When I asked on the Travels with Children Facebook page if there were any requests for topics from our California trip, Northern Plain Living responded with “car rental/driving tips.” It’s a great idea for a post, especially if one lives in a place far from California and has heard nightmare stories about Los Angeles traffic.
While I’m far from an expert in this matter, I do have recent experience with it, and I hope what we’ve learned will be of some value to others visiting sunny California. First, some tips for renting a car.
Tips for Renting a Car in Southern California
- Reserve early. As soon as you know your travel dates, reserve a car. If the price goes down, you can rebook at the lower rate, but if it goes up, you get the rate you reserved at. If your trip falls through, you can cancel it. I booked the car rental for our February trip back in July and then kept checking it periodically to see if the price had dropped. Though it stayed steady for several months, in the weeks before our trip the rate doubled. I was glad to have done my homework ahead of time.
- Shop around. Unless you have a fierce loyalty to a particular rental company, check rates at all of them. When I was looking, rates for a minivan for our family ranged from less than $600 to over $3000 for the same dates and locations. It takes time to check all the companies, but if saving money is your goal, it’s worth it.
- Use a discount code and/or coupon. If you’re a member of anything, check to see if there’s a car rental discount code you can use. I plugged in every code I was eligible for — AAA, Costco, Farm Bureau, Entertainment Book, Delta Airlines — and used the code that gave me the best price. You can find codes in your membership materials or by doing a web search. I also got some good ideas at Mousesavers. Some car rental companies will allow you to use both a discount code and a coupon. Be aware, however, that many coupons are good for up to a full-size car, and won’t be eligible for use on a minivan or SUV that your family may require.
- LAX is not your only option. Again, it can be time-consuming, and you’ll have to figure it along with the price of airline tickets, but it may be cheaper to rent from an airport other than LAX. We rented our car at Orange County (SNA), which is conveniently close to Disneyland, and returned it at San Diego (SAN), for less than what a rent/return from LAX would have been.
- Consider convenience. If you rent at LAX, you’ll have to load your luggage onto a rental shuttle, unload it to check in at the rental counter, and then load it into your car. Renting from SNA, a porter put our luggage on his cart, walked us down to the parking garage where I checked in for our rental, and then helped us load it once the car was brought to the counter. The speed and convenience were definitely worth the porter’s tip, and not having to deal with a shuttle was welcome after a long day of travel with four kids and all our luggage. When we returned the car to San Diego, the National agent gave us our receipt as we drove up and then asked if we had a lot of luggage. We replied, “yes!” and he got an employee to drive us in our loaded car to the airport ticketing area so that we wouldn’t have to deal with our luggage and the shuttle. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have gotten the same offer at LAX.
- Know the extra-driver policy for the rental company. Many companies will waive the extra-driver fee for drivers who have the same last name and address and are above a certain age (often 25). If you don’t fit into this category, check with the rental company to see if and how much you’ll be charged to have two drivers listed on the rental. My husband almost always drives the rental, but if a migraine puts him out of commission or I need to run to Target without the whole family it’s nice to have me listed on as well.
- Check your insurance coverage. Before you go, check with your insurance agent to see if you need to buy the coverages the rental company will offer you. Do you need the coverages that can cost $15 or more a day? You may also consider a third-party car rental policy; we have one through our American Express card that costs $20/rental instead of $15/day. The rental companies want to sell these policies whether you need them or not, so know before you go whether you’re going to say yes or no. Also, before you drive off with the rental car, look it over carefully for any dings or dents or damage. If you see something, take a digital photo at the least, and even better, show the damage to the rental agent so it can be noted as preexisting on your contract. You don’t want to be charged for damage that was done before you got the car.
- Be prepared for upgrade offers. Our $50/day rental was for a Chrysler Town & Country. At the counter, the rental agent offered us an upgrade to a Toyota Sienna (claim: 8-passenger and better mileage) for a few dollars a day, or an SUV (Dodge Durango, if I recall) for a small upcharge. For a heftier upgrade fee, we could have had a “Suburban,” but when I asked if it was a full-size Suburban, he said no, it was a Tahoe. We politely declined the “upgrade” offers and stuck with the minivan, as it fit our needs as well as our luggage.
- Take your own GPS. The rental companies are happy to rent you a GPS for a daily charge. While I do recommend a GPS for navigating new cities, take your own if you have one, and remember the charging cable and mount for it as well. If you don’t have one, consider purchasing your own pre-trip rather than paying the rental company for it.
- Remember the carseats. Check the child restraint laws for the area you’re visiting and take your own carseats. (Check with your airline for getting them to your destination. Some can be used on the plane, and others checked as baggage or gate-checked, usually without a baggage fee.) Car rental agencies may offer carseat rentals, but you don’t know what you’re getting.
- Take all your stuff home with you. To be sure we didn’t leave anything behind, we removed everything from the car the day before we left. We then packed everything into the luggage we’d be taking on the plane. This way, we only had to grab the big, visible bags from the car, and weren’t scrambling for tiny things like Lego minifigure heads under the seat while in the airport dropoff lane.
Do you have any other car rental tips to add for families traveling to southern California (or anywhere)?
The “11 Things” series is designed to give tips for traveling families to destinations well-known or off the beaten path. Learn how to share 11 Things about your favorite destination, or read other 11 Things posts.
Our family recently returned from a fun-packed vacation to southern California. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about our experiences at the varied places we visited. Today’s post is about Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs, California, which was one of the most unique stops on our trip.
You’ve heard of tall tales, right? Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill were larger than life, imaginary characters whose experiences were perfect for a story but hardly realistic.
If you like tall tales, you’ll want to find your way to Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs, California, to learn about Cabot Yerxa. As our tour guide told us about Yerxa’s life, it sounded more and more like a tall tale, yet the museum includes artifacts showing proof of these things really happening. Cabot Yerxa was born in 1883 and during his life met the Mexican president, joined the Alaskan gold rush, where he opened a cigar store and lived with an Inuit family, was appointed the youngest postmaster in U.S. history by his personal friend Theodore Roosevelt, lived in Cuba, served in the U.S. Army, and studied art in France. Buffalo Bill had a standing invitation to stay at Cabot’s home when he was in town, and Yerxa used rattlesnakes as a secondary security system when he was away.
Oh, yeah, and he was the one who found both the hot desert springs and the excellent cold drinking water in Desert Hot Springs, based on a tip from a Native American friend. And that water just happened to be on the land he had homesteaded, saving him from a 7-mile walk for fresh water.
Throughout his life, Cabot Yerxa collected things with the intention of creating a museum to honor and educate about the Native American people who were many of his friends. He began building his house in 1940 from reclaimed materials. He made the windows to fit scraps of glass he found, and used innovative methods to reuse and recycle everything he could, including several uses of precious water before it was finally dumped out.
In some ways, Cabot’s home reminded me of The House on the Rock but with a lot less show and a much better story behind it.
Cabot’s home/museum itself was saved from the wrecking ball by a friend who knew it was too good to let it be destroyed, and today hourly guided tours of this unique home and museum are offered. Some come to hear Cabot’s story, some to see the Hopi-style home and museum, and some because they heard it was a little-known treasure in Desert Hot Springs and wanted to see what it was all about.
Desert Hot Springs is just across the San Andreas Fault from Palm Springs. (If you take the tour, you’ll learn what importance the faultline has on the water in the area.) If you’re in the Palm Springs area, be sure to put Cabot’s Pueblo Museum on your must-see list. You won’t find anything like it anywhere.
Tips for Visiting Cabot’s Pueblo Museum:
- Tours are given six times a day and are limited to twelve people on a tour. See the museum website for tour times. The museum is closed on Mondays, so plan your time accordingly.
- This is a “no-touching” museum, but the tour moves through the house and is interesting enough that kids over the age of five should be fine with it.
- At $11 for adults and $9 for seniors/kids, the one-hour tour isn’t a bargain, but it’s worth it to hear the almost unbelievable story of Yerxa and to see his unique dwelling.
- Photography is not allowed inside the museum.
- At the end of the tour, you’ll get a bottle of water from Desert Hot Springs. It’s really good water and the bottle is unique as well.
- Visitors on the first tour of the day have the best chance of seeing Cabot’s “angel” in the mountains.
- Before or after the tour, be sure to go up to the desert gardens that are part of the property.
- If you don’t like the desert heat, winter might be your best bet for visiting.
- The gift shop also sells locally made handiwork and serves as a visitor center for the Desert Hot Springs area.
- If you take the first tour of the day, you’ll have time to drive out to Joshua Tree National Park, and then back to Palm Springs to ride the Aerial Tramway for a very interesting day trip. Palm Springs is just 90 minutes from Anaheim.
Have you been somewhere as unique as Cabot’s Pueblo Museum? Please share in the comments. I love finding interesting places to visit.
Our family recently returned from a fun-packed vacation to southern California. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about our experiences at the varied places we visited. Next up, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, also to be filed under “Never promise your kids something unless you’re sure you can deliver.”
My nine-year-old son loves model trains, and any time we ask for a family outing suggestion, the Twin City Model Railroad Museum is at the top of his list. Since the non-train-lovers in our family prefer a bit more variety, for many months I said no, instead promising him we’d visit the San Diego Model Railroad Museum when we got to California. As the largest operating model railroad exhibit in North America, it seemed that he’d love it. Its location in Balboa Park seemed ideal for a San Diego Sunday afternoon. And with kids 14 and under free, and adults half price during Museum Month, the price was right.
There was just one problem.
When we got to Balboa Park on our Sunday afternoon, it was packed, and we couldn’t find a place to park. Being first-timers, we didn’t know the Balboa Park parking tip that Colleen Lanin and Sharlene Earnshaw and Carolina Papa know: always park in the zoo lot. Instead, we got tangled in a maze of dead-end streets with nary a parking space to be seen. As we became more and more frustrated, we gave ourselves a time limit; if we didn’t find a parking spot by the appointed time we’d look for fun elsewhere in San Diego.
And that would mean no model railroad museum.
Our son took it pretty well, or maybe the traffic was getting to him, too. “I’ll be disappointed,” he said, “but it will be ok.”
I think I felt worse about it than he did, after all those months of promising the museum to him. But we did not find a parking spot and we left the area, finding other diversions for our Sunday afternoon.
On Monday, we went back to a much less busy Balboa Park, an hour before anything opened, and we indeed found a place to park in the zoo lot. As we wandered around the park, we found that the model railroad museum is located just a few minutes’ walk from the zoo. We formulated a new plan on the spot.
“What would you think of going to the train museum for just a few minutes before we head to the airport?” Everyone was on board with this plan, and though the museum is generally closed on Mondays, it was open on President’s Day.
We walked over from the zoo to the Casa de Balboa building and followed the signs down the stairs and around the corner to the museum. After paying our admission (just $8 for the entire family with the Museum Month discount), we checked out the model train displays.
The museum is large; we wandered from area to area and there were layouts throughout the museum. Steps with railings allowed little ones to get a good view, and model railroaders were at the controls of many of the layouts.
The most interactive room was the Toy Train Gallery, where children could push buttons to make things happen along the tracks; this is also where we found the most elaborate cityscapes in the train setups.
Though we weren’t able to stay long, we did see all of the train layouts, and at the end of our time I asked my young train expert what he thought of the museum.
He considered it a minute, and then said that he didn’t like it as well as the Twin City Model Railroad Museum. Though the layouts were bigger and the tracks longer than in St. Paul, he felt he had to wait a long time for a train to come by. At the St. Paul museum, there seemed to be more trains running at a time, and more action to watch. He did like the Toy Train Gallery, but overall, the train museum in St. Paul is still the winner in his book.
Minnesotans, be proud. Your local model railroad museum has the seal of approval from a nine-year-old model train museum critic.
You know what this means, don’t you? The next time we ask for suggestions for a family outing, his answer will be exactly the same as always. And I won’t have a trip to San Diego to promise as a substitute.
Does your family enjoy model train museums? Which is your favorite?
Our family recently returned from a fun-packed vacation to southern California. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about our experiences at the varied places we visited. Today’s post is about the last stop on our trip, the San Diego Zoo.
As we were planning our trip to California, most people who heard we were going to San Diego asked, “Are you going to the zoo?” Indeed, the San Diego Zoo is one of the most famous attractions in the city, and is loved by locals and tourists alike. Find a list of the best zoos in America, and the San Diego Zoo will likely be near the top of the list.
But I still wasn’t sure we were going to go. After all, we’ve been to zoos — a lot of zoos — and after awhile, they can all start to look alike. Plus, the San Diego Zoo is not cheap to visit, at $42 for adults and $32 for children, and they don’t offer reciprocal membership discounts like many U.S. zoos do. Our vacation philosophy is to do things we can’t do at home, and I wasn’t sure the zoo would be different enough to warrant spending a good chunk of our time and money there.
When the San Diego Zoo sent us four media passes in order to give the zoo a try, I decided that we could buy the additional two tickets we’d need for our family and penciled it into our last remaining time slot, from 9 till noon on the last day of our vacation, just before heading to the airport for our flight home.
And even with a minimal investment in time and money, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be impressed.
I was wrong.
We arrived in San Diego’s Balboa Park bright and early on a February Monday morning, which also happened to be President’s Day. We wandered around the park a bit before returning to the zoo a few minutes before it opened to secure our tickets. While it had been peaceful and tranquil and uncrowded in the park, as the 9 a.m. opening of the zoo approached, so did the crowds at the entrance gate, making me even more apprehensive about our visit, as crowds and I do not belong in the same place.
After getting a map of the zoo, we wandered around for a few minutes without a plan in place as we got the lay of the land. We considered the narrated bus tour near the entrance, but the lines there were already becoming long. We walked to the Skyfari entrance, only to discover that it didn’t open until an hour after the zoo. So we hastily moved on to Plan C: find the tigers.
We’d been to the Safari Park a few days earlier and were disappointed that the tigers were not visible when we went to see them in their large Safari Park habitat. After winding through the cool and shady trail at the zoo, however, we had our first pleasant surprise of the day: the tigers were not only visible, but close to the glass and easy to see from more than one vantage point. Score one for the zoo.
Next up: see the pandas, as the San Diego Zoo is one of only four locations in the United States to have pandas. We followed the paths around to Panda Canyon and were delighted to see the pandas eating their morning snack. Zoo score, round two.
Because we knew our time was limited, we had a pretty small to-do list, and we’d already covered two items. Next up, Skyfari. We had to look a bit, but we found the set of long escalators that would take us up the hill to the Skyfari West station, and got there just as the sky ride opened at 10 a.m. With a minimal wait as the first passengers were loaded into their cage-on-wire cars, we climbed aboard the aerial shortcut back to the entrance.
Despite my dislike of heights or scary things, I found the Skyfari ride to be smooth and easy (in distinct contrast to, for example, the swinging car on Mickey’s Fun Wheel at Disney’s California Adventure). For a few minutes, we enjoyed the view from above the animals, peeks of Balboa Park, and the San Diego Skyline, and when we reached Skyfari East, we found a long line of people waiting to board. Score one for a bit of serendipity in avoiding long lines, and for a nice mode of transportation across the zoo.
Keeping an eye on the time, we decided the bus tour should be our next priority. The line was still quite long, but it moved quickly. After 15-20 minutes, we boarded the bus for a 40-minute guided tour of the zoo. At first, I thought my seat on the driver’s side was a poor choice, as all the animals seemed to be on the right, but as the tour progressed, it evened out so that I had some excellent views of the animals right out my open-air window. As our tour guide pointed out the various animals, I found myself wishing we had enough time to walk back and take a closer look at many of them. The bus tour gave a good overview of the zoo and allowed us to see many of the animals in a short window of time.
Sadly, after the bus tour our time at the San Diego Zoo was drawing to a close. We’d seen only a small portion of the zoo, and hadn’t attended any of the keeper talks or activity booths or animal encounters or shows or other special activities that were included with our zoo admission. The zoo was open until 5:00 the day we visited, and had it not been for a plane to catch, we could have easily spent the rest of the day there without seeing it all.
Yes, the San Diego Zoo is expensive. But it is also home to many unique animals. It’s an accredited botanical garden, so walking the paths allows the opportunity to explore beautiful plants as well as animals. It’s huge, and there’s a lot going on. And despite the fact that people were still streaming in the gates as we left at noon, it did not seem crowded.
I’ve changed my mind completely on the notion that the San Diego Zoo is “just another zoo.” It’s one of the places from our vacation that I wish we’d had much more time to explore.
Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo:
- Get there as soon as it opens so you can make the most of your time there.
- To avoid Skyfari lines, make your way to the far (Skyfari West) station just as it opens and ride back to the east station by air.
- Some of the shows and talks are presented only once or twice a day. Check the schedule and plan around those you want to see.
- The zoo is very large with some steep hills on the trails. If you have trouble with the terrain, find the elevators and escalators to help with the biggest elevation changes, or spring for an Express Bus pass to move you from one area to another within the zoo.
- Food is pricey, with kids’ meals being more expensive than at the amusement parks we visited. You can bring your own food into the zoo; if you have a large cooler you can eat in the picnic area outside the zoo gates.
- To save money on admission, consider one of the multi-day or multi-park tickets for San Diego area attractions, or show your AAA card for a 10% discount. Zoo memberships are also a good option, but some are only available to southern California residents.
Have you been to the San Diego Zoo? How did it compare to other zoos you’ve visited?
Last evening, I attended the media preview of Diana: A Celebration, an exhibition that opens today at Mall of America. It was interesting to learn more about Princess Diana and to see pieces of her life, including her famed wedding dress with its 25-foot train.
Fans of Diana will delight in seeing artifacts from her childhood, viewing some of the beautiful gowns she wore on various occasions, and ooohing and aahing at the wedding dress that was viewed by an estimated 1 billion people when she married Prince Charles.
The exhibit begins with family jewels–tiaras and bracelets and necklaces that sparkle with diamonds and pearls and emeralds galore. It then moves to Diana’s childhood, providing a feeling of normalcy as you see the appointment book with its note of “Driving Test. Passed!”, a note to her parents when they were away from home, and some of the toys she played with as a child.
Diana’s wedding gown is in the center of the exhibit, along with shoes, a parasol, and a flower girl dress. Being able to see the detail of the gown, and just how long a 25-foot train is, will be the focal point of the exhibit for many people.
The Diana exhibit moves from Diana’s wedding to her death abruptly, with no mention made of the years between these two events in her life. Although her brother’s funeral tribute speech alludes to some troubled times during this period, they are unmentioned here. Of interest in the funeral room are lyrical and musical drafts of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” tribute to Diana at her funeral.
A room full of gowns Diana wore on various occasions is impressive; though a few show their time period clearly, most are timelessly beautiful, and the exhibit describes the times and places in which they were worn, as well as naming the designer of each.
A wall of tribute books contains cards, letters, and other remembrances sent to Diana’s family after her passing.
At the end of the exhibit, there is a souvenir area that includes china pieces, jewelry, and other mementos of the exhibition for those who want to take home something related to Diana.
Diana: A Celebration can be found on the 4th level, East Side, of Mall of America through June 12, 2012.
Though fans of Diana in particular or royalty in general will enjoy this exhibition, families may wish to leave their children behind. Everything is enclosed in glass, so there will be no danger of children damaging things, but there is also nothing interactive about the exhibit save for a few continuous-loop silent video clips. My friend and I spent about an hour learning about Diana, reading nearly every placard and informational post. Others will spend a shorter amount of time, making it easy to get a peek of Diana during a shopping trip or other outing to Mall of America.
Since discovering The Works science/technology museum several years ago, it’s been on of our family’s favorites. We’ve attended special events and camps as well as during regular hours, and our kids always ask to go back again.
Earlier this winter, The Works moved from its old location in Edina down the road a few miles to Bloomington. We visited the new location in December and found all of our old favorites, plus some new exhibits and activities.
The Works’ new location is at 9740 Grand Ave S in Bloomington. From 35W, take the 98th Street exit and go a few blocks east, then left on Grand and a quick left into the parking lot. The parking area is much more convenient than the Edina location’s was.
All of the familiar exhibits from the old The Works came over to Bloomington except the robots. In addition, there’s a new traveling exhibit area (currently hosting displays about the science of toys). The space is large and open, and each exhibit seemed to hold our kids’ interest for longer periods of time than before. It will take a lot more people now to make the exhibits seem crowded, and there’s plenty of natural light coming in to brighten things up.
In addition, there’s a special “design lab” upstairs with do-it-yourself projects and experiments. Staff move in and out to help with questions or ideas, but visitors can stay and work (or play?) as long as they want. Our kids didn’t want to leave until they’d each completed all four stations. The projects in this area will be changed periodically so there’s always something new to try.
Hours and Admission
During the school year, The Works has these expanded hours at its new location: Thursday-Friday 10-8, Saturday-Sunday-Monday 10-5, Tuesday-Wednesday closed. Groups, such as schools or birthday parties, can be scheduled any day of the week.
Admission for ages 3 and up is $6 for the exhibit area, and $8 for both the exhibit area and design lab. The extra $2 is well worth it if the projects have changed since you last visited. Members of The Works and children 2 and under are free. ASTC reciprocal membership is accepted for the exhibit portion of the visit only.
Membership at The Works is affordable at $70 for a family, which includes free visits, discounts on camps and classes, and reciprocity at related museums around the country.
Tech Fest is held each February and includes admission at a discounted rate plus a variety of special activities and shows. If you have kids who love science, or you want to show your kids some really exciting things about science, TechFest should be on your list to visit.
Moving The Works to a new location has done nothing but make it better. We loved the new space and more easily accessible location, the increased exhibit area, and especially the design lab. If you haven’t been to The Works yet, I really do recommend it as a kid-friendly hands-on science museum in the Twin Cities.
We’ve explored many of the sites and attractions at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, in the past. Recently we decided to explore something we hadn’t seen yet: the Amazing Mirror Maze.
Amazing Mirror Maze is located on the third level of MOA between the north food court and Sears. After paying admission of $7.95 + tax, less if you use a coupon, you’ll be given foodservice gloves to wear and safety/behavior instructions (no running, keep your hands out in front of you) before being allowed into the maze.
Once inside, there are mirrors all around, and it’s nearly impossible to tell where the pathways are and where mirrors are ahead of you. The instruction to use your hands (gloved so there will be no fingerprints) is essential in finding your way through the maze.
Our kids had mixed reactions. My 9-year-old adventurer thought it was boring, and he finished and exited the maze in just a few minutes. My 6-year-old was somewhere between my husband and me and apparently forgot to use her hands, resulting in some loud cries and bent-up glasses as she led with her face in finding her way. My 11- and 8-year-olds, however, loved the maze, and took advantage of the attendant’s promise that they could stay in and reverse their path if they wanted to. They ended up going from start to finish, finish to start, and start to finish again before coming out.
At the Amazing Mirror Maze, you’re paying for the unique experience, not the length of time you spend there. Even those members of our family who did the maze a few times were inside for less than 20 minutes, so I wouldn’t call it a bargain. Still, it’s not something you can do in most places, so if you’ve got a little extra to spend on something different, you can ooh and ahh at the lights and angles and the seemingly endless representations of yourself, and maybe even wonder how they keep all of those mirrors clean enough that you can’t tell where there’s a mirror and where there’s open space.
The Amazing Mirror Maze isn’t the first thing I’d do with kids at Mall of America, and we probably won’t return for a repeat visit, but as a one-time family experience, it was all right.
Have you been to a mirror maze? What did you think?
One of my favorite unexpected things about writing this blog is the connections I’ve made with other travelers, especially regarding little-known but beloved places.
In May of 2009, I took my children on a tour of North Dakota. At the last-minute, I decided to take the Old Red Old Ten Scenic Byway between Bismarck and Dickinson instead of the faster and mostly parallel Interstate 94. It’s one of the best travel decisions I’ve made.
Along the byway, we traveled through small towns, found a ghost town, and saw unique, beautiful old buildings, some of which are no longer standing.
The photos I shared of this day on the road visiting Sims and Curlew and Glen Ullin have been the starting point of several conversations with people who hold these nearly-forgotten North Dakota locations dear to their hearts. Weeks and even months after I wrote about these gems, readers wrote to tell me more of the story.
After I wrote about North Almont and its elevator which caught my eye and made me pause along the road to snap a photo, a reader responded with the news that the elevator had been demolished, just as many other landmarks of historical or sentimental value have disappeared over the years.
This week, I received a message from Rob Reeves of Denver, Colorado, who photographed the North Almont elevator before it was torn down. He shared this photo with me, and gave me permission to share it with others who may be interested. And so, I present Rob’s breathtaking photo of a piece of small-town North Dakota history that is now gone.
It’s delightful when a last-minute turn brings about so much conversation and kindred spirits are found in unexpected locales. It is satisfying to the writer who receives responses to her work from others who have visited, and loved, these little-known places. It is heartwarming to see people preserving the history and heritage of a state that is home to many, whether or not they still live within its borders.
You may recognize this post’s title as the last line of Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken. So often when I travel, I look for the lesser-traveled road, and it is the stories like this that spring from those backroads stories that are some of my favorites.
Our family is blessed to be able to take vacations, whether they be for a couple of days or a longer period of time, several times a year. With this experience, vacation planning has become second nature, and is one of my favorite pastimes.
For families who aren’t able to get away as often, the idea of planning a vacation may be overwhelming. Deciding where to go, when to go, and how much to budget for the trip requires careful thought, especially if schedules or money are tight.
These are the steps I take when planning a vacation. Perhaps some of them will be useful for families planning their first trip, or even for seasoned travelers. Please add your own tips below in the comments, and check out the vacation planning processes of other seasoned family travelers.
Decide when to go
For our family, the timing is the trickiest part. My husband’s work makes it difficult to plan a summer vacation, so we work in trips when we can: Christmas vacation, long weekends, and school breaks. If I do plan something in the summer, it has to be easily canceled (more on that later) or doable by myself and the kids if he’s unable to take time off. Think about how much vacation time you have, and whether you want to use all of that time traveling or would prefer a day or two of recovery before getting back to life’s routines. Consider weather (especially if driving) and busy travel times (especially if flying).
Decide where to go
Once we have a timeline in mind, I begin to explore the possibilities. Since we usually drive, farther-away destinations are reserved for long trips. I’ll think about how many days we have, and how many of them we want to spend on the road, then sketch out a driving radius and see what locations fall in that area. Sometimes we have a specific destination in mind and plan the timeline around it, and sometimes we have the timeline first and try to find a creative destination that will fit into the time allotted. When planning a trip, I ask my kids for ideas. They always seem to have ideas that I’ve never considered, and I throw them into the planning mix.
Decide how to get there
We’re usually road-trippers, and airfare is obvious for overseas destinations, but sometimes we have to run the numbers to find the sweet spot of cost vs. time to see if it’s better to fly or drive to our destination. I price flights for our family and compare them to the costs we’d incur while driving (including gas, maintenance, and hotel rooms and meals if driving would lengthen the trip over flying).
Set a budget
Next, I start running the numbers. I research the following to put together a rough budget: Transportation–flight or driving expenses, rental car or bus transfers; Lodging–hotel or vacation home rentals; Attractions–all of the fun things we’ll do at our destination or along the way; Food–a daily estimate of what it will cost to eat while away; Souvenirs–an estimate of what we’ll spend on remembrances of our vacation. Some destinations are more affordable than others, and sometimes I have to choose a new location or shorten the trip because of the cost involved. It’s also a good idea to throw in a contingency fund in case of unexpected car repairs or medical expenses while away.
Researching a destination is one of my favorite parts of planning the trip. I order visitor’s guides from our destination and check out travel guides and AAA Tourbooks. I scour websites to find interesting things to do along the way that I may not have heard of before. I’ll pile up as many books as I can find, then sit with a pad of paper and a pencil and jot down absolutely everything that looks interesting. Much of it will be weeded out later due to time, cost, weather, or closures, but I like to start with as many possibilities as I can.
Now the fun begins. As soon as I decide on a location and destination, I begin making hotel reservations, being sure that they’re easily canceled if our plans change. For our upcoming California trip, I made our first hotel reservations last July. Rental cars usually are easily canceled as well. Airfare, cruises, and vacation packages lock you in a bit more, so don’t make these until you’re absolutely certain you can make the trip–or else purchase a good trip insurance policy that covers your cancellation fees. Don’t be afraid to make your reservations, but be sure to read the fine print regarding cancellation policies.
I like to keep all of my reservation information (including cancellation numbers, if applicable) in one place–a computer file, a piece of paper in my vacation folder, online at tripit.com–so that I can see at a glance all of our essential information.
As I said, I made some of our hotel reservations almost a year in advance, and since then, I’ve rechecked the prices at least weekly. In one location, the price has steadily risen since I made that first reservation. In another location, the price of our preferred hotel has dropped as our departure nears, and I rebooked at the better price. Some air and cruise fares will issue a credit if the price drops after you’ve bought your ticket, but it’s usually up to you to spot the difference.
Create an itinerary
I draw up a rough itinerary when deciding when and where to go, but as we get closer to our trip, I get serious about penciling in what we can do each day of our trip. Of course, this is always subject to change due to weather, closures, or trying to fit too much into one day, but I like to have a decent plan in place. When creating an itinerary, I find it helpful to make a chart listing the open days and hours, as well as prices, of each attraction we want to visit. Seeing when things are open helps to map out a plan, especially over the holidays, when places have additional closures or special extended hours.
Obsess and rethink and research some more
OK, so maybe I’m the only one who does this. If you can make your plans once and leave them alone, I applaud you! I have so many different itineraries and possibilities in my California folder that it’s bulging. Whenever I create a new plan or possibility or amend the budget, I write down the date of my current state of thinking, and I keep the old plans in case I need to go back to them. This is also the time that I get serious about finding the best prices on attractions, including signing up for our destination’s Groupon site, looking for coupons via the local visitor’s bureaus, and so on.
Make the kids’ vacation books
Before bigger vacations, I make a “vacation book” for my kids that includes information on our destination, maps of where we’re going, journal pages, and reproducible worksheets about the state(s) we’re visiting. Originally designed to eliminate some of the “are we there yet” questioning, it has become a tradition and keepsake for my chidren. It does take some time and planning to get the pages gathered and printed, so I start several weeks before we leave.
I’ll admit it, and you may find this crazy, but for a big trip, I’ll start packing 3-4 weeks in advance. As I think of little things we may need on the trip, but not necessarily before then, I’ll put them all in one location so they’re ready when it comes time to put them in the suitcases. I also start making lists of things easily forgotten–certain medications, sunscreen, gum for on the airplane–in an effort to minimize forgetfulness. This is when I also begin to think about which electronic devices we’ll bring, and which we’ll leave at home: Do we want a video camera? Is the laptop necessary? Are we letting the kids bring any gadgets? Once I decide which things we’ll bring, I start to gather the necessary cables, chargers, and memory cards that go along with them. The actual packing of clothes and such comes closer to when we leave, but I put in plenty of thought so as to find the perfect mix of having everything we’ll need without overpacking.
About a week before we leave, I get serious about rechecking our reservations and flight information, and being sure everything we’ll need to take is on the list. I set aside an area of the house where vacation things can be dropped off. If it’s for vacation, that’s where it needs to be; if it’s not for vacation, it needs to be somewhere else! Then, when we’re ready to go, I know that we have everything when that zone is clear and the lists are checked off.
Prepare for take-off
If we’re driving, my husband checks the tires, oil, and gas levels in the car a day or two before we leave. If we’re flying, I keep an eye on the schedules and recheck the airline guidelines. We keep an eye on the weather, just in case it will affect our plans. I print out basic itineraries and emergency contact information for our parents, in case they should need to reach us while we’re gone. Then it’s time to pack the vehicle, throw in the last snacks and medications, and get on our way for our latest adventure.
Well, there you have it–how I plan a vacation for our family. Do you use similar steps in planning your family’s trips?
While crossing off stops on our list of Minnesota Historical Society sites (we have just three of the 26 left), we visited the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Onamia, Minnesota. This modern museum and adjacent trading post were yet another example of the quality museums MHS has scattered around the state.
Don’t let the Onamia address confuse you; though you may not be familiar with Onamia’s location on Lake Mille Lacs, you probably know the museum’s nearby neighbor a bit more: Grand Casino Mille Lacs. It’s just north of the museum on Highway 169.
The museum’s location is that of a former resort and trading post on the shores of Lake Mille Lacs. Today, some of the resort buildings are still standing, though not open, and the trading post is open, with museum displays in part of the building and Native American handicrafts and foodstuffs available for sale in the shopping area.
Just up the sidewalk, the Mille Lacs Indian Museum displays the history and culture of the Ojibwe tribe in Minnesota with multimedia displays and hands-on activities for kids. A scheduled employee-led program depicts the historic life of the tribe, season by season, in a diorama-like setting.
Families heading up north should find the Mille Lacs Indian Museum to be an interesting stop along Highway 169. The Mille Lacs Indian Museum is open seasonally and for special events.
Wall Drug. It’s part of the travel experience of most every family who’s approached South Dakota’s Black Hills from the east on I-90 after traveling mile after miles on the Interstate with not much for stops or scenery. After all, how could you miss it? With nearly 100 billboards along the Interstate from Sioux Falls to Wall, and others scattered around the country, Wall Drug is certainly hard to miss.
But what exactly IS Wall Drug?
Long before it was a tourist trap, Wall Drug was a struggling pharmacy in the small town of Wall on the South Dakota prairie. During the dust bowl years, its owners offered free water in the hopes of drawing people into the store. The idea was a success, and soon people were stopping in for free ice water and buying treats from the soda fountain as well. Over time, Wall Drug grew and expanded and grew and expanded some more, so that today it is a massive complex that takes up nearly one entire side of Wall’s Main Street.
The attraction itself is free to visit, though you’ll be tempted to buy souvenirs and trinkets from the various shops inside the complex, or maybe to have something to eat from the cafe area. (Hint: Skip to the end of the cafeteria line and pick up some of tasty doughnuts; they may be the best bargain in the store besides the free ice water, which is still offered at Wall Drug.)
Outside in the “backyard,” let your kids play around the water spurts, maybe let them pan for some jewels, and be sure to take their photo on the famed jackalope, which is big enough for four kids to prove that they’ve been to Wall Drug and have the same family vacation photo as most of their friends and neighbors.
Whether or not the quirky Wall Drug is your best idea of vacation fun, it’s one of those places that you really should stop at if you’re passing through South Dakota. Grab a cup of ice water, have a doughnut, snap a few photos, and be on your way to your next destination, having experienced the one-of-a-kind American icon that is Wall Drug.
Have you dug Wall Drug?
One of our family’s favorite types of museums is the living history village. Places like The Landing in Shakopee, Minnesota, Bonanzaville in West Fargo, North Dakota, Farmamerica near Waseca, Minnesota, or even my tiny hometown’s historical complex give us the opportunity to step back in time and experience the buildings and communities that my great-grandparents lived in.
Cassville, Wisconsin, has such a site at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Stonefield Village. My grandmother took me to Stonefield when I was a girl, so it was a treat to take my own children there.
We started with a guided tour of the Governor Nelson Dewey estate, across the road from the rest of the complex, and then moved on to the village, which is accessed by walking over a covered bridge.
While the village itself is made-up, its buildings are authentic and came from various locations near Cassville. From homes to businesses to community buildings, Stonefield has excellent variety in its little town. My kids loved the ice cream parlor and saloon, while I found the creamery and funeral home to be interesting. Stonefield has a millinery shop, photography studio, general store, doctor’s office, and other businesses that were common in small towns in the late 1800′s.
Most of the village of Stonefield is accessible as a self-guided tour, but select buildings have living history interpreters providing guided tours at certain times during the day. For children, there is a challenging scavenger hunt that takes them throughout the village finding historical items, some of which are commonly known, and others that are more obscure.
Stonefield also includes an agricultural history museum that was my husband’s favorite. The entrance building houses a barn with agricultural implements, and another large farm museum building houses ag exhibits.
Cassville, Wisconsin, is just across the Mississippi River from Iowa, and Stonefield is an easy day trip from Dubuque, Iowa. On our return to Iowa from Cassville, we took the Cassville Car Ferry across the river, which was an adventure in itself.
Like the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Circus World Museum, we found Stonefield Village to be an interesting, educational, and enjoyable history lesson.
Stonefield Village is open during the summer and early fall. Hours and admission information can be found on its website.
Have you been to any living history villages? Which is your favorite?
The past few weeks have been busy with this and that–Christmas baking, shopping, and wrapping; spending time with family and friends; and vacation planning. Our winter vacation to California is right around the corner, which means I’m finalizing those plans but also thinking about the future–destinations for summer and for next winter.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be catching up on some places we visited in 2011, but for now I hope you’ll enjoy reading about places these other family travelers have been to. Happy New Year, and happy travels!
I’ve spent a lot of time planning for our upcoming trip to California. A lot. This will be the first time our kids have flown, the first time they’ve seen an ocean and a desert, and the their first Disney park experience. Because this trip is a big deal for us, I’m determined to find the best combination of activities for us to do when we’re in southern California, while hunting down the most reasonable prices for our lodging, attractions, and other trip components.
I provided insight into our hotel planning process a while ago, and today I’ll pull out a few pages from my trip folder and tell you how I’m trying to find the best prices for the places we’ll visit while in California.
For this vacation, we’re planning to visit several theme parks, as well as some cultural and historical landmarks. We’re going to squeeze in as much as we can — with a combination of educational stops and places that are just for fun — while trying to get the best value for our dollar. These are the things we want to do.
- Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, 3 days
- Universal Studios Hollywood, mostly for the backlot tour. It’s the only movie tour I can find that allows kids.
- See the desert (by request of our 5-year-old); planning to drive to Joshua Tree National Park
- Go whale-watching and spend some time on a beach (though probably not IN the water in February!)
- Visit a Presidential Library (either Reagan or Nixon)
- Visit San Diego’s Balboa Park
- See Old Town San Diego, Cabrillo National Monument, and the USS Midway
- Go to Legoland (9-year-old’s top priority)
- Visit other historic sites or museums
- Go to Sea World
- Visit the San Diego Zoo, and/or the San Diego Safari Park if we can get bargains on admission.
I know that’s an ambitious list, and it won’t be cheap for six of us. On this trip, I’m expecting admission prices to be about 1/3 the cost of the trip, hotels another 1/3, and meals/rental car/gas/other to be the remainder. (We’re flying with vouchers and points so we don’t have an airline expense, thankfully.)
Let’s take a look at some of the prices. Keep in mind that these are for our family of six, with kids aged 6-11 when we travel.
For our 10 days in California, that’s a grand total of $2551 without the Zoo or Safari Park. Yikes!
Let’s see if we can get it to come out any better.
The first thing I found that will help our costs a lot is the Southern California CityPass*. For 2012, the CityPASS includes the following: 3-day Disneyland Park Hopper, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Sea World. It’s $279 for ages 10 and up, and $239 for ages 3-9. Grand total for our family: $1554. I can either buy it on-site at one of the parks, or order it ahead of time and skip the ticket lines in the parks. It’s also refundable if we have to cancel the trip for some reason. I asked fellow family travelers if it was too good to be true, and they said no. It’s one of the best bargains out there for southern California theme parks. (CityPASS* also has combo passes for attractions and museums in other cities like Chicago*, Houston, Boston, Seattle, and Atlanta.) With CityPass*, I’ll save $468 over the individual prices of Disneyland, Universal, and Sea World. That’s a good start, but let’s see what else we can do.
My kids subscribe to the free Lego Club magazine, and over the years I’ve noticed BOGO coupons for Legoland, so I’ve been keeping my eyes open for them. We hit the jackpot in the latest issue, with a coupon for a free child ticket with paid adult hopper ticket. I’ll have to upgrade to the combo ticket, and pay for one child as an adult in order to get three free (Legoland confirmed that I can do this), but it will bring the total to $243 instead of $374, plus we can walk through the SeaLife Aquarium at no additional charge. Savings: $131 from a free magazine. That’s good.
SmartDestinations offers two choices for San Diego*: a multi-day card where you can see everything on the list on those days, or a Go Select card where you choose the attractions you want to visit. Using the Go Select card for the USS Midway, Japanese Friendship Garden, and Model Railroad Museum nets us a total of $88.28 for the three attractions as opposed to the $111 cost if purchased separately. If we want to add the San Diego Zoo, it would be an additional $173.56 for our family, instead of the regular price of $200. If we didn’t have the Legoland tickets, I’d be putting Legoland on the Go Select card as well (at $296.52 instead of the regular $374). Like CityPass, SmartDestinations offers a money-back guarantee on its cards, and has cards available for Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, San Franciso, New York City,* and more. In general, the more attractions you put on your GoSelect card, the more you’ll save, and if you’re visiting southern California, you can buy tickets for San Diego and Los Angeles attractions in the same transaction.
There are some other museums we can visit in Los Angeles and San Diego at no charge because of our museum memberships with ASTC and ACM reciprocity. I’m also looking at the February “museum month” promotion in San Diego. Since our timing is good, we can receive 50% off admission for people with a free pass we’d pick up at a San Diego-area Macy’s store. Because the USS Midway and Model Railroad Museum are participating, our cost for those plus the Japanese Friendship Garden would be $74. Since we’ll be there during Museum Month, that’s even better than the Go Select card for our planned attractions. At other times of the year, or for other attractions, the Go Select card is definitely worth looking into.
I’ve also signed up for Groupon and similar sites in the areas we’ve been visiting, and I scour the offers in my inbox daily. Most are for places we won’t visit, but occasionally something good pops up that we can use. I used Mousesavers to get more ideas for saving money, from car rental discount codes to information about a Disney souvenir outlet store. For San Diego’s Balboa Park, be sure to check out their deals page to see if there are any coupons available.
After all of this, I’ve reduced our projected admission costs from $2551 to $1923. I’ll keep looking for better deals until we leave on vacation, but for now I’m pretty happy that by putting some time into planning and research I’ve been able to save nearly 25% over what we would have paid by purchasing tickets for each attraction individually. For those who like to see the numbers, here’s how it looks.
||Deal (if any)
|Joshua Tree Nat’l Park
||Joshua Tree Nat’l Park
If you’re planning to visit southern California, I hope I’ve helped you find ways to save some money yourselves. If you’ve already been there and know of ways I can pinch a few more pennies, I’d love to hear them.
*CityPass and SmartDestinations links provided are affiliate links; if you purchase a product after clicking on the link, I will receive a commission on the sale. I requested to become an affiliate after doing the math and finding that these are excellent potential money-savers when visiting southern California and other areas of the U.S.
When I was a kid, we’d drive to the big city each December and make the rounds of various neighborhoods, oohing and aahing at the holiday light displays as people lit up their decorated homes. Those memories were brought back as we drove through the Sertoma Winter Wonderland in the Northland Arboretum in Baxter, Minnesota, recently.
The Sertoma service organization in Brainerd-Baxter has set up this drive-through light display for visitors to enjoy. For $10 a car, you can snake through the arboretum and see the various light displays, most sponsored by area businesses. Tuning to a local radio station adds holiday music and information about the displays to your journey.
Some displays are whimsical, others traditional, but all serve the purpose of getting visitors in the holiday spirit.
After driving through the display, you can stop in the visitor center to purchase some cookies or hot cocoa, play some kid-friendly games, and visit with Santa. Special events, such as sleigh rides, are offered on certain dates.
The Sertoma Winter Wonderland is open weekends from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve. Check the website for dates, hours, and special events.
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