My Answers to Commonly Asked Travel Questions

Even though I often write about our travels on And Then We Laughed, I don’t consider myself a travel blogger by any means. I am not near as well-traveled as I’d like to be – while my ‘list’ boasts 45 states, it only has a measly 9 countries. I’m working on it though! Clay and I have traveled quite a bit with our children (and a few big trips ourselves) over the years – both domestically and internationally, so I like to think that I am fairly well-versed in family travel and all of the wonderful, horrible, and extraordinary things that can happen on such adventures.

Whether it is exploring a nearby town for only the night or trekking throughout Europe for a couple of weeks, we’ve ventured quite a number of places together as a family and don’t plan to stop anytime soon. Occasionally I get asked travel-related questions – both in-person and online – so I thought it’d be a good idea to compile my answers in one blog post. So without further ado, here are my answers to the travel questions I am asked most…

What is your favorite way to travel? Honestly? Anyway we can! While jet-setting around the world may be a dream, it isn’t our reality. Our time and resources are limited so we sometimes have to get creative when planning travel. We don’t shy away from multi-day road-trips and we will gladly take a connecting flight if it means we can save hundreds of dollars. I’ll admit that I prefer to fly if a destination is 12+ hours away but that isn’t always in our budget. I am always amazed when people tell me they refuse to travel further than 6-8 hours by car. I get it – it may not be as luxurious as airline travel, but if we limited ourselves not driving more than 6-8 hours, we wouldn’t be able to experience half the things we do.

For example, we drove 16 hours roundtrip to Colorado Springs within a 72 hour block of time when we were stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas simply because we wanted to spend some time in the mountains. Was driving 8 hours across Kansas preferable? Not exactly…it sure is flat. But being able to hike in the Garden of the Gods and take the cog train up to Pikes Peak made it totally worth it!

What do you do to help make travel more affordable? We prioritize travel. I admit it helps that neither Clay nor I have expensive hobbies so a lot of our ‘fun’ money gets funneled into travel plans. To be honest, we have two financial goals that we shape our lives around: 1) paying for our children’s college and 2) being able to afford to take trips – both big and small – throughout the year. However, we do not have unlimited resources for travel once we take care of our day-to-day living expenses, retirement contributions, and real estate investments. So we take advantage of travel reward credit cards (American Express Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve), airline miles, and we are strategic with our hotel choices to maximize points. For example, the points we earned from our trip to England and France in 2018 allowed us to fly to Germany and Austria for free in 2019 to Germany and Austria.

As discussed earlier, another affordable travel tip is don’t be afraid to drive! Road trips can be fantastic bonding experiences and a great way to get off the beaten path. We’ve discovered little towns throughout the United States that we otherwise would’ve ignored (Paducah, Kentucky; Iowa City, Iowa; Madison, Georgia; and Hannibal, Missouri come to mind). Another thing we do to make travel more affordable is we remain flexible. A lot of our travel destinations that require a flight are determined by what airport is cheaper to fly into at that point in time.

What is the best meal you’ve eaten anywhere? Our first meal in Paris was nothing short of magical. What’s funny is that the restaurant itself was nothing special. In fact, while decently rated, it is also in a somewhat touristy neighborhood near the Eiffel Tower. But I was finally in Paris – somewhere I’d been wanting to visit since was 10 years old. We took our time eating delicious food – soupe à l’oignon gratinée, bavette de flanchet aux échalotes, and creme brûlée. Clay and I savored the Bordeaux while the kids drake Coca-Cola from glass bottles. Our waiter was fabulous, the setting so perfectly Parisian, and I was with the people I love most in the world.

What type of mishaps have happened to you when traveling? Well – our family is sort of known for getting Norovirus each time we’ve visited New York City as a family of four. In full disclosure – we’re a bit scared to attempt the city that never sleeps again in the near future as a family of four.

We’ve run out of Euros in Salzburg, Austria and couldn’t find an ATM that would accept our card. Our plan to get a hotel room when we arrived in Phoenix backfired due to the NCAA tournament being hosted there so we ended up driving three hours south to Sierra Vista, arriving at 1am, just to have a safe place to sleep for the night. But we turned lemons into lemonade and incorporated a visit to Tombstone the following day! Again – being flexible is the key to having great travel experiences!

We’ve miscalculated a red-eye flight from the west coast to the east coast and ended up needing to catch up on sleep at a North Carolina rest area so we could drive back home safely. And when in Montreal, we went to a very authentic Chinese restaurant that was filled with mobsters (we think) and served us only deep-fried chicken feet. But I think my favorite ‘mishap’ is when Clay and I were seated next to a monk/priest in full garb who held a crucifix in his lap for the entire 6 hours flight, sweating profusely and chanting in a foreign language. It was quite the experience!

What’s something you pack that’s not absolutely essential but you like having? Baby wipes! Despite our children forgoing diapers years ago, we always throw a pack or two of baby wipes into our backpacks when we travel. We’ve used them to freshen up after long flights, wash our hands when there isn’t running water to be found, clean up puke, cool ourselves down, etc… The possibilities are truly endless!

What do you know now about traveling cheaply that you wish you’d known earlier? It can be done! When we were in our twenties, we put off a lot of ‘big’ trips because we assumed they were not in our budget. I think there was also a part of us that felt travel was a frivolous thing to spend money on and we needed to funnel our extra money into real estate and just settle for small low-key trips because that was more ‘adult’. Thankfully, we no longer have that attitude and we feel that travel offers us a fantastic return on our money. Being able to experience other cultures (both regional and International) with our children and showing them as much of the world as our resources allow is something for which I’ll be forever grateful.

The opportunity to explore is one of the many reasons why Clay chose to turn his 4-year commitment to the Army into a career. We take full advantage of being stationed someone new and pepper nearby weekend getaways throughout our tenure at any given location. We likely would’ve never visited Fort Worth, Texas for a long weekend if we weren’t stationed at Ft. Still, Oklahoma but then we wouldn’t have been able to experience the Stockyards or eat at the famed steakhouse. And while we haven’t been stationed overseas (yet!), we haven’t let us stop us from traveling overseas. Because one thing we’ve learned over the years, nothing is guarenteed!

Do you prefer to stay in hotels or an Airbnb? While we’ve stayed in both over the years, we find that we prefer hotels because we almost never take advantage of having a kitchen at our disposal. One of our favorite aspects of traveling is eating local food and discovering restaurants so we hardly ever eat anything beyond snacks in our room. Furthermore, we typically only use hotel rooms to sleep and shower so having a lot of space isn’t a priority for us. We’ve really enjoyed our stays in quaint inns (if you’re ever in Bourton-on-the-Water, you must stay at The Broadlands Guest House) and local hotels but we’re also pretty loyal to Marriott around the globe.

What one place would be your ultimate bucket list destination? Hmmm – this is a hard question. I do have a dream of the four of us hiking Kilimanjaro as a family when the kids are older. And Clay and I have the goal is to set foot on all 7 continents before we leave this world. In the near future, my bucket list destinations are probably Australia and New Zealand. We hope to make it a reality for our family within the next few years.

What has been the most magical place you’ve visited? Scotland. Clay and I took a kid-free vacation there a few years ago and I can’t wait to go back with the kids. A piece of my heart was left in the Highlands and along the coast. We barely scratched the surface during our 6 day trip and if ever given the opportunity to live there, we’d jump at the chance.

What is the best travel tip that you give people? Just do it. Take that trip. If you’re waiting for a perfectly planned trip to fall into your lap, you’ll never go. Don’t push off travel until retirement – after all, time is not guaranteed. Make it work now. It doesn’t have to be a big trip. Go explore a nearby town you’ve never been to before. Whatever you do – just go. As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Mark Twain

The kids are starting to ask us when we can start planning our big summer adventure. Since the Army is moving us to Chicago at some point during the summer, we’re at the mercy of their timetable; only time will tell where our big adventure will be this year. But wherever we go, it will be a wonderful because we’ll be experiencing it together as a family.

Where the Army is Sending Us Next

We found out last week where the Army will be sending us this summer. I normally wait until we have orders in hand before announcing our next adventure because so much can change between learning such information and actually arriving at said duty station. But this time around, the information was published as part of board selection results, so Army friends were contacting us throughout the day offering their congratulations. It felt a bit surreal to have so many people know right of the bat – we’re used to keeping the information to ourselves for at least a little while and having it be our little secret.

So where are we going next?

Known for great food, amazing music, and arguably the best architecture in the United States, Chicago will be the place we call home for the next two years. Truth be told, we were hoping for a West Coast assignment because it is the one region the Army hasn’t sent us in the continental United States. But we can’t really complain about the Chicago area – our assigned location, Fort Sheridan, is on the bluffs of Lake Michigan in the Highland Park area, which is about 25 miles north of downtown Chicago.

Beyond a layover at the airport, the kids and Clay have never been to Chicago. I’ve visited as a kid and again for a girls weekend a handful of years ago but barely scraped the surface of the famed city. I can’t wait to take Clay and the kids to the Museum of Science and Industry, which blew me away as a sullen teenager. We’ll cheer on our beloved Nats when they play the Cubs at Wrigley Field and I’m sure we’ll spend hours wandering the city and enjoy the various parks sprinkled throughout the city. We’re looking forward to living in a northern climate again – I’m already stocking up on sweaters as they go on clearance down here. And Clay and I will be closer to our extended families in Michigan and Ohio, which will be pretty cool.

A friend joked that the Army is technically sending us to a coast – it just happens to be Lake Michigan on the North Shore. We’re super excited to live so close to a major body of water and plan to use our paddle boards and kayaks as much as the weather allows. I’ve shouted from roof tops just how amazing Lake Michigan is – especially up in the Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan, where I vacationed every summer growing up – so I’m sure we will spend the majority of our free time on the water, which is how it should be.

We’ll make the most of our time left here in the Washington DC area but we’re ready to move on – maybe because this is the second time we’ve been stationed here or perhaps it is because we’ve never lived in a place longer than 35 months. The thought of staying in a place longer than three years feels so foreign and if we’re being honest – not for us. Clay and I have found comfort in a somewhat nomadic lifestyle but we realize the the kids may not feel the same way as they get older. However, they’re both excited for this move and the opportunities that moving to a new place can bring. Only time will tell what Chicago has in store for the four of us but we’re looking forward to finding out!

“She is novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.

Mark Twain

On top of the Willis Tower Sky Deck on the Ledge in 2014.

How I Sliced My Way Into 2020

Whelp. I really sliced my way into 2020. As I write this post, my lower right leg is sporting a long line of Frankenstein-esque stitches surrounded by black and blue bruising. If you’re interested in learning about the origins of how my likely-to-be wicked scar came to fruition, read on. If you care not to read about how young children were horrified by pools of blood on a bunny hill, then this post probably isn’t for you.

On Friday evening, we drove up to Pennsylvania and spent the night near Ski Roundtop so we could ski first thing Saturday morning on fake snow and in unseasonably warm temperatures. We put on our gear and posed for a picture before the kids had their very first ski lesson.

While the kids were at their lesson, Clay and I honed our rusty ski skills on less-than-ideal conditions and enjoyed the opportunity to do quite a few runs together. We were like a novice and less sure-footed Bode Miller and Picabo Street. After the kids’ lesson, the four of us grabbed hot chocolate and coffee in the lodge and then set off for the bunny slopes. Clay and I worked with the kids – Clay with Weston and me with Violet. I was following Violet down the smallest of bunny hills ever in existence when I lost my balance and fell. No big deal – I picked myself up and started to ski toward the lift when I noticed that I felt a little lightheaded. I looked down at my leg and noticed blood on my ski pants. I informed Clay that I was bleeding and that I was going to track down First Aid so I could get a Band-Aid. Spoiler alert – a Band-Aid would not have helped the situation. Clay gave a wave and went back up the lift with the kids.

I skied over to a worker and said that I was bleeding. By this time, blood was pouring out of my leg and all over the bunny hill, much to the horror of young children. Because of my thick ski pants, I couldn’t see my cut but I figured I might need a butterfly bandage because of how much blood I was losing. I sat down in order to alleviate my light-headedness and waited for Ski Patrol to arrive. At this time, Clay looked over and saw me on the ground, as well as the trail of blood that I left. He worriedly skied over to me and I reassured him that I was fine and Ski Patrol was on their way – it was just a little cut. Five members of the Ski Patrol showed up and immediately began cutting off my ski pants and running tights on my wounded leg. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the reactions of my husband and the Ski Patrol when they saw the extent of my injury.

The next few minutes were a whirlwind of ambulance calls and lots of pressure as Ski Patrol worked to stop the bleeding. I remained conscious the entire time and felt virtually no pain. After a handful of minutes, they were able to get my bleeding under control and transported me to the clinic at the resort. They checked my vitals, which were all fine, and Clay and the kids were able to come in and see that I was in good spirits, despite having sliced my leg. The ambulance arrived shortly thereafter and Clay and the kids followed in the car.

Artist rendering of the scene on the bunny hill…

The EMTs were a hoot and we chatted on the long drive to the hospital. I scrolled through my phone, read a bunch commentary on the killing of Soleimani, and reflected on the absurdity of me getting injured on the bunny hill. I was cold, thirsty, and little light-headed still but other than that, I felt okay. My leg felt a little sore but my pain level was quite low. When we arrived at the hospital, I was greeted by an array of doctors and nurses who were quite impressed with my injury – a few even took out iPhones – ha! The first time I actually saw my injury was in the hospital room and even then, I didn’t have the stomach to examine it closely – all I saw was blood, fat, and muscle. For those wondering, the laceration was 15 centimeters long and 5 centimeters deep…it was pretty gnarly.

Clay and the kids were able to come back and visit me and my (covered) leg as we waited for lidocaine to arrive. They left the room prior to the numbing and cleaning, but they returned so they could see the doctor finish stitching me up. Weston was particularly interested and asked a lot of questions about the procedure. The most painful part of the whole process was getting the lidocaine shots all around my wound (ouch!). But once I was numb, I felt nothing other than pressure. Before long, my leg was bandaged up and Clay snapped a picture of me on the side of the hospital bed.

All things considered; things could’ve gone a lot worse. The people who helped me during the ordeal were fantastic. I am incredibly thankful that I didn’t break my leg and I am happy that it happened to me and not one of the kids. I shouldn’t have any lasting impact from this injury other than a scar and a cool drinking story.

And the cherry on top? I’m now up-to-date on my tetanus shot.

How I Decided on My Word of 2020

In high school, my least favorite English lessons were ones involving Greek mythology. 20 years hasn’t changed my opinion but I do appreciate the ancient philosophical works of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, of which I became very familiar during my political theory courses in college. There is one quote that particularly resonates with me as another new year commences…

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old but on building the new.”

Socrates

New Year’s resolutions nowadays are about as popular as landlines and Canadian tuxedos – it seems most people are forgoing the traditional “Lose 20 pounds!“, instead choosing a word or phrase to sum up their intentions for the coming year. Identifying a word to focus on throughout the year can assist with achieving a wide-range of goals; no matter how big or how small. The word can become a personal mantra – something to repeat over and over when said goals feel unattainable or stagnant.

So how did I go about choosing my word for 2020? First, I wrote down everything I hope to accomplish, regardless of how preposterous. I filled a page in my journal with aspirations, benchmarks, goals, and dreams. I circled the goals that were specific, measurable, and attainable. I starred the ones that made me the most excited. And then I mapped my goals again, this time categorizing them with like-minded aspirations. When I stepped back and looked at everything I want to accomplish in 2020, it felt like a tangled web of less/more statements…

  • less fear/more risk
  • less apathy/more passion
  • less sugar/more greens
  • less idleness /more mindfulness
  • less planning/more doing
  • less social media/more books
  • less envy/more appreciation
  • less alcohol/more water

I really feel like 2020 will be a transformative year. Our family has a lot of change on the horizon and there is a fire within me that I haven’t felt in years. And when thinking about said fire, I pictured a hearth being used to shape a piece of metal – a practice I am unfamiliar with beyond observing demonstrations at Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village. And then I started to think of words such as form, create, produce, commit, and ignite. Then I was reminded of a quote that I came across last month…

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Marshall McLuhan

Because of this, I couldn’t shake the word forge out of my head. It is a word that has many connotations, not all positive: to form, to create, to mold, to falsify, to copy. But perhaps that is why I was drawn to forge in the first place – it isn’t a simple word. Those five letters can have a variety of meanings – it all depends on how you use it. The word itself is a showcase of the importance of intention. The more I thought about it, the more I loved the idea of making forge my word for the year.

This year, I will forge ahead. I will move forward and strike while the iron is hot. I will allow myself to be shaped by what I’ll experience with an understanding that success isn’t a final destination, but rather a journey filled with peaks and valleys. So here is to 2020. May we strive. May we work hard. May we succeed. And may we drink more water.