Trips With Tykes - San Francisco Bay Area Family Travel Blog
Welcome! I'm Leslie, a mom of two (ages 7 and 3) who loves to travel. Trips With Tykes is a family travel blog devoted to simplifying the logistics of traveling with young kids. With a little knowledge of airline rules & good planning, family travel can be really fun, even if it still involves the occasional in-flight tantrum or battle with TSA over your toddler's juice box.
I’ve shared often why my husband and I have made Southwest Airlines’s our family’s airline of choice the past several years. Kind and funny employees, a growing route map, and policies that work especially well for family travelers have helped earn our loyalty. What I also love is that the airline doesn’t nickel and dime me for the amenities I like and need when I fly. I’ll take free, please.
If you’ve seen the ads, you might already know “bags fly free” on Southwest. But the reality is that the airline offers a lot of other free amenities and perks that will cost you on many other airlines. For families buying three, four, and more tickets, getting all those little extras for free can really add up to some major savings. A few of these Southwest freebies aren’t necessarily well-known, so I thought I’d use this as a chance to educate other travelers about them. I want you to be able to take full advantage to save more money in your family’s travels!
If you aren’t familiar with flying aboard Southwest Airlines, be sure to check out my other top Southwest articles to get acquainted with the airline:
7 Things that are Totally Free on Southwest Airlines
1. Checked Bags
The Southwest mantra is simple — “Bags Fly Free!” Southwest is now the only U.S. airline that does not charge for checked bags. In the second half of 2018, nearly all the major U.S. airlines actually increased their bag fees from $25 to $30 for the first bag, so the Southwest savings have gotten even bigger.
Two checked bags per person fly free on Southwest.
As much as I try to carry on whenever I can, it’s impossible to do all of the time. I often need to check a bag on longer trips or trips to cold destinations (anyone who can pack for a ski trip in carry on bag is officially a superstar). When my kids were babies and toddlers, checking a bag or two was simply a necessity. I didn’t have the hands free to carry on with strollers and car seats and the kids themselves. I appreciate that I never have to stress with Southwest to check bags when I need to.
2. Carry On Bags
Boarding a Southwest flight with a free carry on bag.
With the growth of low cost carriers both in the US and abroad, many more airlines are now charging for carry on bags as well. In the US, ultra-low cost airlines like Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier charge a fee that is often larger than their checked bag fee. This is all for the privilege of bringing anything larger than a purse or backpack aboard. Legacy airlines like United are jumping on this bandwagon, offering “basic economy” tickets that don’t permit large carry ons.
There are no carry on bag fee fears with Southwest. All passengers can bring up to a full size roller bag on board as well as a personal item. Parents with lap children even get an extra diaper bag allowance. And because Southwest doesn’t charge for checked bags, the overhead bins on Southwest rarely fill like they do on other airlines. You can actually find a place to stow your carry ons aboard Southwest.
3. Changing or Cancelling Your Flight Reservation
Unless you have airline elite status, all other US airlines charge a hefty fee for changing flight reservations more than 24 hours after you’ve booked a flight. This flight change fee is usually $200 on most major U.S. airlines like Delta, United, or American.
Southwest does not have a change fee at all if you need to switch to a different flight. Even if you’ve booked Southwest’s discounted “Wanna Get Away” fares, you can cancel or change and use the travel funds towards a future flight reservation (for up to a year from the date you first booked the flight). If you booked your flight with Rapid Rewards points, your points and the taxes are simply refunded if you cancel.
Of course, if the fare for the other flight is more expensive, you’ll need to pay the difference in fares. But there isn’t an extra “change fee” on top of this fare difference with Southwest like every other airline will charge. Better yet, if the fare you booked has dropped, Southwest will actually give you a credit back for a future flight. Seriously! So watch for those Southwest flight sales and see if your already-booked trips have dropped in price for a chance to save.
Typical free snacks on longer Southwest flights.
Airlines have been radically downsizing the food options the last few years. Most U.S. carriers now offer very little food in economy class on any of their flights for free. You might get a tiny bag of snack mix on United or the like. But if you want anything more substantial, however, you’ll need to fork over some big bucks.
Southwest is a no frills airline so there are no $27 croissant breakfast sandwiches for purchase on their flights. But you get much more for free. Southwest flight attendants are always super-generous with the airline’s free snack offerings. On shorter flights, pretzels or plane cookies (similar to animal crackers) are usually served. On longer routes, flight attendants usually offer both pretzels and an assortment several of Ritz/Nabisco snacks. You really can take as many as you want. And on Southwest’s new Hawaii flights, there’s a more extensive snack box that is equivalent to what many airlines would charge $7-8 for!
In-flight entertainment has been changing rapidly the last few years and for the better. But Southwest still offers much more of theirs free than is available on many other domestic airlines
Southwest’s current system requires your own device (smartphone, tablet, laptop), but almost all of the entertainment content is entirely free. There are usually about two dozen recently-released movie choices as well about a dozen live streaming TV channels. Southwest also recently added free iMessage and WhatsApp access so you can stay in touch even if you don’t purchase WiFi.
Free entertainment options on your own devices.
6. Award Tickets
You’ve worked hard for your miles, racking up many hours on planes and spending a lot on credit cards to earn them. So why do so many airlines want to charge you for the privilege of using them? Believe it or not, many airlines do just that. Some airlines do it by charging hefty fuel surcharges on award tickets that can be hundreds of dollars. Others do it by charging fees like close-in award ticketing fees if you want to book a mileage ticket less than 21 days in advance.
There are simply no hidden or tricky fees when redeeming your Rapid Rewards points on Southwest, even if you redeem them for same day travel. The only extra cost you’ll pay for an award ticket is mandated government fees. For US travel, this is $5.60 each way.
7. Seat Assignments
My 5 year old at the queuing poles for Southwest’s unique boarding process.
Seat assignments have become an increasingly contentious commodity on most US airlines. Many airlines, especially low cost carriers, charge for the privilege of having any assigned seat. Many others simply make nearly everything but middle seats “preferred” seats that travelers have to pay to book. For parents, it’s a complex game of chicken just trying to find seats together with their kids anywhere on the plane without paying mightily for the privilege.
Southwest solves the problem by simply not having assigned seats. Parents with young kids can almost always be assured of seats together because of the airline’s policy of allowing families with kids 6 and under to board between boarding groups A & B. Other travelers can get the seats of their choice by checking in for their flights right at 24 hours in advance and getting an early boarding number.
Southwest offers Early Bird Check-in ($15-25 each way) that you can pay for if you want to be first on the plane when you can access the best seat options. But it truly is optional. It’s entirely possibly to fly the airline regularly, never purchase Early Bird, and still get great seats — as I happen to do!
Honorable Mention: $8 WiFi
Although WiFi isn’t free on Southwest, I thought it deserved a mention. Why? It’s cheap on Southwest compared to the competition. Only JetBlue does better (JetBlue is the only US airline to offer free WiFi to its passengers).
Southwest is certainly next best, charging $8 for a full day of WiFi service, no matter how many flights you are on in a single day. Every other U.S. airline charges a hefty fee for their WiFi service — as much as $25 a day or more if you wait to buy on board your flight. Even the discounted pre-purchased passes are much more expensive.
One other bonus you shouldn’t forget? If you have the Southwest Priority Credit Card from Chase and use that card to purchase WiFi, you get a 20% discount. (Learn about this card and the differences in the three Southwest credit card offerings).
The Bottom Line
Many airlines can nickel and dime with you lots of extras that cost more. My family has chosen to fly Southwest because the money we save with the airline’s free offerings really adds up, even when tickets aren’t necessarily the cheapest up front. Always, always do the overall math before you book with any airline!
Disclosure: I’m a paid ambassador for Southwest Airlines in 2019. All opinions are my own.
Trips With Tykes has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Trips With Tykes and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.
In some circles, credit cards are a dirty word. I’ve listened to Dave Ramsey for many years and follow plenty of his financial advice so I understand some of the argument. Credit cards get a lot of Americans in real financial trouble. But they are very much an important and almost necessary part of living in the 21st century, especially for anyone who travels.
If you have the means to travel – even a little bit – it’s so important to have at least one credit card (and ideally, the right credit card!). Using debit cards or cash for certain kinds of transactions add risks and frustrations all their own. Using them exclusively can leave you in a bind far from home or can put you in a situation where you lose a significant amount of money.
If you are a reader already familiar with the world of miles and points, I know I’m preaching to the choir. This article really isn’t for you. But I know many Trips With Tykes readers are still unfamiliar with why credit cards are important for travel. Many use debit cards a lot instead. Others have a credit card, but perhaps it’s one that they don’t realize doesn’t give them the right protections and benefits. So I hope to reach those of you who fall into the latter camps!
Here are seven reasons why travelers really do need a credit card. I’ve included plenty of tips for using the cards responsibly along the way and finding the cards that give you the most bang for your buck. No card mentioned in this article has an annual fee of more than $100 to make this accessible to regular folks.
7 Reasons You Need a Credit Card if you Travel
1. Fraud Protection & Security
The most important reason that travelers need a credit card or two in their wallets is to protect them from fraud and provide security for their financial accounts. It’s so easy for thieves to lift card numbers these days. If someone gets ahold of your credit card number and makes fraudulent charges, however, you aren’t responsible. Over the years, I’ve had several credit card accounts compromised, and the banks handled it seamlessly at no cost or inconvenience to me.
The same cannot be said of cash or debit cards. Cash can so easily be lost or pickpocketed when you travel. But debit cards are a serious risk as well. If your debit card is compromised, your bank may not protect you the way that banks do with credit cards. Thieves can drain your account of real money that you can’t get back.
At the very least, even if your bank does cover the fraud, your checking account can be in limbo for days or weeks at a time while the problem is sorted out. For most of us, this account has money we need to pay other bills, so it can really wreak havoc on your entire financial life. That’s the last thing you need to deal with on vacation.
2. An Increasing Number of Places Only Take Plastic
The old saying that cash is king just isn’t true in the 21st century. There are so many places where you simply need to have plastic to purchase certain goods or services. This is even more true for travelers in unfamiliar destinations. Here are just a few places that travelers might experience needing a card to make necessary purchases:
For hotel stays
To rent a car
To purchase train or transit tickets (some stations only have self-service machines)
Cashless restaurants (yes, they exist and the number of them is increasing)
Well, you can just use a debit card you say? Not necessarily. Some merchants put all sorts of additional restrictions on would-be customers who want to use debit cards. Rental car companies, for example, often require debit card customers to have multiple forms of ID and undergo a credit check before leaving the lot with a car. Who has time for that? And of course, the more places you use that debit card, the more you expose it to the fraud risks already discussed.
3. Hotel & Rental Card Holds
Another practical reason that travelers need credit cards is because of the policy of many travel-related business to put temporary holds on cards. When you check into a hotel, for example, many will hold an additional amount of $100, $200, or more on your card to cover incidentals or damage to the room. Rental car companies – if they’ll even rent to you at all with just a debit card – will also place a hold of several hundred dollars on whatever card you present.
If you use a credit card with a monthly credit limit in excess of what you ever spend on the card, these temporary holds are basically not noticeable to you. But if you use a debit card, a hold like this can really matter. These holds can sometimes remain on your card for up to 30 days after your travel is over, significantly tying up real cash in your checking account when you may need it for other purposes.
Using a debit card at a Disney hotel like the Grand Floridan can cost you in unexpected ways.
Many of these holds can take days or weeks to disappear even well after the actual charges also post. Not too many of us have that kind of extra money lying around in a checking account for an extended period of time. For that reason, I’d never recommend putting down a debit card at a Walt Disney World hotel. But the principle applies more broadly at a lot of other destinations as well. You just never know how the merchant is going to act, and that puts your money at risk.
4. Travel Rewards
If you travel even a few times a year and are putting all your spending on debit cards or using cash, you are missing out on very lucrative travel rewards that can save you money on your next vacation. So many credit cards – even those with no annual fee – come with signup bonuses and points or cash-back for the spending you are already doing. My family personally earns many thousands of dollars in travel rewards from our credit cards every year (even after accounting for the cards with annual fees that we pay).
My family’s most recent flights to Hawaii on Southwest were paid for entirely with credit card rewards.
I know the Dave Ramsey counterargument: people who use plastic spend more than people with cash, statistically speaking. Don’t be a statistic. If you really feel you are going to spend more with credit cards, use them only for major purchases like plane tickets or a hotel stay that you can’t use cash for anyway. Then pay the credit card balance off immediately from your checking account. This way, the card effectively works for you like a debit card does but you also double dip on the miles or points in the process. And if you regularly have any sort of reimbursable business expenses, by all means put those on a card and earn rewards for someone else’s spending.
If you are interested in getting a credit card to earn travel rewards, be sure to check out my list of the 5 best rewards credit cards for family travelers. My absolute favorite card for beginners and intermediates at the moment is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. The card earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points that have a multitude of flexible uses. You can redeem them for travel at a fixed value in the Chase portal or you can transfer them to a number of loyalty programs you may already have: Hyatt, United, Marriott, or Southwest to name a few. Travel and dining purchases earn double points. The card currently has a 60,000 point signup bonus for completing $4000 in spend in the first three months and a $95 annual fee.
5. Trip Interruption & Cancellation Protections
So many travelers don’t know about the many fringe benefits that credit cards can provide that they miss out on by spending cash or using debit cards. One of the most common benefits is some form of trip protection. The scope of these benefits varies quite a bit, but generally speaking, look out for the following:
Trip Delay Insurance: Protects against costs incurred on delays of many hours (or overnight) – like when you have food, clothing, or hotel costs due to a significant flight delay.
Trip Cancellation Insurance: When you need to cancel a trip beforehand due to a covered reason (illness, death, etc. – usually applies to people booked on the trip and immediate family members).
Trip Interruption Insurance: When your trip is already underway but is derailed by a covered reason.
I see often in my Disneyland with Kids Facebook group parents who experience a child coming down with an illness on a Disney trip. Their pre-purchased park tickets go to waste in the days that follow as they are confined to their hotel room with a sick kid or need to take their child to an urgent care clinic or ER. If you put your park tickets on a credit card with the right protections, however, getting some or all of your money back is very possible.
Did snow delay your flight? Credit card insurance benefits might come to the rescue.
To be sure, the cards that offer these benefits are often the more premium credit cards with annual fees. So it’s very important to do the math. I personally make sure all my credit cards “pay for themselves” in terms of their other benefits before I keep them, so the trip insurance aspects of cards I have are an additional free bonus.
There are nevertheless a few cards that offer some or all of these benefits with reasonable annual fees. A few that I’d recommend are (always read the fine print for the particular card for which you are applying to learn the scope of the coverage):
If you rent cars in your travels, a credit card is so important for a multitude of reasons. We’ve already touched on the fact that some rental car companies won’t even rent a car to you without a card and the fact that many rental car companies put large holds on all cards.
One additional benefit of having a credit card for rental cars is that many cards also offer rental car collision coverage. Yes, you can purchase the very expensive insurance from the rental car company. Or your own insurance will usually cover you if you don’t. But dealing with the hassle of your own insurance company and the rental car company together can be a time consuming process if you ever have an accident in a rental car or have a rental car stolen. And who needs the increase in their insurance rates back home because of an unfortunate incident when traveling?
You want to look for a card that offers primary rental car coverage so you never have to make a claim with your own insurance first. A few personal cards that offer primary rental car coverage and that have annual fees under $100 include:
Not everyone travels internationally, but if you do, you absolutely need a credit card. And you need one that offers no foreign transaction fees. There’s simply no reason to pay an additional 2-3% on everything you buy while traveling abroad.
Luckily, a lot of credit cards now offer this benefit. A few personal cards that do not charge foreign transaction fees that have low annual fees:
If you don’t yet have a credit card or don’t have one that gives you several of the benefits listed above, I highly encourage you to do the research to get one for a variety of protections and benefits. Check out my guide to the best 5 credit cards for family travelers for cards that are tailored well for parents who travel with kids. But whatever you do – don’t rely entirely on debit cards or cash when you travel.
Advertiser Disclosure: Trips With Tykes has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Trips With Tykes and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.
This post is sponsored by Moon Travel Guides. All opinions are my own.
When most travelers think of travel to the Florida Keys, a Jimmy Buffett song probably springs to mind. Lazy days, gorgeous beaches, and colorful tropical drinks are definitely the stuff of a Keys vacation. Margaritaville indeed.
Despite its laid back vibe, a successful Florida Keys trip definitely requires a fair bit of planning. The learning curve for the Keys is surprisingly steep. There are a number of logistics to plan around to experience all the area has to offer, especially in a single visit.
My family spent a full week last year visiting the Florida Keys for our Thanksgiving vacation. The Keys had been on our bucket list for awhile, but they are a long way from where we live in California. It took awhile to make a trip happen, and our plans to visit were delayed by the destruction wrought upon the Keys by Hurricane Irma in September 2017.
We learned a lot of tricks along the way and made a few mistakes, so I decided that a newbies guide might be helpful to other travelers venturing to this destination for the first time too. Here is what other first time travelers – families as well as travelers without kids – to the Florida Keys need to know.
(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through links in this post. See our full disclosure policy here.)
Where are the Florida Keys?
I know the answer to this question may seem painfully obvious to many of you. When I was planning our own trip, however, I can’t tell you how many people I spoke to who didn’t really understand where the Keys were! Perhaps that’s because I live in California and it’s not a place that many West Coasters are likely to visit.
Obviously, the Florida Keys are part of the state of Florida. They are an archipelago – a series of islands – that start near the tip of Florida not far from Miami. The islands form a long curving arc south and west, dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. The southernmost inhabited island connected by road is Key West which is less than 100 miles from Cuba.
The famous “Overseas Highway” also known as Highway 1 connects the mainland to most of the inhabited Keys all the way to Key West.
Roadtripping the Overseas Highway.
Sub-Regions, Major Cities, & Layout of the Florida Keys
What many new visitors to the Florida Keys don’t understand is just how big of an area the Keys are. To drive all of Highway 1 from the mainland to Key West takes 2.5-3 hours. The Overseas Highway is mostly two lane, very dark at night, and highly trafficked during peak tourist periods. Don’t expect to seamlessly hop from one area to another without some effort.
If you plan to explore the entire region, you definitely need at least a week to do it justice. If you only have 2-3 days, I’d recommend picking a sub-region and sticking close to a single home base. Otherwise, you are simply going to be doing too much driving and missing out on the R&R that the major reason to visit the area.
The Key are roughly divided into the following three regions:
Upper Keys: Stretching from Key Largo into Islamorada, the Upper Keys is an area that can be most easily experienced as a day trip or weekend getaway from Miami and other South Florida destinations.
Middle Keys: The Middle Keys are separated from the Lower Keys by the famous 7 mile bridge and are decidedly less populated. My family stayed in this region, which was the area hardest hit by Hurricane Irma. The biggest city is Marathon, where there are a number of inexpensive but delicious restaurants and tour and dive operators.
Lower Keys: The hub of activity for the lower Keys is the city of Key West, the most inhabited city in the region.
What are the Best Airports for Flying to the Florida Keys?
Given their remote location at the very south of Florida, the Florida Keys aren’t within reasonable driving distance for many visitors. A lot of travelers need to fly in to experience a vacation there. The best airport choices for a Florida Keys trip are:
Key West International Airport (EYW): Key West Airport is the only airport with commercial service located within the Florida Keys. The airport is just 15-20 minutes from the main tourist areas of Key West and is served by Delta, American Airlines, United, and Silver Airways. Flights are limited and often very pricey so this may not be a viable option for many travelers. If you do fly into this airport, Uber and Lyft are alive and well in Key West (although not elsewhere in the Keys) so it’s possible to go carless if your plans will keep you in only Key West.
Miami International (MIA): Many more visitors coming to visit the Keys start their trip at the major airport in Miami and rent a car to drive down the rest of the way. Miami has a bit of a reputation for being a beast of an airport with long lines and challenging logistics (much like LAX and ATL), so be sure you leave plenty of time in your travel plans in both directions to deal with that.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL): Another very viable option for travelers to the Keys is Fort Lauderdale. FLL is a larger airport with plenty of service from many cities and on multiple airlines (it’s a Southwest Airlines mini-hub). It’s ultimately logistically easier than Miami even though its location adds about 30 extra minutes to the drive time down to the Keys. We used FLL for our trip and found the process quite seamless in terms of lines, rental cars, and more.
What do I Need to Know about Visiting the Florida Keys by Cruise Ship?
A lot of visitors to the Keys arrive via cruise ship. In fact, that was how I visited myself for the first time pre-kids. Cruise ships dock exclusively in Key West, so you really will only have a chance to explore the city proper if you come in via ship. The cruise ship terminal is highly walkable to most of the major attractions in Key West so it’s a very easy cruise port to navigate for anyone, but especially families.
Even if you aren’t coming in via cruise ship, it’s smart to watch the cruise ship schedules into Key West. They can dramatically affect crowd levels. If you want to have a mellower experience on a Key West day, try to visit on a day when ships aren’t in port (hard to do in the winter high season but easier to do in spring/summer/fall). The city of Key West keeps a calendar several months in advance here.
Are the Florida Keys a Good Destination to Visit with Kids?
There are a number of family-friendly resorts with amenities kids will love in the Keys.
Yes! The Florida Keys is an ideal family vacation destination. My family found a ton of kid-friendly things to do on our week there – so much so that we didn’t feel like we had enough time. We spent most of our time in the middle Keys where our resort (Hawks Cay) was located, taking a day trip down to Key West to experience all the city had to offer there. We didn’t even get to see much of the Upper Keys and Key Largo in the time we had.
One thing to be aware of – Key West after dark definitely has its bachelor and bachelorette party adult party vibes. And some of the fanciest resorts of the Central Keys are definitely more couples getaway destinations. But the vast majority of things to do and see in the Keys are incredibly family-friendly. Just pick your home base carefully.
How Has Hurricane Irma Affected the Keys?
Hurricane Irma made a direct hit on the Florida Keys in September 2017, which understandably has dramatically reshaped the landscape and tourism to the Keys since. Key West mostly escaped without major damage, but the Middle Keys were especially hard hit. Many of the homes and resorts there were completely destroyed.
We found on our visit in November 2018 that the Keys will still be living with the legacy of Irma for a long time to come. It’s important for visitors to realize that and be prepared. Many hotels and resorts still – as of May 2019 – are not fully rebuilt. Some that have reopened still don’t have the full range of restaurants and activities available.
Most important to note is the fact that the Keys are very short-staffed as a result of Irma. A huge percentage of the labor force left the Keys after the hurricane, never to return. Now, the lack of housing and its expense has prevented much of a new labor force from coming back. The effects on tourism are very real. Construction is proceeding more slowly than expected at resorts trying to rebuild. Resorts that are open are short-staffed, with a pretty green labor pool often commuting daily all the way from cities in South Florida.
We experienced the effect in a lot of ways on our vacation. When combined with the fact that the Keys are very much already on island time, the service lapses were noticeable, frequent, and frustrating. My husband and I normally very easygoing travel customers, and we were willing to – and did – extend a lot of grace under the extreme circumstances. But it’s something that visitors planning a trip to the Keys in the near future need to be aware of, especially as many resorts are charging full price without delivering full service. This was very much the situation at the resort we stayed in, Hawks Cay Resort, which I cannot recommend (yet) to other traveling families for that reason. Travelers demanding a certain standard of service and luxury might be better served in waiting a year or two to visit until the recovery is more complete. We were happy to support the region with our tourism dollars as it rebuilds, but definitely want to return to experience more in a few years time.
Tips & Tricks for First Time Visitors to the Florida Keys
1. Get a good guidebook: Even as a travel blogger who researches trips with online resources, my family still relies heavily on well-researched expert guidebooks in our travels. We took along a book from Moon Guides that proved extraordinarily helpful in our travel planning. Moon Guides just released the updated Moon South Florida & the Keys Road Trip: With Miami, Walt Disney World, Tampa & the Everglades, so definitely check it out if you have a Keys trip coming up!
2. Plan for cell dead spots: You are in the middle of an ocean. It might not surprise you that cell coverage can be spotty in various places in the Keys. Input directions into your cell phone before you leave the WiFi at your resort. (And here is where the maps in that guidebook can come in handy too!)
3. Really do your resort research: As already mentioned, be sure the Keys resort you book is really fully operational and ready for visitors before spending your hard earned money. Read recent reviews on sites like TripAdvisor that can really give you a sense of the situation on the ground at a given time. Things are improving with each passing month, but it may be well into 2020 before a lot of places are fully back on their feet.
4. Pre-book excursions: Because of the impact of Irma, a lot of tour operators are short staffed. If you want to scuba dive, snorkel, or do other similar excursions, I highly recommend booking ahead. If you wait to call until you get to the Keys, you may find many activities fully booked.
5. Have a parking strategy for Key West: Parking in the main part of Key West is a bit of a beast (and is pricey). If you are headed to the many attractions in Mallory Square on a day trip from elsewhere in the Keys, I recommend parking once and then using Uber or Lyft or the Conch Train to get around (more on that below).
6. Combine the Keys with an Everglades trip: If you are flying into Miami or Fort Lauderdale, a Florida Keys trip can really be combined with a few other destinations. We decided to stay one night in Fort Lauderdale and spend the better part of a day in Everglades National Park before driving down to the Keys. It was a huge hit with both the kids and adults in our family – who can resist seeing alligators up close and personal? (If you are new to national parks travel, check out my beginners guide to visiting national parks.)
Yes, that is an alligator behind us in the Everglades! We took the Shark Valley tram tour, which was a must-do.
What to Do in the Florida Keys
Because we were only in the area for a week, we didn’t even begin to comprehensively do everything the Keys have to offer. Here are the activity highlights that we enjoyed that I’d recommend to other visitors:
Conch Train (Key West): It’s touristy and expensive, but it’s worth it. The Conch train is a vehicle that takes you to various sites all around Key West, from the Hemingway Museum to the Southernmost Point. Guides share a bit of history and humor as you see the city’s most famous stops.
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving with Hall’s Diving Center (Marathon): My husband and I both scuba dive and we loved that this dive shop let us take turns diving while the other of us stayed on the surface and snorkeled with the kids. The crew was super-friendly and one of the most safety-oriented dive operators we’ve ever encountered on our travels. You can snorkel and dive with a lot of outfits in the Keys, but this is one we’d go out of our way to use again.
Morada Bay Beach Cafe (Islamorada): This restaurant on the beach is affiliated with the resort where Netflix’s Bloodline was filmed, so my husband and I had to do a date night there. It’s kid-friendly as well, so feel free to bring the whole family. If you plan to have dinner there, arrive well before sunset to grab a table with a view. The seafood is to die for and definitely don’t miss the Key Lime pie.
Mallory Square Sunset Celebration (Key West): Every evening before sunset, street performers flock to Mallory Square in Key West and perform for the crowds right as the cruise ships are boarding for the evening.
Lagerheads Beach Bar (Key West): While we were in Key West, we headed to Lagerheads for lunch. This open air restaurant is little more than a beach shack, but what..
Ever since Pandora – The World of Avatar opened at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, Avatar Flight of Passage has become one of the most popular rides in Florida. Unfortunately, with great popularity comes great lines and long wait times. It’s been almost two years since Flight of Passage opened, but at times the ride still sees wait times of four hours!
While the ride is worth the wait, why wait for four hours if you don’t have to? Here are some strategies you can use to shortcut the long wait times for Avatar Flight of Passage at the Animal Kingdom.
Tips for Riding Avatar Flight of Passage at Disney World
Flight of Passage’s standby queue can often be many hours long. Photo credit: Joe Cheung
Before we get into the details about how to avoid long wait times on Flight of Passage, it’s good to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into. Flight of Passage stands as one of the most innovative thrill rides ever created. The best way to describe it is a combination of Soarin’ and Star Tours.
On Flight of Passage, you ride a banshee, a winged dinosaur-like creature native to Pandora. Unlike ride vehicles you’re used to, you sit on a motorcycle-like vehicle that truly gives you the feeling that you are riding a flying banshee. The four minute ride features thrills and surprises you’ll never forget. If you like thrill rides, you’ll love Flight of Passage. And even those who aren’t the biggest thrill ride fans often find themselves really enjoying Flight of Passage.
Visuals from the ride video riding a banshee. Photo credit: Walt Disney World
Since the ride is such a hit, you’ll want to ride it as many times as possible. So let’s talk about how to cut down your wait times.
Get a Fastpass+ Reservation for Avatar Flight of Passage
The best way to get a short wait time is to obtain a Fastpass+ reservation for Flight of Passage. Of course, that’s easier said than done! But there are things you can do to maximize your chances of getting a Fastpass+ reservation. Here are some tips for getting a Fastpass+ reservation for Flight of Passage. These tips can be applied to any tough to get Fastpass+ reservation, too!
Get a Fastpass+ Reservation for Flight of Passage Before Your Trip
Since Flight of Passage is so popular, it is one of the hardest attractions at Walt Disney World to get an advance Fastpass+ reservation for. You can pretty much forget about getting a Fastpass+ reservation at 30 days out when the Fastpass+ reservation window opens for general ticket holders.
Even the 60 day window for Disney World guests with an on-site Disney hotel or Disney partner hotel reservation may be too late. You can probably get a Flight of Passage Fastpass+ reservation at exactly 60 days, but it may not be at the best times of the day.
One thing many guests don’t realize is that you can start booking Fastpass+ reservations 60 days in advance of the first day of your stay for the length of your stay. So if you have a seven night reservation, you can start booking Fastpass+ reservations 60 days before the first night of your reservation, but you can book all the way through the last night. Put simply, if you have an on-site Disney hotel reservation you can book Fastpass+ reservations for the last day of your trip even if it’s further than 60 days out. In the seven night reservation example, you can book Fastpass+ reservations 67 days before your last night.
Because of this, you can maximize your chance of getting a Fastpass+ reservation for Flight of Passage with your on-site Disney hotel reservation. You should plan to visit Animal Kingdom towards the latter half of your trip. Then you’ll find that there will be many more available Fastpass+ reservation times for Avatar Flight of Passage. In fact, you’ll often get to pick and choose the times that will work best with your touring plan.
If you don’t snag an advance Fastpass+ reservation at first, be sure to check back on the website from time to time. While it’s a longshot, availability does change as other guests rearrange their own travel plans so you might get lucky. But even if you don’t get a Fastpass+ reservation, you still have a chance to get one while you’re in the parks!
Get a Fastpass+ Reservation for Flight of Passage When You’re Already in Animal Kingdom
One insider tip that people don’t know about is that Disney World often releases Fastpass+ reservation inventory during the day. That means while you’re already in Animal Kingdom, there’s a chance that Flight of Passage Fastpass+ availability might become free sometime during the day. This is what some call the “Fastpass drop.”
In practice, what you’ll need to do is constantly search for and refresh Fastpass+ reservations on your My Disney Experience app on your phone. In fact, you should pretty much do this all day! If you diligently search, you’ll often find your hard work being well rewarded. Recently a listener to our Disney Deciphered podcast used this method and got not one, but TWO Flight of Passage Fastpass+ reservations on the same day. Both reservations popped up while he refreshed My Disney Experience searching for Fastpass+ reservations thanks to Fastpass drops. Not everyone will be so lucky, but there’s always a chance to pick up one of these drops.
The nice thing about the My Disney Experience app is you can just swipe down to refresh available Fastpass+ reservations. This is something you should constantly be doing in line because you never know what E-ticket attractions will become available. The strategy works for all rides and in all four Disney parks, not just Flight of Passage.
The timing of these Fastpass+ drops changes all the time, though if Disney is going to drop Fastpass+ reservations, it’ll usually be in the early afternoon (our above listener got one around 2 PM). So make sure you’re searching diligently all day. When the Fastpass drops happen the reservations go fast.
Ride Flight of Passage During Morning Extra Magic Hours
If you don’t have a Fastpass+ reservation and don’t want to risk not getting a Fastpass drop, you can take advantage of Disney’s early morning Extra Magic Hours (EMH) if you are an on-property hotel guest. Since Pandora – The World of Avatar opened, Disney World has been opening Animal Kingdom at least several times a week with the early entry times.
Officially, the park generally opens for EMH an hour before the general park opening. Check your My Disney Experience app for the exact time. In practice, they often let people in even earlier than that. We suggest getting to the Animal Kingdom booths at least thirty minutes in advance. Once they let people in for EMH, make the beeline with the crowds straight to Flight of Passage. Your wait time should be extremely manageable if you get there that early.
If you’re interested in riding both Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey, do not ride Na’vi River Journey first. The line for Na’vi River Journey might be significant by the time you get out of Flight of Passage, but you’ll still save the most time overall by riding Flight of Passage first.
Rope Drop Flight of Passage
If you are visiting Animal Kingdom on a day when morning Extra Magic Hours are not available, you should utilize a similar strategy to ride Flight of Passage as soon as the park opens at its regular time.
Like on days with EMH, Disney regularly opens the gates to Disney’s Animal Kingdom earlier than the published opening time – sometimes even 20-30 minutes early depending on crowds. We suggest getting to the ticket booths at the park at about 45 minutes in advance to line up on regular hour days. Then follow the same strategy of making a beeline to Flight of Passage as soon as rope drop happens.
Note that if you are staying off property and do not have access to Extra Magic Hours, you should not try this rope drop strategy on days when Animal Kingdom is offering EMH to on-property guests. By the time you enter the park, the lines for Flight of Passage will already be filled with EMH guests. Use this rope drop strategy only on days when the park does not open early.
Utilize Rider Switch
Explore the Pandora gift shop while waiting on rider switch at Flight of Passage – Leslie’s son had a blast there!
Another good way to reduce your wait time for Flight of Passage is to utilize rider switch. If you’re not familiar with rider switch, it allows a party of adults who have children who either cannot or will not ride a thrill ride to save time in line by not requiring them to queue twice. You can read more about how to use rider switch in general here.
For Flight of Passage, you can use rider switch to save time in line as long as you have a child who cannot be left alone and cannot ride. Tell the cast member at the front of the queue that you’d like to utilize rider switch. They’ll direct you to another cast member who will put the rider switch allocations onto the MagicBands of the party who will ride second. These rider switch passes are timed, so the second party can’t go in immediately.
Remember, you can have up to three members of the rider switch party. That means if you have an older child who’s riding Flight of Passage (and of course another child who is not), you can give your riding child the opportunity to ride twice. Just make sure to tell the cast member that the child will ride twice – they will be happy to oblige. That way the child gets to ride with Adult 1 and then ride again with Adult 2.
Rider Switch works with both Fastpass+ reservations and the standby queue. Obviously, combining Rider Switch with a Fastpass+ reservation is preferable, but you still can save a lot of time for your overall party even if one person has to wait in the standby queue. Since Flight of Passage cast members won’t make the whole party wait together, the members of the second, waiting group can go enjoy the rest of the park while waiting.
Strategies That May or May Not Save You Time on Flight of Passage
The above strategies, when executed well, will almost certainly decrease your wait time for Avatar Flight of Passage. There are other strategies, however, that you’d think might save you time but do not have as high of a success rate. While these strategies do sometimes cut down your wait time, proceed with caution. They’re not as much of a guarantee and may not decrease your wait time as significantly as you might hope.
Ride Avatar Flight of Passage at the End of the Night
Late night options may or may not save you time waiting for Flight of Passage.
With almost every ride at any theme park, riding at the end of the night is a great way to decrease the wait time. And riding Flight of Passage at the end of the night is no different! However, due to the extreme popularity of the ride, just be warned that Flight of Passage probably isn’t going to be a walk on at the end of the night like a lot of other Disney thrill rides.
If you plan to do this, remember you just have to get in line before Animal Kingdom officially closes. So if it closes at 10:00 PM, just make sure you get into line a few minutes beforehand and you’ll get to be one of the last guests to experience Flight of Passage that night. The wait time will likely be inflated so don’t worry too much. The line should be the shortest it’s been since the morning – it just might not be as short as you hope.
Animal Kingdom After Hours
Disney World recently introduced a new paid event called Disney After Hours for Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. For $125 plus tax, Disney will give you three hours in an almost empty park. The tickets to these events are limited, so at the Magic Kingdom almost every attraction at Disney After Hours is a walk on.
However, Animal Kingdom doesn’t have the same number of rides as the Magic Kingdom. In fact, since Kilimanjaro Safaris is closed for these After Hours events, the only attractions available are Avatar Flight of Passage, Na’vi River Journey, Expedition Everest, Dinosaur, It’s Tough to be a Bug!, and Triceratops Spin. I think you know where this is headed and where the majority of guests at Animal Kingdom’s Disney After Hours party are headed!
In practice, this means you still might end up waiting in a half hour line. Add that to the 15-20 minutes the ride takes including the pre-show and you might use up 33% of your Disney After Hours party time riding Avatar Flight of Passage only once. Not every Disney After Hours party at Animal Kingdom will be like this, but it’s definitely a possibility. We’ve heard stories of it taking almost an hour and a half for guests to ride Flight of Passage twice.
So while you definitely will cut down your wait time on Flight of Passage by attending Disney After Hours, it may not ultimately be worth the high cost. Definitely keep that in mind when deciding to attend Animal Kingdom’s After Hours party or not.
About the author: Contributing writer Joe Cheung loves traveling with his wife and three children. He has been writing about using miles and points to reduce the cost of family travel on his blog asthejoeflies since his wife was pregnant with their first child. He loves traveling all around the world with a special place in his heart for travel to Asia and all things Disney. When he’s not writing, you can find Joe chatting about Disney World on the Disney planning podcast Disney Deciphered that he and Leslie co-host or chatting about miles and points on his other podcast the Saverocity Observation Deck.
My family just returned from our third trip to Disney’s Aulani Resort on the island of O’ahu, Hawaii. One of the amenities we took advantage of most at Aulani was the on-site kids club, Aunty’s Beach House. Aunty’s is probably the best kids club we’ve ever encountered anywhere in our family’s travels. Even if your kids are ambivalent about hotel kids programming elsewhere, Aunty’s might well make them converts.
Many families have questions about how Aunty’s Beach House works as they consider an Aulani vacation. I gathered below the most common questions I’ve been asked after our Aulani trips so Trips With Tykes readers will have no surprises. Aunty’s is an amazing benefit of an Aulani vacation, so I want you to be able to hit the ground running and make the most of it during your family’s vacation.
Here are some of the most common questions families have about Aunty’s Beach House answered.
And if you are planning an Aulani vacation, be sure to check out all of the Aulani content here on Trips With Tykes:
Frequently Asked Questions about Aunty’s Beach House at Disney’s Aulani Resort
1. How much does Aunty’s Beach House cost?
An Aulani vacation is expensive. The thought of adding to that already pricey trip with kids club costs makes many families pause. But I won’t bury the lede: Aunty’s Beach House is FREE.
Well, more accurately, it’s included in the cost of your room reservation. But that’s a huge difference from so many other resorts around the world (many of which have pricey room rates too) that charge by the hour or day for kids club drop offs. It’s one of the major reasons I recommend Aulani to families who want to have a family vacation experience where parents can also get some guilt-free alone time too.
There are some premium activity offerings at Aunty’s that do charge a fee (more below), but you do not need to do them. It’s entirely possible to go for a week or more to Aulani and never spend a dime on programming for your kids.
2. What age kids are accepted in Aunty’s Beach House?
Aunty’s Beach House accepts kids ages 3-12 years old who are potty trained.
Aunty’s can require proof of age like a birth certificate if there is any question about the age of your child. It is licensed by the state as a childcare center so unfortunately the rules can’t be bent to accommodate a child who is even a day or two too young. Plan your vacations around birthdays carefully!
3. What hours is Aunty’s Beach House available?
Aunty’s Beach House is open for regular drop-off programming daily at Aulani from 9:30am-9:00pm. So no matter what parents want to do kid-free — pool time in the morning, a spa appointment in the afternoon, or a romantic couples dinner in the evening, there is childcare available.
Fun with Stitch during morning open house.
Aunty’s also has an open house every morning from 8:00-9:30am when parents must accompany their kids. This time is a great opportunity to introduce kids to Aunty’s on your first day or to let babies and toddlers experience the fun who are otherwise too young to be dropped off.
4. What activities are there for kids to do at Aunty’s Beach House?
As you might imagine with Disney, the activity offerings for kids are robust. Each day of the week at Aunty’s is loosely organized around a theme (from Hawaiian culture to Marvel superheroes) to give a bit of structure to the activity offerings.
Aunty’s Beach House is made up of 6 large rooms made to look like a typical Hawaiian house where kids really might visit their “Aunty.” Each room has different activity offerings that are available all the time.
Dress up corner at Aunty’s Beach House.
The front room has a stage and dress up area connected to another room with tables for crafts and snacks. The rooms in the back include a movie room, computer lab, game room, and arts & crafts “garage.” My kids could not get enough of the electronic game tables in the back room.
Arts & crafts in “Uncle’s Garage”
Games and art choices are always out at Aunty’s.
My kids loved this “fishing” electronic game.
The house also has a large backyard. The yard has multiple play structures as well as hidden menehune for the kids to find (the hidden menehune are a feature throughout the resort). The yard is well-shaded by trees so I never felt I had to worry about sunburn if my kids chose to spend their time there.
My now 10 year old’s first trip to Aulani in 2013 in Aunty’s backyard.
Kids are free to roam and choose what rooms they want to visit. There are staff strategically located in every room who help facilitate play and keep kids having fun and being safe. Disney photographers even stop by to get shots of your kids in action that you can see and purchase later with PhotoPass.
Finally, Disney characters do drop in unannounced too. Stitch, Moana, Goofy, Donald, Daisy, Minnie, Mickey, Chip ‘N’ Dale, and Duffy are regulars around the resort.
5. Do I need to do anything before my Aulani trip to get my kids into Aunty’s Beach House?
Before your trip, the only essential thing you need to do is pre-register all the kids in your family who will be going to Aunty’s. You can pre-register kids as early as 90 days in advance and as close as 2 days prior to your trip. There is a simple form here that takes no more than about 5-10 minutes to complete online. Completing it before your trip expedites everything for when you do arrive at the resort so you can get on with your vacation.
6. Do any of the activities require a special signup process or extra cost?
A few. Currently, Aulani offers three premium activities at Aunty’s Beach House that do cost extra. These premium activities are a great chance for your kids to spend some extra quality time with a character they adore or to focus on an activity they are passionate about while getting a few souvenirs to take home.
Fun with Goofy at a premium activity at Aulani’s Aunty’s Beach House. (Photo Credit: Aulani Photopass)
As of the time of our most recent April 2019 trip, the premium offerings were as follows (please call the resort before your trip as these will likely change dates and times or check here):
Fish are Friends: Mondays & Wednesdays 11:00am-2:00pm ($69, includes lunch) – Perfect for budding marine scientists, kids get to observe and feed the fish at Aulani.
Kakamora Chaos with Moana: Tuesdays, Thursdays, & Saturdays 12:30-2:00pm ($59) – Kiddos get a visit from Moana and play games.
SURF’S UP! – A Surfin’, Fishin’ and Dancin’ Party!: Sundays & Wednesdays 3:00-4:30pm ($59) – Enjoy music and games with Chip ‘n’Dale and decorate your own wooden surfboard.
Siblings decorating surfboards at Surf’s Up! (Photo Credit: Aulani Photopass)
My kids adore Chip ‘n’ Dale, so we signed them up for Surf’s Up on our most recent trip. They gave it rave reviews for the extensive character time and photo opps. We thought the souvenirs were very high quality as well.
These premium activities do fill up so I recommend signing up before your trip (especially for Kakamora Chaos which seems to be the hottest ticket right now with Moana’s continued popularity). You can cancel up to 24 hours in advance without a cancellation fee.
Note that Aunty’s used to offer a number of free pre-reserved activities but eliminated those about a year ago. If you see references out in the blogosphere to free activities like Stitch’s Space Goo, know that those no longer take place.
7. How does drop-off work at Aunty’s?
Entrance to Aulani’s kid club is in the central courtyard for easy drop offs.
In order to drop your kids off, you have to complete the final registration process first. This process only takes about 5-10 minutes in person at the Aunty’s Beach House front desk. I recommend doing it on your arrival day, especially if you have some time to kill before you can get into your hotel room.
Once registered, kids will be given a special custom Magic Band that is secured to their wrist for the entirety of their stay. Note that there is no way to remove it, so your kids may be bothered by it the first few hours, but ours have always adjusted to having it on after a bit.
Siblings with their green Aunty’s Beach House Magic Bands (Photo Credit: Aulani Photopass)
Once the kids have the band, they scan it to enter and exit the club (and even to track their whereabouts inside the club!). I’ve been to some kids clubs where the security made me a bit nervous, but this device makes the process iron clad. Parents additionally have to give a secret code word and show either a room key or an ID to pick up a child.
Note that you do have to return the band at the end of your stay so you aren’t charged $12.95 plus tax per child for it. Take a photo of your receipt you will get at initial registration to show at the end of your vacation to get your refund.
8. What should kids wear to Aunty’s Beach House?
What my kids wore to Aunty’s most days. (Photo Credit: Aulani Photopass)
While your kids may spend most of their time in swimsuits at Aulani, wet suits are a no-go at Aunty’s. Change your kids into play clothes so they’ll be comfortable inside on furniture and in the air conditioning. We found sneakers were better for play (especially outside on the play structures) over flip flops too.
9. Does Aunty’s ever fill up?
It is possible on some occasions for Aunty’s Beach House to reach capacity. And that of course means parents can’t always get childcare when they need it. If you have read some reports on message boards and blogs in the past, this was a not-entirely-uncommon complaint that has definitely turned some families off from Aulani.
I’m happy to report, however, that the capacity problems are significantly improved! Due to some changes that were implemented within the past year, guests are much less likely to have these issues. When Aulani eliminated the free pre-reserved activities, the changes alleviated strain on the system overall and created more availability for parents who want to drop kids off on a whim. The many cast members I talked to about these changes were very pleased with how they are working out (presumably because they are hearing a whole lot fewer guest complaints now).
The only time we found Aunty’s to be filled on our most recent vacation was mid-afternoon on Wednesday. With two premium programs on Wednesday (the only day of the week that has two), a lot of kids stayed in the club keeping it full for about 2 hours. The resort was at 90-95% capacity our whole stay, so the fact that Aunty’s was only at capacity for a less than two hour window the whole week was a very good sign to me.
It’s important to know that when rain is in the forecast, Aunty’s is most likely to be filled. So watch the weather!
10. Can I guarantee my kids get a spot in Aunty’s at a given time?
If you are worried about Aunty’s reaching capacity at a given time – like when you have a spa or dinner reservation – there are some fairly easy ways to dodge that concern. Aunty’s guarantees admission to any child that has a reservation for a premium activity 30 minutes in advance. So there’s always the option of paying your way around the problem if you have an extra special outing that you don’t want to risk.
Aunty’s also guarantees admission to all children who have a lunch or dinner reservation at the given meal dropoff time (10:30am for lunch and 4:30 pm for dinner). As a result, simply signing your kids up for meal times will make sure you can make kid-free plans at a set time. And once your kids are in, they can stay in indefinitely.
11. Does Aunty’s Beach House serve meals or snacks?
Speaking of food, Aunty’s does make sure kids don’t go hungry during their visit. Snacks are served every 2-3 hours at no cost. My kids reported that graham crackers and goldfish were commonly available.
Lunch and dinner are also available with same-day reservations. Both meals cost only $10 per child, which is..
This post is sponsored by Southwest Airlines. All opinions are my own.
Over a year and a half ago, Southwest Airlines announced its intent to fly to Hawaii. As frequent Southwest flyers and regular visitors to the Hawaiian islands already, this was very big news for my traveling family. We’ve been watching the news carefully ever since, waiting patiently for service to start. We made it a travel priority to fly Southwest’s California to Hawaii routes as soon as possible after they launched.
As luck would have it, the stars aligned to make that a possibility. We already had spring break plans to travel to O’ahu to return to Disney’s Aulani Resort for spring break this year. Southwest began its Hawaii service just two weeks before our scheduled vacation. The only route that was flying at the time was Oakland (OAK) to Honolulu (HNL) – the very route we needed to get us from our home in the Bay Area to the island of O’ahu.
My family of four flew to Hawaii on Southwest on April 1, returning April 7 (which just happened to be the same day the airline launched its second Hawaii route from Oakland to Maui). I’ve had so many friends, readers, and followers ask me what flying on Southwest to Hawaii was like, so a full flight recap and review seemed appropriate. If you are considering flying Southwest to Hawaii, here is what the experience entailed, along with my very best tips and tricks for Hawaii travel on Southwest.
(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through links in this post. See our full disclosure policy here.)
Booking Flights on Southwest to Hawaii
If you aren’t familiar with booking Southwest flights generally, it’s important to know that you can only book flights on the airline at Southwest.com. Their flights are not available through third party online booking and search tools like Expedia, Orbitz or Google Flights. That means you need to use one of those other tools to scope other airlines that fly to Hawaii and then go to Southwest.com so you can compare prices and times.
Southwest normally releases its schedules in blocks once every couple of months, adding several weeks worth of flights in the wee morning hours. This happens about 6-9 months in advance. Schedule release dates are usually publicized in advance as well.
Because the initial Southwest Hawaii flights were a special late addition to the schedule, they came out in a block all their own and without pre-warning. The scramble was quick. Friends on the East Coast knew I was looking to book Southwest for a Hawaii trip and began frantically messaging me to wake up on the West Coast and get booked.
Southwest had some screaming deals during that initial release – flights as low as $49 each way from the mainland to Hawaii. I immediately jumped on my computer and saw seats on the very dates we wanted at $79 on the departing flight and $99 on the return. I booked three of us us with Rapid Rewards points in minutes. I then used my Companion Pass to book a free flight for my daughter as my companion. An hour later, the flight I booked was completely sold out. Nearly all the cheapest sale fares for spring and summer flying were gone.
One of the reasons I was able to snag such a great deal is that I was ready to pull the trigger immediately. I had all the pieces in place and executed. When Southwest adds more flights and extends its schedule (whether to Hawaii or otherwise), it is so important to act quickly. Sale fares sell out fast, and popular holiday travel dates will fill up.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind to have the fastest finger and snag the deals for your family too:
Know your Rapid Rewards numbers: Make sure you have and know Rapid Rewards logins for everyone in your family. You’ll need them in one place to book everyone quickly. I use AwardWallet.com to store frequent flyer numbers and passwords in one secure place.
Save your payment information: Save a credit card to all of your Southwest.com account profiles so you aren’t scrambling to complete payment at the moment you need to book.
Add companions immediately: If you have a Companion Pass, add your companion to your flight immediately after you book your own flight. Otherwise you risk the flight selling out before you get a seat for that person.
Book first and ask questions later: You can completely and totally refund any Southwest flight within 24 hours of booking. Don’t wait to call your husband or wife in these crucial schedule release periods. Book. The. Flight.
Take advantage of generous cancellation policies if you need to: After that 24 hours has passed, Southwest still has a super-generous cancellation policy. All Rapid Rewards points bookings can be totally refunded (so if you are unsure about a trip and have points, book with those). All cash bookings that are cancelled are given a full credit for use up to one year after the date of original booking.
A few weeks after we booked these amazing deals, our big Hawaii travel day arrived. Our flight was scheduled at 8:20 am. We live only 15 minutes from the airport so we booked a 6:45am car service. Yep, we like to cut it close. OAK is such an easy airport that it’s usually safe to do this unless you are traveling at peak Thanksgiving or Christmas times (see my guide to Oakland Airport with kids for even more information about the airport).
Upon arrival at OAK, we dropped our checked bags at Southwest’s self-serve kiosks in Terminal 2. Bags of course fly free on Southwest, so we checked three for our family of 4 at no cost. Oakland’s TSA checkpoints have family lanes, so we shortcut most of the lines and sped through security. It’s a rare perk afforded to those of us who travel with kids.
Although Southwest is located in Terminal 2, it also operates out of some spillover gates in Terminal 1. The two terminals are connected post-security by a corridor. For now at least, Southwest seems to be operating all of its Oakland Hawaii flights out of these extra gates in Terminal 1. This means Hawaii travelers may need to plan on a walk of a few extra minutes to get to these flights. If you are originating in OAK and coming from the Terminal 2 TSA checkpoint, plan on a walk of about 8 minutes. If you are coming in on a connecting flight and have to walk from the far end of Terminal 2 to Terminal 1, plan on about a 12 minute walk.
When we arrived at the gate in Terminal 1, we found a Hawaii celebration in full swing. Even though Hawaii flights had been operational for two weeks, the gate agents at Oakland were determined to keep the inaugural fun going. There was a prize wheel for the kids to spin to win prizes from the “Heart Cart.” Regina, my favorite Southwest customer service agent at Oakland was working the flight, so we gave her a big hug and got a few selfies, as always.
Boarding Southwest Airlines to Hawaii
And within minutes, it was time for boarding. Southwest boards in three groups (A, B & C), with family boarding between groups A and B. Families with kids ages 6 and under are able to use this perk, which helps immensely for snagging seats together (Southwest has an open seating policy).
Since it was a peak spring break week, the number of families in the family boarding line was pretty jaw-dropping. I’ve never seen more families with young kids on a Southwest flight ever, and that includes flights to and from Orlando. I wondered how the B & C groups would be affected on a completely full flight. These families are – of course – choosing seats together which includes middle seats, so not all the sought-after aisles and windows were claimed by the time Group B boarded. But it is definitely a very different pattern than frequent travelers on Southwest might be used to seeing.
My youngest is still 5, so we used the family boarding benefit since we were actually assigned early group B boarding passes. We had no trouble finding three seats together on the plane, but were not able to get my husband on an aisle directly across from us as we normally do.
As a result of what we witnessed, I would recommend that travelers who don’t qualify for family boarding think very carefully about boarding strategy for Southwest’s Hawaii flights. This is especially important if you are a family with older kids who wants to sit together.
What are your options? You can always check in exactly at 24 hours to get a good boarding position. I did this for this flight (to the exact second) for three of the four members of my traveling family. We got B8-10. Not too shabby.
For the sake of reporting (and because I knew we would use family boarding anyway), I checked my daughter in three minutes after the 24 hour window started to see how fast the boarding positions were being snagged. She got B58! So it just goes to show how many travelers were employing this same 24 hour strategy.
Consequently, this might be one time when it is worth it to purchase Southwest’s Early Bird Boarding. Of course, Early Bird doesn’t guarantee you an A group boarding pass (occasionally Early Birds are assigned early group B), so you may not beat the hordes of families on board. But your chances of a getting seats together are higher than with the 24 hour check in strategy.
I’d also recommend using a benefit of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card if you have it (if you don’t, find out more about it in my Southwest credit card comparison guide). This card comes with 4 upgraded boardings per year in the prime A1-15 spots. These boardings are subject to availability and can only be selected day of travel at the airport. They are a great way fix a bad boarding position when you forget to check in at 24 hours in advance and are stuck with the C boarding group. I have this credit card in my wallet. It provides a very nice Southwest boarding insurance policy, along with a number of other useful benefits.
In-Flight Southwest Hawaii Flight Experience
Enough boarding minutiae! How was the flight itself? We found that the in-flight experience is highly similar to every other longer Southwest flight we’ve taken: reliable and predictable, complete with signature Southwest friendliness and quality customer service. If you already fly Southwest to other destinations, it will probably look and feel quite familiar to you too.
What aircraft does Southwest fly to Hawaii?
“ETOPS” just above the front landing gear indicates this is one of Southwest’s planes certified for flights over the Pacific.
Southwest is currently flying its ETOPS-certified Boeing 737-800 aircraft on the Hawaii routes. (No, this is not the MAX aircraft which are currently grounded, although Southwest likely plans to fly the MAX on Hawaii routes at some point in the future.) The 737-800 aircraft are longer 737 variants.
The cabin of our Southwest 737-800 flying to Hawaii.
I personally find the aircraft provides a very comfortable ride for a single aisle plane. Our flight had the new interior and slimline seats which give 32-33 inches of legroom. This pitch is larger than pretty much any other airline flying 737s domestically.
Ample legroom in Southwest’s 737-800.
What in-flight entertainment is available on Southwest to Hawaii?
The flight from OAK to HNL is scheduled at 5 hrs, 50 minutes long, so in-flight entertainment to pass the time is key. Luckily, Southwest has a system that works very well, as long as you know what to expect and prepare a tiny bit. You’ll find the same system aboard all Southwest aircraft, including the airline’s Hawaii flights. And best of all – it’s all FREE!
Binge watching free entertainment on our Southwest flight to Hawaii.
On Southwest, there are no seatback screens — everything requires using your own device. Find the Southwest WiFi on your device and go to SouthwestWifi.com to connect to the entertainment system (note that you do NOT need to purchase internet access to use the in-flight entertainment system). You’ll find a wide variety of movies, streaming on-demand TV episodes, and live TV options. Messaging with either iMessage or What’s App is also free. Some of the movies and on-demand TV episodes do require use of the Southwest app, so be sure to download that before your travel day.
My kids loved that there were quite a few kid-friendly entertainment options. Movies of interest to my kids on our particular flights included: Incredibles 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Small Foot, Teen Titans Go, and Johnny English. Among the the Live TV options is the Disney Channel.
Free entertainment and $8 WiFi options on your own devices.
If you do want to connect to the internet, Southwest flights are equipped with WiFi over the Pacific. The cost is the same $8 per day price that Southwest offers on every other flight. Mine worked quite well on my laptop on both of our flights. Of course, equipment working is never guaranteed so always be prepared with other things to keep you busy. Remember also that even when internet service is fully operational, it doesn’t work for streaming services like Netflix or Hulu.
Southwest does not have in-flight power on any of its planes, including the ones operating on Hawaii routes. While my laptop battery lasted just fine for the length of flight, phones and tablets may run out. For this reason, I highly recommend that you bring a portable battery charger or two with you. We own several Jackery Bar chargers. The medium sized one can hold enough capacity to recharge an iPhone X about 2 times.
To quickly summarize what you need to do to prepare to use the Southwest entertainment system before your day of travel, be sure to do the following:
Download Southwest app to all devices you plan to use for in-flight entertainment
Buy and charge up portable battery chargers (and pack them with their cords in carry on luggage)
Pack compatible headphones for everyone (for kids, we swear by Kidz Gear)
Since having my first child nearly 10 years ago, I began my love/hate relationship with car seats. While they do an important job in keeping my children safe, they are also a major hassle for frequent travelers like me. If you’ve ever lugged a heavy car seat down an airplane aisle or struggled with what to do when you needed to take an Uber or Lyft with a toddler, I’m sure you feel my pain.
I’ve been on a mission the last decade to find the most compact travel car seat products to make my family’s travel logistics easier. While there have been compact travel boosters like the BubbleBum and mifold, there has yet to be a truly travel-friendly car seat with a 5 point harness that works for younger children.
So when I saw a Google ad last fall that a new company named WAYB was working on a super-compact 5 point harness car seat for kids ages 2-5, I might have gotten irrationally excited. I immediately emailed the company to get all the details.
Finally, the new seat – called the WAYB Pico – is almost here! Due my ridiculous enthusiasm, I was able to get one of the first car seats off the manufacturing line (thanks WAYB for sending me a complimentary sample). I have been using it with my own 5 year old the past two weeks to test it out at home. I also just took it on my travels this past week to Hawaii on Southwest, bringing it aboard for storage in the airplane overhead bin.
My verdict? The WAYB Pico is game-changing for family travelers. I only wish it had been around the past three years so I could have started using it sooner with my youngest. The only real downside is the high price, but since the product has many non-travel uses, it can make sense to invest in one even if you don’t travel as much as my family does.
Here are all the details parents need to know about whether the WAYB Pico is the right car seat for traveling with your child.
Essential Facts about the WAYB Pico
Photo Credit: Katherine Sheehan for WAYB
Weight: 8 pounds
Dimensions (when folded): 11.6” deep x 14.5” wide x 18.9” tall
Age: Children ages 2-5, forward-facing only. (The seat can be used for 1 year olds as well, but WAYB recommends a minimum age of 2.)
Weight Limits: 22-50 pounds
Height Limits: 30-45 inches tall (or whenever the shoulder straps are above the level of your child’s shoulders)
Install Method: LATCH or seatbelt path
Colors: Earth, Jet, Ocean, Turquoise
Optional extras: Carry backpack, $50
WAYB Pico Car Seat Set Up & Installation
What makes the WAYB Pico unique is that it folds up for significant space savings. The seat is constructed of aluminum and mesh to keep it lightweight too. The bottom part of the car seat (on which your child sits) flips around behind the back of the seat and locks into place for a more compact size.
WAYB Pico size when folded.
To use the car seat, you flip the bottom around and lock it into place with a red clip. You can then adjust the headrest to the proper height for your child. Once the bottom is locked into place and headrest is set, the rest of the installation process will pretty familiar for parents used to installing other forward facing car seats. There is a top tether and LATCH straps on either side that you use to strap the car seat into the car. (Seat belt installation is also possible but a little more complex.)
Getting a snug fit took me a little longer than some of the premium car seats on the market that have special features to tighten them easily. But it certainly took me no longer on average than it might with a very basic lightweight travel car seat like the Cosco Scenera NEXT.
Strapping your child into the Pico is mostly the same as with any other car seat – but with one important difference. The chest clip is the same, but to tighten the straps, you don’t pull on a single strap between your child’s legs. Instead, there are cinch pulls on either side of your child’s hips. Pull each of those to take out the slack (check out my video above for a demo).
My son complained a bit that the padded strap covers irritated his neck – they aren’t as soft as the ones on many other car seat models.
We had only one real challenge when we used the WAYB in our travels – we found that the top tether strap wasn’t quite long enough to be able to install it in a minivan bucket seat. As luck would have it, one of the UberXLs we took and a taxi we also took on our most recent Hawaii trip both had this problem! The only way to use the Pico when this situation strikes is in the minivan third row. As you might imagine, this makes for some additional installation gymnastics. Hopefully the folks at WAYB can make this tether just a bit longer in the future, as it it truly was only an inch or two too short.
What Ages and Sizes are Right for the WAYB Pico
My son is a 5.5 year old of average height and he still fits in the Pico. The recommended height maximum is 45 inches and he’s about 42.5 inches right now. The straps are only just above the level of his shoulders so he’ll outgrow it probably as he approaches his 6th birthday. But unless your child is just way off the top of the growth charts, I think it’s safe to say the Pico will work for almost all 4 year olds and many 5 year olds. That should be enough time for your child to be more mature and bigger and ready to use a travel booster instead.
How the WAYB Pico is Amazing on Planes
So now that the basics are out of the way, here’s why I’m freaking out about this car seat — the air travel possibilities. So many parents are rightfully fearful of checking their car seat with the airlines. You simply never know how the airlines will treat your car seat and whether it will sustain any damage or get lost.
Carrying the WAYB Pico through the Honolulu Airport.
On some trips, my family has brought aboard our car seat for use during the flight to avoid checking it. But that is not without its issues too. One on trip a few years back, my son wanted nothing to do with the car seat and simply wanted to sleep on my lap. I found myself with an unused car seat taking up a ton of seat space when we needed to stretch out.
On another trip, I found the car seat positioned my son just perfectly to kick the seat in front of him repeatedly. That made for an incredibly stressful flight. There are just some times when having the car seat on board causes more hassle than it solves.
The Pico gives you so much more flexibility in dealing with both these airplane dilemmas. When packaged up in its travel bag, the seat is small enough to take onto the plane as a carry on. I had no problem fitting ours into the overhead bin of a Southwest Airlines 737-800. It’s about the same size as my usual roll-aboard suitcase.
That’s the Pico in its travel bag in an airplane overhead bin!
But then if you feel you want to use the car seat on board, you have that option too. The Pico is FAA-approved for use on aircraft (several ultra-compact travel car seats are not because they have LATCH only). So if you feel your child needs the extra seat to stay restrained, you can always pull it out of the overhead bin and use it. Due to its slim size, it takes up even less space than many other car seats you might bring.
Using the WAYB Pico for Uber & Lyft
The other game-changing use for the Pico is when taking ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber with kids. Except in a few select cities that have Uber Car Seat/Uber Family service, its impossible to ride in a Lyft or Uber without bringing your own car seat. It’s quite tough to do that, however, when you don’t have anywhere to store your car seat at your destination, such as when you are doing city touring.
Photo Credit: Katherine Sheehan for WAYB
In its optional travel backpack, its conceivable that you can just take the Pico with you. It’s lightweight enough that you can carry it around on your back (or even hanging from some larger stable strollers) – no storage necessary. While I probably wouldn’t recommend this for a family out-and-about for a full day (as it would get tiring for many hours of carrying), it’s a significant improvement to the options for families with a ridesharing quandary.
Uses for the WAYB Pico at Home
Before you invest in an expensive car seat only for travel, most families want to make sure it has uses at home. The Pico does. I used it for two weeks in my normal routine at home. I found it was no more time-consuming to use than with the car seat we normally have installed.
The Pico revealed itself to be ideal for space-saving for anyone who has a tight fit in the back of their car. I have a small backseat in my car. Fitting two additional children in it when my son is in his normal mega-car seat is next to impossible. The middle seat is basically not usable, and certainly not usable when that child needs to be in a booster. When I have the Pico installed, it opens up the rest of the back seat for two children to sit because it is much more narrow.
This is also a great car seat for grandma and grandpa or a babysitter who only transports your child occasionally. They can keep it in a trunk when not in use and it won’t take up a ton of space they otherwise would need.
Pros & Cons of the WAYB Pico
Ok, so that’s a lot of information. Here’s a brief overview of the pros and cons to help you make your choice.
No other product like it for air travel – that can both fit in the overhead bin and be used on the plane.
Kids ages 4-5 can ride more safely for longer in a 5 point harness instead of a booster on trips where bringing a standard car seat isn’t feasible.
Narrow for tight back seats to enable three kids sitting across.
Cost – at $320, the Pico is a premium product that may be out of the price range for many families, especially as a second or third car seat.
A tad slow to install compared to premium car seats.
Top tether may not fit all vehicles – not long enough to reach over and clip on a minivan bucket seat.
How Can You Get a WAYB Pico?
Last but certainly not least, where can you get a Pico? The crowdfunding campaign was record-breaking so I have a feeling a lot more families are going to want to get one once the word gets out even more.
The WAYB Pico is being shipped to customers who pre-ordered on their Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in the next few weeks. Regular pre-orders just launched again on WAYB.com for delivery in about 4-6 weeks. Expect to find the Pico on Amazon later this summer and offered through a few select retailers even before that once the product is shipping . I’ll keep this post updated as all the places to buy are unveiled.
Do you have questions about the WAYB Pico? Leave them here and I’ll answer them. And come back and comment if you buy the product and have insights to add in the coming weeks once it is released.
Disclosure: WAYB sent me a complimentary Pico car seat and travel bag for review purposes. As always, all opinions are my own.
If you are headed to Disneyland or Walt Disney World with a young child, a good stroller is essential. Even active toddlers and preschoolers who seem to know no limits to their energy at home can crash after the many miles of walking on a Disney day. Strollers can be a great place for a mid-afternoon nap as well as a place to store the family’s essentials, from jackets to water bottles to snacks. But they also have to be functional for the specific challenges of a Disney vacation – easily foldable for getting on shuttle buses or the monorail and nimble enough to navigate crowds and the parks easily.
(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through links in this post. See our full disclosure policy here.)
New Stroller Rules at Disney World and Disneyland
Disney just added an additional vacation planning wrinkle when it comes to strollers for some families. On March 28, 2019, Disney announced new stroller size restrictions effective May 1, 2019 for both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Stroller wagons like the Veer and Keenz (even those that are push-only that were previously allowed) will be banned entirely. And some jumbo strollers, especially larger ones for two or more children, will no longer be permitted. Strollers must now be no larger than 31 inches wide by 52 inches long.
But there’s no need for these stroller rules to stress you out as you plan your Disney vacation. I’ve been to Disney parks over the years with a wide variety of different strollers with my kids at every age and stage – all of which were compliant with the new size restrictions. Most strollers on the market in the US (including many of the most popular double stroller models) are within the limits.
So, I decided to compile a list of some of the best strollers for Disney if you are struggling to find one that meets your needs or travel preferences. I’ve used many of these myself and have also surveyed other experienced Disney moms and dads for their recommendations too. No matter what your travel style or unique family situation, there’s a stroller on this list below that can work for you at Disneyland and Disney World. And all of these strollers fit the Disney size rules. (Be sure to read to the end to get all my best tips for strollers at Disney parks too!)
Best Single Strollers for Disney Travel
If you have just one child of stroller age or two older kids who can reasonably take turns with just one stroller, a single stroller is the way to go on your Disney vacation. You can more more nimbly through the crowds with the slimmer lines of a single, provided you find the right model. Here are four versatile options at several different price points.
Best Disney Stroller for the Minimalist Family: gb Pockit
The gb Pockit has been my family’s personal favorite for all of our travels the past few years. While it’s amazing for air travel (it folds up small enough to go in an airplane overhead bin or under a seat), it does equally well for theme park minimalists. The gb Pockit is super lightweight and incredibly tiny to fold up, making it perfect for taking crowded shuttle buses or tucking away in a hotel room. Disney guests with an older toddler or preschooler who will be doing a lot of walking and not in the stroller the entire time should definitely give the gb Pockit a serious look. See my full review of the gb Pockit.
Pros: Extremely nimble for dodging crowds, tiny fold for riding shuttle buses or monorail, ideal for guests flying to their Disney vacation.
Cons: Not a lot of storage space, minimal sun protection, may not fit very tall parents well due to lower handle.
Approximate Price: $179.95
Best Lightweight Umbrella Stroller for Disney Parks: Uppababy G-Lite
For families who still want to travel light at Disney but who need a more fully functioning umbrella stroller, the Uppababy G-Lite is ideal. The Uppababy brand is well-regarded and well made, and the G-lite is the most basic lightweight umbrella stroller the company makes. It doesn’t recline, so it only works for children 6 months and up. The G-lite has a weight capacity of 55 pounds, so should carry most families through the age when their kids are ready to walk entirely on their own.
Pros: Easy compact fold, reasonable sized storage for an umbrella stroller, moderately priced for high quality
Cons: No recline
Approximate Price: $179.99
Best Single Stroller for Disney on a Budget: Summer Infant 3D Lite
Many families simply want the least expensive stroller possible, especially those who only need a stroller for a Disney trip and won’t be making use of it in other ways. The stroller that fits the bill for cheap but highly functional is the Summer Infant 3D Lite. In fact, it was the most recommended stroller for Disney trips in the Disneyland with Kids Facebook Group I co-own (be sure to join our 15,000+ members for other great Disneyland advice from fellow parents!). And it reclines, making it a great choice even for younger babies or kids of any age who will nap in the stroller.
Pros: Inexpensive, 4 position recline
Cons: Small storage basket, smallish sun canopy
Approximate Price: $71.99
Best Full Function Stroller for Disney: Baby Jogger City Mini
Photo courtesy of Julie Bigboy of Mom Rewritten. (City Mini GT pictured – a slightly different model.)
If you’ve ever rented a stroller from a third party company near Disney parks, chances are good you’ve ended up with a Baby Jogger City Mini. They have legions of them in their fleets Why? They just work. The City Mini has a fairly compact footprint but also the versatility and maneuverability of an all-terrain or jog style stroller. They are surprisingly easy to fold (with a single hand even), which is crucial for Disney goers hopping on shuttle buses and needing to break down the stroller. And they recline so they work well for young babies too.
Pros: Fully reclining, ample sun shade, easy to fold.
Cons: Heavier than an umbrella stroller, more expensive than many single strollers.
Approximate Price: $181.99
Best Double Strollers for Disney Travel
Families who have two kids of stroller age are going to be best served with a double stroller model instead of two singles at Disney. As you might expect, prices for double strollers are significantly higher than their single counterparts. And they take up more space on crowded walkways at Disney, so finding the right model is even more crucial. Three doubles that work well at Disney include:
Best Lightweight Double Stroller for Disney: Zoe XL2 Best V2
For Disney guests who want lightweight in a side-by-side double stroller, the Zoe XL Best V2 is it! It tips the scales at a mere 17 pounds. And at about $250, it’s actually one of the more moderately priced double strollers on the market. It can hold two kids up to 50 pounds each, so it works well into the preschool years. See baby gear blog Lucie’s List for a full review of the Zoe XL2 Best V2.
Cons: Doesn’t fully recline (not for infants under 6 months), not as smooth of a ride as all-terrain strollers.
Approximate Price: $249.99
Best Sit and Stand Double Stroller for Disney: Joovy Caboose Ultralight
Sit and stand double strollers are best at Disney for families with an older child who will be walking most of the time but who might need a break to rest on occasion riding in the stroller (roughly the 4-6 age range). At just 22 pounds, the Joovy Caboose Ultralight is a lightweight option with a relatively small footprint. It has an optional second seat that can be installed for even more versatility. See baby gear blog Lucie’s List for a full review of the Joovy Caboose Ultralight.
Pros: Lightweight, large canopy, large storage basket.
Cons: Not as sturdy or smooth of a ride as all-terrain double strollers.
Approximate price: $189.99
Best Double Stroller for Disney with All the Bells and Whistles: Baby Jogger City Mini Double
For families who want the ultimate in double stroller features and functionality, the Baby Jogger City Mini Double takes the cake, much like its single counterpart. It has the same one handed easy fold, very large sun shades, and provides a smoother ride than most double umbrellas. This stroller is expensive, so if you only need it on a Disney vacation, consider renting it from one of the off-site stroller rental companies.
Pros: Easy fold, ample sun protection, smooth ride.
Cons: Pricey, limited storage space, a bit heavier than other travel-friendly doubles.
Approximate price: $424
Tips for Strollers at Disney Parks
If you are headed to Disneyland or Walt Disney World with a baby, toddler, or preschooler, here are a few final tips for managing strollers on your visit:
You can rent strollers from Disney BUT…: While you can rent strollers from Disney, they are expensive and can’t be taken everywhere. At Disney World, strollers have to remain in the parks or at Disney Springs. In Disneyland, their use is limited to Downtown Disney and the parks. If you need a stroller for your hotel or other outings, consider alternatives like bringing your own or renting from an off-site vendor.
Always park in stroller parking: Disney has designated stroller parking areas in multiple areas of every park (usually several in each land). To avoid clogging walkways and having your stroller moved, look for the marked areas.
Your stroller may be moved: Even if you park in the designated stroller parking areas, you may return after a ride to find your stroller in a new location. Cast members do move strollers to keep the parking areas consolidated and organized, so don’t fret. Consider marking your stroller with a colorful handle or balloon to spot it in the crowd.
With older kids, park it once per land: While many families will need a stroller for preschoolers due to long walking distances at Disney, older kids aren’t likely to need a stroller all the time. For kids ages 3-6, I find that a “park once per land” strategy works well. When you enter a land, park your stroller and then leave it as you do a variety of attractions nearby. You’ll save time not returning, loading up a kids, and re-parking a stroller every time. Then, when it’s time for the longer walks to a new location, come back to the stroller.
Track it: A lot of Disney guests are concerned about stroller theft, thanks to a few high profile news stories. The reality is that your stroller is incredibly safe at Disney. But if you are worried about theft, label your stroller with your name somewhere a bit hidden and tuck a GPS tracker like a Tile into it somewhere inconspicuous.
One of the best parts of traveling with kids as a parent is taking them to destinations that had meaning in your own childhood. For my family, Northstar California Resort in North Lake Tahoe is one such meaningful place. The resort is where my husband grew up skiing with his brothers (in their 1980s and early 1990s cheesy ski gear, naturally).
Northstar California circa 1990. Advantage of having a blog – getting to embarrass your husband and brother-in-law with childhood photos.
Northstar California Resort has changed a lot since his childhood, but it remains one of the premier ski resorts for families in the country. My husband and I skied it many times before kids, and we now return regularly with our two children. We have dozens of Northstar trips under our belts, including a season during 2016-2017 where I was lucky enough to be a brand ambassador for the resort.
We’ve kept our Epic Passes the last two seasons since then and still return regularly to Northstar each year. We have had some triumphs and the occasional misstep, but we certainly have a lot of Northstar experience. So, I figured it was long overdue for me to update my review and guide of Northstar for skiing families, complete with all my family’s Northstar tips, advice, and secrets.
Here is how to make the most of a ski vacation at Northstar California Resort with kids.
(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links. See our full disclosure policy here.)
Northstar California Resort Overview & Basics
Northstar California Resort is located in North Lake Tahoe about 20 minutes from the town of Truckee on Interstate-80. Northstar is connected to the town by Highway 267. From the San Francisco Bay Area, the drive is about 3.5 hours in best case traffic conditions. Of course, winter weather and heavy weekend warrior traffic can make it much, much longer (check out my winter driving tips to Lake Tahoe to learn all my tips and tricks from the driving trenches for avoiding the worst of it).
After turning off of Highway 267, Northstar Drive takes visitors up to the center of the resort – the Village. Northstar’s Village is full of restaurants, shops, and activities like a movie theater and ice skating rink. It’s a long walk from one end to the other with quite a few stairs in certain places, so don’t attempt it in ski boots if you can help it. There are both hotel rooms and condos available for rent in the Village proper above the stores. The Village is also where the main ski school drop off and gear rental shop are located.
The other hub of activity at Northstar can be found at mid-mountain around The Lodge at Big Springs. Skiers and boarders reach mid-mountain by taking the high-speed Big Springs Gondola on the far end of the Village (pedestrians can go up the gondola as well but must buy a ticket). The Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe is within view of the mid-mountain lodge. Take the beginner Big Easy ski lift to reach it. It can also be reached directly by a low-speed non-skier gondola (the Highlands Gondola) that originates at the other end of the Village.
Northstar’s Lodge at Big Springs, mid-mountain.
Northstar Ski School
One of the first factors families consider in selecting a ski resort for a trip with kids is ski school. Northstar’s is one of the best, with instructors who truly love kids and have much more patience than I would ever have teaching so many munchkins day after day!
Ready to ascend the Big Easy lift with her ski school instructor.
Standard ski school is available at the Children’s Ski & Snowboard School. Northstar has also pioneered smaller group ski school lessons that present some unique advantages. Called “Ultimate 4” lessons, this ski school guarantees an instructor to child ratio no greater than 1:4. The lessons are offered for drop off in the village or slopeside at the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe.
Regular ski school on most days during the 2018-2019 winter season is $232 if you book online in advance ($242 at window). For kids who need a lift ticket & ski rental, the all-in price is $285 ($295 window). Peak pricing around Presidents Day was $30 more than that. Skiing is undoubtedly not a cheap hobby and it comes at even more of a premium at a luxury property like Northstar. (Related: Why We Think Ski School is Worth It!)
Ultimate 4 lessons are $357 per day when booked online ($410 all in with lift ticket & gear rental), so there is a definite price markup. The ski day is a bit longer (U4s are dropped off first and picked up last). The individualized instruction justifies the higher price in my opinion, especially if you only plan to enroll your child in a day or two of ski school. Sometimes you luck into an even smaller lesson when there are not enough children in your child’s level. My daughter has been in two U4 lesson groups that only were her and one other child, so they were like private lessons at a big discount.
This Ultimate 4 lesson a few years ago became an Ultimate 2!
Whatever lesson you choose, kids get plenty of quality instruction, snow play time, hot cocoa and cookie breaks, and an included lunch. You can select a ski school package with ski and boot rental as well as a helmet and a day’s lift ticket or opt out of those additional charges if you have your own.
Northstar is one of the very few ski resorts in Tahoe that teaches 3 year olds. They must be potty trained and the lessons are either half or full day. For families who have young children who are ready to ski, this offering makes Northstar one of the top Tahoe resort choices in my mind.
Some important parting tips for ski school at Northstar — it books up fast. For a peak date like Presidents Day week, you may need to book several weeks in advance to get a place. Northstar allows you to cancel until up to 24 hours in advance with no penalty. As a result, I highly recommend making ski school reservations as soon as you know you are going. You can always pare them back at no cost as your plans become more clear or weather forecasts firm up.
If you don’t book in advance and can’t get a reservation, all hope isn’t necessarily lost. Because of Northstar’s generous cancellation policy, you may be able to find an opening thanks to someone else’s cancellation. Check often starting about 48 hours before your preferred day, as most cancellations will come in at the 24-48 hour mark.
Minors Camp Childcare
Just one of several rooms at Northstar’s Minors Camp.
For kids too young or not yet ready to ski, Northstar offers on-mountain daycare at Minors Camp. Minors Camp is for kids ages 2-6, and little ones need not be potty trained. Only three ski resorts in all of Lake Tahoe offer group childcare, so this is a huge benefit to families with toddlers and younger kids.
The center is fully licensed and located on the golf course, so it’s a bit away from the ski action at the Village. Plan your logistics accordingly. The center does have a free parking lot and is right on the Northstar shuttle so you have a lot of options for transportation. You can drop-off kids as early as 8:30 a.m. and final pickup is at 4:30 p.m., so it gives you time to get from the Village down the mountain if you are picking up older kids at the end of the day from ski school.
At $220 a day ($238 peak), Minors Camp is certainly pricey – close to the same price as ski school. But it saves having to bring grandma and grandpa or a babysitter along which obviously brings extra lodging costs. Lunch and snacks are included. Pack a set of snow clothes (including boots) because the kids love going outside onto the enclosed playground in the snow when weather allows.
My son went to Minors Camp on multiple different occasions during the ski season when he was 3 years old. He simply adored what he called “snow preschool.” The teachers are loving and caring and all the toys and games are pretty much a children’s wonderland. In fact, he loved Minors Camp so much that he was disappointed to have to go back to his very amazing regular preschool that year – oops!
Where to Stay at Northstar with Kids
Northstar has a wide variety of lodging, from the most luxurious Tahoe accommodations to budget vacation rentals not far away. Lots of the choices work well for families if you know what to expect and can plan for logistics and scheduling.
Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe
For the ultimate in luxury, the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe has no peer in all of the Tahoe area. With ski-in and ski-out access and an on-site rentals center and Ultimate 4 ski school drop location, the location cannot get any better.
The hotel is luxurious while not being pretentious – a rare balance that many luxury hotels are not able to find. I have always found that staff members have a welcoming and laid back local Truckee vibe while still delivering five star service. Rooms are exceedingly spacious for families. The hotel’s ski valet means you never even have to touch your skis except when you are actually skiing. And the on-site dining is high-end while still being kid-friendly. If I could afford to stay there every time, I would! Alas, I save up my Marriott points and splurge once every season or two. See my full review of the Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe for more details.
Toddler snow fun outside at the Ritz.
On-Mountain Lodging at Northstar
There are a number of hotel rooms and condos available to rent all over the mountain – in the Village, off Northstar Drive, and around the Highlands area where the Ritz is located. Just about every price point and size is available. And there are a million and one ways to rent them. The most straightforward way is from Northstar Realty which has an office right at the corner of Highway 267 as you turn onto Northstar Drive. I’ve stayed in both the Timber Creek Lodge hotel rooms right in the Village as well as the Aspen Grove Condos and Gold Bend condos further down the mountain. All are a bit dated but ultimately have mountain charm and location, location, location.
Private owners often will rent many of these same units themselves through vacation rental sites like VRBO. They may also use another off-site realty service to rent. The rooms and condos in the Village are ultimately easiest for logistics with kids, but a shuttle service connects the vast majority of the other mountain lodging options so there’s no need to worry with parking if you are on Northstar property. Just be aware that the shuttle can get quite busy during peak times.
For more budget prices, there are a lot of lodging options within a 15-20 minute drive of the resort. Probably the closest and nicest off-mountain hotel option is the Hampton Inn by the Truckee airport. The town of Truckee has several hotels too and plenty of vacation rentals.
I happen to think the Kings Beach area is a smart and underutilized option for families just because of traffic patterns. Most of the traffic (and there is traffic on busy ski weekends!) in the morning comes from Truckee into Northstar and leaves Northstar headed to Truckee in the evening. Kings Beach is in the other direction so it gives you a reverse commute. The drive to Kings Beach does require going over another summit that may have chain restrictions, so that is the only concern on bad weather days.
The Mountain & the Ski Runs
Mid-mountain at Northstar California Resort.
So what about the skiing and snowboarding? Families won’t be disappointed. For years, Bay Area residents used to joke that the mountain should be named “Flatstar” for its lack of advanced terrain, but that reputation just doesn’t hold true today. Even my expert husband finds that there are runs at Northstar on the Backside and Lookout Mountain that stretch him to his ultimate ski limit. Black diamond skiers will not be disappointed.
For families, there are a lot of perfect wide groomed greens and blues to ski together as your children work on their skills. The busiest corridor is all of the runs off of the Arrow Express lift (Main Street, Lumberjack), so ski them early in the morning then head elsewhere to avoid crowds. We particularly like some of the blues off of the Tahoe Zephyr lift (Upper & Lower Pioneer, Christmas Tree) as well as Luggi’s, Axe Handle, and East Ridge to Powder Bowl off of Comstock Express lift. And the end of the day, one of the hidden gems for families to ski is Logger’s Loop connecting to the Woods, which takes you all the way back down to the Village on a peaceful and scenic tree-lined path.
One of the easy green runs for families to ski off of Arrow Express.
One word of warning to families skiing together – there are quite a few lifts at Northstar that lead only to blue and black terrain. Check the map and the grooming reports closely before taking your kids (or yourself) up a ski lift that will lead to runs you cannot ski.
Northstar has the most snow-making capacity of any ski resort in Tahoe, so they are able to open more runs faster in the early season and better manage through dry spells. Of course, in this epic record-breaking 2019 winter season, that hasn’t been necessary, but I’ve greatly appreciated it in a few seasons the past decade when Tahoe has had droughts.
Finally, although no one in our family snowboards, there are increasingly more options for boarders too – lots of terrain parks and pipes over off the Vista Express lift in particular.
Dining at Northstar with Kids
The food and dining choices are far more extensive than at most every other ski resort in the Lake Tahoe area. Foodies will not be disappointed. All the restaurants welcome kids – even high end Manzanita at the Ritz – so no worries about choosing too carefully. I have a complete dining guide to Northstar published separately, but here are a few of our favorites to get you started.
Zephyr Lodge: For on-mountain dining, we are big fans of Zephyr Lodge, located at the top of Tahoe Zephyr lift. It’s less crowded, newer, and more spacious than the Lodge at Big Springs located at mid-mountain. The food choices are extensive and include a lot of fresh and healthy options that you don’t see elsewhere at most ski resorts. It’s only served by blue and black terrain, so you need to wait until your kids are at least intermediate skiers to make it your lunch spot of choice.
Rubicon Pizza Company: After a hard day on the slopes, it’s hard to argue with pizza (and for parents, a cold beer to go along with it). Positioned right in the Village by the ice skating rink, Rubicon is well located and family-friendly with generous portions that won’t break the bank. It’s also very popular, so I recommend trying to dine around 5:30 pm to beat the dinner crowds on weekends.
The Living Room at the Ritz-Carlton: The lobby area of the Ritz does double duty as a restaurant. It’s one of my family’s favorite places to eat. Relax on the couches – even in your ski gear – and enjoy options like burgers, salads, and appetizers. The kids menu is very reasonably priced and has generous portions. If you aren’t staying at the Ritz but..
During the winter months, my family is regularly on the ski slopes. Although I may pretend to know what I’m doing skiing with kids, the reality is that my husband and I make mistakes on family ski trips a lot. Skiing is a logistically challenging hobby, even for adults. Doing it with kids can be quite hard at times. There are weather challenges, the all-too-real threat of winter illnesses, and the simple fact that kids often can’t really manage their own clothing and gear at young ages.
But skiing with kids is also very much worth it! We’ve made so many fun travel memories on our many ski trips together. In order to help other families make those kind of memories, I thought I’d share some common mistakes I see families making (as well as quite a few mistakes we’ve made ourselves). Hopefully you can dodge these mistakes before you even start and be well on your way to raising little skiers of your own too.
Mistakes Not to Make Skiing with Kids
1. Starting Your Kids Too Early
23 month old on skis!
You’ve probable seen it on a friend’s Facebook feed – their toddler powering down the slopes before the child can even talk. My fierce and independent daughter got up on skis the first time when she was a mere 23 months old. As first time parents, we naturally thought we were brilliant. We patted ourselves on the back for starting our child at such a young age. (Related: Tips for Skiing with Toddlers and Preschoolers)
But then child #2 came along. He was much more mellow and reserved. It was almost immediately clear to me that the same timeline was not going to be right for him. We put skis on him for a hot minute when he was 2.5, but we got a lot of tears and resistance. We decided to pull back.
We put skis on him, but all he wanted to do was sit in the snow and eat candy bars.
For the following season when he was 3, we put him in childcare instead of ski school (find out which Tahoe resorts have childcare in my Tahoe ski resort comparison guide). He got plenty of snow play time and grew more comfortable with the cold and separation from mom and dad. By last season, he was ready for his first time in ski school at 4 years old.
The bottom line is not every child is ready to ski at the same time. You really need to think about your child’s personality when you decide when to start skiing. Although it’s always good to challenge your kids a bit, pushing too much can really backfire. If you would like for your kids to be lifelong skiers, tread carefully.
2. Picking the Wrong Ski Resort
All ski resorts are not created equal when it comes to skiing with kids. Do your research before your trip to find one that has the features you need.
Sometimes large ski resorts can be ideal (especially when you are paying to stay in their full-service slopeside accommodations) because they have a ton of family-friendly amenities – amazing ski schools, on-site childcare, and lots of dining and activities off the slopes. But we’ve also found that large resorts can sometimes have logistics that are overwhelming for families with young kids – distant parking lots, huge villages to navigate while carrying ski gear, and long lift lines.
Consider a smaller locals hill if you have younger kids just learning to ski or can’t afford the more convenient lodging at a bigger resort. My family, for example, alternates most of our ski trips in Lake Tahoe between the large mega-resort of Northstar California and the more medium-sized Diamond Peak depending on the particular objectives we are trying to achieve each trip.
We love that Diamond Peak’s Child Ski Center is steps from the parking lots and the lifts for easy access.
3. Skipping Ski School
Putting your kids in ski school is undoubtedly the most expensive part of skiing with kids. I get it. My family has spent thousands of dollars helping our kids learn to ski at this point. I’m truly counting down the days and the dollars until the kids are good enough to join us on the slopes every day.
But ski school is a very necessary expense (learn why we think ski school is worth it). Unless you are parent who is a truly expert skier, chances are pretty good you aren’t good enough to teach your own kids proper technique. Even if you are an expert skier, you might not know the mountain or the conditions on a given day to choose the right runs on which to teach your child. And then of course there is the simple fact that your kids will behave better and learn more from a stranger than they will from you.
4. Not Booking in Advance
Like Disney vacations, ski vacations definitely are better when you do a little (or a lot) of planning in advance. For example, lift tickets are pricier when you book them at the ticket booth the same day of your trip. The same often goes for ski school – walk-ups pay a premium.
But the real reason to book in advance is not just to save money – it’s availability! Many resorts simply don’t have enough instructors on staff to meet the demands of a busy weekend or holiday period. Ski school can book up days or even weeks in advance of these peak times. I learned this lesson the hard way this year when I tried to book during Presidents Day week a mere week in advance. Ski schools at the two closest resorts to the vacation rental we had reserved were booked solid. While I was able to cobble something together with lot of persistent calling and sheer force of will, it was stress I didn’t need that stretched out over several days.
Skiing with dad on a non ski school day.
Most ski schools actually have a pretty generous cancellation policy. Many that I’ve seen allow you to cancel for no fee or a small fee like $25 up to 24 hours in advance. Read the fine print carefully, but definitely take the plunge and pre-book if the risks are low. It’s worth a $25 loss for the peace of mind of having your kids in a full day lesson.
5. Skimping on Your Kids Gear
Ski clothing and gear can be incredibly expensive. And kids outgrow it so fast. It’s definitely a mistake, however, to skimp on this part of skiing when it comes to your kids. If they don’t have the right gear, they can get uncomfortable in the cold and wet quickly. Worse yet, the wrong gear can even interfere with their safety.
Helmet hand-me down from a friend & Target ski bib. Money-saving but quality!
So how do you get the right clothing and gear without busting your budget? We try to buy gender neutral ski clothing so siblings can pass it down. We also often buy at the end of a ski season during store sales with the next season in mind. Consider also borrowing from friends or checking out local swaps. You can also sometimes rent ski equipment like skis, boots, and helmets at an off-mountain location cheaper than you can get at the resort. Check out my 10 money-saving tips for skiing with kids for lots of ideas on how to score quality gear but at a lower cost.
6. Buying Your Kids a Season Pass
If you are going to be a family that skis often, doesn’t it make sense to buy your child a season pass to save money? Not necessarily! This year, my husband and I purchased Epic Passes for ourselves, but we didn’t purchase one for our 9 year old daughter or 5 year old son. Why? Because the math doesn’t really make sense for our current skiing habits.
If you plan to put your child in ski school most of the time like we do, many ski resorts include a lift ticket (and also ski rentals) bundled into the cost of the ski school. You simply don’t need the pass. I’ve found a few resorts that will deduct a small amount (like $20-30 per day) for kids who have their own lift tickets already, but it takes a long time for those savings to add up to the cost of a season pass.
In addition, you might find that when your kids are younger, you will choose to ski at some resorts where your kids ski free or at a substantially reduced cost. Not locking yourself into the cost of a season pass at a single resort or set of resorts gives you the flexibility to try more places where your costs might be lower overall.
7. Skiing During the Busiest Times
Skiing can be made much more logistically stressful when you go during the busiest of times. Prices are highest, ski schools are the most full, and the slopes are the most crowded. Trying to start your kids skiing on Christmas or Presidents Day week when the resorts are at maximum capacity is a recipe for expense and frustration. Why put yourself in the middle of this if you don’t have to?
If you have young kids who are not yet of school age, take advantage of their flexible schedule. Go skiing on a weekday. And even if your kids are in school, missing a day or two once a year probably won’t do any permanent damage (see my guide to taking kids out of school for travel).
What mistakes have you made skiing with your kids? Share your successes and lessons learned!