving on to American Airlines we checked but availability was impossible to find.  Then we tried British Airway Avios- and we had a winner!  They had bookable flights with an interesting twist.  The AKL-SYD redemption charts for business class (with lie flat seats on an Boeing 787-9) for 10k miles MORE than the coach fare.  We did not quite have enough miles to book the whole family in business (plus we don’t want to spoil the children anymore than they already are) so we split the family into 2 groups (My wife with 2 kids and myself with 1 child) and booked the group of 2 in business for the ALK-SYD leg and the rest in coach. So our itinerary looked like this
SCL-AKL 12 hours flight time – whole family in coach
AKL-SYD 4 hours flight time – 2 in business and 3 in coach
The plan was for my wife and I to sit in business and leave the kids in coach. We were worried they wouldn’t allow it as some carriers do not allow parents to split cabin from their kids if the kids are under 15, but not only was the flight staff ok with it, one of the flight attendant let us know she would keep a special eye on the kids and let us know if we were needed.  Keep in mind this is the 1st time we have split cabins with our kids and only just now feel comfortable enough with their travel skills to leave them in a cabin by themselves. To further eleviate the split we sat in the last row of business class and put them in the first row of coach.  Our kids have each traveled over 75,000 miles over the last 2 years so we decided they were ok in a separate cabin.

When we told our youngest he was in a different cabin, he went to the wrong one! (kidding, he did get a great tour after the flight and was able to meet our captain)

Total Costs:

Using our British Avios (which we transferred in from our Amex Membership rewards) the total costs were:
40k Avios for the coach tickets (3)
50k Avios for the coach/business tickets (2)
Total Avios spent: 220k
Total cost in taxes fees etc: $275 USD
The tickets we found on the same date would of costs just over $6000 so we got a value of just about .03 cents per point which is a redemption we were happy with.

A beautiful landing on Latam LA801 in Auckland!

Africa for 5 – Family travel to Africa – Part 2 trip report

my youngest making a new friend at the Elephant Sanctuary in South Africa

Africa Trip with Kids

Part 2 of our Africa trip with kids report will cover how we navigate time in the airport on the trip to Africa. We will cover the flights, the lounges, and what we did to mitigate the pain of flying with kids 24,000 miles!  If you missed part 1, we covered how we booked our flights, cars, and accommodations for a family of 5 for $555 per person! Looking for a primer on the basics of traveling with kids? Check out our post covering most everything you need to know!

Outbound Flights:

A map of our outbound journey.

Our outbound flight map.

As you read in part one we had a somewhat indirect flight out to JNB.  I was excited to try Qatar Airways but it was a lot of 8-9 hour flights in a row.  The first three legs were serviced by American Airline and the last two by Qatar.

BOI-DFW

The checking with the AA desk was easy as we managed to pack everything in 2 roller board carry on bags thus needed to check no luggage much to the surprise of our check in agent.  After confirming our paperwork (to travel to South Africa with minors you are required to have original birth certificates with the traveling parents names) we were off on the quickest and easiest way to get to DFW.  Its a very easy 3-4 hour flight and we were able to snag Main Cabin Extra seats as a perk of my Platinum Status with AA.  Standard service from American which we have found to be great!

DFW- Centurion

One of our favorite clubs is the Centurion Lounge by Amex in DFW.  Access is by our American Express Platinum card.  Until recently one card could get access for an entire family to the club, but since that has changed to the card member plus up to 2 guests.  As we are a family of 5 our solution was to add my wife as an authorized user (which costs $175 for up to 3 additional card members per year) which then allowed our entire family access to the lounge.
The lounge itself is great for kids- it has a specific kids room which is fully equipped with toys for younger kids and a Xbox 360 for the bigger ones.  The food offerings are top notch with a wonderful spread of real food setup in buffet form.  There are also shower stalls and free 15 minute massages (my wife’s favorite amenity).

DFW-LHR

I typically fly through other airports into Europe so this was my first time taking the flight through LHR.  The flight itself was uneventful and again the Main Cabin Extra seats provided a bit extra comfort!  The costs for these seats if you do not have any status on most airlines is $75-$150 but depending on the length of the flight can be worth the extra expense.  Since our kids are a bit older and can sit by themselves we find a row of the Main Cabin Extra with a row of regular seats behind.  We put the parents in the Main Cabin Extra seats and the kids the row behind in the free seats since for them space is not quite as important.

LHR – Plaza Premium

When you arrive at LHR each terminal is a bus ride away.  So unless you next flight is in the same terminal as where you arrived you will be taking some sort of shuttle to get to your departure terminal.  Since we were changing from American Airlines to Qatar we ended up on a 20 minute bus ride to terminal 4 where we checked out the Plaza Premium Lounge.  There was plenty of seating when we were there.  It from the layout it seemed like there would be lots of room for a crowd and the showers were clean and spacious.  There was limited shampoo but plenty of hot water.  The culinary offerings were ethnic with a lot of curries, rice and cream of something, but the quality of the food was great and the kiddos were happy to eat chicken and rice so we were good for the 6 hours.  There was plenty of room for sitting and the furniture was quite comfortable.  We found it to be very quiet and tranquil.  There were no kids rooms or anything tailored for the kiddos but the wifi was fast enough for Netflix and naps.  Access to the lounge was through our Priority Pass cards which is a benefit of our American Express Platinum card.  Like other clubs you can only get the card holder plus 2 guests on each membership card, but when you get an additional card holder on the Amex Platinum you also get additional Priority Pass membership.

LHR-DOH

This was our first leg on Qatar Air.  Boarding was typical, and we got settled into our seats.  The seats themselves were quite comfortable with a large touch screen in the seat-back.  The flight attendants were extremely friendly and we settled into the flight.  The dinner service was good I would rate it as a step above most other carriers.  I had curry chicken which tasted very good and the bread that came with the meal was warm!  My favorite part about Qatar flight was the screen entertainment.  Qatar had edited all of the screen offerings and there was nary a curse word to be heard on any of the movies I watched.  I checked in on quite a few movies and I believe they had edited them all.  It was great for the kids because they got to watch a few movies I would not of otherwise let them watch based on the fact it was edited.  I know for many its annoying for things to be bleeped out, but when you travel with kids it can be a huge relief!

DOH

We had a pretty short layover in Doha and were unable to take advantage of any lounge access, but there was a lounge with access from our Priority Pass card.

DOH-JNB

By this point in our trip everyone was pretty tired. Two 8+ hour flights in a row had us all fighting to keep our eyes open.  I don’t think a single on of us turned on a screen or abided in any meal or drink service.  We were out to the world!

In Country

We flew from JNB-DUR and back to visit the oceanside town of Scottsburgh.  The flights were on British Airways provided by ComAir.  In both directions we found the service to be great.  It was a quick flight so service was only provided on our outbound flight, which consisted of a drink and a scone (which was not very fresh but edible).

JNB – Bidvest

We arrived early at the airport planning to feed the kids breakfast at the airport but were pleasantly surprised to find that there was in fact a club in Johannesburg.  It was called the Bidvest Premium club and it quickly became one of our favorite clubs to date.  The food was plentiful with lots of tasty options.  Roasted beef, croissant sandwiches, pastries, fruit, yogurt, they had a great, diverse spread.  While it was not very spacious it was very quiet when we were there.  I image there was only seating for about 50 people so I assume it can get pretty full.  No specific rooms or anything special for the kids but the food offerings were basic and the kids loved it.  Access came again from our Priority Pass card from the Amex Platinum.

DUR-Bidvest

Again we were shocked to find another Bidvest Lounge in Durban that we stopped in on our way back to JNB.  The food offerings were the same as the other Bidvest Lounge but what impressed me was the power outlets.  There was power everywhere and even more impressive was that they had not just South African plugs, but also European, and North American.

Bidvest Lounge DUR
Bidvest Lounge DUR
Inside security up three floors to the right!
« 1 of 6 »

Homeward

Johannesburg

What happens when you show up 2 hours before the check in desk opens? School!

We were sad to be leaving South Africa but alas all great things must come to an end.  We arrived pretty early to the airport as we had to drive from Kruger Park and I gave us 6 hours of extra time in case of traffic.  Luckily there was no traffic, unluckily we got there 2 hours before the check in desk opened.  We had to check a bag since we had purchased some wine and could not carry it on.  So we found a quiet nook in the airport and got a bit of school work done.  After 1.5 hours of school we headed back to the check in desk.  We were first in line and quickly got checked in, through security, then immigration, and we were set!  We started out in another Bidvest Premium Lounge which had an even more varied food options then before as this was the first time we had been in the lounge around dinner time.  The same quality of food and drinks were found in this lounge at it was quite spacious.  There was PLENTY of room, but there were no kid specific areas.  Access was provided by our Priority Pass cards.

Bidvest Lounge JNB
Bidvest Lounge JNB
Just upstairs in the international terminal in JNB
« 1 of 5 »

With an abundance of time we opted to head out early and check out another lounge before boarding. The Shongololo Lounge proved to be, like its name, a quirky funky layout lounge.  While we were there it was PACKED and unlike the Bidvest lounge there was not space anywhere.  After standing around for 10 minutes a few seats opened up and we were able to settle in.  The food offerings were also quite quirky with supermarket sushi sitting right next to macaroni and cheese servings as well as pre-made sandwiches tasting  very much like gas station fare.  For us the Shangololo lounge is a hard pass, there are way better lounge options in JNB that have better space, better food, and less people. Access was provided by our Priority Pass cards.

Sandwiches
Sandwiches
We call them gas station sandwiches; premade, prepackaged.
« 1 of 4 »

JNB-ATL Delta Flight

After travel hack our flights were better!

After using my schedule change rerouting hack our flights were much better.

What do you do with yourself and your kids for a 17 hour flight??!  That is the question we asked ourselves as we settle into the long haul home.  We were split up a bit with our 11 year old son sitting alone, my wife with our daughter and our youngest son sitting with me a few rows ahead.  This was my first experience with Delta on a long haul flight and I was not very impressed.  During the haul home the flight attendants were quite short tempered with the kids and seem more interested in clearing as quickly as possible rather than customer service.  We are pretty strict with the kids to make sure they are attentive to the flight attendants (no headphones or screens on during food or drink service) but by the time the cart got to us there was only one food option which was unceremoniously plopped down in front of us before they moved on.  I realize that flight attendants have an incredibly challenging job and I do not envy them, but we have taken trips of similar length before on other airlines and the quality of service has been night and day.  As this was our first experience with Delta on long haul flights I can not speak to this being an isolated quality of service, but I do know we will try to avoid Delta in the future.

Menu
Menu
A menu in coach? We felt classy!
« 1 of 5 »

After we arrived in ATL we had very short layovers and were unable to take advantage of any more lounge access and had an unremarkable completion of our journey home.  The only thing of note was how great the rest of the Delta crew was on the regional flights.  We flew from ATL to SLC then to BOI and all the crews were friendly, attentive, and patient.

Look out for Part 3 coming out soon with the low down on what the heck to do with kids in South Africa!

Africa for 5 – Family Travel to Africa – Part 1

A herd of giraffes.

What do you call a herd of giraffes? A journey!

What got us set on family travel to Africa?

Our family travel to Africa got started a few years ago at a the zoo just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.  It was an amazing place and my daughter absolutely loved it! We were watching the African exhibit and my daughter turned to me and asked if we could go to every zoo in the US.  Clever me, thinking on my feet, said “how about instead we just go see all the animals in the wild instead”.
“Sure. You are taking us to Africa then” was her reply.
Luckily I have always wanted to try family travel in Africa, and I did not want to go to a zoo in every city we visited so I said yes- and our family travel to Africa began.

While there are quite a few amazing places to visit in Africa we settled on South Africa, specifically Kruger National Park.  Kruger Park is an amazing place and very accessible (more on that in part 3).  We also wanted to see the Indian Ocean and chose Scottsburgh a town just south of Durban four our second destination in South Africa.

Getting there:

We did not have enough miles in any one account to get a round trip ticket to Johannesburg (JNB) thus we did 2 one way trips.  Flying out we used American Airlines miles.  AA is a codeshare partner with British Airways which showed a ton of availablity to JNB, but when you fly British even on an award fare you are charged a “fuel surcharge” which ended up pricing out at $570 per ticket in fees plus 40k AA miles.  Traveling with 5 we would have been WAY over budget if we had to pay that fare.  After some research I discovered that AA also partners with Qatar Air.  If you fly on a Qatar flight then there are minimal fees and the ticket price was in the $60 range.  The hard part was finding award space on Qatar Air.  Their award space doesn’t show up on a search from the AA.com but it does show up if you use the British Airway’s award searching tool. So the task began to find space in a Qatar flight to Doha (DOH) then from DOH-JNB.  Once I found that space (via the British Airway site) I had to find space on an AA flight from our hometown of Boise (BOI).  Qatar has flights from the USA to DOH leaving from a few airport but I had to focus on the ones we could get to on AA, so my search narrowed down to DFW-DOH or LAX-DOH.  We lucked out and found award space from DFW-DOH and then DOH-JNB so I immediatly called the AA reseration desk as you cannot make reservations for Qatar flights online.  Once I explained what I wanted with what routing and route numbers the agent found the space and we began the booking process, all to find out that all award space from BOI-DFW was gone.  No way to get to DFW or LAX to hop on the Qatar flights…
Back to the drawing board we went this time also looking for available dates on Qatar leaving from London, England (LHR).  Sure enough found space again from LHR-DOH-JNB on Qatar and I was back on the phone to AA reservations.  Same intro and explination about the routing and avoiding using British Airways.  And we stuck gold; found room BOI-DFW-LHR all on AA planes and then Qatar from LHR-DOH-JNB.  The routing was a bit long at 13,130 miles it was gonna be a long trip.  But I had always wanted to fly Qatar Airlines and our kids are pretty durable so we booked it! 200k in AA miles and just under $250 in fees and we were set for our family travel to Africa.  Even better this year I held Platinum status with AA and we were able to get the Main Cabin Extra seats free of charge!

In Country:

We wanted very much to visit the coast and hang out at the ocean and found a great town to visit, the problem was it would have been a 12 hour drive to get from the beach town to Kruger Park for our game drives.  Any drive past the 10 hour mark in foreign countries that we have never traveled to before makes us a bit anxious so we opted to fly from JNB to Durban (DUR).  A quick pass through google flights we found round trip tickets on a British Airways code share called ComAir for $120 per ticket.  I thought about using miles for the journey but the tickets were cheap enough we opted to pay in cash.  Of course we used our Amex Platinum credit card to get the 5x bonus on airline purchases directly from the airline.

Getting home:

After travel hack our flights were better!

After using my schedule change rerouting hack our flights were much better.

Original booking from Africa

Our original booking home from Africa.

For our trip home we had to get creative as we had used up most of the AA miles we had at the time.  There was a bonus at transferring Delta miles from Amex Membership Rewards so we opted to move over a bunch of AMEX points for our return trip.  Delta also has one of the few direct flights from JNB to Atlanta (ATL) which we really wanted to get to cut down on the length of the journey home.  The hard part with Delta miles is that they do not have any published award chart.  So you can pay any range of miles per ticket depending on how they choose to calculate it that day.  After some browsing I found it possible to get from JNB-BOI on Delta for 40k in miles as well.  The hard part was finding the availability.  By this time we had a pretty firm time table on when we needed to fly home.  Delta opens the availabity 331 days in advance and I wanted to make sure to get the cheaper 40k flight option so exactly 331 days before our trip I jumped on the web and Eureka! I found 5 available seats JNB-BOI on Delta for 40k miles per person.  That was the good news, the bad news was that the availability on the JNB-ATL flight was 200k miles per person.  The flights we were able to book were on Virgin Atlantic JNB-LHR-SEA-BOI.  But we had to get home and had to keep to the mile budget so we booked them!  200k Delta miles and just under $275 in taxes and we were booked home.  During our time in Africa I discovered we had a schedule change on our homebound flights and was able to use one of my favorite travel hacks to get us the direct JNB-ATL-SLC-BOI routing!

Cars:

There was nothing too special about our car booking, after checking around prices we found Avis to give a great value and as a perk of my Citi Executive AA Card I have Avis “Preferred” status.  We rented a car for the week in DUR for $130 and a week at Kruger Park (rented at JNB) for $120 for a total of $250 in rental cars.

Accommodations:

This one we got lucky- a great friend of our family had some time shares that she graciously offered us to use for both the weeks we were in South Africa.  The costs was minimal to us which obviously was a huge savings, but we checked around both on AirBnB and VRBO.com to see comparable costs and you can easily stay for under $100 per night for a 2 bedroom apartment.

Total travel costs
Flights (including in country flights): $1125
Car Rental: $250
Accommodation: $0 (approx $1400 if booked at AirBnB)
Total Costs: $2775
Cost Per Person: $555

France for Five: Part 2

A tale of 2 trips

If you read Part 1 of this trip report you know that my daughter and I flew out a few weeks before the rest of the family for some additional kayak races.  Both trips were on different airlines and different routes so here are the lounges and flights for each one.

Tren plus 1
SFO-YVR-MXP-FRA-SFO-BOI

Getting ready to take off!

We got a free upgrade to business class from my status (Gold) with United on our first Air Canada flight.

My trip started with a drive.  As we booked a mistake fare from SFO and were unable to find cheap enough flights to get to SFO so a one way car rental from Avis was the first leg of our trip.  Check in was easy as I chose a time that didn’t have any arriving flights and after chatting with Avis agent we decided on the most fuel efficient car they had in their lot.  I wanted to keep fuel costs as low as possible and they kindly gave us an upgrade to a hybrid car with 80MPG!  The drive to SFO was easy and under 10 hours, typically when we position to SFO we stay in an airport hotel, but a friend of mine lives nearby so we did some couch surfing as we had a very early departure in the morning.

We checked in early enough to get use of the Centurion Lounge from our American Express Platinum card.  The Centurion lounges are my favorite brand of lounge and this one didn’t disappoint.  They have a good breakfast buffet with sausage, potatoes, granola, yogurt, toast, bagels, ect.  The kids always hear the same thing “eat your fill cause you have no idea when you are going to eat again”.  After enough caffine to hop up a race horse we were off.  We flew AirCanada from San Fransico (SFO) to Vancouver (YVR) which was a pleasant short flight.  We had a 5 hour layover in Vancouver so we made our way to the Maple Leaf Lounge.  It is Air Canada’s branded lounge and we used the Priority Pass benefit from the Amex Platinum card.  This Maple Leaf Lounge is fantastic.  It is quite large with solid buffet option. Macaroni and cheese, nachos, and a few protein choices plus quite a few beers on tap (Tren+Guiness=Happy days).  And we were lucky because our YRV-MXP flight was delayed by 5 hours.  We both were well fed and watered and didn’t need any more food but I did check with the customer service desk and they were offering food vouchers for everyone on our flight.  If you delay is more than 3-4 hours its always a good idea to check with customer service to see if any food vouchers are available.  Finally 5 hours late were boarded from the YRV-MXP flight which was comfortable, well serviced, and not super crowded.

Lounges make delays MUCH more comfy.

After HOURS of delay, my daughter resorted to candy bars and Netflix in the Maple Leaf Lounge.

For the return trip the fare we purchased ended putting us on Luftansa the whole way home.  First flight was MXP-FRA and we did not have much time after a lengthy check-in to use a lounge and we went straight to the gate.  During check in I was surprised to be told that I was allowed only one carry on (I carry a small laptop backpack and a rollerboard) and would have to check and pay for my slim backpack.  I explained that we had booked the flight as a codeshare with United and per my confirmation email I was allowed a personal item plus a carry on bag.  After about 20 minutes of slow motion we finally got the bags checked, the carry on bags weighed and labeled as “approved”, and we were off for the gate.  The first opportunity for a lounge was the Lufthansa lounge in FRA.  They are currently renovating the terminal we were in and finding the lounge was a bit of a labyrinth but finally we found it.  Frankfurt is a big airport for Lufthansa and the lounge was packed.  We stood around for about 10 minutes until a table opened up and we slid in.  The food offerings were quite limited to bratwurst, soup, and crackers.  Olivia was thrilled because they did have gummy bears for the kids.  The food was not very good and we opted to get a few cups of coffee/hot chocolate then head out to the terminal to await our flight to SFO.  In SFO we paid a visit back to the Centurion Lounge for some hydration and got our last flight to BOI.

My wife and the boys

BOI-PHX-DFW-LHR-TLS BCN-JFK-PHX-BOI

My wife’s trip had less layover time with only layovers long enough for lounges in DFW, LHR and JFK.
DFW- Is one of the better Centurion Lounges in the US.  It is large, has a kids room with a bunch of Xbox 360 games, and has great food offerings.  she likes it in particular because you get free massages.
LHR-  London is a VERY big airport and if you are arriving by an international flight you have to choose your departure terminal.  It does not seem that you can easily move between terminals and Linzie’s connecting flight was via terminal 5 which brought her to an Aspire Lounge with access from the Priority Pass benefit from our Amex Platinum card.  This was any of ours first time in an Aspire Lounge and it did not disappoint.  The food offering was during the lunch time with mini sandwiches, pasta, sausage, dessert platter, fruits, and soups.  There was a premium menu which came with its own costs, but the free options were plenty to recharge while they waited for our last flight.  It was SUPER busy and there was a 20 minute wait list before being allowed in as well as a 3 hour maximum time you are allowed in the club. She and the boys had a 5 hour layover however they were graciously allowed to stay the entire time. With it being so crowded it was hard to stretch out and my youngest son fell asleep which made space quite difficult as they had no kid room.
JFK- On the way home it was a shorter layover in JFK and there was an Admirals Club near the gate.  They had access via the Citi AAdvantage Executive card which comes with a full Admirals Club membership.  The offerings of the Admirals Club are very consistent; soup, cheese, veggies, desserts, coffee, soda, water, and everyones favorite guacamole bar in the afternoon.  The best part of the Admirals Club is the kids room and the helpfulness of the front desk staff if you have any flight problems.  The front desk staff have always been very helpful and informative for flight changes, and have always gone the extra mile in helping us solve our travel problems.

If you missed it check out Part 1 showing you how to book a family of 5 with frequent flyer miles.
Stay tuned for part 3:
What to do with three kids in the South of France!

France for Five: Part 1

We were lucky enough to get to spend 10 days of family travel together in France this past summer and had a blast.  We managed to accomplish the entire trip on a limited budget both in the air and on the land.

We LOVE to visit castles during family travel trips.

The beautiful castle overlooking the cathedral in Lourdes, France.

Here is how we did it:

Flights:

Tren (plus 1)

For this trip we did not travel to Europe together as my daughter and I were already in Europe due to my competing in slalom kayak races.  We flew out much earlier than my wife and the boys.  My flights were purchased after finding a mistake fare on a great website for finding mistake fares; “Secret Flying“.  A fare popped up with round trip tickets from San Francisco (SFO) to Milan, Italy (MXP).  Why fly from San Francisco when we live in Boise you say?  It’s our favorite word in the family travel cheap mistake fare game called “positioning”.  Positioning is basically finding a larger market to originate your overseas flights from.  We searched from SFO – MXP instead of BOI – MXP because the reservation systems will not let you access the cheaper fares when you start from a smaller hub.  I find often it’s cheaper to buy a regional ticket on a discount carrier to get to a positioning city for the long haul tickets.  We used this with great success last year to get to Australia for less than $400 per ticket! Luckily for us I had a race a few hours north of Milan in a town called Ivrea which made Milan a very convenient place to start.  The fare was $602 per person with taxes for a total of $1204 for both myself and my daughter to get to Europe. After this was booked we watched one way or round trip fare sales from BOI to SFO and found a one way special for $49 each that had seats for the return flight.  We never could find a cheap enough flight to get to SFO so we were off to the car rental agency.  A cheap Avis one way rental for $80 got us from BOI to SFO for our international flights.  In Europe we traveled from MXP to Barcelona Spain (BCN ) for additional kayak races on Easy Jet which cost $175 round trip for both passengers.

My wife and the boys

For the rest of the family travel we used AA miles. Originally finding a round trip for our ideal dates did not work.  The AA “Saver” award level sometimes can be hard to find and we needed to make sure we booked on the cheaper “Saver” award level so we did not overspend in miles.  Finally we found a “Saver” level award for 2 one way tickets.  We flew the family from Boise (BOI) to Toulouse France (TLS) which was close to our destination town of Pau.  The outbound tickets were 30k miles per passenger plus about $60 in fees so a total of 90k miles and $180 in fees.  To give you an idea of how you can come up with that number of miles you can currently sign up for a Barclays Aviator card and get 60k miles after your first transaction and pay the yearly fee of $95.  If you got a his and hers cards you will have 120k miles just after the first purchase.  There are also some Citi branded AA card that also have a signup bonus of 60k each (if you utilize the his and hers PLUS a business card you can easily get another 180k in miles).
For the return leg we could not find ANY “Saver” award space out of TLS so I opened the net a bit and discovered that there was plenty of room from Barcelona Spain (BCN) to BOI!  We quickly booked Linzie, Merle and Isaac home for another 90k in AA miles and $180 in fees.

Our total flight costs were $1744 ($1204 SFO-MXP, $99 SFO-BOI, $80 BOI-SFO + $180 BOI-TLS, $180 BCN-BOI) and 180k in AA miles.

Rental Cars

You probably noticed that my wife and the boys departed from a different airport then they arrived.  We did this for a few reasons, one of which being that was the only place we could get an award ticket.  The other reason is that rental cars are WAY cheaper in BCN as opposed to anywhere else we could find in France.  The best rental options we could find for our family travel to France were over $500 for the 10 days, where a booking from BCN was around $150 for the 10 day rental.  BCN is about a 4 hour drive from where we were staying in France and the drive was quite beautiful and enjoyable.  In the past we have used the third party booking sites to try to get cheaper rental car rates, but we soon discovered when you book with a third party it eliminates any option to change or cancel your rental car reservation.  Because our plans seem to change a lot we have stuck to booking directly with the agency.  We always check the prices against the 3rd party booking sites (we like www.rentalcars.com) and mostly can find similar rates.  We always check Avis, Hertz, Enterprise, and EuropCar.  So by booking our rental car out of BCN instead of TLS we saved a few hundred dollars and got to enjoy an amazing drive through the Pyrenees Mountains!

Accommodations

This one can be the big money burner.  Family travel with a group of 5 on the road, we always try to save money and learn about local culture by cooking our own food.  In order to have access to a kitchen that mostly means finding an apartment on AirBnB.  If you are unfamiliar with the peer to peer accommodations at first it can seem a bit daunting.  The idea is that you rent either a room or an entire house directly from the owner of the property.  That person meets you at the property to give you keys and show you how everything works.  Most of the time in family travel this works out fantastically.  We have stayed in AirBnB places for many, many trips and there has only been once where a place wasn’t as described (it didn’t have WiFi when it stated that it did.  AirBNB paid for me to get a local hotspot and paid for the data use while I was there).  This allows a family to get a lot more room and have a kitchen which allows cooking to save a TON of money on food.  We also try to key into what is cheap at the local supermarket.  We find what seems cheaper and plentiful at the local super gives you a bit of insight into how the local people eat.  Doing so we often eat a bit out of our comfort zone (Kangaroo in Australia and Chicken Liver in Africa) and save money.  In Pau we found a lovely 2 bedroom apartment close to downtown for under $70 per night.  It had WIFI (our kids’ school is online), was super close to downtown, and the host was super helpful on local things to do.  Our total for the 10 days with fees was $820.

Total Travel Expenses:

This trip was a bit more expensive as we bought 2 out of the 5 airline tickets, but they were a mistake fare which helped keep the travel cheaper.
Airfare: $1744
Rental Car: $150
Accommodations: $820
Total Travel Costs: $2714
Family travel price per person: $542.80

For 10 days of family travel in France in the end of the summer we were pretty happy with our total costs in this trip. Obviously we did not include fuel or food costs, but we find we have to pay for gas and food no matter where in the world we are.

Check out Part 2 which will include the trip report with reviews of the airport lounges and flights we took in both directions.

Looking for your own family travel adventure?? Contact Us in the comments below and we would love to help you track down some good flight deals!