Michigan

We left Edinburgh and flew back to London where we stayed the night before departing Heathrow for our flight to Detroit. Flying out of Heathrow is a pain in the ass. No way around it, no point in sugar coating it. The drive from our hotel to the airport was full of traffic, and therefore stressful, but we did find the agents working at Heathrow professional and kind.

Our seats were Economy Plus which means we had a little more leg room than the regular economy class. It’s just enough extra room to make a longer flight more bearable. Writing this a month and a half after the fact, I can’t remember too much about the flight itself — which means it must have been fairly easy. At this point, Matteo is truly a pro on a plane. We don’t have any qualms about flying with him — even long flights. We let him choose where he wants to sit (typically the middle) and he loves using the inflight entertainment system. I do remember that this was the flight where he watched Finding Nemo three times in a row!

We landed in Detroit, grabbed our bags, and made our way to where Aunt Chris was waiting to bring us back to her place. Although Michigan was hotter and more humid than average, it still felt nice compared to what we’d been used to in Abu Dhabi! The time change from London to Detroit meant that we had a 5 hour time difference to contend with, but we quickly learned that traveling east > west made time change transitioning much easier.

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Summer fun with Uncle Jerry

Over the next dew days, we had a blast with Chris, Jerry, Grandma and Grandpa Thom, Kyle, Candice, Brady, Rachel, Stella and Jax. It was particularly fun to watch Matteo enjoy some of the classic, summer playtime activities that Tony and I enjoyed during our own MidWest childhoods. There were sprinklers, water guns, soccer, tee ball, and games of hide and seek. Matteo definitely remembered staying at Chris and Jerry’s house last year — and was SO excited to play with the awesome pirate ship and castle toys that he’d enjoyed last summer. Another highlight? Aunt Chris took Matteo fishing — and he caught not one, but TWO fish! It was so exciting! I think it’s safe to say Matteo  is an Aunt Chris fan for life.

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Matteo’s first fish

We also got to visit Tony’s grandparents at their new condo. Last year, they were preparing for their move, and this year we got to see them settled in their lovely new home. We were treated to lunch and dinner at their place and Matteo had a blast pretending to be a superhero who was fighting bad guys as he ran through the hallways.

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Matteo and his great grandparents

After nearly a year away, what can I say other than it was just so enjoyable and wonderful to sit with family, chat, catch up — just be together. I enjoyed driving again (I don’t have my license in the UAE) and, of course, shopping at Target.

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Our Michigan Family — we love you guys!

We always feel so welcome when staying with Chris and Jerry. On top of two people who definitely have the gift of hospitality, there’s nothing quite like seeing the people you love, love your child. I could have watched quietly as Matteo played with his great grandparents, cousins/aunts/uncles, and cousin-dogs all day long. There’s nothing better, truly. It was also awesome to be able to play outside again since the heat of Abu Dhabi had us housebound for much of May and June. It definitely made me think of the positives of living/growing up in the midwest — there really is nothing like a midwest summer!

After about a week of family time in Michigan, it was time to get on a plane again, this time to Arizona.

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Park Hyatt Dubai

During the first weekend in May, Tony, Matteo and I packed up and made the 1.5 hour drive to Dubai for a long weekend spent at the Park Hyatt Dubai.

Park Hyatt Dubai

We love to stay at Hyatt properties because of our award status with the chain, which gives us extra benefits like suite upgrade when available, late check out, free breakfast, etc. This Dubai property followed in the footsteps of the other Park Hyatt properties we’ve stayed at, it was absolutely beautiful with fantastic service.

The property is spread out, with separate buildings attached by breezeways and walkways. Every square inch of the property was gorgeous — with the blue and white theme, and modern, luxurious furnishings leaving us saying “wow!” throughout our stay.

Upon check in, we were upgraded to a suite which meant that we had a large bedroom and a separate living area (where we could roll Matteo’s cot at night). Also of note? The gorgeous bathroom that featured a HUGE tub!

With several restaurants, a great pool, gym, and spa, we didn’t feel the need to leave the property for the duration of our weekend stay. Because it was Mother’s Day (US) weekend,  Tony and Matteo surprised me with a morning at the spa where I received a wonderfully relaxing massage.

Our weekend was quiet and relaxing — the perfect preparation for the end of school year crawl that awaited us back in Abu Dhabi as we wait for our mid July summer break and the exciting line up of travels we have planned (UK > US > Netherlands).

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We will definitely make plans to return to the Park Hyatt Dubai property for a future visit when we want to get away, but don’t have the time/inclination to leave the UAE. A great, relaxing weekend!

Toddler Travel Packing

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I love this photo — showing the reality of travel with a toddler. If he would have looked up from the iPad, he would have LOVED all of the boats. Oh well! He was happy, we were happy.

If you’re friends with Tony or I on Facebook or Instagram you will know that we just spent a week in beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark. Sorry for blowing up your feeds, everyone, but it was a pretty perfect week and we wanted to do whatever we could to save the memories for us to look back on later. We’re looking forward to sharing more about this trip on the blog in the coming week, but before we get to the specifics of Copenhagen I wanted to tackle the challenge of packing for a toddler.

Now that we’ve travelled a fair bit as a family, the packing process has become so much easier. The first trip I took with Matteo was very stressful — I felt like I practically had to pack everything we owned baby-related that we might need. Its not that way anymore. While I won’t go through the process of explaining every little thing that I pack for our toddler (there are plenty of packing lists on the web that do just that), I did want to mention a few of the essentials that make traveling with our rambunctious three year old a whole lot easier:

  1. Potette Plus 2-in-1 Travel Potty – This little potty invention has been a game changer for us. While we still use our little IKEA potty at home, it was too bulky to travel easily with when we’re out and about. The legs of this little potty fold under to make it practically flat. It fits easily in a carry on, and underneath the stroller when we’re out sight seeing. The potty uses biodegradable, disposable liners. We can go anywhere if this potty is with us.
  2. Favorite blanket from home – When I was pregnant, we received two packs of these wonderful swaddle blankets as a gift. At the time, I thought they were simply adorable and couldn’t wait to swaddle my little newborn. They were used CONSTANTLY in the first few months of Matteo’s life — and pretty much everyday since . These blankets are light and thin, they pack easily, and they wash and dry quickly. Matteo instantly recognizes them as something from home and they help a hotel bed seem like his bed.
  3. A few favorite toys. When you think of traveling, you don’t think of spending lots of time in the hotel room. The point is to be out and about, seeing the city you’re visiting. The truth is that when you travel with a toddler you will need to include some down time in your trip. To keep a hotel room from being completely boring for Matteo, we bring a few of his favorite toys with us in our carry on. For him, that means a little green airplane that he loves to “fly” on every flight, a toy car, and his current obsession, some sort of Toy Story toy (this time we brought Woody — so naturally he kept asking for Buzz Lightyear). Again, this isn’t about bringing everything your child could possibly want to play with, but rather a few favorites that will make the hotel room feel familiar, like home away from home.
  4. Snacks. My child is a PICKY eater. It’s bad. The fact is there’s a list of only about 10 items that he will currently eat. Because we travel internationally, we don’t always know if Matteo’s favorites will be available. For that reason, we always pack the “essentials” – Pringles, M&Ms, goldfish crackers, and strawberry pop tarts. Healthy? No, but these foods work as bribes when he’s tired on a long haul flight and guarantee that he’ll eat something if we’re presented with a menu that has nothing kid friendly. Thankfully, fruit is the same everywhere so we load up on his favorites when we reach our destination on each trip.
  5. Children’s pain reliever. It never fails that Matteo picks up a bug of some sort on our trips. The first year it was ear infections, last year we dealt with a wretched stomach virus, and this go around he came home with congestion and a cough. I love Walgreen’s brand Jr. strength ibuprofen in the dissolving tabs (can be found in store). Matteo doesn’t do well with suspension liquid, but doesn’t fight us when it’s time to take these tablets (intended for ages 2 to 11 years). I briefly looked in a pharmacy in Denmark this past week, but the language barrier made it really difficult to shop for children’s OTC medications. I was glad to already have what I needed already in my bag.
  6. iPad and Movie. The iPad has been a lifesaver for us. Its what gave us the time we needed to enjoy sightseeing at less-exciting-for-kids locations like museums. Before a trip, we like to download a new movie or television episode for Matteo to watch on the trip. Because the material is new to him, he will happily watch it over and over again. If you’re the parent of a little one who has a favorite show or character, gifting your kiddo with a new “movie” will give them needed entertainment while you enjoy your trip. Be sure to download it to your device so that you don’t have to rely on wifi to view! P.S. The newest Toy Story movie is FANTASTIC.

Nothing groundbreaking here, but these little things make traveling with a three year old not just bearable, but enjoyable for the three of us. Do you have any tried and true packing items of your own for traveling with a little one?

Ras Al Khaimah

Last week the three of us made the drive up to the northern most emirate, Ras Al Khaimah, for a weekend away. We left quite quickly after Tony returned home from work on Thursday afternoon, hoping that by leaving early in the afternoon we could avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic near Dubai. We still encountered a fair amount of traffic getting through Dubai, but the rest of the drive was smooth sailing.

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The purpose of the trip to RAK was for Tony to participate in his first official half marathon. I say first official half marathon because it is not unheard of for Tony to run this distance on one of his longer runs on weekends. The man is a strong runner! This race is known as “the fastest half marathon in the world” due to the flat course and typically ideal conditions. I’ll let Tony speak more about the race in a later post.

For our weekend away, we chose to stay at a Hilton property, the Hilton Al Hamra Beach & Golf Resort. The property is very close to the architecturally lovely Waldorf Astoria, but rather than one large building full of rooms and suites, the Hilton Al Hamra has a series of smaller buildings housing rooms across the property. While we didn’t golf on this trip, there is an absolutely beautiful golf course surrounding the property. It seemed to be quite busy all day long and was clearly one of the biggest draws to this resort on this particular weekend.

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The grounds of the hotel property were absolutely beautiful! We had an upgraded room in a small building housing about 8 total rooms, right on the beach. The paths around the property easily led us to the other amenities that were there to take advantage of — a lovely pool, children’s playground, outdoor refreshment stands, beach rentals, as well as the main hotel building that housed three restaurants, a coffee shop, concierge, and the spa.

Matteo has been to the beach before, but the easy access to the beach from our room on this trip made this trip extra fun for him. He loved picking up seashells to throw back in to the surf, playing in the surf, and running away from the waves as they broke on the beach.

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The weather was cooler than what we’re used to, at highs in the low 70s, but the water wasn’t freezing so we were all comfortable wading in ankle deep and enjoying the sunshine. Evenings on the beach got quite cool (for desert acclimated people like ourselves) and the brisk wind was a change from the very warm winter we’ve been enjoying in Abu Dhabi.

Tony’s race was early on Friday morning (he crushed it) and he was back by late morning. Our preferred status with Hilton means that we enjoy a free breakfast at their properties, so when he returned the three of us went down to eat at the buffet breakfast in the main building. The breakfast selection was great, including a fresh egg station and even real pork bacon and sausage! Breakfast was packed at 10 am on Friday afternoon, but on Saturday we went early, at 8 am and enjoyed a largely empty dining room.

The hotel was in easy walking distance of a mall which meant that we could get a (less expensive) dinner just a walk away. We did indulge in room service for dinner on Friday night, which we both enjoyed as well.

On Friday afternoon, Tony surprised me by booking an appointment for me at the spa! I had a glorious massage and a manicure. The service at the spa was EXCELLENT. Perhaps the best spa experience I’ve ever had, or at least tied with my time at the Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi last year. It was an unexpected, and very appreciated, two hours of pampering spent all by myself in glorious quiet.

I was surprised at how lovely RAK was (I didn’t realize what a beautiful resort town it is), and at just over a two hour drive, I definitely think we will make a return trip in the future. If nothing else, we plan to be back next year for the half marathon again.

 

 

The Value of Points

Earlier in the week I told you about our upcoming trip to Austin, TX. This trip is the perfect example of how you can leverage hotel points to avoid paying outrageous high rates at hotels.

I’ve already listed the reasons why we’ve chosen the Hyatt Place Austin Downton for our stay, so now let’s talk numbers. Currently a standard room at the Hyatt Place Austin Downtown is booking at $305/night for an advanced purchase rate (meaning you will be charged if you end up canceling for any reason). Plan a trip for 5 nights and you’re looking at…$1766.10.

Hyatt

Rest assured, we won’t be paying that amount come March. Instead, we will be redeeming 80,000 of our Hyatt Gold Passport points (15,000 per night) to stay in the same room — with no further out of pocket costs.

Last summer, Tony signed up for the Chase Ink Bold card which offered at the time (and currently still does) 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points (after spending $5K in the first 3 months*) as a sign-up bonus. I recently signed up for the Chase Freedom card which offered the equivalent of 20,000 points which we were then able to transfer to Tony’s Ultimate Rewards account.

The $5K minimum spend on the Chase Ink Bold card also offers 5 points/dollar spent at Office Supply stores (i.e. Staples, Office Max, etc.) cable companies, and utilities. By creatively purchasing gift cards and paying our utility bills with this card, we successfully earned an additional 25,000 ($5k x 5 points per dollar) on top of the 70,000 bonus points. Between those two cards, we netted $95,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

These Ultimate Rewards points can then be transfered at a 1:1 ratio at 11 different travel reward partners, including Hyatt Gold Passport.  Chase Ultimate Rewards instantly transfer to Hyatt Gold Passport and are immediatley available to use for booking stays at Hyatt properties.  The Hyatt Place Austin Downtown is a category 4 Hyatt property which requires 15,000 points per night.

Chase-Ultimate-Rewards-Transfer-Partners

Because we have these 80,000 points at our disposal we will be able to stay at this gorgeous, expensive hotel for a mere fraction of the +$1700 total that the room is currently booking. We’ll talk about how we’re handing the airfare for three to fly from PHX to AUS a little bit later.

*Coming in a future post, how to meet your spending minimum without really spending a dime…

 

Austin, TX

2015 should be a big year for us travel wise. We have two trips already planned and three more in the works!

First up, we’ll be heading to Austin, TX in March for a family vacation. Why did we pick Austin? We wanted a warm weather location with a short-ish flight (this will be Matteo’s first flight with his own seat). I’ve heard some good things about Austin in general — that its a cool city with plenty to see, do and eat. After checking out a few other city options, Tony agreed that Austin seemed like a good choice for us for our first family trip of the year.

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So now we plan! We’ll be arriving in Austin on a Saturday and leaving the following Thursday. That leaves us 4 full days to fill with fun. We’ve booked our hotel and will be staying at the Hyatt Place Austin Downtown.

Hyatt Austin

I’m very excited about this hotel — it looks beautiful and has some solid reviews on TripAdvisor. In addition to being a beautiful example of downtown architecture, it hits many of our “musts” when choosing a hotel for a family trip:

  • Free WiFi — The Hyatt Place Austin Downtown, like most downtown hotels, caters to a business class clientele. That means we can pretty much count on great WiFi everywhere in the building. This is a must for us because if all else fails, Matteo will be endlessly entertained by watching Wild Kratts or Cailou or Arthur via our Hulu Plus app on our iPad. Spotty wifi makes for a cranky kiddo. Judge away, but we’re not above utilizing screen time to keep him happy and calm.
  • Free Breakfast — I can’t tell you how important this one is. In addition to saving us $$ in the grand scheme, the convenience of a hot, continental breakfast in your hotel cannot be overstated when you have an early bird kiddo. Since both Tony and I work, Matteo has to be up early on the weekdays — and his 6:30 am wake up time carries right on in to weekends and vacations. When he wakes up? Boy is hangry. Having the ability to jump out our room and to the lobby for a quick breakfast without wrangling the whole crew for a restaurant outing? Perfection. According to other family vacationers on TripAdvisor who have stated at the Hyatt Place Austin Downtown, the breakfast is pretty excellent. So I’ll be looking forward to that.
  • Central Location — This should go without saying, but really the most important consideration when booking a hotel for a family trip is location! You want to be close to everything — restaurants, sites, shopping, etc. Ideal locations include when you can get by with just a stroller. We’re still debating whether to rent a car for a day, but staying downtown puts us mere blocks away from +200 restaurants, a 10 minute walk to the beautiful state Capital,  a 5 minute walk to Lady Bird Lake, and only one mile to the University of Texas.
  • Extras — Anytime a hotel offers extras, you’re in luck. This hotel has an indoor pool which will make inclement weather that much easier to deal with, should the need arise. It also has a fitness area, lobby coffee shop, lobby bar, and gorgeous views of the city. All of which will certainly add to the fun of the trip.*

With the hotel booked and waiting for us, that leaves us time to make the wish list of what we’d like to see while we’re in town. Keeping in mind that we’ll be a walking family, here’s the short list of what we’re thinking of checking out while in Austin,TX:

  • Austin Nature & Science Center – A 10 minute drive from downtown, this kid-friendly museum has hands-on activities for little ones. At 2, Matteo will be on the young side of the target demographic, but this still looks like a great option to check out.
  • Thinkery, the new Austin Children’s Museum – A museum created with kiddos in mind, this place looks awesome. A workshop, a kitchen, painting, a light lab, etc. Again, the museum is 10 minutes from our hotel.
  • Texas Governor’s Mansion – I think this one looks like fun! According to Google maps, another 10 minute walk/bus ride will take us to the Texas Governor’s Mansion where we can schedule a tour. According to the website, tours must be scheduled at least one week in advance, but are free. We love free!
  • Zilker Metropolitan Park – This park is supposed to be amazing, with a miniature train, canoeing, and a HUGE playground area with picnic tables. Matteo loves nothing more than being outdoors so this park will be a must-do on our list while in Austin.

Because of some very exciting travel plans coming later in 2015 (more on that to come), I feel like we’re a bit behind in planning this rapidly approaching trip to Austin, but now that we’re getting a bit of a list together of things to see, I’m getting excited…

Are there any Austin, TX experts out there that can tell me something that we MUST SEE while we’re in town? Let me know — we’d hate to miss out on something great!

*Tip for traveling with little ones – Another important extra to look for when booking a hotel? SHUTTLES! A lot of downtown hotels offer shuttles for their guests to hit up area hot spots. Inquire with your concierge prior to arrival to see if this is something that your hotel offers  — and plan ahead with a car seat for your little(s) if needed.

Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa

Sometimes you want to get away…but not too far away. That’s what we encountered last month, a weekend with no plans and an itch to get out of town. We’re lucky to live outside of Phoenix, with several decent travel destinations in easy driving distance. For this trip, we chose Sedona, AZ. The drive was quick and easy, and nothing beats Sedona for rugged, natural beauty.

Sedona Rouge

Tony booked two nights at the Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa off a deal they were running pre-Christmas on Orbitz. We learned our lesson over the summer — booking one hotel room means when the baby goes down for his early bed time, mom and dad are stuck whisper talking or watching barely audible television and all hopes for a relaxing, connecting kind of weekend go out the door. So this time around we decided on a suite and booked the Andalusia suite.

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At the Sedona Rouge our room on the third floor had a beautiful view of the red rocks that make Sedona so breathtaking. The highlights of the room were two large bathrooms (showers only, no bathtub), a giant King sized bed, two small balconies overlooking the rear of the property, plenty of closet space, a pull out sleeper couch and two TVs. We requested a crib for Matteo and had a decent pack n’ play ready in the room, with a child size pillow and plenty of blankets. The room was really clean and a modern. A privacy curtain allowed us to separate the sitting room area from the bedroom area — which meant when 7:00 hit and Matteo was ready for bed*, we simply closed his curtain and retreated to the other side of the room where we could continue to watch tv, talk, eat, whatever for the rest of the evening. It was so much better than sharing a single room — when that’s happened in the past, Matteo fights bedtime and we all end up in bad moods.

As we were at the Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa in December, we didn’t get to use the pool but we did enjoy the spa. We also took advantage of the “free small plate” coupons at Red’s Restaurant that we received upon check-in. Red’s Restaurant never seemed terribly busy and we enjoyed the food we tried. We were also very happy with the hotel staff — kind, courteous and quick to offer assistance.

Negatives of our stay? The $20 resort fee of  per day is charged which covers wi-fi (which was average at the best of times) and use of the fitness room was a bit high for what was offered. Also, the hotel had a beautiful observation deck but it was not in operation, though a fire pit and heaters seemed available and ready. The Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa is currently in the middle of an expansion project, which means construction. We weren’t disturbed at all by the construction, but if you plan a visit in the near future be aware that they are expanding and that means a working construction crew will be on site and making noise during the day Mondays through Thursdays. If you can over look the construction site though, its still a great place to stay for a weekend in Sedona.

*Traveling with baby/toddler tip: bring a sound machine! White noise will help lull baby to sleep and allow mom and dad to talk/watch tv/eat/whatever without worrying about baby waking up. We’ve used a sound machine with Matteo since he was 7 weeks old and credit it for allowing us to travel with ease — Matteo will sleep anywhere as long as he has his sound machine on. This is the one we have and love — it also has a light projector which is a big hit with our little one.