Thursday, October 30, 2014

Toddlers and Time Zones - Europe

One of the questions I get often as a traveling toddler is "How do you deal with the jetlag?" Well, it's not easy, but I do have some great parents to help me adjust to different time zones when we travel long distance.

The challenge with living on the East Coast of the US is that you're almost always going to have inconvenient flight times.

However, when you travel (especially as or with young children), you learn to "deal with it." Here are a few ways we try to adjust as best you can.

Flights to Europe 
These trans-Atlantic flights are often business-traveler oriented, so they're always scheduled to arrive very early Europe time (like 7-9AM) so that people can make their business meetings in the morning or make a connecting flight to another part of Europe. That's great for them, but that means we're departing at 4-6PM and landing at midnight-2AM on New York time. Not ideal for families, or non-senior citizens who don't fall asleep before the show Modern Family comes on.

Plus, the flight from the East Coast is likely only 6-8 hours long, which isn't enough time to really sleep a full night after factoring in taxiing to the gate, dinner service, breakfast service and landing. So you're really only looking at maybe 4-5 hours of actual sleep time. I know this pretty well, because we just did a red-eye flight to Munich this past July.

But I wanted to show you a flight with multiple options, so we'll use the more popular New York-Frankfurt route that has more than 1 flight per day.

Ignore the fact that there seem to be 7 different flight options, because there are actually only 3 (partner airlines like United and Lufthansa often code-share for the same exact flight). You have the following:
  • 5PM departure arriving 5:30AM local time (aka 12:30AM New York time);
  • 7:30PM departure arriving 9AM local time (aka 4AM New York time); and
  • 11PM departure arriving 11:30AM local time (aka 6:30AM New York time)
Your choice will likely be determined by your itinerary the next day. If it were us and we were staying in Germany that trip, then I'd opt for the 11PM flight because it would better align with my normal sleep schedule. But if you're connecting in Frankfurt to catch an morning flight to Rome, then you may have to go with the earlier flight.

For the sake of this blog post, let's just assume you have to take the 5PM flight, so you'd land in Frankfurt just after midnight New York time. We'd do the following:
  • Stay up SUPER late the night before in NYC (like 1-2AM) so that we're more likely to be tired for our flight.
  • Set our watches smart phones to Frankfurt time as soon as we arrive at JFK. Then try to do everything as if we were on German time already. So assuming it was 3PM when we arrived to the airport, we'd pretend it was actually 8PM, so we'd try to have dinner and I'd get into my adorable Hello Kitty Pajamas.
  • Since we already had dinner (or attempted to), we may opt to skip the in-flight meal completely and really try to sleep as early as possible. By the time we take off and reach cruising altitude, it will likely be 6PM New York (11PM Frankfurt). 
If successful, I'd get a good 5 hours of toddler sleep before the cabin lights will come back on at 11PM NY time (4AM Frankfurt) to begin breakfast service.

However, more often, I will not actually fall asleep so early and will only get ~3 hours of sleep and get woken up before I was ready. In either case, I really won't be well rested when we land and get off the plane.

So depending on your plans for the day of your arrival, we try to get to our hotel as soon as possible and beg for an early morning check in. Given most European cities have plenty of active American business travelers, the hotels are pretty used to these requests. I won't lie, it definitely helps if you (a) call in advance to notify them and/or (b) have elite status with their hotel loyalty program.

Then we'd use the blackout shades, go back to sleep for a few hours and wake up to get a late 1PM lunch. We found that it's much better to enjoy your first day in Europe when you're well rested. However, my father NEVER lets us sleep too long, because we still need to be a little bit tired so that we'll go to sleep at a normal (European) time and break from our US time zone.

But now comes the KEY to our success.

During the first day, if I start to doze off, my father will do whatever he has to do to keep me awake. Most parents probably wouldn't be willing (or able) to do this to their adorable tired toddler, but my father's definitely not like most parents. He will tickle me, make me walk, sprinkle me with water, bother me by touching my face as I sleep, and even bribe me with ice cream.  He's pretty strict about me not sleeping off-cycle, because he knows how difficult it will be for all of us if I didn't adjust to the new time zone. After all, having a 3 year old constantly waking up at 2-4AM for our entire trip isn't a recipe for success.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Element Hotel - Ewing

Hotel Details
Hotel: Element Ewing
Dates: October 25-26, 2014 
Rate Paid: $185/night (incl. taxes)
Points Earned: 1,103 SPG points

We were driving back from Amish Lancaster, Pennsylvania when we decided that we should just stay at a hotel on the way. Since my father is a Starwood loyalist, he wanted to try the new brand, Element Hotels by Westin.

Element is an extended stay / limited service hotel concept that has a strong "green" focus on being environmentally-friendly and healthy living conscious. For example, they have an eco-friendly design and give you real silverware/glassware. However, my parents didn't really get excited about that aspect. My mother was excited about having a real kitchen, and my father was keen on staying at all 9 Starwood brands in 2014. This stay would make it 8 for the year - missing only Le Meridien.

Since we didn't have a room booked in advance, my mother called the hotel while my father was driving to the hotel. First she checked rates online at There she found an AAA rate for $161 + taxes for an Accessible Suite. However, we thought we'd try to call the property directly and see if they'd offer us a last minute discount since the room would otherwise go empty that night.

Unfortunately, since Element is a limited-service property, they didn't have an on-site reservation person. Instead, they forwarded our call to the Starwood call center where they offered us rates closer to $200+/night. No thank you.

So my mother went back online and booked it on her iPhone for $161 + $24 in taxes. Oddly enough, there were options to book a room including breakfast for an additional cost. Who would pay that premium when breakfast is complimentary for everyone at Element Hotels! Also free were (a) in-room wifi and (b) happy hour 3x a week. We didn't arrive in time to enjoy the happy hour, but that would have been a very nice touch for a limited service property.

When we arrived, the place was pretty quiet, but my father instantly loved the sleek design. It was very modern with the sharp angles and long clean edges, but didn't have the cheesy W Hotel style flare or overwhelming color schemes.

The super friendly front desk staff moved us from the accessible room to a regular King bedroom suite on the 4th floor. If the floor map is accurate, we didn't get the big suites, but as you'll see from the photos, we had plenty of space for our family of 3. We were in Room 410 not too far from the elevator.

As soon as we walked in, my parents knew Elements was going to be our new go-to hotel brand whenever possible. It had everything a small family could possibly need - space, multiple TVs, a separate bedroom...

...and a full kitchen. I mean, that was the very first thing you notice when you walk into the suite. The kitchen had a regular sized fridge, electric stove top, dishwasher and full kitchen set of plates and silverware. It was like a very stylish NYC apartment. Since this was an eco-friendly hotel, they didn't have any bottles of water. I suppose you were supposed to drink from the sink instead.

The nice feature of the room was that there was an efficient roll away table that was set under a set of closet doors with rolling stools. We pulled it out and had dinner on it (leftover Philly cheese steaks from Dalessandro's Steak & Hoagies). When we were done, we rolled it back under the closet area.

The bathroom was also a very stylish and amazingly clean. Keeping consistent with the green theme, the toilet had the option of a half flush or a full flush and the shower was a low-flow rain shower.

However, I will say that the wall mounted shampoo and body wash was probably also another green-thing, but it just looked cheap. Something I'd expect from Aloft or Four Points, but Element was at a higher price point than either of those sub-brands.

The next morning, my father went downstairs around 8:45AM to get some complimentary breakfast before they finished at 9AM. By the time he got there, most of the feta/egg breakfast wraps were all gone, so he took some of the pancakes and a few cornbread muffins. Note: get breakfast early or risk missing out!

The rest of the property went relatively undiscovered by my parents. We spent most of the morning in the room as I started running a fever. But as we checked out later that day, my father popped his head into the fitness center and business centers. He also passed by the small convenience store that sold snacks and drinks. Apparently, you could also park bikes (or rent them, we're not sure) keeping with the healthy orientation of the brand.

Over all, we were very excited about the Element Hotel brand. They really seem to target business travelers on extended stays rather than families on vacation given their geographic footprint (lots of airport hotels), so I think it would be perfect for a "place to sleep at night," but probably less so for a "vacation" where you stay on the property during your trip.

Amish Pennsylvania

My mother loves the "locals" whenever we travel anywhere. In New Mexico, we visited the Acoma people in the Sky City. In Pennsylvania, she wanted to visit the Amish, so we drove to Lancaster, PA to see how they lived according to their values in a very different world around them.

We found a site called Amish Village on Google Maps. It's a pretty clever way to market yourself to tourists since it's not an actual village or town area where Amish gather to conduct business, but rather a tourist destination. In case you get lost, they have a massive barn painted with "This is The Amish Village" so you don't miss it.

But during the drive over, we definitely saw our fair share of locals. As it turns out, they don't like having their pictures taken (it's a literal interpretation of Biblical warnings against graven images), but my mother snuck a few photos when they were too far away to notice.

At The Amish Village, we did a $9/person tour through a replica traditional Amish home. The home itself wasn't that impressive, but it did give you a sense of how their communities functioned.

But after you go through the house tour, you can walk around the outside grounds where they have buggies that you can go into and stores that you can shop for souvenirs and food goods.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Hyatt Place - King of Prussia

Hotel Details
Hotel: Hyatt Place - King of Prussia
Dates: October 24-25, 2014
Rate Paid: 1 Free Night Award
Regular Room Rate: $129/night
Total $ Benefit: $129 

A few months ago, my father saw a Hyatt promotion called "See It Share It" where you just had to use Twitter to post a photo of a Hyatt Place experience you've enjoyed and you'd be eligible to win one of the free night awards they were giving away. As you probably guessed by now, we won a free night at any Hyatt Place in the United States through December 31, 2014.

As we didn't have any big travel plans booked through the rest of the year (despite having Halloween, my birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up). So we thought there was a legitimate chance the year would end without us redeeming this free night.

So when my father decided he was going to travel for business to Pennsylvania to meet a Five Star Painting franchisee, my father's brain started cranking up ways to use up this expiring coupon. As it turned out, there was a Hyatt Place just outside of Philadelphia in a suburb called King of Prussia.

This Hyatt Place had a rate for $119/night plus another $10 of taxes and fees. We booked into a King Suite which was an alcove studio where the bed was around the corner. For the 3 of us, we had plenty of space. In typical Hyatt Place fashion, the room was clean and well appointed, though very boring consistent with the rest of the brand.

The next morning, my father and I went downstairs to get some complimentary breakfast. This Hyatt Place had french toast, sausage links and scrambled eggs for the hot options along with yogurt, cereals and bagels for the cold options. The place was pretty crowded that morning (heard there was a high school hockey tournament nearby), but we managed to find seats in the spacious dining area.

The rest of the lobby was actually quite large compared to other Hyatt Places we've been to. There was a large living room lounge area along with a few computers for the business center.

The hotel also had a van that would take you anywhere within 7 mile radius from the property, but since we had a car, we didn't utilize that amenity.

When we checked out, the front desk staff had a bit of trouble redeeming the 1 Night Award we used. The award had some directions for the Hyatt Place staff, but it was a bit more complicated than it would appear. The manager came out and told us we didn't need to stay and wait because they'd take care of it. He assured my father that the credit card wouldn't be charged and they would "direct bill" to Hyatt.

And yes, the bed was super comfortable for a 3 year old to spread out on. My parents can tell you what the corners of the bed were like.