Long time readers may remember that I touched on this a little bit several years ago, when I had a toddler and a preschooler instead of a preschooler and an elementary school kid. To be honest, much of that old post is still true. I think the biggest change is that we no longer try to schedule our driving for afternoon nap time, and we can get away with a few longer travel days now, particularly if we break them up with a visit to something fun after lunch, before the second leg of the drive.
Our most difficult travel struggle now is around food. Pumpkin is not the easiest child to feed even at home, and travel seems to make her even less willing to try new foods. We generally deal with this by buying portable foods that we deem acceptable meal substitutes (e.g., Go-Go Squeeze applesauces, granola bars, peanuts). We also try to have a lot of potential restaurants researched ahead of time (more on that below), and prioritize getting a good solid breakfast, since that is Pumpkin's best meal.
I think the request was primarily for me to write about how we accomplish item #1 on that old list of advice: planning like crazy. Before I launch into what we do, a few caveats:
- Eating issues aside, we have the extremely good fortune to have two very enthusiastic travelers for children. They don't mind sleeping in new hotels, and are generally up for exploring new places. They even like airplane rides. Believe me, I know how lucky we are in this regard, and we are grateful.
- We are also lucky in that we can for the most part avoid the type of trip that my kids don't enjoy so much: the extremely long drive through not-so-interesting locales to get to a destination. The most difficult vacations we do in terms of travel are the ones in which we drive from our home in San Diego to my parents' home outside Phoenix. We generally split that into two 3 hour drives, and stay overnight in Yuma.
- We have a lot of money, relatively speaking, and this definitely makes travel easier, in so many ways. We are very grateful for that, too.
So, to our method. Most of this is done by me, because I enjoy it. Mr. Snarky helps out on some parts, and also recognizes that even if it is a chore I mostly enjoy, it is still a chore, since it is a lot of work, benefits the entire family, and has a deadline.
Step 1: Defining the Framework for the Trip
The first thing we do is agree on an itinerary. We get a guidebook, do some internet reading, look at a map of the general locale we're thinking of visiting, and pick out some potential stops. When the kids get older, I hope to involve them in this. In fact, Pumpkin could probably be involved now, if I could find books written at the appropriate reading level.
Once we have a list of possible stops, I sit down with Google Maps and measure driving times between stops. This can sometimes go a bit combinatorial on me, as I consider various possible permutations of stops. At one point during the planning of the recent Colorado vacation, I just measured the driving time between every possible combination of a set of three or four destinations, wrote that down, and kept it on hand.
I kept it on hand because the next step is to book hotel rooms. Sometimes, lodging considerations force me to change the itinerary. Sometimes we have a fixed date mid itinerary, too- for instance, we decided early on that we wanted to spend the 4th of July in Aspen this year. Therefore, we booked that room first, and then I shuffled other options around until I had an itinerary that made sense with lodging we liked.
When I'm booking hotel rooms, I look for a hotel in which we can get a suite and that has some restaurants within walking distance. It works best if we can have breakfast at our hotel, too, either provided by the hotel or cold cereal made possible by a refrigerator in the room. We can't always get everything we want, of course, and then Mr. Snarky and I discuss and decide on the best compromise. This will get easier when our kids are old enough to allow us to relax our preference for a suite into a preference for a suite OR adjoining rooms.
Step 2: Filling in Detailed Options
Next, we list various things we might see and do at each stop, and also a range of restaurant options, with some near the hotel, some near the sights we might want to see, and sometimes some that are destinations in their own right. When I research restaurants, I still love to find brewpubs- both because they tend to be family friendly and because Mr. Snarky and I like to try local beers. I also find that Mexican restaurants are good options to include, as most are family friendly. Beyond that, I Google for family friendly restaurants in X, and see what I find. I also enter a location (our hotel or a point of interest) in Google Maps and then search for restaurants nearby, and check out their websites to see if I think there is food on the menu my kids will eat. It makes me very sad when restaurants don't include kids menus in their websites, but a lot don't. I just note that and include the restaurant anyway if I think it sounds interesting.
I also search for playgrounds close to our hotel and/or various points of interest. This is usually the hardest search I do. I will probably rant more about that in a later post.
The next step is to sketch out 1-3 potential plans for each stop. We are flexible and change plans on the fly, but it is nice to have a starting point. Mr. Snarky and I frequently revisit and revise these during the trip, over beers after the kids are in bed (one of many reasons we prefer to get a suite when we can).
I also sketch out potential plans for our travel days. I include potential lunch and snack stops, as well as the location of playgrounds at likely stopping points. If we're planning to stop for lunch mid-drive, I usually have a preferred destination and a destination roughly an hour earlier to fall back to if we hit traffic or anything else delays us. This is less essential now that Mr. Snarky and I both have smartphones and can do some last minute searching, but cell coverage is not always great, and I prefer to be prepared ahead of time if I can.
All of this information goes into a travel plan document, which lives in Google Docs (accessible anywhere!) but is also printed out and stored in our travel folder. Here is an excerpt of the travel document from the Colorado trip:
Colorado Summer Vacation
SW flight 4782, transfer in Las Vegas to SW flight 1848
SW flight 2868
Car rental: Alamo reservation number [redacted]
.... (entries for each stop, and for any significant travel days between stops) ....
Arrive 7/7, stay 7/ 8, leave 7/9. Drive time from Alamosa: 2 hr 40 min
Weather: Highs in the mid 80s, Lows in the mid 50s; weather at top of Pikes Peak can be much cooler.
Lodging: Embassy Suites: http://embassysuites3.hilton.com/en/hotels/colorado/embassy-suites-colorado-springs-COSCCES/index.html
7290 Commerce Center Drive 1-719-599-9100
Pikes Peak: http://www.pikes-peak.com/
14k feet. Cog railway to the top. Railway leaves from Manitou Springs, which is a historic town w/mineral spring water fountains. Trips every 80 mins. Have reservations at 1:20 on 7/8
Garden of the Gods: http://www.gardenofgods.com/home/index.cfm?flash=1
Cool rock formations. Several short hiking trails available.
The Broadmoor: http://www.broadmoor.com/
Fancy resort. Good restaurants. Paddleboating on Lake Cheyenne
Manitou Cliff Dwellings: http://www.pikes-peak.com/attractions/manitou-cliff-dwellings/
Anaszi cliff dwellings, outside of Manitou Springs
Tours available 9-6
10 Cliff Rd.
Old Colorado City: historic district, now a shopping area: http://shopoldcoloradocity.com/
Summit House at the top of Pikes’ Peak.
Run by Aramark, so probably nothing special.. but the only option at the top.
Crystal Park Cantina in Manitou: http://crystalparkcantina.com/
Mexican food, not clear if there is a kids’ menu
178 Crystal Park Rd, Manitou Springs
Colorado Mountain Brewing at Roundhouse (Manitou Springs): http://www.cmbrew.com/
Unclear if there is a kids’ menu, but they have woodfired pizzas and mac and cheese
Not far from Manitou Springs
600 S 21st St #180, Colorado Springs
The Margarita at Pine Creek: http://www.margaritaatpinecreek.com/
Near hotel. Closed Mondays. May not be a good choice w/kids, but looks interesting
Old Chicago: http://www.oldchicago.com/
Chain, with kids’ menu and a big beer list, walking distance from hotel
The Airplane Restaurant: http://www.theairplanerestaurant.com/
Restaurant is actually an old airplane, plus an adjacent room
1665 N Newport Rd, Colorado Springs
Trinity Brewing: http://trinitybrew.com/
Small kids’ menu, might be tough to find [Pumpkin] something, but food looks good.
1466 Garden of the Gods Rd W #184, Colorado Springs
Phantom Canyon Brewing: http://www.phantomcanyon.com/
Reviews say it is family friendly. Unclear on kids’ menu, but they have pretzels. Smoked Gouda soup gets rave reviews.
2 E Pikes Peak Ave, Colorado Springs
Well reviewed Mexican food, no online menu
35 Iowa Ave, Colorado Springs
Arrive early afternoon, and spend it in the Garden of the Gods. Visit the Manitou Cliff Dwellings Tuesday morning, have lunch in Manitou Springs, and then take the train up Pikes Peak at 1:20. If there is extra time one afternoon or evening, spend it exploring downtown or paddleboating at the Broadmoor.
Step 3: Write it All Down and Keep the Documents Organized
The travel folder is a green folder (not sure why I picked green, but it is always green) that has our travel plan, print outs of our airline ticket receipts, our rental car confirmation, our hotel booking confirmations, and any other receipts or confirmations for prebookings. I label everything at the top and keep them papers in the order in which we'll need them. This makes it easy to find your confirmation number if a hotel clerk can't find you. I shuffle the pages to the back as we go past those stops. Over the course of the vacation, the folder picks up random other pieces of paper that we want to save, too, things like brochures and maps that will help Mr. Snarky remember the details when he is writing captions for our pictures.
The final piece of our method is the packing list. It is a list of things to pack for the kids and a few very important things for us (like my asthma inhaler and glasses). We assume that the grown ups can manage to pack their own clothes without a list, although sometimes I suspect that is a risky assumption, as packing can happen much later and in a more rushed fashion than we would like. Be that as it may, the list focuses on the clothes and other odds and ends the kids need. I look up the weather ahead of time, and then we decide how many short sleeve shirts, how many long sleeve shirts, etc., etc., each kid needs. We include toiletries, and when the kids were younger, the number of diapers we wanted to bring. Basically, this is the list to make sure we don't forget anything that would be overly annoying to replace. (We used to buy more diapers on site, but always wanted to make sure we had a healthy number for the trip and first night.)
The packing list came into being because we made our first major trip with Pumpkin back during the days when we weren't getting anywhere near enough sleep to be able to count on our mental abilities, and I was writing lists for everything. It has been so helpful that it lives on even though everyone (usually) sleeps through the night now. Each new trip, we copy the list from the previous one, rename it and modify it. We print it out and check things off as we pack. Then, as we're on the trip and discover things we wish we'd brought, we write them on the list, with the intention of transferring them back to the electronic document when we get home, so that we won't forget the next time.
Step 4: Go on Vacation and Have A Lot of Fun!
And we do. Our trip plan document is helpful in averting meltdowns and coping with surprise changes. Not all meltdowns can be averted, of course, but I still think I at least have more fun on the trip having done the preparation ahead of time.
At this point you are either sitting at your computer staring at your screen in horror at our over the top organization, or thinking which bits to steal for your own over the top organization. Either way, I feel it is only fair to confess that despite all of this organization, the odds are still only 50-50 that we will remember a bottle opener for the beers we drink in our hotel rooms after the kids are in bed. We've developed a rather impressive collection of souvenir bottle openers as a result.
Feel free to point and laugh in the comments, or to tell us about how you plan and organize your trips.