USA Family Travel Planning Tips – Things To Know Before You Go
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Following on from my post on our incredible 3 week road trip through California, Nevada and Arizona, here I share my ‘to-do’ list and tips for travelling to the USA with kids. Getting everything organised before we left Australia really made our trip as smooth as possible, and assisted with planning our itinerary and budget. I’ve also included a few tips I use for getting cashbacks and frequent flyer points for the next holiday!
Flights to the USA
We flew Brisbane to Los Angeles and return with Qantas. Having saved up a heap of frequent flyer points through our credit card spending, we redeemed these for our seats. We still had to pay taxes on the booking, which came to approximately $2,000. For our family of 5 this was a significant saving, as paying full price in December was around $8,000. The service with Qantas was great, especially with the kids.
To save on driving time, we also booked an internal flight from Las Vegas to San Francisco later on once our itinerary was finalised. We again booked through Qantas frequent flyer points, flying on Alaska Air, for a grand total of US$18. We did have to pay extra for our checked bags (which is very common for internal US flights) of US$50 when checking in at the airport. The kids car seats were checked in free-of-charge. The short flight was smooth, and the service from Alaska Air staff perfect, so I’d happily fly with them again
If saving and using frequent flyer points isn’t an option, shop around and compare prices with different airlines through websites like Skyscanner, and keep an eye out for airfare sales by signing up for flight alerts. Sometimes it can be cheaper to fly direct, and at other times with a stop on the way (like in New Zealand or Fiji). Being flexible with dates can also allow you to make significant savings.
Get your travel insurance sorted
Once I had my flights booked, the next thing on my list was travel insurance. I never travel without it, especially when I considered the high medical costs in the USA. We went with Travel Insurance Direct for this trip, but there are many different companies out there. Do your research, read the PDS for policies, and choose the one that best suits you and your family.
Apply for your ESTA
Before you can travel to the USA from Australia, you’ll need to apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) to travel under the Visa waiver program. At the time of writing this, an ESTA costs US$14, every person in your travel party requires one, and you’ll need to apply at least 72-hours before departure to ensure it is processed in time. Make sure you have all your passports and travel information before starting the application process. Only ever apply for your ESTA through the official website here: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/
Travelling as a family means that accommodation costs can quickly add up, and for us it takes the next biggest chunk out of the budget after airfares. I found the USA to be more accommodating than Australia in regards to room sizes for families.
Booking.com – I used this site the most, as it was often cheaper than other sites, free cancellation was usually available on my bookings, and if I hopped onto the site via Cash Rewards, I also qualified for cashback on my bookings (so more spending money!).
Qantas Hotels – if I couldn’t find the hotel I wanted on Booking.com, then the next site I checked out was Qantas Hotels, which also includes the added perk of earning more frequent flyer points for my next holiday.
VRBO – a private vacation rental website, through which I booked an entire house in Yosemite for Christmas. It was nice to have a break from hotel rooms for a few nights!
Direct with the hotel – in 2 instances, I ended up booking direct with the hotel. Don’t be afraid to contact a hotel directly to see if they can beat the advertised online price.
Our gorgeous private rental in Yosemite
Luggage – how much to take?
Travelling with kids often means you have to pack A LOT of stuff. I prefer to travel light when navigating airports and hire cars, but didn’t want to worry about having to wash clothes every few days, plus we had winter weather to consider. We ended up taking only 2 large suitcases (one for me & C, the other for the kids), a backpack, my cross-body travel handbag and the kids’ car seats.
We each had 7 basic outfits packed (enough for a week). Each outfit consisted of underwear, socks, shirt and jeans/leggings. I then added items that could be worn a few times before being washed, so 2 jumpers/sweaters, 1 light jacket, 1 heavy jacket, plus a few singlets for layering, and a hat, beanie and gloves for the colder days, and 2 pairs of sneakers each. We wore one set of clothes and sneakers on the plane, packed a spare set for everyone in the backpack (because someone is always guaranteed to spill their drink/food/vomit on the flight) and the rest into our suitcases, using packing cubes to save space and keep everything organised.
We also packed our electronics, adaptors and other miscellaneous pieces with an electronics travel organiser. To save space with adaptors, get one that has a powerpoint plug plus USB outlets for charging devices.
If you really like to shop the outlets, or end up buying lots of souvenirs, you can easily, and cheaply, buy another suitcase or duffle bag from Walmart or Target while over there.
Also, if you want to lock your suitcases while in transit, use a TSA-approved lock.
Money, money, money!
I started watching the exchange rate pretty much as soon as I booked our flights, so that I could get an idea of what was a good rate.
We used a combination of cash, a regular credit card that had no international fees, and my Qantas Frequent Flyer card also doubles as a debit travel card, so I could pay with credit or withdraw cash as needed using funds I’d loaded on it before the holiday. I had my ING Orange Everyday debit card as backup for cash if needed (no international fees either!).
I recommend exchanging your money for US dollars before leaving on your trip, particularly for smaller denominations for tipping while on your trip.
Phones and data while in the USA
Unfortunately, neither mine nor C’s phone companies offered affordable international roaming fees, so I ordered pre-paid sims from SimCorner before we left to cover our 3-week stay. We found the phone coverage to be spotty or non-existent in some of the more rural/remote parts of our trip (such as National Parks), so made sure we downloaded our driving route on Google Maps before we set off.
Food and eating out
When booking our accommodation, I tried to get rooms that included breakfast, and that contained at least a fridge and microwave so that we could self-cater as much as possible to keep food costs down. We’d head to the local Walmart or Safeway store every second day to buy fresh food, snacks, beer and water (if the tap water wasn’t nice!), plus I bought a cold bag (a small esky would work too) for the days we were in the car.
On the occasions we did eat out, we’d aim for Denny’s, IHOP, Tony Roma’s and The Cheesecake Factory, as the meal portions were huge, filling and reasonably cheap. They were always happy to provide a take-away container for leftovers.
Food in Disneyland wasn’t cheap, but geez, it was so good when we did indulge! We’d fill up at breakfast, and take plenty of fruit and snacks in with us. Once the snacks we’d bought in ran out during the day, we opted for cheaper options with meals or snacks to keep us going, like the giant churros, Dole Whip, corn dogs or popcorn. On two nights we simply were too tired after full days at Disneyland to head out for dinner or to shop for food, so we ordered in from UberEats and DoorDash, which was still cheaper than eating out.
When shopping in the US, the price you see on the shelf does not included taxes, unlike Australia. I kept getting confused at the checkout when paying for stuff, only to remember that tax is added on at the point of sale.
I found clothing and shoes to be of a similar price to Australia. If you want cheap brand-name items, head for the outlets. Otherwise, I loved Ross Stores for a bargain when needed.
We needed 2 hire cars for our trip (for the Anaheim to Vegas part, and then the San Francisco to LA part). I booked both cars needed through Rental Cars, as the prices were low, included all the insurances, and also had free cancellation on the bookings.
We didn’t have a hire car when we first arrived in both Anaheim and San Francisco, so used Uber (so cheap!) and public transport (even cheaper!) when required. We did book a 2 day hop-on, hop-off bus tour in San Francisco, however it was expensive and we didn’t get that much value out of it.
Car seats are a bit of a headache when travelling! The laws regarding car seats vary from state to state in the USA, and my kids are still in booster seats here in Australia. Hiring 3 seats with the rental cars was too expensive. I know other families had bought car seats once they arrived in the USA from Walmart or Target, but I had the problem of having no car seats for the kids to get to a store in the first place.
I had previously purchased folding booster seats for when we travelled for my older two kids, so I grabbed another one and took these with us. The are lightweight and easy to transport and fit into a bag at the airport. I managed to squeeze all 3 boosters into this car seat travel bag. Plus having the shoulder straps so it could be carried as a backpack was a lifesaver in the airport, keeping our hands free for bags, kids and passports.
Register and back-up
When travelling (especially with the kids), I always register my trip with the Smart Traveller website in case of emergencies. I also have a photocopy of all important documents (passports, itineraries, etc) in a separate bag from my main travel bag, plus a copy emailed to a family member for peace of mind.
Book in advance
It can pay to book tours and activities in advance to avoid disappointment with tours selling out, like Alcatraz. Planning ahead with Disneyland is a must, especially for character dining. You can also take advantage of specials (we purchased our Disneyland tickets when they were on sale) and lock in early bird prices.
America The Beautiful Passes
If you are planning on visiting more than one of the many stunning National Parks while in the US, purchase an America The Beautiful Pass to save on entry fees. Find out more about the pass here: https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm
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