Monday, February 01, 2016
Spring break is fast approaching. Not fast enough for our kids, who believe winter break was eons ago, but for us parents who have to deal with travel plans it’s coming far too soon. Many soccer clubs attend major tournaments in the weeks before, during, and after spring break — creating significant headaches for families. In the first place, all of our children seem to have completely different vacation schedules. Even within the same school district, dates can vary. Parents are put in the position of having to decide if a family trip to Florida or Texas or California for one child’s tournament trumps perfect attendance for all the siblings. That quandary is only compounded if more than one child has a tournament and they are in different states. To save money we may decide to drive, but that also adds days on to the trip making it more likely that our children will be missing school. Naturally, the travel is during peak season, so everything from planes to hotels to meals to rental cars has a premium attached. Getting soccer bags to their destination can cost extra as well. The trip will be fun, the tournament most likely satisfying, but the planning and sacrifices are gruesome.
Going to a match at home is fairly easy. Usually the car is already packed with what’s needed, so we just arrive at the field, unload our gear, and settle in to watch. The events are the same at an away tournament, but the logistics are quite different. Even if we drive to the tournament, we need cargo space for luggage, coolers, possibly even air mattresses and sleeping bags. We need to consolidate and plan carefully. What I have discovered is that there is an inverse relationship between the distance we have to travel for a tournament and the amenities available at the tournament. For example, many of venues lack bleachers. Lugging soccer chairs onto a plane isn’t possible these days and usually soccer chairs are the first thing thrown out of the trunk when pressed for storage space. This is just a tiny sliver of what we face in our planning. Our decisions haven long-term impacts. Do we sacrifice school, budget and family vacation for a tournament? What mode of transportation should we use? How do we realistically accommodate all our gear?
The first question can only be answered by each family. My advice comes from straddling the dual roles of teacher and parent, but has to be viewed through the lens of each person’s experience. As a teacher, I absolutely hate when students miss class. I teach using collaboration in small groups, and when group members are missing, things fall apart. However, I am guilty as a parent of letting my boys miss a day or two of school in order to accommodate an away tournament. So I accept the title of “hypocrite” reluctantly, but honestly. In general I expected my sons to keep up their grades and if they faltered then the opportunity to miss school for soccer flew out the window. I’d advise that standard as a good measure of whether or not to extend a vacation. One piece of advice from the teacher side of things: teachers don’t appreciate a parent asking them to “put together” a package of assignments when a child is skipping school. It’s rubbing salt in the wounds, and not a good plan for getting teachers on your side. It’s lots of extra work, and when several students ask, it’s a ton of extra work. In this age of electronics, internet, and easy transference of data, ask a fellow student to record lectures and send on assignments via email. Schools usually have a “firm” policy about taking off days before and after scheduled breaks, but they also have to be pragmatic. Families are scattered around the country due to job relocations, retirements, health concerns, and marriages. Vacations are peak times so have premium prices. Therefore families can be forgiven for looking for a financial break by scheduling travel during less expensive times. From experience I know the best approach is forewarning teachers and schools of your plans but not asking for special treatment. Luckily many tournaments are in great family vacation locales, so bringing along the troupe and having a lark of it makes sense. Usually you’ll only have one game a day, so there will be plenty of time to swim, explore, and have adventures. Thinking outside the box can provide some great savings. Our club would book with condo associations at several of the tournament locations, which gave us huge apartments for less than hotel rooms and some great amenities such as reduced greens fees for golf and a variety of pools. Resort locations usually have dozens of condo rooms available for rent, especially in those warm weather destination states. So check out those possibilities. We could often accommodate six boys in one room and had the use of kitchens to reduce food costs as well.
Deciding between driving, flying, or other transportation means juggling several options. If you drive you can save the costs of rental cars at your destination, but you will also put wear and tear on your vehicle, as well as adding days to the travel. The advantage of driving will be that you can get gear down to the tournament without much difficulty. Since so many airlines charge for checked baggage, you’ll need to factor in that expense. Some clubs will rent 15 passenger vans, but that means that families can’t join in easily. Lower gas prices allow driving to become more cost effective, especially the more passengers involved. You might even consider sharing the driving so you can motor straight through, saving a motel cost on the way. Caravanning can make the journey safer, allowing for support during the trip. I really suggest making the small investment in a AAA membership which will provide for roadside assistance, maps, and travel advisories. If your family can’t join the adventure, consider creating “team” families where those traveling take along those whose parents and siblings can’t come. If you travel by plane, check on group rates, which can be much cheaper. Most airlines will gladly accommodate your group if you plan far enough ahead. Likewise, rental car companies will provide a group rate if you promise a rental car offices that aren’t associated with an airport, rates are generally lower, sometimes even half of what you’re charged when you rent at the airport. So check their websites for locations in the city or even in the suburbs. Don’t forget about trains and buses. They can have some attractive rates if you are going from one major metropolitan location to another. The main problem is transfers to different lines can be inconvenient, but packing and shipping are much easier than by plane.
When it comes to getting your gear to a tournament, that task poses some big problems, even if you’re driving. Soccer bags are notoriously bulky. Cleats seem to explode, balls can actually explode in the changing pressure of an airliner, you need both a home and an away kit, and there’s socks, shin guards, and gloves to pile on. Then there’s the weeks’ worth of clothing, toiletries, and shoes to match. Coaches will want to bring along practice supplies, extra balls, and additional equipment. Airlines have made it more and more difficult to check unusual items due to safety and inconvenience so that baggage comes with additional costs. Forget about bringing along the soccer chairs, even umbrellas. You can purchase inexpensive things once you arrive at the tournament, but who wants the additional cost and then the waste when those items get tossed. Walk across tournament fields on the last day and you’ll seen garbage bins filled with chairs, umbrellas, and canopies. Sometimes located by the big box stores where you buy your items will be a donation bin for Goodwill, Salvation Army, or St. Vincent DePaul, which is a better way to dispose of this gear. I’ve found a great substitute at many of the sports stores such as Dick’s or Sports Authority which are very stable folding stools small enough to pack in a suitcase. They run around $19 and come with carrying straps. They will support up to 250 lbs. and are comfortable enough for a 90 minute match. I truly recommend them for travel, and they fit well in a car trunk, not taking up too much space. Collapsible travel umbrellas are great, however, look for ones that have a UV rating which mean they protect you from the sun. Which brings up another significant issue when traveling. With airline restrictions, it’s often difficult to transport sunscreen, bug spray, and lotion. So those are items you could purchase at your destination, but you will probably end up tossing much of these. Therefore, I suggest buying some 3 oz. travel bottles. Even if you check these items, you risk them leaking. So be sure to put all liquids in sealed plastic bags. There are some very nice protective bags you can buy from a luggage store or online travel gear web sites. Finally if you fly, let the air out of the soccer balls and bring along a hand pump to inflate them since changes in cabin pressure can cause balls to expand and put stress on the seams.
I’m a big advocate of away tournaments because they expand the pool of competition which is exciting for teams to test themselves against and provide some interesting locations to explore. Therefore, I think missing a few days of school if the player is keeping up with his or studies can be excused in order to have an out-of-classroom lesson. It’s difficult to balance all the factors of school, budget, family time, and team loyalty, but sometimes you do have to say no. In that case you don’t need to make excuses or feel guilty. Sports are ultimately an extra in life and shouldn’t put a family in debt or place a student behind in studies. You may get some pressure, but you have to do what is best for your situation, not for everyone else’s. When you do make the decision to attend a tournament, then you can work with others to make the trip as reasonable and unobtrusive as feasible. When possible, help out other team members by sharing a room or a ride to make the trip affordable for everyone. One of the great perks of playing a team sport is the opportunity to visit different locations, cultures, and geographies while competing. Taking advantage of these opportunities adds to our children’s life experiences, so they can be worth a few sacrifices and inconviences.