Four Spring Break Ideas for the Whole Family

January 11, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

The new year has begun and we’re already thinking about Spring Break ideas? Well, if most of you were hit by the sudden bomb cyclone weather last week, I’m sure you’re dreaming about warmer weather. Plus, I know a lot of people from New Orleans flee the city during Mardi Gras, while many Bostonians head south during the week of President’s Day, since they get the entire week off.

If you just want to get out of Dodge for a little while, but you maybe don’t want to hit the typical college hot spots, here are a few Spring Break ideas for you. There’s something to do for the whole family, but these are also great places to eat and experience the local culture.

1. Portland, Oregon

If I had to move anywhere else in the country, I’d head to Portland. It may rain quite a bit, but it’s usually a light rain, and not the major storms we get in the Midwest. It also has low humidity and surprisingly few mosquitoes. It’s a great place for excellent food and craft beer, as well as plenty of festivals, theater, and the arts.

There are several museums, including the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI, pronounced AHM-zee), the Portland Art Museum, the Portland Children’s Museum, and the Oregon Maritime Museum. There’s also the Oaks Amusement Park and North Clackamas Aquatic Park for some fun.

Plus you’re a couple of hours away from the beach (I especially love Lincoln City), and Mount Hood if you want to go hiking. If you like outdoor activities, Oregon has a lot to do, and you can do a lot of it within a couple hours of Portland. And the rainfall is less between winter and summer, so a March spring break trip wouldn’t be as rainy as, say, May or September.

2. Nashville, Tennessee

This city is great if you have older kids. While you probably can’t go cruising the bars with them, there are several restaurants that have musical acts in the late afternoon and early evening. Take them out for some music and dinner as you check out some of the sights around the city.

There’s also the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Zoo, the Parthenon, and Opryland (which also has an amusement park). If you want to pay homage to the entertainment pioneers of the south, there’s the Johnny Cash Museum and Cafe, Willie Nelson and Friends Museum, Patsy Cline Museum, and of course, Cooter’s Place in Nashville, a museum dedicated to the Dukes of Hazzard. Or if Spring Training is over, you could catch a ball game with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds baseball team, or a Nashville Predators hockey game.

Finally, if you’re a rock and roll fan, don’t forget to check out Third Man Records, Jack White’s record store and recording studio. He’s doing some interesting things with vinyl records, so it’s worth a look if you’re into vinyl at all.

3. Dallas, Texas

Actually, anywhere south of Nashville is going to be a lot warmer than the Midwest and Northeast at this time of year. But Dallas is a large enough city in one of the biggest states in the country, which means there’s a lot to do, and it’s going to be plenty warm.

You can visit the Dallas Museum of Art, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, the African American Museum, and Dallas Heritage Village, which is like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Indiana’s Conner Prairie.

If you’re looking for some fun activities, there’s Six Flags Over Texas or the smaller Zero Gravity Thrill Jump Park. But if you’re interested in sports, check out the Dallas Mavericks for basketball; the Texas Rangers will open at home against the Houston Astros on March 29th; and the Dallas Stars have a few games at home in March.

4. St. Augustine, Florida

Aviles Street in St. Augustine - one of my favorite Spring Break ideas

Aviles Street in St. Augustine, Florida

It’s right on the beach, but it’s not one of the college hotspots. As the United States’ oldest city, it has too much educational and historical significance to be of interest to college students. Or your kids, but who says Spring Break has to be all about amusement parks and kiddie fun time?

St. Augustine was originally a Spanish outpost and colony, so it’s known for its Spanish colonial architecture. Anastasia State Park is a protected wildlife sanctuary and you can check out the St. Augustine Wild Reserve, a nonprofit animal sanctuary. There are also plenty of old sites to check out, including the Fountain Of Youth Archaeological Park, Castillo de San Marcos, the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, and the El Galeon Ship.

Walk around historic St. George Street, and you can see the oldest wooden school, the old jail, and plenty of interesting shops. You can also ride around on the hop-on-hop-off trolley tour to get around town and hear a little about the place while you’re riding.

The last time we were there, my family and I ate at The Conch House Restaurant, which is right on the main pier overlooking the Bay. But if you’re in the mood for seafood, there are more restaurants than you’ll be able to visit in a single week. And since they’re right on the water, the seafood is always going to be fresh.

Where do you go for Spring Break? Do you have any good Spring Break ideas? Share them with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Phoo credit: paulbr7 (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

Take Vacations During Off-Peak Travel Times

November 30, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the greatest joys I have as a traveler is going to a normally-busy place sometime in the off-season and feeling like I have the entire place to myself. Mackinac Island, Disney World, overseas trips to Germany and The Netherlands. They all feel like a private playground when I visit while everyone else is at work or school.

It’s like I’ve discovered a secret location that only a few people know about. We all stroll casually around, smiling at each other, knowing we’re in on the same secret. You can walk up to rides, there are no lines for museums and exhibits, there’s no one on the beach, and you can get seated within minutes during normal meal times And you’re spoiled for choices when choosing a hotel room at an inexpensive rate. It’s glorious!

I’ve also been in Disney World, Chicago, and several resort towns during peak vacation times, and it’s — well, let’s just say I didn’t feel so special on those days. Hotels are expensive, traffic is evacuate-before-a-disaster heavy, you’ll wait for a week at a restaurant, and the crowds are so big that even an extrovert like me just wants to crawl under the covers for a week.

As a result, my family has been a regular practitioner of traveling during off-peak times. Hotels cost a lot less, there are often discount packages available for some destinations, and you can get a more personalized experience as the staff can focus more attention on you, or at least not be so harried when they try to help you.

So I’m very interested in Offpeak.io. It’s a website that analyzes the travel times in major cities and give you an idea of what’s a peak travel time versus an off-peak time in a chosen city, so you can book your travel plans accordingly. The site is still in beta, but what I’ve seen so far is pretty spot on.

You can use Offpeak.io to find out if there are any major events going on in your chosen city — sporting events, festivals, and holidays — what the weather should be like, and even check the average hotel rates and number of available hotels.

The results appear in a bar graph showing occupancy rates. The smaller the bar, the more rooms there are; the higher the bar, the more crowded everything is going to be. The hotel room rates follow the median price for a hotel room too: higher bars mean higher expected rates.

The occupancy/room rate graph from Offpeak.io will let you know about peak and off-peak travel times.

The occupancy/room rate graph from Offpeak.io will let you know about peak and off-peak travel times.

The end of January and early February are always off-peak travel times because there are no major holidays, and everyone is back at school (which makes running around Disney World a dream!). You can find hotel rooms for a median rate of $78 on a February weekday in Edinburgh, Scotland, but then the weather is cold and rainy at that time. A comparable hotel in Boston will cost $189, which is pretty cheap for Boston, but the city is going to be most likely buried under a foot of snow.

Offpeak.io has information on 111 cities, including Amsterdam, Mexico City, Osaka, Cape Town, and Melbourne. But no Indianapolis, Offpeak? Seriously? You’ve got Cleveland in there, but not Indianapolis? (Hint: The end of May is horrible for finding a hotel in Indianapolis, especially on the west side. If you’re not going for the Indy 500, stay on the northeast side.)

Be sure to pay attention to the weather in your area, and plan your travel methods accordingly. You may find a cheap hotel rate in Boston and Chicago in January or February, but you can almost count on the weather being a factor in any cancelled flights, highway closures, and hotel availability. On the other hand, when are you going to find hotel nights that cheap in Boston and Chicago at any other time of the year?

When do you like to travel? Do you go the same time as everyone else and just fight the crowds? (You’re a better person than I am!) Or do you like to go when no one else is around? Share your strategies with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Prepare for a Road Trip With Your Mobile Phone

November 16, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

I’m getting ready to leave for an 7-hour road trip today (Tuesday), from Orlando to Pensacola, so I can read some of my humor columns at their annual Foo Foo Festival. (By the time this publishes, it will be the day of my reading!) I’ve never made the drive, but I’ve traveled I-75 many times, so I know what to expect. But there’s still some planning and preparation I need to make before I head to Pensacola.

1. Figure out what time to leave.

The Waze app shows you the best and fastest routes to take on your road trip.

The Waze app shows you the best and fastest routes to take on your road trip.

I always show up to a conference or event the day before I have to speak, in case something goes wrong en route. But I’m also worried about traffic. I know what time traffic gets heavy around Gainesville, so I need to get through there a couple hours before or after. I use Waze to help me determine the worst times for rush hour traffic and plan accordingly. I also try to leave Orlando before rush hour begins for the same reason.

2. Check the weather on the route.
One year, when I lived in Indianapolis, we were in danger of being iced in 24 hours before we were scheduled to leave for a Florida trip. So we packed up in a hurry and headed out of town, getting about seven hours away and out of the range of the storm. We learned it’s always a good idea to be flexible in our plans if we’re traveling during a particularly harsh weather season. We have always turned to the Weather Channel’s trip planner function that will show you the expected weather along your route. This can let you plan for inclement weather and allow yourself a little extra time, or hunker down in a hotel, during a storm. Weather Underground has a similar trip planner on its website.

3. Pre-plan your stops.
While you don’t need to plan every gas stop and restroom break, you should at least have an idea of when and where you’ll break for meals. Don’t just do the whole fast food drive through thing though. For one thing, that’s a little boring for the palate, but it’s also not as healthy as getting a decent meal at a sit-down restaurant. Plus, the high carbs could make you sleepy in the afternoon. Instead, try some interesting and local restaurants; check out the RoadFood website or TVFoodMaps, an app that shows you all the different places that have been featured on the different TV programs.

4. Include a fun stop or two
There may be a few tourist sites you want to explore on your road trip, so allow yourself some extra road time. I’ve been wanting to see the Lodge cast iron cookware factory near Monteagle, Tennessee for several years, and I’m hoping this time will be my chance to see it. If you don’t have anything planned, leave some extra time anyway, in case you make an unexpected discovery along the way. Whether it’s an outlet mall, museum, or one of those small-town pecan stores — is it “pe-KAHN” or “PEE-cann?” — in Georgia, take a break and enjoy the actual “road” part of your road trip.

5. Entertain yourself

The Overcast app and Decoder Ring Radio Theatre podcasts, one of my favorites on every road trip

The Overcast app and Decoder Ring Radio Theatre podcasts, one of my favorites on every road trip

Normally, I would take a plane instead of making a 7-hour drive, but I have a few reasons for doing so. For one, it’s an issue of price — I’m taking my family, so it’s not an effective use of our money. For another, I enjoy driving, so I always love a good road trip. Plus, I get to catch up on some of my favorite podcasts while everyone else sleeps.

I recommend the Overcast app for podcasts, and the NPR news app for finding local stations along, or just use the NPR One app to listen to public radio news, shows, and podcasts on demand (like Decoder Ring Theatre’s Red Panda audio theater adventures; they produced a few of my radio plays a few years ago). And of course, there are a plethora of music streaming apps — Spotify, Pandora, iTunes Music — to choose from if you don’t like your local radio choices while you’re on the road.

How do you plan for a road trip? Do you plan and map out your route, or just jump in the car and head in that direction, hoping for the best? Share your strategies with us in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit (Waze): Erik Deckers (used with permission)
Photo credit (Overcast): Erik Deckers (used with permission)

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