Tuesday, August 02, 2016
At the beginning of this summer I wrote a blog that detailed things to take on those long trips to soccer tournaments. Now with summer two-thirds over, but with the fall season games and tournaments on the horizon, I’d like to peek outside the car to highlight some of the ways to make those trips more organized, engaging, and educational. The latter becomes much more important in the fall and spring when our players may need to miss school in order to compete. It’s not always easy or even prudent to skip class for soccer, so parents feel that tension between academics and sport taking priority. We search for the rationalization to justify the absence. Making the trip its own reason for going rather than just a means to get from A to B could not only excuse the time out of the classroom, but also make the journey more of an adventure than a chore. After all, the United States is a vast nation with ever-changing topography, cultures, and populations. One of the great advantages of being on a travel team is being given the chance to explore and experience that variety.
Organization of any trip relies heavily on locating convenient and affordable housing on the way. While I appreciate web sites such as Trivago.com, Expedia.com, Priceline.com, and Hotels.com, none of these make discovering lodging on a specific route easy. Generally they list hotels by proximity to cities and airports without regard to the interstates or geographical locations of their listings. You can get a confusing map crowded with pin drops, but you have to do some expanding to find a clear enough overview and even then these sites don’t include the filters of price, extras like breakfast, and discounts. I’ve found I-maps to be extremely helpful (www.i-maps.com/hotel-locator/). The site lets you select a state, then a city, and then click on an interactive map with filters such as deluxe and budget hotels. On the left margin is a list of nearby cities to help find some locations that might be a better fit for your route. Finally it lists discounts available and how to obtain them for the hotels on the map. Since the map uses all significant roads, it’s very clear to see what might be the best exits for you. Despite the site’s excellent price filters, I still suggest calling the hotel directly once you’ve settled on a choice. Often the manager has the power to override the web-listed rates. If you plan to book several rooms, use that as a bargaining tool, or if you plan to book the same room for your return trip. A hotel that is $10 or $20 more expensive than another but provides breakfast is actually the better bargain. Sometimes the spread includes fresh fruit, muffins, small boxes of cereal, and yogurt that you can collect for snacks on the road. Invest in a discount club such as AAA or AARP and sign up for every loyalty program. They are free and just being a member can earn you some perks even if you haven’t collected any points.
Look for bed and board together. In other words, find hotels that are nearby restaurants that are inexpensive and acceptable to kids. I’m a big fan of the all-you-can-eat establishments, especially when traveling with teenagers. Some I’ve tried are CiCi’s, Sweet Tomatoes, Souplantation, Golden Corral, Old Country Buffet, and Ryan’s Grill. They include fresh salads which are often lacking at fast food restaurants. Since the reason we end up driving to tournaments a long distance away is often so we can take a number of kids whose families can’t afford air fares, we may caravan down as a team to share expenses, and these buffets can easily accommodate large parties. Traveling by car lets you bring along a cooler so you can make lunches on the way and during the tournament. Kids can get pretty tired of PB and J or cold cuts. To spice up the menu I turn to a great recipe web site Weelicious to find some tasty yet unusual snacks. I love this site because it separates recipes by infant, toddler, child, and teen and you can also add filters such as allergen-free recipes or specific types of foods like snacks (weelicious.com/category/snack-treats/). Some choices may be too bizarre. For example I doubt I could ever get my kids to eat beet chips even if I labeled the deep crimson snacks “Red Velvet Delights,” but there are several varieties of Rice Krispy bars and high protein muffins that aren’t dense and hard to swallow. Looking through the choices should give you plenty of options when stocking up the minivan larder.
Once you have room, board, and “in-flight” snacks arranged, you are free to discover what attractions can be found along your route. I classify these as scenic, historic, institutions, and roadside wonders. I just returned from ten days in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, which reminded me of how much spectacular, untouched beauty there is in America. Although it’s unlikely that any route to a tournament would travel through or even near these National Parks, there are plenty of smaller, accessible parks all over the United States. Even if you don’t go hiking or spend a day exploring, you can still stare at wonder for a few minutes at Devil’s Tower and Mt. Rushmore or travel along the Natchez Trace Parkway. An annual National Park Service (NPS) pass is $80 and allows the owner of the pass and all the passengers in the car admittance to any NPS property of which there are 401. Seniors can get a lifetime pass for $10 and 4th graders are eligible for a one-year pass for free. You can buy these online (www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/passes.htm) as well as plan your trips at the NPS web site (https://www.nps.gov/index.htm). The NPS oversees not just vast open lands but historical memorials, parkways, battlefields, and scenic rivers and lakeshores. Many of these locations include scenic overviews that are simple turn-offs from major roadways. Therefore, they easily included in any travel itinerary in the area. They also include some surprising options such as the National Mall in D.C.
Historical landmarks can be a great place to stop for lunch and share some of the narration of our nation’s founding and growth. Collecting many, if not all the sites is Wikipedia that includes an interactive map (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._National_Historic_Landmarks_by_state). Look for interesting and convenient stops along the road. You don’t need to spend a lot of time, and if you combine the stops with lunch or a bathroom break you won’t be extending the travel time by much. You could also take in a few museums either at an overnight stop or at your final destination. One of our favorite is the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, a city at the crossroads of the highways many of you will travel this year to tournaments. Again Wikipedia gives a great catalog of these citing that there are over 35,000 museums in the United States and using a list of states with two methods for tracking down museums in those states (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_museums_in_the_United_States). Often your local zoo and/or public museum will have reciprocating programs with institutions around the States. So supporting your local associations can also reap the benefit of not having to pay entrance fees across the U.S. Spending a day at the zoo, can be a great way to relax between matches (www.officialusa.com/stateguides/zoos/) especially if you have younger siblings along who might need the opportunity to run around while visiting some exotic creatures. Many of these memorials, museums, and zoos run educational programs in which the family can participate – another way to solve the missing school dilemma.
Finally there are those amazing roadside attractions that can make every trip especially memorable. These are things like the chicken who plays tic-tac-toe and the giant concrete elephant. They are rarely enlightening or historical; they offer little in the way of education, but they do bring a sense of wonder and delight. Doug Kirby, Ken Smith, and Mike Wilkins have spent the last 20 years scouring the U.S. for these off-beat and endearing attractions (www.roadsideamerica.com/). They update their web site daily, so check back often to see what has been added. They try to keep up to date on operating hours, entrance fees, and restrictions, but they carry a disclaimer that their information may not be current. It’s best to call to be sure. That actually would hold true for any of the things you decide to visit. A quick call while on the road to be sure that a park, museum, or attraction isn’t closed due to a special event or construction would be smart. Also check if you get a discount on admission if you buy the tickets early online. I got tickets for an event with the grandkids in Salt Lake City while I was waiting in Minneapolis for my connecting flight. Technology can make things go even smoother and be less costly.
Now you’ve got a route planned, you’ve packed in several historical and hysterical highlights, and you’re feeling a bit better about taking the kids out of school. However I’d like to suggest one additional step that will make teachers appreciate your kids upon their return: have the kids keep a travel diary. This doesn’t need to be elaborate or lengthy, but should be done as contemporaneously as possible to the sites you visit. Just get a regular notebook and ask the kids to write down their reactions to what they saw and did, not just a straight narrative. Along with saying “I went to Fort Sumter,” also write how they responded to what they saw such as “At Fort Sumter the cannons were in dark holes in the walls. Lizards and spiders were crawling all over, so it was really creepy. I don’t think I would like to have lived like that. Those soldiers were brave to endure both being shot at and lots of creepy crawlers.” Let the kids choose one or two postcards from each location that they feel demonstrate what they were most impressed with and tape those in the notebook along with their comments. If they learn anything of particular note historically about the locations they should include that as well. You can even create a themed trip (forts, waterfalls, or historic homes) or you can make it just a hodgepodge of experiences. It really doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the family has the opportunity to share in discovering all that is weird and wonderful about America.
P.S. Opening ceremony Friday August 5th for the Olympics, but soccer begins August 3rd!