Monday, December 14, 2015

And the Winner Is...


After plotting potential routes in Texas and Florida, Texas came out on top. Plus I have a friend we can stay with for 4 nights in Houston, making Texas the best choice for this single mom on a tight budget.

So now we have to decide what sites to see and how many nights to stay in other towns.

Should we visit the missions of San Antonio? If we're that close to the state capitol, I believe a trip to Austin is in order. Maybe we should spend a day relaxing at the beach in Galveston.

Houston has lots of sites to see, but we don't have the time or money to see them all in one trip. What are the must-do sites here?

Decisions, decisions...

Monday, October 26, 2015

Planning the Next Big Trip

The last couple of Decembers, we have made our way across stretches of the Southeastern U.S. in search of adventure.

Now it's time to start planning for this year's trip.

I've got it down to two options, but I'm torn about where to go. One would leave me flying completely solo with my boys on a route through Texas on the way to Carlsbad Caverns. The other would wrap us around most of Florida and include picking up a friend for our jaunt down to Key West.

If you had to pick between the two, which would you choose and why?

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Summer Staycations

Summer is prime time for travel for a lot of familes. School is out, so it's a great time to hit the road.

Whether an emergency expense comes up or income is limited, when you find yourself on a tight budget, travel is one of the first things to go. With limited funds, even a weekend trip is challening. That's where I find myself this summer.

Instead we have made our own fun. After searching for boredom buster ideas on Pinterest, I had my boys write activities on different colored sheets of paper. Then whenever they want a new idea, they draw from the jar.

On Fridays, we make time for cooking or a trip to somewhere special around town. Where we live there are a few options like putt-putt, bowling, and a movie theater. Even something simple like a movie can add up quickly, so these treats have been limited.

You can also create a cheaper version of some of these activities around your house. I encouraged my boys to make their own golf obstacle course (thankfully, grandad has putters for them to use).

Rent a movie from Redbox or pick one you already own. You can grab popcorn, theater-box candy, and soft drinks from the grocery store. Or pile pillows in the floor for a pallet party. Look for ways to make it different from your normal movie-watching routine.

Look for activities within an hour and a half drive of home. At this distance, you could easily drive there and back in a day. If you have a little more money in your budget, you could plan an overnight trip and visit a couple of places in the same town.

What daytrips do you recommend in your area?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Semi-Unplanned Vacation

My boys and I recently took a trip to Pensacola, Florida, with plans to meet my friend there. This is the least amount of planning for a trip I have done since my trip to Navarre, Florida, two years ago. Maybe it's something about the Florida beaches that stops me from making plans.

This lack of planning scared me a little because of my Type A personality. I do like to leave some room for down time, but even that is usually scheduled in.

The only thing I did plan for was a hotel room which was smart since it was Memorial Day weekend. As I was checking in, someone walked in to inquire about availability. No rooms were to be had at the inn. Score one for mom.

So what were we going to do all weekend?

The whole weekend turned into a lesson about learning to just be. Let go of ideas of what should be. Let go of itineraries. The only thing I knew we wanted to do was go to the beach. 

The next morning after breakfast we decided to check out the Gulf Breeze Zoo with my friend in tow. At first, my boys were hurrying from one animal to the next. It reminded me of the frantic pace I was trying to escape. So we slowed down and took time to stop and observe some of the animals. It was a much different feel from so many of our other vacations.

We left the zoo and grabbed lunch before heading to the beach at Navarre. My friend was generous enough to take the first shift of watching the boys play in the surf with their boogie boards while I relaxed on the beach. It was strange to be able to relax for a few minutes and breath in the salty air.

Eventually, I relieved my friend and enjoyed the cool water crashing at my feet. It's like my worries were washing away as each wave came in and then headed back out to the gulf.

We went back to the hotel room and relaxed before heading to a dinner of good Southern cooking and jazz music. The night ended with movies in the hotel room.

Sunday my friend was feeling worn, so my boys and I decided to take a walk to downtown Pensacola just the three of us. Being Sunday, I thought we should consider visiting a church. We walked down the main drag in our shorts and T-shirts passing churches of various denominations. We stumbled across a rock-and-roll church in an old movie theather where our attire was the norm. We only stayed for part of the music, but it was nice to be able to visit and not feel out of place.

We walked back to the hotel and grabbed my friend as we headed to lunch at Al Fresco, a food truck food court. There were 5 different styles of food offered giving a good selection for what everyone would like to eat.

That afternoon I took the boys to the pool to play before the forecasted rain rolled in. That evening was a  quick dinner at Wendy's because sometimes you need to know exactly what you are going to get when you order. Sunday night was movies in the hotel room again. After breakfast Monday morning, it was time to hit the road and head home.

We didn't see a lot of sites. We didn't do many activities. But that was the beauty of this mostly unplanned weekend.

Monday, May 11, 2015

When Good Trips Go Bad {Car Sickness}

My 7-year-old was asleep as we drove the twisty road to the top of the mountain where Caesar's Head State Park is located. His older brother chatted with me as we climbed higher and the fog got thicker.

After arriving at the top, my youngest awoke and we all completed a fairly easy 2-mile hike before getting back in the car to head to our next stop. On our way down the mountain, we stopped to check out Bald Rock. Then we were on our way to Poinsett's Bridge.

The roads to Poinsett's Bridge were hilly but not that curvy. Apparently, it was all too much for my 7-year-old. 

As we passed the bridge and I was trying to figure out how to turn around to get back to the parking, I heard this sound that is recognizable to mothers everywhere...a dry heave. And then it happened. Everything a little boy had eaten that day came back up. His brother in the backseat next to him hollers as he throws up again. The second time cleared out what was left of his stomach contents.

So here I am in the middle of no where (there is a gravel parking area but not restroom facilities) in the December cold with a sick child covered all down the front of his coat, pants, and car seat. It took me a minute to gather my thoughts and figure out what to do first.

Thankfully, this was not a tourist hot spot swarming with people. We did see one other family as I was cleaning up the mess. The wife offered me a look of sympathy but I'm not sure she fully understood what I was dealing with. I wouldn't have expected anyone to offer to help me clean up the mess anyways.

The first step was to get a boy out and changed. I dug another outfit out of the suitcase in the back and had his brother stand with his coat open to block the view of anyone who might pull up. I found a plastic bag in the trunk to put the dirty clothes in. 

It was winter and the temps were in the 30s and 40s most days of our trip. We only had one winter coat, so I had to find another jacket.

He still needed to be able to ride in his car seat to get to our hotel 30 minutes away. My dad's pack rat habits paid off that day because in the trunk was a gigantic trash bag ( I call them body bags). It was big enough to wrap the whole car seat so my son could sit in it without getting dirty again.

When we checked into the hotel, I asked the clerk for directions to a car wash and laundromat. She gave excellent directions to both.

At the car wash, I used the power sprayer on the clothes and car seat to get rid of the caked on layers. Then we grabbed supper and spent our night at the laundromat washing clothes.

I was so proud that I survived! But I will pass on having that experience ever again.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hidden Gems {Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources}

On a trip to the Crater of Diamonds State Park last year, we spent the night in El Dorado. The next morning we stopped at the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources before heading down the road. I had decided to visit the museum because it was on our route and it was free to visit.

We arrived before the doors opened and ate our Spudnut Shoppe donuts while we waited. The new building looked pretty generic, but we could see oil derricks outside. The staff was very friendly and welcoming. They gave us instructions about where to head first and the special exhibits. 

The first stop was a special exhibit on the early settlers. There were dress-up clothes, a pirogue for photo ops, and lots of interactive exhibits designed with kids in mind. 

We walked down the hall to start our journey through time (in an elevator) to learn more about how oil formed in this area of Arkansas. The ride through time takes you to an old-timey saloon town complete with replica buildings and items on display, a two-headed calf, and old cars.
Smackover back in the day

Next you come to an art and exploration area. You can draw spiral doodles, draw your own motion picture, and create marble runs. We spent a while here letting them explore the different areas.

Before leaving we walked around the oil derrick display outside that also included some antique tools and an old-fashioned gas station.
One of the oil derricks

We didn't bump into any other families until we were walking around outside about to leave. It was nice to have the place to ourselves but sad that other people were missing out on this hidden gem.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Tips & Tricks {Entertainment on Long Car Rides}

We are preparing for our upcoming trip for Spring Break which means planning for a long car ride. Getting flights for 3 people is not really in the budget, so driving is the best option for us.

My boys love their tablets. But I'm not going to let them stare at a screen for 10 hours straight. So what's a mom to do to entertain her kids on a long drive?

Here are some of my favorite ideas from Pinterest I have used before:

1. Activity sheets

You can find lots of free printables on a variety of subjects. I like to print a map of the states we are going to drive through and highlight the route we will take. This is a way for my boys to follow along and see where we are and how far we have left to go.

I also like to print activity sheets related to where we are going. You can find word searches and puzzles for states, seasons, Disney, and many more. There are also travel bingo and scavenger hunts you can do from the car.

2. Surprise packages

This ties in with the map. I wrapped each package in brown paper (I found it for $2 at Dollar General) with a note on the outside that says, "Do not open until (fill in the name of a town)." This way my boys could follow along the map and have something to look forward to.

3. Stops along the way

Depending on how far we need to drive in a day, this can be challenging. We always need to stop for gas, restroom breaks, or food. I try to pick a unique place to stop along the way which is how I usually find hidden gems. If our stop is limited to getting food, I try to let the kids pick where we eat.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Hidden Gems {Noccalula Falls}

The trip from Chattanooga to our house is about 4 1/2 hours. That usually means at least one stop for a bathroom break or stopping for a meal, depending on the timing of things.

To break up the drive, I looked for a place to stop and stretch our legs. One of my favorite websites it to look for unique and unusual sites to visit. It's on this website that I found out about the Noccalula Falls Doomed Maiden just north of Gadsden, AL.

At the top of the falls is a statue of a woman who looks like she is about to fall over the edge. According to, "The legend behind the statue says that Cherokee maiden Noccalula flung herself over the falls because her father didn't like the tribe her boyfriend was from."

Ok, so the statue of this woman was not what attracted me to the stop, and I did not share the legend with my kids. What I did like was the description of the other activities offered: a train ride, hiking, and a playground.

You can access the playground and see the falls from outside the main Noccalula Falls Park area. Inside the gates of the park is where the hidden gem is found. Entry to the park is for a nominal fee and you can learn more about fees and hours here.

There is a small train that circles the entire park and includes three stops. We boarded the train at the first stop outside the visitor's center.

The next stop is the petting zoo. There were rabbits to pet as well as birds and assorted small furry creatures to view. They do have a lion in a large cage (with a double fence). The fence makes it difficult to see the lion, but it is impressive as you can walk all the way around cage assuring you will catch a glimpse of it.
Goats in the petting zoo

After the petting zoo, you can choose to walk around the Pioneer Village that shows how the settlers lived. The buildings include a cabin, livery, chicken coop, and many more for a total of around 20 buildings. There is also a covered bridge on the property.

The last stop before returning to the visitor's center included several activities. Visitors could choose to exit and play on the playground. Reentry was only allowed by the train conductor who checked for wristbands as proof of entry. 

At this train stop there was also the path to walk to the falls. The sign as we climbed down the stairs to the path said it would take 2 hours to walk the whole path. I didn't see how it would take that long unless it is slow going when you start hiking behind the falls. We didn't have two hours to set aside but the views of the falls from this angle were still nice.
Noccalula Falls

Close to the falls path was a rock garden with daffodils beginning to bloom. This would have been a great place to let the kids play hide and see. There were lots of nooks and crannies between the giant boulders. This is another part of the park we didn't get to fully explore.

In total we probably spent an hour and a half here. Another hour would have been nice to explore more of the rock garden and hike the falls.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Time for Spring Break!

So, the northern half of the U.S. is covered in snow, but spring break is on my mind. I need something to look forward to on these cold, dreary days. Yes, cold is relative because we don't get snow most years. But the gray days do seem to stretch on this time of year.

Last year we went to Chattanooga, Tennessee. If you haven't been before, I highly recommend making it a place on your list. It's a family-friendly vacation spot with lots to see and do. Here's a run-down of our trip:

1. 4 days and 3 nights at Super 8, 7024 McCutcheon Road, Chattanooga, TN 37421

  • I like this hotel because it is close to the mall which means a lot of restaurant choices. I have stayed on the west side of town and there are fewer restaurants. It's also reasonably priced, especially when you look at the cost of hotels downtown.
  • It's not too far to drive to any of the attractions. 
  • This hotel has an indoor pool which my boys love! The shallow end is big enough that they have plenty of room to play. 

  • They have a continental breakfast with a good, varied selection. The only hot thing served is waffles. We enjoy it so not really a con for us, but it may not be enough for some people.
  • The drive to downtown isn't far, but if it's rush hour, you will get caught up in it with all the people trying to head south to Georgia.

2. Rock City, Incline Railway & Ruby Falls

Waterfall at Rock City

  • You can purchase a 3-in-1 pass and get a better rate on these attractions than if you were to buy each individually.
  • My boys loved Rock City the most. As the name implies, it's mostly rocks but has few other features like a waterfall, a gnome village, swinging bridge and Fairyland Caverns. The view from the lookout point is amazing when you think about seeing 7 states at one time.
  • The Incline Railway is a slow ride up a steep incline. It's an impressive feat of engineering. You can start your ride at the top or bottom of the incline.
  • Ruby Falls is an underground waterfall which makes it impressive. There are many interesting formations to see along the way. This was my third trip to Ruby Falls. The tour has changed little over the years, but the waterfall reveal is very different. You can no longer walk behind the falls like we did during my first visit 25-30 years ago.
  • These three filled most of our time.

View from deck at Ruby Falls

  • It is pricey, even with the discount. As a solo parent, this package ate up a lot of my budget.
  • Rock City is mostly rocks. I believe they do a holiday light display in December, but we were there in March. My boys were entertained, so that made it a worthwhile stop.
  • The Incline Railway is slow and there's not much to see beyond the views of the city from the top and the houses and you ride by. This was the least favorite activity of my boys.
  • When you've seen one cave, you've pretty much seen them all. The waterfall at Ruby Falls is what saves this from being just another cave tour.
  • This did take most of our time which meant not much time to do anything else. Plus it took time to get from one attraction to another.
  • There were no family restrooms. This was an issue for most of the trip. Sometimes I dragged my boys in the stall with me and we took turns turning around (this can be an awkward experience when trying to be modest with children of the opposite sex). Other times I checked the restroom as they walked in and waited for them outside the door.

3. Tennessee Aquarium

Trying to touch a butterfly in the Ocean Journey building
  • We had a year-long membership to the aquarium that had been purchased in December. Our stop last March made the second visit and was covered by the membership making it practically free.
  • There are two buildings that are part of the aquarium. Visitors are sent to the top of each building and then wind their way down through many exhibits. This is my favorite aquarium because of the great layout and flow. Even with kids on a school field trip present, it flowed well.
  • There are restaurants within walking distance which makes it possible to take a break between buildings to get a resonably priced lunch. 
Watching the sharks and fish
  • Parking is downtown and requires payment. There is a small lot close to the corner of Aquarium Way and Walnut Street (near the Walnut street Bridge) that was only $3 for all day. This was a much better option than needing to feed the meter every couple of hours. 
  • There aren't killer whales. This isn't really a complaint of mine. But a friend said he preferred the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta because of the giant creatures. They are impressive to see, but I still prefer the Tennessee Aquarium for its size, flow and price.
  • No family restrooms.

Overall, it was a great trip. I would go again (and have been once since then already) because there is much more to see in Chattanooga. My boys have asked several times about going to Rock City again.

We made one stop on our way home that I will share in my next Hidden Gem.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tips & Tricks {Different Suitcases for Different Places}

Our last trip included spending the night in four different locations: two nights at Stop A, two nights at Stop B, three nights at Stop C, and one night at Stop D.

I knew from our experience the year before that everyone dragging out a suitcase at every stop was a big pain. This year I decided to pack one suitcase for each of the first three stops. Another suitcase was carried into every stop and contained pajamas, toothbrushes, and a spare change of clothes for everyone.
A pic of my packing set-up (please pardon the mess!)

When we reached Stop C at a cabin, I was able to wash some laundry. This gave me a head start on the dirty clothes that would be waiting once we returned home. Doing laundry also gave us something to wear for the last leg of our journey, which I repacked in the suitcase from our first stop. 

With only two suitcases for stops A, B, and D, it was much easier getting in and out of the hotel. Each of my boys could pull a suitcase while I carried the bag of food, bag of activities, and cooler.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Hidden Gems {Finding a Hidden Gem}

We all plan vacations that hit the hot spots in a certain town. If you visit New York City, you have to see the Statue of Liberty. In St. Louis, it's the Gateway Arch. In San Francisco, it's the Golden Gate Bridge. Lots of large cities have those go-to sites that everyone should try to see once in their life.

Then there are the hidden gems. It might be a site in a city, a pretty main street, or an entire town. You may stumble across them while stopping for a break in your long drive. Maybe they were discovered and recommended to you by a friend.

There's something about finding a hidden gem. You almost want to keep it to yourself so that it doesn't become overrun with tourists. At the same time, you want to share so other people can enjoy it.

I will be sharing a couple of hidden gems I've found and hope you'll recommend some as well.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

When Good Trips Go Bad {Pack a First Aid Kit}

On our last trip, most of the time it was just me and my two boys. Things were going well! Maybe too well. 

We'd survived the first leg of our journey. I had jostled my memory and managed to navigate the streets of Atlanta safely and successfully. Now we were off for adventures in uncharted lands. 

OK, I had a Google map printout with directions to where we were heading and GPS on my phone, but it was new to us.

We had stopped to see the scenic view at Bald Rock as we were leaving Casear's Head State Park in South Carolina. The rock was damp from fog and mist. Surprisingly, my boys' still had energy to burn and were running around. 

I had warned them to stay away from the edge, so they went running back up the hill while ignoring my request to stop running. 

Then it happened.

My youngest fell down. He didn't tear a hole in his pants, but the fall hurt enough that he felt he needed to show me his knee. So, scraping a knee isn't earth-shattering but it is a reminder that it's a good idea to pack a first aid kit.

When we returned to the car 5 minutes later, he showed me his knee. It had started to bleed a little. I tossed our first aid kit in the back seat and told him to put on some Neosporin and a band-aid.

The first aid kit had been a project for 4-H for the State Fair. It taught my boys about being prepared and came in handy on our trip. 

What should you include in your first aid kit? Ours was a small one, so we were limited to essentials. Here are some suggestions:
  • Band-aids
  • 1-inch-wide roll of medical tape
  • 4" x 4" medical bandages
  • Tum or Rolaids
  • Pepto Bismal
  • Small bottle or sample-size ibuprofen and acetamenophin
  • Neosporin
  • Anti-itch cream
  • Plastic gloves 
If there is something specific that your family needs, then be sure to include it. What additions would you make?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

Where will your travels take you this year?

If you are like me, you are always thinking about the next trip you can take. Or possibly even the next two or three trips you can take.

Let's be realistic, planning a trip takes time and money. Being a solo parent means I have to take a few extra factors into consideration. This is also true for anyone living on a tight budget or who may find themselves travelling as the only parent.

So start planning today! Where will you go next?