So over the last week, I’ve had two of my nephews and one of my nieces with me in Houston. We were able to do a lot of sightseeing and caught quite a few of Houston’s attractions. Colin had to work all but one day this week, so for the most part, it was just me and five kids ranging from nine months to twelve years old. Needless to say it was hectic, but we had a blast! With so many children aboard, I also received an education in how to do as much as possible as cheaply as possible. I thought I’d pass on a few tips today.
First, let me say that should you ever find yourself needing to rent a vehicle and you have more than three children, your best bet is a minivan. This is especially true if you have children in carseats and strollers. We rented a GMC Yukon for the week. When I picked it up from Hertz, it looked huge, but we quickly found that by the time we got two carseats in there, the other three children were forced to climb over the seat to get into the third row. It worked, but it wasn’t ideal and we didn’t have a lot of room for anything besides people. The ten and twelve year olds were also left with very little legroom. Once we landed in Cincinnati after our week was over and we were on our way home to Kentucky, we rented a minivan. There was plenty of room for all seven people, including two carseats, three oversized pieces of luggage, two large book bags, and a double stroller. It also came equipped with a DVD player to keep everyone occupied. The difference between the two vehicles is amazing and the price difference was minimal.
I also have a couple of quick notes regarding vehicle rentals. We end up renting a vehicle at least five times a year during our travels. I have found that I get the best deals (by a long shot) when I use the name your price feature on Priceline.com. It has saved us hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Also, when you get to the counter to pick up the vehicle, they will tell you that you should purchase insurance. For a weekly rental this will usually cost around $100. It sounds like a good idea, but the truth is that the insurance you already carry on your personal vehicle almost always applies to your rental vehicle as well. Call your insurance company to check. Buying the insurance coverage offered at the counter is usually a waste of money.
So now that we’ve discussed how to get around, let’s talk about activities and entertainment. We are lucky that we live in an area where we have a lot of museums and outdoor activities. So when the kids came to visit, the issue for me was how we were going to do a lot of really cool stuff and not break the bank. To begin with, let me just say that outdoor activities (even in the Texas heat) are a great idea. You can usually find something cheap to do and it exhausts the kids, ensuring successful nap times and calm evenings. 🙂 A day trip to the beach was free this week except for the gas it took to get there. We had to drive for an hour and a half, but it was a very fun and relaxing day. The kids played hard and the sun and the water zapped us all. Bedtime that night was easy, even for my three year old. Also, if you are ever in any area with free ferry rides, you should check it out. Most will even let you walk on. The kids all really loved the twenty minute ride and we were able to see a lot of dolphins and pelicans. Major excitement!
We also hit up the Houston Zoo, the Space Center Houston, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. When you are planning your trip, my advice is to find a handful of places you’d like to go and then start looking at prices. Pay close attention to the age of your children and ticket prices. For example, we opted not to go to the Children’s Museum of Houston because I would have had to pay for all five children. At the space center, however, children under four are free, meaning I only had to buy three tickets. Also some attractions require adult tickets for children over a certain age. Things like this can make the trip much more expensive.
I should also point out that if you are in an area where it is a possibility that you will return within the next year, it might be worth looking into buying a membership. At many attractions, you can upgrade the tickets for that day to a season pass for only a minimal fee. If you plan to vacation in the same area the following year, it’s usually worth it to go ahead and buy the membership. For example, it was $80 to get us all into the space museum. This was by far the most expensive thing we did all week. However, it was only $16 more to upgrade to a membership. We can now go for a year without paying for tickets again. By doing this, you usually get free parking at the attraction as well. It’s a real win if you’ll be going back.
Another thing to be thinking about when looking at admission prices is that often you can find discount codes online or in tourist brochures. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently came to town and Colin and I took Ian and Declan. The ticket for Declan was free, but general admission for the rest of us was an insane $42 each! A quick Google search led to a discount code, though, and we were able to buy them for only $16 each. That’s well worth the time and effort it takes to buy the tickets online ahead of time and print them out.
It’s also a good idea to look for places that allow you to bring food as it can be über expensive to buy food for multiple people at attractions. Zoos will pretty much always allow you to bring food and make for a perfect picnic. (They do sometimes have restrictions on certain items for the good of the animals, so check that out. Some don’t allow straws for example.). We also went to tour a ranch that allowed you to bring your own food and drinks for picnics.
Also, don’t forget to look for cheap, local ideas for entertainment. We visited the George Ranch one day. This was not something that most people would think to do in an area like Houston, where there are so many other options, but the kids LOVED it. They were able to see longhorn cattle being roped, meet real cowboys, pet the pigs, cows and horses, see historical mansions and lots more. Because this was just a local working ranch, the total cost was only $20 for myself and five children.
Another thing to look for is movie nights in the park. A lot of cities and towns offer free movie nights (usually on Fridays) in outdoor venues. A Google search will tell you where to go. They’re usually held in parks and you can bring your own blankets, bug spray and drinks. Just because you don’t live there doesn’t mean you can’t partake. And who doesn’t love a movie under the stars?! Our local movie theater also plays free movies for children one afternoon every week. I’ve seen others do the same. You just have to do a little research to know when and where to go.
I hope these tips have been helpful. We’ve had a very busy, fun, and educational trip and I have certainly learned a lot about traveling en masse. I’d love to hear if you guys have any other ideas!