Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring Break Tips

I am in the midst of preparing for my annual trip to Florida with my grandchildren.  Sherman didn’t strategize his march on Atlanta as much as I do our drive to Florida. 
We’ve been making this southern voyage for over 40 years.  The first few years, I rode along as a kid in the back seat of my parents' station wagon.  Later, I moved to the front seat as the parent of two little ones.  My role now is that of grandmother, tour leader and chief financier for my two grandkids’ spring break adventures.  I’ve learned a lot of handy tips over those 40 years and I’m sharing my secrets for sanity here with you now.  This is a long post, so I’ve broken it down into four steps for easy referencing. 
Step One:  Planning the Activities
If you plan on going to any of the major theme parks, don’t just show up at the park unprepared.  Spending as little as 30 minutes on the park website before you leave home will help you maximize your time and money on the day that you arrive.
Here’s what I’m doing on-line to prepare for our day at Universal’s Islands of Adventure: 
  • I created an account on the site so that I will receive discount offers and updates as to what is going on at Universal during our trip.
  • I ordered our tickets so that we don’t have to stand in that line when we get there.  Standing in the ticket line can take an hour or more at some parks.  I’d rather spend that hour having fun.  The delivery options include printing them out, having them mailed or picking them up at will-call. 
  • I reviewed the various attractions and chose the highlights we should hit.  The youngest member of our little troupe is too young for big scary rides, so I’m noting which attractions are best for families with young children. 
  • I’ve read about the best places to eat and what kind of special deals are available.  For example, if you eat at Universal’s Harry Potter themed restaurant and order Butterbeer, you get a souvenir cup that can be refilled with other drinks all day long at a discounted price. 
  • Finally, I’ve noted the park hours so we know what time to get there.  Always arrive at the park when it opens.  You’ll get so much more out of your day if you can get there early.  The ride lines are much shorter early in the day.
Step Two:  Prepping the Car
Get your vehicle serviced.  Have the oil, tires, washer fluid, hoses, etc. all checked and changed, if necessary.  Do a little spring cleaning on the interior, cleaning the windows and vacuuming.  Make sure that you have an emergency kit to handle emergencies like flat tires and include a first aid kit for minor injuries. 
Line the back seat with a blanket, sheet or a beach towel to catch all of those French fries, cookie crumbs, etc., that the kids will inevitably scatter about.  When you reach your destination, pull out the blanket/sheet/towel and shake the crud and crumbs out.  We throw ours in the washing machine as soon as we arrive and then use it as a beach blanket later in the week.
Pack a few drinks, snacks, fruit and sandwiches to save time and money on the road.  Take enough cold drinks for everyone to have at least two.  We also pack fresh and dried fruit, Girl Scout cookies, sandwiches, pretzels and raisins.  
Remind everyone to travel light, taking along only what they really need.  When you’re traveling with kids, count on bringing home more stuff than you started with.  Last year, my grandkids both won an assortment of large stuffed animals at Busch Gardens and squeezing it all into the car was quite the feat.
Here are a few handy things to take along for the ride: 
  • Plastic shopping bags for containing trash in the car or transporting wet bathing suits.
  • Lots of quarters for those Florida toll booths.  To avoid last minute fumbling, I keep our change in a lidded coffee cup that sits in one of the car’s drink holders. 
  • A second set of car keys, just in case you lose one set or inadvertently lock them in the car.
  • A roll of paper towels.  Kids, drinks, ‘nuff said. 

Step Three:  In Transit
If you have babies or toddlers, make the drive an overnight one and they will probably sleep most of the way.  This works best if you have two or more drivers and can switch off so no one gets too snoozy behind the wheel.  Just feed the kids some dinner, plug a movie into the DVD player and let them doze off. 
For those all essential bathroom breaks, avoid gas station restrooms.  I’ve bypassed them since a midnight stop at an Atlanta gas station restroom once proved to be just a little bit too scary thanks to some hoodlums hanging about.  Rest stops usually have a security guard on-site and are generally cleaner than gas stations.  The facilities are also larger and more comfortable.
Be sure to pack some fun little diversions for the kids.  We generally take family-oriented audio books and the “swag bags” I wrote about in a previous post. 
Step Four:  At Your Destination
When enjoying family vacations, remember to pace yourselves.  Two full days in a row of amusement parks can be exhausting.   Rotate high impact days, like Disney or Universal, with low impact days like sunning on the beach or relaxing by the pool.
Expect melt-downs from kids and adults alike about half-way through your trip.  Everyone will be tired from being on the run and having too much fun.  Being ready for the melt-downs allows you to handle the inevitable and make sure that mole hills don’t turn into mountains.  Sometimes a laid back day spent going to a movie and out to a quiet dinner can provide a restful break.  Only you can determine how best to allow your family to rest. 
Above all, remember to relax and enjoy this special time with your family.
This will be my last post until about April 4.  Come back to this site then and we’ll talk about Rome, Italy.  Ciao!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Packing Tips: Part 5, Packing it all in

Now that you know what you’re going to take, let’s talk about the actual packing.  There are several methods you can use, from just cramming it all in willy-nilly to neatly folding clothes in layers of tissue paper.  It’s all a matter of what works best for you. 

I find tissue paper to be a waste of time, money and space.  While many seasoned travelers swear by the rolling method, I find my things wrinkle more when I roll them, not less.   Rolling your clothes does allow you to fit a lot of things into your bag, though.  Personally, I prefer the bundling method.  It makes efficient use of space and I find that my clothes come out mostly wrinkle free and ready to wear. 
Before you begin, make sure that everything you are packing is in good shape.  Check to see that nothing is stained or torn and that all of the buttons are firmly attached. 

Next, lay everything out on your bed or hang it on a laundry rack so that you can see it all in one quick glance.
To start the bundling process, layer the pieces, starting with the largest and working up to the smallest. 
I usually add my pajamas as another layer between the tops and the jeans because they are the thinnest, lightest items in the stack.
Some people fold pants in with the shirts but I have more success folding my jeans individually and then using them as a core to wrap the tops around.

Finally, wrap the shirt sleeves, collars, hems and pant legs to the center, turning it all into one neat bundle.

Before you pack your bundle, run your belts  around the perimeter of the bag.  Also, slide your shoes into a recycled plastic shopping or newspaper bag and put them in the bottom of the bag.  I didn't bag them in this picture because I wanted to show you where I put them in the bag.  Always put your shoes and other heavy items at the bottom of your bag so that it will roll smoothly.  Don't forget to stuff your socks  inside the shoes. 
Next, place your bundle into your bag and fill in any empty spaces with underwear and/or other accessories. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, if you are traveling by air, take along a large tote or purse to hold things such as your electronics, snacks and the Ziploc that contains your TSA restricted liquids. 
Wear your heaviest, bulkiest shoes on the plane.  Wear your coat on the plane rather than have it take up room in your bags.  Your coat pockets can also serve as an ancillary bag.  My travel coat has extra deep pockets and I use it to stash my gloves, tissues and other assorted little things.  When you board, spread your coat out in your seat rather than shove it in the overhead bin.  You’ll have it handy to use as a blanket or a pillow, plus save room in the overheads.

Make sure that all of your bags, even the carry-ons, are marked inside and out with your phone number and email address but not your home address.  You don’t want to let potential luggage thieves know where your unattended home sits.  See that giant bright pink tag on my carry-on?  That big tag not only identifies my luggage but also makes it easy to spot.  

I am all organized and ready to roll.  You will be, too, if you follow this process.
Check this site in a few days for timely tips on doing a spring break Florida trip with the family.