With a little bit of downtime at work today I started reminiscing about our last family vacation to Orlando, and how disastrously it started off. Had I just made sure to have that stuffed animal everything else would have been fine. I realized that I felt just a tinge of anxiety for our next trip. Will we forget the stuffed animal again? Maybe something more important that can't be overnighted? Could something worse happen while we're on the vacation, an accident or serious mishap? I definitely hope not, but you really never know. And what if something does happen, and we're not prepared? These are questions that kept floating through my head all day. I was so bothered by the thought that I even mentioned it to my husband that night and we had a whole long discussion about it. He helped ease my mind about it, pointing to the fact that together we'll always make sure that we'll always make sure to take care of the kids and prevent any real serious incidents from happening (the best we can).
It was then that I realized how lucky I am. My husband always helps a lot with the packing and planning when we're getting ready for a vacation, but we're not perfect by any means (as shown with our previous Rani experience - Yikes!). Obviously mistakes can be made. I then thought about all those single parents out there, struggling to save enough to take their kids on a great, much needed and well deserved, vacation and how anxious they may be about venturing out with their family and being solely responsible to remember everything on their own and keep everyone happy and healthy and safe. That definitely upped my anxiety a bit.
I'm here to let all those hard-working parents and couples out there, wanting and planning to take their family on a vacation and bringing toddlers and young children to boot, that it doesn't have to be anxiety inducing. The best advice I can give is to plan and have back up plans. As long as you have a general guideline of what you plan to do while you're there. Then, once you've put together your main highlights, places you want to see and things you want to do, come up with some back ups just in case it rains or some part of your plans doesn't work out. The last thing you want to do is get stuck without a back up plan. In Orlando it's easy since there are so many attractions and fun things to do. Even if it rains you can just head to the nearest mall and shop for a bit. Luckily storms don't seem to last too long in Florida.
You should also have a list of emergency numbers handy when you travel. You never want to have an accident or incident and not know who to call. If your car gets stalled on the highway or your purse gets stolen, you should have an idea of who to call. While these things are not likely to happen, especially in Orlando, it's not completely unheard of. And if you're planning a trip out of the country, or far from home, you should also peruse your travel insurance options. I've always been a "better safe than sorry" kind of traveler and there are many options out there. If you're a frequent traveler you may want to look into an annual membership rather than just paying trip by trip as it will usually save you more. As with any insurance, let's just hope you never need it.
The last tip that I can offer you, when traveling with toddlers and keeping your anxiety low, is to remember to just have fun. I used to fuss so much about keeping schedules and always go-go-go, but when you have kids with you, you have to remember that they should have a chance to really experience the trip. Even toddlers, who may be too young to remember much of the trip, should be able to wander around and really see everything. Pack a good camera and make sure to keep the battery charged. When you vacation with children it's easy to forget that they may be seeing many of the sights and attractions for the very first time.
That happened to me the first time we took our youngest to Orlando. It was literally the 6th time we'd been to Disney in Florida with the little tots since we had been saving so much taking those Staypromo hotel deals and after spending countless hours standing in long lines in the hot sun I got a bit short and irritated and started rushing through everything and just going through the motions. My youngest was almost 3 and I told her, after riding Dumbo, "Ok, ok, let's go..." and grabbed her hand and started gently pulling her to the next attraction so we could get in the next line and start the whole waiting process over again and she said, "But mommy, I want to say goodbye to Dumbo. I don't know when we'll be back." It kind of broke my heart, but I waited and let her say goodbye and then realized that I didn't know when we'd be back either, and from that point on I decided that we had to make sure to make the most of these family vacations. Even if we don't get to do everything on my list, the important part is to make sure that the kids get to really enjoy it.
Getting to travel with kids is a real blessing. Something every parent should experience and use to create precious memories, not just for themselves, but the kids, too. It should not be met with anxiety and apprehension, but confidence and excitement. Just remember, if you're feeling nervous about taking a vacation with the kids, whether you're a single parent or married or whatever, or if it's your first vacation or fiftieth, You Got This. And just Have Fun, Take Pictures, and Relax. Time flies and if you spend it worrying or fretting you'll look back and regret it. I know I did, but not anymore.
1.) Plan (and back up plan)
2.) Expect the Unexpected and be prepared for whatever happens
3.) Consider travel insurance
4.) Have fun and try not to worry too much
Needless to say, the world is huge. There are so many different locations and sights to see that it would be impossible to see and do everything everywhere. That is why when you're planning a trip, whether it's a little getaway for a couple of nights or a full fledged 2 week vacation, it's important that you take time to research your destination and make a list of must see things. That last thing you'll want to do is visit an exotic and faraway place, say Egypt or China or somewhere else that it's not very likely you'll return to, and then realize that you missed out on some huge attraction or delicacy. It's happened to me, which is why I am sharing this with you.
Here's my story from a trip I took in Cancun, Mexico when I was in my mid twenties. This was when I was still an inexperienced traveler, not knowing much about how to navigate through a real vacation. I spent 10 days in Cancun, with my then boyfriend, now husband. This was actually our first big trip together. We were so excited and after finding a great deal on a bundle vacation package that took care of flights, hotel, and some extra add-on excursions to the local attractions (like a day at Xcaret, Xel-Ha, and a trip to see the local cenotes...more on that later).
This was also going to be his first time out of the country. We had to get his passport renewed at the last minute because we realized about 2 weeks before we were due to leave that it was 4 years expired. That was crazy because we thought we'd have to cancel the whole thing if the passport didn't make it back in time. That was just our first snafu we encountered. Once the passport came in 4 days before we were due to leave (too close for comfort if you ask me), I thought all our troubles would be over.
Then, we almost missed our flight. We decided to make a bathroom pit stop before boarding the plane, by our watch we had plenty of time, but next thing we hear is our name being called out over the intercom. How embarrassing! We were literally the last 2 people on the flight, and had we not ran from the bathroom down the corridor to the terminal, I shudder to think of all the fun (and non-refundable money) we would have missed out on.
Now, let me explain how these travel bundles work. You basically get a really good deal because the company (resort, airline, attraction, etc.) get to pick and choose and tell you when to travel and then, for the attractions, you have to go by their schedule. If you're the type that enjoys lollygagging and just going with the flow while on a vacation, this is NOT the best option for you. With these bundle deals, if you miss a scheduled stop or do not abide by the preset schedule you literally just miss out. And if it was something you really wanted to do you're probably going to end up just paying out of pocket for it anyway, so you might as well just stick to getting your entertainment a la carte (so to speak).
How do I know this? Well, the resort we ended up staying at was an all-inclusive property, so let's just say we took advantage of the open bar and really hit it hard our first and second night there. If you've stayed at an all-inclusive resort you probably know how easy it is to wind up having a few too many. Anyway, long story short, our scheduled pickup to spend the day at Xcaret was missed the third morning. We learned the hard way and ended up having to find our own way to the park, since we'd totally hyped ourselves up to spend the day there.
We made sure, for the rest of the scheduled trips that came bundled up with our vacation, that we set multiple alarms and even wake-up calls from the front desk. Of course we also made sure to slow down on our cocktail and beer intake. That was the only adventure we ended up almost missing out on and, other than that, the rest of the events went by without incident. The cenote exploration was my favorite.
Now, hopefully after reading this, you can see how our lack of planning and common knowledge could have led to us having a disastrous vacation, or worse, no vacation at all. My husband and I now look back at the whole experience and laugh. Even though we did run into a few blips during that particular vacation it was all necessary in order to prepare us for future getaways. Now we make sure that we find our own attraction passes and other entertainment (since we're not really the type of people to like to stick to a strict schedule) and we now plan out exactly what things we want to do in the destination we're visiting.
Not only do we make a list of attractions and sights we want to see when we go, but we also make a back-up list in case weather or other events prohibit us from doing any one certain thing. And one thing I can say that was great about our trip to Cancun was that we were never bored. Some of the best times we had were laying by the pool just relaxing, so worst case scenario, even on a rainy day in Cancun you can still lay out at the beach under a cabana or head to the local shops of 5th Avenue for some fun bartering and shopping.
While we did get to do everything we planned to do in Cancun, there were a few other things that I wished we had time to do. I guess that's bound to always happen, but at least if you know about it, you can always plan to do it next time.
Taking a vacation to Orlando and Disney World may sound like an enchanting idea, but what happens if you come down to O-Town and you're not fully prepared? What if you forget an essential item that you can't just run out and buy, like your toddler's favorite stuffed animal? Creating a Disney packing list prior to heading down to the Sunshine State may just save your vacation before it even really starts.
I use the above example because that is precisely what happened to me and my family on our last vacation to Orlando. My daughter, who was 1 and a half at the time, had her favorite stuffed animal that she never left home with. The mix up happened when I thought my husband had packed it and he thought I had, and it turned out that nobody did. We didn't find this out until we had already gotten to the hotel. The whole way there she kept asking where "Rani" was. It was a stuffed, lime-green frog. We kept telling her that she was sleeping in the suitcase and that she'd get her when we get to the room and got settled in. This placated her well-enough, even though she still asked for her and kept having to be reminded that Rani was sleeping.
Lo and behold when we arrived at the resort she asked for her and, after searching frantically through Every Single Suitcase And Bag, Rani was nowhere to be found. To our horror, we realized Rani was hundreds of miles away, safe and sound at home. My husband and I played a quick game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to figure out which of us would be set with the task of running to the local Walmart in search for a replacement and which would have to break the news to our daughter. Lucky me, I got to go shopping. I grabbed the keys to our rental car and headed out.
My husband ended up telling our daughter that Rani had to go back home because she didn't feel well and would be waiting for her when we all got back from vacation. My husband called and told me that she had been sobbing for the last 2 hours, and when I finally got back from Walmart with another stuffed animal, that was also a frog, but orange instead of green, it just wouldn't do. I know you're probably thinking that we spoil our kids or that she was just being a brat. Let me be the first to say my toddler is not spoiled by any means, but she does know exactly what she wants and she wanted Rani. She eventually cried herself into a much-needed nap.
My husband and I were at a loss for what to do. We were even considering having one of us drive back home and back, which would take at least 2 days, to grab her. I mean, it'd still give us 3 or 4 days to relax, but I didn't really like that idea. Suddenly my husband had an epiphany and knew exactly what we could do. He called my neighbor, which we were paying $10/day to feed our cat, and after explaining the mishap, begged her to grab Rani and overnight her to our hotel. She was more than willing to help, especially when I told her I'd pay the shipping fees and an extra $10. Needless to say Rani was waiting at the concierge desk for us the next morning. All I can say is Thank you, Fedex!
Now, had I been more like Santa and made a list, and checked it twice, we would have saved some extra money and avoided a huge temper tantrum meltdown. The smile on my daughter's face when she woke and Daddy told her that Rani was feeling much better and had decided to come back was all worth it, but I made a promise to myself to make a checklist at least a week before heading out on any vacation from here on out to avoid this type of mishap again. Luckily, the rest of the vacation was great. Plenty of sun and fun and many great memories made for sure.
I'm pretty picky when it comes to our accommodations when we vacation. There not much room to be frugal when it comes to where you'll basically be living for a few days, a week, or maybe even longer. It may take many hours of researching and many pro/con lists, but I've hardly ever been disappointed with our lodging selections when we travel. Do you want to know my method and how I ensure the best possible results? Well, I'll tell you.
The first thing I do, after we decide the destination, is make a list of everything thing there is to do there. We'll take Orlando as an example, since this was are latest trip. It should be a general list. So, Orlando, we have theme parks, shopping, smaller attractions and restaurants. Now when you move onto the next step you will want to narrow your hotel/resort search down to the primary area where all of these general things are located. So, for Orlando, you have the Kissimmee Area (near Disney) and you have International Drive (near Universal). These two places have Plenty of hotels and resorts to choose from that'll put you right in the middle of everything Orlando has to offer.
The next step is to make a list of Must Haves for the property you're looking to stay in. For example, my kids love the water and I know that we can save quite a bit of money if we spend one or maybe even two days just hanging out at the resort. So one Must Have is a waterpark or splash area for the kids. The kids are still young enough that this will keep them happy enough just running around in the water and sunshine. There are plenty of hotels and resorts with water activities to keep the kids busy, though, so why not add something else, like a mini-golf course onsite or a kid's club. Or, if the grandparents have offered to watch the kids for a few days and you're traveling solo or just with your spouse, perhaps you'd like to have a nice restaurant to visit onsite at the resort to have a nice romantic evening out. Or maybe you like to boat or fish and want your hotel or resort to have it's own private lake. There are plenty of amenities to look into when trying to find the perfect place to stay. The Westgate Town Center Resort in Orlando has all of these things, this is actually where we ended up staying on our last 2 week vacation to Orlando.
The last thing to consider when perusing online for a good deal on a hotel is to compare prices. Never overpay for your stay. If the resort or hotel is more than $200 per night, you either need to change your dates or find another place to stay. I've never paid more than $200 a night, and we've stayed at some grand places. Since the invention of the World Wide Web online hotel prices are always vying for your business, you just can't see it because it works behind the scenes. NEVER take the first price you see, even if it's a good deal. If you've decided on the perfect place, and you're 100% sure that that is where you want to stay and spend your vacation, good for you, but go look it up somewhere else. Chances are, if you search on a different search engine or even a different browse, you'll find that SAME EXACT place at a much lower rate. So, don't settle until you've done your due diligence as a consumer.
So how do I do it?
Step one, figure out where you want to go, and what there is to do there. Make sure to narrow your accommodation search to the area where you're conveniently located to any and all attractions you'll want to check out while you're visiting.
Step two, decide on what the hotel or resort MUST HAVE onsite for you and your family to fully enjoy. Ideas include: Free shuttles, free breakfast, waterpark, etc.
Step three, once you've picked the hotel or resort that best meets your needs, search for that property elsewhere, on a different search engine or browser, and make sure you take advantage of the best deal. Never pay more than $200/night.
I follow this method every time I plan a vacation, and there hasn't been even one that me and my family didn't enjoy to the fullest.
While you may think it near impossible to find cheap or even Free things to do in Orlando without doing Disney, let me assure you that it's not. You just need to do a little research and plan your trip accordingly. Yes, Orlando is home to some of the most popular theme parks and attractions in the world, that doesn't make it mandatory to go and spend hundreds of dollars to enter the parks while you're there. You have to think outside of the parks, especially if you're traveling on a budget. Here are few ideas to consider for your next journey to Orlando with the kiddos.
Visit Celebration Town Center
This is an area that was to be designated the "perfect town" by Walt Disney himself. It is neatly lined by houses that are painted in beautiful pastels and even included the white pickett fence. Many visitors love to see this neighborhood, take a walk around the pristine lake, and check out the center of the town where local shops and restaurants are located. Celebration Town also hosts numerous events throughout the year like car shows and snow festivals in the winter time.
Check Out Old Town
Old Town is also a great spot to bring the tots. It's got numerous family attractions, like go carts, bumper cars, lazer tag, video arcade and more. There's also a bunch of restaurants to eat at and over 70 shops to check out. There's a magic shop where they put on magic shows and even a haunted house that's open almost nightly, all year round. Definitely make sure you visit on a Friday or Saturday when they host their iconic free car shows. Friday's parade show the muscle cars and Saturday's features old, classic cars.
Don't Forget Big Tree Park
This is one that the even the locals recommend. It used to be home to one of the oldest bald cypress trees (3,500 years old) name The Senator, but that tree burned down in 2012. Now you can visit Lady Liberty, which is over 2,000 years old. There's a playground for the children and a couple of hiking trails. You're sure to escape the city sounds and surround yourself with nature. You may even see some wildlife, like raccoons and snakes.
If You Prefer The Flora, Kraft Azalea Garden Is For You
This park is ideal for those looking to Relax, with a capital R. Bring the blanket, pack the football or frisbee and a snack and be ready to lounge. The Azaleas tend to bloom February through April and this spot is also known to be home to dozens of bird and butterfly species, so keep an eye out when you visit. The kids will even like all of the space there is to run around and they'll be tuckered out by the time you leave. If it's just you and your spouse for this trip, keep in mind that Kraft Azalea Garden is home to many engagements and weddings and is indeed a very romantic place.
While not entirely free (only $2/person), it's totally worth it. A tropical oasis awaits you in Wekiva Island. This is a spot to stick your toes in the water and listen to the live entertainment. You can also rent a kayak or canoe and take a trip around the lake. There's even a restaurant bar, called the Tooting Otter, for when you get hungry or thirsty, or you can pack your own lunch.
How's a Movie Under The Stars Sound?
Well, this one will take a little more planning as they're not offered every day, but if you happen to be here when they are, you should definitely take advantage. There are 2 venues that offer free family-friendly movie viewings. First is Movieola, offered by Lake Eola in Downtown Orlando. They offer their free movie on the LAST FRIDAY of every month. The movie starts around 8:15 PM, although people often show up as early as 6PM to secure a great seat. Now, on the SECOND THURSDAY or every month you can find that Maitland's Enzian Theater hosts a free flick. It's recommended that you bring your own snacks, a blanket, and insect repellant, too.
As you can clearly see there are TONS of things to do in Orlando without breaking the bank. When all else fails you can also ask the locals. Orlando has plenty of residents and that's all they do is look for cheap or free things to do. Of course, most probably just head to the beach!
Traveling is something that people love to say they love to do. Those poor bastards. But they know what they're in for. Yet like a stoned lab rat, they keep coming back for more. Whenever they get time off, it's off to the races to figure out a way to plan something they can go do somewhere they love or somewhere they haven't been yet that piqued their interest. Those who are lucky enough to be able to travel more than once a year rave that vacations purify their mind, body, and soul. It's something that should be done more frequently by everyone, in most experts' opinion. But what are the best ways to travel and which works best for whom? Let's break it down and maybe you'll take some advice from an old well-traveled bloggin' fool who has reluctantly been there and seen most of this crazy rock we're currently spinning on. The first one that comes to mind is what, for the purposes of this post, I will call Destination Trips.
Destination Trips are the most common way people travel, but not necessarily the cheapest. They realize at the last minute that they are going to get time off, and then rush to book something online. Usually this is done through one of the many online booking agencies that tout their product online. They pay per night for their hotel at full retail price and then they move on to the next website that will sell them something else they need for their trip, like transportation.
They usually end up paying for this last minute nature of their booking dearly. This stems from the procrastinating and plan-lacking nature of some people who are either just too busy to plan or just plain lazy. The online travel agencies' are familiar with this part of a human's nature and prey upon this to put lots and lots of dollars in their coffers daily. They also know the vast majority of the general public will Overpay for a room or a flight by simply feeling like they received a discount. Using on-site notifications and banners by every property of "Just Reduced" or "30% off" for example, the common traveler will be hoodwinked into paying on average a few hundred up to a thousand extra per night depending on the property or airline.
The travel industry just loves and is delighted with the gullible nature of the average traveler. Shiny Object Syndrome is quite a moneymaker for the travel powers that be. However, as an elemental idea, Destination trips are about spending some days at a particular city or region. Once the severe outlay is performed, you actually get a decent few days to relax and explore somewhere new. You get to see the tourist traps or sights, spend some time emulating the quasi-cultural stereotypical air of the area and parroting catchphrases in the particular tourist zone, all the while enriching the locals instead of enriching yourself. It's great.
Well, all this sounds extremely fun, but how can I add a degree of gripping claustrophobia to the mix, along with the feeling of being the main protein in a forever-stirring soup? I know, I can take a Cruise! Cruises are a special breed of annoyance with the ever-comforting feeling that you will not be able to escape under any circumstances. Just ask this guy.
You spend the whole year accumulating those off days within the trap of the system until you become so delirious to actually tell yourself that this year you will forgo terra firma altogether, only to willingly fall directly in the trap of the Biggest Sharks in the ocean. And no, they're not the Great Whites, you deluded marine biology flunkie. They're the cruise line companies. Just the breed of ingrates, called crews (Oh, the Homophonic possibilities to this travel option are second-to-none), that these floating institutions seemingly manufacture and then have the utter gall to put in charge of you when you choose to hand over multiple days of your life and your freedom to them, should have been enough to tell you that maybe there could have been a better idea of a way to use your only time off in the year than spending it as the peon in a real-life "Lord Of The Flies" reenactment.
Not a math wiz, but I'm sure that International Waters + No Jurisdictions + trapped on a barge at sea + the barge is not in your control + Carnie-reject-art-class-flunkie-simpletons with no law enforcement training/experience with protocol in charge will have no possibility of Equaling out to surefire seafaring shenanigans on the high seas. All the while quelling a building sinister anxiety that you'll end up LeoDicaprio'ing on a piece of rogue floating debris with gas station booze and luxurious microwaved seafood, relieving yourself in a bag while you and your family dry your tears on identical towels that read "Well, at least it was cheap". Plus the Hors D'oeuvres are literal crap. Red Bag of shit, anyone?
The next best way to travel is somewhat better than the rewarding experience of swashbuckling with Somalian pirates. The All-American Staple. Old Reliable. The Road Trip! Grab all your stuff and jump in that fuel efficient spacious super-compact gas-sipping Aveo that's definitely not already filled with a bunch of baggage of stuff you overpacked and will not use at all during your trip while you gradually learn how much you hate everything your family does (Oh, the smells in this option are second-to-none. What the hell are they eating at school?).
You tried to avoid food in the car the whole year only to make it all up now in spectacular fashion with an 18-hour professional volleyball game with chip crumbs, liquids, and child vomit as the ball. The family staple of the Road Trip is an institution that will always exist, like Jail, and is a rite of passage of sorts that will reveal so many things about your resiliency and what a human being is capable of living through. Survival of the fittest except you're likely the fattest. That poor Aveo.
"Are we there yet?" is the chant you will hear over and over until you lose your proverbial stuffing, or you forget where "there" is. And where are you going? To a city just like yours right in the backyard of your hometown with all the same stuff, but that takes so damn long to get to in that Aveo that you'll wonder why you let the tree-hugging phase the kids are in screw you into buying one. Way to save the planet, idiot.
This was originally supposed to be the greatest travel blog post in the world, but trying to write the travel promoting post of the century made me realize something, on second thought. And that is that traveling is great, but it's about what type of travel you choose to do. And honestly, it seems like before you convince yourself and your family to go globetrotting, the first type of travel that you should do is to take some time off and go to the best place you can travel to: the dining or living room of YOUR HOUSE to get you some food or TV. Take a free vacation and expand your horizons by taking in an Episode of "Dog" with the whole gang.
No research, no constant feeling of getting screwed over at every turn, no comparison. Literally. We're already forced by Mr. Cable Monopoly and his ugly hat to pay them for internet, so we can look up a picture on the web sites if we want to see the world. Forget this post, I'm going to go hug my wife and kids and order a pizza.
It's me. Just a citizen of the world. A nomad with a computer and a duffel bag. Living the dream.