Is it possible to balance family…with family?
When you only have limited vacation time (and doting relatives), it’s easy to spend most of it on family obligations. Visiting the grandparents or attending your cousin’s destination wedding has its own value, but often at the expense of mom, dad and the kids getting their own quality time together.
The best antidote? Take the family away from the family vacation.
Recently, my husband and I, along with our 2-year-old, took on the challenge of making two trips out of one: Spend time with his family in Pittsburgh while still carving out quality time for the three of us.
Get Your Own Space
While it’s tempting to stay with relatives over the holidays, the benefits of having your own space is total freedom and flexibility. As the days begin to stretch, old family dynamics start to emerge, putting a strain on even the healthiest relationships.
Think about that post-Thankgiving meal haze. Instead of dozing awkwardly on the couch, you can take a 2-hour break in your own hotel room. No sharing bathrooms with your little cousins, no late-night awakenings by your night-owl aunt prowling the kitchen.
Always look for a hotel that offers value-added perks. No high-rise view or fancy bathroom fixtures are worth as much as free breakfast and Wi-Fi. In downtown Pittsburgh’s Strip District, the Hampton Inn has both free breakfast and Wi-Fi, both necessities when traveling with small kids. What it doesn’t have are mini-fridges in the room, we improvised with an ice bucket and daily trips to the market around the corner. The hotel is also a stone’s throw from the very cool Public Market, filled with local artisans and vendors. (Tip: In smaller, family-oriented hotels, you can usually hold out an empty sippy cup with a pleading expression and someone will find milk in the kitchen.)
I thought my husband was nuts when he said he was renting a car on our trip. With other willing drivers around, why spend the money? Then I remembered the old marriage advice about not sweating the small stuff and decided it wasn’t worth an argument—if we used the car, great. If not, the in-city (read: not at the airport) rental was only about $120 for five days…and the hotel offered free parking.
Turns out, it was the best decision ever. Grown up time is not the same as kid time. Early morning outings, long days, and late-night dinners can turn a tired kid into a cranky monster (and adults, too). Having the option and flexibility to join the group in your own time—instead of being tied to someone else’s schedule—is worth the rental fees.
Having your own set of wheels also gives you the freedom to go on an unscheduled adventure. We ventured into the less-traveled roads of Western Pennsylvania where there are gorgeous rolling hills, cows meandering along farms, and foliage galore. One gorgeous drive is between Pittsburgh and the ski resort town of Laurel Highlands. Keep going along PA-381 and you’ll discover Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, an architectural marvel that sits atop a waterfall within a dense, wooded reserve.
Look for Staycation Experiences
Nearly every big city has a children’s museum or a zoo, and those are always great options for a quickie family outing.
We took advantage of the world-class Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium. Carnegie Science Center is a really incredible place with hands-on exhibits, a robotics exhibit, and totally Pittsburgh-esque experiences, like 90-year-old miniature train village that represents the city’s iconic landmarks in all four seasons.
My advice: I really dislike crowded places, and more so when traveling with a group—it always ends up being aggravating and not worth the expense. Keep the group size to a minimum, or agree to split up and meet up at an agreed-upon time and place.
Not every family outing has to be educational or even pre-planned. If you ask our 2-year-old what he remembers most about Pittsburgh, it wasn’t the close-up look at a tiger during feeding time or the robots at the science center…it was taking a few minutes after dinner to let him run through the sprinklers at Southside Works at the riverfront. Find where local families hang out—a town center, a park, even the play area at a mall—and you may just create the best family memories you never expected.
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By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com