Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Vacation 101

Ask a kid what he likes best about school and he’ll either say “lunch” or “vacation!” As homeschoolers, we’ve found the flexibility to do more traveling than the typical school setting might allow.

Because we don’t follow the normal 180-day schedule, we can find off-season days to head to the beach or the mountains. This helps the budget quite a bit! (I have to admit here that my amazing world-traveling mother-in-law has also helped us frequently get to where we want to go!)

Over the years, we panned for gold in the Yukon, we measured the great sequoia in California, we walked on that Great Wall in China, we played quoits in Williamsburg, we dipped our fingers in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans, we traveled in trains, planes, automobiles and houseboats. We are now preparing for one of the most complicated itineraries we’ve ever faced: a Mediterranean tour including stops in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Israel.

Planning for vacations can be overwhelming. I can remember being overwhelmed by our first vacation with our first baby. We just wanted to spend a weekend at the beach. Is that so hard? It can be when you need a car seat, baby crib, playpen, beach umbrella, beach toys, baby food, and, oh yes, diapers!

My husband and I started a pattern then that we have followed ever since:

1. We make an itinerary. I type up a “formal document” that lists the days we will be traveling in the left column, then a column with the information about where we will be staying (hotels, tents, or houses) and what we will do while there. In the third column, I track the estimated amount of time for the drive or the visit to the museum or other point of interest. In the final column, I track the prices for lodging, attractions, restaurants, etc. (The 4-column approach doesn't work on this blog-site, so I just put the hours and cost next to each event.) Here is what one day of our last vacation looked like:

Day     Time     Destination/Hrs/Cost
9/15     9:30a      Breakfast at Hotel (FREE)
                           Drive from Atlanta to Chattanooga, TN (1½ hr)
            12:00n     Eat picnic lunch at Lookout Mountain?
                            Visit Ruby Falls & Lookout Mountain (open 8a-8p daily)
                                    1720 S. Scenic Highway, Chattanooga, TN
                               Take Guided Tour of Ruby Falls (1½ hr) ($18/pp)
                                     Wear sneakers & jacket (60-65 degrees)
                               Stay at La Quinta Chattanooga/Hamilton Place ($69)
                                      7017 Shallowford Rd, Chattanooga, TN
                                     Conf#________ (LQ Returns #______)
             6:00p         Eat dinner at Fazoli’s (same road/across street) ($8/pp)
                                      2332 Shallowford Village Drive, Chattanooga, TN

My husband likes running up the expenses in column 4 and making sure he knows how much money to prepare to spend.  The timelines are guesses and remain generally flexible.  We keep the itinerary in a folder for that specific vacation along with any mapquest directions, hotel confirmation forms and other paperwork we need while traveling.

When looking for lodging, we have a few things we generally look for:

a) price (of course)...I feel gypped if I spend over $100/night, and I go for lower when I can. However, you have to balance safety, comfort, and cleanliness with price. Don’t sacrifice a good night’s sleep for an extra $10.

b) location...I try to find a place near an interesting activity or sight (of course).

Everybody does that. But, what we really love is finding places that have:

c) indoor pools...if there is any boring moment, we can always swim; plus great to stretch out after a long drive!

d) in-room mini-fridges...so helpful so we can bring supplies to make lunches to take with us whenever possible.

e) free breakfast...this is a huge time/money/space saver. We don’t have to carry as much food. We can just go downstairs and not have to make breakfast or look for a restaurant. Eating out at restaurants can get really expensive!

2. We make a packing list. I keep all of my packing lists on the computer so the next time we go on vacation, I can browse through and see what we packed before for a similar vacation. For instance, we have a favorite hotel we like to stay at when we go to the beach (Sun Viking) and every time we go there, I just modify that list for our current needs (no more diapers!) and save it with the current year in the file name.

Our list of things to pack includes clothing, accessories, hygiene, medicines, games/toys, and food items as needed. I check things off as they go into the suitcase or car (or whatever). Of course, other special items like cameras, pillows, identification, money, and other things are listed as needed as well. Some vacations require more “stuff” than others. Last week, we were houseboating in Kentucky, and took along a lot of camping-type supplies (flashlights, fishing poles/bait, star and bird watching charts) that we would never consider taking on an airplane ride to New York City. Every packing list is tailored to the specific trip’s needs.

3. We make a countdown. For bigger or more exciting trips, I often print up little squares with numbers. Usually the pictures that go along with the numbers related to the trip – a cruise ship or an airplane or in the case of our upcoming Mediterranean tour, we have the Pantheon, the Parthenon, and the Colosseum included. Each day, the kids take turns pulling off one number and we get closer and closer to leaving. When I forget (or get too lazy) for this step, my (now high school aged) children remind me over and over again – so it really does help build excitement!

4. We make it educational. Now, don’t get carried away thinking that we make some huge effort or bore our kids to death on vacation. We really don’t. But, we try to find one or two things that make the brain function while we take a break from “regular school.” There are lots of ways to do this. In that first beach vacation with a preschooler, we just made an attempt to notice things. For instance, let’s talk about that salty water you just swallowed. See that horizon line? Oooh! Look at that crab! In later years, we could refer back to those things during science class – remember when...

On other trips (at the initial suggestion by my MIL), we’ve collected water or sand samples. We have a whole array of little plastic bottles of water on the shelf from the Red, Dead and Mediterranean Seas, the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans. We didn’t do anything “educational” on the vacation but collect the water (the more exotic “flavors” were given to us by my traveling MIL) but later, at home, we compared salinity or color.

In the Sequoia forest (at the suggestion of my BIL/SIL who live near there), we took a ball of yarn. We found the fattest tree we could and tried to hug it all around. Failing that, we used the yarn and now have a cool souvenir that reminds us exactly how big – and it is really, really big – that tree really was.

Some trips were perfect for history or cultural instruction. On the drive from California to Washington, we took along little history books for each state we were driving through. My kids love to read, so it was no big deal to ask them to read those along the way and get a feel for the places and things we would see. On the trip to China, we studied up before-hand on geography, history and culture. We learned some common phrases (hello, thanks, where’s the bathroom) and customs.

Everywhere we can, we make sure to visit museums, science centers, planetariums, living history centers, and zoos in various places. We’ve taken tours of government buildings, factories, historical houses, and farms. There is such a vast variety of things you can do that don’t look like “school” along the way. I tend to google “fun things to do in...” wherever we are going and I usually get more lists than I know what to do with. We don’t do everything, we can’t afford everything, and we don’t have time for everything. We pick one or two things that fit our time, our interest (or the interest we are trying to build) and our budget. We had no idea we were interested in wallabies until we met the cutest pair last week at the Creation Museum in Kentucky! We’ll be following up that trip with a trip to the library to research about how we can get our own pair! (Not likely, but fun to think about.)

One of my son’s favorite trips was Patriot’s Point in South Carolina. He would not have been interested in touring a plantation at that time. He was (and is) all about the air craft carrier and submarine tours that we took there. One of my daughter’s favorite places was our Williamsburg/Yorktown/Jamestown adventure. She loved just running around on the redoubts at Yorktown, watching the glassblower and silversmith at Williamsburg, and trying to hoe the garden at the living history museum in Jamestown. We weren’t being overtly educational, but I think we all learned a lot from those trips.

In the long run, our main goals are always to be together and be relaxed and have fun. Having the itinerary and the packing list help us keep organized and sane. And we also take on age-appropriate challenges of learning things like: saying common phrases in Chinese or another local language, counting foreign currency, trying out some hypotheses, reading about and absorbing the places we visited. For our next trip, we are looking forward not only to seeing the amazing architecture and bringing biblical history to life, but also trying all the flavors of gelato that we can fit in!*

*update: Mediterranean vacation complete and both Italian and Greek gelato flavors have been evaluated. However, more tests may be needed in the future to validate our results.  ;o)

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