Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Our Trip: Segment Two

We boarded the train in New Orleans, headed for San Antonio, Texas.  Our arrival time in San Antonio was in the wee early hours of the morning, so we were in for a good long ride on the train for this segment of our trip.  The first “major” thing that happened on this ride was that our children crossed the Mississippi for the first time!   I had been on the Mississippi, but never any further west than that.  So, for four of us, it was our first time “that” side of the Mississippi!  We took several pictures of the bridge that we crossed, and several pictures as we were crossing.  My husband took some video as we crossed.  The children loved the bridge, but didn’t really seem to get the significance of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER! 

Bridge over the Mississippi!
The ride was long…  We passed the time by reading, eating, talking, watching the scenery (although it didn’t really vary much), and the children watched some DVD’s. 
We also SLEPT!  We did NOT get a sleeper car on the train.  If you do get a sleeper car, all of your meals are included…so, it is a pretty good deal, but we just didn’t have enough for that in the budget this time.  HOWEVER, we had NO trouble sleeping in the seats!  The seats reclined, and also had a foot rest that came up , so you could basically lay back, put your feet up, and it was almost like lying flat down in a bed.  They did provide travel pillows, which were nice.  If I had room, I would pack my own next time though.  It is just kind of “weird” to me to use pillows that other people have used, and they were so small that it was hard to get them in just the right place.  With all that said though, we did enjoy our times of rest on the train.  Sitting there, rocking side to side as the train travels down the tracks, watching the scenery pass by…and you can sleep like a baby!  The children, my husband, and I all agree that sleeping on the train, even without a sleep car, was GOOD sleep! 

One of our favorite “cars” on the train was the viewing car.  The windows were basically from top to bottom of the car, so you could get a good panoramic view of the places you were traveling through.  We spent a lot of time in this car! 


We finally arrived in San Antonio! 
 The train at the station in San Antonio.
We didn’t really think about what we would do when we arrived in the wee hours of the morning.  The conductor announced shortly before we arrived that there was a nearby “Denny’s” that would be open for anyone wanting an early breakfast!  We decided that we would go there for a while, and then figure out the rest from there.  We asked the VERY NICE staff at Denny’s if they knew where our hotel was located.  They pointed us in the right direction.  I called ahead and asked if they would store our luggage until we could check in later that day.  They agreed to do so.  Shortly after we finished a small breakfast at Denny’s, we walked to our hotel, dropped off our luggage, and explored the areas of the city near there.  My husband had lived in a city not far from San Antonio when he was growing up, so he remembered a lot from visiting San Antonio many times when he was younger.  My next blog post will be about our two days spent in San Antonio!
The Tower of the Americas in San Antonio from the Amtrak Station.

The children posing as we walked to Denny's with the Tower of the Americas in the background.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Our Trip: Segment One

As I have already stated, we purchased a rail pass. The rail pass gives you a certain amount of "segments" for a lower price than you would pay if you purchased each segment separately. We first had to figure out what the "segments" meant...and were told that any time that you get off of the train to stay at a place, then you have used one segment. When we boarded the train in Atlanta, we HAD to use one segment to go to New Orleans.  We didn't NEED or really even WANT to go to New Orleans, but we had to have a layover there to get to Texas.  It turned out to be nice because we had started our honeymoon in New Orleans 10 years ago by boarding the cruise ship there.  In this post, I will go into more detail about the first segment of our trip, and include more pictures than ever before!

The planning was finally over!  Although it took us so long to plan, and we were very excited, we managed to keep our destinations a secret to our children.  Others in our family knew where we were going, but our children did not!  Imagine their excitement!  We needed to be in Atlanta early Sunday morning to make Amtrak departure at 8 a.m.  The Saturday prior, we spent we final packing, RESTING (because we would be traveling all night), and visiting with family.  We also drove over to the ATLANTIC Ocean…to “officially” begin there, and end up at the Pacific in about a week! 

We left our home in Myrtle Beach around 9 p.m. on Saturday night.  The children tried to stay awake all night, but most were asleep within the hour.  We arrived in Atlanta early Sunday morning.  My husband had found a relatively new parking area in the downtown Atlanta area that was offering FREE parking for a limited time.  We were able to get in on this deal, so that saved us A LOT of money in parking cost/rental car.  The shuttle from the parking area took us to Atlanta airport.  I had only been in one airport before in my LIFE, so this was quite the experience.  We walked around and basically did “people watching,” which proved to be interesting in and of itself.  It is a very diverse place!  We ate breakfast there, and then went to the MARTA area. 
Our children enjoying breakfast at the Wendy's inside the Atlanta airport.
To get from the airport to the bus that would get us to the Amtrak station, we had to take the subway.  We found all of this information beforehand by calling ahead to the Amtrak station in Atlanta.  We basically knew exactly how long it would take us from parking our vehicle to getting to the Amtrak station.  After figuring out which people in our family were free and which were not, we paid for our “Breeze” cards to board the transit train.  The train ride was another interesting experience.  No one spoke to anyone else.  People had headphones on…they would stare at you, but never speak…  We took the train as close as it could get us to the Amtrak, and then took advantage of more public transportation and boarded the bus.  This was the first time our children had used any sort of public transportation, and they were getting a great taste of a variety of it all in one day!  After the bus stopped, we crossed the street to enter the Atlanta Amtrak Station. 

Upon arriving, we waited in line for a very long time.  There were lots of people standing around waiting, and many more sitting in the available seating throughout the station.  We finally got our tickets just in time to find out that our train was VERY delayed.  Because of some problems on the Northern area of the train route, we didn’t board until 3 hours after our scheduled boarding time.  The Atlanta station did have an outdoor area with a great view of the city, and a place for the children to run out some energy.  We waited out in this area most of the time…the children met some other kids, and they ended up playing for quite a while…which passed the time wonderfully for them…and for us! 

While waiting, we asked our children if they knew where we were…”Atlanta, Georgia” was their response.  “Yes, but we are at the Amtrak station.”  Their faces showed that they had no clue.  “Do you know what Amtrak is?”  They all replied that they did not.  We then told them that it was a train, and that we were riding it to New Orleans.  My oldest son said, “What STATE is NEW ORLEANS in?”  We told him that it was in Louisiana.  They realized then that we were going much further than just Atlanta!!!  They were very excited!
Reactions after they found out where we were going.  This is taken in front of the Atlanta Amtrak station.

Finally, we see the train pulling into the station.  We all went down a very long set of stairs to reach the boarding area. 
Line to board the train...
We proceeded to the door that we were told to go to, gave our tickets to the person waiting there, and boarded the train.  We found our seats and got settled in.  There was more than enough room in the overhead compartments for our backpacks and jackets with room left over!  We sat there for a while, just watching the scenery and figuring things out.  Later, we began to explore the train a bit more, when the children needed to find the restrooms!  They were trying to make up for lost time, since we were on a three hour delay, so the train was moving pretty fast.
The scenery was pretty much the same through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and into Louisiana.

Mark enjoying the ride!
Station at one of the many stops between Atlanta and New Orleans!
Mark making friends!  (This little girl lives in Mississippi...they exchanged addresses, but neither has written to the other!)

We did have a nice surprise around dinner time.  Because of the MAJOR delay, we were all treated to a complimentary meal!  It was chicken and rice casserole with a roll.  It was actually very tasty.  Many things that I have read from fellow train travelers say that the train food is not good at all, but my husband and I do not agree with them!  (You know how some people are though…you can’t please everyone!) 

We finally made it to New Orleans.
Super Dome from the Amtrak station...
New Orleans skyline...
It is here that you will hear my ONLY Amtrak complaints.  #1  This was a new experience for all of us, and probably one that won’t occur often, so we were videoing EVERYTHING.  As we walked into the station, two “security guards” told us to turn our video camera off.  We weren’t sure that they were talking to us at first, so we asked, and they told us that we had to turn our video camera off.  My husband asked them why he couldn’t video his children arriving at the station for the first time, and he said that it was rules from homeland security.  A man walking in to the station with his wife and three small children really looks like a security risk?!  (Just for the record, we were NOT asked to turn off our cameras in any other stations throughout our trip!)  #2 complaint:  I booked our hotels through Amtrak as well.  We were able to get discounts, and they could find out which hotels were closest to the Amtrak stations.  We were told that our hotel was within walking distance, but when we got there and began to ask around, turns out that we had to take a cab because it was so far away.  We had to pay $30 to go 8 miles…and then $30 again the next morning to get back to the train.  That was a $60 expense that we did NOT work into our budget, and ended up throwing us off on other things along the way.

Even with those two things, we did have a good night’s rest in a nice hotel in New Orleans.  It wasn’t one of the pricier hotels, but it was comfortable, clean, and honestly was very appealing to look at…nice architecture, as most places in New Orleans. 
Downstairs at the hotel...
As we arrived at the station the next morning, we wanted to make sure that the children heard their next destination from us, and not from the conductor once we boarded the train.  We pulled them aside near the entrance of the station, and told them that we were going to get on ANOTHER train!  This train would take us all the way to TEXAS!!!!   We might as well have told them that they were going to Disneyland, because they were incredibly excited!

At that station, telling them that we are going to TEXAS!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What Would We Pack Differently Next Time??

Like I said in the previous post, there really was not much that we didn't think of...because we had a lot of time to think things over.  I went online and looked at list of what people bring on vacations, on train trips, etc.  I talked to my friends who travel more than I do...  By the time we were ready to go, I felt like we had a good handle on just about everything we could possibly need.  As hindsight is, this is what we would do differently next time regarding what to pack...

Once again, I will break this down into what we wish we had brought for us...and what we wish we had brought for the children.


1.  Extra battery for both cameras!  We DID think of this with the video camera, but the cost of one was so expensive that we decided that we'd just try it and see what happens.  After all, the charger would be with us, and the train did have outlets by each seat so that you could plug in your devices.  Still, when we were out and about (especially at the zoo), we were taking lots of video and still shots, that the battery did get low pretty quickly.  Now, the good thing is that we brought an extra camera, right?!  Only problem is that sometimes Mom (yeah, that's me), left the camera in the hotel room, and therefore, it was not availabe. The worst digital camera charger requires that you remove the battery, put it in the charger, and then plug the whole thing into the wall.  In Los Angeles, I did this, and somehow, the battery and the battery charger got separated.  The charger, we found.  The battery...still lost in L.A.  :(  So, for the rest of the trip, my digital camera was not usable.  I didn't even think about EVER getting an extra battery for my digital camera, but now it is definitely on my list!

2.  Insulated food and drink bags!  I am thinking the size of a lunchbox...but insulated...and maybe one per person...  It would have definitely been nice to have some "cold" things that we could keep cold....and especially to have our drinks stay cold.

3.  Hairdryer!  I thought these were basically in every hotel bathroom now days, but I found out quickly that I was wrong.  With my daughter and I both having pretty long hair, a hairdryer is almost essential.  I hate taking a shower at night and not being able to dry my hair before I lay down.  It doesn't make for a good night's sleep at all...and a towel will only do so much when you have long, thick hair.  So, I will definitely remember that all hotels are not created equally equipped with hairdryers for any future vacationing.

Beautiful Japanese Tea Gardens in San Antonio, TX.  This picture was taken with my cell phone because the video camera battery had died, and I have left my camera in the hotel room.  It still turned out decent though!
1.  Disposable cameras!  Can you tell that I love having pictures?!  I think it would be a neat idea to have all of the children have their own disposable camera.  That way, they could take pictures of things that interest them, and have them developed.  The ideas with this are endless, but it is definitely something that I want to remember for future trips.
2.  Travel games!  The children played a few games on our cell phones, and a few games on the computer (chess), but other than that, not much else.  For future train trips, I would probably buy a few travel size games and bring them along.  It would be something fun for the whole family to do as well.
3.  Blankets!  Although the train temperature is reasonable for most folks, I am the kind that likes to have a blanket on me, even if I am just napping.  My children seem to have the same idea.  So, next time, I would definitely pack a small throw-type blanket for each of us.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

So Glad That We Brought "THAT"

We took quite a while planning our there weren't many things that we didn't cover in our list of things to bring along.  We discussed it and came up with the three top things that we are glad that we brought for ourselves (Mom & Dad things), and the three top things that we are glad that we brought for the children. 


1.  Two cameras!  I LOVE my digital camera, and I LOVE to take pictures!  It has always been something that I have enjoyed.  It was a no-brainer that I was bringing it on our trip.  My husband brought along the video camera...which also took still shots.  This way, we were both taking pictures, which made it almost impossible to come home and say, "I wish I had gotten a picture of that."

2.  Two suitcases!  Fourteen days, five people, cross-country train trip, and only two suitcases?  We planned on that we didn't have so much to carry around at our stops.  We did visit a laundromat once to "reload" on clean clothes, but it really worked out well.  The only thing that we would change along these lines...we brought one REALLY big suitcase...that was "tagged" by Amtrak as "HEAVY," and one medium sized suitcase.  Next time, we would like to narrow it down to two medium sized suitcases.  The large one WAS very heavy, and it was difficult to get around some places with it.

3.  Medicines!  I did a "do-it-yourself" first aid kit.  I looked online for ideas of things to put in there.  I also just bought all of the medicines that we use semi-regularly...allergy medicines, pain relievers, and the like.  I basically looked in our medicine cabinet, and then bought new bottles of whatever was in there...just so that I would make sure that we had enough.  Whatever we didn't use on the trip, we would have for when we got home. 

Other mentionables of things that we are glad that we had with us... 
Our laptop!  This provided us a way to Skype with family while we were away.  It was also great for the children to watch DVD's along the way.  My husband and I also used it for checking email, Facebook, and the like.  It also allowed us to upload our videos and pictures to the computer...clearing out some of the memory in those devices for use later on. 
Homeschooling supplies!  And my children didn't moan about it either!!!  I made each child a folder, and gave them a fact sheet for each state as we passed through it.  I also found a kid's atlas...with activites and facts about each state.  I copied one of those for each state for each child.  I used the three-hole puncher on all of these beforehand.  I gave them to them as we went through each state. We went over all of the information, and the kids did the activities.  I even let them use ink pens.  I think they liked that!  ;) 

The children:

1.  Books!  My husband and I were entertained by watching the scenery.  We didn't really NEED entertainment, but children are not like that.  They enjoyed watching the scenery for a while, but then they wanted something to "do."  I am so glad that we brought books along.  The children love to read, and as people walked by and saw them reading in their free time, they were certainly surprised!  They picked up their books just about every time we were traveling from one place to another.

2.  Backpacks!  I mentioned these in a previous post, but we let each child carry a backpack.  They were able to carry their books, their snacks, and other "things to do" that they could access easily! 

3.  Wet wipesThis could actually fit in the section for ourselves as well.  It was great for cleaning up after meals, but also helped to "refresh" us after hours on the train. 

Other mentionables of things that we are glad that we brought along for the children:
DVDs...purely for entertainment purposes...when the scenery watching wasn't as exciting for them as it was for my husband and I.
Extra "shower bag!"  My daughter got one as a I packed some of the "tear-free" shampoo, and other things that the kids use that my husband and I do not.  This made it easier for packing our shower bag...I usually have to put their stuff and our stuff in one shower bag!
*  They also had "activity pads" that included coloring pages as well.  I packed a few crayons in a ziploc bag for each child.  They were able to take their "activity pad" and crayons out of their backpacks and have fun!

The next blog post will go into the things that we wish that we had brought along with us...

Friday, October 12, 2012

Food...a big vacation expense?

Planning what to eat on our trip didn’t take as long as planning the trip, but it wasn’t as much fun either!  I started early…looking for sales at the grocery stores that we frequent.  It was especially nice that we took our trip right after a holiday…so, the “treats” for the holiday where on sale!  I picked up quite a few “treats” from many different stores!  Probably more sugar than we would normally eat in two weeks, but it is our vacation after all!  Other than that, I started thinking of things that would pack into zip lock bags easily, especially for the children.  Goldfish crackers and Cheetos came to mind.  I thought that these were good ideas for packing because they don’t seem to break as easily and turn into a crumby mess like some other snack type foods.  BUT, after the fact, I saw that the Cheetos were not the greatest idea.  I don’t eat Cheetos too much…and I forget about how that cheese stuff comes off and makes your hands all orange and gross looking.  So, we had to make sure that the kids had clean-up materials readily available when snacking on Cheetos.  Therefore, I would NOT recommend packing Cheetos because they are just too messy when you want to have a relaxing vacation! 

We also packed the already mixed peanut butter and jelly.  I bought several jars!  We bought bread before we started, and then picked some up in different towns that we stopped in when we ran out.  It turned out to be an easy way to get lunches for all of us.  Was it as yummy as the food cooking on the train smelled?  Absolutely NOT, but it did keep us all fed and happy.  So, MOST days, our lunch, and sometimes our supper was PB & J sandwiches with some chips or popcorn (already popped variety).  We also packed several bottles of water, but they did not last long.  Everyone seemed to be thirsty all of the time!  Most of our drinks were bought on the train after our supply of water ran out!  I had also packed Hi-C boxes for the children...several packages of they had something "fun" to drink as we traveled as well.
(This picture was taken in the "dining car."  While you didn't HAVE to go there to eat (we had little pull down tables at our seats on the train), it was easier for us when we all wanted to eat together.  It is a bit blurry, but you can see some of the snacks that the kids are enjoying!)
I also bought some Granola bars, breakfast pastries, and other “easy” things for us to have for breakfasts.  We had nuts and trail mix. We had snack crackers…the kind with peanut butter or cheese spread in them. We also had the little cups of pudding…and I packed plastic spoons. I also brought along plastic knives since we were making so many PB & J sandwiches!  I also purchased a few boxes of the fruit flavored gummy snacks.  We all like those!  We packed a lot of these “little” things in backpacks.  All five of us had a backpack that we carried.  The kids were able to pull something out of their backpacks (after getting permission) and feed themselves without help from Mom and Dad.  Convenience was definitely KEY!  We did not bring a cooler because we didn’t want that added weight to have to carry…so we had to make our food choices wisely…things that would keep without being cold.
I have mentioned food on the train a couple of times, so I want to touch on that a little. They serve a nice breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day…  They will announce what they are having quite a bit in advance, and then come around to ask who wants to eat and what time you want to eat.  We never took advantage of this because it was just too expensive for a family of five!  During one of our segments, though, we were given a complimentary meal due to the train being delayed by several hours.  It was very good food!  My children even ate more of theirs than I expected!  So, I am sure that all of the food that they serve tastes great…but if you are traveling with your family, it will cost you quite a bit.  However, there is a little “diner” downstairs.  This area has some microwaveable foods…small pizzas, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, etc.  We did try this out a few times.  It was less expensive, and gave us a break from the PB&J that did become quite “boring” after a while.
My next post in this series will go into other MUST HAVE things that we either packed and were very glad that we did, or wished that we had! 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Vacation 2012 (aka Our 10th Wedding Anniversary Gift)

When my husband and I were first considering what to do for our 10 year anniversary, we had thought about going away for a weekend or so by ourselves…but then, my husband thought of another plan.  He thought that we should take two weeks AND that we should take the children with us…make it a family vacation, and also a gift to each other of a longer getaway.  Once he told me about his idea, I didn’t mind so much that we would be celebrating our anniversary with our children.  After all, God did bless our marriage with these three little ones, so including them in the celebration did not seem that foreign to me. 

His idea:  a cross-country trip via train.  When I first heard that, I thought, “Cross-country?  Really?  That’s expensive!  How in the world….?”  My husband sat down at the computer, pulled up a chair for me, and showed me some of the things that he’d researched.  As it turned out, it was relatively inexpensive (I will give you an actual number before I end this post…so read on!) considering all of the places we were planning on going…and all of the things that we would see.  Besides that, choosing to ride the train instead of drive is safer AND allows my husband, who does most of the driving most of the time, to enjoy the scenery with us and interact with us.

The planning was not easy.  We had 14 days, and we wanted to see as much of our country as feasibly possible.  We looked at Amtrak for schedules, deals, and ideas.  Finally, we decided that we would drive to Atlanta (from our home in Myrtle Beach), catch the train there, head south to Louisiana…we would have a layover for one night in New Orleans (which is where we boarded the Carnival cruise for our honeymoon, so it was kind of a special place to us anyway).  After New Orleans, we would head to Texas.  I had never been to Texas before, but my husband had lived there for several years.  I had always wanted to visit Texas, so when this opportunity came up, I jumped at it.  We decided to spend a couple of days in San Antonio.  My husband assured me that would be enough time to see everything that we would want to see there.  From San Antonio, we were going to head over to California!  (So, all in all, we would travel from the East Coast to the West Coast!)  While in California, we decided to see Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Francisco, Alcatraz Island, and Yosemite national park.  It took a long time to narrow it down to all of this, to plan it out, to check all of the train schedules and work out our itinerary.  I spent several hours in front of the computer…planning, re-planning…scheduling, then re-scheduling…it was very frustrating, and very stressful.  Sometimes I would have to call Amtrak to talk to them about what we were planning, ask them any questions that would arise, etc., etc.  My comments on Amtrak Customer Service via phone are only positive.  They were so nice, so helpful, and so much calmer than I was at the time!  One of the last conversations that I had with them before the actual booking was a long one where a lady walked me through each segment of our trip, helping me to figure it all out.  She spent so much time helping me, and seemed like she genuinely wanted it all to work out like we were wanting. 

We ended up purchasing a U.S. Rail Pass.  The rail pass got us 8 segments.  As it turned out, we needed 9 segments.  So, we had to pay for the rail pass and only one other segment.  It was about $1580 for the entire train trip!  That number really surprises me because to travel that far, I expected the price to be much more!  This was for a family of five, round trip.  If you take that number and divide it by 5…it was approximately $300 a person!  We didn’t have to pay for gas…we didn’t have wear and tear on our vehicle…and we weren’t going to get lost!  To us, the expense was so surprisingly small from what we were expecting to pay for a cross country train trip. 

We had not had a “real” vacation since our honeymoon, so I was a little rusty on what I should pack…what will we need….what should we take with us on the train to eat as we travel.  There would be no stopping at fast food restaurants to get burgers and fries!   We saw that there was food available on the train…for a price…  As we looked at the menus online, we found that this was not going to be the way for us to eat.  It was too expensive, for a family of five, for sure.  We decided that we should carry things with us to eat along the way.  Next in the series of our vacation posts, I will go into more detail about what we took with us to help keep our vacation within our budget!