Traveling with the Kids to Las Vegas: Getting There and Getting Around

Recently I took my kids on a 3 day adventure to Las Vegas to meet up with their grandma and give their mom a break back home. My challenge: How to have a fun mini-vacation with my 5 and 8 year old boys while maintaining my sanity on this ultimate bachelor weekend in Vegas.

Since I only rarely get out to Las Vegas, I had to do some research and soul searching on the best way to get there, get around, where to stay and what to do. So while it's still fresh on my mind, how about if I share some of my experiences with you.

This will be done in 2 parts: Getting There and Getting Around (Part I) and Things to See and Do (Part II). This article is really long compared to most posted here on CVG, but perhaps some of this detailed information and ramblings will be useful to you in your own travels. Or maybe it will just make you feel better, knowing we all go through some travel challenges, moreso when kids are in tow.

Drive or Fly?

Living in Southern California, the first question is, how do I get I drive or do I fly? From a financial perspective, it generally is cheaper to drive if you have 2 or more people. From Thousand Oaks to Las Vegas is about 600 miles round trip, which is about $120 in gas at today's prices, ignoring wear and tear on the car.

But then you think about do you really want to spend 5 hours in a car driving through the desert and do you want to deal with traffic jams, etc.  Road trips can be fun and all, but my rear end and back aren't big into long drives.  So I checked out flights on Southwest via Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, seeking inexpensive options several weeks in advance of the trip. Friday departure options were too pricey, but I found Saturday departure, Tuesday return tickets that seemed fair at $125/person.

Commuting and Parking

Our flight was at 2:40 p.m., so we left Thousand Oaks around 12:30 p.m. and made it to Burbank around 1:15 p.m. First decision is where to park. Economy Lots A, B and C outside the airport all cost $10 per day, and I opted for Lot A, mainly because that's the one I've made a habit of using. There are also Lots D and E closer to the terminal that are a couple bucks a day more. The kids always seem to enjoy shuttle busses, at least after convincing my worried 5 year old that it was o.k. that there were no seat belts on the bus seats.

Checking In, Waiting, Boarding

We got to the terminal and checked in. I did everything right...signed up for text alerts for flight changes, got to the airport with an hour to spare, checked in, started walking to the terminal when...2 minutes after check-in, I get a text saying the flight was delayed 2 hours. So now I have 3 hours to kill with in the Burbank Airport terminal with 2 kids. At that point I can't help but think, why didn't I just DRIVE to Vegas...

Three hours in an airport terminal is bad enough, but the Burbank Airport terminal is pretty damn boring for kids. There's a cafe/bar, gift shop and coffee stop. That's pretty much it. My 5 year old lasted about 15 minutes with Angry Birds and Cut the Rope on the iPad, then segued into mischief. The older boy lasted slightly longer with his Nintendo DSi, but was soon distracted by his younger brother. It would have been a piece of cake with just the 8 year old, but for 3 hours I broke up fights, walked around the terminal and did whatever I could to distract them.

Eventually we boarded. We checked in early so we received boarding passes in the "A" boarding group, which helped us get our choice of seats. This was not the case on the return flight...more on that later.

Arrival and Rental Car

So after deciding to fly to Vegas, the next question is, rental car or no rental car? Taxis are plentiful in Vegas and the Strip has other transportation options like monorails, trams and of course, your feet. Most people I know that fly don't rent cars there. But since I had kids with me and wanted to visit several off-Strip places, I opted for the car. The sedan only cost me like $100 for the 3 days, which I thought was reasonable.

To get to the rental cars, you must take a shuttle.  It was well organized and thus not too much of a hassle at McCarran Airport. Since I have Hertz Gold membership (AAA currently offers a 1 year free membership) my car was ready when we arrived, without having to wait in line.

But wait! What about kid seats? Well you can rent those from Hertz or you can bring your own. We purchased lightweight booster seats for our kids and Southwest made it easy to check them in, placing them in a heavy duty plastic bag. If my kids were younger and booster seats were not an option, I'd probably lean towards renting the larger seats from Hertz rather than lugging them around.

Driving to the Strip, Parking, Getting Around

The Vegas Strip is impossible to miss, making it easy to get there, with or without a map. We stayed at the Monte Carlo hotel, near the south end of the strip closest to the airport, giving us very quick access to our destination. Thankfully, most parking on the Strip is free, and Monte Carlo is no exception.

During our stay we visited a friend on the northeast side of town and visited several venues on the north end of the strip. For all of these trips, I used the I-15 North, which was very conveniently accessed via Tropicana Avenue. Then I either took the I-15 South back or drove down the strip. The traffic was fairly bearable on the Strip (technically called Las Vegas Boulevard) for us.

Returning to the Airport

While McCarran Airport is quite close to the strip, with a rental car, you must always do some extra planning. I had scoped out gasoline stations beforehand, so I knew where to gas up before return the rental. Too many times I've discovered a lack of gas stations within quick reach of an airport, only to struggle getting to the airport on time and having to pay exhorbitant rates on gas to the rental company.

Overall it seemed like it took 3 times as long getting to the terminal compared to leaving it. It took longer to return the car and longer to wait for the airport shuttle. We finally made it back to the terminal, checked in and went through security. Usually I fly through security, but with kids I somehow manage to forget removing all metal items from my pockets and, to my embarassment, removing the small hotel water bottle I had placed into my backpack. But all was fine and we were off, stomachs rumbling, to the gate.

Boarding the Return Flight and Flying Home

Seemed like we had plenty of time, like 45 minutes, until our flight, so we ordered sandwiches. Midway into my 4th bite, I faintly hear that people should start lining up to board our flight. Crap! We're only halfway into our lunch, haven't used the restroom, etc. I decide not to sweat it, chomp a few more bites and then make our way over to the gate.

Well recall that Southwest has this unassigned seating, "boarding group" thing, where you want to be in the A group or a lower number in the B group. Well we were a higher number in the B group and pretty far back in the line. Uh oh, I suspected we would have a problem finding 3 seats together.

Mind you, Southwest and other airlines allow early boarding for families with young kids. But, at least in Southwest's case, the rule applies when you have a kid under age 5. Hmm, I guess I could have fibbed about his age if necessary :> But in any case I was nowhere near the gate when early boarding was taking place.

So sure enough, we get to the back of the plane and there are only individual seats, mainly between other people. Everyone seemed settled in. The stewardess saw me and my little guys and pointed out the handful of empty seats smattered around the plane. No one offered up their seats to help us out, so I placed my 5 year old in the middle of the very back row, myself in the row in front of him and my 8 year old 5 rows up. It sucked. But we had to get in our seats as time was awasting.

Seeing our predicament, a very nice lady helped us a bit by swapping seats with my 8 year old so he could be closer to me. Thank you, thank you! That was so nice of her. So now we were in 3 successive rows and I could see both kids. Note to self: Next time get in line sooner and consider spending the extra $10 per seat on Southwest for "Early Bird Check In."

Now I hate to bring this up, but I placed my 5 year old in the back row instead of me because there were 2 individuals "of size" in the outer seats that were spilling into the middle the point that I, a skinny marathon runner, would be hard pressed (literally and figuratively) to fit into. In fact, when I looked back, after takeoff, my 5 year old had fallen asleep and his head was resting on the side belly, lodged into his seat space, of one of his seatmates. So I guess this was kind of a good thing as that belly looked kind of comfortable.

I was also mildly impacted by a sizeable passenger seated next to me. She certainly was nice and I made small talk with her and her son. I estimate she weighed about 250 lbs and she was pretty much not able to move whatsoever the entire flight. I had to lean to the right so as not to be rubbing shoulders with her, but it wasn't too bad. I felt badly for her, squooshed into that seat.

There are rules for "Customers of Size" that require an additional seat to be purchased when either the armrests cannot be lowered or one's body is encroached upon an adjacent seat. The good news is that Southwest refunds the extra seat purchased when the flight does not oversell. They're not doing this to make more money. In any case, we were able to work around this issue.

I digress. The good thing is that this is a quick flight and we were back to Burbank in no time. We were back into our minivan and soon on our way home.

The next article will talk about where we stayed and what we did in Las Vegas. Stay tuned...