One of my favorite things about going to frequent flyer events, like the MegaDo’s, is the opportunity to meet other families who also enjoy traveling around the world with their kiddos. One of those such travelers I had the chance to meet is my new friend Michael, better known as jetsetr in online miles and points forums. He and his wife have had some pretty extensive travel experiences with their now four and eight year old children. Since he has top-tier elite status with airlines and hotels, his family’s travel experiences have been a little different than mine. So, I thought it would be interesting for him to share what it is like to travel with kiddos when first class upgrades are the norm.
Since this family has so much experience traveling, it quickly became apparent that there was too much information for just one post, so this will be a two part mini-series. In this post will be some background information about the trips this family has taken and how elite status/first class experiences have impacted their family travels. The second post on this family will include some tips they learned while flying with young children and some tips now that their children are a bit older, among other things.
First, can you tell me a little bit about your family.
We have two young children, Jackson who is 8, and Samantha who is 4. Both my wife and I have been fortunate to travel extensively with our families since we were young, and the two of us also vacationed a lot during and after college to places in the U.S. and internationally. Having top-level elite status certainly aided our endeavors (more about this in a minute). Both of us went to college on the West Coast, even though our immediate families lived on the East Coast. This meant frequent cross-country trips for holidays and other school breaks. Having children has not slowed our travel one bit, and we have been instilling the same sense of wanderlust in our children since they were born.
Just how often do you travel both individually and as a family?
2011 was a busier than normal travel year for our family. When we travel it is about 95% by air, 5% by car. Usually, I rack up a majority of the actual flying miles – likely in the 50,000 miles/year range on average for the past 20 years or so. However, this past year I personally logged about 115,000 “butt-in-seat miles” (this is official frequent flyer talk), which included four trans-Atlantic trips (two to France, one to the UK, one to Germany), one trans-Pacific trip to Hong Kong, and about 11 or 12 cross-country trips in total to New York, Boston, Florida and Chicago. I should say that all of these were personal trips; the only work-related trip I took was a short hop from San Francisco to Las Vegas.
When we travel as a family, it’s usually to visit East Coast relatives. Those trips normally occur in the summer, and then again for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. Our East Coast families end up visiting us on the West Coast about 4 or 5 times a year themselves, so even though we are a continent’s-width away, we see them six times a year, sometimes more than that. What made this year a heavier travel year is that one time we dropped the kids off with grandparents in Boston and New York, while my wife and I went to France for two weeks in early June. The kids were also scheduled to go to Orlando in August for a Disney World visit – and for that trip, they were on the “Grandma Shuttle” (meaning their grandmother flew from New York to California, only to take them back to New York for a few days, before flying down to Orlando).
As if that wasn’t enough travel, while my wife and I were in France, I learned that we had been randomly selected in a lottery by NASA to buy tickets for the final space shuttle launch. That was too good of an opportunity to pass up, so I booked the four of us (two revenue tickets, two award tickets) for a weekend trip to Orlando, a few weeks after we returned from France. This was also only about three weeks before the kids were going to be going on their scheduled trip to Orlando anyway. The net result was that after all of the trips back east, in a span of 8 weeks, they had each racked up about 17,000 flight miles. I debated doing an end-of-year mileage run to get to 25,000 miles with them so that they could have elite status, but figured it was too much to ask of them.
Clearly you and your family rack up a lot of airline miles. How does elite status come into play when making these trips with your family?
Having Infinite Platinum elite status with Continental (which will now become Lifetime 1K with United, and whose status I leveraged into Executive Platinum status with American through February 2013, thanks to the Oneworld MegaDo challenge) really does help make all of my individual and family travel bearable. It also means that I rack up redeemable award miles at a pretty good rate. Being Infinite Platinum/1K with Continental/United means that I earn double miles when I fly. I also get upgraded more frequently (and I can upgrade a companion if space is available), I have access to Economy Plus seating on United (which is absolutely critical for my family, especially when all four of us can’t be upgraded), we pay no fees for checked luggage, we have a faster TSA security line at most major airports, and we get to pre-board and settle in. And of course, we earn free trips faster because of mileage bonuses. All of these perks which I kind of take for granted as a solo traveler become absolutely worth their weight in gold when traveling with the family.
Here is a shot of his daughter and son on a United P.S. flight - imagine how much easier “nap time” is to manage when your seat lies down!
What was the first trip you took with each of your children?
The first domestic trip we took with our son, Jackson, was when he was about 6 months old. We flew to Boston so that he could be introduced to some relatives. Then at 8 months, we flew to Atlanta so that he could meet other relatives. At 9 months, I was in business school and left for a study-abroad semester in France (no, I didn’t leave my wife alone to care for our son, we had a live-in au pair at the time). But at 10 months of age, my wife and son flew to France to visit me.
He has since returned to Europe one other time, for a visit to the UK when he was just under three.
At age 1 and age 4, we also took him to Hawaii. We also like to joke that our son has been to the pyramids in Egypt, since he was in utero when my wife and I visited! As with our son, the first domestic trip we took with our daughter was also an East Coast visit to Boston, also at 6 months of age. She has traveled many times to the East Coast since then, and also to Canada and Hawaii (at age 10 months), but she has never been overseas, though that will be changing soon.
I know you frequently travel with your kiddos in First/Business class, tell me some about your experiences at the front of the plane with young children.
We are fortunate to have been able to travel in first and business class with our children, domestically and internationally, but we don’t always have that luxury and privilege. There are usually two sides to the coin when traveling up front with kids. One side of the coin is dealing with other first class passengers who may be wary of having kids up front – I know I sometimes feel the same way when I travel solo and see little kids in big seats. Usually no one says anything to me, but on the rare occasions i get a glance or maybe someone half-jokingly says, “I hope they travel well,” I keep the situation light, mention they’re used to traveling up front, laugh, smile, keeping things upbeat. In fact, one time at the end of a redeye flight, an older woman came up to me and praised me for being so attentive to the needs of my then 2-year old. ”He was so quiet!”
What’s great about being up front, is that there is more space (sometimes it’s counter-intuitive for adults sitting in economy to understand why kids having more space on a plane is a good thing), there is less of a line for the lavatory, and the flight attendants are usually very attentive and doting toward the children. On some aircraft (United’s P.S. 3-class service is one example which comes to mind), the flight attendants distribute portable DVD players with a selection of movies, and noise-cancelling headphones, which definitely has kept the kids entertained. They do have our iPads, so that is another way to keep them happily occupied. What’s also great about being up front is that they serve decent meals for kids, and if we are confirmed up front in advance, we can request kids meals. The food quality, while not great, is certainly better than in the back, and usually will have a fresh fruit option, which the kids enjoy.
Here is Jackson and his mom enjoying a meal at a real table on a Virgin Atlantic Upper Class London to San Fransisco trip several years ago.
One story I will share is that in 2010, the kids and I flew on business class award tickets on United from JFK-SFO. We were on a super-ridiculous early morning flight, departing at 6 or 7 a.m. In the United Club the agent was so impressed that the kids were not grumpy at such an early hour. I mentioned that the kids were seasoned travelers, and that they were quiet, and used to the routine of air travel, at whatever hour. My son then says in a loud enough voice (and I promise this wasn’t scripted!), “Daddy, when can we fly on the planes where the chairs turn into beds again?” I said that we were in business class, and the seats would feel like a bed to him. Clearly, the club agent was impressed enough with my well-behaved kids, especially my son, so about 15 minutes in the club, she approaches me, asks me for my boarding passes, rips them up, and hands me new first class boarding passes for the three of us. And again, we were on an award ticket! It was quite the pleasant surprise!
That being said, we don’t always travel in first. Sometimes, another carrier has a really great price, and we just have to jump on it. For example, Delta offered $198 per person round tickets from San Fransisco to JFK for summer travel. That deal was too good to pass up, even if it meant flying economy the day after flying in luxury in Virgin Upper Class . Here they are in a regular old economy seat with their iPads to keep them occupied.
As you can see, this family has learned that miles, points, and elite status can make the traveling experience completely different than it otherwise would be. Not only do they often travel on free reward tickets, but they often do it at the front of the plane! Stay tuned for the second half of this post where we learn about some of their tips for making travel with little ones easier, regardless of where you are sitting on the plane.