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.

Wooden jigsaw puzzles: what was old is new again

I’ve mentioned this before: I love assembling jigsaw puzzles.

Some of my enjoyment of puzzles relates to fond memories of doing them with my mother when I was growing up.

Another element is the sense of well-being I get from assembling all kinds of things. I also like putting together furniture from IKEA, and building Lego sets.

There’s a reason I worked in software quality assurance (QA) for a number of years. I get satisfaction from methodically completing a series of steps, confirming every expectation has been met. I’m weird like that.

So one of my favorite pastimes is completing a jigsaw puzzle.

After almost forty years of doing puzzles, I was amazed to discover a new frontier in this relatively straightforward hobby.

The wooden jigsaw puzzle difference

wooden jigsaw puzzlesI started collecting wooden jigsaw puzzles. Continue reading

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.

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

Play your way to foreign language learning with puzzles and games

Even the most dedicated autodidact has an off day when she doesn’t feel like cracking a book or applying herself to her chosen course of study. These are days for a more creative approach. Consider it stealth education; it’s the scholarly equivalent of hiding puréed vegetables in the kids’ pasta sauce.

Equate it those school days when your teacher played a film instead of giving a lecture. You probably enjoyed the change of pace as much as he did.

To this day, when I hear the word superlative, my mind snaps right to The Superlative Horse. My class watched this movie in elementary school. I think it was based upon this book. I can’t recall the storyline, or whether we even read the book, but my memory clings fast to this particular title. I’ve relished the artful deployment of the vocabulary word ever since!

On a grumpy day—maybe due to too little sleep, aching joints, or a general case of the blahs—I could skip my scheduled 30 minutes of language practice. Sometimes, to be honest, I do. But, like most good habits, the trick is commitment, and the solution to malaise can be a lightening of the load without a free pass.

I’ve already posted about adding foreign language pop songs to my study routine. Typically, I read along with the lyrics while I listen to the songs. I sing along, too.

Is it a hardcore intellectual workout? No!

Is this a task I can fit into the busiest day, or prod myself into undertaking at my laziest? Yes!

Along similar lines, consider adding puzzles and games to your own self-guided study routine. It matters less what kind of material you introduce and more that you are tempted by the format.

I’m a fan of jigsaw puzzles. The trick is to find one that has legible text in your target language. A world map puzzle was a good choice to meet this condition, and also provided an introduction to vocabulary (country names) I might otherwise not see in German.

German world puzzle deutsch

I found this Schmidt Spiele jigsaw puzzle for $10 on Amazon

It helps that, culturally speaking, Germany is a country known for high quality games and puzzles. They are exported worldwide, and brands like Ravensburger are readily available in many countries and languages, including English for the US market.

The trickiest part, when choosing games, is finding one that uses enough of the target language to be a challenge, but not so much that there’s no fun in the playing. The difficulty of picking a suitable game increases exponentially when you introduce more players with differing levels of language acquisition.

For example, German Scrabble requires significantly more language skill than German Monopoly. In the former, you’re forced to dredge up and correctly spell words from memory. Allowing free access to a target language dictionary can bring the level of difficulty back to manageable for beginners.

As a parent educating my child at home, I go out of my way to provide varied learning resources for my son. Enjoyable activities that complement or duplicate subject matter increase the odds that knowledge will be retained. It seems obvious that, by reinforcing a subject through different media, the learning will also be deeper as we experience it through more of our senses and engage different parts of the brain.

Why not provide myself with the same advantages?

It’s easy for geographically isolated Americans to forget that there’s more to learning a foreign language than books and instructional CDs, videos and lessons. The reality of language acquisition is that it must reflect multiplicities of experience to be meaningful.

What else is our language ability for, if not for use as a tool in living a full life?

Have you used any less-conventional tools for learning a language? Please share in the comments.

I love Lego, and I built a platform on an IKEA base to host a city where I can play with my growing kids

I love Lego

True confession time: I love Lego.

I don’t just mean love in that generic, parental, “I love to buy Lego for my kids so they will grow up to be engineers and support me in my old age” way. No, I love Lego in an “I won’t share my bricks with my kids” way.

Lego is one medium with which I still know how to play.

I had a few bricks as a child, but I really started collecting Lego sets when I  was a young professional. Living alone and working long hours as a software quality engineer, I sought a relaxing pastime to keep myself off the computer for a few hours a day. It started when I discovered ancient Egyptian themed Lego sets during a spontaneous trip to Toys “R” Us one evening after work…

I won’t share my Lego with my kids

I hoard my Lego bricks, and I store them separately from the children’s toys. They don’t sort their bricks properly the way I prefer. Also, I like to keep the parts for my favorite sets together, though I don’t keep the boxes or treat them as collectibles. I just enjoy the option of re-building without too much digging for specific pieces.

Family Lego city display MOC in progress

My modern office building MOC in progress. I need over $100 worth of grey and clear bricks to turn my vision into a reality, so it’s on hold. A construction site is a fun spot for creative play in Bricklyn

My spoiled little darlings own enough Lego to stock a store, but I could fill a large Rubbermaid tub with my own bricks. Actually, maybe two tubs. And, realistically, I wouldn’t desecrate my greatest builds by stuffing them unceremoniously into a bin.

I guess I’m a little spoiled, too.

I love model cities

I’m geeky enough to admire model train sets. I grew up thinking how cool it would be to build such a thing in my future home. I’d love to have a toy train running from room to room on a suspended track like I saw once in a small town Maine restaurant.

I love Lego builds on a grand scale, too. I not-so-secretly identify, just a little, with the dad (spoiler alert: a.k.a., Lord Business) in The Lego Movie. I would never glue my bricks together, but I would expect a cohesive vision to be respected by my family as a labor of love, at least for a while.

family-lego-city-display-front-e1493311369289.jpg

“Bricklyn” main street; battle carnage courtesy of DS2

I absolutely adore the modular Lego City Creator sets. They have an early 20th century downtown vibe that’s aesthetically pleasing to these adult eyes. I own a few now. I enjoyed building them, and I really wanted to display them instead of putting them away.

I’ve found that kids are drawn to the finished buildings in an adult space. They just cry out to be played with, but I didn’t want to be constantly policing children or tempting them with untouchable objects on a coffee table. That’s just mean.

Here’s how I found a way to keep my sets intact, for my own enjoyment, while also creating a fun, inter-generational play space for my family and friends.

I built an “open source” Lego “platform” for family sharing

We set up a fairly large (48″ x 66″), counter height surface on the library side of our great room. I assembled four IKEA kitchen cabinets for a base, then used a sheet of plywood for a level platform. It isn’t beautiful, but it is tolerable in a space that also functions as our “formal” living room. Obviously, our lifestyle isn’t really very formal!

IKEA Lego display platform cabinets

I have the veneer to finish the ends of the cabinets to match, but that’s also waiting for “someday.” I’d rather play with my Lego sets than finish my home improvement projects…

Someday, I’ll get a proper counter top to replace the plywood we edged with packing tape to reduce splinters. Most of the surface is covered with base plates anyway, or will be when we’ve added a few more buildings. A simple edge treatment would improve the looks of this project more than anything else.

The IKEA cabinets below “Bricklyn”, as DS2 dubbed our little town, created storage space for all of our board games. Two cabinets each at 24″ x 30″ and 24″ x 36″ hold a lot of family clutter. I opted to use drawers on one side, and cupboards with doors on the other. The drawers are easier to keep organized, but much harder to assemble if you’re an IKEA novice.

To add stability and prevent dangerous tipping over of the heavy cabinets, we fastened the same-width units back-to-back. We also keep heavy objects on the lower shelves and in the bottom drawers so the unit isn’t top heavy. The plywood top extends across multiple cabinets to further cement the units together. Even with every drawer open on the back side, the unit doesn’t budge.

Three rules keep the peace during playtime

There are just three rules for our play table, and even visiting children have been willing to abide by them.

  1. Each family member “owns” some of the baseplate “lots” that cover the table; we each get to define our part of the neighborhood. We can build anything that fits the confines of our plate. Roads are public and may be used by everyone.
  2. Whoever built a structure or vehicle controls the rights to modify that structure or vehicle.
  3. Anyone may move vehicles and minifigs within the cityscape without fear of reprisal, but no one may remove vehicles or minifigs from the display unless s/he put them there.

It helps that my kids are old and mature enough to have some respect for private property. Each has a smaller table in his room set aside for personal building that is sacrosanct. Bringing something to Bricklyn is an agreement to share.

It also helps that the cabinets keep Bricklyn about 40 inches off the ground; our rare infant or toddler visitor can’t reach what s/he shouldn’t take! We keep a step stool handy for our small friends (usually around kindergarten age) to see the display and join in the play. So far, our youngest participants have shown a sort of reverential respect for what we’ve built, and they’ve played by the rules.

Mother’s Day is coming up, which is one of those holidays when I just might be lucky enough to receive a new Lego City building. If I do, I’ll build it in Bricklyn.