This post contains affiliate links.
Travel for Mortals
What exactly is “Travel for Mortals?” Well, it’s travel for families like mine. Families with real people, real budgets, and real obstacles. We can’t afford to quit our jobs and travel around the world (retirement goals!). Our vacations must be carefully planned around school calendars, work schedules, and budget restrictions. Our kids can be uncooperative and grouchy when faced with changes to their normal routine, even if those changes are the good kind. (We’ve literally walked into Disney World – the “happiest place on earth!” – with a sobbing child. MORE THAN ONCE.) And the kids aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to meltdowns. When you factor in hunger, headaches, exhaustion, and (in my case) back pain – you could be looking at a full-blown adult tantrum.
That’s not to say that we don’t have amazing family vacations – because we do! Some of our most favorite memories are from trips that we’ve taken together. But we’re here to tell you that there’s lots more to it than the smiling family photos that we post on Facebook. Travel for mortals requires planning, flexibility, compromise, a sense of humor, and knowing which battles to pick. (“Let it go, Elsa,” is a common refrain in our house.) Our vacations aren’t perfect, but we hope that by sharing our experiences – both good and bad, we can help make yours a little better. ~ Sharon
Family Travel vs. Work Travel
I have been to Washington, DC a few times for business travel. Typically my workload doesn’t leave me a lot of time for sightseeing, and in DC all the good museums close before I get off work. I’ve always wanted to have some dedicated time and energy to visit the museums and see some of the monuments.
What’s nice about DC is that there is so much that you can do with almost zero out of pocket expense. All of the Smithsonian Museums and the monuments are free to get into. If you book your travel far enough in advance and during off-peak months, airfare can be a very affordable. Lodging is also reasonable if you’re willing to stay a little outside the city. Just hop on the Metro, which is relatively easy to figure out and inexpensive.
Four Things We Did Right (the easy things)
PLAN PLAN PLAN! The investment that you make in planning your trip is going to pay off in the time and frustration that you’ll save during your vacation. Don’t skip making plans for eating, shopping, and sightseeing. It’s better to have an idea of that stuff BEFORE one of your family members becomes “hangry” (hungry + angry).
1. Lodging can be expensive, so it’s best to plan your trip for off-peak times. We went in September and paid around $100 per night. Don’t hesitate to stay a little further out from the tourist areas and use the DC metro to get around. We stayed at a Hyatt Place near the NoMa Gallaudet metro stop. The DC Metro is easy to figure out and a good value for your ground transportation. And save yourself a little time and money by finding a hotel that includes breakfast.
2. Pick a hotel that’s near a supermarket or a Walgreens/CVS. If your children are picky eaters like mine, this gives you a lot of options. The hotel we stayed at had a Harris Teeter close by, so when one daughter wanted sushi and the other a bagel, it was easier to make that happen and keep the peace. Not a deal breaker, but something to consider when you are looking at lodging.
3. We focused on doing no more than two things per day, whether it was a museum trip or tour of monuments. Plan something in the morning, a break for lunch, and then something in the afternoon. There’s so much to see and do and you’re not going to do it all in one trip, so aim for a few highlights.
4. Don’t be afraid to split up. Our two daughters have very different interests and sometimes for the sake of family harmony Sharon and I will “divide and conquer.” Sharon and I will leave the kids near a friendly looking tourist and go exploring. Just kidding – Sharon will take one child and I’ll take another. Now, I know that it’s supposed to be a family vacation with all the activities done together in perfect harmony, but that’s not the reality for us. If you can do that, great for you; but for families like ours, splitting up is sometimes the best option.
Two Moments to Improve
In spite of all the planning and intentions, things might not go as planned. Even though I knew I was on vacation to create happy memories with my family, there were two moments when my I was “one of those parents” when my tolerance was exceeded.
1. The first occasion was early on in the trip while at the Museum of Natural History. I was past the point of “hangry” and my youngest was throwing a minor fit over the food selection in the cafeteria. I suspect that she was “hangry” also. Instead of taking a breather, I countered her fit with a full on adult tantrum – definitely one of my lesser moments as a father.
Really there’s no excuse for my behavior; however, I think there are things I could have done better. Waiting too long to eat was a mistake. When three of four family members are susceptible to becoming “hangry” combined with being picky eaters, you can’t leave food and blood sugar to chance. Pack some kind of snack that you know people will eat. Pringles (perfect for travel because they don’t get crushed in a backpack), granola bars, nuts, etc are good choices. DON’T WAIT until you’re hungry to eat. That’s too late with picky eaters. Use the snacks as a holdover until you can find something acceptable and try to remember that as the adult you have to hold it together.
2. The second moment was towards the end of the trip and was during our afternoon activity. We were touring the monuments on the National Mall. The Vietnam Memorial was next. It was very crowded with a narrow walking path. My youngest daughter was sitting in the only path for people to get through; she wouldn’t move when I asked and resisted when I tried to move her. So she got angry, I got angry, and I carried all 50 lbs of her out of the area, kicking and screaming the whole way (her, not me). Sharon and Sophia carried on while Amelia and I were in extended time out. We caught up with them later at the WWII memorial.
Here was another example of a predictable problem that could have been avoided. This was towards the end of the day and Amelia was physically tired. We were all tired. I forgot that children have to walk almost twice as much as everyone else since their legs are shorter. Amelia, being shorter than most (10th percentile for height), had to walk more than anyone else in our family. I could have helped avoid this meltdown by carrying her more. We could have taken more breaks or cut the tour short and headed back to the hotel. Looking back, she probably had little interest in this part of the trip, and I could have been more selfless and chosen not to head down there with her and found something more along her interests.
These are the highlights from our own trip and certainly not representative of what’s BEST to see in DC. What’s BEST is going to depend on your family’s interests, so keep that in mind. We left a lot of things to see and do, so we’re definitely going to visit again. Going through our pictures, these are what stood out in my mind…
1. United States Botanic Garden: Originally planned as an afterthought to kill time on our last day, this turned out to be one of the better places to visit. Lots to see and learn. And if you are a shutterbug, lots of opportunities to take pictures. So much to see and experience packed into a small place, so this will be easy on the legs if you have little ones.
2. The National Zoo: The zoo is also a great DC destination. Caution, lots of walking involved. Keep that in mind as you plan your day. This outing took our entire day.
3. National Air and Space Museum: This one is my favorite. So much science and achievement in one place that it feels like milestones of aeronautics are absorbing into one’s soul. Sophia is really into science and wants to be an astronaut, so this was enjoyable for her. We “divided and conquered” here, with Sharon and Amelia spending a lot of time in the kids area while Sophia and I toured the space related exhibits.
4. National Museum of Natural History: In spite of being here during one of my lesser moments as a father on this trip, this is a great place. You could spend more than a day here seeing all the stuff. In fact, we stopped here on two separate days.
A Welcome Surprise
Outside the Museum of Natural History there was a lady parked on the side of the street attempting to get people to come over. Wary of some kind of sales pitch or tourist trap, we approached with caution. To our great surprise, she was handing out free Illy iced coffee beverages. WOOOOOT! We grabbed half a dozen and I was ready for a caffeine fueled afternoon!
If you plan it right, DC has the potential to pack a lot of pleasant family memories at a great value. While not as inexpensive as a “stay-cation,” it can be affordable for us mortals of travel who are trying not to be buried in debt as we go out on vacation. And with careful planning and little bit of luck, it IS possible to avoid a family meltdown!
Victor is a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Florida. He is an avid reader, a lifelong learner, a fitness enthusiast, and a coffee snob. He also has two beautiful daughters and a lovely wife, and he’s not just saying that because his wife is writing his bio.