Hello Again!!

Hello! Long time no talk.

I tell you what, summer took its toll. That and a full work, kid, and hobby schedule. And our oldest son starting school.

But we’ve been able to fit in a little travel. And travel hasn’t been far from our planning minds.

One of the hardest things for me is to reign in all my travel ambitions. I have so many places I want to go. So many experiences I want to give my kids. So much food I want to try.

Until now, getting away has been relatively easy for me. I just cram like crazy at work before and after, and all is well. Now we have a school schedule to factor in, and that sure complicates things.

What we don’t have is unlimited funds. And sometimes what we want to do and what we can do don’t jive. We haven’t been overseas with the boys yet this year, and the odds of making it happen aren’t great.

But, hey! I’m rambling.

Sometimes I have to remind myself -

It’s not where we travel as much that we travel. Especially with kids.

Sure, I’d love it if we took a couple long weekends per year around the state. And a couple weeks to visit family throughout the country. And a week somewhere new – by car or plane – around North America. And maybe a couple trips to Europe, somewhere new and somewhere familiar. And then maybe the occasional really far afield trip (something we’ve yet to try.)

That all sounds neat, doesn’t it. Fancy fantasy land.

We’ve actually had some pretty solid runs. I wrote it down the other day. There’s a couple years where we checked off a good portion of that list. How did that happen?

Here’s the key, we didn’t force it. We just kept travel a priority, and we chose our shots.

Sometimes it was a big trip with lots of action. Sometimes we used miles and careful timing to go on the cheap. But we went.

A few factors have complicated things this year. Schedules and a decision to make sure our boy doesn’t miss school in his first year of kindergarten is big factor. Our availability has been very limited. And when you don’t have a flexible schedule, it’s tougher to find good priced tickets. And plane tickets are by far the priciest part of our travels.

Two things I’ll remember to increase our hit rate in the future:

1 – We’ll block time and make priorities much further into the future. This will help us schedule around everything going on in our lives, and it will help us make sure we’re capitalizing on all of our opportunities. Looking back at the first half of the year, we might have gotten that overseas trip scheduled in the spring – back before school when we could be more flexible.

2 – We’ll have fall back plans and we’ll know when to use them. It’s a shame to have availability, time off and a budget, and then not go because the first option is out of reach. That’s what happened to our planned October trip – we waited too long looking for a deal and we didn’t have a back up plan.

Which all comes back to – just travel. Make it a priority wherever it may be.

Next up for us is Thanksgiving. We planned to go visit family in Palm Springs – we’ve never been. Since we’re not going anywhere in October, we’ve decided to extend that trip and make it a genuine road trip, with Santa Fe and some other stops along the way.

And who knows – we might just squeeze that overseas trip in, stay tuned.

Eating Like A Local

As I write this, we’re on our way back from our second week-long trip out of the last three weeks. We visited local hot spots and family in two very different corners of the US – eastern South Dakota and the greater Los Angeles area.

One thing we like to do when we travel with the kids is to pick food and restaurants that we can’t get back home. Sometimes we run into picky eating, but more often than not the kids are up for adventure. I think if you set the standard that travel is a time for new foods you’ll find your children are fairly adaptable. It makes sense that new places mean new food. (By the way, this goes for you too.)

There are so many ways to branch out with food. You can find a local restaurant, gaining bonus points for a local dive. Or you can find a regional chain. Even a quick fast food lunch can be completely different in another state or another country. You might find a new go-to option for that area of the world.

We encountered a few places I’d recommend if you find yourself in the area:

While staying in Platte, South Dakota we had lunch at Boom’s Drive In. It’s a local place that’s been around for about 70 years and is a little slice of Americana. I have fond memories of it from my childhood. The food isn’t exotic – I had my usual chili dog, and the kids had some corn dog bites – but it was something new for the family.

In California we have a few favorites. This time we stopped at a local taco joint called Snapper Jacks. They have a mashed potato taco that is great in a crispy shell. It’s in Camarillo.

We went to a greasy spoon breakfast place with Chuck Wagon in the name, in old town Camarillo. I had a great eggs benedict that used jalapeño bacon (I have a bacon obsession.) My wife had an eggs benedict that used corned beef hash. Awesome.

And we stopped at a Los Angeles institution – Pink’s Hot Dogs – for the first time and had a great chili dog. (I have hot dog obsession, especially chili dogs.) The boys really ate like champs here, and I felt good about feeding them hot dogs because of the fun location.

And then there are chains. On our way from South Dakota we stopped at a regional chain called Runza were they have these ground beef and onion pockets that are tasty and very midwestern. Fun if you are into that.

And of course while in California we made multiple stops at In-n-out Burger. A must for all of us.

None of this was overly fancy, expensive, or complicated. But it was different. It helps the trip feel more like travel and broadens your kids’ horizons a bit.

I could talk food all day, but I’ve gone on long enough for now. Similar principles apply wherever your travels take you around the world. I’ll share some more local faves over time. What gems have you discovered?

Frugal Family Travel

Do I dare call family world travel frugal? Semantics police might object. If you are amongst them, read it as fancy frugal family travel from now on, and you’ll be just fine.

But as with most things, the cost of traveling with your kids is highly variable. From experience, I’d say it can range anywhere from hardly more than bumming it on your own – which is almost nothing – to infinity, I suppose.

We are on the finite end of the range. For both money and time. Yet we’ve managed to travel throughout the US, a bit of Canada, and a fair bit of Europe over the last few years. And we have a lot more planned. We have learned some things along the way.

And that’s the first lesson, family travel can be done on a budget. Pretty much anywhere you’d like to go.

Next lesson. If time is of the essence, pick and choose where to save. Save in one category or several, but realize that it can be (a bit) more work to design in maximum savings. If you get a kick out of thinking about your trips and planning, then you can save some real money. But don’t be scared – you can save money even if you are a lazy planner.

(Disclosure. I like thinking about the trip. But kinda generically. I wouldn’t do anything crazy like planning or writing stuff down. And I can still save a buck or two. H, however, is meticulous in planning. And that’s where a lot of magic happens. But sometimes being a lazy planner can save you a ton of money. Stay tuned.)

Now. There are some specific categories to consider.

- Where to go
- When to go
- Getting there
- Getting around
- Staying
- Eating
- Drinking
- Activities
- Souvenirs

Each of these is a fun discussion of it’s own, and we’ll spend some time on all of them.

The moral of the story is that if money IS an object, you STILL don’t have an excuse not to famvoyage!

On Beer Gardens, Tapas Bars and Similar Great Places

I like them. And so do my kids.

Let’s get this out of the way now. This is not the kind of place where we look for sanitized kid friendly things to do while the adults sip ice water and descend into boredom. Kids don’t need you to reduce your trip in order to bring them along. Let’s face it – the more varied your travels, the more you’ll travel. And seeing more of the world is just plain good for kids. Better with you than not at all.

So here’s an insight – if you are doing it right, travel will expose your kids to some dirt and chaos and questionable behavior. You will be ok. Your kids will be ok.

And another – maybe some of what you consider questionable is just normal to other people. You don’t have to approve, I don’t always. But you don’t have to worry too much.

I’ve got nothing against parks and playgrounds and toys and all of that. We’ll get there too. But sometimes I just need an ice cold brew. Sometimes my kids need a snack too.

So. Germany. April and the sun is starting to emerge victorious more often than not. We’re in Munich and locals clearly have spring fever. We’re along for the ride.

The first day of the trip is a good day to soak up local color and not be too ambitious. We go to the Chinese Beer Garden in a lovely big park. Our travel companions have been here before and show us the ropes. Our oldest son is almost two (this particular trip was specifically scheduled to enjoy lap child privileges one last time.) If I remember my chronology correctly, our friends were expecting their first and my wife was not yet expecting our second. So we had one designated walker.

We spent most of a longish afternoon in the beer garden. Our son amused himself with our company, probably some napkins, and probably some drawing. He was part of the gang. We enjoyed a beer or two, along with some of the local beer hall food. What kid doesn’t love wurst and pretzels? The crowd was varied and we were by no means the only parents in the bunch. We all had fun and it was no big deal.

That night – and several others on the trip – we found ourselves at the Haufbrauhaus. A little touristy, but historically important and in possession of great brew and pretzels with this mustard I can’t seem to find anywhere else. Did you know – this is a family place! Less so as the night goes on, but you can totally bring kids of all ages here. Our boy enjoyed the pretzels, but not so much the spicy mustard. He tasted the beer. Of all people, we got a lecture from a tourist! The locals were nonplussed.

When we were in Madrid, we went into a smokey tapas bar with our not-yet-one year old. It was pre-dinner tapas and beverages. We looked for the least tourist-friendly looking place amongst a group of bars in an attempt to get authentic food. Inside, I immediately felt awkward and out-of-place. This was our first family trip abroad, after all. But no one gave us a weird look. And guess what? Ten minutes later, a whole family of locals showed up with their young boys, taking a couple tables by the window. Our son enjoyed the Patatas Bravas.

In our travels before and since, our boys have been to all manner of fancy restaurants, bars, beer halls, pubs, and the like. Some places have rules. Some are more comfortable than others. None have been bad experiences – even when we have been kicked out, which is a story for another day.

This beer garden even had a table just for the kids!! They LOVED it!

Enjoying the beer garden in the rain

 

They even had time for a snooze at the beer garden!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The point is simple. There are a lot of things you can do with your kids that you might think are off limits. Things that seem really scary will seem really silly over time. I’ll write about some of them. I’d like to hear about the successes and failures of others. From these stories we can open a whole new world of family-friendly travel experiences.

Mazapan in Toledo, Spain

I crave those sun-drenched memories. The ones where it was warm and the lighting was just right, doing something simple with good people.

Our first international trip with our oldest boy was to Madrid. It was March, and we had just a bit warmer temperatures in mind. It was fine when the sun was out, but there were many a chilly moment, including a rain-drenched wait to see the palace (which is a story for another day).


We took a day trip to Toledo, which is a short high speed Ave train ride away from the city. This particular train is also notable for being a time machine, as when you arrive in Toledo it will be the middle ages. With tourist shops. Selling things you don’t need but will find yourself at least glancing at out of the corners of your eyes. We bought the boy a t-shirt. If he had been older he would have wanted one of their finest swords (kids into the idea of knights and stuff would love this place!)

Toledo was once a powerful city, but over the centuries it found itself less the center of attention. This leads to a frozen in time mystique that is perfect for street wandering. The hills and cobblestones don’t make it effortless, especially with a stroller, but it’s more than manageable.

While there, you should visit the cathedral. There is a room that acts as a mini art museum housing a number of works by my favorite artist (El Greco.) I enjoy the use of form and color that is not modern but appeals somehow to my modern art sensibilities. I find art in small doses like this are like a good appetizer. You get a taste but don’t get full. A little art tapa. And its a good amount for kids.

Speaking of food. We needed a snack. We were probably very near starving. Toledo is known, at least in one travel guide we had with us, for a sweet treat called Mazapan. It’s a sugary almond confection, very simple but very rich. I enjoyed it with a Coke, because for some reason I appreciate the sweet on sweet combination of soda and candy. My wife was probably drinking Fanta Lemon. The boy was sticking with milk.


After purchasing the Mazapan in a friendly little shop – a box for our little family and our lovely travel companions to share – we went looking for a place to sit and enjoy the sunshine. We found a tidy simple plaza up the hill just a bit. There was a bench or two, and some nice modest trees just starting to do their spring tree thing.

Did I mention that dappled light coming through the trees makes those sun-drenched memories all the more craveable?

The plaza was all cobblestones and low walls. It was small and empty. Quiet. Far from the city streets of Madrid. Far from real life. Instant memory. It was a memory as we lived it.

Anyway. There was a modern-feeling wall on one end of the plaza. It was out of place, which I liked. I spent a few minutes trying to capture it with a photo. It eluded me.



Mostly we just sat and ate our snack, enjoying. Sweet. We didn’t think to buy any to take home, to try later or to give away, because we often don’t think of those things. Or maybe we thought of it. But we didn’t buy any. We ate what we had and we drank our sugary drinks and we sat as the sun smiled on us.

I’m sure the boy, striking as his memory is, does not recall that afternoon. He was ten months old. But I wonder what he might think when he next visits Toledo, maybe with his kids, with the sun warming a nice spring day. Whether it’ll feel like a memory all at once, whether he’ll have just a little something from the time before, I know I’ll never forget.

We finished our snack and wandered down the rolling hills of the modest city. It was a great day for traveling and for the family. And then we took the train/time machine back to the city for more adventure.

Traveling with Kids’ … Car Seats

Our family trip to California is just two days away. The earlier post about buying our youngest a seat for the first time sparked some good questions about the relative merits of traveling with car seats. In LA, we will be renting a car and the car seats will be a necessary evil.

(Side commentary – We’re big supporters of the proper use of car seats. We spend plenty of time and money getting high quality safe seats for our boys, and we use them – always. And we don’t even mind that kids use them until they are 45 these days. I didn’t when I was little, but I’m sure my survival was a fluke :) )

But man oh man, are they a pain to travel with. Why?

Car seats are surprisingly big, bulky and heavy. And better seats generally seem biggest. And they are so awkwardly shaped! Where do you even hang on to the thing? Is it any wonder I don’t want to drag TWO of these things onto a plane? Just getting from the car to the luggage check and back again with other bags is work!

A simple tip for dragging that thing through the parking lot is to tighten up the straps, and tie together the loose ends. The tightened straps make a nice little handle – a place to hold the seat! – and the whole process gets easier.

So now you have to check luggage! We pack light and for short trips generally carry everything on. Car seats end up an exception. This is more about the time spent and the extra stop at the counter than cost. Many carriers don’t charge you for this, unlike bags. And if you or your kids have frequent flier status, they might not charge you for bags. Check with your carrier to see if there is a charge. If so, you could always lug it on the plane if you got a seat. Might as well.

If you check a seat, bring it to the airline counter. Get one of those paper luggage tags and strap it onto the back, on one of the seat straps. Put your name on it. This will probably survive many trips. Then find or ask for a giant plastic bag for car seats. They seem wasteful don’t they? (Is there a reusable equivalent?) Anyway, the nice baggage people need you to stuff the seat in a bag, so get right to it. From there, they give you the baggage claim and off it goes. No more dragging for a few hours.

You wouldn’t want to avoid the bag anyway. The bag will get banged up and torn a bit. Better it than your seat. Even with it, your car seat will probably get dirty at least.

So what about renting a seat when you get there? That would avoid much of the lugging and car seat dirtying. A perfect alternative? Hardly. I have a number of problems with renting a seat:

- Where’s it been? Are you sure it hasn’t been in an accident? Some experts caution the purchase of used car seats, and I would thing similar caution has to be applied to renting one. I’m sure the broad majority of car rental establishments are careful about safety and inspect the seats. But I just don’t know.
- And will be it clean? Our one experience renting a seat was positive in this regard, but I’ve read some less flattering reviews.
- Will they have one the proper size for you to reserve? Will it be there when you get there? There is similar risk in checking a seat, as anyone who has had a bag lost knows. But I do get paranoid that I’d go to pick up my car and they wouldn’t have a seat. That would be unpleasant.
- If you’ve used a car seat, you know there is adjustment to get it to fit your kid right. With your own seat you don’t have this extra step. And unfamiliar seats can be worse. We once had a seat delayed on a return flight from Ireland (back to my earlier point about the risks of checked luggage) and the airline gave us a loaner for the night. It was a fine seat, but we struggled to figure that thing out and get it installed properly in the car.
- Lastly, and most importantly. As a family who considers themselves relatively frugal travelers, the price can’t be justified. After just a few days of renting a seat, you could BUY one. One you know and trust. One you’ve hand selected for its safety and features.

So that’s my opinion. So let’s assume you’ve made the right choice and are bringing your own seat. One more tip – if you have a spare seat, use that. We have a spare set that we use for my parents because they watch the boys quite often. That set is very handy for trips because it’s a bit less expensive making it less to worry about and also significantly lighter than our primary set. Encountering a problem would be less of logistical problem than with our primary set when we got home. And it means we don’t have to uninstall or reinstall the seats in our home airport parking lot which makes for a quicker load time when we get home and are tired. So if you are bringing your own seats, consider your backup seats.

(Thought – Does anyone know of seats that are especially well suited for travel? Either because of their size/shape or their portability. I’ve seen some gimmicky looking stuff, and I wonder if anyone has tried something that worked well.)

I’ve saved my best tip for last. If at all possible – don’t bring a seat! This is the method we employ on almost all of our European trips, and some American ones too.

If you are using public transportation – trains, buses, subways – you won’t need a seat. Many Europeans cities, and even day trips way out of town, are easily accessible this way. Plan your trip around public transportation to save not only cost, but the hassle of car seats.

Even in New York, we’ve skipped seats. There was a cab ride and a car service from the airport involved. We called ahead to make sure a seat wouldn’t be required. It was a little scary, but it was really fine and saved us seat lugging for 10 minutes of total driving. Just like when I was a kid. Please do note that this can backfire on you. In Berlin, I did get kicked out of a cab for not having a seat for our one year old at the time. Our older boy, then 3, was fine due to the cabbie having his own booster to use. We found a train instead and all was fine.

Hopefully with these tips you can make an informed choice about traveling with the car seat. As much of a pain as it can be, it’s far from a deal breaker. You will probably feel like a pro in no time with the tips above. Happy travels, see you after California!

PS – back to the safety of a car seat on a plane. Some seats aren’t designed for lap belts only, so I bet they aren’t all that safe in that context anyway. AND you have to be sure that your seat is FAA approved (it says it on the side of the seat) and you have to show the flight attendant on your way in or they’ll make you check the seat anyway. Heather says you can’t even have boosters on planes because they only have lap belts and boosters are designed to work with shoulder belts. One more reason to enjoy the lap child while you can!

Last Minute Family Travel Tips

Whew. Last minute travel can really test your planning skills. For example:

- A difference of few hours matters. One of the fares we were looking at jumped $60 while we ate dinner. When you are traveling at the last minute, and the trip is a must, you simply might not find a good deal. Find an OK price, hold your nose, and buy. This goes against our best frugal family travel related tendencies, but you might not have the luxury of options. Unless…

- See if you DO have options. This particular trip could have been turned into a long drive if necessary. Be sure to creatively consider all options. Would a drive be cheaper or more realistic? How about the bus? Even if these things aren’t better, having checked and considered them will ease your mind about the logistical ramifications of the trip.

- Frequent travel can lead to a “travel snowball.” Frequent travelers probably already pay attention to the frequent flyer miles game. But is your kid a frequent flyer? We didn’t have enough miles to offset the cost of this trip, but our oldest son did. He literally saved us over $1000. If you ever pay a fare for your child, make sure they get the miles, they come in handy. (No miles for lap children, which is another con I guess)

- Be flexible. You’ll hear this a lot around here, it’s so important for family travel. It’s true in this case as well. Be flexible with your hotel and rental car standards, be flexible with flight times and travel methods, be flexible with price. In this case more than others, some preferences need to take a back seat.

- Rest in advance if you can. This is probably worth a post of its own. We arrived after midnight. Then we spent a ton of time together with family. We flew back a couple days later at 6:30 AM (there’s a 6:30 in the morning now?!?) A good night’s sleep before the trip can make a huge difference in successfully navigating a couple of short nights (which will be short nights for your children, and you already know how they can act when tired.) A nap after the trip is also great if possible.

It’s hard to step back and think through this at the last minute, so put it in the back of your mind now for future use. Last minute travel isn’t ideal, but hopefully with these tips you can get through it a little easier. I’d be interested to hear other last minute family travel tips others can come up with.

Sometimes Life Intervenes

On my last post, I mentioned that our next flight would be to visit some family in California. While that trip is still on, an unexpected death in the family requires a flight later this week. With this trip there is great sadness but also the opportunity to see some seldom visited family and spend important time together.

As these things often do, the events of the last couple of days have me thinking.

This is known by most of you, I’m sure – not all family travel is exotic. It can range everywhere from a short drive to go camping, to a journey to visit family, to a round-the-world adventure. Even each of those types of trips can vary widely. But the skills and confidence you pick up from any of these really can be transferred to a variety of difficult or fun travel (life!) situations.

The most fun stories will be those that focus on the adventures. And even seemingly minor travel details take on a new light when you are on a BIG TRIP. But the skills can be widely applied. So even if you are only going a few miles away, we do hope you’ll read on. Who knows where the story will take us?

For now, appreciate the time spent together as a family.

Next time, a lighter topic…

To Seat or Not To Seat???

We’re a month away from our next trip – visiting family in California – and it will be our young one’s first trip since he turned two! The logistics are all sorted out, and now we’re on to the anticipation stage.

The two-year-old milestone gets me thinking about one of the first questions we had planning our first plane ride (also to California) – to buy a seat or not? Airlines don’t require it until your little one is two. Notice on our first post – isn’t it interesting how we think of all the milestones in relation to when they turned two?

A friend with three kids strongly recommended splurging on the seat, said it was worth its weight in gold. With some very low fares, we took her advice. And I think we have done the opposite ever since. Let’s look at some pros and cons, shall we?

Buying a seat:

PRO

  • Planes get hot, kids are heaters, have a place to put them down
  • Bring the car seat on the plane, strap the child down (More on traveling with car seats another day, more daunting than traveling with kids in my opinion)
  • Safety that comes with strapping them down. But. They actually have to be in their seats for that to work, and its very common to see a little one on the roam. Don’t buy the seat for safety if you’re going to be holding them, obviously.
  • Another note on safety – the regular plane seat belts don’t hold the wee ones all that tightly, and they are easy to disconnect. You may find that you need a car seat because of the size of your kid or their propensity to escape. Otherwise, hold on to them. On longer flights, especially internationally, some airlines give you a lap child seat belt that connects to your own.
  • On a three by three plane, you get the row to yourself

CON

  • Costs more
  • The littler they are, the less likely you can properly sit them in a seat, unless…
  • Car seats. Not always fun to lug on a plane
  • As we are experiencing in our upcoming trip, where we have two child seats, you don’t fit in a row and are split up. Terror!

Lap child:

PRO

  • Cheaper (Not always free. Internationally you generally have to pay some taxes and fees that amount to about 10% of a full fare. Within the US, generally the only cost is effort)
  • Kids are little, they cuddle well…
  • Lap naps are the best
  • Cheaper = more trips
  • Cheaper!

CON

  • You’re going to have to keep them occupied, but you were probably going to have to anyway. Bonding time isn’t a con.

I’m a HUGE fan of the built-in discounts that come with traveling with kids. And none looms larger than the huge discount on airfare. You’ll miss it when they turn two. Of course, if money is no object, or you are using miles… just don’t be surprised if they end up on your lap anyway.

It’s Not Too Late To Travel The World

I didn’t catch the overseas travel bug until I thought it was too late. I’d dreamed of traveling to other lands, but had never bothered to make it happen. When friends invited us to Vienna, we were already expecting our first son. Certainly we wouldn’t be able to take other trips like this after he was born?

That trip to Vienna was better than I could have expected. The history, the culture, the food – I wanted to experience more of it. My wife, who had been quite a few more places than I, didn’t need convincing. So when the same friends invited us and our not-quite one-year-old to Madrid, we rolled the dice.

And guess what? There were some extra logistics, but we had a great time. In many ways the experience was even better for daring it with a baby.

We’re not here to tell you that traveling with kids is the only way to do it. And we’re not telling you that you must. But if you’ve dreamed of seeing the world, you need to know that you can. And that your kids will be the better for it. And that you don’t have to break the bank to make it happen.

Traveling – all kinds of adventurous, exciting, crazy traveling – can be done as a family. You’ll spend time together. You’ll share experiences with each other. And you’ll love it.

We realized during that trip how little we knew about making it work. Mostly, we just needed help figuring out what was OK. Eight countries and counting and we’re still learning. We think we have something to share, and that maybe together we overcome the fear that so many have around family travel. And maybe you too can catch the travel bug too late – FamVoyage!