Friday, May 26, 2017

Travel Tips: Packing

We love to travel with our kids!

Yes, it requires saving and planning. (Tons and tons of planning, but I'm OCD.) For me, the planning is FUN. My absolute favorite hobby. And the costs to travel for two weeks overseas are about what you'd pay for a week-long family trip to Disney World. In fact, I just did the math:

Our 2-week trip to Europe (airfare, transportation & lodging for five countries)
= under $400/day

A 1-week trip to Disney @ our fave resort (mid-range) w/ parkhopper passes (air, transport, lodging, family of four) = $670/day
Both cost money, yes. (And I've saved up for awhile now so we can pay it all upfront.) But I want to debunk the myth that Europe is so expensive. I've had people say, "You'll regret that you spent all that money instead of putting it toward the kids' college" (note: our kids already have college funds, and we'd rather spend money on experiences together than on things that a lot of people spend money on). But it's not as pricey as people think... if you know when to book flights, are willing to stay at B&Bs, campgrounds and hostels (all part of our itinerary) and are thoughtful about modes of transportation (example: we're spending $220 to rent a car for two weeks!).

Nothing against the Happiest Place on Earth (I love Disney & lived for five years in Orlando - we're going back for our fourth round as a family next year while Mark has a conference in Orlando). But the benefits of encountering other languages and cultures and being swept away by ancient history, in a more authentic and less commercial way, are unmatched. They remove us from our little suburban bubble, broaden our perspectives, and build us up in surprising ways. Whenever we take our kids out of the country, they grow by leaps and bounds and we bond together like superglue. It's us vs. the world - together - on a grand adventure that weaves its way into the very fabric of our family.

We are the wandering kind.

Right now we're prepping for another big trip overseas. 5 countries (+ Liechtenstein - does that count?) in two weeks, road trip style. (I'm driving - pray for us!) And so I thought I'd document on this blog a bit about how we plan for our trips, since a lot of people ask and feel intimidated to travel abroad with kids. Take heart - you CAN do this!

In a future post, I'll tackle how we set up our itineraries. But for this post, and since I'm in the thick of it, let's talk about WHAT TO PACK.

RULE #1 of any good traveler: Pack light!
For our two-week trip last year to Greece and Turkey, this is all we brought:
Two kids' travel backpacks (these are the BEST - so many compartments, sturdy material, and super comfortable to carry around, found HERE) and the two roller carry-on bags, plus the cheap Wal-Mart backpack on Mark.

This trip, we're carrying the exact same assortment of luggage. Rick Steves says there are two types of travelers:
1. Those who pack light.
2. Those who wish they had.

I start packing a couple of weeks in advance of our trip, and pick out tops and bottoms that coordinate in different combinations. (And because I'm nerdy, I try to coordinate some of our outfits so they'll look good together in photos, and document in my "control journal" - more about that later - what we're wearing each day so it's a no-brainer - ha!)
And for this European Vacation the travel nerd in me went extra Clark W. Griswold - matching tees for the flights there and home. The kids were SO EXCITED about these (almost as much as I was)!

Mark? Not so much...
Without making an exhaustive list, here are a few surprising things/hacks I like to pack in my luggage:

1) A money-belt for passports, credit/debit cards, driver's license & cash. This handy Alpha Keeper is very comfortable and has a great pocket in the back for our plane tickets. It prevents theft because you wear it beneath your clothes.
2) Plastic bags, especially gallon and quart size - these come in handy for extra food, dirty clothes, liquids on the plane, etc.. I use them all the time!

3) Old socks and underwear: I buy and wash new socks/underwear for the family before the trip, and remove the old ones (holes, outgrown, etc.) from our drawers to pack for the journey. That way, as we travel, we just throw the oldies away and don't even worry about laundry. And our suitcases lose bulk along the way!

4) One pair of shoes: We wear our only pair of shoes, which are either walking shoes or yoga shoes/crocs - because we're hiking the Alps, we're bringing walking shoes, but yoga shoes & crocs worked great in Greece/Turkey and Scandinavia when we encountered a lot of water/beaches. We're also bringing dollar store flip-flops for our campsite on this trip that we can throw away (the bathroom is in a separate building). Otherwise, only one pair of shoes allowed - the ones on our feet!

5) Packing cubes: I love these things! They corral my things together and keep them nice and snug in the suitcase. (See my mesh packing cube below?)

6) Outlet converter: I like the whiz-bang one with extra plugs and USB plug ins found HERE.

7) Deck of cards for "Kings in the Corners" (our family's favorite card game) or other packable game. We usually play portable games when we go out to eat, and it's a fun way to connect at night before tucking in.

8) Kindles. And NO other electronics for the kids. Zero. Mark and I will bring our cell phones (we get European SIM cards), GPS and either a tablet or laptop, plus an iPod with our trip playlist (I still connect certain songs with each trip - they conjure so many memories). But we want the kids to be glued to the scenery, not the screenery.

9) Down puffer jackets & layers: cheap travel down jackets bunch up super small so that they're easy to carry in the backpack on hikes, and weather can be unpredictable! As for clothes, we each pack two pairs of pants and two pairs of shorts, with an assortment of tops (and sometimes, dresses), as well as a light jacket.

10) My "control journal/s": Let me explain these beauties...

Along with downloading our itineraries into the TripIt app, I love having print-outs that I keep in my "control journals." Once I pull them all together, I have them spiral bound at Staples. In them, I over-plan EVERYTHING (hence "control"). And that's why I RELAX so much on vacation - I have a daily itinerary with lots of options to choose from, complete with costs, timetables, etc., at my fingertips!

Then, I can follow my best-laid plans to a "T", ignore them all, or cobble them together Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style. Here are a few samplings of what's inside:

Driving directions to every destination (in case my GPS from home fails me):
Walking maps from Rick Steves (the ones in the kindle book are too small):
Recommended hikes, complete with times and elevations:
And detailed daily itineraries. This one's for France:
(More on these itineraries in a future post.)

Back to packing now... Happy Travels!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Gryffin's Nine Years Old!

Gryffy turned 9! He wanted to have a laser tag party, but when he found out we had to limit the number of friends to 10, he just couldn't narrow it down. So, he opted instead for a bigger present (a hoverboard he's been eyeing for ages!) and a simple, backyard birthday bash...
 ... with this crazy crew!
Let's check out that hoverboard (the go-cart attachment is a gift from Gma/Gpa Connelly):
I think water balloon fights are becoming Gryffin's birthday tradition.

Some kids begged for the whole bucket!
 We corralled everyone to eat cake. The candles kept blowing out in the wind, so we ended up just lighting one for a quick wish. The boys tore that sheet cake apart and were even scraping off chocolate cake from the cardboard box it came it. Sugar overload!
Eat cake!
Then we set them loose. The basketball hoop and soccer goal were major hits for these sports-loving boys.

 And a few created their own fun in the back with the "water bottle challenge."

Gryffy takes endless delight in this.

Just look at his face...

Midway through the party, it rained. Good thing everyone was in swim gear for the water balloons. We opened the garage for the kids to take shelter.
But that didn't last long! Ghosts in the Graveyard was calling.
And a trampoline turned slip n slide!
After the party, our neighbor Roman spent the night. It was a pretty awesome birthday for this kid.

NINE things we love & appreciate about Gryffy:

1) He makes us laugh, all the time! Gryffy will go to any length to entertain people, and he's pretty hilarious. His smile alone - full of missing teeth - is contagious. :D

2) He loves his family fiercely, especially his big sister.

3) He works hard at whatever he does (straight-A student, soccer, research, writing, etc.). Even though he's one of the youngest in his class, Gryffin excels among his older peers.

4) He is a team player and cheers others on to success. He is genuinely happy when others succeed (on the soccer field he jumps up and down with his arms raised and that electric smile across his face when anyone on the team scores a goal).

5) Gryffy is extremely determined and self-motivated. He's working this summer on anatomy/physiology, chemistry and math because he wants to be a surgeon. He also loves studying history and has recently taken an interest in the Roman Empire.
6) Gryffy is incredibly compassionate and kind. Recently on a field trip he asked his chaperone if he could give up his hot drink at Starbucks in order to give the money to a homeless man.

7) He is committed to meditation and meditates with me everyday. At recess, on the field trip bus, on the landing in the house, he's always gathering people to meditate and build their "super mind."
8) He's a home-body/adventurer, something I think he gets from me. He loves no other place in the world as much as home, and yet he embraces adventure and loves to travel the world and experience new things. Because of this, Gryffy has an especially broad perspective for his age.

9) He still snuggles with me, takes my face in his hands, his green-brown eyes penetrating mine, and says, "Mommee, I loooooove you!" And I melt every time.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Last Day (& off to Middle School!)

We have a fourth grader and a grade school graduate. Where did the time go?!
Lorelei insisted on wearing her dazzling dress for the Fifth Grade Farewell ceremonies. 
 Middle schooler!
Hard to believe this pair that sticks together like glue is going off to different schools next year.

 The Fifth Grade Farewell ceremony was wonderful! There were remarks from the principal, Ms. Luzenske, the teachers presented their students with certificates, then there was a slide show and musical number.
This is when I lost it. Ms. Gafney, Lorelei's fifth grade teacher, had to wrap her arm around me as tears gushed down my cheeks listening to those kids sing a song about school memories.
I pulled it together, and joined Lorelei and all the fifth grade families in the lunch room for breakfast.
I can't even begin to explain how much we've loved Ms. Gafney, and what an extraordinary influence she's had on Lorelei. So grateful for phenomenal teachers!
This week the fifth graders also had a picnic. I got to volunteer and help, to L's delight.
 They're practicing some sort of dance here.
And there was an awards ceremony in which Lorelei was especially honored as the Heartland student whose artwork was displayed in the Capitol building, and also for her role in the Spelling Bee.
 Proud of you Lu!
We adore Ms. Clifton, Lorelei and Gryffy's art teacher. She has been so dear to us.
 Back to the Fifth Grade Farewell breakfast. Looking Vogue! Strike a pose...

 The fifth graders processed through the hallways per tradition, and exited the doors for the last time.
 Lorelei & her friend Ty.
Lorelei and Reece (who's having a slumber party to celebrate tonight).
 Class of 2024!
 The carpool gang: Lorelei, Gryffy and Ava.
Forever Heartland Jags.
Thick as thieves, these two!
I decorated the car and then it rained! The pizza party on the playground was canceled, but that's okay because we love to huddle inside during thunderstorms!

I'm so proud of my kids and the wonderful people they are. Both have grown so much at Heartland Elementary, and each stage gets even better. How I love being their mom. Best job in the world!
 We made our traditional, last day of school, Luksa family no-bake cookies. Luckily we'll have four other kids over tonight to help finish them off!

School's out for summer! Off to new adventures!
And to kick off the sleepy days of summer, L & G got to invite two friends each for a slumber party tonight. Gryffy and our neighbors (Avery & Caden) are upstairs playing Catan in the hallway...
They're yelling "disqualified" to someone as I type! Such a serious game.
 And Reece, Lilly and Lorelei are downstairs singing along to Moana (which is driving the boys upstairs batty).
Happy summer!