Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Candyman...errr...woman!

We normally do not consume much candy in our house. I've been known to have to throw out halloween candy from the previous year just before it's time to go trick-or-treating again.

It's not that my kids don't like candy or that they have this superhuman will power, it's just that we eat during specified meal times and usually they ask for a cookie or something like that after dinner. So that means that candy is pretty special. And I totally use that to my advantage when we travel!

On the epic walk from the Natural History Musuem in Washington, D.C. to the Lincoln Memorial, I had to start bribing them about halfway there with Jolly Ranchers. And when we were faced with 5 looooooonnnnnng (according to the kiddos) hours in the car going from my grandmother's house in Georgia back to our vacation house in South Carolina, Will came through with this crazy gum he found in the gas station that dyes your tongue blue.

I had the forethought on our last big trip to pack some of the easter candy in my camera bag so when the whining started while we were waiting for fireworks on July 4th, I pulled out Blo Pops and suddenly I was everyone's best friend!

The trick is keeping Will out of it until the right moment when the candy is most needed. ;)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Everything's Fancy to A Kid

We are larger than the average 2.5 kid family. So it's difficult sometimes to travel because that involves getting multiple hotel rooms which makes my cheap frugal husband nervous and he starts shoving sugar packets and soap samples in our luggage in an attempt to offset the expense.

I was overjoyed when I found the Six Suitcase Travel site which is designed to help families my size (or larger...) find a hotel that won't lock their doors when we pull up. I used this site to help find a hotel that would work for our trip to Philadelphia and I soon settled on The Springhill Suites by Marriott. I called their very friendly 800 number and found out that not only would it accommodate all of us but they were running a special so I was able to score ONE hotel room for all six of us for $87/night over the 4th of July weekend. Amazing! Not only did they have a great rate, but they also promised a free, hot, buffet breakfast every morning.

To be perfectly honest, I was a little nervous. It seemed too good to be true. Would we pull up and find something more in line with the Bates Motel? I was also concerned because in our efforts to find affordable lodging, we were looking outside of Philadelphia so our commute time was questionable. I was pleasantly relieved however when Jack guided us to a beautiful 8 story hotel perched on the top of hill, which made it even more impressive to the kiddos in the back. I heard one of them say, "wow, this must be an expensive hotel!". Oh little did they know!

Check-in was a breeze and soon we were checking out our hotel suite. It had a small work/kitchen area with a fridge, microwave and small sink. There was a desk that Will promptly took over as his own and set about figuring out how to get the high speed internet that had been promised. It took some convincing but Marie finally agreed to share the sleeper sofa with Nicole and not sleep on the chair and ottoman. There were two double beds so much to Tony's disliking, he did have to share a bed with his little brother. He wanted to sleep on the floor. After explaining germs, hotel rooms and general hygiene, he agreed that he probably wouldn't catch as many cooties sleeping next to Drew as he would on the hotel room floor! Once all the sleep negotiations were settled, we promptly took over the indoor pool area and let the kids get all their wiggles out from being stuck in the van for 5 hours.

I was still thinking that this hotel was too good to be true and that we would be in for a rude awakening the next morning with the "hot buffet breakfast". But we trooped down there nice and early and the kids thought they were in heaven! Fruit loops, pastries, peanut butter w/sugar in it, all sorts of things that I wouldn't be caught dead letting them eat normally. But since we were on vacation, I let them have at it. There were eggs and sausage that some of my creative children used to make egg and sausage bagel sandwiches. In the mini-fridge, there were peeled hard boiled eggs, milk, yogurt and cottage cheese. Fresh hot coffee to wake me up and oatmeal so Will could eat a healthy breakfast. It was perfect for our family. The staff was very accommodating and one morning, when we walked in to the dining area and MTV was blasting, I asked a gentleman at the front desk if he could change the channel and he quickly came and found something more kid-friendly.

The location was so convenient and while we did have to travel about 20 minutes to and from downtown Philadelphia, the kids didn't seem to mind and it gave us some time in the car to discuss what our plans were for the day or to sit quietly and listen to music. We stayed in the Plymouth Meeting location which had a Giant grocery store as well as other shopping close by.

While the kids enjoyed all the sites in Philadelphia, I think it's a toss up as to what was actually the highlight of the trip. Beautiful fireworks over the Philadelphia Art Museum or mini cinnamon rolls on the breakfast buffet every morning?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Who's pickier? A teenager or a preschooler?

Having a 6 year spread between our oldest and youngest children sometimes makes it difficult to find an activity that makes everyone happy and keeps them involved. Luckily, we have an awesome location within perfect driving distance for a day trip that solves that problem.

In Richmond, Virginia, the Science Museum of Virginia and the Children's Museum of Richmond are right next door to each other. They share a large, convenient parking lot and the location is centrally placed to be able to enjoy other fun activities in Virginia's capitol city.

  • Well-stocked Art Studio for the crafty crowd
  • Indoor tree climbing structure that lets little ones stretch their legs
  • Dinozone with lots of dinos to climb on
  • Playhouse theater so your little Shakespeare can express themselves
  • The Backyard area for fun water play and other neat outdoor exploring
  • Always lots of events planned so check the calendar on their site


  • Bioscape lets the curious crowd become more familiar with how the body works (make sure you solve the crime mystery and turn in your card at the welcome desk for a special prize!)
  • Light visions that help teach illusions and other forms of trickery
  • Real trains in the back (since this building used to be a train station)
  • Rat basketball (only on Saturdays so try to go's one of the craziest things you will ever see! Trust me!)
  • Wonderful traveling exhibits

The biggest plus of visiting these two museums is that because they are side by side, you can split up and send one grownup with the olders to the Science Museum and have the other grownup take the youngers to the Children's Museum. But if you happen to be traveling solo there are still things for multi-age groups to enjoy at either location. There are great spots outside to have a picnic lunch if the weather allows. Parking is convenient and free. Also if you are members of your local children's museum or science museum, check to see if you can take part in the reciprocal benefits from the ASTC. Oh and how could I forget? The Science Museum has a cafe so you can refuel with Starbucks for the drive back to your hotel or home!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sanity Saver

How do you keep four children of various ages quiet and occupied?

You bring toys along. Not just any toys. Playmobil.

I have yet to meet a child that doesn't immediately sit down and become engaged when a box of Playmobil is set down in front of them. I know some parents and grownups cringe when they see all the tiny bits and pieces that come along with any given Playmobil set but they are relatively easy to keep up with and we have only lost a few pieces over the years and that was mostly when I made the mistake of letting Nicole and Marie bring this

in the minivan one time for a short trip. See all those little cups, plates and silverware? Yeah, some of those knives have been sucked in to the black hole of the seatbelt stalks. Gone forever. But for the most part, we've got everything that came in the box.
Short trip to Grandma's house? Take Playmobil.
Week vacation at the beach? Take Playmobil.
Sibling lacrosse game? Take a little Playmobil. ;)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Toll Charge Ahead

When heading out on a trip, it's usually a good idea to have some cash in your wallet.

I know what you're thinking. Annie, we come to read your blog because you promise tips to help us travel with kids better and this is what you give us? That may seem like an axiomatic statement but I frequently leave home with ZERO cash in my wallet. Case in point, our recent Philadelphia jaunt.

I had thought earlier in the week that it would be a good idea to go ahead and withdraw some cash for our trip since we use a local credit union and chances were good that we would need cash at some point during the weekend even though most places take credit/debit cards now. (And paying ATM fees makes Will's head spin around faster than Linda Blair's.) The thought flitted out of my brain and as we launched on our trip that early Thursday morning I comforted myself by remembering that my dear husband Will almost always has a few dollars in his pocket. So with no worries, we zipped out of town.

Hours later, when we zoomed past the "Toll-2 miles" sign on I95, I suddenly turned to Will and said "You have cash, right? Right?". To my dismay, his answer was NO! We quickly polled the kids riding in the back seat and between the four of them, we were able to come up with enough change to pay the $2 toll. I'm still wondering what would have happened if we got up to the toll booth and didn't have the cash.
Would they send a bill?
Let me write a check?
Make us stay in Maryland forever?
Who knows?

But we did find the nearest exit and located an ATM because there were even more tolls ahead before we reached Philadelphia. I should have listened when Jack warned in his proper English accent "Toll Charge Ahead" but I was too busy updating my Facebook status to make sure that everyone knew we were leaving on vacation...not because I wanted to rub it in or anything...because really, who besides me thinks that being in a minivan with four kids is anything close to a vacation?

Friday, July 10, 2009

MapEasy Guidemaps

One of the things that I felt was necessary for our recent Philadelphia trip was a map of the city. I had never been to Philadelphia and I thought that it was important for me to be comfortable with the layout of the city before we arrived since Will and I would be herding four kids around during probably the busiest weekend of the year. I had poured over google maps, done the street-view and mapped out our travel paths. But I still felt like I needed something to hold in my hands while we were actually there. So I found this MapEasy Guidemap of Philadelphia. It had all the qualities I needed in a map: cheap, laminated, easy to fold and it had highlights of the city already marked for me! There are MapEasy Guidemaps for other cities so if we do venture on our NYC trip next summer, I know what I will be packing for sure!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

With Love Philadelphia XOXO Part One

We just returned from a long weekend trip to Philadelphia and we had such a blast, it will take me multiple posts to adequately cover the awesomeness that was our trip! This post will be devoted to my planning and itinerary creation.

A few months back, I started looking at our summer calendar to decide what trips, if any, we would be taking. There were a few criteria that needed to be met in order for a destination to make it on our short list:

-Within 4-5 hours drive from our house
-Science museum or children’s museum close by that participates in the ASTC Reciprocal program
-Plenty of free activities for us to choose from
-Hotel that would have a suite to accommodate our whole family for a reasonable price

From there, I consulted the ASTC Reciprocal Program list to see where there were science museums and children’s museums that we have not been to before. I came up with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as possible choices that met all the criteria. Then I looked at the calendar to see when we would be traveling. Since the 4th of July fell on a Saturday, it seemed logical to take a long weekend during that timeframe. Once that decision was made, the most logical choice was Philadelphia because what better way to celebrate our Nation’s birthday than to go to where it started?

Here’s where the real work began. I knew that one of our activities would be to go to the Franklin Institute. That was a must because we are cheap frugal and like to take full advantage of the ASTC Reciprocal Program.( For those of you not in the know, this is a program that lets you use your membership from your local children’s museum or science museum at other participating museums across the country. Check with your local museum to learn more about the program. ) I did a quick google search for “Philadelphia kids activity” and came up with the Philadelphia tourism site. Lucky me, they had already done the hard work and created an itinerary for a weekend in Philly with kids! I used that as the starting off point to create the following:

07.00: Leave home and head to Philadelphia
13.00: Arrive in Philadelphia and park around Arch St.
13.30: Go to US Mint
15.30: Leave US Mint and head for hotel
16.30: Arrive at hotel and check in
17.30: Dinner in hotel room and swimming afterward

07.00: Breakfast at hotel
08.00: Head to Old Town
09.00: Park around Chestnut and 8th St. and head for the Independence Visitor Center to pick up tickets for Independence Hall (Use bathroom here…no bathrooms in Independence Hall or Liberty Bell Center)
09.30-12.00: Tour Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Center and walk to Franklin Square for Storytelling Benches if time allows (public bathrooms on corner of 5th and Chestnut St.)
12.00-13.00: Packed lunch in Washington Square or Franklin Square depending on location
13.00: Walk to Tun Tavern site (Front St. between Chestnut and Walnut)
14.30: Walk to Franklin Fountain for ice cream (116 Market St.)
15.30: Pick up van and return to hotel
16.30: Arrive at hotel and relax in room
17.30: Dinner in hotel room and swimming afterward

07.00: Breakfast at hotel
08.00: Head to Franklin Institute
09.00: Park around Franklin Institute
09.30-11.30: Franklin Institute
11.30-12.30: Walk to Philadelphia Art Musuem and back down to Logan Circle
12.30-13.30: Packed lunch at Logan Circle
13.30-16.00: Academy of Natural Science
16.00: Walk to Sts. Peter and Paul
17.15: Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul
18.30: Dinner at Jake’s Pizza
20.30: Walk back to Ben Franklin Parkway for concert and fireworks

09.00: Breakfast in hotel
10.30: Leave Plymouth Meeting and head to home

Now I know what some of you must be thinking. There’s no way that what’s listed above was our actual itinerary. Yes, I did make it that detailed. With four kids and scarcely a moment to hear myself think, I needed to have this to make sure we got to do what we wanted to and not forget anything. I also wanted to make sure that we maximized the time that we had and did not waste any time backtracking. There were some on the go modifications once we were actually on the trip but for the most part we stuck with it. The Philadelphia website came in handy for researching the individual activities and learning helpful hints like there are no bathrooms in Independence Hall so you should use the ones at the Independence Visitor Center before you head over to the security tent for Independence Hall. Will and I both used the Best Parking website to figure out the cheapest closest parking garage to store our minivan for the day.

Having this backbone in place for our trip freed up my brain to actually enjoy the trip with my family instead of constantly trying to figure out what our next activity would be. It worked out so well that I will use this method again for our trip to Baltimore next month.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How much underwear is too much?

One of the challenges for me of traveling with children, especially four children, is packing. I tend to over pack. I always have. When I moved to Norway for six months in college, I took so much stuff with me that when I was packing up to head back to the States, I found things that I had never worn. It seems that whenever I think about going on a trip, my brain goes in to overdrive and I over-think. The conversations in my brain sound a little like this: “I know that says it will be in the 80’s the whole weekend but what if a freak snow storm comes through and we don’t have any mittens? Then I will have to go find a Target and buy more mittens even though we have perfectly good mittens sitting in the closet at home! Maybe I should pack two pairs of mittens per person in case someone loses theirs.”

Rational? No. Prepared? Always.

So for a recent long weekend away with the kids, I decided to try something different. I gave them all the following instructions:

-Pick out one outfit to wear when we leave and keep it in your room

-Pick out three outfits, one pair of PJs, socks and underwear and bring them into Dad and Annie’s room and put them on their bed

Sounds simple right? The idea was that they would do all the heavy lifting thereby eliminating the whining when we reached our destination that someone did not like what I picked out for them to wear. It would also keep me from heading into a tailspin and grabbing everything in their closets. They would bring the clothes to me and then I would very efficiently pack them in the suitcase. It mostly worked out except there still needed to be grownup eyes on the clothes chosen. Otherwise, we would have been in a pickle when we reached Philadelphia because Drew considered one t-shirt, one pair of shorts, two pair of underwear and THREE pairs of PJs sufficient. Likewise, Tony thought that one polo, one pair of shorts, two pair of boxers and ZERO pairs of PJs would work for the weekend. The girls had a different problem. They suddenly lost their ability to match clothing so I had to have some follow-up conversations and help make a couple of different choices. I also had to double-check their underwear choices because it seems that they had the same problem as the boys and thought less underwear not more was the way to go for a trip.

Once I had safely determined that there would be no major clothing crises once we reached our destination, I ROLLED each piece individually and I was able to pack everything we needed, including mine and Will’s clothes, in ONE suitcase! How awesome is that? Now, I did still have some moments of panic, especially on July 4th when I realized that it might be chilly outside while we were waiting for the fireworks and I had not packed a sweater for ANYONE! Luckily for me, we were jam packed into a crowd and no one complained of being too cold.

So my takeaway lesson from this packing experiment is that between the kids’ penchant for not packing enough and my desire to take our entire house with us on trips, we actually blend together to make a great team!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My Red Basket

I’m rarely seen heading out to my minivan without my red basket on my arm. I use it for everything, not just trips. It came in very handy this past spring when we spent every weekend going from one lacrosse game to another. I kept games, snacks and sunscreen in it along with my travel blanket.

When we go on trips, it fits snugly between the two front seats of my minivan and it holds a variety of snacks as well as our lunch. It folds up compactly to store away (helpful since we have 6 people living in 1100 sq ft!) and it has a zippered internal pocket where I store plastic utensils and napkins.

I purchased a generic version from TJ Maxx but you can find the real deal at Garnet Hill. I’ve got my eye on the tangerine floral pattern (hint, hint Will!) because if one collapsible basket is great, two must be fabulous!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Jack, Our British Travel Guide

Last year on Black Friday, when it seemed that every store that sold anything that remotely resembled consumer electronics had the TomTom One GPS on sale for $99, Will and I found ourselves getting sucked in and purchasing one along with the throngs of shoppers.

I had resisted this purchase mostly because I’m a geeky map-reader that always looked forward to the part of the standardized elementary school tests that had you look at a sample map, follow the directions and figure out which street Tommy ended up on. I didn’t want to give up my Rand McNally! But after we borrowed one for a family vacation in the spring, I could no longer deny that it was helpful if for no other reason than to keep Will and I out of divorce court from arguing after a trip.

Somehow during the set-up process, Will tripped upon the “voice” options and our TomTom ended up sounding like a British man. The kids named him Jack and they laugh hysterically every time they hear him say “Turn right and proceed on the motorway” in his very proper sounding voice. Sometimes when Jack is slightly confused, which does happen because after all it is a machine, one of the kids will say “Where is Jack taking us?” as if there is a tiny human inside the screen busily poring over maps to figure out where exactly we are. I tried to change the voice once but somehow it didn’t feel quite right. Jack is our traveling companion for good now it seems.