Fly or drive? Mode of travel and its impact on planet, wallet & joy

Are you a road tripper or a frequent flier?

I chose to drive from New England to northern Minnesota last month. Five of us were scheduled to attend summer camp there, so the endpoints were set: home, and Bemidji, MN.

I elected driving over flying for many reasons, but a consideration for my summer vacation’s environmental impact was on the list.

RoadTrip round trip mapYou can read the more conventional road trip story by clicking Part I or Part II if you want to know more about why and how we made this journey. You could also read about my carefully thought out wardrobe for the trip!

I live within reasonable driving distance of a major airport, so convenient flights abound. Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP) is four hours south of Bemidji, which also hosts a regional airport of its own (BJI.) The camp offers a fairly priced shuttle from BJI, and a costlier, less convenient bus all the way to MSP.

The particulars of this trip were not decided by availability of choices. We had our pick of several decent options, if we were willing to pay for them.

Environmental impact of flying vs. driving

Here’s an article from Yale Climate Connections that presents a pretty balanced picture of the complex question: is flying or driving better for the planet?

Similar discussions on the New York Times and at ThoughtCo draw similar conclusions: it depends, a lot, on how many bodies are in which type of car.

Calculators like those mentioned in the articles shine some light on how I assessed this aspect of my choice to drive, not fly.

For my van, with four to five average travelers on board, it’s pretty clear even before running the specific numbers that we opted a reasonably environmentally friendly mode of transport.

Passenger count varied from five (5) during the home to camp phase; four to six (4-6) headed from Minnesota to Ohio; and just my two kids and myself (3) for the final 750 miles from Ohio to New England.

Using the BeFrugal Fly or Drive Calculator for the first, best documented leg of my trip, I can estimate that I saved 4318 lbs of CO2, or, stated differently, that I generated only about 25% as much CO2.

A difference that great is likely to hold up in spite of the controversy about how some of the underlying statistics are generated.

Financial cost to drive vs. fly

As for cost in the traditional sense (dollars and cents!), it also appears probable that I made a better financial choice. That scenario could be very different for a trip involving only major airports where competition keeps prices down.

Bemidji (BJI) is by far the most convenient option when this camp is in session, especially for flights arriving the day of, or the day before, camp sessions begin. Availability is also quite limited for those popular flights.

I used airline miles to buy a rewards ticket the last time I visited Bemidji. The cash price was not one I would willingly pay to suffer in economy class.

The same BeFrugal calculations I showed above reflect as many of my actual costs as I could input into the tool—like actual airfare to BJI researched months ago during the planning process and my preference for a higher class of hotel than the calculator assumes—though some numbers were not user adjustable.

Once again, I’m confident that my actual cost savings were at least as good as the tool predicted. We made a few more frugal choices:

Coffee cup travel mug - 1

  • We carried healthy food with us and avoided overpriced “convenience” snacks.
  • We refilled our reusable water bottles (and my coffee cup!) at the hotel each morning.
  • Aside from one nice steak dinner, the kids actually voted for affordable stops like Subway for sandwiches.
  • I used Gas Buddy to plan fuel stops in the less expensive state when there was a choice, and I knew what a ballpark “good” price was for a given area.

Minivan as economical people mover

I checked the average MPG (as calculated by the van itself) after each of the three major stages of the trip. We averaged 26 MPG from New England to Bemidji, 28 MPG from Bemidji to Ohio, and 27 MPG from Ohio back home.

That’s spot on with published numbers for my van, and really admirable performance for a large vehicle that comfortably seats a crowd.

My typical MPG around town in the van is 18-19, but that’s driving in crowded suburb of a major city.

We needed to stop for gas about 1.5 times per day with that fuel economy. The human passengers required vastly more frequent stops to empty their “tanks” than the minivan required filling up with gasoline.

Gas prices ranged from a low of $1.98 per gallon to a high of around $2.50 per gallon at a toll road service plaza.

I didn’t leave my planned route to seek out the cheapest gas, but I did stop at Costco stations whenever they were well located. I prioritized convenient stops over price, but didn’t find any prices particularly onerous. They almost all hovered just above the $2 mark.

But, have I mentioned comfort?

Minivans are more comfortable than modern planes

We carried a full load of luggage in the back (up to the headrests, which you can read more about here), and each of us had at least a mid-sized “carry on” up front. We had a small cooler stocked with cold drinks and produce and a dry snack bag of equivalent size.

The kids were annoyed by my insistence that all electronics be invisibly stowed for every (shockingly frequent) rest break, but they didn’t have to struggle to climb out of the van due to cargo in the passenger area. Space in the vehicle was well utilized, not overstuffed.

No passenger was forced to sit with his body touching anyone else. Leg room could have been an issue with a similar load of tall adults, but it wasn’t a problem for a group composed of children and young teens.

Being kids, they often did touch each other, or sit with heads together, but that was voluntary.

All of this descriptive information is provided to make clear: all of us were seated more comfortably than we would be in a modern, coach class airline seat. Most of us had significantly more legroom and personal space than one gets in a domestic first class seat.

Convenience is another factor

I don’t want to give the impression that this was my only consideration when planning this trip. Modern life is complicated, and we all make trade offs between convenience, cost, and conscience.

In my case, every point I’ve made in this post up to now has been predicated on one simple reality: I had time to take this trip.

My primary work these days is caring for and educating my children. That means most of my time can be planned according to my own wants, needs, and preferences. Most of what I do, I can choose where I want to do it.

Even so, time was our biggest constraint for this road trip.

We couldn’t leave any earlier due to school schedules for some of the participants. We had to arrive at camp by the scheduled date and time. Without another driver in our crew, my health risked becoming a factor by limiting the number of hours in the day that could safely be spent on the road.

Family fun factor & reasons for sharing

Every time I write a post on Really Wonderful Things describing how I did something, it’s because I hope that information proves useful for a reader somewhere.

If I made a mistake, perhaps you can learn from it. If I came up with a clever idea, I hope it works for you, too.

This post is my attempt to break down how I decided to drive instead of fly to Minnesota with a group of four kids destined for summer camp. It also details why I think this was a good choice, environmentally, and economically.

The trip was also a lot of fun, almost all of the time, which is something about which I haven’t written much yet. That’s a factor—the family fun factor!—that really matters to me.

My kids are going to remember this trip. My temporary charges are now much better friends of mine as well as to my boys. We worked together and accomplished a goal. All of us learned something. We saw corners of America that were new to each and every one of us.

It’s hard to run the calculations for the value of the fun factor, but let’s just agree that it’s high.

Vacations can be the “busy season” at work for Mom

I love to travel. I also revel in the fine detail work of crafting intricate itineraries. Planning a trip brings me as much joy—maybe more!—as setting out on the adventure itself.

That said, for a stay at home parent like me, taking a vacation is often the greatest challenge of my “job.”Welcome Signs montage

I create opportunities for my working spouse to relax

After all, if my husband is coming along, he’s taking rare time off from his demanding career. One of the divisions of labor that we’ve agreed to, in our partnership, is my assumption of responsibilities for vacation planning.

Also, DH is a homebody, so most trips are my idea. If his role isn’t a relaxing one, he won’t want to travel the next time. My family would lose out if my husband just stayed home.

I believe studies that suggest there are health benefits to travel, especially when a trip is well planned.

The kids need to see their dad with fewer distractions, stepping outside his comfort zone, and with more time than usual to spend with them. DH benefits by seeing the kids blossom in a new environment.

Plus, I miss him like crazy when we leave him home alone.

I want to give my overworked husband a relaxing break from his daily stresses. That’s a loving gesture on my part because I like doing nice things for the man I love.

It’s also good sense for a spouse who doesn’t generate income. I am protecting our financial future by allowing the partner who brings home the paycheck to unwind a little.

My husband’s success is due largely to his creative mind.  He should also get credit for his hard work and specialized skills, but many people can and do work hard and complete advanced degrees. Few of them manage to push scientific boundaries in new directions as he does. A refreshed intellect generates better ideas.

OH hill - 1

View from the highest hill in Ohio within city limits

Parenting work is complex away from home…

Some vacations offer reduced efforts in the realms of housework and feeding the family. My favorite thing about staying in a hotel is walking into an immaculate room with nothing on the floor!

And eating in restaurants? It’s hard to say how much I enjoy dodging the washing of dishes and the wiping of sticky counters. My admiration for those who work in food service borders on love and devotion. I hate most of these tasks, and I’m so grateful to those who are willing to do them for me.food - 1

But, though these jobs take up plenty of time at home, they don’t comprise the bulk of my effortful work as a parent. They are necessary, but not particularly complex or demanding. Even at home, when I want a break, I can hire a house cleaner or take the kids out to eat.

The really challenging requirements of parenting relate to its most vital goal: raising small people into fully-formed adults.

A few examples:

  • Assisting a unique individual to maximize his own potential
  • Negotiating the complexities of relationships between growing personalities
  • Helping them—but not too much!
  • Guiding them—but encouraging them to seek their own paths
  • Keeping them safe—but allowing them to take enough risks to fail, to learn, to try again

Most of these tasks get harder on vacation!

With all the predictable routines of daily life gone, we experience the thrill of something new. This has a cost of anxiety about the unknown. Using myself as an example, I know that I lose my cool more rapidly when I feel anxious. I don’t blame the kids for doing the same.

My job is to keep my own composure, and offer enough strength of will to help the boys do the same. Or throw an upset child a lifeline that he can use to drag himself back to equanimity.

We grow when we are challenged. Changes—even positive ones—create challenges. Travel promotes growth, but it is rife with challenges, small and large.

gazebo - 1Preparing my family for a trip is part of my “job description” as a stay at home mom. It’s a task I enjoy, and one I do pretty well. It’s not a burden.

…and it remains complex upon our return

That said, when we return from a really great vacation, I’m typically exhausted. Sometimes I even fall prey to “leisure sickness” (or something like it), succumbing to a cold as soon as the work of vacation preparations is complete.

Last month, for example, after a whirlwind road trip with a van full of boys and a week of family camp supervising the full crew, I “enjoyed” ten days of respiratory illness and coughing of the oh-my-aching-stomach-muscles variety.

It hit me the day after I returned the borrowed children to their parents and got my oldest settled for a week of sleepaway summer camp. This was the week that I was scheduled to enjoy some down time with my own mom while the men (and DS2) went fishing. And God said, “Ha!”

Beyond the physical, returning home after weeks away comes with an emotional let down, too.

“The trip I planned for months is over?”

And then there’s the housework

I will have mounds of laundry to wash, snack foods to re-shelve in the pantry, suitcases to search for stray socks and hitchhiking bedbugs, mail to peruse and respond to…

In other words, life goes on, and so does my work. I’ve even made more of it by going away.

But, I have learned to plan for at least one quiet day upon our return. When asked, I give the date we’ll be home as a day later than my plan. That final “vacation day” gives me a chance to nudge our life back into order.

I don’t schedule early appointments for a few days after a trip. I plan to sleep my fill until my body’s ready to resume the usual routine.

I’ll order groceries from Amazon Fresh or a similar delivery service if possible. There’s usually a pizza night right after a trip.

I do what I can to ease the transition. I accept what I can’t change as a cost of the new experiences gained. I let the post-vacation let down run its course and give myself permission to have mixed emotions.

I help the kids process their own transitions, too, from jet lag to lost toys to keeping in touch with new friends in faraway places.

“Mom, what time is it in Minnesota?”

And, in the middle of all this, I usually spend at least a few minutes daydreaming about what might be our next big adventure—between loads of laundry, that is.laundry.jpg

Summer morning snapshot: mother saying goodbye from a fishing cabin

Just before 6am, chilly in an unfamiliar bed in a rustic fishing cabin, I try to burrow deeper under a strange, thin blanket, and I listen as my little guy leaves the house with the men.

He’s small for his age, barely the size of an eight year old, though he’s actually nearing the end of his elementary school years. How does he qualify for manhood?

Answered easily enough: by waking at dawn without complaint, and by catching more than his fair share of last night’s dinner. So far, he has out-fished Grandpa, 15 fish to Grandpa’s ten.

With my older child gone away to camp and the younger snapping on a life jacket and struggling valiantly to lift–by himself–the smallest Igloo cooler, there are no small bodies left to join me for a morning snuggle. To warm the child, of course, but also very much to warm my heart.

There are no softly snoring or sleepy heads peeping out of heaped blankets that I can kiss on my way to put the kettle on.

I tried to go back to sleep, but there’s nothing that can fill the vacant space where my babies should be except writing this down, letting it out, making room for them to grow… and, eventually, to go.

There’s the heartbreak of a mother’s job well done.

Posting schedule: summer vacation is for blogging moms, too

I’ve been posting almost daily since April, when I started in earnest to write Really Wonderful Things. I hope that all of this hard work has built up a nice portfolio on a variety of topics, and that my archives now have lots to offer for new readers who stop by.

Starting immediately, my summer schedule will be a post on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

PEI beachSummer vacation, for us, means travel, family activities, and time away from our desks. Wifi isn’t readily available—nor would I want it there!—in the wilderness.*

I’m not neglecting those of you who do me the honor of following RWT. I’m unplugging. It’s supposed to be good for you.

And I’m really only unplugging a little bit.

If I have access to Wifi, I will still read and answer comments every day.

Contact phoneI expect I will continue reading most, if not all, of the blogs I follow, too. Following a blog can feel like making a friend. I want to find out what happens next.

I reserve the right to write extra posts at any time. I may not be able to help sharing Really Wonderful Things that I learn, see, or do this summer. I’m an enthusiastic over-sharer. It’s who I am.

Here’s wishing every reader** a summer season abundant in everything really wonderful to you.OR Florence - 2011

*Maybe wilderness can be defined here as the local park, or a campground with hot showers, but the point remains.

**I know I have some followers from the Southern Hemisphere. You are headed into winter. Perhaps my summer posts can help warm your cold days.

Summer vacation isn’t the enemy of modern parents, but it reveals social boundaries

Last week, I saw an ad predicated upon the idea that summer vacation is a nightmare for parents. It wasn’t even Memorial Day yet, and, already, they’d infected the airwaves.

Do parents really bemoan summer break?

I despise commercials that attempt to advertise products based upon the perverse notion that I loathe spending time with my children.

The Back to School ads are even worse than the End of the School Year set. Parents dance in the streets because they are unable to contain their joy at giving up the burden of spending entire days in the company of their own kids.

Are these the same kids Americans were so desperate to have that more than 10% of US women of childbearing age have used infertility services? Bah, humbug!

My kids are cool, and I enjoy their company. Summer means no alarm clocks and more opportunities to say yes to their (admittedly, sometimes goofy) requests. Summertime equates to free time.

Or are parents with limited resources desperate for better solutions?

I’m crying foul. I think this is primarily a lame advertising trope.

But, of course, there is added stress for families where all available caregivers work outside the home. Finding appropriate summer camps or childcare is a pain. That’s true 365 days a year in America for kids too young for public school.

This isn’t a summer problem, or a parenting problem. It’s a political problem, and an economic one. This is not proof that parents want their kids to stay locked up indoors year ’round.

Instead, we see a sign of a childcare problem in a society expecting high rates of worker participation from able bodied adults. (Those would be the same adults who most frequently produce offspring!)

Really, how many of us resent watching the kids pour out of the schools and into the home, onto the beaches, and into the parks?

Most parents work their butts off attempting to earn the best for their kids, and that includes fresh air, exercise, and time and space to dream the biggest dreams. That’s where summer vacation can really shine, but only for those with the time and resources to let it happen.

My family’s summers include travel, museums, hours poring over books of our own choosing, and lots of time with extended family. I don’t even have to question whether or not this is a good use of my kids’ time. Of course it is!

I can barely express how grateful I am for this privilege.

We supplement our lazy summer days with hours of Khan Academy and specialty family camps, not because we feel compelled to keep up, but because learning new things is awesome and we want to share the joy with our kids.

I don’t believe for one minute that there are legions of caring parents in America who want more testing, more trivial comparisons, and more common core for their beloved children.

Parents want their kids to have access to opportunities. Parents want their kids to learn useful stuff. Parents want their kids to grow up well and be successful and happy.

I can’t even say how much I wish summer vacation was an equal opportunity benefit for all children.

Who really hates summer break?

Parents today—like most people today—struggle under a burden of technology and schedules seemingly designed to detract from a fulfilling life.

Theoretically, we live in an era of reduced physical effort and greater access to information, leading inexorably to an easier life. In practice, maybe not so much.

These commercials are lazy work on the part of advertisers, but they do reveal a modern day American tragedy.

Some of us have to get a little desperate when school lets out for summer.

Some of us get to enjoy our kids’ company in the same situation.

A cold shoulder was my shorthand for “I hate it when you leave”

We all have behaviors that we’ve not so much chosen as assumed. One of mine was pointed out to me years ago by my beloved spouse.

DH observed:

“You always pick a fight with me before I travel.”

He was completely right.

Once this behavior was drawn to my attention, I gained a measure of control over it. Now, on the evening before DH leaves for a business trip, I don’t pick a fight about how one ought to load the dishwasher or the correct position for the lid of a toilet not in use.

Instead, I cling to him almost desperately, and whisper sadly:

“I hate when you go. I want to punch you. I love you.”

Note: These are just words of frustration. Families should not hit each other.*  If your family hits you, please get help. Call the police.

Even wallowing in awareness of my reluctance to part, and fully cognizant of my tendency toward easing the transition through verbal aggression, I still need to express it.

At least now, this expression has joined the ranks of our commonly understood, odd, humor-filled scripted interactions.

“I’ll miss you, too,” DH says. “I wish I didn’t have to go.”

He hugs me tight and gives me the reassurance I’m tacitly requesting.

DH doesn’t always speak my language, but he’s gotten pretty good at interpreting it.

Someday, perhaps I will evolve even further. I may yet grow into a kinder, gentler person who doesn’t feel angry—and find a need to express that anger through nitpicking fights or unpleasant words—when confronted by the temporary loss of my love.

He’s my best friend. I hate it when he goes away for even one night.

That’s probably what I should learn to say instead.

 

 

*There is some physical contact that is perhaps best described as martial arts practice in our family. That requires the explicit, stated participation of all parties, and is only supposed to occur in our exercise room. None of the men in the household seem capable of confining their wrestling to the gym, but it is the rule, for the benefit of the furniture as well as the safety of the combatants.

Mom is my Dungeon Master: D&D role playing games as family hobby

Full-time Mom, new blogger; add Dungeon Master to my illustrious titles

I avoided doing any housework this weekend. I also missed making a daily post to this blog for the first time in nearly two months. Why? I am now the Dungeon Master (DM) for the D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) Starter Set adventureLost Mine of Phandelver.”

Most of my free—and some rather expensive—minutes for a week and a half have been spent on this endeavor. Even with a ready made campaign, being a DM doesn’t come cheap in terms of time. I hadn’t even played a game of D&D since the 1990’s. The learning curve was steep!

Phandelver game DM view of cave Wolf room 3

Spoiler Alert: Don’t look too closely if you’re planning to play Lost Mine of Phandelver as a PC

What’s a Role Playing Game (RPG)?

Not sure what a role playing game (RPG) is, exactly? Wikipedia and others can explain them in greater detail, but start by imagining a shared group storytelling experience that follows a set of rules to impose some structure and some interesting randomness on the proceedings.

The person conducting the story and acting as “referee” is the Dungeon Master (DM); every player contributes to the overall story by describing what their player character (PC) does in the context of that story. The DM can use a “campaign” (story) written by someone else like I did this weekend, or she can create a scenario, world, or universe uniquely her own.

If you are imaginative and enjoy other table games, RPGs could prove a similar source of fun for you and yours. It is time consuming, though. I spent ten hours this weekend around a table—during two evening sessions—with my family and some good friends. That’s in addition to the hours I spent preparing earlier in the week.

Everyone was fully engaged and having fun, including a pair of middle school aged kids playing with their parents. That’s a coup according to this mom. Aside from getting to bed late on a school night (oops!), this first family foray into RPGs proved a great success.

I can’t really take the credit for initiating the game, though. I do, however, emphatically accept the kudos for working my butt off to give everyone a good time.

Read on to find out what got us started. Continue reading

Multi-generational co-housing: sharing a home with my in-laws

A few years ago, we made the choice to move, together with my husband’s parents, into one large, shared house.

We sold a three bedroom, one bath home; my in-laws sold their own similarly sized three bedroom house.

They contributed to the down payment on the new place and paid to remodel their portion. This included adding interior walls and a second kitchen for their exclusive use to create a true in-law apartment. They have an exterior door that leads from the driveway to their space, three bedrooms, a living room, and two bathrooms, all their own.

We share a short hallway from the garage, basement and garage space, and the yard itself, though we agreed upon one patio area for their outdoor furniture and primary use. Our main entrance is the original front door, so none of our guests pass through the other’s private spaces.

It’s not a rentable second residence (we share utilities, for example), but we don’t have to share cooking space, bathrooms, or exterior entryways. We can open interior doors to see each other, but we can also close them for privacy.

We took on a mortgage of a similar size to what we would have spent moving alone into a larger home. Sharing a 35 sq ft (a little over 3 m2) bathroom—with a bad layout, asbestos panel walls requiring professional abatement, degraded brass plumbing, and a cast iron tub in dire need of refinishing or replacement—with three males had become a daily nuisance, and I was demanding an upgrade one way or another.

I’ve had people commend me for being “willing to allow” my husband’s parents to move in with us, but it was actually my idea. DH is very close to his parents. He took virtually no convincing, though he was concerned about how I would respond to living together. My rationale for entering into this arrangement—unconventional in 21st century Western society, but “traditional” when considering human history—was multi-faceted.

First, my husband is an only child, and care of his parents is his sole responsibility. If or when, in the future, they need more assistance, he is duty-bound to provide it, and I wouldn’t wish for him to behave any differently. My hope was to create a comfortable home in which we could all co-exist peacefully before circumstances forced the issue.

How much better is it to move joyfully forward into a great new house we’ve picked out together than to cram an ailing or recently widowed elder into a house that’s ill suited for aging in place? We were barely squeezing our family of four into our old place. Any sudden addition to the household would have been difficult, maybe impossible, if infirmity had been the motivation for the change!

I grew up with my maternal grandfather sharing our home. He joined our household when I was a preschooler, after he had been a widower for a few years. I’m sure my decision to expand our household beyond our nuclear family was made easier by the experience growing up with Grandpa just another familiar daily presence. He had health issues and spent most of his time in his room listening to classical music, but he was there, and he was just part of the family.

Besides these more emotional reasons for expanding the scope of our family home, I must admit that I also believe in the sensibility, and sustainability, of the modern co-housing movement. There are economies to be gained by living in groups, even small ones.

I loved the idea of buying a unit in a co-housing community, but had never made headway convincing DH it was a good idea. Sharing a household with my in-laws does put some of my environmental principles into action.

For example, a periodic energy usage report from the local utility says we use 25% more energy than neighboring households. That bothered me until I remembered that our one home replaced two. Also, three members of our six person combined family are home (consuming power and keeping the heat or air conditioning at comfortable levels) for most of every day. A mere 25% above average is actually an energy savings win.

It was hardest to coax my father-in-law (FIL) into the arrangement. DH’s mother (MIL) would have moved into our old (detached, unheated) garage without complaint if she thought it would serve the family. She’s also generationally and culturally inculcated to go along with her husband’s financial decisions. Aside from making clear that she didn’t want to live in a basement, MIL was on board with the co-housing idea from the moment she heard it.

FIL felt differently. He still works, and he’s fit and active. The first time we broached the subject, it was pretty clear that he didn’t want to be assumed as our “responsibility.” I think he appreciated the fact that we were expressing care and concern for their future, but he was not ready to “move into his son’s house.”

An alarming health scare a couple of years later, which, happily, turned out to be a false alarm, brought FIL around to our plan. I believe he acted then out of concern for his wife. What if something had happened to him? What would happen to MIL? As soon as FIL expressed a tentative interest in the idea of moving in together, I called a realtor and began readying our place for sale.

We were able to buy a much larger home in an ideal neighborhood by combining the value of two properties. Neither household was compromising or downgrading comfort, space, or property values in the move. We have enough room that no one is on top of each another. We had plenty of options at this higher end of the market to find houses that were easily adapted to multi-generational living.

Another really important point to my story is that FIL and MIL really weren’t “giving up” on independence and “moving in with” their son. We gain at least as much by having them living downstairs as they get from us!

MIL is the traditional Jewish grandmother in one obvious way: she always wants to feed her loved ones. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you may recall that I’m a reluctant cook. The boys get nutritious, home cooked dinners four nights a week with their grandparents. I get to skip cooking four nights every week during the time of day that my energy is lowest. I’m very content to dine alone on leftovers while the boys enjoy vegetable soup and котлеты and lots of doting attention.

Also, I get an hour to myself to recharge my (introverted) emotional batteries after spending all day with DS1, who learns at home. My husband deserves to be greeted, after a long day at work, by my best self, and he’s more likely to get her if I’ve had a chance to take a break. I’d like to be an eternally happy housewife, but I’m simply not without regular intervals of peace and quiet.

And speaking of the home school scholar (DS1), FIL is a great help with that process. He is not just willing, but eager, to tutor his grandson in math, history, computer science, and the Russian language. MIL, who was a concert pianist, accompanies DS1 while he practices his violin. Their experience and wisdom definitely enhances DS1’s education.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the social consequences of the in-laws moving in with the “kids.” I think FIL was a little worried that their friends would judge them for making this change. After supporting himself and his family for decades, would it seem like they were financially needy, even derelict? Instead, attitudes seem to be quite the opposite. If little birds can be believed, many friends feel rather jealous.

“Your daughter-in-law asked you to move in with them?!?”

What better proof that you are valued, loved, and that your presence is appreciated?

Cruise report: HAL Maasdam from Montreal to Boston with elementary school aged kids

Our party of three—one adult with two elementary school aged kids—traveled from Montreal to Boston on the Holland America Line (HAL) Maasdam during the last week of August 2012.NS Sydney port

Family travel, cross country, without cars or planes

I opted to make our usual New England to Pacific Northwest summer visit without flying on any airplanes in the summer of 2012. I accomplished this by booking the train across the USA westbound (Amtrak), then a combination of train (Via Rail) and this cruise to complete our voyage home via Canada.

As in the USA, there are vast, gorgeous swaths of undeveloped country in Canada that are simply inaccessible by road. The train travels through some of them. Others are better reached by water.

A traveler who goes by ship, not a dedicated cruiser

I am a traveler who sometimes goes by ship, not an inveterate cruiser. I love the convenience of unpacking once, then seeing many ports. I can sit by a window and stare at the open sea for hours, so I like to travel by ship. The ship’s amenities are less exciting to me than the voyage itself.

If I do book a cruise, the features I find most appealing have to do with smaller crowds, shorter lines, and better access to ports rather than luxurious finishes or extravagant meals. I’d love to find myself surrounded by fascinating companions, but I’m very capable of entertaining myself if I can find a quiet corner in which to do so.

A mom and two boys embark in Montreal

We’d had the pleasure of my husband’s company during the first leg of our Canadian voyage, so, rather than hassle with child safety seats in a taxi, my husband took a cab and drove with our luggage to the embarkation port in Montreal.

Having left home in mid-June with a return to Boston on September 1st, we traveled with more luggage than we could carry. We checked six checked bags at debarkation, but I blame much of this bulk on the cruise’s mandatory formal nights.

I walked with the children from our Vieux Montréal hotel—the spacious, lovely, and very conveniently located Marriott SpringHill Suites—to the port.

Montreal cruise terminal

The port of Montreal was slightly different than our home port of Boston with a security checkpoint at the exterior gate as well as the screening I expected inside the terminal building. That meant I had to show our passports as we walked up, and I was worried that my husband’s cab would be turned away since he had no ticket or other proof of his need to come onto the pier.

It was actually no problem at all! He passed through in the cab and was waiting for us when we made our way up to the second-story passenger entrance. Cars dropping passengers off drive up to the departure level on a ramp, just like many airports.

Arrival by automobile is no doubt much more common than walk on passengers, perhaps explaining the greater scrutiny the boys and I received at the gate from the street. We said goodbye to DH at the curb, and he resumed his taxi for the airport and his own, much quicker, trip home.

Port staff in Montreal were pleasant and efficient, and I had no trouble with any part of the embarkation process though I speak no French. I found the overall embarkation process easier in Montreal than I had on a previous cruise from Boston.

Vieux Montréal

The location of this port is so wonderful for a tourist. It was easy for us to visit a museum festival on the morning of our departure as it was literally across the street from (and in sight of!) the docked Maasdam. If one stays in the old part of town (Vieux Montréal), there is no need for any transport except healthy feet to get from hotel to ship, luggage-depending, of course. To me, this was ideal.

Checking in baggage was done right at the curb, so no need for a porter to move our many heavy bags after we said goodbye to my husband. We arrived exactly at our suggested boarding time of 1 pm, and there was a wait of perhaps one or two other passengers before we were checking in with an agent.  We proceeded up the gangway and onto the ship, and were aboard within minutes.

Welcome aboard

I was taken a bit aback upon boarding that we were given no indication of which way we should go. As a lady coming aboard with two distracting little people and several bulky carry on bags, I expected to be offered directions if not help with the luggage, especially as there seemed to be no queue placing demands on the staff. Since this was the only service issue we encountered during the rest of our week, I mention it only so the reader might be expecting it; I had no significant problems with HAL’s overall level of service on the Maasdam.

We found a deck plan by the elevators and were easily able to make our way to our stateroom after that. I’d booked a reasonably priced inside cabin—Main deck 576—and we were quite satisfied with the size and layout. With three of us sharing a room, our sofa was made up as a bed, and we did not have a coffee table in the middle of the room. I was happy with that since it would’ve been in the way, not helpful.

We went for lunch right away so we wouldn’t miss it, and then visited the Club HAL facility up above the Lido restaurant. While my kindergartener had been too intimidated to spend any time in Carnival’s children’s facility two months earlier, he and his brother were very excited to check out Club HAL. They both ended up begging to spend every possible minute there.

Club HAL

Since HAL is not primarily a “family oriented” line, I’ll speak to Club HAL at some length. I didn’t ask how many children were on our voyage, but it was obvious to an observer that the number wasn’t large. We arrived in Boston four days before our first day of school, and many districts would have already begun, so the timing of this voyage didn’t invite school-age families. For my kids, that turned out to be great.

There were just enough kids that there always seemed to be at least one other person to play with at the Club, but the room was never full. I think the most I saw attending at once was 12 kids. I felt very confident that the counselors could keep all well in hand.

There were three youth staff crew members—Jacob, Alyssa, and… the nice girl whose name my kids never learned! All of them were friendly to me upon drop-off/pick-up, and my kids liked them all quite well.

Maasdam’s Club HAL has XBOX 360 with Kinect for video games. (My sons felt this very important to include in the review.) I was happy that the games available for the pre-teen group—ages 3-12 combined for our cruise—were rated E10 or younger. When I inquired, I was reassured by the staff that kids are not allowed to play video games at all times, but that they have structured activities interspersed with free time when the kids may choose video entertainment.

Club HAL hours were 8am-4pm for port days and 9 – 11:30 am/1 – 4 pm during our one sea day. Evening hours were always 7 – 10pm. I brought my kids into the ports with me and found it hard to imagine leaving them aboard the ship while I walked around town, but that was an option.

The staff orders up lunch if you do leave your kids all day, but, for logistical purposes, they have to be signed in by 11am to have lunch at noon. The staff did a good job remembering my kids’ special—but not extraordinary or life-threatening—dietary needs, though their paperwork seemed less thorough than what I’d filled out on Carnival previously. I wondered if this was because the scale of the program was so much smaller, giving staff more bandwidth to query individual children about their needs.

My kids felt really special when they were each given a Club HAL backpack and souvenirs at the farewell party on their final night. Really, everything about this low-key program was perfect for my kids. If you are introverted or quieter people, a less family-oriented cruise can be a really good fit. Sometimes, it seems like the travel industry definition of “family” is “boisterous.”

Acceptance of kids by other, child-free passengers

I was worried about getting nasty looks or other flak from older or child-free passengers on a HAL cruise. I’ve read comments online from people who don’t think kids belong on “their” ships at all. In spite of that, every word of feedback I heard about my children aboard the Maasdam was positive.

I’m sure it helps that I am a strict parent with high expectations. My kids were never unsupervised. I travel with my children to share experiences with them—I’m rarely looking to send them off to babysitting so I can do my own thing.

What I did hear from about a dozen different guests were compliments on my well-behaved children. That was personally gratifying, but, more importantly, shows that not every “typical HAL cruiser” will be negatively inclined toward a family with reasonably mannerly children.

We did strictly follow the dress code every day, including neckties on formal night, and I’d say we were more dressed up than the average passenger.

Entertainment options: Explorations Cafe by day

As I share my thoughts on HAL’s entertainment options, keep in mind that I am not a party person. Maasdam was more my speed than my previous experience on the exuberantly upbeat Carnival Glory, though I liked the happy atmosphere on the Glory more than I ever expected I would.

I enjoyed a short talk on the geology of the region we traversed, but not quite enough to attend the subsequent port lectures which seemed to feature an emphasis on shopping. I would prefer much more in depth lectures about the history, culture, and geography of every port of call, especially if they went beyond the obvious tourist highlights I’ve probably already read about while planning the trip.HAL puzzle

The Explorations Cafe was by far my favorite spot, and I spent most of our time at sea there doing jigsaw puzzles. My younger son observed that the Maasdam actually had books in its library, unlike the really poorly named “library” on the Carnival Glory with approximately four linear feet of books on a wall of otherwise empty shelves.

I loved having the espresso bar right next to the library and paid the extra fee for one specialty coffee each day. I found the caffè mocha here overly sweet, but my favorite barista (the only male barista I saw on the ship) could make a decent latte.

Entertainment options: disappointing by night

In spite of my low-key nature, evenings were probably the low point of the voyage for me. I am in my 30’s, and my kids wanted to spend their evenings at Club HAL without me. After dinner, I would take the kids to the Club, go back to my room and put on comfortable shoes, then take a walk around the open deck if it wasn’t too windy outside.

HAL eveningSome evenings, I worked on the jigsaw puzzles again, but the light wasn’t as good and it wasn’t as fun in evening clothes with darkness obscuring the magnificence of the sea.

I attended one show, but I prefer serious theater to song-and-dance stuff, so it wasn’t to my liking.

By the end of the week, I was accustomed to carrying my notebook around with my evening bag. I would sit somewhere dim enough that I could see the moonlit waves outside, nurse one drink, and write in my journal until it was time to pick up the kids.

This quiet activity isn’t very different from my typical, and preferred, vacation style, but there was something about being aboard a ship that gave it a melancholy tinge. Alone, watching the moon over the ocean, I missed my husband terribly.

I went to the “Disco Inferno” evening in the Crow’s Nest hoping to relive my youth and dance a little. I never get to dance at home unless you count rocking out with a kindergartener. But the dance floor was literally empty for the hour of my attendance. Too bad!

This assessment is probably most relevant to solo parent travelers, most of whom already know that cruises are designed to cater to couples. I didn’t take advantage of any “singles” oriented options from the cruise line because I wasn’t really traveling alone (I had two little dinner companions), and I definitely wasn’t looking for a Love Boat style singles experience!

Stateroom design

The stateroom was exactly what I expected and fully met my expectations. I will echo every modern cruiser and reiterate the wish for more electrical outlets in convenient places. A clock with iPhone dock would also make my life better; hotels are catching on, so why not ships?

The Maasdam inside stateroom layout was almost identical to my Carnival Glory outside stateroom experience, minus one helpful shallow cupboard and the porthole, of course. It was fine. Even with six suitcases plus three carry on bags, we had no trouble putting away all of our clothing for the trip and tucking every suitcase away out of sight. Our very large bag fit under the bed, which I’d worried about.

For a couple of adults to share a room, more desk or table space would be nice, but, really, the room was exactly as described and held us comfortably. The exception, perhaps, was when we were all dressing for dinner in the narrow standing space between desk and beds.

Sharing with another adult or a teenager who fusses about primping would be radically different, and probably miserable. I’ve heard that some cruisers resort to dressing in the gym locker room when quarters get too tight, and it sounds like a brilliant idea.

Everything in the bathroom was fine, though I’d vote for shelves on both sides of the mirror (not just one.) Putting the Kleenex dispenser on the side of the sink near the door instead of way back by the toilet would make it easier to grab one without going all the way into the bathroom.

Dining

Dining experiences were all pretty good. I prefer the dining room and table service, but my boys love a buffet. In the end, we ate most of our breakfasts in our room via room service for convenience. How I love those cards on the doorknobs that make breakfast appear at just the right time! This is what I miss most when I return home from a cruise.

Breakfast always arrived promptly—even a few minutes early—which is a tiny bit of an oops when I’m still in a towel fresh from the shower. Lunch was usually spent at the Lido buffet, and almost always consisted of sandwiches made by the very kind Apri.

We were assigned “any time dining” because that’s all that was available when we booked our cruise. After we ate at 5:30 pm the first two evenings, the dining room reservations fellow asked if we’d like to take the same reservation and table for the rest of the trip, to which we happily agreed.

We really liked Herdi, our server, who talked to the boys about his own childhood in Indonesia and listened patiently to long explanations of their pocketed toys and daily activities. We loved our table near the aft windows, and the inexplicable sticker on the mirror glass of the server’s station next to us. It said, “You are beautiful.”

I kept wondering if that sticker was meant to be there to perk up single cruisers or overworked staff, or if someone had “defaced” the mirror for reasons of his own. It was one of those tiny delights life sometimes surprises us with, and it made me smile every night.

The food was all cooked properly and to a good standard, though the desserts tended to look better than they tasted. My lactose-intolerant boys were so happy that non-dairy sorbet was typically on the dessert menu. My little son did miss the “disco dancing dinner” as he called Carnival’s nightly dancing waiter show, but he seemed, overall, to like this experience even better than the one aboard the Glory.

Summing up the family experience on HAL

All in all, the quieter ambiance puts HAL above Carnival in my personal cruise rankings—after all of two trips—but I think I am still looking for my ideal cruise line.

The most useful piece of advice I think I have to offer families is to take the label of a “family friendly” cruise line with a grain of salt.

According to conventional wisdom, I should have taken my kids on a Disney or Royal Caribbean cruise because they “cater” to kids, but I doubt that my little family would have had a better time on one of those lines. A smaller ship with a calmer, less crowded atmosphere was a better fit for us, even if we gave up on features like video arcades and water slides that do carry some appeal for my kids.

I’ve heard that the “right” cruise specialist travel agent can really help with sorting out the myriad options of cruise lines, itineraries, ships, and cabins, but I have yet to make contact with an agent of such quality.

I did extensive research on Cruise Critic and other websites to help me find a good fit for my family, and that’s the main reason I wrote this Cruise Report. Perhaps another mom, hoping to plan a great family vacation, will find some of this information helpful in determining if the Maasdam would suit her family’s needs.

St. Lawrence Seaway ports of call, reviewed

Every port on this itinerary met my primary desideration: I love to step off a ship and be immediately somewhere worth walking around, making shore excursions or public transit an option, not a necessity. The cruise ports of Maritime Canada are very welcoming to self directed visitors who like to walk.

Because I had my kids with me and didn’t want to install child safety seats in taxis, we opted for several of the ship’s shore excursions. All of these were fine, though only in Sydney would I pay to do a ship’s excursion again. Having experienced these ports, next time, I’ll just get around on my own.

Quebec City

In Quebec City, the European vibe of the city was a feature in and of itself. Even my pair of disinterested history students noticed how different it was from the modern American cities with which they were familiar. We admired Quebec primarily by walking through it and enjoying the beautiful day outdoors.

Within blocks of the ship, we discovered a little playground with a pirate ship theme and passed almost an hour letting off steam with the place to ourselves. When we were done there, we rode the Old Quebec Funicular from the lower to the upper town. It’s well worth the fare to avoid walking up that hill!

Quebec City has the only extant fortified city walls in the USA or Canada, and the similarity to a medieval castle made them appealing for an active visit by a pair of boys. We saw the Citadelle military installation and lots of intriguing public art as we meandered back down the hill to our ship.

Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island was an enjoyable stop for me, but less exciting for the kids. I was happy to see the Anne of Green Gables house in person; the book was unfamiliar to my young boys. I think the bright red soil at the beach struck them the most notable feature of PEI. On a beautiful, sunny day, it wasn’t a bad holiday spot for our family. We enjoyed the natural setting and lots of tromping around outdoors.

Unfortunately, this is also where we discovered that bus tours make my younger son carsick. Moving to the front seat helped, but every time we climbed back into the bus, he and I were both stressed about whether or not he was going to vomit. Thank God, he didn’t, but he looked green and felt bad.

I would suggest a rental car to view the sites of Prince Edward Island if there are sensitive tummies in your party. The rural nature of the small island made the driving look pretty manageable, and I would normally rather ride than drive.

Sydney, Nova Scotia

In Sydney, though it required another bus ride, the Fortress of Louisbourg was by far my favorite experience on this trip. I think it is, in fact, my favorite living history museum in the world, and I’m a huge fan of these historical re-creations.

The Fortress of Louisbourg 8:15am excursion had massive value added because we were allowed entry into the park before it opened for the day. I relished getting photos of everything without any modern tourists spoiling the historical effect.

This was my first major, in person exposure to the French influence on the settlement of the New World, and I was fascinated by how different it was compared with, say, the British colonial reenactment at Plimoth Plantation. It wasn’t just the obviously different needs of a religious colony vs. a military fortress, but the cultural impulses that dictated what was built, and how.

I intend to bring my husband and come back to Nova Scotia for an extended vacation in the future, I liked it so much. I could easily spend a week just exploring this one attraction. Having an historical gem right in the middle of a gorgeous natural setting was icing on the cake.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax was probably the most industrial and least obviously tourist friendly port, but it was still an easy walk to the part of the city most people would want to see. There was a nice oceanfront boardwalk that seemed to lead directly downtown from the cruise port welcome center.

I had booked another bus tour for this stop, but the HAL Shore Excursions desk wisely allowed us to swap the winding road to Peggy’s Cove for a shorter ride around town in an open air,  horse drawn carriage when I explained the carsickness discovery from the two days before.

We could have skipped the tour and seen the same sights on our own, which is my recommendation for younger families. We’d read about the 1917 Halifax Explosion in a fun series of novels by Cathy Beveridge about time traveling Canadian kids, and it was easy to picture how that event devastated the compact, ocean-front city that hugs its harbor with a natural amphitheater.

Bar Harbor, Maine USA

Here’s a dirty little secret: we skipped going ashore in Bar Harbor.

Living in New England, we’ve been to Maine many times, and we can return whenever we want with a short drive north. When I saw that Bar Harbor was a tender port, where, to get ashore, passengers climb into a small boat to be ferried into port in batches, I gave in to the kids’ begging to spend their last cruise day on the ship at Club HAL.

I was somewhat intimidated by the idea of watching my little guy barf his way into Bar Harbor. That would necessitate either an immediate return trip, probably with more barfing, or spending the day in vomit-stained clothes. That was a good enough reason to relax and enjoy the quiet atmosphere of a ship who’s disgorged the bulk of her passengers in port.

After all, though I love to travel and see new places, a family vacation is about more than ticking off locations from a list. There isn’t really any justification required for taking a day to enjoy life wherever you are, and aboard the Maasdam was a fine location for lollygagging.

 

This is an updated and expanded upon version of a Trip Report that I posted on Cruise Critic in 2012.

Are land line phones as archaic as the nuclear family?

My husband and I have a long-running joke that goes back, I think, to our first experience traveling together. Our shorthand for this very long discussion is:

“It’s all about the sharing, and the commitment.”

It began with a difference of opinion (ongoing!) about combining both of our belongings, intermixed, into two shared suitcases vs. packing individual bags. I prefer the former; he prefers the latter.

DH believes this is an entirely biological imperative: I am the female who needs full relationship participation from my mate and maximal expression thereof so I can ensure the successful maturation of our offspring. I’m putting my eggs (wardrobe) in his nest (suitcase), so to speak.

My argument on the subject is that suitcases are regularly lost, and the distribution of at least one full outfit per person in the other bag means less chance of radical inconvenience if a bag goes missing. It is also nice for my loving feelings that we are sharing, which corroborates the commitment.

I’m right about this, of course*, and I follow the same strategy when traveling with my children, so it isn’t all about co-opting DH’s suitcase real estate, but that’s not my main point today.

Moving beyond the travel example, this sort of discussion arises over other daily actions like asking for a bite of his meal (the sharing), or asking him to weigh in on a household decision he might not really care about (the commitment.)

Sharing and commitment are the very nexus of healthy relationships. It’s hard to imagine a family thriving without them.

So what does any of this have to do with the great 19th century innovation of the land line telephone?

For the first time since phones became ubiquitous in the USA, cellular only households now outnumber those with a traditional land line. This is hardly surprising, and there are a number of downsides to this trend that have been covered by major news outlets. The most obvious relate to dispatching emergency services, power outages, and rural or elderly populations who depend heavily on wired phone lines.

Nowhere have I seen mentioned what I’ve found the most personally disruptive feature of a cell phone only culture: it is no longer possible to call a family as a unit. I have to choose an individual to contact, even when my business is with the whole group.

Sometimes, that’s inconvenient: “Hello, neighbors, your garage door is open and the sun’s going down,” or, “I’m driving by and want to drop something off to whomever is at home.”

No, it’s not the end of the world to spray a series of texts or voicemail messages, but it fundamentally ignores the shared nature of a household and its tangible collective purpose.

Sometimes, that’s kind of sad.

Is a family home anything like a collaboration of tenants in common? Should it be?

For individuals who choose co-housing for financial or other reasons, the personal cell phone is a great innovation. Anyone who’s lived in a dorm or otherwise shared a public hall phone knows the benefits of a private device. But is there any advantage gained by a family in the same scenario?

It’s positively quaint to watch an old TV show set at home and see teens racing to answer the communal family phone, or demanding that a sibling conclude a conversation quickly lest an important incoming call be missed. I showed my kids Family Ties last summer, and I marveled at the repetition of that once common scene—now inconceivable—every time.

I don’t mean to romanticize the inconveniences of sharing, but I do question what role the act of frequent sharing has on members of a family. Might these regular points of casual contact mean a more regular chance to check in? I’d guess that it would act in much the same way that sharing any habitual activity leads to better communication between teens and parents simply by providing a low stress opportunity for it to happen.

And then there’s the effect of sharing itself. Parents spend an awful lot of time and energy teaching this vital skill to their young children. Why? Because we want them to grow up into caring adults who treat others well. Participating in a shared family mode of communication means taking part in the functioning of the family itself.

To be clear, I wouldn’t advocate spending twice to have both a cell phone and land line in a scenario where every penny counts. If you have to choose between buying vegetables and having two phones, I vote for the healthy green stuff. If only one phone is in the budget, a mobile phone provides the most flexibility and would be my choice, too.

But for families more like mine—having the privilege to elect music lessons and summer camp, organic food and restaurant meals—the move away from a family phone seems short-sighted. We are constantly bemoaning how hard it is to communicate with our kids while literally cutting the copper lines we used to share.

Shifting more and more experiences from public to private space—personal iPad viewing vs. negotiating the channel of the family room TV, meals on the run vs. around the family table, and, yes, a social life conducted primarily through a tiny handheld computer instead of in the yard or the living room, or even at the mall or the movie theater—every one of these is a vote, intentional or not, for the primacy of the individual experience over a commitment to the family.

These are choices, conscious or not. They are every individual family’s to make, and I don’t presume to know what’s best for yours.

I do, however, hope that I’ve made my point that these are choices best made based upon one’s values, and not by default. It is easy to convince oneself that a situation is made by circumstances and not by choice. Sometimes, its harder to live with the consequences.

 

*This is a joke. I respect my husband’s opinions as he respects mine. We both think we’re right, obviously. But, probably, I am, which is a joke that’s become recursive…