A journey of
a thousand miles
begins with a single step
This time last year, we made our way to Asheville to celebrate my growing family, but we also used it as a reason to explore a part of NC state we had yet to know! So we loaded up the car and got ready for a quick long weekend - one that we've discussed many a time to recreate. And as a part of any roadtrip, we geared up with all the essentials we need to travel the long road ahead!
For starters, this is a great trip from any part of country as the terrain is beautiful to see. But we were coming from the state of Florida, full on in summer mode and flat lands galore, so to be welcomed to crisp mountain air only a short (8 hour) drive away was amazing!
But what all did this place have in store for us? Honestly, something for everyone!
Love the great outdoors? That's what it's known for - I mean, the changing colors made us fall in love (pun totally intended).
Do you travel for food & drink? They've got a great culinary scene - with plenty of wineries & breweries for the picking!
Looking for arts & culture? The city of Asheville is an eclectic city, packed with original art & music and unique design!
Want to get wrapped up in experiences? We found a little bit of everything to make this trip perfectly ours.
Ready for more - read on to find our suggestions for what there is to do and see in this charming city nestled in the hills of western North Carolina!
What To Do?
Explore the Blue Ridge Parkway - Right in North Carolina, you will find some of the most stunning drives in the country wrapped through peaks and valleys. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a slice of the Appalachian Mountains but it feels like you're so much further away from the south. The Parkway itself starts a little ways down in Cherokee, NC, wrapped by the Great Smoky Mountains and winds all the way up to Afton, Virginia - right outside of Shenandoah National Park! And from there you don't have to stop - you can continue on to Skyline Drive to go even further north!
We opted to wake up early and hit the road so we could catch the sun rising over the peaks. Sunrise somehow always ends up being a trip activity of ours, whether we intend it to or not, and thankfully because we have caught some spectacular showcase of colors! We drove about 20 minutes from our the entrance to Craggy Gardens to watch the sky light up as we greeted a new day. It is about 12 miles from the Folk Art Center, and the Blue Ridgeway Parkway Visitor Center, which welcomes you from Asheville onto the parkway. The visitor center provides you with a ranger to meet, more information to gather, and for our kids, an opportunity to get one more Junior Ranger badge to add to their travels.
After sunrise, we drove the Blue Ridge Parkway for another hour, just taking in the scenery, and stopping off where we could to take a hike or two. Though the conditions of our morning didn't make it all that possible, as we had lots of clouds, dew and adverse conditions that made us worry about getting too far into hikes with little ones. But it is on our short list to come back to finish our trails and continue onward to Virginia - and so on!
Eat and Drink through Asheville - Food, breweries and wine galore!
Who doesn't love going somewhere and finding something great to eat! It's even better when there are more choices than you can handle!
Burntshirt Vineyard is in Hendersonville, a short drive south of Asheville but with some great mountain vibes. Situated on a quiet country road, the tasting room faces the vineyards and the grounds are as charming as you'd expect. You can dive into a wine tasting experience, order by the bottle or glass, and enjoy food right on site!
We were told about two well-known establishments to eat at while there - and we made sure we tried both! We hopped over to Biscuit Head for breakfast one morning at their West Asheville location (there are also locations by the Biltmore and Hendersonville, and a location in Greenville as well). It's known for what its name says - biscuits! From biscuit sandwiches to biscuit donuts - but if you prefer the regular variety, the jam is also where it's at! This breakfast was phenomenal - only complimented by the Maple Bacon Latte (it IS as delicious as it sounds)!
Our other eat was to Tupelo Honey where we chose a brunch time stop as well. They're in quite a few states, but none near us in FL, so we knew we needed to stop. Plus, this was able to take us into downtown Asheville where we had yet to explore and enjoy the experience surrounding it. The cafe was eclectic and definitely reflected the vibe of the city, adding to the charm of this whole area. We opted to try the Southern Shakshuka with a fully loaded Bloody Mary on the side. And if this sounds great to you, you're in luck - they serve brunch all day!
Last but not least, BREWERIES! This is what they're all about and much of the appeal of visiting. Everything from local favorites to brands you make recognize at home, you can find it here. We went out our first night to experience the South Slope district and visit a few breweries true to the Asheville scene - Green Man Brewery and Catawba Brewing. But they are only two of the many that call this city home! A little further out is New Belgium Brewing, best known for its Fat Tire brand. Visiting was a great change of pace as it was outside city limits and had grounds to run around (especially with little ones along). But if you're looking to relax with an opportunity to let the kids frolick, we hear that Sierra Nevada in Mills River (just outside of Asheville) is one of the best at providing a family friendly experience and atmosphere with amazing views.
Apple picking is in season - It wouldn't be fall without pumpkins, apples, cider and doing all the great things that come with it! We made sure that our plans included apple picking, a rarity for these Floridians, and the weather couldn't have made it more perfect. It was brisk and overcast, creating the perfect mix of that fall feel.
We enjoyed our time at Stepp's Hillcrest Orchard, where they offered U-Pick apples by the basket -only fill up what you plan to take! We ended up picking a whole basketful and taking home more apples than we could eat. Needless to say, there were a lot of apple delicacies made back home - in combination with the goodies we purchased. on site their Farm Market.
See Asheville - We had a jam packed weekend so didn't get to do EVERYTHING we wanted to - more breweries, more arts, more mountain hikes ... visit the Biltmore! And that's all on in addition to time relaxing and just taking in the wilderness!
But we did find time to squeeze in time in Downtown Asheville and get a feel for the city that so many call home. We explored during a quiet weekday morning where we got a good sense of what all it has in store - a mix of old world charm meets modern expression - and we can only imagine the energy this city exudes with street musicians, culinary tours, the arts and so much more!
There's so much more here than we were given the time to see, so we leave you with this - plan wisely and make sure you spend enough time there to truly explore Asheville!
Where to stay?
The appeal of this destination is staying in a cabin, lighting a fire, and enjoying the surrounding wilderness. What a dream! If it's yours, BOOK AHEAD! There is no time like the present to plan a few months (to a year) out as it does book up FAST!
We opted to stay at a hotel - only because we were limited in how much time we'd be here, and more time would be spent out rather than in. So we needed to stay in a place central to the Asheville and surrounding area, since we had a lot of commuting to do. We chose the Holiday Inn East Asheville, right off Tunnel Road. And if you have an itinerary packed with things to do, this hotel is a great stay! The Holiday Inn has really updated their brand and we are pleased with all they have to offer, especially when traveling with kids and looking for conveniences. This hotel is near the highway to take you into the city or the roads to lead you to the Blue Ridge - so even if Asheville is just a stop for you on a bigger journey, this place is the perfect gateway for a comfortable stay.
If you're looking for a destination that can provide you a true appreciation for the beauty of nature, as well as get you a chance to dine and drink new flavors, and allow you to appreciate art of all kind - well, then Asheville is calling!
So when are you going to go?
Anyone watch National Lampoon's Vacation and then want to do a big American road trip like the Griswolds - antics and all?
I always did! And when COVID-19 came along and interrupted our original summer plans, we scrambled to find a Plan B. We devised a last minute option, pulled out of the hat in an attempt to salvage the spring break we didn't have and the summer vacation we were still uncertain of.
Our itinerary eventually took us 6,000 plus miles, across 17 states, and visiting many new sites we hadn't seen together as a family. Our goal was to hit a handful of National Parks, but also to take our time to get there, and getting to see states we didn't always have a reason to go to. We knew the time spent in each place would be limited, but our visits were meant to be an appetizer, not the main course. And we decided if we fell in love with any place, we could always come back at a later time for more.
So here are some of the questions I've received about what we did, why and how. Just know that these decisions are very much based on us and our travel style, and could & should be customized to you.
Car or RV?
We opted for a car - our personal car for that matter - to do this trip. A RV would give us lodging and transportation in one, but we faced a few obstacles with that.
1. This trip was so last minute, we didn't know if we'd be able to find a RV to rent, a spot in RV parks to camp in, and where even start looking.
2. As you can see, we're not RV versed; we've never even driven one, so we decided taking one cross country for the first time may not be the smartest idea.
So we opted to take our car, which has always been in healthy condition and with low mileage. We took it in for a routine oil change and check-up before traveling and now that we're back, we'll take it in again to see if any maintenance is needed (we know that at the very least it will need an oil change). Best of all, we have a trusted auto shop doing it all - if you need a recommendation.
My dad manages a shop here in Orlando (Universal Service Center), and I highly recommend him for anyone looking in the area - whether you're a local needing a place or a visitor wanting to get a quick tune-up before heading home. Best of all, he's right in the tourist corridor (behind Universal Orlando), so he's fairly accessible to anyone.
In either case, you will be spending on gas - but what a better time! Many states were under $2/gallon, so filling up was cheap. We also tried to save on gas prices in other ways:
Hotel or Rental?
Now that the RV is out, we'd need a place to stay. We prefer hotels over rentals to begin with because there's an element of surprise that's eliminated when booking a hotel.
You have a preferred brand? You know what to expect.
You're a loyal guest? You can and likely will get upgraded.
You have an issue with your room? You can ask to be moved, which you can't do in a rental - you're stuck with what you've booked.
We also had two asks during this time that we knew we could depend on hotels for - cleanliness standards being upheld and flexibility with our booking. Corporations have a lot on the line right now with making sure they're meeting regulations and ensuring guests feel safe, so we knew that brand standards would be even more dependable than an independent operator. And let me tell you, they were! Every place we stayed at did a great job of making sure that we, and all other guests, were comfortable while still operating a service-based business. I applaud them all for their efforts to adapt and improve standards during this time.
Below is a listing of the chains that we booked with and information from their own websites on how they are reassuring guests about their new protocols.
We also wanted the most flexibility in changing plans - in case we ran into an issue of wanting/needing to change our route. And many of the top chains are offering generous cancellation policies right now. See again the chains we stayed at and their current booking policies (but always check rates and policies at booking as they're subject to change).
When booking a hotel, though location was always key, our second factor was if breakfast was included. We try to book places where breakfast is included in the rate, because its soooo much easier in the morning with always hungry kids. And though each chain is handling their meal service in a different manner right now, all that offer breakfast in their rate still had it available with modifications (how it was offered varied between brand and location).
We also made sure that a few hotels we booked had self-service laundry available for our use. We packed light - one week but were on the road for two, and knew we'd have to cycle through cloths possibly a few times (especially with hikes and kids). Let me tell you, this made all the difference traveling and was a huge convenience! If you're considering this, I recommend bringing your own laundry detergent and maybe a few dryer sheets - it will save you on purchasing it from the hotel. Just make sure you buy powder vs liquid as all the machines we used utilized that.
We packed lots of snacks! Everyone got a box of their snack of choice and had little snack packs rationed for the day.
If breakfast wasn't available at our hotel, it was the easiest go to meal at a grocery store, with breakfast bars, Pop Tarts, cereal and LOTS of fruit stocked up on.
The number one thing have on hand is water. We grabbed (at least) a gallon at each stop to have with us on the road, in case of emergency or for prepping for our hikes. We also brought reusable water bottles for all and refilled as we went - you'll encounter higher altitudes and drier conditions where being hydrated is essential. Since we were caring for our own things, we also brought a small bottle of dish soap and a sponge, so we were able to clean our bottles daily to ensure we were staying clean.
While eating on the go, we also had fun with it, especially if the plan was to eat out of the car. So where we weren't eating from grocery store stops, we utilized this list of the best fast food in every state (or neighboring state, in some cases) and tried to eat like the locals did! And we found some really great spots we'll recommend as we go along!
Other Must Haves
So here's the fun part, our full itinerary! We'll tell you where we went, what we did, and any additional notes below to help plan!
Note, all our suggestions are based off what we did and what we intended to do. We didn't get to do it all, because our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, but we also loved every bit of our trip! Flexibility is key so customize your schedule as you see fit for you and yours! Just make sure that you do the non-negotiables so you're not disappointed. I'll also mention alternate plans we had in mind so you can make a schedule for yourself.
Like we mentioned before, we prefer hotels over rentals. We also don't have a preferred brand, and booked based off reviews/recommendations. But things could change, so always call ahead and double check - and make alternate plans as needed.
We ate off recommendations and limited how many sit down meals we had. Though we did eat out every so often because it is good for your sanity to be around others and help the service industry serve (they were so appreciative of us being there every single time). We also found that many places offered an order ahead option online, so as we were approaching our destination or getting hungry, we'd create an order for pick up.
We had a rain plan for every stop, just in case - some of them were not necessary because we were willing to get dirty. Most of our rain plans involved what we could do for free. We're Orlando Science Center members, and so we made a list of the reciprocal locations available via the ASTC Travel Passport Program (labeled here as ASTC) so we could utilize our perks. If you have the same available, look into it - usually available with a zoo, children' museum, or other annual pass program. Once again, call ahead to see how they are handling their particular program and honoring reciprocal visitors - we didn't use ours, but many places were requiring timed reservations so we would need to speak to the facility itself to arrange.
Day 1 Orlando, FL to Atlanta, GA (6 hours and 15 minutes)
We made this stop to visit some close friends, so our plans aren't your typical greater Atlanta plans - but they were a perfect kick-off for us! We went peach picking at Gregg Farms, because while in Georgia - and their peach ice cream was also the best thing I've ever tasted (for someone who only likes chocolate).
We had initially discussed going (and staying) out at Stone Mountain, so we could social distance hike. That would be our top recommendation for the area if wanting to stay outdoors.
If you're going to set your eyes on Stone Mountain, the Atlanta Evergreen Marriott Conference Resort is right on property and super convenient.
What's more Georgia than Chick-Fil-A? We were told about Truett's Luau of the Tik-Tok fame - what's greater than Hawaii meets CFA? If you prefer another option, check out Dwarf House instead - the original Chick-Fil-A! We did a few years back and loved that we got to see where it all started - and with a few new menu options too!
Fernbank Science Center (ASTC Passport), Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola
Day 2 Atlanta, GA to Nashville, TN (4 hours and 45 minutes)
We got a late start out of Georgia to Tennessee because we were having a hard time (and lots of tears) leaving friends behind. But once we got on the road we set our eyes on making a quick stop in Chattanooga, to either eat or do a quick bit of sightseeing. We ended up doing a little bit of both. We ordered lunch on the road as we neared and got the fried catfish at Uncle Larry's which was fantastic! After touring the town by car, because we ran into a little rain, we decided to stop and see the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo!
If we had more time (or better weather) in Chattanooga though, we had included the option of going to check out Ruby Falls/Rock City/Lookout Mountain!
We then headed onward to Franklin, TN about 30 minutes south of Nashville. Here we changed to Central Time & gained a whole hour in our day! Friends in the area told us to check out Arrington Vineyards & so that's what we intended to do. The weather cleared up as we arrived so we had a chance to be outdoors and allow the kids to run around a lot of pent up energy. And what a great place it was! We spent the afternoon outside, at a beautiful vineyard, enjoying fantastic wine.
And finally on to Nashville, TN, where we spent the night! We made sure to walk the city, to check out Broadway and drive by the Grand Ole Opry, but were mainly here as a place to sleep near the highway. There wasn't a lot in terms of kid-friendly things to do, but we also arrived by dinner time, having done all the fun stuff we wanted to do (with with friends was perfect), so we grabbed food and settled in to our hotel.
If you're hungry for something local, make sure to stop by Hattie B's for Nashville Hot Chicken - and use the order online to pick-up instead of waiting in line! The lines are going to be long - there are several locations and both that we drove past had lines out the door.
Hyatt Place Downtown with breakfast included (operating close to normal)! The hotel is central in Nashville, only a few blocks from Broadway and just off the river. We loved that we were somewhere we could walk downtown without being caught in the middle of it all.
Adventure Science Center (ASTC), Grand Ole Opry
Day 3 Nashville, TN to St. Louis, MO (4 hours and 30 minutes)
The drive between the two cities will actually take you through two other states - Kentucky and Illinois. So just for the fun of it, we ate on the road and did as the locals did with KFC (which admittedly the kids & I had never had)!
Our first National Park visit was also on the list for arrival - The Gateway Arch! It's fairly easy to get to when coming into St. Louis, as you'll pass right next to it, but it wasn't open to visit while we were there. We still got the iconic picture under the arch as we entered the gateway to the west - and if you're looking to do the National Park Junior Ranger program, you can still complete the program online by downloading and mailing in so your kids can get their badge for seeing this location.
We had also listed the options of visiting the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Union Station, Forest Park, Citygarden, or grab a drink in one of many breweries, and if we were spending more time in the city, we would! For us though, this was a chance to catch up with friends we hadn't seen in years, so our time there was time well spent. But had we been on our own, all of the above was recommended and was well-intended on our list.
Be sure to stick around to see fireflys at night - we had them in Atlanta, Nashville and here - but the kids actually got to catch some with friends while in STL. It was the best thing ever for Florida kids who don't get that back home!
Hyatt Regency The Arch which is located right under the arch! And it was fairly accessible to many of the sites we planned to do.
St. Louis Science Center (ASTC)
Day 4 St. Louis, MO to Omaha, NE (6 hours)
As we left St. Louis, the drive took us through Kansas City - so we made sure to see a few of the Walt Disney Landmarks on the Missouri side, being the Disney fans that we are! We were also there in time for lunch, so were told to check out Joe's BBQ in Kansas City.
The restaurant itself is in Kansas City, KS, so you can add another state to the list when you cross the state line that runs through the city. Joe's was another order ahead and drive up to pick up place - we split The Hogamaniac so we could try a little bit of everything and it was as good as it was said to be!
We then drove on to Omaha, a stop we intended to break up the long drive across South Dakota to Badlands and Mount Rushmore. We chose Omaha because we had friends in the city we hoped we could visit with, but we also considered staying in Sioux Falls, SD - if you want a different stop.
The Omaha Zoo is one of the best in the country and we were told to visit when we came - but they were requiring timed entries and we didn't have all the time we wanted to see it, so had to skip it. So instead we walked the city to get to know it and crossed the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, that allows you to walk into Iowa from Nebraska. The very casual experience - getting to walk a suspension bridge over the Missouri River & into another state- was all the rage to the kids!
There's also another National Park available at the site, Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, so we intended to get a Junior Ranger badge here. Unfortunately it also remains closed, but luckily the with the NPS offering the option to complete the workbooks online and mail in to receive a badge, we saved ourselves from tears.
We were told to visit Old Market and in particular eat at Spaghetti Works with kids. We also happened to be there on Monday, when kids eat free, so it was an added parenting win for us.
Holiday Inn Express Downtown – Old Market had breakfast included and a place to do laundry. The hotel is a little way off of Old Market, but we didn’t mind the walk which put us near museums and a quieter part of town. This hotel also tried to operate normally, providing us gloves and requiring masks for our full breakfast buffet, and allowing the gym to stay open but with wipes to clean down machines.
Day 5 Omaha, NE to Badlands, SD (6 hours and 30 minutes)
The drive over was a lot of green and farm and all you'd expect from being in the Midwest- until you actually get to Badlands. But in a small ray of hope, you'll gain a whole hour heading west here as you cross over into Mountain Time Zone.
Badlands National Park is an easy drive through with a few pull offs to hike - we spent about two hours between driving through and exploring on foot. But if you want to just enjoy the drive, it is enough to appreciate this location and its ever changing beauty. You'll come in from the Northeast Entry and drive the Badland Loops Road through the park.
The Ben Refiel Visitor Center is a short drive from the entry, and though it's doors are shut, Rangers are posted outside under tents to answer questions and provide Junior Ranger Activity Books and Badges. They'll give parents the book & the badge and "deputize" us, so we can later swear in the kids to being rangers, once completing their activities. The experience is a little lost for those who haven't done this before, but for us a huge time savings - we didn't have to worry about driving back to the Ranger to earn the badge, so it was much appreciated to not have to on this trip!
We got out at Big Badlands Overlook, Fossil Exhibit Trail, Panorama Point, and Burns Basin Overlook to enjoy a few walks and wildlife up close (listen for the rattlesnakes). The animals are abundant and you want to take them all in. If you want to see more, near the end, take Sagecreek Rim Drive. You'll take a dirt road that will lead you to prairies, where you'll find prairie dogs, big horn sheep and bison all near the side of the road. This was a huge hit for all to be so close to everything!
From there, you're only a hour and half drive to Mount Rushmore. The Mount Rushmore Memorial is currently open until 10p during summer, with the Evening Lighting Ceremony at 9p. After we checked out into our hotel, we headed over to be able to see it before it got dark and for the ceremony itself. The Memorial does cost $10 to park and it is not included in the NPS pass. So if you do want to make the most of your visit here, come earlier in the day to spend more time here - though a ton of time is not needed. And make sure to get your kids a Junior Ranger Badge here too - so far this was the 4th of the trip!
You'll also want to make sure to see Crazy Horse Memorial while you're in the Keystone area - we stopped by the morning we were leaving and got to see the artifacts and hear the story about this monument. It's a separate entry cost but your contribution goes a long way to keep the foundation alive. We didn't know much about it before going, but we are so glad we got to stop and visit. The story behind it is moving and the mission is inspirational; you'll have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate the full scope. The memorial itself is an ongoing project that will continue to finish for generations to come - so you will always see a different view of this massive rock sculpture between visits as it works towards completion.
If you have a full day to spend in the area, you can easily spend it between both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse and be truly inspired by the legacy of these monuments.
Holiday Inn Express Mount Rushmore in Key Stone, South Dakota was only 10 minutes from Mount Rushmore with breakfast included. The hotel is located in beautiful Keystone which is only a short drive from Mount Rushmore. It can be a bit of a tourist trap, but as far as cute mountain towns go, it’s worth seeing. The hotel also offered a full breakfast buffet and opened seating outside to limit the number of people in their dining space.
Burger Time is a North Dakota staple, but we found one in South Dakota along our pathetic and decided to try it out!
Play in the rain!
Day 6 & 7 Keystone, SD to Jackson, Wyoming (8 hours and 30 minutes)
You have a long drive through Wyoming to get to your next park, and this is how we started planning our double days. Anywhere that we would take a 7+ hour to get to, we ultimately decided to do two overnights in. We could've done longer, but it would also have changed the number of parks we saw and the route we took back home. And since we were set on seeing certain parks, this is the plan we all agreed on.
Grand Teton National Park is right outside Jackson, and you can drive through part of the park to get to Jackson itself. The park is open 24/7 and is only a few minutes from Jackson, a charming little city every bit worth seeing.
We looked up a list of family hikes in Grand Teton, knowing we wanted to do something, but not get too adventurous (we didn’t have bear spray on us, of course). And with little ones, hikes can't get to go too far or we'd end up leaving one of them behind. So we enjoyed being outdoors here, taking in mountain views we don't get back home, and seeing this incredible place formed from an earthquake. We walked over to Jenny Lake and hiked the String Lake Trail at sunset, which couldn't have been more perfect to round out the day.
The Junior Ranger program was also available here, so they were given a book and a badge to complete as they explored!
Once you're in Grand Teton, you can drive straight through an hour & 15 minutes north to reach Yellowstone National Park. We reserved this for the next day, so we could spend as much of the day as possible exploring. We packed lunch, got on the road early, and made it to the park a little after 9am. We had mapped out the drive round-trip through the park, which would take about 4 hours with no stops to complete. But once we arrived we were given current maps indicating that some roads were closed including the one that would make the round trip drive possible - Tower-Roosevelt to Chittenden Road (the closest parts of the park to Montana).
We instead decided to take shorter route with stops along the way - the first one was to see Old Faithful. The NPS website will make geyser eruption predictions and you can also check at the entrance to the park on arrival. Once you're in the park, cell service is EXTREMELY limited, so if you're trying to find updates, you'll need a hot spot to connect.
Old Faithful has seating set up around it to watch the eruption - it becomes a people magnet and for those of us that don't enjoy crowds, unappealing. We watched the eruption from behind in a grassy area under the shade, acting us unFloridian as they come. But there was no one gathered near us and made for better views. We then decided on a hike around Upper Geyser Basin to see the other geysers and pools. It does get a little crowded in spots, but its easy to avoid people as long as you keep on moving. We also got to see a second eruption of Old Faith from our hike, from a distance on our way back down Upper Geyser Basin Trail, and it was actually more impressive than being up close.
We continued north towards Madison then back easy to Norris Canyon Road to see Lower and Upper Falls. Lamar Valley, a great area to see wildlife is tucked away in the far northeast corner near the road closures, so we knew we'd be giving up that since we didn't want to drive back the way we came. But the path we took, east to Norris Canyon Road and then south to Grand Loop Road, took us right by Hayden Valley, another great area to see wildlife. And wildlife did we see! Wildlife jams are a thing here, so don't be surprised to get caught in traffic to find a bear, moose, coyote or bison (of many other animals) on the side of the road. Our kids didn't know better missing out on Lamar Valley, and since we didn't want to add extra time to our drive, we were happy with all we got to see with this modified route. We finished with exploring the West Thumb region, near Yellowstone Lake, before calling it a (long) day in the park.
If you're looking to spend more time in the park though, we recommend checking out this site for a few family hikes. The park is open 24/7 and over the summer, sunset is after 9p. Do come prepared though, since there aren't many market places or gas stations in the park, so top off when you get a chance and make sure to have enough water and snacks. Also come in layers - the nights in late June/early July easily got in the 40s, but then warmed up as we neared the sun. So we definitely needed to be able to peel off and layer up depending on where we were! The park itself also warns hikers to carry bear spray with them and has it available for purchase in various spots - with the amount of wildlife near common grounds we saw, I'd definitely get some if venturing off the beaten path, especially alone or with little ones, since the wildlife seemed a little fearless of the visitors.
This is one stop where you can't get your ranger book or badge as the visitor centers are closed and the rangers are manning the park!
Hampton Inn Jackson Hole was a little way out of town square, but near a grocery store and gas station. It also came with breakfast included. The gym was open and they were doing to-go bags of breakfast with lots of food. If you don’t enjoy the selection, there’s a grocery store right next door with a Starbucks inside.
We enjoyed staying outside of the park, especially trying to divide ourselves between both. But if you’re intent on exploring Yellowstone, there is lodging available in the park and worth checking staying north, east or west of the park! Jackson is as close as you can get to Grand Teton, so you’re in a good spot to visit this park solely - or if you’re like me, and getting lost in the woods is not really your thing!
Taco John's is Wyoming's top fast food chain - a local Taco Bell with a really great potato olés!
We decided to eat out one night in Jackson, so we could see this little town too. Masks were required in Jackson, so it made us feel better about being out and about. We decided on Jackson Drug, an original soda fountain right across from a city square that the kids burned some energy running around in. I can't vouch for it, but the Elk Burger was recommended; and save room to split a dessert too - you can't come to a soda fountain without getting one!
Play in the rain!
Day 8 & 9 Jackson, WY to Moab, UT (8 hrs)
This was another long drive south, so it would once again be a 2-night stay. Personally, these were the parks I was most looking forward to seeing. The rock formation and desert climates call to me, so I was thrilled with the time we'd get time to explore here.
Moab, Utah is situated right in the middle of two National Parks - Arches and Canyonlands, so can believe that the views from the city are extraordinary. We arrived after an extremely long drive, and since the temperature went from winter to dead of summer, we knew we owed the kids some pool time. With a pool, splash pad, and hot tub at the hotel, the kids were quickly able to adapt and wear out any bit of energy they had left in the desert sun.
The city of Moab is requiring masks be worn by all, outside of exercising or outdoor activities, and our hotel did a great job of minimizing exposure of guests to each other.
The next morning we got up early and decided that we would drive out further (30 minutes to the entrance) to see Canyonlands National Park. Since Arches was easily accessible, right next to our hotel, we felt another drive out made the most sense first thing in the day. We contemplated getting up early to see the sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, since the park is open 24/7, but sleep at this point became more important than a 5am wake up. No regrets though because we all but made up for with the sunset we got at the end of the day.
We found another listing of family hikes to take, and also consulted with rangers at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center which was open. It's also a great restroom stop and last chance to pick up a gallon of water if you forget before you go exploring this park. And don't forget your ranger book and badge - at this point you're at 7 parks if you follow the trip we did!
We also opted to just stick to Islands in the Sky. The drive to The Needles was further out, and though we would have loved to have see it all, a taste was all we needed. We first drove over and hiked to Mesa Arch, which has as an extraordinary view as you'd imagine it to be. We then head over to hike Whale Rock, which was said to be an easy hike for kids, where they had a little bit more room to roam. Finally, we took the drive to Grand View Point Overlook, which was a nice mini preview of what they'd see at the Grand Canyon in the days to come. And the hike was such a wonderful walk, making you feel so small compared to everything else.
To see Arches National you have to either go early or come back late. Not just to dodge the mid-day heat, but because the park will get at capacity by lunch. We didn't find any issues with that, because after a full morning of exploring, we took a break at the hotel pool, with plans to go for an evening hike and picnic dinner.
Coming back into the park after 5 also means there's not an entry fee and the crowds are all but gone. The only thing is visitor centers and stores are closed, so come prepared - and ready to download the ranger book for mailing in. We found a few family hikes to take that would allow us to see the park but also allow us all a pace that meant fun!
We started at Balanced Rock which was a quick loop with some extraordinary views. We also had time to hike the Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail, Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch (where we stumbled upon a deer a few yards away), Broken Arch Trail, and all our favorite, Sand Dune Arch Trail. Sand Dune gave us a chance to take off our shoes, walk on powder red sand, and let the kids build castles, while we soaked in the energy from these rocks.
We also took the whole driving tour of the park and set a pace that got us to sunset before we left. My one ask was to see the sunset here, while my husband wanted to star gaze - so we found Panorama Point where we got the best view of the park and the setting sky. Before we left to take our star gazing drive, we were surprised to see the full moon illuminating the La Sal Mountains as it rose behind it. It was such a surprise to catch this special view - we knew that we now wouldn't be able to see stars, but ended up with the best show we could ask for!
Hyatt Place Moab with breakfast included and a place to do laundry. The rooms were a very generous size and the hotel was immaculately kept. It is the closest hotel to the road leading to the parks, so if you don’t mind staying on the outskirts of Moab (which is easy to get into anyways), this is the perfect spot! They still offered breakfast to-go - where you asked the kitchen staff for items they’d load up in a bag. The gym was also still open and asked to limit the number of guests in at a time.
In-N-Out Burger is one of our absolute favorite places in the west, so you can bet finding a location on our drive meant a stop! It seemed to be the same for the city of Provo, as there was a quite a wait in the drive-thru to get a late lunch. But we got our Protein-Style Burgers and Animal-Style fries and lived happily ever after.
Does it rain here?
Day 10 & 11 Moab, UT to Sedona, AZ (7 hours and 45 minutes)
One thing to note is that entering the state of Arizona, they're on Mountain Standard Time, which right now mimics Pacific Time. So we (by surprise) gained another hour which we weren’t expecting - now at a 3 hour difference from back home.
We wanted to drive south to Grand Canyon via Monument Valley but all Native American lands are closed currently, so we couldn't access it. Also expect when driving a vast majority of this drive to not have many to any places to stop. This area was literally shutdown - not even a person in sight.
We had intended to come in through Highway 64 at Desert View (eastern side) of the Grand Canyon, drive the rim to the west and exit via the South Rim outside the city of Tusayan. But times being as they are, they didn't have the highway or Eastern entrance open, which gave us a longer drive to and through Flagstaff to get into Southern Rim to enter (and exit) the park.
But not to be taken for granted, we got to see on this drive, the range that made the exterior part of the Grand Canyon. We had once before visited the south rim of Grand Canyon coming in from Las Vegas - and entering is a surreal experience. You drive through a forest - Kaibab Forest - and green is not much of what we expected from a canyon!
The Grand Canyon had one Visitor Center Store near Mather Point open where you could get your ranger book and badge. They required masks when visiting in and outside the area to reduce exposure and limit contact that the employees had with guests. We knew that this region of the canyon was not one we would do a lot of exploring in, because the hikes are more treacherous, so we opted to walk the trail at Mather Point and then head over to Grandview Point for a little hike (before deciding we rather not).
We have full intentions of coming back to Grand Canyon when they're a little older, so the short visit here was worth it just for their reactions alone. We have our sights set on taking them to the Western Rim later, which would give us all an opportunity to view the Canyon in a different light. Plus with a lot more stuff to do there, a trip for older kids is definitely on the docket!
We planned to stay in Sedona, two hours south of Grand Canyon, as we heard so much about what a wonderful desert retreat this is. We also knew there were family hikes we could do with kids in the area, while also relaxing before we started the long days of driving back east. We visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross, enjoyed the pool at our resort, and then spent the evening with a picnic dinner and enjoying the Bell Rock Trailhead. Your America the Beautiful Pass is also available for use last state parks, where you would otherwise need a day pass to park and access.
Hilton Bell Rock was the perfect retreat! The resort was very through in explaining Hilton’s CleanStay initiative and ensuring we understood all measures they’re taking to stay safe. The have a restaurant on-site still operating with mainly outdoor seating being used. They also keep their pool open in shifts, so they have an opportunity to clean and sterilize throughout the day. The pool never got busy and didn’t change any of the enjoyment or experience for us with the limited times.
Eegee's and try the frozen drinks!
Does it rain here?
Day 12 Sedona, AZ to El Paso, TX (8 hours)
White Sands is only an hour outside of El Paso, so we chose to stay here with hopes of visiting our next National Park. Before we even left on our trip, the park was still shutdown, but we still opted for this route - a sacrifice we knew could come. When started our road trip, White Sands had opened back up, so were excited about our plans coming back to life! When we arrived to the New Mexico border though, clear highways signs mandated a quarantine of all visitors for 14 days, so we drove straight through the state to Texas.
This was one of the longest drives of the trip with the shortest turn around when getting back on the road - and driving back east we lost a whole hour thanks to those time zones that at once point worked in our favor. So we arrived in enough time to grab dinner and settle in. We had found information on visit El Paso with kids, but decided that we were all spent -and another day of long driving called for a nice relaxing evening at the rooftop pool.
Plus, just taking in that you’re a few miles from Mexico, was an experience all its own. The culture here embraces their proximity to Mexico, and we saw several Mexican license plates mixed in with local ones as we played the license plate game on our trip (42 of 50 states, 3 provinces in Canada, 1 Mexico). It was definitely a city we appreciated getting to pass through and really makes you question all those borders we want to make exist. Being here, you see people just live all one and the same, only an imaginary line distinguishing the two nations. The people are so infused in both cultures, you already feel like you’re in a different place, but also one that feels so familiar.
We ordered from the restaurant attached to the hotel, Mamacita's, which was also highly regarded in the city! With a twist on every Mexican dish, we enjoyed the Bacon Wrapped Shrimp with Jalapeno Jam dip.
Relax for the next long drive back home
Day 13 El Paso, TX to San Antonio, TX (7 hours and 45 minutes)
Texas is big, y'all. Like really big.
And this stretch of the drive on I-10 is nothing but long and boring. Actually, the most interesting part was driving through a Border Patrol Checkpoint as we glided parallel to the Rio Grande (you know, the dividing line to Mexico). We didn't know this would be a requirement for the drive until we put it on our GPS. But because of the proximity to Mexico - in some spots you're only a few miles off - there is a checkpoint in either direction of the highway near El Paso that you quickly (but timidly) pass through.
We knew we would need to break from staring at nothing but desert, so we opted to stop in San Antonio for the night. We did lose another hour here too, so it made sense to take a break.
We arrived knowing we wouldn't be able to see The Alamo because it was closed thanks to Corona, but we were able to walk by it and tell the kids the history and significance of it still standing. We also decided to take a boat tour after walking the River Walk. Much of the River Walk is open and Texas is requiring that masks be worn out in public, so we felt very safe being outdoors in limited crowds and showing our kids this charming spot.
Go Rio Cruises is operating their narrated boat tours on limited capacities - 10 people per boat and spaced out per group. Boats are running every 30 minutes and being sanitized thoroughly between each shuttle. We had done the same tour years ago when we came, and were accustomed to overcrowded tourist attractions and playing footsies with strangers. So to now be able to sail in comfort and also do so feeling safe, was a very welcome change.
Hilton Palacio Del Rio with laundry available. The hotel is right on the River Walk and once again emphasized the Hilton CleanStay standards. The customer service in this spot was also superb - probably some of the best of all trip!
Iron Cactus was right on the River Walk where we got to eat outside with the birds and ducks. The Crab Stuffed Jalapeños were THE best (and so was the jalapeño margarita)!
DoSeum & Witte Museum (ASTC)
Day 14 San Antonio to Galveston (3 and 45 minutes)
My husband spent part of his younger years in Texas and one place he remembers going to is Galveston to play on the beach with his family. It was his one ask in the trip, so we worked it out to see a blast from his past. This gave us a chance to see a part of who he was, while also enjoying a short stop on our way back.
The Strand Historic District has shopping and food that you can walk only a few blocks from the cruise piers (when they are operational). Pleasure Pier was further down from our hotel, an amusement park over the Gulf. But for us, this was a stop to enjoy the beach of the Gulf! And we did so until the sunset.
Double Tree by Hilton was right across from the beach and was a perfect location to social distance! There was a pool with a bar on-site and limited dining ( to-go food to purchase), but plenty of restaurants within walking distance.
Miller's Seawall Grill had the best seafood platter made for sharing - gumbo, fish, shrimp, crab, and oysters!
Houston Space Center is only a short drive from Galveston and an ASTC location or pay a visit to the pyramids of Moody Gardens.
Day 15 Galveston, TX to New Orleans, Louisiana (5 hours and 45 minutes)
We came to New Orleans just this past fall and fell in love with the city. We enjoyed that our first time was adults only, and remarked how much the kids would love the new meets the old charm of this city. And even saved some things to do with them - like take a ride down the Mississippi on a steam boat.
Little did we know we'd be back so soon and with the chance to come here to see the city tamed down to a pint-sized version. Since our route was going to take us in through the panhandle we decided to stop and see NOLA in rare form - kid-friendly.
Unlike back in November, the street cars were running on Canal Street and we took one down to French Market to start showing them the city on foot. We took them riverside and showed them around the French Quarter. We decided to ride the Steamboat Natchez at its evening sailing, so grabbed a quick bite of traditional food to eat before boarding.
The crew on the Natchez enforced masks and had temperature checks before guests boarded. They spaced out seating, and made sure rules were being followed. A band played as we sailed the river, and the members that did not have instruments requiring mouthpieces wore masks. And the boat was not crowded, a welcome change from what I'm sure the typical summer months would bring.
Intercontinental was where we had stayed on our visit in November. We decided to come back because we liked its location - far enough from the action, but close enough to points of interest. And to be completely honest, I do an extensive search of Tripadvisor before any of my stays to ensure that "haunted" does not show up at hotel of choice (yes, I'm that person - but I can guarantee you are getting a through search from me). This one was one of the very, very few that came back all good!
Cafe du Monde for the beignets
The Original French Market for the shrimp boil
Acme for the oysters
... and we have even more recommendations from our couples' trip out here!
Louisiana Children’s Museum (ASTC)
Day 16 New Orleans, Louisiana to Orlando (9 hours)
This drive could have been worse, but we took a quick pit-stop in Panama City Beach to see their cousin. It's been a long 4 months since they had, as I'm sure its been for many, so it was nice to just give him a big hug.
They took us to Sharky's to enjoy beach views, time in the sand, and lunch before hitting the road again back to Orlando. The smoked tuna was shared by all as the best thing on the menu!
Once you're back in your home state, the time just seems to fly by, and this was the easiest of all the long drives we did - though the longest day of driving. We got home late at night and exhausted enough that the time change settled in pretty quickly.
How'd It Go?
It was a lot of driving, but it was so completely worth it!
We didn't have to alter many of our plans, only make a few concessions when we couldn't get into National Parks or down certain roads because of closures. Yet we went in expecting that and weren't (too) disappointed with some slight deviations.
It helped very much having a plan of what you wanted to do, so we always had a goal in mind. But it helped even more to have flexible plans that we could adjust if needed!
If you're planning on doing a similar trip, we recommend giving yourself the same type of grace we did - always not just now. It is work to make it work out.
Overall, go in with a good attitude and a solid plan B, and we promise it'll be smoother than expected. And most of all, enjoy the ride!
The city that never sleeps. It is hands down one of our favorite places in the world - the bright lights, the hustle & bustle, the energy from the city and its people. You get caught up in it from the moment you set foot in the concrete jungle.
Yet our kids had a chance to experience it outside a layover visit and when our eldest was just an infant. We were all teeming to go, and with dear family friends getting married, we had the perfect reason to. So we decided we were going to send off summer break with a few days in the city!
But how do you design a kid-friendly trip to the Big Apple and what all is there you can really do with kids?
Here’s a glimpse of must-sees while in NYC along with a rough design of your trip!
Battery Park, Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
This is a day long activity if you want to enjoy it right! And for us, it was how we started day one of our city tour.
We pre-purchased tickets via the official vendor, Statue Cruises, prior to arrival to guarantee an entry time and save time from waiting in line. Checking out tickets before hand can also allow you to get the coveted Pedestal or Crown tickets, as both are limited in quantities. Pedestal tickets are the same price as the regular tickets (which get you ferry access to the islands), so it is worth trying to get your hands on these. Pedestal tickets are the the only way you'll be able to get into the Statue of Liberty, with a whole museum to check out at her base. Crown tickets are even harder to come by; they do cost a little more and allow only those 48" & taller up to climb the statue all the way up to her crown. But if you do manage to get these tickets, it is so worth it - even just to say you made it to the top!
While you're on Liberty Island, make it a point to get your kids their Junior Ranger badges. Not familiar with the program? Certain National Parks around the US offer booklets and activities for kids to complete while visiting the parks. Once complete, find a ranger, review your activities and receive an official badge after a swearing in ceremony. It has definitely been a hit for the kids during our trips and a fun FREE activity to find while we're visiting national parks around the US!
If possible, before you even visit, read some books about the Statue of Liberty. "Her Right Foot" by David Eggers was our favorite and taught the kids so much about what they were looking at. They were eager to find her right foot and talk about what it symbolized once looking at her in person.
Hop the ferry over to Ellis Island next, to learn about an icon in immigration to America. This was the thoroughfare for immigrants arriving by boat and the first place that they set foot on before making their way to their new home. Kids have another opportunity to earn a Junior Ranger badge here, which makes touring the facility that much more intriguing, even for adults! We learned so much more through the activities they were doing as we were looking at this relic with different lens. We also made it a point to visit The American Immigrant Wall of Honor on the island before we left, where years ago we had families' names engraved to celebrate their immigration to the states. It was the best moment of the day, having my kids find their grandfather and great grandfather's names and explaining to them the sacrifices that were made to move here.
Once you finish both islands, it's time to make it back to Battery Park. A good portion of your day may be spent waiting in lines, boarding ferries, and getting to the next spot. That's where a day for this activity allows you to explore without feeling rushed. Once back at Castle Clinton, the ticket booth location for the Statue of Liberty, locate a ranger for one last badge. The fort does not appear to house much, but once learning about the history you come to appreciate it even more. It sits on its own manmade island, was once an aquarium, and for pop culture fans, it was the location of the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind's first US performance (yes, of The Greatest Showman kind)!
Your visit has to end with a ride on the Seaglass Carousel - truly a work of art and as beautiful to ride as it is to look at. So reward yourself after a day of exploring by kicking back your feet, relaxing on and enjoying the show on this marvelous attraction!
Take in a Baseball Game!
We’re partial to the Mets but you can’t go wrong either way! If you're spending summer in the city, a baseball game is a MUST!
It was a big moment for us, since it was our first time at Citifield; last time I saw a home ballgame was when it was still Shea Stadium (while the new stadium was under construction). For the kids, it was the first time watching the Mets play outside of Spring Training. And my youngest even got to wear a family heirloom; a toddler size 1986 World Series Champions shirt that's 8 times as old as she is.
Central Park also needs to be reserved for a day all its own. You can do as little or as much as you want to, but for us, we wanted to let the kids immersive themselves so made Day 2 all about this urban forest.
We started at the Central Park Zoo, which in its own right, deserves a visit just so your kids can say they went to the one Alex and his friends in Madagascar called home. The zoo, though small, is adorable and can fill just enough time without taking away from your day. Undecided? Do what we did and buy tickets on your phone right on the spot - it will also get you a discount code to save AND reduce paper use.
Once you're done visiting the wild animals of New York, its time to explore the park itself. We read "A Green Place to be: The Creation of Central Park" by Ashley Benham Yazdani before our visit to learn about how the park came to life. It introduced the different architecture of the park and allowed even the most seasoned visitor (me) to look at the park in new appreciation.
We explored the statues and landmarks with a different set of lens now that we knew their unique stories. We stopped at Strawberry Fields and ironically had "Hey Jude" playing in the background as our kids learned about this famous memorial. We visited the preserved Belvedere Castle and climbed with the kids to the top.
If you come early enough and have time, within Shakespeare Garden is an wonderful playhouse for kids. The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre puts on puppet shows for young and old alike in the mornings, and though we didn't get to see it, we were told it was absolutely fantastic!
The weather decided to turn on us, but we had plans to rent a boat and spend some time on the water. And we were all anxiously looking forward to the activity - but said we'd add it to our list for next time! You can rent a boat from the Loeb Boathouse for $15/hr + $4 per every additional 15 minutes for up to 4 people.
Over the summer, Wollman Rink turns into Victorian Gardens, an amusement park in the city. It was a nice change of pace for the kids to get to play in the city, with that skyscraper backdrop behind them. But now our new goal is to come back and allow them to properly ice skate on this iconic rink with the same beautiful view behind them!
You can picnic in the park, ride a horse & carriage, enjoy a summer concert or movie or simply just be. Central Park is definitely worth the immersed day if you're willing to see it like a little first timer.
If you're lucky enough, you may even get a summer concert here! We were able to get tickets to Good Morning America's taping of their summer concert series right in Central Park - so we woke up to Keith Urban playing for all of America! What a moment, even for the kids to experience their first televised concert!
Frozen Hot Chocolate before Dinner!
We couldn't take a trip to New York and not stop for the famous Frozen Hot Chocolate. Serendipity 3, an iconic restaurant made famous by the movie of the same name, is truly what its name lives up to - a fortunate accident. You're only so lucky if you get to drop by to experience this restaurant's eclectic vibe only complemented by its massive food choices.
And yes, you have to have the Frozen Hot Chocolate before dinner. It is just that good - and big enough to share, if you want to!
Watch Frozen on Broadway!
What better to complement Frozen Hot Chocolate than going to see Frozen itself! If you have a chance to dabble in local theater back home with your kids, a trip to NYC is time to upgrade to the big time. There are plenty of family friendly options on and off Broadway, including long running The Lion King, Aladdin, Wicked and whatever else is introduced into rotation in the theater district.
Frozen was the latest release and the only our kids hadn't seen, so we made big plans to see it. And we all absolutely fell in love with Broadway's take on this beautiful story about self and love!
Fifteen Seconds of Fame
Those morning shows you catch glimpse of after your local news are taped right here, so why not try to get your 15 seconds of fame? The Today Show is our personal favorite, staged right under 30 Rock, and its outdoor atmosphere inviting. Tapings are free and early, so make sure you're ready to rise and shine. If you need coffee or sweets to help with that, stop by Bouchon Bakery next door for morning wake up treats (we especially enjoyed the macarons)!
If you're more of a GMA fan, head over to Times Square to catch a glimpse of them at work.
Grand Central Station
Visit this beauty and not just to pass through - we started one of our mornings by heading over to take it all in!
Prior to our visit, we read all about this landmark in "When Jackie Saved Grand Central: Jacqueline Kennedy's Fight for and American Icon" by Natasha Wing. The station is beautiful, from its intricate architecture to the details in its paintings. The book gave us a preview to the story of its legacy and how it was almost lost and the fight to save and preserve it. We enjoyed our visit a little more by reading all about it, and even made sure to look for the dedication wall placed in the foyer for Jackie O.
Beyond its history, the station sees so much foot traffic and is home to some great eateries and places to shop. If you're here, make sure to make a stop to the restaurant level and visit Magnolia Bakery for a treat - its definitely one of those New York places that is NOT to be missed! Grab the blondie - it was arguably the best!
Want the ultimate moment for a kid? FAO Schwartz is back in Rockefeller Center and its just as magical as its flagship store once was. Come for opening and be welcomed in by toys and toymakers alike. Head up to the top floor to play on the iconic "Big" floor piano. Or simply just take in the magic of this magical toy store.
Walk The High Line
The High Line is a walkway above the city built on old railways and a different way to take in New York. The kids will enjoy finding the eclectic uses of art and the relaxed vibe up here - along with the views!
We suggest starting at the The Standard, specifically at the Biergarten. This open air venue sells tickets at the ticket booth for beer and food; purchase what you'll like in exchange for item of choice once inside. There are fusbol and ping pong tables set around the venue, along with the community tables. It makes for a great time for the whole family, without getting too rowdy. And for us, it was a nice place to duck into as we avoided the rain!
Once you make your way up to walk down The High Line, feel free to get off and on to check out neighborhoods as you'd like. You'll run into Chelsea Market which is marketplace of shops, eats, and events! Finish at Hudson Yards, where you can climb The Vessel - a centerpiece made for exploring!
Climb a Skyscraper
There are plenty to choose from, including the iconic Empire State Building, grand view of Central Park from Rockefeller Center, and a national treasure for all it represents, One World Trade.
We've visited all and really there is not a right or wrong, but suggest doing one a trip! It'll make every visit back extra special if you get a skyline view from a different landmark each time!
Visit a Museum
New York is full of museums, which make for the best any time activity!
... and that doesn't even finish that list nor start the selection of children's museum to see!
Finally, don't forget your reciprocal benefits from any museum memberships from back home. For us, the ASTC Travel Passport Program allowed us free entry to the Intrepid, which was an amazing and unique experience. Not only did we get to wander an aircraft carrier, looking at all types of vessels but we also had the opportunity to tour a submarine. The Growler was a Cold War era sub and even had one of the original crew volunteering on board. To meet someone that served and that could give us firsthand account was indispensable.
Want some really good Italian food? Visit Little Italy! It makes you feel like you are in Italia with the hosts enticing you to enter and the language floating through the air. This is just one of those iconic neighborhoods you have to pop over and visit!
While you're there, go to Caffe Palmero - home of the best cannolis this side of the Atlantic!
Visit another zoo! This ended up being serendipitous for our eldest - who was wanting to see the zoo but we couldn't squeeze it in during our three short days! When our flight got cancelled and only rescheduled for two days later, we had the time to fulfill his wishes.
The ZOO (of TV legacy) is truly an experience - and got us to another borough to visit. An upgrade from the Central Park Zoo in sheer size and attractions, it was a delight to see our kids immerse themselves in this beautiful zoo. They even had education stations to participate in activities and earn stickers all while learning about animals and what they can do to better help this world.
We were immediately sold on a Wildlife Conservation Society membership during our visit, which covered the difference in the price of our Central Park tickets and this visit. It also gave us a year's worth of visits to WCS affiliated zoos and aquariums in the greater NYC area. So if we just happen to be back, we're covered; if not, we've donated to a great cause! And saved while doing it.
Walk across this architectural mastepiece for some stunning views of Manhattan Island! Do it at sunset for a glimpse of the heavens showing off!
Looking for the shoreline near Manhattan? Head further into Brooklyn to iconic Coney Island! Spend a perfect summer day on the boardwalk and riding the famous rides, like the Cyclone. Nothing else feels more like summertime!
Well, except a hot dog eating contest - which happens here every 4th of July!
Also, make use of that WCS membership and visit the New York Aquarium included in your purchase! Easily another two in one day here!
Take in the city!
Each section of this great city is so distinct to itself and its what makes this place so special!
When and how long to go?
There’s never a wrong time for New York! But how long you go is completely up to you!
You can make a long weekend of it and focus on only one thing - like we did a few years back and hit up Broadway shows. You can come for a few days and take in all the highlights! Or if you decide to stay longer, fill up your schedule with so many things to do.
How to get there?
Flying into NYC is relatively inexpensive from around the US, but it is always worth playing around with your dates and arrival airports to see what's available!
We prefer flying into LaGuardia (LGA) because flights tend to run a little more frequently and cheaper. But this last trip we flew out of JFK and had a wonderful experience - right down to getting there! We were able to take the subway and then connect over to the AirTrain to get to JFK smoothly. A cab ride can run over $75 - whereas taking public transit cost us about $20 (and our 4 year old was free the whole way) and in about the same amount of time.
You can take public transit from LaGuardia too, but it takes a little more maneuvering and connecting to buses. Knowing the ease of connection at JFK, we may consider flying in there more often than not!
How to get around?
Subway, foot, or taxi are really the only way to go. There is no point in having a car in the city, as you'll just be frustrated at the lack of parking or the sky high prices when you do find it. So unless you plan to head out of NYC for the trip, save renting a car until it is needed.
The subway is cheap and easy to use - $2.75 each one way trip or you can purchase multi-day cards for a discounted price. If you have the opportunity, spend as much time above ground as possible too. Take in the city and sights, it's how you truly appreciate New York. And if you're in a hurry, you can always hail a taxi - they're everywhere and in my opinion still more convenient than any Uber or Lyft in the city!
Where to stay?
We prefer Midtown because of the accessibility to public transportation and the central location. Our last stay brought us to Hyatt Place Midtown-South off West 36th Street. We were two blocks from Hearld Square (home of Macy's), a handful of blocks from Times Square, and had a subway on every corner.
We stayed in a generous size King Room with sofa bed, which was more than enough space for sleeping & changing aka the only times we were in our room. And as a World of Hyatt member, we got free breakfast every morning. They were in the middle of renovations in their main breakfast room, so we got to enjoy our first meal of the day right under the Empire State Building. Pretty incredible for the price we paid to stay here!
When our trip got extended, we stayed at the Hotel Beacon in the Upper West Side. We were a few block away from Central Park and near a subway line that had a Trader Joe's, Duane Reade and some other shopping near by. We had a two-bedroom suite with a full kitchen, lodging that reminded me of my first dated apartment. Had we spent more time using the amenities this spot would've been great with the accessibility to the marketplaces we had! Instead we enjoyed dining at nearby Levain Bakery & Zucker's Bagels for breakfast and delighting in Gray's Papaya for hot dog & fruit juice for lunch.
If you haven't done NYC with kids, its definitely worth the consideration. This melting pot of people, culture, and history is such a wonderful experience for them and exposing them to so much in one little trip!
We had the amazing opportunity of getting to stay at these two gems in Hawaiian family fun! Both resorts are highly revered by families with little and big ones alike because of its diversity in venues, array of amenities for all ages, and the convenience that each of these mega resorts provide to cater to all.
So how did they stack up against each other and which one is better for you and yours?
Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa
Disney's Oahu based property, is everything you expect from a Disney hotel - and not just one in Hawaii. Aulani is located in Ko Olina, just west of the airport and heading into a drier, more industrial part of the island. But the resort area of Ko Olina is also home to a variety of high end properties for vacation goers looking to escape the traffic of Waikiki. And driving up to it, Aulani is everything you'd expect from Disney magic.
On arrival, you're greeted with infused waters and fresh flower leis for women, kukui nut for men and kids receive Menehune necklaces, which are the famed characters of Hawaiian folklore that "lurk" around property. While you're on property, you're welcomed "home" as Aulani does sit as part of the Disney Vacation Club portfolio - and they even have designated showrooms to showcase with anyone interested in learning more about becoming a member. For us regular guests, being welcomed home was definitely just a nice touch to make us feel even more welcome here!
The resort is very accessible with two towers connected by the main entry building, where you can find shops and the flagship restaurant offering character dining. Walking through the lobby, you can head outside to the lanai and get a full glorious view of the resort. And you'll see that once you're here, you're here - restaurants line both sides of of the property, the pools are centrally situated with the beach in the horizon, and the parking garage and main roads out of sight, so you really have no reason to head back to your car!
We booked an entry level room - garden pool view and were granted a low floor request we made. This was perfect because we ended up being situated right by the lazy river. And with a separate patio entrance that led out to the pool area, we enjoyed our easy accessibility to the fun at this resort, especially since we were going to be spending ALL of our time here!
When we booked our trip to Hawaii, we knew we'd want to stay a few days at Aulani on our pursuit of visiting as many Disney properties worldwide! The per night cost became a matter of how much time we spent here, because we didn't want to lose any time away, but rather enjoy what we paid for. Disney's price is steep in comparison to other properties in Hawaii, especially if you plan to spend most of your time exploring the island. But when you compare the cost of Aulani to other Disney resorts, you'll see that their Hawaiian sister hotel is priced no higher than staying at some of the premier Disney properties all over the world.
So what does the price include, outside of room?
The price does not include:
Other things to note:
Hilton Hawaiian Village
Location, location, location!
I think the one thing that could sell this place alone is location. Not only is it centrally located in Honolulu but it also is quite honestly the only resort on Waikiki with prime beach access. This is where you want to stay if you want to be in the hustle and bustle of the city of Honolulu, but not on busy Waikiki itself. The resort is closer to the marina, but from the beach you have postcard views of Diamond Head in the distance.
On arrival, you drive through the Rainbow Bazaar, a small through street with a marketplace of shops and restaurants on either side. You pull up to the open air lobby building where you can leave the car on idle while you get yourself checked in. They aren't greeting you with the leis like Disney did on arrival, but the guest service was just as superb. Once checked in, you're given a full map of the property, which is lined by 8 towers, 5 pools, and various shops and restaurants (even beyond the Bazaar). Like Aluani, parking is not include - you have the option of valet for $52/daily or self park at $45/daily. If you opt to self park, the garage is back at the entrance to the Bazaar and once you're situated, you do have in/out privileges.
The resort feels and is massive! And is only matched with the number of people you see everywhere. It's definitely a different vibe than the "quieter" Aulani as there is a lot of movement here - but it only makes you want to get in on the action. The lobby really is the central point to the resort, but there isn't a spot that grants you an overall view of the resort. Each tower is like a world in itself, each with its own pool, bar, restaurant - but best of all, you have full access to the whole village while you're here! Beyond the Rainbow Tower, you will find the strip of beach that is designed for Hilton guests - though the chairs do come at an extra cost to rent for the day. Also good to note, all beaches are public and aren't just limited to hotel guests (same goes for Aulani). Next to the beach is the manmade lagoon for someone wanting the feel of the ocean but with the calmness of a pool - this is also home to water activities like paddle boarding and paddle boat rentals.
We booked a room without a particular request here, but they upgraded us to a high floor and view of the water. This was a nice change of pace since there really isn't a ground floor room option, and with the sheer magnitude of this resort, I'm not sure I'd want to be so close to the noise. Our room was generous in size, larger than Disney's with room to spare - but the bathroom could have used more square footage to make it easier for a family to utilize!
For this leg of the trip in Hawaii, we wanted to book a place that we could come back to and enjoy but also not feel burdened leaving for the price, as we wanted to see the rest of the island! The price point here made that comfortable to do. We considered other options but all lacked the proximity to the beach we wanted - so we fell for the idea that this was a great resort for the family to relax at after a busy day out. And it really is - there's so much to do & was a great place to wind down at after full days! And on top of that, its in Honolulu - so if your list of things to do include checking off spots on Waikiki, you're right here! Leave the car behind and go for a walk to discover what the city has to offer - that's what we did!
So what does the price include, outside of room?
The price does not include:
Other things to note:
Which One’s for You?
We wanted to start our vacation on a lighter more relaxing note to catch up with the time change, so we enjoyed all we could out of Aulani. But we definitely would not have stayed here if we were leaving to go sightseeing - unless we were DVC members or got an unbelievable price per night. We enjoyed two nights to settle in and get some R&R before our adventure started. It is also not conveniently located to much on the island beyond the North Shore. You may avoid the traffic of Honolulu (which was not that bad), but you would be driving a little farther because of where it is situated. Stay here if you plan to stay PUT here. And if you're even toying with the idea of staying here, do it for at least a few days of your trip. It's definitely a place to visit and you won't regret it - we loved our times to unwind with Disney magic before we visited the beauty of Hawaii!
Hilton Hawaiian Village felt like great place to leave and come back go to. It was a great resort, but I could not imagine spending all my days here just because of the sheer magnitude of the resort. It was a nice place to retreat to after days of fun because we were still able to take in all the amenities without feeling like we missed out, because it did lack some of the magic Disney has. And the price made it even easier to leave - since it was at half the cost of what we paid at Disney. If you want a prime place on Waikiki beach, with ground level pools and a village all its own, this is the place for you! It was a nice way to get wrapped into what Honolulu had to offer and not feel like we were missing out on any magic - because we made what we wanted out of our days when we returned!
Either way you can’t go wrong! But it’s all a matter of what you want from your time in paradise!
Still undecided? Check out our Highlights on Instagram for more information about our time at either resort!
We just got back from Hawaii, and what a trip it was!
But getting there from the east coast is a journey in itself - AND not always cheap or easy!
So we decided to make the most of the long haul and planned a trip out there that wouldn't feel like just travel - but an adventure all its own!
When we were booking our flights to Hawaii, we used the Google Flights matrix to find a price and time combination we were comfortable with. The one stipulation we had was that we wanted to book with Delta for the SkyMiles perks, like free luggage & upgrades, priority access, and the miles we'd inevitably earn. There wasn't much of a price difference between Delta and the carriers, so opted to choose loyalty over anything else. The only thing was, the only flight/price combo we liked was telling us to "Book with a Travel Agent". And knowing that an agent wasn't just going to find that deal for me (some work with air consolidators and this wasn't the case here), I decided to do little research myself.
Save with a Multi-City Ticket
If you're unable to find the ticket price you're looking for, jump over to the airline site and do a multi-city search to see what options you pull up. We ended up going over to Delta's booking system and kept finding the same round trip ticket Google Flights was showing for $200 more each! So we decided to book a multi-city flight instead, only meaning that we told Delta where our layover would be rather than having the system do it for us (and marking it up along the way).
The tickets I found had us flying from Orlando to Seattle with an 8-hour layover and then flying Seattle into Honolulu later that same day (arriving 8pm Hawaiian Standard Time). So instead of searching roundtrip form Orlando > Honolulu and then Maui > Orlando, I chose "Multi-City" and entered the same information for all legs of the trip and searched. And you know what? It gave me the same exact flight but with the prices Google Flights told me I needed an agent to book! Try this trick when booking on your own, to even customize the flights you want.
Except I wasn't comfortable with an 8-hour layover. I mean, it was long enough to leave the airport and do something but it wasn't long enough to do a lot. So I did one last search to see if there was a better option of flying out of Seattle the following day. I stumbled on a morning flight that let us leave Seattle for Honolulu at 8am, rather than try to pack it all in by 5pm that same day. The ticket price was exactly the same, but let us fly out after a day of fun and a full night of rest. So instead of having a tiring almost 24 hour travel day to Honolulu, we took a day for ourselves in Seattle!
And let me tell you, it was the best thing we could've ever done! We took a portion of what we saved and used it to pay for a hotel night in Seattle instead of a plane ticket. Did we feel like we lost time in Honolulu? Not at all! Because now instead of arriving at 8pm HST (which is 2am EST mind you) and losing that time exhausted, waiting to rent a car, getting to a hotel only to go to sleep, we "saved" by staying in Seattle! Not to mention, a hotel in Seattle is SIGNFICANTLY cheaper than a hotel in Hawaii.
Make the Most of your Time!
Anything over a 6-hour layover is technically considered a stopover, which is the time that an airline won't transfer your luggage to the next flight in your segment. This worked just fine for us as we needed our bags to get ready for the next day.
But if you don't have the option of having a place to stay, most airlines offer to hold your baggage for a small fee until you return. That way you can leave the airport to explore and make it back in time to take your next flight. Utilize that long layover to leave and explore and burn off any energy so you will actually sleep on an overnight! Since that wasn't the case for us, as we'd be gaining 6 hours after arriving at our final destination, we booked a hotel for a good night of sleep and made plans for a full day of exploring!
And if you had to hang out at the Sea-Tac Airport for a few hours, it couldn't be a better place to stay! It was fairly easy to get through (though busy, so make sure you have plenty of time for security) and had great dining and shopping options. Added bonus for the littlest ones - a play area all their own!
Where to Stay?
We chose to stay by the airport only because proximity to catch our 8am flight the next morning mattered more than prime location in the city. We booked at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Seattle Sea-Tac Airport which offered free shuttle service to & from the airport AND free breakfast - both essentials on our list since we'd have an early wake-up call! We landed in the Sea-Tac Airport, grabbed our luggage, phoned the hotel and within 15 minutes were picked up by the shuttle and dropped off at the hotel.
The hotel was undergoing some work while we were there, but the front desk agent was extremely apologetic about it and even friendlier on top of that. Our room was (obviously) not ready at our 9am arrival, so they offered to hold our luggage until we returned. We had arrived before breakfast so they invited us to enjoy after check-in and before we went out exploring for the day. We used this time to plan our time there while the kids stocked up on snacks for the road!
When we arrived back later that night, the front desk agent quickly got us checked in and upgraded to a suite. Our keys were ready, our bags set aside for taking (no bell service, but carts available) and an extremely friendly agent to ensure we were set for the night. We appreciated all the extra attention and the generous upgrade offer even though we wouldn't get to use the space as it should have been - but it was a nice perk of booking through a travel planner!
The Holiday Inn Express & Suites Seattle Sea-Tac Airport is also only about a 10 minute walk from the Link Light Rail station that will take you straight into the heart of Seattle for less than $3/adult & $1.50/child (6-12) and after only 30 minutes. You board near the airport hotels at the Angle Lake Station which overlooks a beautiful Angle Lake surrounded by woods. The ride is very smooth and uneventful, and we hopped off at the Downtown Tunnels Station which put us right near the Monorail that would get us to Seattle Center.
The Seattle Center Monorail was originally constructed for the World's Fair and now still serves as a connector between the city and its more known region of Seattle Center (home to the Space Needle). And it makes for a fun ride for kids to get through the city itself in its open-air window filled cars! Worth the $2.50/adult & $1.50/child (5-12) ticket to ride this icon in the city.
Our first stop off the monorail was to the Space Needle, since that was top on the list of things to do in our less than 24 hours in Seattle. Little did we know that the Seattle Center is also home to a host of other great attractions too, including a massive playground that greets visitors on arrival.
The Seattle Center is a gathering place of entertainment, food and events in the heart of the city. This hub is not only home to the Space Needle, but also the Chihuly Garden & Glass, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center, Seattle Center Armory, Museum of Pop Culture, Pacific Science Center, and Seattle Children's Museum to name a few. Had we had more time to spare, we would have definitely used our reciprocal benefit with the Orlando Science Center at the Pacific Science Center since it allowed all of us in for free!
We let them run their hearts (and full stomachs out) as we planned out our day with the next stop down towards the harbor to check out Olympic Structure Park. The walk is a less than a mile from Seattle Center and takes you through some of the most charming neighborhoods. Olympic Structure is a free, open to the public park created by the Seattle Museum of Art and a gorgeous way to use green space right by the water. Taking in the view from here was enough to make you want to venture to the outskirts of the city and see what there is in the beyond.
We returned to take a trip up the Space Needle to get a full view of the city from above. We booked mobile tickets while the kids played, and since they were stamped with a return time, we were able to make other plans in-between. When our time came up, we simply approached the line for a quick security check and then took the spiral up to the elevators. The wait included a visual history of the Space Needle's construction and stories from its inception. Once you've loaded up the elevator, you're taken straight to the top for some breathtaking views! We unfortunately didn't have the clearest day so couldn't fully make out Mount Rainer from up high, but did get to appreciate this city in its full glory!
Once we finished our hours of playing in and around the Seattle Center, we hopped back on the monorail to its original stop and took a small walk to see Pike Place. It was on our list of things to do, but be warned, its overrun by people and traffic so made our time less than enjoyable. But we're happy enough to say we've been there, done that - and even attempted to get a drink in the original Starbucks! But no Starbucks is worth a line of that length - so we just opted for a Starbucks in Seattle instead (it counts, right?!).
We instead walked over in the direction of Pier 53, home of the Seattle Great Wheel to have a full seafood dinner at Ivar's Acres of Calms on Pier 54. The service at this beautiful restaurant on the water was fantastic, only to be topped by how great the food was! We enjoyed our last few hours in Seattle with with a dinner of chowder, scallops and freshly caught King Salmon before preparing to head back for a full night of sleep!
We would’ve loved to explore Seattle a little more but appreciate that we even got a little taste of it! Now we’re itching to go back - to see more of the actual PNW region that Seattle calls home! We’ve started imaging plans to include to hiking to Mt. Rainer, visiting waterfalls and wineries and whale watching off the shore!
Now it's only a matter of when - and what else can we pack into to visiting this incredible place!
Is a Pacific Coast Highway Trip on your bucket list?
It was on ours and so we decided to pack our bags, book a plane ticket, and make our way from SoCal to the Bay Area and explore in between. We didn't nearly cover the vastness of this beautiful stretch of coastal road, but we chose stops that worked for us with certain goals in mind. And we loved every bit of what we saw, and what we wish we had more time to see.
What did our week+ in California look like winding the up the open highway? Read on!
Some prefer to start further south in San Diego but started our trip in LA for reasons all our own!
1. Flight - we flew Delta and wanted a direct flight. Plus, with our Companion Certificate and Skymiles, we only ended up paying about $400 total for the 4 of us to go to west.
2. Location - we wanted to start south and watch the hills turn into cliffs and dramatically change course. Some may argue a trip from north to south would be better since you ride along the coast (rather than the inner most lane), but for us that didn't make a difference on the drive.
3. Disneyland - we wanted to start the trip with a treat for the kids! Capitalize on all the energy they had and use it for something they would truly marvel over.
What to do in LA? What is there not to do?!
After you pick up your rental, head towards Hollywood. You want a picture with the iconic sign and there are some many good spots to get it from, including the Griffith Observatory, which also includes panoramic views all around. If you're heading down to Hollywood Blvd to check out the sights there, head to shopping complex Hollywood and Highland for great views! While you're there, the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame and Mann's Chinese Theater (where these days you can watch new movie releases at) are within sight.
Hungry? Visit Pink's Hot Dogs for this staple in Hollywood since the 1930s. The giant loaded hot dogs of all varieties were delicious and worth the wait at this counter service restaurant with outdoor seating. Just be warned, parking may be hard to find!
Then make it a point to cruise around greater LA County - from driving down Sunset Strip to admiring all the luxury of Beverly Hills to hitting up the pier in Santa Monica for some fun or even just checking out another city along the shoreline. There's so much to do in LA, you can easily spend a few days here!
This was *the* destination for us on arrival - to spend a few days at Disneyland California! The parks are nestled in the middle of Anaheim and really a world all their own. We highly recommend spending at least two days here, as there's enough to do without feeling rushed.
The resort itself has 3 Disney hotels (Disneyland Hotel, Grand Californian, and Pacific Pier), 2 theme parks (Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure) and the entertainment complex of Downtown Disney. Each park deserves a day all their own to fully immerse and explore AND because there's just that much to do! Promise. They have more attractions per park than the sister parks in Orlando!
There’s so much to cover here we have an article all their own for the parks! Read all about our time at Disneyland and why it quickly became our favorite Disney parks - this alone may be the reason you want to come out here!
Make your way past Malibu and the stunning beach communities of So Cal as you head north up PCH. You'll venture into the beautiful city of Santa Barbara nestled along the coasts and the hills, and upon our arrival, covered in smog. It was such a beautiful piece of real estate as we traveled the highway as, we slowly witnessed the change from relatively flat southern Cali.
We also stumbled up on the mission trail here, where we made a bit of an adventure within one. El Camino Real is a collection of 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma, each spread out about 30 miles from each other. The Spanish missions, from a time when Spain held strong in California, are the oldest piece of history in the state and a captivating game to play while you're on your road trip. Look for the bell markers to signify the trail of missions as you travel el camino.
We only had time to explore the mission in Santa Barbara durinfbour short stop here, but wish we had spent even more time in this stunning city on the sea.
Does the name sound familiar, 90s babies? Well it should if you're a Clueless fan. It the namesake for the "Pismo Beach Relief" that the movie was fundraising for. And for us it was such a welcome surprise! Just when we thought we left everything So Cal had to offer, here's this little beach town that just exudes everything you want from California.
We spent just enough time here to park and play in the sand, bit could easily have spent hours more. From the beautiful shoreline to the relaxed surfer vibes, this is definitely the place you want to go to when trying to escape the hustle of the big cities and the bustle of Hollywood. It was the quintessential beach town on the California coast and a welcome stop for us to stretch as we made our way to our next stop!
Here's another name sake for you! Finding Dory, anyone?
With the name dropped so often in the movie, once we saw signs that we were approaching, we made sure to make a stop to just say we've been! Morro Bay was a seaside village lined with shiplap buildings and the sea painted with an iconic rock. We stopped to check it out just because our curiosity got the best of us, and we're glad we did!
We drove to the inlet that approached the famous rock and were greeted by a sea of otters sunbathing in the bay! What a fun surprise to encounter and certainly a place that made us want to stick around long enough to see what this town had to offer.
San Simeon is best known for Hearst Castle, and though we would've loved to spend a day there, with two little ones our plans led us elsewhere. Seashore - to be exact - to watch the elephant seals. This detour on our trip was a treat, because what a neat experience it was to encounter these giants literally feet from us. Sparring and barking in their own environment, doing just what nature taught them to do. The kids delighted in getting to see animals in the wild and we loved the chance to get to teach something up close and personal.
For this roadtrip in 2017 though, this was as far north as we were able to go on PCH. The road was shut down in Big Sur due to mudslides, so we were forced to diverge inland ... which ended up being a fortunate accident.
Paso Robles was our serendipity on this trip!
We would never have planned a stop here on our way up, as its not on the PCH. But since we had to diverge because of Mother Nature, we got to explore such a beautiful part of the state! This central California wine country is filled with beautiful rolling hills and fields of wineries in between hills. We even spotted a black bear as we drove these rural areas, making his way around home.
We made a stop on arrival at Four Lanterns, a family-friendly winery offering outdoor seating, live music and space to roam. Once we finished our visit and by the time dinner rolled around, we head to downtown Paso. A quaint town made up of a main city block and with some chic restaurants and an adorable Central Park. We had a wonderful dinner at Artisan, a contemporary concept with fresh meals and delightful drinks. A welcome reward after a day of driving!
Our drive was a shorter one, but to a very anticipated destination! MONTEREY!
Yes, home of Big Little Lies, where we had just dived into in 2017, so we anticipate seeing what this stunning location had to offer. It was a beautiful coastal city, with a downtown to match its charm, and lined with mountain and boats.
The attraction here, beyond the show that mapped it, is Monterey Bay Aquarium - where we spent an afternoon discovering with the kids. Just the fact that at times you're staring at the sea while looking at exhibits is a fascinating concept all its own! The experience was only topped by the visitors we had at the dinner that evening - seals and otters splashing under our prime view table at Domenicos on the Wharf!
The only thing we missed doing in our short stop here is going whale-watching - we would have loved the chance to see these beasts in their natural home!
It wasn’t initially on our itinerary but we made another trip back and hit up this beautiful beach village. Adorably lined with pristine local shops and eats, Carmel was a wonderful find on our second trip out west!
For wine lovers, this is also a smaller wine region. Though the vineyards are few and most require reservations to tour, the town has plenty of wineries to taste what they grow!
We NEEDED to see Big Sur, so before we continued north, we quickly headed back south to see how far we could go before being turned away. And we did not once regret this decision. This drive is absolutely beautiful - more than words can even paint to life. We made it as far as Pfeffier State Park as we drove the winding coast to see the beauty of it all. Only to be turned around and do it all again! We certainly didn't mind.
On arrival back, we made sure to take the 17 Mile Drive which would inevitably take us to world famous Pebble Beach. We completed this trip with a visit to the chilly shore, but feeling every bit much accomplished that we were able to see this gorgeous piece of California real estate on our trip!
We heard so much about Santa Cruz from others that we wanted to check out this beach town and see what it was about!
For starters, the homes lining the cliffs with prime view of the ocean were stunning. All were quintessential California homes as we would imagine them. But we also used this stop to let the kids have some of their kind of fun again. We spent the evening playing on the Boardwalk as a way to wind down the trip.
Carnival food, rides, games and even local beer is exactly what we needed after so much exploring. And as an added bonus, we had the perfect sunset to top off our stay. We would definitely recommend this as a stop for kids of any age!
On the skirts of Silicon Valley, this city felt like a perfect blend of SoCal meets the Bay. This stop was intentional on this trip, to visit a very dear friend and meet he mr baby boy. And she welcomed us to her home to spend the 4th of July by the pool, grilling out, and living like locals!
The day ended with us heading downtown for official celebrations, including fireworks and eating hot dogs from street carts. It was the cherry on top for a way to spend this holiday!
This wouldn’t have been a stop we picked out on our own, but we’re so glad we were introduced to Filoli. The beautiful garden situated in city limits, this places is absolutely worth a detour to see.
The drive there is tree lined upon rolling hills. On arrival, you’re greeted at a majestic house beckoned by acres of beautiful topiaries. Breathtaking is the least of word I could use to describe it! An afternoon spent exploring these wonders is enough but you could easily get lost here for a whole day!
Half Moon Bay
Imagine a picturesque coast washed away by the sea, where the only thing more impressive is the crashing waves offshore. That’s Half Moon Bay. We stopped here to check out the views, and get a little bit of that California sun & sand. We finished the day with lunch and drinks at the Ritz Carlton where we sat at fire pits to take in the breathtaking views
Our final official stop on this trip didn’t come without a little mishap - reminder to always check your safe before leaving your room! We made it all the way to San Fran to get an early morning cable car ride (without the lines) when we realized our mistake.
So we came back later (on a family reunion) and finished this stop. We hopped on cable car at Hyde & ___ and rode it into central San Fran! Goal accomplished. We visited the Painted Ladies, Drive down Lombardi Street, watched the sea lions bark at Pier 39, walked Fisherman’s Wharf and ate at Boudin Bakery - all the iconic SF things to do!
If you want a quick overview of the city, hop on a double decker! It’s the easiest way to get a lay of the land and figure out the areas you want to explore more! We recommend a stop in the Japanese Tea Garden for some serenity in the city! If you want something a little different to explore (and you’re a fan like us), the Walt Disney Museum at the Presidio is the perfect place to learn about his legacy and see his dreams come to life. Bonus, you get some scenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge!
But make sure your finish your trip with a visit to Baker’s Beach for the most spectacular view of the Golden Gate! If you come at sunset, you can watch the day fade to night while your backdrop is painted all sorts of lovely colors.
Need dinner plans? Cliff House is at land’s end, where San Francisco begins as they proclaim! The spot is perfect for a seafood feast and great views. Sweet tooth? You can’t forget Ghiradelli’s - because what’s a visit without a stop!
If you’re headed across the Golden Gate to Sausalito, you can’t skip one of the best things on this side of the bay. Take time to explore Muir Woods and the glory of these fantastic creations of God. The forest will leave you speechless, and if you time out coming at the right time of day, you’ll have a special experience.
We arrived after the park office closed but before the park did, which granted us free entry and plenty of spots to park on site. The best part of this though was the stillness that overtakes the park when it’s not run over by crowds. It truly makes you feel at one with nature and in deep respect for it. On your way down, take in the views of the ocean meets the mountains, it’s another moment that can stop you in your tracks.
And if you’ve worked up an appetite from all that exploring, make sure to make a final stop at In-N-Out if you haven’t yet! There’s something special about this place with the simplicity in its food, burgers and fries with a sauce all their own that you’ll be dreaming of for years to come! Take it up a notch and get your order Animal Style for a truly unforgettable experience. Best off all, there’s always an In-N-Out en route to satisfy your craving!
If you have time, add in Napa and Sonoma to your plans! This region is so different from everything else there is out there and worth a post all it’s own about the places to check out - with or without kids!
Summer is here, and that means this season brings on all the road trips!
Whether you already have one planned or you're counting on making plans on the whim, the dog days of summer are the perfect time to do it.
Road trips can be as short and easy or as long and thought out as you want them to be. But most of all, they need to fun!
So what makes it work? We just had a few of our friends come back from their own adventures so we teamed up with them for extra advice on what made for smooth sailing, as close to perfect as possible!
1. Have a plan. Or at the very least know what you intend of this trip. It doesn't mean you have to have every minute scheduled, but knowing things like when you want to arrive, help to decide when you want to hit the road. And with that, plan accordingly to help make the drive as smooth as possible. The map may say you'll get there at one time ... but traffic, pit stops, and a barrage of other diversions say another.
Knowing when you're planning to leave can also help as you prepare for the trip. Getting the car ready is half the battle when leaving - the other is getting the little ones well-rested for an ungodly hours wake-up call. If you know you're going to hit the road for an early morning drive, have the car loaded the night before. It'll save you the trouble of waking up the lightest sleeper (and forgetting something while you meander half asleep). If you're planning to leave during the day, run out your little ones so they nap on the road. And if your plans involve a meal time departure, make sure you have food thought out - either pack a meal to-go OR make a special stop to start the trip. Nothing can ruin a road trip like hangry people - of all ages and sizes!
When talking about her drive up the east coast, Kristin H. also made the great suggestion of planning drives around traffic patterns. Ideally avoid rush hours in major cities so you're not wasting any precious time, energy or gas! Make it a point to stop during those hours so that everyone can stretch rather than sit in extra long traffic lanes.
2. Bring ALL the snacks! An essential part of road trip success is food - it can make even the hangriest person human again. Just like we mentioned when planning for a trip with little ones, you will be saved with having this one crucial item. Kids especially are never going have an appetitie when its convenient and a pit stop for food may not always be in the optimal location. While packing, make a few intentional grocery store trips and pick up a mix of snacks that can get you through a car trip.
And make it a point to find stuff on sale to stock up on We love Publix and their weekly Buy One, Get One sales and always grab extra to stash when we find unbeatable prices. Wholesale stores can also make all the difference when it comes to this - especially if you're going to be gone for an extended time. Head over to Costco, BJ, Sam's Club or the like and see what you can grab in bulk with savings at your fingertips. Best of all, make a special trip out of it with the kids once you grabbed all the essentials and let them pick out one special treat for the road!
What do you pack? For us, our non-negotiables are:
We load a cooler in the trunk and easily inventory what we have. We try to bring very little of anything that needs to be refrigerated and load up along the way. We also bring a little bit of each snack to the front of the car in a collapsible cooler bag so we can have easy access when anyone gets the munchies. The smaller cooler is also great to transport food in and out of hotels when you don't need or want to bring the whole cooler in.
A collapsible cooler is also worth investing in for a road trip you're flying into! We've done trips where we're eating out of the grocery bags we shopped with, but to have a cooler makes a huge difference in keeping the mess down! We love our SOMMAR cooler bag from IKEA from a few seasons back - the size is great and the price even better. It's currently out of stock, so if you ever come across it, snatch it!
3. Essentials to pack? Just like planning for a trip, we have our list of items that make the trip a little easier. We keep a running spreadsheet that we clean up and edit every time we learn something new and try to allow ourselves an easier system when packing.
Beyond the usual stuff that you'll bring, here are some of our tried and true suggestions that help make trips a little easier.
4. Activities & Entertainment. Once you made a trip for food, make sure to make a special shopping trip for activities too! Or in my case, two trips - one where I'll get some things I know can easily distract and one where the kids pick out something shiny and new.
The Dollar Store and Target are heaven-sent for these trips, as they both have the greatest variety of delights and greatest bang for your buck! Having a small box of crayons and coloring packs for each child is the #1 item to have on the road or for going out to eat. That way, they each have their own special loot that can (hopefully) eliminate fighting.
Books are always a hit with us, so we make a trip to the library to get a few to have. It will continue to spark their love of reading when the book has a theme to match your special trip, so try to look for some specific to what you're doing! Want to try something else fun? Check for a Little Free Library in your neighborhood before you go - "the leave a book, get a book" concept fuels a global community of readers to share what they love. So if you "check" one out from a local box, if you find another while you're on the road and you're done with said book, return it for a new book, from a new city/state! Want to make it personal? Leave a little handmade bookmark for the next reader in the book your return - write down where the book has been on to encourage the next to do the same. I'm sure any bookworm would delight in knowing that they're spreading their love of reading all over (and finding it too)!
Games, whether the store bought kind or self-generated, are the greatest ways to keep everyone in the car happy too! Kristin H. says she loves playing eye spy or how many "cows, flags, trucks, etc" counting games. License plate and find the sign games are also fun, and engage their curiosity to ask more as you talk. Open the dialogue to teach them about where you are and learn something new together! For when you stop, pack a good age appropriate, family-friendly game for nights in. Make sure they are tried & true so you know it was worth taking! Monopoly is our family favorite - easy to play at any age because just the newness of pulling stacks of cards and wads of money keeps our youngest entertained. Trivia games or Uno are also fun to pair off for some fun parent/child team competition. I promise whatever you decide to do will make for an unforgettable evening!
It's also not beneath us to let the kids watch some movies or play some games on the iPad. It's a nice treat during road trips and definitely a welcoming resource, particularly near nap times. Just let the rocking of the car, a good show (or movie) and a tired kid combination allow for a little shut eye. All of you will need some quiet time so if you're willing to allow even a little screen time, it's a break - for all of you!
Lastly, we always like to make sure to have a notebook/pen on hand for journaling/doodling about our trip, and stamps ready to send out postcards from our destinations. Sending postcards to friends has easily beomce our greatest delight on our trips - from picking out something special for that person, getting to practice writing to them, and then hearing about when they received. And knowing we'll get our own in return - it's the sweetest gift that keeps on giving!
5. The drive itself. Try to break the drive into smaller segments to make sure that no one is going to go stir crazy. This particularly helps with any road trip longer than 4 hours. Make it a point to find something at the 5-6 hour mark to stop at, whether it means stopping for a meal, to do some quick sightseeing, or a break for an overnight. This is the whole point of the road trip! Its not only cheaper to drive but it so much more fun to have a journey full of exploring!
Need some guided suggestions? Download the app Roadtrippers to find random things along your route to make the drive even more fun! Others plus in local attractions that can easily make a detour worth it. Social media forums are also a great place to ask questions and pull fun ideas from what to see, things to do or places to eat while you're on the go! And if all else fails, rely on your friends! Nothing beats a suggestion from a friend you trust - they will have your best intentions in mind!
What else should you count on? Not making any plans too close to your tentative arrival. Don't hard schedule something time sensitive as anything can come up. Don't make the trip a race against the clock - this means anything that can't be flexed should not be done on arrival. You could run into too many factors you can't control so allow yourself time to relax, unwind, and then if you have must-do plans, save them for the next day!
6. Pack Patience. Patience is a virtue and it really can be tested on the road. Don't get frustrated in the midst of planning, because something will always pop up. Just control what you can and roll with the punches. Don't let yourself get unhinged if something doesn't go to "plan" - make the best of what came up and turn to plan B. Sometimes its better than A!
Our trip up the Pacific Coast Highway had a unfortunate encounter as we were planning it the weeks leading up. Mudslides shut the most gorgeous part of the highway off forcing us to move our trip inland to head north. As much of a fork in our plans this was, we did our best to research and came up with an alternative. And you know what, it ended up being better than we imagined! We were able to see a part of California that is beautiful in its own right (and does not receive enough credit) AND we still get to visit the monumental parts of the highway that were unaffected. And we know we can pick up from where we left off AND have a few other places to see in a little more detail!
Remember, its the journey not (always) the destination when you're planning to hit the open road. Make the best and enjoy every moment - the smallest ones will sometimes turn into the brightest memories without knowing you're actually making them!
Feel a little more ready for your trip? We sure hope you do! We know we didn't possibly cover everything that could to make these trips work. So if you have any suggestions you want to pass on, we'd love to hear - comment below!
Otherwise, happy and safe travels!
When you're some of the biggest Disney fans, you've seen 2 of their 6 international locations, and you're an hour away, what do you do? You go,of course!
But how does Disneyland Paris stack up to the stateside parks? And how do you make the most of your time visiting a place that has to compete with the majestic history you're surrounded with in Europe.
Here's our take on getting the most of your Disneyland Paris visit!
Where to stay?
We chose to stay at a Disney hotel to capitalize on the on-site perks - proximity and Extra Magic Time. Disney has a plethora of properties, including 6 Disney hotels within walking distance of the parks and 2 Disney Nature hotels which are set further out and require a car to access. Disney also has a variety of Partner Hotels in the area that provide shuttle buses to the parks and may offer a little lower price per night of your stay.
We wanted some place that we could maximize our time at the resort and at the same time feel like we were getting an experience worth the price. We chose to stay at Disney's Newport Bay Club, a hotel right onsite and walking distance to Disney Village. Anyone familiar with the Walt Disney World set of hotels, Newport Bay is the equivalent of Yacht & Beach or Boardwalk, taking you back to a time of living on the water and enjoying the luxuries of full scale seaside resorts. The hotel is beautiful, just as her sister properties here in Orlando; and massive - we stayed on a wing that was quite a hike to get to, but that was located directly next to the indoor pool.
Deciding what you want out of a hotel is what works for your family. All Disneyland Paris hotels offer all-you-can-eat buffets and adult lounges on property, but not all have a quick service option for dining. We would have loved to have some of those conveniences, like an on-site restaurant for snacks on-the-go and a fridge in the room to store leftovers (or in our case, milk). Closest proximity to the park is the Disneyland Hotel, which would allow easiest access to the two parks and Disney Village. If you rather skip on big meals and have a fast option for food, then Disney's Hotel Cheyenne and Disney's Hotel Santa Fe both offer Starbucks on property, but are a little further out from the parks. Hotels with moderate pricing but with proximity to entertainment, Disney Sequoia Lodge & Disney's Hotel New York (currently rebranding to the Art of Marvel) should be considered. And if neither of those are in your price range, there are a host of offsite options, but you lose the perks that Disney gives you, like Extra Magic Time to enjoy attractions before the general public.
Disneyland Paris has also already started to implement extra security measures like scanning all bags (and people) before entering the hotel, which I applaud. It was our first touch of reality with the world we live in today; but it was welcome to see a proactive approach to make sure the magic isn't compromised.
Amount of Time?
This is all up to how much you want to do. We wanted the experience so we chose to end our trip here and wind down with some fun Disney days. We booked two nights because we wanted to enjoy two full days in the park. We arrived early enough to enjoy one park, leaving our bags with the porter and able to get settled in to our room after we finished our day.
The parks are located a walk away from the hotel, passing through Disney Village complex and then with a fork in the road to decide which way to go. The set up is very similar to Disneyland California and very convenient for anyone wanting to experience everything in one day. They have some of the big name restaurants they do stateside, like Rainforest Cafe, Planet Hollywood and McDonald's, but also have unique concepts like Annette's Diner (ode to the original Mouseketeer) and a character filled Wild West stage show at Buffalo's Bills.
If you want to spend any time checking out the night-time entertainment, there warrants an extra night just to enjoy a dinner show - and use that extra day to book an excursion to the surrounding area. Disney offers tours to chateaus and small countryside villages to get a taste of the beautiful region outside Paris that hosts their parks.
Disneyland Paris also offers great package deals that may also be worth skipping a stay in Paris and opting to make the commute to the city instead. We had considered this option when we found a package that would allow us to stay on property for 5 nights for the price of 3. The package also included tickets and granted children free admission - so ultimately we'd be getting a 5-day ticket & 5-night hotel stay for the whole family for the price of two adults on a 3-day package. One rate also included club level room, which would give you exclusive check-in and access to the club lounge, with refreshments and light appetizers served all day. In hindsight, the offer was too incredible to pass up - but we did, because we also knew we wanted to indulge in our first time in Paris. But someone wanting to shop savvy, it is every bit worth searching for a package like this!
Which Ticket to Get?
Absolutely buy tickets ahead of time and snag them on a deal, as they'll also be cheaper online than at the park. We had pre-purchased tickets off the Disneyland Paris site as they were running a deal that got Adults in for the price of Children tickets and we couldn't pass that up!
There are two parks to choose from, Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios. We opted to purchase a 1 Day Ticket for each park and completely immerse ourselves in that park. And personally, we felt like a day in each park was more than enough time!
The tickets are sold on an attendance calendar so depending on when you visit, the cheaper it is (weekdays early in summer run cheaper than weekends or late summer). The parks also operate on hours depending on season, with Walt Disney Studios Park closing earlier than the original. During our stay, Walt Disney Studios closed at 8pm on weekends and 6pm on weekdays, so we opted to do the newer park first to maximize our weekend day at the park. Disneyland Park remained open until midnight either day. Since we had one park tickets and we wanted to capitalize on our energy and the late hours, we opted to save Disneyland for last.
Walt Disney Studios Park
Walt Disney Studios is the newer park, and reminiscent of Hollywood Studios in Orlando. It houses two of the newer attractions, Crush's Coaster and Ratatouille, which were our main objectives to see. Just like Disneyland, Paris still has the old FastPass distribution system - you don't have a limit to how many you get in a day and you can get your next one after the distribution window on your ticket opens up (which is usually at the ride time). So if you're lucky and get a FastPass for the exact hour you're in (which is possible), you can also get another pass within a few minutes and ride back to back line-free rides.
We made our way in and went directly for Ratatouille since we wanted to all get on a ride together and this one was it. We got our FP and proceeded to ride other attractions in Pixar Place, an ode to Disney-Pixar films like Cars and Toy Story. There we spun on Luigi, had a Slinky Dog Dash and then made it back over to experience Ratatouille. The ride took us on a 3-D adventure in a mouse's point-of-view through the restaurant featured in the movie and the streets of Paris - it was adorable and left the kids squealing!
We caught a few other attractions we didn't have back home, including Disney Junior Live which had different cartoons featured than they do in Orlando, which was exciting for the kids to see! We also rode the underwhelming attractions of Armageddon and the Backstage Tour. The one thing we had high on our list to see before we left for the day was the coveted Mickey and Magician show, which was fantastic! Housed in a theater, this is a production including live singing and stage effects - it was amazing to see the caliber of show that Europe delivers and really can speak to the level of performance this culture relishes in.
The park itself is overshadowed by the Disneyland Hotel, so upon approaching it, you see the beautiful grounds of their flagship property, but no sign of the iconic castle. You pass under the hotel into the ticket turnstiles and only after crossing the official entry of the railroad station do you see Sleeping Beauty's castle.
The park is very reminiscent of Disneyland California, in its simplicity, attention to detail and accessiblity of attractions. It goes back to a simpler time when things weren't as rushed and the experience was greater than the exposure. It had all the classic rides you expect at any of the flagship parks, with enhancements like HyperSpace Mountain (which was unfortunately closed for maintenance during our visit). The park had also just celebrated its 25th anniversary, so it had a sense of grandeur still in the air to celebrate such an event.
The details are so clean and crisp, but it did lack a little of the magic you find back home. We tried to pinpoint what, and couldn't place our fingers on it until after we left - atmosphere music. We're so used to having music ushering us along and making the pace for our walk, that we failed to notice that the parks didn't have much. You heard the faint music from the attractions as you passed by, but as you walk between lands, taking in the park and existing in the moment, there's no soundtrack to live by. Us spoiled Disney kids really fail to see how wonderful something so simple as this is.
The parks also operate on the classic FastPass distribution system, much like Disneyland California. They do have limited attractions offering passes so waiting in lines may be inevitable. But the parks do not nearly have the waits that the stateside parks do, outside the more popular attractions which beckon visitors. It's absolutely worth waiting in line for those, and even more so for waiting for the shows. The performances here are all live and it is incredible to see the magic of that experience come to life. It is also worth noting that all shows are done in a mix of English and French dialogue, so it makes for a truly memorable experience to get a bit of each culture combined.
I could go on for days about our trip there, but I will let the pictures do the talking instead. If you ever have the opportunity and are even a bit of a Disney fan, take the day trip out here. You can take a metro from central Paris which will drop you off at the end of Disney Village and within a two minute walk to either park.
Any other tips?
Any Disney fan will agree, it is definitely worth the experience to see how cultures influence each of their parks worldwide. The parks are very similar but yet so unique in their own way. It brought us so much perspective to ride the Small World an ocean away and listen to the words with true relativity to our time here.
There is just one moon
And one golden sun
And a smile means
Friendship to ev'ryone
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It's a small world after all
If visiting Disney is on your bucket list, make a stop here, its worth it. It's incredible to see what one man with a vision was able to create, all with one little mouse - that has changed the way the world experiences happiness.
So when you're taking a whirlwind European vacation and you're already 11 days in, what do you do?
Stay another 5 days in Paris.
Paris has been a dream of mine to visit. There's something about the city of love that just seems so appealing, and I jumped in to all the hype. And reality is that traveling within Europe is cheap! For the 4 of us to board a one way to Paris on a reputable airline with no strings attached (Air France) cost us $200 dollars (not Euros) TOTAL. We looked at possibly taking the Eurorail but the cost would've been relatively the same and the trip 4x as long. So we pulled out our passports and made our way to Fiumincio and prepared for another half day of travel.
Rome to Paris
Traveling out of the airport in Rome was one of the easiest experiences I've had in my entire life. We got dropped off at the part of the airport for "domestic" travelers - going in and abound Europe. We found the neatly lined desk with the Air France branding and promptly hopped in line for our Delta Medallion perks. Finding an airline that has partnerships and shared benefits is ... amazing! Our section already didn't have a long line, but in true European fashion no one was in a rush. It's not a horrible mindset to live by but we had two little ones in tow that had not had breakfast and standing in line to drop off our luggage was not how we wanted to spend more time. So our nice Medallion line had us seen right away, got our luggage priority boarded, and even got us special access to a security line that was minimally evasive and very quick. Ultimately, from the moment we arrived to the airport through security was no more than 20 minutes. Ah-ma-zing.
We had plenty of down time though, because we always planned with more time to spare just in case. And I'll say this, FCO is not a horrible airport to spend extra time in. It is absolutely immaculate and very kept up with! We found a bistro upstairs and grabbed ourselves a brunch with a mini bottle of wine each as relaxed & discussed all the possibilities in France. This leg of the trip we not planned to a tee, yet. We wanted the flexibility to change our plans, but we also knew there were certain things we wanted to do - like a champagne river cruise of Paris at sunset the night we arrived. Otherwise, we didn't have anything else set in stone (except our final stop)!
Our arrival to Charles De Gaulle was uneventful and very efficient. We were picked up by our driver, slightly late, but quickly escorted to the car. We were on the outskirts of the city so for the most part, the drive was relatively bland - we felt we could be anywhere else. But approaching the Paris proper and seeing the buildings age and become more detailed and ornate was ... breathtaking. We anxiously awaited spotting *the tower* for the first time, which we knew was going to be a sight in itself. But unfortunately, we didn't spot it and knew we'd have to wait until that night.
Our home in Paris was an adorable boutique hotel off Champs Elysees, Hotel Balmoral. We were two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe, so we always had prime view of its towering glory. But best of all, we were only a block from a metro stop. Once again, based off the size of our group, we got a suite on the top floor. But even by hotel room sizes, it was generous. We walked into living space with a flat screen TV, espresso maker, bistro table and with a loveseat that was turned into a bed every night. The substantial sized bathroom was right off the front door and had enough room for a family to utilize; so we could shower and get ready at the double sink all at the same time. Then to the left of the living room was a bedroom with closet space and another flat screen TV. Both main rooms had a little terrace to overlook the neighborhood, and it was as perfectly Parisian as you'd imagine.
We left the hotel to grab and early dinner/very late lunch and start some of our exploring. We ate at Le Vin Cœur, a bar/bistro right near our hotel and ordered anything traditionally French off the menu. Who would've known that steak sandwich (aka hamburger) was a French staple? But sure enough, the kids wanted to try and that's what they got ... with appropriately enough french fries (steak frites)! Chris and I decided on sharing escargot and a cheese platter. And of course have a glass of French wine to accompany all our delacies. The bistro was as French as it came. The waiters vaguely paid attention to us, patrons dined on their own and read the paper, and very often wines paired perfectly with cigarettes. It was so unlike anything American and I was loving it. Paris was so far off to a great start.
After our meal, we made it to the metro after a short walk down Champs Elysses to take the train to Port de l'Arsenal, where we would board our Seine River Cruise. With time to spare, there was a playground near by where we let the kids frolic for a bit before we did a little walk of the area to get our barings. The port is pretty standard with boat docks, many of them private and not much to see. But there was a lively bar/restaurant next to our dock where you could grab drinks as you waited, and though we would were inclined to partake, there were no other kids in the outdoor crowd, so we weren't going to invite ours.
We boarded our champagne cruise with drink in hand and opted to sit outside with prime views of left, right, straight ahead and up above. We learned that the water levels throughout the water ways in Paris vary, so we'd have to go through a lock system to start our tour. It definitely took a little time to go through, but what a fascinating process to teach the kids about, watching water levels officially change before making your way out to the main river.
Paris by boat is stunning, consuming and something I'd absolutely recommend doing to anyone. Especially at sunset. We didn't bank for night falling closer to 11PM though, despite summer hours. Our cruise boarded at 9, so we were in it for the long haul - but when 9 looked more like 5 we started doubting how soon we'd see the City of Lights shine. I won't divulge too much about the sights we took in, as words cannot explain how glorious it really is.
I mean, take a look for yourself -
But there are two things you have to note and the rest experience yourself:
1. Capturing that first view of the Eiffel Tower, regardless of how or where you are, is breathtaking! There's no way to explain the mix of joy, astonishment and true appreciation for where you are until you see such a monument firsthand.
2. Paris looks like it was hand-painted and you're walking through it, like a scene straight out of Mary Poppins. There's no way a city can be this beautiful. And I hope every single Parisian wakes up and appreciates the true beauty their city possesses and cares for it like a new toy for many years to come.
Our first night ended in a perfect way just by hap and circumstance. We left our river cruise with two sleeping babes in our arms. We knew we wouldn't make it with a walk back to the hotel, so we stood in line for a taxi. We were in line no longer than 5 minutes when a cab appeared and the family in front of us proceeded to enter. The driver called our attention in French, yelling "bébé" and motioning for them to leave and for us to come. We were by no means needing a cab based of our short time there, but his gesture warmed our hearts - taking care of our young kids to make sure they got home in the witching hour - there was not a more beautiful way for love to transcend language barriers. As slightly embarrassed as we felt to take someone else's cab, the ride was perfect - we rode with windows down with a slight chill in the air, gently playing classical music as we drove the immaculate streets of Paris. Nothing felt more Parisian than taking in the city of lights than with my two little loves in my arm being taken straight back to our abode by the sweetest Parisian we'd meet all trip.
Paris Day 2
After a good night's sleep, we were up to do more exploring, this time headed to Montmarte, the highest point in the city to take a bird's eye view of Paris. We decided to walk there, since we were only a short two miles from our peak, and we wanted to feel like locals and take in the sights up close. It was an experience to see the city slightly change as we changed neighborhoods but still continue to have the charm and appeal that beckons its visitors. We passed dated metro signs that you see in the Paris of old; we encountered street musicians playing the sounds that we will remember our trip by; we walked by street cafes in full Parisian style - drink in one hand, cigarette in the other; we walked quickly past patisserie that beckoned us in, but after a breakfast full of croissants, hazelnuts, and sugar we had to pass (for now); we basked in front of iconic Moulin Rouge in all its former glory (be warned though its neighbors aren't as glorisous); we hiked (literally) up stairs as we rose the elevation to get to the highest peak. We finally made it Montmarte where we were welcomed by Basilique du Sacré-Cœur and turned around to find a full view of Paris. It was exactly what we hoped for after the 3 mile walking tour we took ourselves on. If walking isn't for you, there's a Metro gondola right at the bottom of the hill that takes you all the way up; and your Paris Metro pass get you with a swipe!
From there, we decided to delight the kids, since they had yet to encounter an operating carousel and take them on a "train" ride through Montmarte. The trip would take us back down to the main strip near Moulin Rouge for an opportunity to get to learn about this region and all it had to offer. It was truly a cute way for us to delight in Paris and get to do something a little different and very relaxing; traveling with kids is about this. Compromise. You have to know when to cut your losses and do what can keep them engaged as well. After finishing our tour it was time for lunch, a late one at that - and we decided to head towards Jardin des Tuileries to delight them a little more.
We took the metro to the Madeleine district, where we decided on Café Madeleine for lunch before the park. It looked like an American diner met a Parisian cafe and its animated atmosphere called us in. We were quickly and tightly seated in a booth made for two (but that's everywhere in Europe) and had the liveliest of servers. He kept the kids entertained with his antics and broken English questions to them, and we ordered a fantastic meal of more steak sandwiches & frites, French onion soup and I got the tastiest raspberry meets strawberry adult drink you could ask for!
With a quick walk to Jardin des Tuileries, we passed the Opera and the glorious sites that this side of town hosts. This definitely an area of elite and it was beautiful. If you need a recommendation of where to consider staying, the 1st or 8th arrondissement are both in locations prime for sightseeing; and especially with kids, you are in the proximity of lovely parks, full of delights to allow them to run off any energy. That's what Tuileries brought to us on arrival, a chance to let them run around a play. The gardens line up to the Louvre (but not the iconic pyramid that sits in front of it), so we got a look at the museum in all its glory. It wasn't on our list of things to do, because frankly, with kids we couldn't. But I have no regrets, especially after our experience at the Vatican and how crowded it was, it was a welcome blessing to be able to say we were okay without it.
Jardin des Tuileries has carousels and playgrounds for climbing, along with being dotted with cafes and full of people strolling. While they burned their energy, we decided we were going to have a picnic on Champ de Mars for dinner and make it a point to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night. Nothing sounded more enticing than to pack our own bag, bring our own wine, and enjoy a quiet night sprawled on the grass as the tower lit up. So we hurried the kids up and headed back to the hotel for some down time and quick naps, because tonight we were going to stay up until midnight. We had to - the night before it only lit up, and we missed it twinkle. And tonight the tower would sparkle every hour on the hour starting at 11 and we needed to see it!
Timing couldn't have been better - a quick trip to the corner grocery store and we packed up meats, cheese, bread, and bottles of very good (& very inexpensive) wine for us! Then at around 8pm we hopped back on the Metro with the Eiffel Tower as our final destination so we could enjoy play time in the park and have a relaxed evening while we waited for her to glow. And that we did have. We stumbled on a playground right next to Champ de Mars where E made a friend, who spoke zero English, while she spoke no French. But they played together nicely and you wouldn't know that language was even a barrier. We easily lost track of time around 9 because the night just throws you off with its showing off. When out of nowhere we hear the roar of the crowd because the tower lit up! And to our surprise, it was sparkling! The night before we were told it wouldn't do so until nightfall, and here we were at 10pm sitting on the Champ and watching this magnificent tower glitter with the most magical sunset to paint the sky. This was breathtaking. And more than anything we could've dreamt of.
Paris Day 3
We used the next morning to sleep in a little and have "breakfast in bed" to wind down from the late night. Today we were off to see Notre Dame and spend the day exploring Luxembourg Gardens. The day started off cold, cloudy and rainy, but it didn't stop us. We had dealt with this and we had more exploring we wanted to do. So we walked to see Our Lady where we did our own guided tour of the cathedral and relished in all its beauty. It was overcrowded as anything else we experienced, but it didn't make it any less of an honor to be there, standing inside of history in all its glory.
After touring Notre Dame, we headed over to get the one coveted meal I wanted on this trip - crepes! We found a place in Quartier Latin, Le Creperie which was perfect more than just by its name. I got as I wished - a Nutella crepe with strawberries accompanied by a mimosa; Chris ordered a savory ham & cheese crepe to balance out our meal, and if I could, I would have ordered more! We decided to burn those much needed calories with a walk to Luxembourg Gardens, followed by some play time.
Luxembourg Gardens is similar to Tuileries in that its an immaculate garden with public access but a lot more family friendly. Upon entering the gardens, we found boat racing going on in the Grand Bassin duck pond - we needed to join in! So for about 5 Euros your kids can rent toy boats for 30 minutes and enjoy sailing them against each other. After racing, we ventured around and stumbled on to a playground, but unlike Tuileries, this one was not free. A cover charge of 1 Euro per person (adults included), got you access to a gated playground - the Mecca of all playgrounds! This place was massive; from sand pits to swings and slides, every corner there was a different set of playground equipment to be devoured by kids. Ours were in heaven!
And quite honestly, this became the best way to end the trip. We decided to call it an early evening, have another picnic dinner at the hotel and prepare for an early wake up call for the last leg and probably the most anticipated by the kids - Disneyland Paris!
What goes into planning a trip?
Some people are fly by the seam of their pants. Whereas the Type A bunch (like me!) want to have every last detail nailed down.
Regardless of your approach, here are some of our go to’s when we set out for our next adventure.
Ready to make plans? Here's our advice.
Budget - First thing's first - how much are you going to spend? You have a magical number in mind on how much you want to spend, but don't spend all that money on air and accommodations alone. You have a vacation to take! While you're researching where to go, take a look at how much you might spend while you're there and how much flexibility you have to alter your plans. Vacation spending can creep up quickly if you don't plan for it ahead of time and next thing you know your allocated budget has doubled out of nowhere.
When planning out your trip, find an amount per person you're comfortable with spending daily and add that into the total trip cost. Any tours you want to do? Price them all out and then decide from there which ones you're willing to cut out if they don't fit the budget. Add in the cost of meals - Are you planning on doing any exclusive meals? How much are you going to drink? How much do you plan to eat? Figure how you're going to get around & cost of transportation - charters or public?
Once you've got a rough estimate, see from there if this trip is really doable, even when cutting costs to save some money. You'll found that there are short cuts to make it affordable - you might just need more flexibility on when to go, where to stay and how many paid activities you do. If those are non-negotiables, then the world is your oyster and you can find another right fit place to go!
We can't state how important it is to factor daily spending in your budget. There's no point in going somewhere and not being able to do anything because you didn't plan for it. And it will also help eliminate surprises from post-trip bills. If you have your heart set on something but don't think you have the means, knowing costs can help you plan ahead to stay with your budget or encourage you to save a little more NOW so you can do everything you plan later!
Flights - There's something to be said about early bird gets the worm - if you're set on a date, then shop early if you can to guarantee you get the exact flights (and seats) you want! Otherwise, use these timelines we follow on when to book a flight - 4 months to 3 weeks for domestic flights & anywhere from 66 days to 200 days internationally.
Accommodations - We book our accommodations with the purchase of our flight because it is very important in making further plans and easy to get out of the way. We prefer hotels to vacation rentals because of the flexibility they offer and we prefer to book a flexible rate at a hotel to one with a zero cancellation policy. When it comes to exploring new cities, sometimes your thoughts on where to stay may change. I'm willing to pay a little extra for peace of mind that I can change my plans if my opinions do. And also know that sometimes the flexible rates can drop in price too - so you can always adjust your reservation to score savings! If possible, pay ahead for your hotels too - then that cost is eliminated and the only spending you'll have is on the extras during the trip.
Travel Insurance - We always, always, always purchase travel insurance once we've booked our trip (flight, accommodations and car all at once)! There are plenty of companies out there, but we prefer Travel Guard as we have found the best rates with them regardless of our journey. Travel insurance can cover you for anything from trip cancellation to trip interruption to or medical coverage if you need to visit a hospital while traveling internationally. For any of the above, just having that safety net for a few hundred extra dollars is worth it.
Once you book your flight, stay and ride (or within 24 hours), buy insurance! They need the total cost of your trip and where you're going as part of pricing your plan, so its better to know those totals upfront. Its also important to buy within the first day, because if you want or need additional coverage, you need to purchase the waiver within the allotted time period. Yes, plans change and you have the flexibility to adjust, but you need to have those elements secured and its worth every last penny in our experience. On our trip to Brazil we faced an over 12 hour delay due to mechanical issues with the plane - and though the airline provided us with an overnight hotel and meal vouchers to get us until our next flight, we still had out-of-pocket expenses incurred. With our travel insurance, we were able to write off any essentials the airline didn't cover and receive reimbursement fairly quickly after submitting our claim to Travel Guard.
If you travel often, we would recommend looking into purchasing annual travel insurance. Annual travel insurance can save on individual trip costs and the need to shop for insurance every trip. Annual travel insurance plans vary so shop around to find the best one that works for you and your traveling needs. Regardless, we can help find insurance needs!
Now that we're booked, what do we do next?
Activities - Book and plan anything you want to do ahead of time. We learned this the hard way when scheduling our trip to London. We booked back in July and then sat on making an agenda for a little too long. There really weren't tours we wanted to do - except the Warner Brothers Studio Tour of Harry Potter. By the time we got around to picking a date, we missed our window for booking this tour - we failed to find out that they sell out months in advance. We tried up to the very last minute to score tickets, but with no luck.
Try to plan ahead where you can and book when you what you must do - especially with plans that are time sensitive, like limited engagements or show tickets. All other plans you have time to shop around for the best price, like one of our absolute favorite sites for tour options, Viator. The site combines various tours into one selling hub to make shopping easy - tour information, length of time, and cancellation policy are all described in each listing. Once you're booked you're given contact information for the actual tour and you're ready to go! We love the ease of navigating the site and finding a variety of plans that can fit our needs!
Map it Out - There are so many great websites and apps for making your trip really come to life and one of our favorites is Google Maps. We love to read up and watch travel blogs on a place we're planning to visit and at the same time take note of key places we want to experience. As we read or watch, we drop pins on a Google map we've created for that city, so we can later start to make an itinerary of what we want to explore. We try to connect the dots (pins) to make realistic walking tours and also color code each day so we have a full guide map laid out. This tool has truly been wonderful in our travels; we can plan our days near each other and make sure we're not wasting precious time (or money) on unnecessary commutes!
If you rather have all your plans made for you, we love Citymappers for itineraries planned from start to finish which include estimated travel times for best planning your day. If you rather explore as you go, and you plan to travel down a road less traveled, try Roadtrippers for cool places to see as you go!
Plans & Flexibility - We lay out all our plans on a calendar, so the whole family can see what we have on the agenda & we can work around, when things come up. We found this extremely effective for our longer trips to keep us on track and to also use as a reward tracker for the kids. Yes, we're on a break from the real world, but etiquette and behavior shouldn't be. We're all entitled to frustration or slight grouchiness because of hunger or lack of sleep, but to let it ruin everyone's mood is not something we tolerate. We strive to make sure that the kids (and adults) work out any issues, shake it off and carry a positive attitude the rest of the trip. For the little ones, we make sure to reward positive behavior with stickers on a calendar - if they collect enough, they earned a special souvenir by the end of the trip.
And just as anything else in life, plans change. You may have hit a delay, or inclement weather has made your outdoor plans non-existent, or it took longer to do one thing which altered what was scheduled for later. Whatever it may be, know that plans may not go accordingly and allow yourself to accept that. You may also just run into to something much better because you weren't looking for it, and it made your trip extraordinary. Accept that you need to have a positive attitude and a plan B when traveling and it'll help your journey go smoothly.
Phone Plan - If you don't have an international cell plan and want to use your phone abroad, look for what options might work for you. Some like to go the route of an international SIM, whereas we opted to check with our provider (AT&T) for plans that work. We knew we needed at least one phone to use to call locally and access Google maps. But we didn't want to be limited on data usage (or pay for the surcharge). AT&T has a $10/day option starting from when you turn your phone on in international soil for a rolling 24 hours. This plan not only gave us flexibility to shut off during the cruise, but also allowed us to use without any wasted time.
Cash & Cards - Most, if not all places, accept most major credit cards. But we had instances where we needed cash on us. To travel, we converted Euros before departure to insure we had cash for our first transfer. Otherwise, we could have paid as we went. We bank with Bank of America who has sister banks worldwide - at those banks we could use the ATM fee free and only pay the conversion for cash pulled. We had several in our proximity in each of our destinations, and going forward we will be mindful of this and the amount we pull prior to traveling.
As cards go, Visa is king internationally Make sure you at least have access to one while traveling. Personally, we prefer to use our American Express because it allows us to travel without foreign transaction fees. Whatever option you pay with, make sure they're aware of travel plans so you don't get declined any purchases and also make sure you bring up a back up card in case one stops working or goes missing. Designate one card for charges you weren't expecting, particularly for an emergency, so you can still have a disposable amount on another card.
We feel like we've got our packing down to a science, many times traveling with just one suitcase for all four of us. What & how do we pack it?
Carry-On - We always pack the essentials to bring on board, in case anything happens like a flight delay or lost luggage. We've learned this through experience about this so we always make sure that we have the following on us to get through any delays.
Luggage - When we pack for an extended trip, one thing we try to do is pack interchangeable pieces so we can use less, more often. Below is a sample of how we packed for 17 days in Europe.
Top Kid Hacks
Here are some of what we found to be the best tricks to keep a kid happy on a trip.
Above all, pack a good sense of humor for any of the unexpected that pops up. They always will! J caught the stomach bug in Europe; or should we say, he caught the stomach bug stateside and it manifested in Europe. Talk about your worst nightmare! But luckily we were well-equipped this trip (unlike any before) with Benadryl to keep the nausea at bay and give him a few hours of lost sleep; along with patience and lots of prayers that none of us would get it on the flight home!
If traveling wasn't an adventure, then I don't know what else it would be. But how else would we ever learn what we're made of? Hope that some of our school of thought helps you as you start to plan your next adventure somewhere!
And if all this seems but overwhelming to you, we can help make those trip plans - and then just leave the packing to you!