Okay, show of hands — how many of you have spent your vacation time and dollars this past year on trips for youth sports events? Plenty of you. As youth sports become more and more sophisticated, so do the tournaments, leagues and games, often spreading out miles away from the home field. It’s not unusual to end up spending precious family vacation time in locales such as Petaluma, Calif., Muscatine, Iowa, or Odessa, Texas, fine cities all, but not exactly the names that leap off the pages of Travel and Leisure Magazine. In planning a vacation, we’re more likely to either visit family or pick a destination with more vacation allure like Orlando, Oahu or Myrtle Beach. Yet, once our kids start playing competitive youth sports, we have those vacation decisions made for us. We don’t begrudge our children the chance to play their sport against strong teams in spirited events, but these trips cut into the more relaxing and traditional vacation opportunities. As summer tournament season winds down, giving way to fall season events, there is some hope for rescuing a great vacation from the jaws of dictated destinations.
One: It’s the Journey, not the Destination. This may sound like Confucius became a cruise director, but it is sound advice. Take the time to make discoveries both as you travel to and from an event. Once you know where you are bound, fire up the search engines and find out what lies between home and field. There’s a "Friends" episode where Joey is going to drive from New York City to Las Vegas in Phoebe’s grandmother’s cab. He’s conflicted about the route he should take. If he goes north he can see the largest ball of twine, but if he goes south he can see a chicken play tic-tac-toe. It sounds goofy and unsophisticated, but those kinds of choices end up creating some really memorable family moments. While heading to Des Moines one year for the US Youth Soccer Region II Championships, we discovered a soda fountain in Wilton, Iowa that this couple had run for 60 years, never taking a vacation. They served soups, sandwiches, and of course, lots of ice cream treats. The sandwiches were on thin sliced Wonder bread and brought back memories of being called into lunch by my own mom on a lazy Saturday afternoon. The shakes were thick and made the old-fashioned way, and the root beer float foamed on top with creamy drizzles sliding down the outside of the glass. The place was filled with mementos and our boys still talk about going there. Getting off the interstate system and going into small towns along the way can reveal some very interesting and enjoyable discoveries. Include your kids in the planning and don’t forget about that old stand-by AAA when doing your research. Their Trip-kits include plenty of options for fascinating finds that can’t be located on a 65 m.p.h. roadway. In the Midwest and South all summer and fall are long stretches of old state highways that host "the longest flea markets." For example, along Highway 30, also known as Lincoln Highway, in Indiana and Ohio is the By-Way Yard Sale this Aug. 8-10. You can pick through some really wild selections of knickknacks and whatchamacallits. Giving the kids $5 each and then at the end of the day figuring out who made the best deals can be a great way to make a trip stand out. No matter how hokey something sounds, don’t dismiss it because it’s exactly these kinds of stops that prick our jaded veneers and give us memorable moments.
Two: Get Out of the Hotel Room. The game is over, the kids are on an adrenaline rush from either winning or losing, and now you have a 350-square-foot room to look forward to, crowded with the smells and energy of pre-teens and teens at loose ends. Rather than playing video games or fighting over the remote, find an activity outside of those four walls. Before traveling, check out your location to find out where there are bowling alleys, parks, museums, even movie theaters. You may not have the privilege of standing 60 minutes in line at Tower of Terror, but you can get 10 frames of bowling in for the same investment in time. If there are going to be unobstructed expanses of beaches or parks consider having the team members bring along kites for flying or Frisbees for golf, creating your own course using string to form target "holes." There may be a fun hike to be found in the area or you could hold a bird-watching contest. Instead of players banging balls down the hallways and against guest doors, take them to a park for some dribbling races. Check out outlet malls that can’t be very far away from any place you land. Ask the front desk for suggestions on how to spend an afternoon in their town. They may well know a place not readily found through the internet that can be fun. Summer Stock Theater or a local band concert might offer a relaxing evening under the stars. Organize a team dinner by calling ahead to a restaurant and asking if they can serve a meal "family style" for everyone. Lots of diners will accommodate large groups in this way. Or find a buffet such as Golden Corral, CiCi’s Pizza, or Sweet Tomato’s, where the team can eat together easily with all-you-can-eat options. If you’re really organized, you can find coupons online for these places.
Three: Use the Hotel Amenities. For many events, hotels are assigned to a team, so your options for that extra-large room or a free hot breakfast can be restricted. Wherever you land, every hotel has something it can offer you and your team from a pool, to a game room, to conference rooms for some indoor game play. In Dayton, we were assigned to a Radisson that had definitely seen better days. There was no breakfast, but it was a business hotel so there was a catering manager. We managed to arrange for a cold breakfast every morning that included cereal, cellophane-wrapped muffins, fresh fruits, juices, milk, and coffee for $3 a person. The first night there, the catering manager put together a pasta dinner with spaghetti, tomato sauce, meat sauce, garlic bread, salad, and cookies with bottled beverages for $7 a person. They usually need at least 48 hours warning but would probably appreciate a week’s notice. If there are large conference rooms available, see if you can procure one with a DVD player and projector to show movies to the team. The hotel might be able to provide a small "buffet" of popcorn, chips and soda to accompany the event for a modest price. Definitely get the family out to the pool to burn off energy, have some together time and take you out of the confines of your room. Some coaches adhere to the "no swimming" theory of downtime, so check with the coach, but in fact unless the pool is kept at 102 degrees, the effect on muscles just doesn’t exist. Check to see if the hotel has a ping pong table or air hockey that they keep in the back and only bring out on request. We found one at the Dayton Radisson, which saved the day for providing an activity. Sometimes hotels will have arrangements with health clubs in the area that you can use for free or for a small fee. And don’t forget about laundry! If the hotel doesn’t have guest laundry available, they should know where a Laundromat is located nearby. Use the trip to check out other far more interesting activities in the town while your laundry washes and dries.
Four: Don’t Feel Guilty. If these sports trips are all you can afford for vacation, then embrace them. While you may not have dreamed of visiting Ashtabula, Ohio, where my oldest grandson and family are now ensconced for the Ohio Little League State Tournament, you can make Ashtabula a great memory with preplanning and an open mind. After all, the point of a family vacation is that you are all together doing something different and relaxing. While sitting in a cabana on a sun-streaked beach may be more what you had in mind, how about sitting in the giant two-story rocking chair in Austinburg, Ohio or visiting the Victorian Perambulator Museum in nearby Jefferson, Ohio? You can lounge on any number of similar beaches, but seeing 250 baby carriages all in one place can only be experienced when you find yourself in Ashtabula! These are family times that provide a unique encounter with the environment and one another. Be sure to make a long list of what’s available in the area and let everyone have a say in where you visit. You can find great resources at americaonwheels.com, sillyamerica.com and everysingleplace.com, which list the smallest of towns giving you links to everything in the area. Pack a picnic lunch to share at a historic marker or an overlook. Laugh, sing, play silly games, get reacquainted. It won’t be a waste of good vacation time if you are making memories and finding positive experiences. If you ask the kids if they want to see the largest ball of twine, they may look at you like you lost all your marbles, but if you astonish them with the stop, you may be pleasantly surprised with the reaction. We once stopped at Metropolis, Illinois, home to Superman. It was disappointing to say the least – a tiny dairy town that had more in common with Smallville than Metropolis, but just outside of town was Fort Massac that offered nearly two hours of exploration and a great park for a picnic lunch. While our boys remember the giant Superman statue in town, they remember even better the wooden guard towers they could climb and the tiny slits through which the soldiers had to fit their rifles. In fact, the next year when we had to travel to the East Coast, the boys asked if we could go on a fort tour, which proved to be really fantastic. They even got to raise the "Stars and Stripes" over Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the birthplace of our "Star-Spangled Banner." Have fun planning, executing and enjoying these sports- enforced vacations. They can be more memorable than any theme park and a lot cheaper.