Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part II: a mom, four kids, 1633 miles, and two hotel rooms.

2.5 days, 26 hours, 1633 miles

If you missed my introduction to this road trip, click here for Part I

In a nutshell, I will be the lone driver bringing four children (my two sons and two friends) from New England to summer camp in Minnesota. School lets out Friday; our camp session begins Monday afternoon. This will be an efficient, not leisurely, journey.

I enjoy road trips, but I wish I could take one without beginning in the over-crowded American Northeast. I used to have a 7 mile commute that took 50 minutes because of traffic and poorly designed roads. Actually, I believe cows designed those roads, so maybe I should be less critical of their engineering prowess.

Road trip overview

Google still thinks we should fly. Or possibly make a run for the Canadian border? Google Maps clearly doesn’t appreciate a good old American summer road trip.

We have an advantage setting out on a Saturday. We shouldn’t meet rush hour traffic anywhere, unless Eau Claire, WI (Monday’s starting point) has an unexpectedly vicious traffic problem.

Day 1: Massachusetts to Avon, OH

Saturday. 10 hr 20 min, 687 miles.

The kids might be tired from their end of the year party the night before, but they can sleep while I drive. (Cue Melissa Etheridge: You Can Sleep While I Drive) As the only driver, it’s critical that I begin the trip well rested.

Our target departure time is 6:30 am. Loading the van Friday night means very little last minute prep work is required. I’ve even laid out the boys’ clothes so they will have no decisions to make.

Babushka (grandmother), who lives downstairs, asked if she could make the kids breakfast. This was an easy sell, leaving me free to get myself ready, grab the cold snacks from the fridge, then load everyone up and go. 

I become less sociable as I become more goal oriented. My husband likens my behavior during travel to that of a commanding general leading her army into battle. The niceties suffer.

We packed lunches to avoid eating too much overpriced junk food early in the trip. I thought having something packed by their mom might also ease the twins’ transition from her care to mine. We will make pit stops as needed, and will require one midday fuel stop, but intend not to make a long stop until our dinner time arrival at our hotel.

Massachusetts & New York


Driving the Mass Pike (I-90 toll road in Massachusetts) or the New York Thruway (I-90 toll road in New York State) offers an almost identical experience once you’re past any urban traffic close to Boston. The road is long and straight. Exits are few and far between, but service plazas are evenly spaced, have clear signage, and offer everything you need if nothing of special interest. These are efficient roads as long as traffic is moving.

Pennsylvania & Ohio

One passes through a tiny corner of Pennsylvania on this route. I think you spend less than an hour in the state. You get your first glimpse (westbound) of a Great Lake here. If I tell you that you pass through a city called Erie, PA, can you guess which Great Lake that is? 

There’s nothing else that sticks in my mind about driving through this state along I-90.

Ohio is memorable for having very clean, comfortable Rest Areas and more law-abiding, courteous drivers than most other eastern states in which I’ve driven. Beyond that, I’m usually fixated on getting to my next stop as I pass through here. 

It’s a stretch of road that is inoffensive enough that I have little to say about the experience.

Night one: Cambria Hotel & Suites, Avon, OH

Our estimated time of arrival is 6:30 pm. Taking 12 hours to drive for 10.5 sounds about right, factoring in rest, fuel, and meal breaks, but I’m not sure whether my usual estimates will apply with extra kids in our party and no second adult to wrangle them.

Our hotel for the first night in Avon, OH is the Cambria Hotel & Suites on Detroit Road. There appear to be many restaurants to choose from in the immediate vicinity, and we expect to enjoy a sit down dinner before settling in for the night. 

The Cambria brand is part of Choice Hotels group. Choice properties include EconoLodge, Comfort Inn, and Rodeway Inn, amongst others. I’ve stayed at a number of these, but I hadn’t even heard of the Cambria brand before booking this one based upon location and room availability. 

I have a Choice Privileges membership (rarely used), so I will earn points for this stay. Joining these programs is almost always free, and usually awards at least some minimal benefit in addition to the points, which may or may not add up themselves to a redeemable award before they expire. 

I believe Cambria is Choice’s top tier brand, but the price was competitive with a local Holiday Inn and other brands with which we have more experience.

This stop is placed to make our first day the longest travel day by a few minutes. I prefer to do a little extra driving on Day 1 to create a hedge against later delays.

I chose the Cambria Hotel & Suites over other Cleveland area lodgings in part because it is next door to a Costco with a gas station. They also had a suite available (sleeps 6) with 2 Queen beds plus a Queen sofa bed in a semi-private nook. (Remember, two of the kids I’m traveling with are teens who aren’t relatives.) 

I also prioritized hotel rooms with fridges for this trip since we carried perishable snacks and extra (frozen) water bottles in a cooler.


Access to Costco gas stations is restricted to members. Their prices are almost always amongst the very best in the area. I’m also confident in the quality of any product Costco sells. While their low prices often result in long lines, I expect we can avoid waiting by getting gas late Saturday or early Sunday when the Costco store itself is closed. This strategy is very successful at my local Costco location.

Day 2: Avon, OH to Eau Claire, WI

Sunday. 10 hr 10 min, 639 miles.

I’ve driven cross country from coast to coast at least four times before, and usually on the more northerly routes of I-90 and I-80. My least favorite stretches are almost always between Chicago and the Indiana-Ohio border. This is an area that often has heavy traffic. I’m not looking forward to this piece of the trip.

Since we’re crossing this area on a Sunday, I don’t need to time our arrival at major cities to avoid rush hours. If our first day felt very successful, and because we will experience a one hour time zone change that lengthens the day, I expect to allow the kids some extra time in the morning. I estimate we’ll depart from our hotel in Avon, Ohio by 8 am.

Indiana

Indiana, as far as I can tell, is always doing road work on their stretch of I-90/I-80. I find it really aggravating to pay for a toll road in poor condition. I have no recollection of facilities here, so they are either nonexistent or not very impressive. Perhaps they were just overshadowed by frustration from sitting in traffic due to road work lane closures.

Illinois

Illinois (at least in the Chicago area) doesn’t offer pleasant roadside Rest Areas. They are basically just gas stations with large convenience stores attached. Drivers there also tend to be aggressive and rude, and I’m saying that as a resident of the Boston metro area, where the term Masshole is considered a badge of honor to some. 

Tolls around Chicago still require frequent stops for payment of small amounts in cash–a system Massachusetts had twenty years ago when I arrived, but has since been replaced with a quicker, more convenient all-electronic system.

Speaking only for the experience of the long distance road tripper, I call this stretch of highway in Illinois the “land of lying liars” because of repeated bad experienced with posted signs indicating facilities that are impossible to find or closed. 

I like visiting Chicago by train. I’m unlikely to ever stop in the Windy City with my own vehicle.

Wisconsin

I believe this will be my first time driving in Wisconsin, though I’ve visited friends and family in Oconomowoc and Wisconsin Rapids in years past. 

My expectation is relatively pleasant and easy driving once we’re past the Chicago urban area. At least in the parts of Wisconsin I’ve visited, I saw decent roads, low population density, and polite people.

Night two: Holiday Inn Eau Claire South I-94 , Eau Claire, WI

Our estimated time of arrival is 7:00 pm. That’s 12 hours of driving time instead of 11 due to crossing zones from Eastern into Central time where Indiana gives way to Chicago. This allows about 1.75 hours for rest, fuel, and meal breaks.

We plan to eat a nice dinner after we arrive.

I usually don’t take long meal breaks during the day on road trips. After a heavy meal, I get sleepy. I eat lightly at midday while driving long distance.


Holiday Inn and other brands within the IHG group are my default choice when I think a predictable experience will make life less stressful for me or my kids. 

I prefer interesting boutique properties when I’m exploring a new area in a leisurely way. When I want to concentrate on other things, or when I believe the kids will be experiencing some form of travel stress, I appreciate the way a known environment reduces anxiety.

My favorite IHG properties are the Staybridge Suites with their apartment style full kitchens. These often offer two bedroom units (with two full bathrooms) which I strongly prefer to connected standard rooms as a family with kids. 

Connecting doors are designed to swing shut automatically; I want this door open night and day with my kids in the next room. The living room area gives me added space to keep larger luggage centrally located and ready to re-load the next day. 

Even if I don’t plan to cook in the full kitchen, having one gives me the option, and, somehow, the larger fridge makes it easier for me to remember to grab my cold items before we depart. I almost always make use of the dishwasher to give our reusable water bottles and utensils a good clean somewhere along the road on a multi-day trip.


Even during travel with takeout meals, we try to avoid using disposable cups and utensils. Silicone “ice pop” molds keep small utensils clean and are themselves dishwasher safe and reusable.

For this stop, however, we went with a Holiday Inn property. I was using IHG Rewards Club points to pay for one of our two rooms, plus the location on Owen Ayres Court in Eau Claire, WI was in a very convenient spot along I-94. 

I did call ahead and make sure hotel management knew my request for connecting rooms was to accommodate a pair of teenagers. Any decent hotel will work overtime to keep teens near their supervising adults!

Booking a hotel with a full restaurant on site also allows for easy dining if we experience delays or I arrive too exhausted to take the boys out. There are many restaurants very close to this location, however, without needing to get back on the freeway or navigate unfamiliar city streets.

Day 3: Eau Claire, WI to Bemidji, MN

Monday. 5 hr 12 min, 307 miles.

Hopefully, Eau Claire, WI doesn’t have a significant rush hour since we will be here on a Monday morning. Allowing for six hours of driving time today, we plan to depart at 8 am.

Our plan is the head north first and then cut west at Duluth. This puts us on Hwy 53 northbound, then Hwy 2 west instead of continuing on I-94 to Hwy 10. These two options show very similar travel times on Google maps.


My assumption is that going through Minneapolis/Saint Paul on the Interstate freeway carries a greater risk of weekday traffic vs. taking the state highway to Duluth. If I were driving alone, or at night, I would probably take the more populous route because I would feel safer. 

I’m comfortable opting for less heavily traveled roads for daytime driving with several fit teens in my party. I doubt I could loosen the nuts to change a tire by myself these days, but I’m pretty sure the boys could help me do it if the need arose.

I would call AAA first if I had a roadside emergency, but even my backup plans have backup plans. That’s how I roll. Read this if you missed my thoughts on preparing your vehicle for a road trip.

I’m looking forward to this segment of our trip. I’ll be seeing areas of the country I’ve never visited before. I expect much of it will be scenic, and most will be uncrowded. As a transplant from the less populous Northwest region to suburban New England, I positively crave wide open spaces.

Arrival in Bemidji, MN

Monday afternoon, 2-4:30 pm arrival time for camp.

Because the camp allows a 2.5 hour window for arrival, we aren’t allowing much (if any) extra driving time today. We would like to check in as early as possible so we get first dibs on bunks, etc., but not enough to wake up extra early at this stage of a long, intense road trip.

On our first trip to this camp, we opted for airport pickup via charter bus, so I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the roads into the property. I do remember that it wasn’t too far from the Bemidji airport (BJI), and it didn’t seem like a challenging surface to negotiate (for a camp in the woods.)

I also took note of the parking situation for families, considering my options for future trips. This shouldn’t present any obstacle that requires extra time upon arrival.

Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part I: a minivan, a mom, and four kids.

Why am I rushing from New England to Minnesota the day after school lets out for summer? (Cue Alice Cooper: School’s Out!)

And how does one rush to Minnesota from here, anyway? Why, by minivan, of course.

MinivanRegular readers may have noticed another oddity already: the title of this post says there are four kids in my minivan. Two of them are mine. Where did the other two joyriders come from?

I’ve posted before about the rare domestic opportunity for immersive study of foreign languages that exists in Bemidji, MN. I read about it for years before taking the plunge and attending Family Week with DS1 at Concordia Language Village‘s German language site, Waldsee. That was two years ago.

We’re heading back to Family Week at Waldsee this summer. Due to an abundance (some might say surfeit) of enthusiasm on my part, I wasn’t content to return with just DS1. He is a middle schooler who has been learning German since 1st grade.

His younger brother, DS2—who keeps reminding me that they don’t study German at his school, they do Spanish!—has also been drafted into our party. I remain convinced that DS2 will be a full convert to the joys of Waldsee after his first bite of Kuchen from the Café. He also loves to sing and dance and generally make a spectacle of himself. He’s going to fit in just fine.

Our party is completed by the addition of a pair of friends—brothers, and, in fact, twins. They are making the transition from school to home education for next year, and German is one of their areas of interest.

The seed of this idea was planted when I discussed with the twins’ mother the difficulty in finding local home school classes in less popular languages. It clearly grew into her acceptance of my offer to act in loco parentis for the twins during Family Week.

OSV 2 yellow flowersIf CLV is willing to define a family as any group of at least one adult and at least one child who wish to be counted as family, so, apparently, am I. Let’s see if my crazy idea flowers.

I’ve known the twins for several years, and, by all available evidence, they are very nice boys. Ask me in July if I’ve revised my opinion.

Our route from New England to Bemidji, MN will take two and a half days (25 road hours) of driving. God bless America, but it sure takes an effort to cross it.

The plan is to complete two ∼10-hour days on the weekend, then complete the final five hour stretch on Monday morning, arriving in Bemidji around check-in time for camp. That’s 2:30-4 pm.

If I survive, I then immediately begin an intensive language learning program while supervising my four charges.

Or maybe I will smile beatifically, let it all roll over me, and eat lots of Kuchen. We’ll see how my energy holds up.

We’ve got our Pimsleur German lessons loaded in the car‘s hard drive, headphones for all the kids, and enough distracting electronic devices for a small army. I’ve packed water bottles, snacks, and a Tupperware bowl with tight-fitting lid in case motion sickness* strikes.

Embarking on an epic road trip a few hours after school ends with no alternate driver and a van full of kids might be counted as one of my more… optimistic endeavors.

Remember, that which does not kill us, or any of the children, makes us stronger. (So we can kill them better at a later time?)

I’ll accept any prayers, well-wishes, or cones of silence from whomever cares to offer. Ah, those carefree summer days… (Cue Beach Boys: I Get Around)

Continued in Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part II.
*Add ginger candies, mints, Sea Bands, and an eye mask to the list of offerings to the god of seasickness. DS2 is a risk. No screens allowed for him during motion. He’s got hours of audio books on his iPad.

Take your children to Iceland

…and bring your rain gear

Iceland reinvented itself as a hot tourist destination after the financial meltdown of the late aughts left their economy a mess. It’s so cool to visit Iceland that you might hesitate to go as a family. How can a hipster paradise be a good fit for kids? I was surprised by what a perfect match it was.

Traveling to Iceland for ten days in 2014 on my own with my early elementary aged kids was actually inadvertent. Suffice to say we’d purchased affordable, non-refundable, tourist class tickets with Icelandair via Keflavík to join DH on a European business trip. His schedule changed leaving him unable to travel on our dates. Rather than cancel altogether and lose the money spent on plane tickets, we persuaded Icelandair to drop the connecting flight to Europe without voiding our Boston – Keflavík legs and I put together a last-minute vacation for three in the land of fire and ice.

Even though I love to travel and am confident enough to go it alone internationally , I hesitated before I made this trip. Aside from Canada—which is awesome but comfortably similar to home—this was the boys’ first voyage abroad. I was taking on a new country about which I knew little and in a language I’d never heard spoken. It was a much bigger stretch, culturally and linguistically, than our 12 day trek across Canada from Pacific to Atlantic two years before, and DH was with us for part of that trip.

You will find better travelogues and more stunning photos elsewhere on the internet, but here are some ways Iceland was a uniquely perfect introduction to global travel for our family.

Children were graciously welcomed everywhere we went

Admittedly, I didn’t attempt to go bar crawling with the kids, but we did alternate between museums, group tours, and wandering around on our own. I felt welcomed everywhere we went, and was amazed by the ready provision of family friendly amenities in public places. A museum had a little potty standing ready in the WC, presumably trusting users to clean it properly after use. (Frankly unimaginable in the US.) Children’s areas in museums were comprehensive and present in both the smallest and the most rarefied establishments. Not only were there accommodations made to entertain and educate children in most establishments, but they also had English language versions of kids’ materials. Families were never made to feel like afterthoughts, even families of tourists.

Iceland potty in Museum Reykjavik 871

Little red potty, there in the museum if you need it

Icelandair goes so far as to feed children—gratis!—on their flights while adults in Economy class buy their food à la carte. I believe this extends to other extras like headphones and blankets, too. These are little things that are very supportive to traveling families, and likely make for a quieter, more pleasant trip for all passengers. That kind of thinking is everywhere in Iceland.

Icelandair kid meal

Icelandair child’s meal

Our favorite site in the country was Ásmundarsafn, one of three buildings that comprise the Reykjavík Art Museum. This former live-work space of pioneering artist Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982) is a beautiful building full of amazing works of art surrounded by an outdoor sculpture park. A museum guide told us that the artist himself specified that a sculpture of a famous lady troll from Icelandic folklore should be accessible for children to climb upon. I think that sums up the regard given to the value of children in Iceland.

Iceland statue Ásmundur1

If you sculpt it, they will climb…

I saw little groups of kids, maybe seven or eight years old, taking the city bus short distances together or playing on a playground conveniently placed outside of a large supermarket. It was clear that no adult was actively supervising these kids. I commented about this to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor, and he readily agreed.

“Of course,” he said, “because everyone is looking out for them. No adult would let these kids get into trouble.”

The prevailing attitude in Iceland, perhaps due to the small population and citizens’ high degree of inter-relatedness, is one of community support. It’s a really nice feeling for any visitor, but an outstanding one for a parent.

Children’s discounts abound, and they are significant

Yes, Iceland is expensive. Isn’t it crazy to bring the kids to one of the more expensive places you might ever visit?

Surprisingly, the kids were something of a bargain.

Make no mistake, you will feel physical pain from the size of the bill every time you feed the kids in an Icelandic restaurant, but that’s mostly a result of servers earning a living wage. Supermarket prices are also high, but nowhere near as stratospheric as the cost of a sit down meal. If you stay in a rented apartment or have a kitchenette in your hotel, you can keep these costs comparable to “nice vacation” costs back home. We ate breakfast for free at our hotel, ate out for lunch, and made sandwiches or add-hot-water soup for dinner in our room. Easy, healthy, portable snacks like baby carrots and cherry tomatoes could be found even in convenience stores.

Iceland hotel breakfast buffet

Breakfast might be included at your hotel, but kids may experience culinary culture shock at the buffet when they see fish instead of Cheerios

Low children’s admissions prices at public institutions such as museums weren’t surprising, but even commercial tickets, like seats on group tours, were half price. On one popular airport shuttle, adults cost around $40, teens get a 75% discount, and kids ride free. City bus tickets for youth (12-17) are 36% of adult fare; kids aged 6-11 pay 16%. Compared to our family trip to similarly remote, expensive, tourist-centric coastal Alaska in 2016, these price breaks added up to huge savings and they didn’t take any extra work like clipping coupons or booking ahead. Affordable prices for families seem to be part and parcel of Icelandic culture.

Products sold in Iceland are often made… in Iceland!

The high cost of imports to a remote island nation means you see a lot more products on Icelandic shelves that are actually made in Iceland. Where else have you gone as a tourist and seen that? Consistently, when my kid nagged me to buy a wooden sword or a game in the gift shop, I found the item to be of good quality and locally made. I’m usually a tough sell for souvenirs because, unless I’m in China, I don’t want a Chinese bauble, but I found it harder to use that excuse in Iceland. For once, the souvenirs felt like real pieces of the culture we were visiting. While not inexpensive, most items did seem to be a good value considering their quality.

Iceland Viking Hotel outside

Viking Cottages at Hotel Viking, Hafnarfjordur

Against my usual type, I opted for a hotel with a theme for our trip, and I didn’t have very high expectations. I did some TripAdvisor research, found a good area for us, and the price was right, so I figured I would give the kids a thrill and choose a cottage at the Hotel Viking in Hafnarfjordur, about midway between the airport in Keflavík and the capital, Reykjavík. The decor was a bit over the top, and the theming extends almost everywhere, but the “Viking Cottage” interiors were full of natural, hand carved wood and whimsical touches based upon Nordic folklore. It felt the opposite of Disney-esque. It felt authentically something, if not exactly full on Viking. The kids loved it, and, actually, so did I. It was also a really comfortable space for a family with sleeping loft, bunk beds, and a dining table. We made excellent use of the electric kettle for our modest, in-room dinners every evening.

Nature’s playground for the whole family

When I mentioned earlier that you should bring your rain gear, I wasn’t kidding. We visited Iceland in March, and we experienced snow, rain, fog, sun, sleet, mist, rainbows, warmth, bitter cold… all in the same day! Dressing appropriately will make or break your enjoyment of a long day touring this gorgeous country. Once you’ve got wet jeans, you’re going to be uncomfortable back on the bus, so wear technical clothing or layer inexpensive rain pants over your everyday trousers.Iceland weather cold wet walk

I would actually recommend visiting during the less crowded off season, like we did. Tourists outnumber native Icelanders now, at least at peak times. That’s not what I want to see when I go somewhere new. Less crowded tours and attractions make me happier, and they are better for families. We enjoyed our small group tours even more because only one of them was fully booked.

In Iceland and everywhere else, I would always recommend taking a minibus tour (or smaller) instead of the big bus lines. Getting a dozen or so people in and out of a minibus is pretty manageable and costs a lot less than a private tour, but waiting for 50 tourists to unload at every site wastes too much precious vacation time.

I’ve heard that car rentals are a good option in Iceland. Certainly, roads were in good condition and traffic seemed manageable compared to the gridlock of major American cities I’ve navigated. As a mom alone with a pair of kids in early spring, however, I felt more comfortable sticking with a group and a guide. We took three tours during our ten day visit: the Golden Circle, the South Coast, and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Even in March with poor weather, the Golden Circle sites were pretty crowded. Gullfoss was almost completely obscured by fog, and Geysir was interesting, but mobbed. Thingvellir National Park was the highlight for me, and I will definitely go back there when I return to Iceland someday. Walking through the literal gap between two tectonic plates is awesome.

Iceland weather sun waterfall rainbow1The South Coast tour gave us our day of wildest weather, but was a great overview of some different elements of the Icelandic landscape. It was a long day, but with plenty of stops with lots of room to roam and run by glaciers, rivers and the sea. Throwing rocks was really popular with my boys, and there was plenty of room to do so without hitting any other tourists.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula presents more variety and makes a nice complement to the South Coast tour, though it was a day with even more driving time. This can work out well when your younger one naps in car! Snaefellsnes seemed to show us more birds and fishing villages and yet more interesting geological features. The long tunnel beneath a fjord was fun in and of itself for my engineering-oriented kid.

We alternated busy days with quieter ones.We found plenty to see in Hafnarfjordur, including its small museum, culture center, and the Elf Walk tour in Hellisgerdi Lava Park. We visited the local library twice (they have books in English as well as Icelandic and several other languages) and found time to select a favorite bakery. A short city bus ride into Reykjavík let us access two out of three branches of the really excellent art museum I mentioned earlier, Reykjavík 871±2 Settlement (archeological) Exhibition, National Museum of Iceland, the sculpture court of the Einar Jónsson Museum, and the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church. Aside from a little bit of shopping and rather more bakery-induced nibbling, we spent very little on excursions outside of the costly—but worth it—group tours.

Looking back, what stands out about this vacation was how extraordinarily good everything was. I say that as a mom who routinely blows her top when things go wrong, who dwells upon her own oversights, and who often gets more out of planning a vacation than actually taking it. While, yes, there was the incident where DS1 left his iPad behind at the Hafnarfjordur library and my heart stopped until we ran all the way back several blocks and retrieved it, safe and sound, from a librarian who seemed surprised I was so worried, and, of course, there’s the funny (now!) story of how the FlyBus whooshed right past us and I thought we would miss our flight home until the Hotel Viking receptionist saved the day by calling a taxi and arranging for the FlyBus company to cover the expense because we had a reservation and we were standing by the road in plain sight…

These little hiccups—which always happen when we travel, which can be the germ for great stories later or the strain that spoils a trip—are also the very key to why this adventure was so amazing. The people I met in Iceland seemed almost uniformly inclined to help, and welcoming to a stranger. There was a sense of people “all in this together” that pervaded situations as mundane as riding the bus and grocery shopping, but has been more eloquently displayed in times of trouble during Icelandic natural disasters at home or when they sent the first search and rescue team to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there.

Iceland is a place you want to visit for its natural beauty and unique culture; it’s a place you’ll be glad you brought your family because of its people.