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  1. As the days grow shorter and colder, the temptation to go south can be irresistible. But what if the winter season inspired your plans instead? Some of my family’s favorite vacations have been to northern destinations that delivered the perfect combination of festivity, coziness, and invigorating outdoor adventure. This year, consider one of these escapes: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin Festive decorations and seasonal activities for families completely transform this popular summer retreat once the cold weather sets in. Lake Geneva’s proximity to Chicago, slower pace and smaller scale make it an easy getaway for Chicagoans. Don’t miss the Santa Cruises that run through December 31. Traverse City, Michigan Dramatic sand dunes overlooking northern Lake Michigan, picturesque farms and vineyards dotting rolling hills, and a celebrated yet unpretentious food scene have made the Traverse City area my family’s favorite Midwestern destination. The five-hour drive might seem daunting, but charming Saugatuck and reinvigorated Grand Rapids provide enjoyable stops along the way. Resorts like the Homestead and Grand Traverse boast suites with fireplaces. Nestled in the snowy woods, they offer the perfect base for days filled with sledding, ice skating and even skiing down sand dunes. Quebec City, Quebec, Canada A visit to Quebec City feels like stepping into Old World France. Beautiful seasonal decorations line the cobblestone streets and ornament almost every building, which date as early as the 16th century when the city was established as the French colony’s capital. This UNESCO World Heritage Site brims with infectious joie de vivre. Fortunately, the friendliness gets communicated as fluently in English as it does in French. Comfortable explorations of this compact city require the right gear (when we visited in December, a Manito stroller cover and 7 A.M. Enfant blanket kept our toddler toasty warm). The opulent Le Chateau Frontenac sits atop the walled city like a castle and provides a surprisingly family-friendly stay. And don’t miss out on a meal at Aux Anciens Canadiens. At the oldest house in Quebec, you can dine on traditional comfort food like poutine and maple syrup pie in a wood-paneled dining room warmed by a gigantic stone fireplace. Chicago Staycation The Condé Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Awards ranked Chicago as the top big city in the U.S. in 2019. If heading out of town isn’t feasible, try playing tourist at home. Many of the hotels and restaurants in River North, the Gold Coast and around Millennium Park offer excellent hospitality to every age group, and Chicago’s iconic architecture provides the perfect change of scenery. Make sure to visit Cloud Gate in Millennium Park. Despite how many times you’ve seen it, it never loses its appeal for children. Looking for more ideas? Consider Galena, Illinois; Boyne City, Michigan; or Kohler, Wisconsin as other fun, family-friendly escapes. Wherever your travels take you, enjoy your break, and the chance it will give you to create new memories with your family.
  2. It’s not really ever easy to fly with kids. But the reward of getting to your final destination for a family vacay and creating amazing memories makes it all worth it. Right?? That’s what I tried to remind myself when my husband surprised me with a family trip to San Diego for my birthday. During the midst of a global pandemic. Part of me was so excited to go somewhere, to have an adventure with our family, to get out of the normal day-to-day routine. The other part of me was panicked. How on earth was I going to get through an airport and sit on an airplane with a 4-year-old and an 8-month old, when germs today have a whole new meaning? Something important to note here: I am a BIG germaphobe. I’ve always been very aware of hand-washing, antibacterial gel, trying not to touch “public” surfaces. Add that to a worldwide virus-spreading crisis and you have the perfect recipe for someone who should be terrified to go anywhere. But we went. And it was amazing. I would never try to talk anyone into doing something they aren’t comfortable with, but coming from someone who is very germ-adverse, I have some tips that could help you understand that it is possible to travel with kiddos these days. [Related: 7 tips for parents of young kids navigating Covid-19] Plan your antibac kit For me, this is pretty typical for any flight, but I felt good having my antibacterial wipes, sanitizing hand gel, and seat tray covers in my carry-on. When you board your flight (and check with airlines on pre-boarding options for families with kiddos!), wipe down everything in your seat area: tray tables, seat belts, window “sill,” armrest and buttons, video screen and overhead vents and buttons. Remember that while you might not touch something, your little ones might. So wipe it all. (Another side note: We flew Southwest; the flight felt very clean — although we still wiped down everything — and we had priority family boarding.) Masks We wore our masks the whole time we traveled — through the airport and on the flight — unless we were eating or drinking something. Masks can start to get uncomfortable after wearing for a long time, so find one that doesn’t pull on your ears or smush down your nose. Test masks out with the kiddos before traveling to make sure theirs fit well also. Have a bunch of extra masks, too. Kids might accidentally drop theirs on the ground or decide the mask is a napkin. And a fresh mask always feels good. (Yes, we are actually saying that these days!) [Related: The secret to traveling with kids? Planning, planning, planning] Car seat for the bambino If you have a baby, I highly recommend buying an extra ticket and bringing along a car seat. Babies love to be held. Until they don’t. Having a spot to tuck your little one away snugly so they can have a bottle, babble at you, or take a nap is a lifesaver. Bring snacks & activities This is something we do anyway when we travel, but I definitely made sure to pack some healthy snacks (fruits & veggies) as well as fun ones (fruit strips, M&Ms, crackers). On our flight, Southwest had limited food service, but they did offer canned water and a small bag of snack mix. Be patient We didn’t encounter long wait times, probably due to the overall reduced travel, but we gave ourselves extra time just in case. And we felt like people in general had more patience for one another, and it was nice. We really felt (and expressed) gratitude to everyone working at the airport. There’s something about this pandemic that can bring out the We’reAll-In-This-Together mentality. Silver linings…I’ll take it! Travel looks a little different these days, but with some planning, flying with your family is still possible. I’m so grateful I avoided any germaphobic meltdowns, and we had the time to make new memories. And not surprisingly, I’m already trying to plan the next adventure!
  3. Traveling can be a pain in the ass. And now, you want to bring along your infant and all the baby paraphernalia that’s transformed your once neat-and-tidy home into something resembling a toy store after a hurricane? I wish you much luck. But while I’m still new at this whole dad thing (not to mention traveling with a baby), I’ve found that with some planning and research, you can steer clear of some of the infant-travel-related headaches, whether your destination is in the States or abroad. If traveling internationally, check the U.S. State Department website. Baby in tow or not, it’s good practice to find out if there is a war, conflict or health-related issue where you’re headed. If there are health-related issues, consider immunizations for you and your child(ren). Before we departed to the Dominican Republic, we took our son to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital travel clinic for his pre-trip shots and travel prescriptions. We couldn’t have been more pleased with our Lurie experience as the travel nurse sat with us for 30-40 minutes and addressed all of our country-specific and travel-related questions. Apply for your baby’s passport paperwork well in advance. Check out travel.state.gov for details. You can pay for expedited service if need be. Check TSA guidelines. Review the TSA website (TSA.gov) to find out what’s allowed through security (formula, breast milk, etc.), what’s not, and how much of certain products can be taken on board. Research child-restraint systems. We didn’t go this route, as we’re going to try to take advantage of as many free flights as we can before our son reaches his second birthday, but if your plan is to take a child safety seat on board, review the FAA website (FAA.gov) first. Pack (’N Play) lightly. Our full-size pack ‘n play worked out just fine when we threw it the trunk for our drive to Des Moines, but we didn’t want to drag this along on our flight to the Dominican Republic. We purchased a travel bed that can literally fold up and fit into a backpack. (Be careful with some of the quality of these beds, though: we returned two of them before our trip because they weren’t staying flat on the ground when we placed our son inside.) Another option is a light version of the play yard. The one we bought weighs about half as much as our regular pack ‘n play, and comes with a comfortable shoulder strap for easy carrying. And remember, some resorts/hotels have cribs you can use, so it‘s worth a call ahead. Bring a travel stroller. Our everyday stroller is this Eddie Bauer monstrosity, so we needed a more practical option for our Punta Cana trip. We decided on a 10-pound stroller from ZOE that folds up nice and compact, and it can also double as a cart at the airport. What sold me, though, was that for a few more bucks, ZOE sells a stroller backpack that frees up our hands, which we all know is a good thing when baby is around. Use a carrier at the airport. You’ll have to take your baby out when you go through security, but it’s still a good idea. Strapping your baby in a carrier (hopefully) keeps them from getting their hands into everything, and keeps your hands free to maneuver your luggage and have quick and easy access to your travel documents. Get to the airport safely. If you don’t want to take CTA, think about using a car/taxi service with car seats. We found a number of Chicago-area services (Going Green Limousine, Ride in Bliss, Windy City Limousine, American Coach Limousine, Uncrabby Cabby) that offer full-size cars and/or SUVs with car seats. Expect to pay a little more for the car seat, but with more peace of mind.
  4. My family of five loves to travel, so we escape Chicago as often as humanly possible. We began our journey vacationing with our extended family after having our third son and officially being outnumbered by our children. Now, five years later, extended family vacations are a regular part of our lives, and we often travel with grandparents from both sides. So, how do we all get along? If you’re the cruise director for your family, listen up! With these tips, paradise is closer than you think. Get on the same page Be proactive about sharing travel details in advance by writing the trip details in one mass-email to everyone, so that there won’t be any misunderstandings about the plans. I email the extended family two months before the trip, then again when we’re one month out, and finally the week before blast-off. I make sure I am super clear about what the core itinerary is, while at the same time asking the grandparents if there is anything they’d like to add. It’s so much easier to accommodate everyone with early, consistent communication! Set financial expectations Money talk makes most people squirm, so before your big happy clan hits the road together, be sure to agree on who is paying for what. Traveling is expensive, and even the best-laid plans can result in some unanticipated expenses, so the clearer you are about financial obligations, the less stress your group will have when the bill comes. Keep it loose Remember why you’re all on vacation together: to sloooow down and be together. If you’re traveling with children, they don’t want to be cooped up on a tour bus traveling for hours to see ancient ruins. Keep the vacation activities centered around meals and local activities. If anyone wants to venture a little further to do some sightseeing, they can do that on their own. Have your child’s back Keep the focus — first and foremost — on your child’s needs. He will be overstimulated by this fun, new environment, and it’s your job to make sure he doesn’t go off the deep end. Do your best to maintain your routine feeding and sleeping schedule when you’re away. And, yes, this means standing up to Grandma when she suggests a late dinner at 8pm. Have grown-up time-outs Make sure to set aside daily breaks for the grandparents because they’re not used to the extreme pace of daily child rearing. You don’t want to wear them out after only three days — plus, not everyone wants to be together all of the time. Family vacation is not a sprint; slow and steady wins this race. As I sit next to my dad on the beach watching the sunset and talking about our many trips together, we agree that family vacations are not all rainbows and unicorns. However, we have figured out the best formula for our family so that we want to keep traveling together again and again.
  5. Up to three-quarters of us use the summer season to combine fun and togetherness in a “travel adventure,” as our son describes our family vacations. So start planning your travel adventure now! Planning ahead makes it easier to beat the crowds and reduce trip costs. Search for savings. We use Groupon and online resources, including those available through professional and museum memberships, to save money. Our annual trip to the Hesston Steam Museum, and visits to some museums, are less expensive—or even free—this way. Setting up a travel budget leads to a more relaxed vacation for everyone, and the funds to do what you want to do while away. Plan your travels with your family’s interests—and their input—in mind. What constitutes fun and adventure for your family? How does each family member define vacation? My dad loved U.S. history. One summer we learned about President Lincoln by visiting Lincoln’s Kentucky birthplace, and then making our way by car through Illinois, with stops at New Salem and Springfield. Staying somewhere with a pool, and including stops at stores featuring regional goods and books, added something extra to satisfy everyone. Where will your travel adventure take place? Will you visit a big city, a state capitol, the North Woods, or a small farming community? Find a place that interests you, whether it is “tried and true” or unknown territory. Remember, adventure may be found in an unlikely place. Our son likes trains. While in Iowa we chanced on a local transportation museum with a train layout. One of the engineers was there, and our son was invited behind the scenes to operate the train cars. Adventure, indeed! Where will you stay on your travel adventure? Do you enjoy sleeping in a tent, staying in a luxury hotel, or spending the night in a refurbished caboose? Does your family want walking access to your destinations or to public transportation, or prefer waking up to look out the window or tent flap at a beautiful view? Choose accommodations that suit all of your needs. Then your family can relax and focus on enjoying the vacation. Will you arrive at your destination by plane, by train, by car, or in another fashion? Train travel gives you the freedom to watch the terrain change, while traveling by plane offers more time at your destination. If traveling by car, a stop every two hours lets everyone stretch their legs, and helps the driver stay alert. When traveling with younger children, more frequent breaks—such as outdoors on a “rails to trails path” or indoors at a play place—help children travel in a more relaxed fashion. Planning interesting rest breaks can make traveling part of the vacation, too. AAA notes that in 2016, road trips, national parks and theme parks were the most popular travel choices for Americans. Wherever you go, relax, enjoy each other’s company, and have fun on your travel adventure.
  6. It’s a widely known fact that Chicagoans LIVE for summer. I mean, isn’t that why we stick around during the insanely long and rough winter? And if you are anything like me and counting down to summer vacation, let me remind you to put a trip to the Wisconsin Dells on your summer bucket list. Why do so many Chicago families flock up north every summer? Because the waterpark capital of the world quite literally has it all. As a born and raised Chicagoan I have not only survived the Dells, but also loved each and every trip I’ve taken there…and you can, too. Here are my tips for ways to plan the ultimate Wisconsin Dells summer vacation: Book your trip EARLY. That way, you have much better pick of lodging and can lock in some discounted rates. Don’t forget that visiting during the week can be cheaper than staying over a weekend. Look into non-traditional lodging. Yes, there are some amazing resorts such as the Kalahari, but you can also score some great deals on cabins, condos (Glacier Canyon Lodge is a favorite), and other home rentals using resources such as Airbnb. Not only will your family have more room to spread out, but you will also have your own kitchen so that you can prepare your own meals and avoid crowded restaurants. Plan a group trip. Yes, you do run the risk of at least one of you getting lost at some point during your trip, but it is so much more fun to visit the waterparks with a group. That way, parents can actually get a break and either take a plunge down the steepest slide in the park or enjoy a beverage in one of the adults-only hot tubs while someone else trustworthy is on kid duty. Get moving! I know it’s hard to be bright eyed and bushy tailed if your kids don’t sleep well when they are away from home, but you want to be one of the first families at the water park if you are looking for a shady spot. And don’t forget to bring some cheap bags, towels, or other clothing to stake your claim on your spot. Keep your valuables at home and take advantage of the lockers available for your electronics. Think outside the water park. Yes, the Dells are known for pools but don’t miss out on all of the action going on around Lake Delton. No trip to the Dells is complete without a tour on the original Wisconsin Dells Ducks or a ride around the track at Big Chief Go-Karts. You can also spend the day hiking, biking, swimming, and fishing at Mirror Lake State Park, a 15-minute drive from the Dells. Indulge in local cuisine. I’m not saying that you will find a Michelin-starred restaurant at the Dells, but there are great varieties of local beers and cheeses available that make the long drive up North totally worth it.
  7. I must admit: I never thought I would travel with childcare. That was a luxury that never entered my mind until we hosted our first au pair over four years ago. One of the premises of the au pair program is the cultural exchange between the family and au pair so it was a natural fit to let her explore the USA with us. Now, having taken more trips with our au pairs over the years than I can count, I must say it is a huge relief to have an extra set of hands around while navigating the stress of travel with young children. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are sipping margaritas at the beach solo, and it does take preparation to be executed well. We found having our au pair with us allowed us to do special activities with each of our children, while not being confined to nap schedules as our au pair could stay with the nappers. Squeezing in a few date nights is a perk, too! Here are my best practices for travel with caregivers: Set a schedule Explain your plan for the trip as well as the daily schedule while on vacation. Be specific about your caregiver’s schedule and hours expected to work. Let her know of any days off or downtime, and when that will be (and stick to it!). Sort out sleeping arrangements Will your caregiver be sharing a room or bathroom with your children? If so, are they expected to wake up with the children in the middle of the night or morning? Will they have their own space where they can go at the end of the day? Whichever you choose, make sure they understand the rooming situation and responsibilities. Define responsibilities Discuss your expectations for childcare as well as other chores that will need to be done on vacation. Will they only be responsible for playing with and watching the children? Are they also responsible for laundry, meal preparation, clean up, driving? If they will be in charge of the children near water, find out their water safety knowledge and comfort level with children in water. Clarify payment Define what compensation they will receive for their time. It is expected that the family pay for the travel and accommodation costs for the sitter. In addition to those expenses, what rate will the sitter receive? Is it an hourly rate while she is “on duty” or will it be a flat rate for the entire vacation? Communicate In addition to communicating all of the above expectations before departing, it is important to continue to have open communication while on the trip. Have daily check-ins to go over the schedule for the day and rest of the week. Communicate how they can be most helpful during their hours and what you would like them to prioritize in terms of responsibilities. Most important, tell them how much you appreciate them and point out what they are doing well! Following these guidelines will alleviate much of the stress of traveling with children and allow you to enjoy your vacation time together. Happy travels!
  8. It was February 2016—less than three months before our son was born—when my wife and I attended NPN’s Preparing for Parenthood: Workshops & Expo at the Erikson Institute. Among the people we spoke with during that event was someone from Bright Start College Savings. As we flipped through the pamphlets on the table separating us from this man in a bright orange shirt, he explained how 529s (“tax-advantaged savings plans that help put money toward your future student’s education” if you’ve never heard of these) work and the benefits of starting to save for our son’s college tuition and fees as soon as possible. I had heard of these plans, but I never put much thought into them because, well, I never had anyone’s education to save for until a couple years ago. So after the event, this frantic father-to-be who was—and I suppose still is—obsessed with finances, starting crunching numbers to determine if we could afford another hit to my paycheck (adding a child to your employee health insurance isn’t cheap). “How much biweekly paycheck deduction would I need to take so we could save X amount of dollars by the time our son reaches college age?” was the question that kept bouncing around in my head. But now, with our son quickly approaching his 2nd birthday, we’ve long stopped worrying about how we’re going to pay for his college. And it’s not because we don’t care about education (keep reading) or that we’re rich (far from it). It’s because we’ve decided not to save a penny. Why, you might be wondering? Because we would prefer to spend money on travel. My wife and I have advanced degrees—and the student loan debt to prove it—and I've been a college English instructor for nearly a decade, so we completely appreciate the value of education. But from our perspective, us not starting a college fund will not prevent our son from attending the college of his choice or earning a degree or becoming a happy and successful adult. If he decides to go the college route when high school ends, he’s free to take out loans like Mommy and Daddy did, get a job to help pay for school or, better yet, earn a scholarship. Some may consider that a harsh approach, as our son could end up going into more debt because he doesn’t have the resources to meet rising educational costs, but we refuse to stare at reports of rising college costs and panic about whether he will have the funds to cover tuition and fees starting in 2034. Our focus is on the now and teaching him that the world is much more than just the street, city, state and country where he lives. We could never fully explain to him the wonders of Paris, my wife’s hometown, by reading him a book about the Eiffel Tower or making a crêpe recipe. So we took him there. We couldn’t fully explain what it feels like to attend a luau in Honolulu by clicking open a YouTube video. So we took him there. We couldn’t fully explain what it feels like to play on the beach in the Dominican Republic. So we took him there. We understand our son probably won’t remember these trips, but by continuing to make travel a priority in our lives over the next 16 years—or however how much longer he lives with us—we’re hoping to provide a valuable education that can’t be obtained by attending a lecture, cracking open a book or firing up the Internet. There is nothing like experiencing new places and cultures, trying new foods and better understanding other people’s perspectives on the world. We would much rather see that type of growth from our son than to see a college fund grow.
  9. Planning a Disney vacation can be an overwhelming experience filled with a mixture of excitement and angst. Here are some tips I’ve learned over our many trips to Disneyland (DL) and Walt Disney World (WDW). Have a loose plan Choose two to three things you want to accomplish each day, then go from there. I get input from my family then sketch out a general plan. You will definitely see and do more, but this allows you to plan FASTPASSES (line shortcut, free with your ticket). Consider nap/pool time back at the hotel in the afternoon when lines are longest and it is hottest. (This is easier at DL, but doable at WDW.) If princesses are important, consider a princess meal and make sure to book that reservation in advance by at least six months (WDW) or 60 days (DL). Beware of scary stuff Characters or dark rides might scare the youngest kids unexpectedly. My kids love everything to do with characters. However, our friend’s daughter on our last trip was terrified of them. When we realized this at a character meal, I promptly let someone know, and the characters stayed clear of her. Characters with visible faces (as opposed to masks), like princesses, are sometimes are easier for these kids. Similarly, dark rides with loud noises can scare some kids. If your child is new to rides, try open-air rides before moving to dark rides. If loud noises bother them, consider bringing some ear protection like Baby Banz. Manage lines Lines + kids = nightmares for most families. In order to minimize and make the most of time in lines, get to the park early, schedule fast passes, and pack some easy entertainment. Lines lengthen as the day goes on. FASTPASSES allow you to skip the longest lines and can be booked 30-60 days in advance at WDW. For fun, I stash a small container of bubbles in my bag if the kids get particularly antsy. For older kids, Disney-related apps or hunting for “hidden Mickeys” can be fun. Manage security There are always long lines for security, which can be especially hard for the youngest kids. We wind up sending one parent through the bag-check line with the stroller and backpack, while the other parent goes through the “no bag” line with some sunscreen and the kids. Inside the park, the second parent can apply sunscreen on everyone while waiting in a much more enjoyable location for parent #1. Better yet, try to avoid bags if you can so no one has to wait. WDW vs DL I prefer DL for the under-five set due to the close proximity of attractions and hotels. Plus, it has littles-friendly Toontown and Carsland. WDW has MagicBands (all-in-one line shortcuts and payment device), while DL does not. Instead, FASTPASSES are scheduled daily in the park at DL with separate room keys. Random tips and references If you have a baby or toddler, use the baby centers. They have nursing areas, changing areas and even toddler toilets! If anyone has food allergies, Disney is great with them. Just speak up. Helpful websites: easywdw.com, disboards.com, mousesavers.com.

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