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Archive for the ‘Travel Tips’ Category

Fourteen years ago we celebrated our honeymoon with a trip to San Francisco and Monterey, California.  This week we returned to San Francisco with our three children as part of our Year Long Adventure, with California being the 41st state we have traveled to in the last 9 months.  As we drove across the Bay Bridge, we discussed all the ways our lives have changed in those 14 years.  Other than the obvious three kids in the van, the thing that struck Dad the most was the change in our personal technology.

We were inexperienced and nervous travelers when we landed at San Francisco airport in 1997.  It was overwhelming to drive our rental car into a strange city with only a paper map to guide us to our hotel.  Our itinerary had been decided far in advance of our arrival, and once in San Francisco, we relied on brochures or taxi drivers to find our way around.  Mom owned the only cell phone, and we cannot remember today if we even brought it with us.  We had a desktop computer at home (Dad really did not know how to use it), but the thought of bringing a laptop on vacation was not something we could have fathomed.

Fast forward 14 years, and it is amazing how travel and personal technology have changed.  Our family  has traveled over 20,000 miles to 41 states in the last 9 months.  Mom and Dad each use our laptops most nights using the wireless internet provided free at the hotel.  We upload photos taken only hours before to a remote server and compose and publish this blog of our adventure.  Dad has been able to perform the basic tasks of his job remotely from hotels and/or our car using basic everyday technology, making the Year Long Adventure possible.

The main thing that has changed our travel the most is the advancement of cellular phones and in our case, the iPhone.  We rely on iPhone Maps to plan our routes (and to create Plan B when necessary) and guide us while we are on the road.  With the iPhone, we have no anxiety about getting to any of our destinations, no matter how remote they may be.  Our phones help us to find hotels, read hotel and attraction reviews, scout possible activities on the fly, take pictures and video, and keep us (especially our youngest) entertained.

One of the best examples of technology improving our travel occurred on Leg 3 when we were driving through Florida.  Mom was mapping when she realized that we would be driving right through St. Augustine.  From her trip research, Mom knew this was a city worth visiting, but she had not realized that we would be so close.  She used her phone to see what there was to do, found an Eco-Boat trip, read the reviews of the trip, and called to reserve a trip for the family all while we were still 20 minutes outside the city limits.  We then used the mapping feature to get us to our destination right on time.  We could have never pulled something like that off so quickly 14 years ago. (Read more about this adventure in St. Augustine here)

Remembering that feeling of driving into San Francisco just 14 years ago, Dad said that if you would have told him that day about the future of technology, it would have been more unbelievable than telling him that he would be back 14 years later with three kids age 11, 9, and 5.  Mom said she would have been blown away by both of these propositions.

The real question is: What will be possible in 2025?

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We found ourselves one night in Kearney, Nebraska without a reservation for a hotel room.  This was supposed to be our first night of tent camping, but the 40% chance of rain and the appearance of our reserved campground led us into town in search of a hotel.  We used our iPhone to search for hotels through hotels.com to check to see what was available.

A couple of suitable locations were found as we headed down the main street of town.  A quick stop was made at location A as Dad went inside to get the lay of the land.  It was decided that we could do better, so we crossed the street to location B which happened to be the Holiday Inn.

The kids were excited as Dad went inside to check things out because there was a sign on the exterior of the hotel was advertising Indoor Water Slides.  Hotels.com had advertised rates for a room at $80 for the night.  This price was presented to the front desk, and they said they would be able to match that rate for us.  We were prepared to make the reservation on the lobby through hotels.com should they not choose to give us that rate.  We checked into the hotel and had a great stay.  The kids (and parents) had a great time at the Indoor Water Park, and we were able to get all of our laundry done in their clean laundry room.  They also had a very nice restaurant adjacent to the hotel.

Now This is Fun!

We were eating dinner at the restaurant when Dad had to step out into the lobby to take a phone call.  There was a Mom with three children at the front desk discussing the nightly rate for a room.  The clerk explained to them that the rate for the evening was $110, or $30 more than what we had negotiated with our hotels.com rate.  We saved 27% that night just by taking two minutes to look up rates on our phone before walking into the lobby.  That is a pretty good return on investment.

Feel free to follow daily updates of our adventure at our Facebook page.

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Theme for YLA Leg 1 - Westward Exploration

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”     – Pat Conroy

The main purpose for the Year Long Adventure was to offer our children a unique educational opportunity.  We wanted them to see and experience US history, geography, and earth science first-hand.  As a veteran middle school teacher but new to homeschooling, I (mom) was torn as to the best way to approach each trip.  I narrowed it down to two possible choices, each having its pros and cons.

  • Strategy 1 – Before we leave, give the kids a basic overview of the history and geography of the people/places and review the scientific processes that formed the natural landmarks we would visit.
  • Strategy 2 – Experience the sites with no prior preparation and study these concepts more deeply when we return.

After much consideration, I decided to go with Strategy 2 for the first leg and see how it went.  We did read two historical fiction diaries from the  Dear America series prior to leaving:  Across The Wide And Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary Of Hattie Campbell by Kristiana Gregory and The Journal of Augustus Pelletier: The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804 by Kathryn Lasky.  The kids enjoyed these stories told from the point of view of a twelve year-old child from the time period.

I am so glad that we chose to see the sites without extensive study beforehand.  Almost all of the places we went had excellent displays, presentations, or tours that were both interactive and informative.  The National Park Service in particular has done an excellent job creating programs that educate both children and adults in entertaining ways.  NPS Junior Ranger Programs allow kids to earn a badge or patch by completing a booklet of activities while experiencing the park, and most of them are free.

As we traveled along, I was pleased to see that the kids remembered specific names and places from the Dear America stories and would shout out when we saw a sign or landmark.  “That’s where Hattie crossed the river and the covered wagon capsized!” or “That’s Pompey’s Pillar that Captain Clark named after Sacajawea’s baby.  I didn’t know it was real!”  I highly recommend this series because the although the main child character may be fictitious, most of the events and people in the story are taken from actual diary entries of real people.  Upon arriving home, all three kids have shown amazing fact recall, and we are so happy that they are learning and retaining so much.

When I looked over the complete itinerary for Leg 1 before leaving, I was struck by a common theme:  Westward Exploration.  During the trip, we would drive along parts of the both the Oregon Trail and the route of Lewis and Clark.  As nomads for 31 days, we would be experiencing some of the emotions of these explorers as they headed into uncharted territory.  When things became difficult, thinking about covered wagon or canoe travel really put things in perspective!

Don’t forget – You can get daily updates in real time on our Facebook page: Year Long Adventure or on Twitter @yrlongadventure.

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It could have been worse!

We had a great time on  YLA Leg 1. In preparation for planning Leg 2, now is the time to evaluate what worked and what didn’t so improvements can be made.  Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking when I  planned this trip.  Apparently I had a very unrealistic vision of life on the road for 31 days.  A family of robots could not have executed our initial itinerary, so we mere mortals never stood a chance.  Valuable lessons have been learned, and I think my future plans will better reflect reality.

The daily “dream world” scenario looked something like this:

  • leave hotel/campground by 8:00 at the latest
  • see attraction OR drive at least 6 hours to next city/attraction (plus all meals and misc. stops) OR sometimes both
  • arrive in new location by mid-afternoon and see at least one museum or attraction
  • check into the hotel, eat dinner, and relax
  • have family bonding time
  • get kids in bed at reasonable hour
  • write new blog post and upload pictures
  • get a good night’s sleep

Yeah, right!  WHAT WAS I THINKING?!?

Lesson #1 – No matter how efficient you think you are, packing up and repacking the car takes FOREVER!

Somehow I thought that we could get 2 adults and 3 young kids (ages 11, 8, & 4) up, dressed, & fed, repack the car, and be on the road by 8:00 every morning.  And have I mentioned that I (Mom) am NOT a morning person?  Anyone who knows us is already laughing at the thought of us doing this successfully one day, much less for 30 days in a row!

Don't forget your stepladder to access the car top carrier contents.

Stuffed to capacity

We thought we had a streamlined system that would make repacking a breeze.  Instead of a suitcase for each person, we had 3 jumbo-sized duffel bags.  One was filled with jackets and cold weather clothes for our camping in Montana and Wyoming.  The second bag held a few complete outfits for each person which we would replenish every few days.  The third bag held all our remaining clothes.  The thought behind this was to limit what went in and out of the car daily.  The second duffel would come in and out of the car every day, while the others would be used as needed.  It sounded good until we noticed the number of small things that we were wedged in and around these duffel bags and tended to shift as items were moved.  We also failed to consider the sheer number of other things which needed to come inside each day:  camera bag, two computers, toiletry bag, dirty clothes bag (which grew and morphed into multiple bags until we could do laundry), 3 pillows and the orange “night” bag.  The “night” bag held a twin-size air mattress and electric pump, sheets and a blanket, and pajamas – all the supplies needed for a 5th person in a room for four.  Transporting all this took several trips – a job for weary Dad.  The next morning, it ALL needed to be reassembled and packed back into the car.

I’d like to say it was the repacking of the car that slowed us down, but it only played a part.  Our long days and late nights (future lessons learned) contributed to a difficult time waking up early.  Grumpy children (and grumpy Mom) had a hard time getting moving.  The bags had to placed back into the car in a certain order, so Dad couldn’t really begin his job until all stuff was packed up.  Needless to say, most days it was 10:30 or 11:00 before we hit the road.

Lesson #2 – Alwa
ys add 2 hours to the estimated travel time

When you don’t leave until 11:00, you don’t make it very far before all the kids are clamoring for lunch.  Add to that ALL the bathroom stops for a car full of children and a Mom who is drinking WAY too much Diet Coke, and you have some slow going.  As Dad said, “Every time I stop this car, it takes 25 minutes and costs 10 bucks.”  Can I help it if we like McDonald’s soft serve cones?

Time for a break!

The scenery in the Northwest is spectacular, with wide open spaces, vast forests, and incredible mountain ranges.  Roads on our route tended to be bumpy two-lane roads that ran through every tiny town or curvy mountain roads with steep drop-offs instead of a shoulder.  Traveling on these will lower your average miles per hour quite dramatically.

Bad roads add travel time

“Historical Marker” or “Scenic Overlook Ahead” signs mean pulling over for photo-ops.  Add in time trapped behind RVs going 20 mph, construction zones, and traffic, and we rarely reached our destination within the estimated time frame.  With very little wiggle room built into the itinerary, this caused a ripple effect that eventually required restructuring of the entire trip.  Next time, I will build in “dead days” for catch-up from unforeseen delays.

Lesson #3 – Planning to drive more than six hours a day with children is not practical.

On this leg of the Year Long Adventure, we were caught between a rock and a hard place.  We were trying to cover an incredible amount of territory in a limited amount of time, yet see as many things as possible.  Given the way things are spread out in the Northwest, driving long distances between attractions is inevitable.  We prepared as best we could.  DVD player – check.  Entertainment bags filled with books, art supplies, and travel games – check.  Pillows and blankets to encourage napping – check.  Dramamine – check.

Are we there yet?

Unfortunately, this did little to curb the expected backseat dynamic, which worsened as the hours dragged on.  Bickering – check.  Complaining – check.  Tears – check.  Constant inquiries about next meal/snack/bathroom break – check.  What can you do?  Children will be children.  Given the long hours they were forced to spend in the car due to all the before-mentioned factors, they actually did really well.  If they only had to endure a few days of late night hotel arrivals, meals at odd hours, and 8+ hour drives, all would have been well.  It was the long hours day after day for four weeks that took its toll on everyone.

The next leg takes us to the Northeast, where things are much closer together.  Other than a grueling few days to get to and from Texas, daily travel time will be minimal.  That will be a major improvement!

We plan to apply these and the other hard-learned lessons when planning future trips.  I’m sure we still have more to learn, but learning is what this adventure is all about!

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Life on the road can be hard sometimes, so it is always nice to find a tool to help with the little bumps in the road.  We found a helpful traveler’s tool by accident.  We purchased Apple 3 GS iPhones about a month after we made the decision to plan our adventure.  We both needed new phones, and decided to go with the iPhone since all of the iPhone users we know always seemed happy with their choice of phone.  We really enjoyed our iPhones before we left, but we found them to be an essential part of our life on the road.  Here are some of the ways our “Traveler’s Best Friend” helped us:

Maps: We joked often about how the front seat of the car would have looked if we had to use big folding paper maps for each leg of the journey.  We simply typed in where we wanted to go, and the iPhone found our current location, and gave us directions.  It helped Jennifer obtain her crown as the “Queen of Navigation”.

Hotel Finder: It was a great tool whenever we had a lodging issue, and needed to find a place to stay in the middle of the night.  We could use The Best Western App, or get on the internet and use hotels.com to find shelter.  It sure beat the system of 30 years ago of pulling up to the hotel and hoping there were rooms available.

MP3 Player/Educational Gadget: We were able to download songs of our youth to our iPhones, and then play them through the van stereo.  This allowed us to ensure that the classics from such greats as Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, and Van Morrison would be passed down to another generation.  We also downloaded Spanish Lessons from iTunes, so the whole family could learn a new language while driving through the middle of nowhere.

Educational podcasts allow you to learn anywhere

Child Entertainment: Our kids love playing all sorts of games that they have downloaded on our phones.  Long trips sometimes bring on boredom.  Enough said.  Sometimes even the adults need to be entertained.

Words With Friends

Better Sleep: Hotel rooms can be hard to sleep in because of unfamiliar noises.  Loud neighbors, slamming doors, and even the sleep noises (snoring, grinding teeth, etc.) of family members can cause you to lie awake for hours.  The White Noise app on iPhone allows you to play background noise to help drown out these unpleasant sounds.  Our favorite is Oscillating Fan, but other choices include Beach Waves Crashing, Extreme Rain Pouring, and Grandfather Clock in addition to the generic White Noise.  Mom couldn’t sleep without this app.

Social Media Device: The iPhone comes with a camera and video recorder, and there are free applications that can be downloaded that give you better photo options.  We were able to take photos and immediately upload them to our Year Long Adventure Facebook page.   The free Twitter App allowed tweets from wherever we happened to be. It was a great feeling to also know that we could check our email whenever we needed.

These are just some of the examples of how the iPhone made traveling easier for us.  How has technology helped you become a better traveler?

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We decided to leave Yellowstone one night early for two reasons.  One, we had a huge drive to the next town looming before us and two, frankly because it was not fun waking up in a tent when it was 40 degrees.  Dad went to go take a 12 minute shower (the best $4 spent on the trip) and get a cup of coffee from the store.  Mom was up at camp when he got back, so we decided to sit in the car with the heater on to discuss our options.  Did we mention that it was COLD?  A quick call to Hotels.com got us a hotel reservation in Powell, Wyoming, or so we thought.  We chose Powell because at first glance, Cody, Wyoming looked too expensive.  We have learned on this trip that a lot of people stay in the towns closest to the entrances of Yellowstone National Park and travel in for the day.  Because of this, hotels in these towns typically charge much more for rooms of the same or lesser quality.

We spent our last day in Yellowstone driving through the park to experience some of the spots that we had not yet seen.  Yellowstone is very large, and each section of the park is radically different from the others (geysers, canyons, forests, lakes, valleys).  We really loved the Canyon area and its two amazing waterfalls.

We can only imagine what the first explorers who found this place thought when they came upon the 300+ foot waterfall at the Lower Falls.  One last drive through herds of bison in Hayden Valley and past gorgeous Yellowstone Lake, and we were on our way out of the park.  Every day is an Adventure.

Heading East through Wyoming towards Cody was an awesome drive with incredible scenery.

We hit Cody, and turned off for the 30-minute drive to Powell where we understood that we had a reservation at the one chain hotel in town.  Every day is an Adventure.

We pulled up to our hotel after 9:00 with a very tired family.  As Dad walked up to the hotel and saw the No Vacancy sign, he felt very glad that he made his reservation early that morning through Hotels.com.  Those warm, fuzzy feelings quickly disappeared when he found that the hotel had no reservation for our family.   A quick call to our friends at Hotels.com informed us that there was a “system error” processing our reservation, but thankfully “there would not be a charge to our credit card”.  Thanks Hotels.com – now we feel better.

We surveyed our other options in Powell (very scary), and came to the conclusion that our only hope was to head back to Cody.  We decided to call our friends at Hotels.com to see available options in Cody before we backtracked 30 minutes.  Each time that Dad tried to call with our failed reservation number, the call was mysteriously dropped after we explained the situation.  Thanks Hotels.com.  Every day is an adventure.

We found a place in Cody on our own, and everything was great.  Thanks AmericInn.  This hotel had the added bonus of having a lobby full of mounted animals, which the kids loved.  Did we mention we were in Wyoming?

The next morning, we did our usual check-out (15 minutes after check-out time), and hit the road again for a long drive across Wyoming to Devil’s Tower.

Devil’s Tower is famous because it is the unique rock formation that was used in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.  We had reservations to stay at the KOA next to Devil’s Tower in their “Park Model” Cabin.  It is the Penthouse of the KOA lodging options:  a cabin with two rooms, A/C, and its own bathroom.  When planning the Year Long Adventure, we had grand hopes of utilizing KOA for about 30% of the stays on the first leg of this adventure to help with costs.  We had already canceled all but two of our KOA reservations, but had kept this one due to the fact that it was the top of the line (and it was too late to cancel).  How bad could it be? Every day is an adventure.

We checked into the KOA and drove across the property to the lone Park Model.  At first glance it was not too bad, but we did come up with a helpful (although obvious) hint for anyone providing lodging for travelers.  On 100 degree days, it might not be a bad idea to go out in the afternoon and turn on the air conditioner in the units reserved for that evening.  We turned on the A/C in the sweltering cabin (even while noting that due to a bad floor plan, cool air would never reach the master bedroom) and headed into the small town outside Devil’s Tower for dinner.  Mom and Dad decided while this lodging might not be our ideal choice, it was ours for the evening and it would be okay.  Every day is an Adventure.

We returned to the KOA, started three loads of laundry, and began the nightly chore of trying to get all three kids ready for bed.  The kids were finally in bed with the lights out when Dad left to move the laundry to the dryer.  Upon his return, he did not find the happy home that he had left.  Mom had fear in her eyes as she informed him that we had a “small” problem.  An inspection of the mattress in the master bedroom led to the discovery of BUGS in the bed.  Not sure what kind of bugs they were, but they were the kind that meant a drive to a hotel was in order.  Dad drove up to the office to inform them of the situation, got a refund, and headed back to the Park Model for the arduous trip of repacking everything in the van – in the dark – with three tired kids – and a Mom freaked out by bugs in her bed.  Every day is an adventure.

The one saving grace  was the goat Dad found sitting on the porch of the Park Model when he returned from the office.  Yes, a goat.  While Mom and Dad loaded the van, the kids had a ball playing outside with the goat.

We decided not to freak the kids out with the bugs, so we told them we were leaving because it was too hot to sleep in the cabin.  All they cared about was the goat.  We got the van loaded, said goodbye to the goat, retrieved our still slightly damp laundry, and headed to our next destination after 10:00 at night. The goat will probably be one of the lasting memories of the trip for the kids.  There was even a discussion in the car about having a pet goat at home.  Two nights in a row of driving to a different city where we have no hotel because our previous lodging did not work out as planned.  Every day is an adventure.

We pulled into Rapid City, South Dakota, where we had planned to be the following two nights.  We found the Best Western where our reservations were, and let them know that because we were so excited, we were a day early.  They had one room left due to a no-show, so thankfully, they let us have that room.  Everything worked out in the end, and we were all finally in bed by 12:30 A.M.  We are in the same hotel for the next three nights, and this hotel has two BIG waterslides.  Did we mention that every day is an adventure?

P.S.  Thanks Hotels.com for the $150 voucher and for FINALLY doing the right thing.

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We have just completed Day 17 of the first leg of our Year Long Adventure and have driven over 4200 miles. We have driven past countless corn fields in the Plains and forests upon forests of trees in the Pacific Northwest.  We have traveled through the Rocky Mountains, the Cascade Mountains, and even waded in the Pacific Ocean.  We have taken the traditional family driving vacation and put it on steroids.  A family can learn a lot about themselves while they are out learning about their country.

We have done many things to keep the kids entertained during the long daily stretches on the road.  Mom spent many hours before the trip creating trip activity books to keep the kids entertained and to also educate them about the places we were going to visit.  Spanish lessons have been downloaded from iTunes that we have listened to as a family.  We were even able to wait until Day 9 before we broke out the portable DVD player.

As the days pass, we find we are comparing what we remember from road trips in our childhood to the things that we are doing on this trip.  Today on Day 17, we broke out the Road Trip Soundtrack of our youth.

Mom's family vacation circa 1986

Mom downloaded songs on her iPhone that her parents had played on their family trips.  The song of the day was “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. (Listen to a live version here.)

After the third time it was played, our eight year-old started to complain that we had been listening to too much parent music and it was time to do something for the kids.  She was quickly informed that “when we were kids” we did not have any say in the matter.  We taught the kids the chorus, and in no time we were a singing family of five as we drove through Montana.  Our eleven year-old is still not a huge fan, so we just sing louder.

Singing his heart out.

We have seen a lot of things and a lot of places in the first 17 days of this trip.  We have learned about pioneers, Lewis & Clark, the Oregon Trail, dinosaurs, lighthouses, volcanoes, and many other things.  We have also learned about the family road trip and ourselves.  We hope that we are building memories and traditions that are children will carry on with their future families.  Maybe one day, our grandchildren will be sitting in the back of a car singing along with Kenny & Dolly (with a little INXS and Erasure thrown in for good measure).

Andrew’s first request the next morning was to listen to “Islands in the Stream”.  Success!

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