Thursday, September 18, 2014

Another Fall Break--this time to FOREIGN soil--for CHEAP

Last year, I told you all about how we headed to Disney for nine nights for $1000.  (Actual trip report: HERE).  This year, we are tackling a foreign country for about the same price!

Now, you might say that Canada isn't really a foreign country, and there are places where it can feel that way.  For example, I'm not a huge Toronto fan.  I like Toronto.  It's fun.  It's modern.  There's great food.  There's fun stuff to do.  But, it feels like any big city in the US.  Now, for us in the midwest, it closer than most big cities (save Chicago), so it's not like it's a bad choice as a destination, but I didn't want the kids first "memorable" experience (Grace, of course, has been in other countries, seeing how she was born in China, but she doesn't remember that experience) on foreign soil to feel like the U.S.  I need it to feel different.

So, come this fall break, we are headed to Montreal (LOVE IT!), the second largest francophone city in the world outside of Paris!  We will get to expose our kids to all types of public transportation, French only speakers, loads of historical European charm, and so much more!  We're excited for them to experience this type of opportunity so young.  We hope it starts to help teach them the world is a very large place and put a real love in their hearts for foreign travel.  And, for Mommy and Daddy, it's like going to a European country, and we get the added budget benefit of being able to drive there!

Here's our budget and experience breakdown:

1. Drive
Again, we're driving.  For some people, 13 hours might seem like a long way in the car, but driving in the car isn't what it used to be!  Our kids have tablets full of movies and games, and seeing how they only get to watch TV or play tech games once a week, they think the first six hours of car time when I let them watch as much TV as they want is pure bliss!  So, we'll pack up and head north, keeping the price of travel down!  Now, I do have my limits.  I am currently in the process of planning a huge trip out west for next summer (can you believe that hotels are already BOOKED SOLID), and there is no way I am driving across country.  Not yet.  Not with three little ones.

2. Points, points and more points
I hate that Bret travels so much.  We miss him terribly when he is on the road, but we're also much better about him being gone than we used to be!  I give myself a break when he's gone for long stretches (more than two nights), and if I want to consider a PB and J dinner, I do.  The one benefit to Bret's absence--the loads of miles and points we accumulate.  This trip: we will be staying for eight nights for free on points.  We'll pay for a hotel for two nights.  And, the five nights we are in Montreal, we will be smack dab in the middle of everything... very convenient!

3. It's all about the room
We're pretty cautious about what type of room we take.  It's not easy as a family of 5!  But, now because of our size, we usually try to stay in rooms that have more space, and more space, usually means a small kitchen.  We can bring in some drinks and snacks, and we can cut down on our food bill.  We can pick places that have free breakfast and afternoon snacks and drinks!  We also often request to be placed on the Club level... which usually offers free breakfast and hot hors d'oeuvre (read: eat up, kids... this is dinner!).  So, we will go out for lunch OR dinner most days, but we don't have to eat out for three meals a day!

4. Picking Your Poison
I hate the phrase "Once in a Lifetime."  I hate it.  Here's why: I don't really want my kids to think that much in life is "once in a lifetime."  If they adore an experience, I want them to know that it is repeatable.  I want that phrase reserved for like, "I ate dinner with the Pope, and it was once in a lifetime."  Or, "Someone just came up and gave me a million dollars, and I'm pretty sure that it was once in a lifetime."  I don't want them thinking that even our super-duper-big-and-pricey trip out west next summer is "once in a lifetime."  Too much pressure... and not on the right things.  If they fall in love with Las Vegas (please, not Las Vegas!), then I would expect them to go back at some point.

This is all to say that I think I have an experience on this trip that is "once in a lifetime."  And, not because it is so amazing... but because it isn't.  Let me explain.  On the way up to Montreal, we are stopping in Niagara Falls.  I have never been there, and I don't expect it to do much for me.  Maybe I am wrong, but I know my travel self pretty well, and I can't imagine that I will ever want to go back there.  So, since it feels pretty much like I'm not going to want to go out of my way to ever go back, I might as well do the one day I have there UP!  So, we're dropping what feels like a small fortune to have some dinner at the top of some space needle thingy right over the falls.  I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but here's my point: if something is really going to be the only time I do something, I'm doing it right.  Period.  So, when I plan a trip, I think about the experiences that are probably repeatable and probably not.  And while a trip to Niagara Falls is repeatable, I'm not sure it should be--at least for me!

World Class views that I will probably only see once: sign me up!

5. Big Cities, Little Kids
We have pretty real expectations about how much our kids can do without totally melting down.  The real wild card for this trip, of course, is little Trent.  He'll have a stroller to aid in the walking, but he's the main reason we are staying right in Old Montreal as opposed to farther out--we want to be able to walk back at nap time.

So, what will we do with our kids in a city that is more about "being" than "doing."  We'll be locals.  We will, of course, spend time in Old Montreal.  There is charm there that is virtually unmatched in the United States.   Old Montreal will feel as close to old world Europe as our kids will get for a few years!

We'll spend one day shopping the Jean Talon market and wandering the surrounding neighborhood.

We'll spend a day at the world famous Botantical gardens and BioDome, which will probably be the closest we have to a super kid friendly day in the city.

We'll spend one day book shopping, boat watching, pastry trying and french speaking... and it will be a glorious education for all of us!

This is really our first big city outside of our backyard Chicago that we have attempted.  We expect our kids to do well, and it will be a good trial run for San Fran, Boston, New York, and Washington DC!  We've got some fun years ahead!!

6. Finding Kid Time
But, we also realize that our kids are, well, kids.  And some of the charm of being in a pseudo-European city might be lost on them!  And, so, on the way back, we are stopping in Hershey, PA.  Yep, that Hershey.  We'll hit Hershey headquarters for tours and fun, and then, we'll hit the big amusement park for a fun pre-Halloween thrill ride extravaganza.  It'll be good payment for walking the streets of Montreal in wonder!

7. Strategic Stops
Because Bret travels so much, he has a pretty interesting perspective on cities that I would like.  We could move to Oxford, Mississippi tomorrow, just based on his description.  And don't even get me started on Charlottesville, VA.  No really.  One of my favorite college towns of all time.  ALL TIME.  Bret recently has developed a deep love for Pittsburgh.  And knowing Bret, it's our kind of place... I just know it.  So, we'll stop in Pittsburgh, just for an afternoon, to do some quick sight seeing!  It'll be cheap and fun and Bret can act as our tour guide!  We will use it as a good stopping ground on a long drive.

That's the key.  You can't just stop in some random Holiday Inn Express on the side of the road in Virginia if Charlottesville (again, can I tell you how much I love this city!!) is just down the road.  You get a lot more vacation bang for your buck if you plan your stops in places that are cool, interesting, have short adventures that you can take, historical landmarks, or really good food!

So, there you have it: a pseudo-European holidays in one of my favorite cities ever for about $1100!

Budget Breakdown:
Hotels in Hershey: $240
Tickets to Hershey: $114
Tickets to Chocolate World: Free
Tickets to Biodome and Botantical Gradens: $104
Double Decker bus tour of Pittsburg: $80
Food: $500
Skylon Tower: $100
Hotels in Montreal, Pittsburgh and Niagara Falls: covered with points
Gas: from yearly gas budget, not travel budget
Groceries: from yearly grocery budget, not travel budget

Of course, the hardest line item on there is the food budget, but we usually do okay with a pack of granola bars and a couple of apples!  But, it's a good goal!

So, here we come stamp in the passport!!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

We're alive...

We're sorry to be so quiet around here these days (Aunt Sue, this update is for you!), but things have been busy this year!  School started on July 31 (which I love), and our long fall break is right around the corner already!  I know some people hate that school starts so early, but with two weeks off during fall, Christmas and spring breaks, I'm a real convert.  Plus, to be honest, my kids are ready to go back after having two months off for summer!

So, into first and second grade they went!  And, the year is going swimmingly.


Grace is in first grade and has Grant's teacher from last year.  She loves school and her friends, and she is quite the social butterfly.  I used the think Grant was going to be my wild child, but truth be told, he made a huge left turn toward nerd, and my shy little Grace, as I used to think of her, is soooo confidant, soooo assured, sooo capable.  She loves art class and music class, and she's always been a good reader.  This year is the first year for actual tests, and she kind of thrives in that testing setting.  Grant doesn't like the pressure of being timed, but Grace is all over it like white on rice!

She's taking dance class again this year, and soon, she'll be taking an art class too!  As of right now, she wants to own a bakery that specializes in wedding cakes, and she spends a great deal of time drawing up her latest designs!

I was prepared for a hard start of the year for Grant, as he left the traditional second grade classroom behind in favor of a 2/3 high ability class.  We debated the move all spring, but in the end, we wanted him to be challenged.  Unfortunately, it means that he has recess and lunch with the third grade instead of the second grade, which means that all the friends he has made over the last two years are not at recess when he is--but it doesn't seem to bother him!  His work is much harder this year: essentially, he has skipped second grade math (he left first grade doing two number addition and is now expected to do four digits addition and subtraction and basic multiplication) and skipped second and third grade reading.  His spelling are words are hard (I confess, I often have to cheat when I correct his practice test), but he seems unfazed.  And, he loves school and loves that it isn't easy, and he does not seem too concerned when he does fail--which is a great thing!

Grant is in Boy Scouts again this year, and in November, he'll start back on the wrestling team.  He told me last night that he wants to be scientist or an inventor!


Sweet boy!  For the last few weeks, he has left my side at church and BSF, although reluctantly, without a tear.  Having a needy baby is new for me, but I am encouraged that he is making progress, albeit slowly.  He still has OT, but I am happy to say that he might not need it much longer.  His biggest sensory issue continues to be food, so a dietitian comes next week to help me with some ideas to put weight on the kid!  He has just started watching Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, especially on Sunday nights when we have a sitter come to watch him!  He doesn't make it too long watching TV, but he loves the songs, and he sings them all day long.

As for fall, it's hard to believe that it is almost here!  The weather is starting to cool down, and we are entering my favorite time of year!

We'll try to better with our much neglected blog...