10 Tips for 4 Kids in 1 Big City

The post-Christmas lull has always felt like a comedown from a really good coffee buzz. It’s inevitable that the actual months of build-up take their psychic toll: all that’s left is the leaky air-mattress of your soul slowly collapsing under your own weight. Or something.

This year to stave off the inevitable post-holiday grumps, the Nostrikethat family cashed in the last of Daddy’s Marriott points from his travelling days and a Groupon and went up to New York City the day after Christmas. Overall it was a fun and memorable experience for all of us and I wanted to share a little bit of gleaned wisdom in case any of you decide to plan any big trips with your family.

1) One bag travel is still the best

I have written before about the virtues of traveling with just a single bag per person. Even with kids and going someplace by car it still makes sense. It’s surprisingly easy for kids to stuff everything they need into a backpack– it’s usually the adults who have the harder time prioritizing, but it pays dividends in unexpected ways.

We accidentally had to unload our car in the parking garage across the street from the hotel. Fortunately we made it in a single trip, which is a good thing because I think the valet ended up parking our car in the 3rd circle of Hell, which I’m told is called “Queens.”

Via Pintrest user Jamie Grafton
Has saved my bacon sooo many times. Via Pintrest user Jamie Grafton


2) Plan for sit down meals

Our first thought when we planned our vacation was that we would take  advantage of some of New York City’s famous dollar-a-slice pizza and save mucho bucks on our food. In reality, what happened was that we ended up walking so much that we all needed a place to just park it while we ate and collected ourselves.

I don’t think it matters how fit you and your family is or is not– unless you come from a nomadic tribe of sub-Saharan hunter-gathers you are probably not prepared for the level of walking you’re going to do.

Speaking of food…

3) There is no shame in visiting a chain restaurant

Well, maybe a little bit of shame.

That shame is vastly outweighed by the comfort factor your kids get from being able to order their favorite food in a familiar surrounding. When you consider how hidebound the average adult is, and then factor in that children have nearly zero control over their own destiny, you can begin to get a sense of how important it is for a child to have a little bit of home in a strange place.

If that “home” happens to be a grilled cheese sandwich from Panera, so much the better.

Yes, you want your kids to be adventurous. Me too. Now is not the time. Perhaps one day, they’ll go off to college/trade school/eco-commune and come back as normal human beings. Go out for Thai and celebrate.

I think there are a few souls in this world who are born vagabonds, and who knows perhaps you might have the child version of one.  In that case I say enjoy your backpacking in Bangkok with your toddler in tow! The rest of us will muddle along and make do as best we can, consoling ourselves with the occasional comfort food stop.

I did not know you could get a kid's grilled cheese sandwich as a desktop wallpaper. Thanks Internet! Via Panerabread.com
I did not know you could get a kid’s grilled cheese sandwich as a desktop wallpaper. Thanks Internet! Via Panerabread.com

4) Aim to do 1.5 things per day

Even though kids seem to have nearly inexhaustible supplies of energy, their actual stamina tends to be pretty low and when they run out of gas they don’t sputter out, they just switch to “obnoxious whining powersave mode.”

We got to NYC late Friday, visited FAO Schwartz and then crashed early in the hotel room. Saturday morning we caught the Rockettes and then wandered Times Square, and then Sunday we visited the Natural History Museum.

On both Friday and Saturday nights the kids were happy to return to the hotel room and just sprawl about for the rest of the night.

This is something I think we did pretty well.

5) Vigorously and selfishly recharge yourself

It’s all too easy to focus all of your energy on your kids and making sure they’re completely comfortable and putting your own needs dead last. You might be tempted to do this, but try to remember you too are in unfamiliar circumstances and in charge of this crazy train.

We were lucky in that our hotel was a Residence Inn with a master bedroom that rivaled the one we had at home in both spaciousness and having-a-door-that-locks-ness. While the kids had taken over the living room with their TV and electronics Mrs. Nostrikethat and I were able to retreat to the master bedroom and stare at the ceiling and drool for a while. If your digs aren’t quite as posh, you can always bar and barricade the door and take a nice long shower. Even a hot wash cloth on the face and some earbuds can create a little bit of mental privacy to soothe your jagged nerves.

This totally makes the vomit on the car seat worthwhile. Image via Spaweekblog.com
This totally makes the vomit on the car seat worthwhile. Image via Spaweekblog.com

6) Plan for someone always being cranky

At any given point in time, the probability (P) of some child (N) being in a snit can be described by this function:


Someone is always going to be snippy at some point.

With four kids, I am having a good day if I can use three of them to shame the fourth one.

What’s wrong with him?

Don’t talk to your brother, he’s grumpy.


Why’s he grumpy? We’re on vacation!

My favorite dinosaur is a T-Rex.


I don’t know I think your other brother made fun of his hair.


I did not. Although it does look ridiculous.


What’s your favorite kind of dinosaur?


Daddy! He said —

I heard what he said I’m right here. Don’t tell your brother to shut up. And it’s Triceratops. Oh look, it’s the M&M Store! I wonder what they sell.

I’m sure the Pilgrims on the Mayflower had to deal with the same thing, just with more frocks.

7) Be open to a night in

This seems counter-intuitive. After all, you spent a ton of money and energy to get to wherever you’re going, how can you in good conscience contemplate wasting even a single minute in a hotel room?

We have about a 50/50 split of introverts and extroverts in our family. After spending all day Saturday on the streets on New York two days after Christmas the introverts had crashed hard. We spent Saturday night in the hotel room eating a carry-out pizza (with a little bottle of wine for the grown-ups) and mini ice cream pints from the drug store around the corner.

It was perfect.

Everyone got some much needed rest and relaxation and we were all a little more prepared to deal with the city again Sunday morning.

It's a vacation, don't hurt yourself. Via Pintrest user larosenia.
It’s a vacation, don’t hurt yourself. Via Pintrest user larosenia.

8) Don’t regret what you didn’t get to

There were a ton of things we just didn’t get to do this time. Visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. See the view from the top of the Empire State Building. Hang out with the Naked Cowboy. All of which we left open for the possibility of a return trip. We might go back in the summer, or next summer, or really any time that’s not after Christmas. Or we might not go back at all and try someplace new instead. Perhaps one day my kids will decide to go to college in The Big City, influenced by the trip they took so many years ago. You just don’t know, and that’s okay.

9) Respect your vacation traditions

I think there are fundamentally two different kinds of vacationers in the world: sensation seekers and sensation retreaters. There are the people in the Corona beer commercials who just sit in the white sand staring at the glassy green ocean and drinking cheap weak beer from a bottle, doing absolutely nothing.

These are your classic retreaters.

Then there are the people who go insane just thinking about that kind of vacation.

These are the folks that keep parasailing operators and jetski rentals in business.

Our family has a tradition of taking beach vacations and we are definitely retreaters. Like shorebirds we scurry down to the sand in the morning, retreat back to the cottage for lunch, take naps, and then scurry back down in the afternoon. Our trip to Manhattan was surprisingly low-key for being in the “city that never sleeps”, but it was in line with what we normally do on vacations: go easy.

It worked for us.

That'll do, beer. That'll do. Image via wallgiv.com.
That’ll do, beer. That’ll do. Image via wallgiv.com.

10) Be thankful

We definitely had tense moments: 6 people being on top of each other for an extended duration tends to do that. We also mostly kept a sense of humor and found lots of incidental fun. Through it all I couldn’t help but remember that just a few months ago I was unemployed.

If you’re travelling you’re luckier than 99% of the world. I am so fortunate to live where I do and have what I have, and it’s easy to forget that when you’re cleaning barf from the car seat in a rest stop.  My kids are funny awesome little humans and that I get to spend time with them exploring the world.

I hope you get a chance to do the same.


Got any travel tips for kids or a story to share? Leave a comment below!


The Idaho Obsession

For reasons I can’t explain I have lately been obsessed with the idea of moving to Idaho.

Let me explain.

In my life I’ve only ever met two actual Idahoans: the first was an old roomate who was a Deadhead and grew up in a tiny town of about 1000 people south of Boise. The second was an old high school friend of his who came to visit us one day, so she was what you might call imported. Beyond that, my Idaho experience is about what you would expect from an average American in that it’s primarily potato-related.

The article in Boise Weekly indicated there was a New Year’s Eve Potato drop. I am not sure I can handle the carbohydrate-related festivities without gaining another 10 pounds

Somewhere in my head I want to enact my own Lewis and Clark expedition into the great Midwest and head off into the blazing sunset seeking great wide open spaces– so long as they are in close proximity to someplace that makes a decent espresso and has a swim team that is USA Swimming accredited.

Recently I started following Hipmombrarian (go check her out, she’s got some great stuff), who writes from Boise. For some reason, I decided to start doing some research and so far I already have the kid’s schools picked out (Longfellow or Washington ES), their swim team (The Y), and approximately where we want to live (within an easy bike distance of the co-op).

The rational part of my mind has come up with a handy list of reasons why moving to Boise is a horrible idea:

  1. I haaaate cold weather.
  2. I am not exactly outdoorsy, and that seems to be the fluffy center drenched in butter that is Idaho
  3. My kids are already in great schools
  4. Real estate is not as cheap as I was hoping it would be (seriously, it looks like there is some kind of bubble going on)
  5. I work in tech, which is not potato-related
  6. I am about as much of a Midwesterner as George Costanza

The rational part of my mind is convinced there is no arguement, we’re staying put.

The irrational part of my mind wants to head out for the weekend to shop for real estate.

Last year I went through a Belgium phase. This is probably a related phenomenon.

If I was an armchair psychologist I would speculate that I have some unmet needs somewhere.

Probably related to french fries.


5 tips for travelling light

Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, France. Not pictured: the smell.
Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, France. Not pictured: the smell.

One of the most profound things I’ve done to improve my travelling experience is to learn to get by with only one bag. With Spring Break approaching, I wanted to share some tips for travelling well and easily. These tips work equally well for professionals travelling with suits as they do for families travelling with children.

Make a list (and use it)

This is the top tip in every travel blog you will ever read, and for good reason. In the heat of a frantic packing session, you are much more inclined to pack something “just in case” which leads to nonsense like packing a sweater and a jacket for a summer trip. In the calm, clear light of day make a list, then use it. Every time. I once left for a 3 day business trip– without packing underwear. It was the only time I didn’t print my list. Let the list do the thinking for you.

If you really, absolutely need a panda-bear wearing a bow tie costume, then fine, bring it. But what are the odds?

Kid tip: The first time I did this, I told each kid to write their own list and I would check it. This proved to be too much work, because I had to check the list and then check their bags.  The second time, I wrote the list for them on the computer and just printed a copy for each child. It was easier to note their individual exceptions. As a bonus, the amount of whining about “where’s my …” disappeared completely. They took ownership of the contents of their bag, and even the 5 year old was able to do a first pass by himself.

Limit yourself to one bag

Onebag.com is the authoritative reference for one bag travel and is worth a bookmark. If I can summarize some of the many advantages of travelling with only one bag they would be:

  1. You save money by not checking a bag
  2. There is zero chance of lost bags because your bag will always be with you
  3. If you’re subject to broken airplane syndrome, you can get off the plane with your bag and get on anything else without having to stop and collect your things
There is no Hell, we’ve invented it for ourselves.

The rule is:

one to wash, one to wear, and one spare.

What about shoes? My packing rule is usually one casual pair and one athletic pair in the bag, and my work/dress shoes on my feet while I travel (this gives me the opportunity to shine them up in the airport, which isn’t necessarily frugal, but is a great opportunity to relax a bit).

Kid tip: Depending on the age of your kids, you can probably get by with their school back packs for travel. The only time I would suggest something different is if their school bag is one of the cheapo character backpacks where the company spent more money to license the latest Pixar character than they did to construct the bag. I have had two of those bags break mid-trip on me, and it has always resulted in having to split up the clothes between my my bag and my wife’s bag.

Plan to do (just a little!) laundry on the road

Being prepared to do laundry allows you to massively cut back on the amount of clothing you have to bring, which allows you to meet the ultimate goal of only packing one bag. All you need is a travel laundry line (maybe two, depending on the size of your family) and a few satchels of soap.

I don’t know what’s more disturbing, that I googled “travel laundry line” and found a picture of someone’s knickers, or that I am not surprised by this

At this point you might be thinking I do laundry all the time at home, why would I want to do laundry on vacation? The answer is a little bit of work that’s not difficult for a LOT of extra gain. En suite laundry is trivially easy to do– it’s like the crock pot cooking of laundry. It’s hardly as exasperating as household laundry, in part because you’re doing so much less of it at a time. You fill a sink (or bidet) with water, add a packet of handwashing soap, soak your clothes for a few minutes (maybe while brushing your teeth), rinse them, wring out the water, and hang to dry. If you’re in posh digs you can use one of the extra towels to take out a little extra moisture. The whole process takes 15 minutes, tops. You make back that 15 minutes by not having to stand at the baggage carousel one time waiting for a checked bag.

Kid tipYou have a few factors working for you in this scenario. First, if you have small children (and especially boys), they are naturally inclined to wear underwear for days at a time, and you can chose to strategically forget this. If you’re going to be someplace with a “base of operations” — a hotel room, rental cottage, or similar — it’s worth it to pack a small bag that can be used as a hamper. For best results, do the laundry in the morning before you leave for the day. If I had to scale up this process to my family of six, I would fill a tub instead of a sink and let the laundry soak in the soapy water for a bit. So far all of my long duration family travel has been to cottages with washing machines, so it was even easier because 2 days worth of clothes for even the six of us is barely a load in a machine washer.

Buy a good bag (not from the mall)

Even when you’re going to a sunny destination with coral water and white sand, the process of getting there can still be a stressful experience. Your bag is the heart of your little travel universe. If that bag tears, or a zipper busts, or a strap rips, and you’re in the middle of the adventure of a lifetime, your first priority is going to be dealing with your injured bag. Don’t buy a Samsonite, or a Tumi, or a North Face… you tend to spend too much and get too little. It’s just not worth the risk. And you were worried about a little laundry?

Don’t buy anything with wheels. In the same way that the personal warehouse industry has sprung up to meet the  needs of people who have too much crap in their house, wheeled bags sprang into existence to make life easier for people who pack too much crap into their bag. Wheels and handles add weight to a bag, and weight is the enemy. Don’t pack a bag that you can’t run through an airport carrying.

Specifically, the CLT 5K sprint from B15 to E15. STAND ON THE RIGHT! WALK ON THE LEFT!

So what do I recommend? My personal favorite is the Tom Bihn Aeronaut. Red Oxx also makes excellent bags. Neither are sold in stores (unless you live in Seattle, Washington or Billings, Montana respectively). Both bags will be the last bag you ever buy. For kids, we have had good results with the LL Bean backpacks as being durable enough to survive multiple school years and go on vacation with us.

Learn to bundle pack

Bundle-packing is the art of arranging your clothes in your bag to minimize the amount of wrinkling involved. It normally does a great job of getting my clothes to the hotel fairly smoothly, and then a light steaming while I’m showering in the morning helps the rest of the wrinkles fall out. If your wardrobe doesn’t have the same requirements for de-wrinkling, you might be happy with a packing cube system, but I have tried both and tend to favor the bundle method. Yes, it works with suits and jackets.

On the way home, I usually go for the “stuff everything in I’m late for my plane” packing technique.

Pro tip: when using the interior ties/straps in your bag, don’t cinch them down all the way, this will create more wrinkles. Also, don’t put your toiletries in the middle of your bundle unless you want to unpack in front of airport security.

Kid tip: I actually favor packing cubes for kids, because they’re expected to be a little wrinkly under most occasions, and it helps keep their clothes apart from their toys. There’s an REI near us, and they carry the Eagle Creek brand, which are very good quality.

Ramble on

One thing that’s gotten a lot easier with age is the willingness to invest a little up-front effort to save myself some pain down the road, if only because I’ve done it the painful way enough times to eventually learn. I hope you can learn a little from my mistakes and make your own travel experience a little bit easier.