Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Penny Saved is a...Great Souvenir

Some of us take to the road because we don't like to fly.  Some of us take to the road out of a true sense of adventure in order to not miss all those sights on the way to a destination.  Some of us take to the road and that is the destination.  It satisfies some deep internal wanderlust.  In reality though, while there may be a little of all of these reasons within your decision to travel by automobile, the foremost reason families probably consider a road trip now is economics.  

Gasoline is expensive.  Here in Chicago we are experiencing the highest gas prices in the contiguous United States.  However high the price of oil goes the fact is it is less expensive to drive a family of five to a destination than to fly when you take into consideration airfare and all the extra fees plus the cost of a rental car while you're there.  If you're headed out on the open road to make a vacation possible for your family, chances are you will also be doing other things during your trip to save a few bucks here and there like packing sandwiches and snacks to eat along the way.  This might make more sightseeing stops possible to include in your budget.  The more stops, the more fun.  The more stops, the bigger the dilemma of how do you avoid blowing every penny you've saved when every sightseeing adventure will inevitably include a gift shop full of junk your kids will beg for wherever you go.

Squish them.  That's right.  Squish your pennies.  No, I don't have some magic way to multiply pennies by exerting pressure.  I'm talking about elongated coins or what I like to call "squished pennies."  Chances are you or your kids have done this at least once in your life.  You put the penny in the machine with 2 quarters, push a button or turn a crank and it comes out squished or elongated with an imprint on it.  A few years ago my dear friend Deb mentioned that these are great things for the kids to collect.  She's right.  They are excellent little souvenirs of places you have visited.  So, me being me I've taken this to a whole different level.  I found the little books that hold the pennies and got one for each of my children.  Honestly, this is not necessary.  A rainy-day or even en route craft to keep the kids busy could be to decorate a special box to hold their soon-to-be collection.  But I'm not sorry I bought the books because stamped on the back was a website.  There's a website dedicated to collecting squished pennies!  It includes tips, trading, a store and an interactive list of locations by state of penny machines.  Collectors can see pictures of the coins and notes posted by other collectors regarding the actual location of the machine and the working order.  

Now maybe the fact that I have bookmarked this website on my phone screams NERD to you.  Maybe you're sitting there thinking 'now why would I put a perfectly good penny worth one cent into a machine and render it useless as currency and pay another 50 cents to do so?'  Would it help if I told you that my kids literally walk past hundreds of far more expensive, made in China, junky souvenirs that within hours they will either break, lose or forget about just to get these prized pennies?  I'm not kidding.  They love these things.  You would not believe how happy this simple little thing makes them.  It's a win-win situation.  They receive a cool little souvenir that they get to watch being made right in front of them and you've spent only 51 cents, or occasionally $1.01, to make them happy.  Plus if you give them a special box or book for their collection and keep it in a safe place between trips, they will have a great collection of memories to keep forever.  

Sure kids are kids and this won't entirely keep them from begging for other souvenirs.  If you're lucky though, it might really help cut down on the junk. And it's fun.  Finding the machines and getting pennies along your trips becomes like a built-in scavenger hunt.  I actually carry a baggie of pennies and quarters for the machines in my glove compartment or bag with my National Parks Passport. You never know when you will come across a machine.  There's a smart phone app for $1.99, but bookmarking the site on my phone has been more than enough.  Plus the unexpected benefit of having the list of machine locations handy is that it really is an additional little travel idea source.  You not only have a list of where to get a penny souvenir but also a list of fun places you may want to visit.  Don't overlook the opportunities to collect outside of road trips and vacations either.  You can find machines at many of the local museums, zoos and attractions that you visit regularly.

I hope your kids end up finding these penny souvenirs as fun as mine do.  Maybe they will end up occasionally bringing them out to line up and admire between trips like my kids as well.  And if you find a machine that's not listed on the website, please add it so we can get one during one of our future trips!

Thanks for stopping by and Happy Trails!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ode to Waffle House

No road trip travel blog would be complete without a mention of the American icon that is Waffle House.  The beginning of every road trip day requires a good breakfast, especially for the kids.  Kids may be picky eaters, but they universally seem to love breakfast foods. Stuffing them full at this meal so you can drive a good stretch before the whining sets in is a fairly easy task.  If the hotel you chose for the night offers a free breakfast, by all means take it. 

If you don't have breakfast included where you stopped, never fear.  Chances are with 1,600 restaurants in 25 states, there is a Waffle House nearby.  While Waffle House is a staple for locals it has also become one to travelers alike.  Our son almost looks forward to Waffle House more than our vacations themselves.   In fact, Waffle House has iPhone and Android apps as well as a restaurant locator that will map out locations along your travel route.  Add it to your cache of road trip planning tools because if traveling in Waffle House territory it will save you more than a few pennies and time plus give you a quintessential road trip dining experience.  And aren't experiences what the road trip is all about?

There are other breakfast places across the nation, sure.  None is like the Waffle House where you will fill up on down home breakfast at great prices and receive some of the best and homogenous hospitality to be found.  That's also not the only consistency you will find among the Waffle Houses.  Have you heard of The Waffle House Index?

A vast percentage of Waffle House locations are in hurricane-prone areas thus when a restaurant that is opened 24/7/365 is closed due to hurricane damage, it becomes a sort of informal but measurable form of damage assessment.  Over 60 plus years and countless hurricanes the company has come to recognize that during disasters two of the things people need are some sense of a return to normalcy and a good hot meal.  They have a crisis management team in place to support their restaurants in disaster areas like no other, including a mobile command center that has been nicknamed EM-50. (First to name the inspiration of the nickname in the comments just might receive a souvenir from an up coming road trip.)

Waffle House has now made an art of opening for service in disaster torn areas using generators and other means such as a storage of supplies to serve at least limited menus to customers who otherwise may have nowhere to go.  FEMA itself has even given the company a nod as a model for risk management, and let's face it, FEMA could learn from them.  As a former health inspector with an interest in disaster relief and sanitation, I'm certainly impressed.

If you haven't been to a Waffle House and I haven't at least piqued your curiosity or somewhat impressed you with my free advertisement for them, make sure you stop on your next road trip to try some of that food and congeniality. And speaking of the latter, don't forget to tip your server.

Thanks for stopping by and stay tuned for a suggestion about what to do with the pennies you've saved on your road trip.

Until then, Happy Trails.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

We're from Out of Town

The classic American family road trip.  That's why I'm here.  My husband and I have been setting out on adventures near and far via automobile since the summer of 1990 when we first started dating. Considering how our first adventure turned out it's amazing we kept going. (Those of you that know that story, know it, and those that don't may have to wait for a different blog about past adventures. It may or may not involve potatoes and a creek.) Anyway, here we are 23 years later dragging 3 children on road trip adventures and enriching their lives with the sights, history, trivia and nostalgia that the roads have to offer whether they like it or not.

Our vacations probably fall somewhere along the lines of a hybrid of the movies Disney Pixar's Cars, National Lampoon's Vacation and The Long, Long Trailer.  In case you were wondering, I am more a Mater/Sally, Clark Griswold, Tacy (Lucille Ball) in our version of the road trip, dragging my kids and husband to must-see sights along the way to our chosen destination because, after all, how can we not stop there when it is so close to where we are traveling.

We've seen so much already including a 4,021 mile trip last summer that looped from Chicago to Dallas to Washington, D.C., to Reading, PA and back to Chicago.  I'm not going to recount all the past trips, but it makes sense to start the blog off with some of the things learned about road-tripping and covering some of the common questions that I have already been asked advice about. So without further ado here's some wisdom....

  • Everyone has taken a couple hour trip to a destination or to visit a relative. Before seriously considering a real, drive-to-the-end-of-the-Earth road trip watch the three movies I mentioned above.  Seriously.  Because I guarantee that your trip will somewhat resemble the experiences of the Griswolds or Tacy and Nicky, whether you get lost in East St. Louis or experience being on the brink of divorce on a white-knuckle drive through the mountains.  If you watch them and see the beauty of taking the scenic route depicted in Cars and find the humor in the sticky situations in Vacation and The Long Long Trailer, and even more importantly, think you would eventually laugh if you found yourself in these situations even if it's not the least bit funny in the heat of the moment, then road trips might be for you.  If not, get on Expedia and book a flight because while I can't guarantee vacationing that way will be perfect, I can guarantee that during your road trip you will get lost, you will fight with your spouse, you will eventually have car problems and you will consider tying the children to the roof, putting them in the trunk or just dropping them on the roadside to fend for themselves.
  • Is it better to book hotels along the way in advance or just wing it?  I cannot answer that for you because, well, you're you and I'm me.  I can tell you that we have never left as early in the morning as we plan, we often are over-optimistic about how far we will make it in a day versus reality, there are always surprises and Murphy (as in Murphy's Law) likes to travel along on road trips.  That being said, consider how flexible you and your travel companions are.  Are you a hotel snob?  There's nothing wrong with that, but if you are very particular then you may want to book in advance even if that means having to give up a few sights along the way to make it to your planned stop for the night.  If you think you can handle a little less than the very best, wing it.  
  • How much should we wing it?  Well, again, you decide your comfort level here.  We have never not found a room for the night thus far.  From experience I recommend mapping out some potential stops and then looking to see what is at least available in those areas and also even checking the area's tourism website to make sure there isn't a big event going on that will make finding lodging either very expensive or impossible.  Some key points learned from experience: if you have an inflatable air bed, bring it.  If you don't, invest in one.  It will give you greater flexibility in hotel choices along the way and save you money because you will run into hotels that only offer 2 double beds vs 2 queen beds or only have King rooms available.  Even if the King room has a pull-out, the new Aero-bed-type air mattresses are exponentially more comfortable than any pull out.
  • Do you just walk into a hotel and ask for a room?  Not usually.  You may be comfortable with that level of winging it, but, and don't tell my husband, I'm not actually that flexible.  The smart phone is your friend.  There are some good apps out there to use to book a room en route once you get a better idea of where you will be ready to stop for a night.  We most recently have been using Hotel Tonight.  I have an account and rewards with, but we have found that when booking night-of there are problems with the booking not getting to the hotel by the time we arrive.  When planning to book en route via a smart phone app, keep in mind your cellular provider's service coverage.  Occasionally we drive through areas that don't provide enough service to be able to use the app but eventually you will drive out of the dead zone and be able to use it.
  • How do you find all these things to see along the way?  There are so may sources from something I may have seen on TV to travel magazines and guides, the travel section of the newspaper, and of course, the internet.  Do you want to see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the Earth and emulate Clark Griswold (warning this may annoy your travel companions)?  Roadside America is "your online guide to offbeat roadside attractions." There's always the greatest road trip, The Mother Road: Route 66, to draw inspiration from.  Did you know that historic Route 66 begins/ends in Downtown Chicago about a 1/2 block West of Michigan Ave on Adams/Jackson?  Did you know that many of the places shown in the Disney Pixar Cars movie were based on real places along Route 66?  Google it or pick up a Route 66 travel guide.  
  • A final note on America the Beautiful- While there are a number of overseas destinations I would love to visit someday I have always felt that there's more than enough to see here in the United States.  My introductory road trip blog post would not be complete without a special shout out to the National Park Service and another soon-to-be-mentioned American icon.  The National Park Service has 84,000,000 acres of land, 4,502,644 acres of oceans, lakes, reservoirs, 85,049 miles of perennial rivers and streams, 68,561 archeological sites, 43,162 miles of shoreline, 27,000 historic structures, 2,461 national historic landmarks, 582 national natural landmarks, 401 national parks and 49 national heritage areas.  This makes it near impossible to go on a lengthy road trip and not have something on this list to stop and experience.  (And don't forget state parks!) Your experience can vary from a Civil War reenactment (this is the 150th anniversary year) to a leisurely float down a river, to a hike in the mountains and more.  I recommend a National Parks Passport Book. Not only is this a great source for ideas but it is a cute little travel log.  National Park visitor centers across the U.S. carry this book for purchase as well has have free dated cancellation stamps for you to collect when you visit.  They even make one for the kids though we just have one for the family.  And speaking of the kids, most if not all of the National Parks have a Junior Ranger program.  Stop at the visitor center before you start exploring and ask for a free booklet.  It's a learning experience for kids based on age and if you bring your completed booklet to the ranger before you leave the kids receive a souvenir badge.  You can also purchase a nicer, sewn souvenir patch upon completion of the booklet activities.  
This brings me to the second American icon that this blog would not be complete without mentioning: Waffle House.  Look for the next post, An Ode to Waffle House, coming soon.

Until then, Happy Trails.