This post is in partnership with Hampton By Hilton. I am a member of their Real Travel Community, and I have been compensated for this post.
Real travel isn’t always easy. Traveling as a family can be the stuff of nightmares when you have very young kids, and trying to make the most of a difficult situation can test your strength to the breaking point. But as I’ve said in the past, Joy is a Choice, and even when the travel itself is difficult, it is up to each of us to find the fun and make the most of your time at the destination.
For us, our recent trip back east to my good ol’ hometown in northwestern Pennsylvania was fraught with travel discomfort and disaster. Going from one coast to another involves a lot of planning, some forethought and a ton of luck. We tried something a little different this time that we hadn’t done before – a red eye flight. Our logic was that we could keep the kids up well past their bedtime so that once we boarded our plane, they’d fall straight to sleep and wake up in a new state. A second, shorter flight would take us nearer to my parents’ house, and from there it’d be just a quick rental car ride home.
Of course, the best laid plans don’t always pan out. We’d failed to take into account that a 1 am flight was over five HOURS past the kids bedtime. Dan fell asleep on an airport chair, Dexter whined and cried constantly about being hungry and thirsty and bored, and Chester… well, Chester got his second wind, which was soon followed by his third, fourth and fifth winds. He was jumping across airport seats, climbing on daddy’s back and trying to get random waiting passengers to take him for a walk.
Once on the plane, things settled a little bit. We couldn’t all get seats together, but daddy and Chester sat in front of me, Dex and Dan. My little guys were asleep in minutes, but Chester took a while to calm down. Eventually, he did fall asleep, too, and even daddy had some much-needed rest. I had thought that I’d fall asleep easily, but I forgot how small airline seats were. Especially when you’re 20 weeks pregnant!
Things went fairly smoothly, though, and even though I didn’t get more than a few minutes of rest, we made it safely to Philadelphia, arriving early in the morning with plenty of time for our layover. We had to walk a good distance through the airport, and the kids were pretty exhausted, but we were able to switch some seats around on our second flight and got five seats across the back row of our Dash-8 airplane. To entertain the kids (who had no further interest in sleeping!), I regaled them with stories of when I was a flight attendant. I had worked on a Dash-8 back then, and it has always been my favorite airplane, despite it’s small size and bumpy ride.
When we arrived in Erie, PA, we were surprised to find that my parents had shown up! They wanted to meet us at arrival, and I have to tell you it made our kids’ day. They were so excited to see Maw and PawPaw. We sorted out our rental car and made our way back to our small town, stopping on the way for a nice pancake breakfast at Perkins.
We knew that our hotel wouldn’t be ready until later in the afternoon, so we headed back to my parents house to visit for a bit, letting the kids explore the big back yard and play with the family dog, Atticus. We were all over tired, but we were happy to be home. At least, I was. The kids just wanted to be with their grandparents, as they’d been looking forward to it for over a year.
Eventually, we were ready to head over to our hotel, Hampton By Hilton, to settle in. I knew it’d be an early night, so we were ready to relax and unwind nearly 20 hours after we’d left our house in Utah. When we arrived, we were met by two very friendly front staff, Tony and Avis, who couldn’t be more gracious. They made sure we knew where all the amenities were, pointed out a complimentary plate of cookies to the boys, showed us to the little shop behind the desk, and told us about all the entertainment that was to be found in town. I explained that while I didn’t live here anymore, I’d grown up just down the road, and I was excited to experience it all again.
Up we went to our room, which was the biggest suite they had. Two queen sized beds, as well as a couch with a pull out bed. There was also a nice little kitchen with a fridge, microwave, sink and full sized garbage can (a must when you have so many kids making a mess!). The bathroom was lovely and spacious and was stocked with lots of towels and washcloths. The sink and vanity was outside of the bathroom, which was lovely since it made the whole bathing and toilet process a lot smoother without having to wait for each kid to finish washing his hands. We also had a giant welcome basket, full of snacks and drinks, with a note celebrating us as their Guests of the Day! On our beds were some nice chocolate candies, which the kids devoured. In short, it was the best hotel we’d ever stayed at as a family, and the kids were very happy. We fell into bed early and slept soundly between soft sheets on fluffy pillows.
The next morning, we were keen to check out the full breakfast buffet that Tony and Avis had promised was “beyond imagining.” They weren’t wrong! Besides the usual cereal, toast and pastries that most places offer, they had a wide variety of other foods to choose from. Hot oatmeal with tons of different mix-ins and toppings (Dex was a fan of brown sugar and caramel sauce while Chester had raisins, syrup and nuts in his), a waffle machine so you could make your own waffles (with plenty of chocolate chips and whipped cream on hand), and a variety of eggs and breakfast meats. Something for everyone, really!
They also had a really great coffee bar with different varieties of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, as well as several types of flavored creamers, milk and sugars. I will say that I’m generally pretty picky about coffee, and I don’t expect much from a hotel coffee bar, but this set up allowed me to make myself a more than decent cuppa! After breakfast, they moved the entire coffee bar setup to the front lobby, allowing anyone to make coffee at any time of day! I was in heaven (there’s no Starbucks in our tiny town, so options are limited!).
Now that we were happily squared away with a home base at the hotel, we set out to explore and cram in as much family fun as possible during our visit.
Our first day out involved taking the kids and their cousin to the county fair. I haven’t been to the fair since I was knee high to a grasshopper, so it was a treat for all of us! Of course, with me being pregnant, and the kids all being rather young, there weren’t a lot of rides that we could actually go on. But they loved the ferris wheel, and the giant bouncy slide made their day. We indulged in the best junk food we could find – sausage sandwiches, giant vats of hot, salty french fries and a delicious helping of funnel cake coated in powdered sugar. After too short a while, it began to rain, so we ended up having to leave earlier than planned. But they’d had their fill, and it was a pretty enjoyable afternoon.
Since the rain made it hard to play outside, we decided to take grandma and my nephew back to our hotel and take advantage of the fun indoor swimming pool! I was slightly worried about watching four boys, only one of whom could swim, but thankfully the hotel had lots of swim floats and safety devices to make it easier. They also had a variety of toys and games to play in the water. We spent a nice couple of hours splashing around and having fun.
Mark was eyeing up the gym across the hall, but we never actually got a chance to check it out properly while we were there. There was just too much else going on. Our days were spent mostly at Maw and PawPaw’s house, where we played in the wood pile, climbed rocks and trees, hung out in PawPaw’s woodshop, chased the dog and sat on the back porch to talk and reminisce. We also indulged in backyard campfires, where we roasted hot dogs for dinner and marshmallows for dessert. We had water balloon fights, played tag and took dozens of photos and videos to remember it all.
But we did get out to have some good family fun on the way. Like when PawPaw fulfilled the older boy’s biggest wishes by taking them fishing at a local pond. Dex and Dan had been fishing many times before, but they had never caught a single fish. All they wanted was to catch one. PawPaw bought them each their own fishing pole, and Mark and I watched as they practiced how to cast the line and manage their tackle boxes in the back yard. When we finally got to the pond, Mark was looking a little worried that they might not catch anything. “Just watch,” I said.
Both boys cast their lines into the murky water, and within sixty seconds, Dan had his first bite. He reeled in a little fish, screaming and jumping up and down. Even Dexter was excited, acting as though he’d caught it himself. We took photos to mark the occasion, and PawPaw threw it back in the water so the boys could try again. Once again it took only seconds for Dan to get another bite. He reeled in a second fish! Dex soon joined him, and within a very short time, both boys had reeled in at least four fish apiece.
Mark was understandably astounded. “I’ve never seen fish caught so quickly!” he marveled. I laughed. This is the same pond I fished in as a kid, and I never failed to catch one, so I knew we’d be fine. Now my boys fancy themselves champion fishermen, and you’ll never hear me contradicting them!
On another day, we took the kids down behind my high school to the banks of the Brokenstraw Creek to skip rocks. Sunshine dappled the water, and my dad told us stories of his youth, skipping rocks and swimming in the same spot. Dexter spent his time looking for diamonds to mine, while Dan had his heart set on finding some gold. Chester just enjoyed lobbing rocks as far as he could. Dexter took a big leap of faith, as he allowed PawPaw to lead him out into the water. They got about waist deep before he got a bit scared and came back, grinning ear to ear.
Getting out in nature was a big part of our journey this trip. We took another day to go out and visit the Kinzua Viaduct in Mt Jewett, which has been on our Pennsylvania Bucket List for a LONG time. My dad hadn’t been there since he was six years old, and a lot had changed. In fact, I want to write more about that in another post, so I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that if you’re afraid of heights, you may want to pick another attraction! My kids had a GREAT time, though.
Dexter also got to fulfill a long-held wish to bake an apple pie. My mother had promised him he could help her make one, so he was really excited to make it happen. He’s my little chef-in-training!
We sure had an awesome time with my family, and it was another beautiful memory to add to our scrapbook. Since we only get back home once a year or so, I always try to memorialize it as best as I can. One of my favorite ways I did that this time is that I took a photo of my boys in front of the neighbor’s barn, in the same spot I took a photo a year ago. My how things have changed! Next year, there will be another little guy to join the photo, and won’t that be crazy!
All good things must come to an end, of course, and our trip was all too short for our tastes. Our trip back home was stressing us out, not just because we had to leave our little country life behind, but because I’d noticed a few issues with our travel plans!
For one, on both of our plane rides back home, our tickets had us seated in different parts of the plane! They had Chester, a two year old, sitting all by himself toward the front, Dex and Dan (4 and 6) in the middle of the plane, and Mark and me sitting in the back. I tried calling to get the seats changed, and I was told it wasn’t going to happen. I also realized that our tickets wouldn’t allow us a carry-on, but since I was a frequent flier for the airline, I double checked to make sure that at least I would be able to bring on a small bag. I was told it would be fine. So we packed all of Chester’s diapers, wipes and necessities, as well as snacks, games and computers into one small carry-on bag. But when we arrived at the airport, we were told we couldn’t take it! They had no sympathy for us traveling with children, nor did they allow us to change our seats. We were told to take our chances with the gate agents. NIGHTMARE!
At the gate, I was speaking very loudly about how disappointed we were with their refusal to seat us anywhere near each other, and other passengers were appalled. I went to the gate agent, who was actually very kind and took our tickets so he could try and figure out if he could move people so we could sit together. He finally brought us new tickets and said that we weren’t ALL together, but we were only a row and an aisle apart. That was fine with us! But as inspected the tickets, I noticed that two of us were assigned the same seat! I went up to alert him, and he was confused, but on his screen we were all different. So he printed out a new ticket for one of the ones that was the same. But the new ticket was the same seat as another of our tickets. He tried again FIVE times, and five times it came back with the same seat for two of us! Thankfully, we managed to sort it in the end, and we all boarded happily.
We made it to Chicago, where we had a layover of nearly three hours, so we took some time to explore the large airport, use the facilities (several times!) and have a little picnic on the floor. Since our snacks and such had been in the bag they made us check, we opted for some McDonalds, and we tried to stay out of the way of everyone rushing through the airport.
I was prepared to once again speak with the gate agent about the second flight since we were once again separated by quite a margin. But the gate agent was not so accommodating. She told me flat out that she was not willing to move a single person to help us. “Why should I inconvenience someone else so you can be happy?” she asked bluntly. I was pretty unimpressed with this, given that they had once again seated my TWO year old several rows ahead of us by himself. But thankfully, when we got on the plane, we found that for some odd reason, the seats were numbered so that they skipped 8 rows. It went from row 12 to row 20, skipping the rest. So while we had thought that Chester was alone several seats ahead, he was actually ticketed to sit just ahead of us. Happily, some of the passengers took pity on us and switched seats around so we could all sit together more easily, in the same row.
Poor Chester, though, was NOT a fan of all the stress and travel. He started his journey happy and excited, but he’d had enough by the end.
We finally made it back to Salt Lake City safely, and we stood in line waiting for our bags to arrive. But since this is a #RealTravel story, I’ll confess that it wasn’t the end of our travel woes. Our first bags arrived as expected (including the carry-on bag that we’d been forced to pay to check), but my bright pink, fairly new suitcase hadn’t come through. When I finally saw it coming around the conveyor belt, I couldn’t quite figure out why it looked odd. As it came closer, I noticed it was completely covered in a plastic bag. It turned out, it was totally destroyed! Somewhere along the way, they’d destroyed my suitcase and lost/broke several items within it, including my BRAND NEW electric toothbrush, my expensive hair straighteners and several items of clothing. Another nightmare!
I went straight to the baggage customer service, and the woman working the desk was appalled. But clearly this wasn’t her first rodeo, as she took me to the back and offered me a brand new (if cheap, flimsy and woefully unstylish) suitcase to switch out. She then gave me a piece of paper with a number to call to claim anything broken or lost.
Since I had no more strength to fight or complain, and since I am, as ever, an experienced traveler, I took the loss and went home. Whatever happened I was just happy to be safe with my family with some amazing memories to hold on to.
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I’d love to hear YOUR #RealTravel stories. What’s the best Obli-cation youv’e ever taken? Leave a comment and let me know!