Posts Tagged ‘holiday travel’

Bethlehem Christmas Market

Each year, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania hosts a traditional German Christmas Market (Christkindlmarkt).  Having enjoyed several of these festive markets in Europe, we decided to head out with the kids a couple of years ago to see what this local traditional market, billed as one of the top holiday markets in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2007, had to offer.

Bethlehem Christmas Market Ice CarvingThe market had been held at the bottom of Main Street in historic downtown Bethlehem, adjacent to Monocacy Creek. However, in 2011, they are moving it to PNC Plaza at 645 E. First Street on the SteelStacks Campus.

In the past, you arrived to two large white tents separated by a courtyard housing over 100 vendors offering everything from hand-crafted ornaments to freshly baked goods.  Shopping isn’t the only activity, although there is a special area just for kids.  The market also offerd music, live entertainment, glass blowing, ice carving and of course, the opportunity  to visit with Santa.  Combine those activities with over a dozen food vendors and you have a great place for a mid-day outing.

Bethlehem Christmas TreeThe market is very popular with seniors and by the looks of things, families were outnumbered by about 50 to 1 during our visit.  However, we were able to comfortably use our umbrella stroller and had little trouble getting around.  In the courtyard there was a huge 26 foot Christmas tree that proved to be a great photo spot.  The ice carver was hard at work on this blistery day – I’m sure there was no danger of it melting, so he was taking his time.

Unfortunately, there was no glass blowing demonstration, but Santa was in residence at theBethlehem Christmas Market Santa very back of the craft tent.  This area was designated as the Kindermarkt, although other than Santa, there was only a small toy vendor that kept the kids occupied for about 5 minutes.  This area also housed most of the food vendors, offering everything from Pizza to BBQ.  Of course, you’ll also find some traditional German favorites – Bratwurst anyone?  Don’t forget to top this off with some delicious apple strudel.

In the center of the craft tent was the entertainment stage and plenty of seating around large round tables.  We had the privilege of listening to the Chime Choir from the Senior Adult Activity Center who provided some entertaining Christmas music for the onlookers as they enjoyed lunch.  Three to five shows are offered daily by different groups.  You can check the schedule in advance.

Bethlehem Christmas Market Family Rest

For convenience, there were restrooms (located off the courtyard) and two ATM machines in the event that you ran out of cash.  We found, however, that most craft vendors accepted credit cards.  Rounding out the conveniences was a small family rest area at the very front of the market, consisting of two rocking chairs and a small changing area shielded by a screen. We are unsure if the setup will remain the same at the new location, so stay tuned for any significant changes.

Bethlehem Christmas Market SignAdmission to the market, if purchased in advance, is $7 for adults ($6 for ArtQuest members). Admission at the gate is $8. Children 12 and under are free.  A season pass is also available for $13 in advance ($11 for ArtQuest members) or $15 at the gate. Major credit cards are accepted.  The market runs Thursday through Sunday beginning November 17 and ending on December 18 (closed Thanksgiving).  Hours are 11AM-8PM Thursday through Saturday and 11AM-6PM on Sunday.  If you want to avoid the crowds, Thursday or Friday is best.

There is ample free parking across the steet from the market.  It is a short walk to the market. Use this map as your navigational guide.

Overall, this is a good destination for a  family outing.  There are enough food and entertainment options to make it work.  However, don’t expect to spend more than 2 hours there.  You may find it challenging, especially on weekends, to get around the crowds and to find a space to sit and relax.  No worries, there are some great spots nearby that will provide endless entertainment for the kids.


Planning For Weather Delays That Can Ruin Your Vacation

The necessity of having pre-determined alternate travel plans should be clear after this weekend’s crippling snowstorm in the Northeast.  Having dumped 1-2 feet of snow along one of the busiest interstate corridors and throughout key metropolitan areas, this storm resulted in thousands of canceled flights and closed airports, leaving the travel plans of many families in it’s wake.

Trying to second guess mother nature is a losing proposition, but planning for it certainly is not.  Whenever making winter travel plans, always presume that there will be a major winter weather delay.  What will you do if a major storm cancels flights out of your airport?  What if inclement weather at your destination prevents you from getting there?

There are a few simple steps that you can take to prepare for weather related flight delays –

First, reserve early morning flights (before 10AM).  Morning flights on a stormy day are the most likely to depart on or near schedule as the aircraft more than likely arrived the prior evening.  Delays tend to worsen as the day progresses.

Second, plan on flying from and into the most reliable airports in the area.  Large metropolitan areas like Washington DC, New York and Boston have several airport choices, but one of them may be better equipped to deal with severe weather.  For example, in the Washington DC metropolitan area, the most reliable airport (that is typically always open) is Baltimore Washington International Airport, while other area airports are known for closures (this storm was no exception).

Third, when scrambling to salvage your flight plans, explore all options.  Can you drive to your destination?  Are there flights from or to any other airports within a reasonable drive?  Can you take the train?  Can you take a bus?  Lock in an alternate flight and keep checking for something better.

Fourth, check the weather often in the days leading up to your trip.  If you suspect that there may be severe travel delays, you should make arrangements to change your flights in advance.  Most airlines will issue a weather waiver and allow changes without penalty.  For example, during this recent storm, airlines issued the waiver on Friday, so travelers had time to depart prior to the storm arriving.  Be proactive!

Finally, if you have a date and time certain for your vacation, plan to leave a day early.  If you are cruising or taking an organized tour, you’ll be responsible for meeting the group or ship on their regular itinerary if you miss the departure.  Although cruise ships have been known to delay sailing in extraordinary circumstances, don’t count on it for a weather delay impacting a fraction of it’s passengers.

Although travel insurance can help defray the cost of the delay, it isn’t likely to reimburse the cost of  alternate transportation or costs associated with changing your flight’s destination.  You may, however, be protected when inclement weather forces a cancellation.  But, who wants to cancel their tropical winter vacation?

Planning is critical.  Don’t panic – know what your alternate plans are in advance and don’t delay in executing them.  Be decisive, lock in the most reasonable alternative, then keep looking for a better alternative. 

A Caribbean cruise would feel pretty good right about now!  Travel safely and good luck.


Visiting Yellowstone In Winter – Where To Stay And What To Do

Yellowstone National Park attracted nearly 94,000 visitors during the 2009-2010 winter season, barely a drop in the bucket when compared to it’s record setting 3.3 million visitors last year.  However, fewer visitors means fewer crowds and cheaper prices.  Don’t get me wrong, Yellowstone is still expensive, but the winter hotel rates can be more attractive than peak summer rates, especially if booked in a package.  Just be prepared to face bitter cold days where any sliver of sunshine makes you wish you were on a beach in the tropics.  In the end, it’s all worth it.

Yellowstone Winter Geyser

Staying Inside the Park

Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful are the only two locations for in-park lodging during winter.  Nestled in a sprawling “valley” at a cool 6,200 feet, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is reachable by car and is open to guests from the week of Christmas through the first week in March.  Offering a variety of rooms and amenities, there are options for every visitor.  And by amenities I mean a private bath, you won’t find televisions (except in suites), radios, internet hook-ups or air-conditioning here (of course there is heat).  Mammoth is unique in that this 1930’s era hotel still offers shared baths…but for $87/night during peak season, you can’t beat the price.  It works for families with teens, but probably not for those with younger kids.

Mammoth Hot Springs Winter Aerial

Of course, if you don’t mind shelling out a few more bucks, you can upgrade to a mid-range room that includes two double beds and a small bath for $117/night.  Not all mid-range rooms have bathtubs, so if you plan on bathing the kids, be sure to request one in advance.  If you really want to splurge, a suite with it’s two queen size beds, sitting area, cable TV and private bath will set you back $439/night.  Rates are based upon double occupancy; kids under 12 are free when staying with two adults.  Each additional adult in a room is $11/night.

Old Faithful Snow Lodge Winter

About 30 miles from West Yellowstone and 50 miles from Mammoth, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge is in stark contrast to the budget minded Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.  Built in 1999, the lodge boasts a soaring post and beam lobby, intimate sitting areas, cozy fireplace and simple but tasteful western style accommodations.  Open from mid-December through the first week of March, the Snow Lodge offers lodge rooms with two double beds and private bath for $197/night.  If you’re willing to venture out into one of the Western Cabins, really a four-plex motel style unit, you’ll pay $143/night for two queen sized beds and private bath.  If you’re really adventurous, the quick selling duplex style Frontier Cabins (not recommended for families in winter) are simplistic motel style units with shower for the bargain price of $96/night.  Snowcoach shuttles to Old Faithful are available from Mammoth, Flagg Ranch and West Yellowstone for an additional fee.  Rates are based upon double occupancy; kids under 12 are free when staying with two adults.  Each additional adult in a room is $11/night.

Beware: Old Faithful’s Western Cabins and Frontier Cabins are somewhat isolated from the Snow Lodge in winter and since you won’t have motorized transport, walking is required.


Yellowstone Winter Wildlife

There are no televisions in standard park accommodations, which leaves lots of time for family activities.  Exploring the gift shop at the Snow Lodge can be an activity in itself – there are just so many cool things, but you’re really here to enjoy the outdoors.  Both locations offer ice skating for a small fee (skates included), cross-country skiing (guided, unguided or instruction), snowshoeing (guided or unguided), snowmobiling (guided only), snowcoach tours and best of all, hot tubbing ($21.63/hour – Mammoth only).  Snowcoach tours and express shuttles are also available between lodges, to/from Flagg Ranch and to/from West Yellowstone.  Check out the full selection of tours and equipment rentals offered by Xanterra.

Yellowstone Winter Snowmobile Meets Bison

Many tours offer half-price fares for children 2-11 and allow children under 2 to participate for free, so getting out and into the park is affordable, even with kids.  The best tours and activities for families are:

  1. Ice Skating – it’s cheap, it’s convenient and it’s a great nighttime activity
  2. Hot Tubbing – Each tub accommodates up to five with attached changing rooms for one low price.  A terrific evening of relaxation after a long (cold) day outside.
  3. Snowmobiling – Although prices are steep ($275/day), kids under 12 ride free with an adult.  This is an awesome activity that allows you to explore the park and see everything close-up.  Minimum age is generally 7 and up for passengers and 13 and up for drivers.
  4. Snowcoaching – As a backup for young kids and the less adventurous, a snowcoach tour is perfect.  From the warmth of the snowcoach you can view wildlife, magnificent scenery and learn about the park.  You’ll also have time for a little bit of outdoor exploration at select stops.
  5. Skiing/Snowshoeing – With instruction, shuttles and several guided tours, there are plenty of options for the family.  For $15 per adult and $7.25 for children under 12, you can take one of 4 round- trip daily “ski” shuttles that allow you to explore the park on “foot”.  Equipment rental is also available.

Yellowstone Winter Bighorn Sheep

If you’re visiting Mammoth and have a vehicle, take an afternoon to venture into the Lamar Valley (toward Cooke City).  You’ll have a chance to see the grey wolves, bison, bighorn sheep and various other wildlife.  A keen eye and persistence will pay off.  Be cautious, however, as the road to Cooke City can be snow covered and slick at times.

Yellowstone Winter Wolf

Eating a big breakfast, packing snacks for daytime and enjoying a leisurely evening meal will become routine.  At the Snow Lodge, you’ll find the Obsidian Dining Room, which offers some unique fare and sizeable portions in an upscale rustic setting.  The Geyser Grill at the Snow Lodge offers quick breakfasts and more casual fare for the family on the go.  Unlike the rustic atmosphere of the Snow Lodge, the Mammoth Dining Room is a bit more stark and casual.  Food at dinner is hearty and satisfying, although we found breakfast to be much more exciting.  You can also order boxed lunches to go.  The biggest complaint is usually about service or price.  Yes, service can be a bit leisurely, but hey, you’re on vacation and there’s not exactly anywhere to rush off to in the evening.  Price is relative – if you fill up at breakfast, have a light lunch and go casual for dinner, you’ll spend a little less.

ALERT: Dining reservations are required for the Obsidian Dining Room in winter.  Dinner reservations are highly recommended for the Mammoth Dining Room in winter.  Reservations may be made up to 60 days in advance and peak times fill up early.

Finally, a more economical way to see Yellowstone in winter may be by reserving a package.  Xanterra, the park’s concessionaire, offers several packages from $129 per person for two nights.  Packages include breakfast, a welcome gift, discount card, hot tub rental (Mammoth only), unlimited ice skating and other activities and transportation depending upon the package and lodge chosen.  There are also special Lodging and Learning packages for kids 12 and over that provide a more in-depth look at Yellowstone through educational excursions throughout the park.

Yellowstone Winter Norris Geyser Trail

Visiting Yellowstone in winter was the single best winter vacation experience that we’ve ever had.  Although the ability to explore on your own is more restricted nowadays, it’s still an amazing destination.  You might not be able to hike through two feet of snow on the Norris Geyser Basin trail, but you’ll still have loads of fun!

Check out previous posts in this series:

Part 1 – Visiting Yellowstone in Winter – Introduction To The Park

Part 2 – Visiting Yellowstone in Winter – Getting There And Around

Enjoy the photos!  For more amazing photos, please visit Photo Friday at DeliciousBaby.   


Visiting Yellowstone In Winter – Getting There And Around

Yellowstone Winter Steam VentYellowstone National Park is tucked away in the northwest corner of Wyoming, about 300 miles (6 hours) from Salt Lake City.  The closest regional airport is in Bozeman, Montana, approximately 100 miles north of Mammoth Hot Springs and about 90 miles from West Yellowstone.  The five airlines serving Bozeman’s Gallatin Field offer a total of 18 or more daily flights during the winter season, with additional flights scheduled during the holiday season and winter break.  Renting a car will be your best bet as transportation to and from the park in winter is limited.  Most major car rental agencies have on-airport locations and offer a full range of vehicles and services.

Another option will be to fly into Idaho Falls, which is a little over 100 miles south of West Yellowstone.  Served by three airlines with a total of 13 daily flights, there are fewer options, but if you’re headed to the south entrance at Flagg Ranch, this is an alternative to flying directly into Jackson, Wyoming.  Several rental car companies offer a wide range of vehicles on-site.

Note:  The West Yellowstone Airport is closed in winter.  Jackson Hole Airport should only be used if  you are going to Yellowstone through Flagg Ranch.

Yellowstone Winter Road

For those who don’t mind driving the extra 400 miles round-trip, flying into Salt Lake City will provide more choices and cheaper fares.  Round-trip fares to Salt Lake City start at $139, with flights from the East Coast starting around $199.  Comparatively, fares for flights into Idaho Falls average over $300, while you may be able to catch a break into Bozeman with fares in the $225 range from the Midwest and $350 from the East Coast.  During the snowy winter season, flying into Bozeman may be your best choice if you want to avoid excess driving in inclement weather.  Route 20 coming into West Yellowstone from the south can be a bit treacherous at times.  However, both West Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs are fairly easy two-hour drives from Bozeman.

When choosing a rental car, make sure that you take into consideration all of the bulky winter clothing and any equipment (skis, snowshoes, etc.) that you’ll be carrying.  In addition, you may want to select a vehicle, such as an SUV, that will perform better in the winter weather.  While the roads leading to Mammoth Hot Springs are kept fairly clear, if you plan on driving the road to Cooke City, you’ll want a heavier vehicle with front-wheel or four-wheel drive.  If you’re venturing down to West Yellowstone, be aware that the roads in the area are often covered with a light snowpack to allow easy access to snowmobiles.  There is an extensive trail system in the West Yellowstone area that is outside of the park, so you’ll likely encounter lots of snowmobile traffic in and around town.

Snowmobile Yellowstone

If you decide to do this trip without a rental car, which I don’t recommend with kids, you can take a once daily shuttle to Mammoth or four times daily shuttle to West Yellowstone from the Bozeman airport.  Karst Stage offers round-trip service to West Yellowstone for $92.90 (1/2 price ages 3-12 and free for under 3) and to Mammoth for $110.25 per person based upon 3-4 passengers (1/2 price ages 3-12 and free for under 3).  If you’re really adventurous and don’t mind 7 hours on a bus, Salt Lake Express offers shuttle service from the Salt Lake City Airport to West Yellowstone at 10AM daily (leaves downtown at 9:30AM) for about $120 round-trip ($10 less for ages 2-12 and free under 2).  There is no practical shuttle service from Idaho Falls.

If you’re staying in Bozeman for a few days, there is a free shuttle system called Streamline that will get you to most places that you want to go.  Getting around Mammoth, however, will require a bit of walking.  Although everything is within walking distance, you may want to use your car on cold days and when hiking the terraces (beware – parking can be a challenge).  Snowmobiles are not available for local rental in Mammoth, so unless you have your own, you’ll be walking.

Snowmobile Tour Yellowstone

In West Yellowstone, you’ll have several transportation choices.  Snowmobile is the most common form of transportation, but you can easily walk to restaurants, shops and attractions if you’ve chosen a centrally located hotel.  Finding parking will be relatively easy and taxis are available if you’re without a vehicle.  West Yellowstone will offer the most services and opportunities for tours into the park.

Transportation into the park will only be by a guided snowmobile tour or snowcoach.  Once inside the park, you’ll be limited to one of these transportation options or cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or walking.  There is no motorized transportation within the park other than “group” tours.

Check out other posts in this series:

Part 1 – Visiting Yellowstone in Winter – Introduction To The Park

Part 3 – Visiting Yellowstone in Winter – Where To Stay And What To Do


Tips For Traveling By Car At Thanksgiving

Is it really less than six weeks away…I know, where did the time go? Are you traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday this year? Well, holiday travel numbers have been up this year, so it should be interesting to see if that trend continues through the remainder of the holiday season – I’d bet on a resounding yes. Luckily, this year we’re hosting Thanksgiving, but in years past, we’ve carefully planned our trip to avoid traffic and congestion. There is only one thing worse than tired and cranky kids (while sitting in traffic) and that is tired and cranky parents.  So, how can you beat the rush?

The first and best advice we can give you is to take Thanksgiving week or the week after off.  This will undoubtedly give you the most travel options.  As a matter of fact, the week following Thanksgiving is the slowest travel week of the year, so it is also a perfect time for a family vacation.  At the very least, if you take the Tuesday before Thanksgiving through the Monday after, you will be able to avoid most of the travel congestion by traveling on Tuesday and then again on the following Monday.

If you can’t swing a week off, remember that many travelers have a four day weekend, but some may also take Wednesday off, so expect the heaviest travel days to be Wednesday and Sunday.  Experts might tell you to leave Tuesday evening, but that really doesn’t work for families with toddlers because of the ‘witching hours’ (although it is a great option for families with infants).  So, if you can take Wednesday off, leave early in the morning, after the morning rush hour has subsided.  If you cannot make that work for you, do not leave past 11AM on Wednesday, wait until Thanksgiving morning instead.

Although there is a great deal of travel that occurs on Thanksgiving Day, it is more weighted toward short distance and local travel, so the highways are less likely to be crowded.  If you start out early, say by 8AM, you can make a 250 mile trip by 1PM, just in time for dinner.  If you have a longer drive, starting out Wednesday morning works best.

Friday will see a lull in travel and most traffic will be concentrated in local shopping areas for Black Friday.  So, if you don’t care about making your destination for Thanksgiving, have a nice family meal at home and head out Friday morning after 8AM – it should be smooth sailing most of the way.  Friday is also the best day for a return trip.

The next best return will be Saturday morning; however, you can also leave late Saturday afternoon, stop for dinner and stay overnight part way, finishing the trip early Sunday morning.  Travel will only worsen as Sunday progresses,  so avoid traveling after Noon at all costs.  Of course, if you can travel on Monday instead, that would add sanity to your trip.

When timing your travel, be aware of your route.  Passing through major cities or congested local areas during peak times should be avoided.  A shorter trip is a better trip.  Check for traffic alerts before you leave and be aware of how weather might impact your travel.  Most of all, drive safely.

Looking for more Thanksgiving holiday travel tips? Check out Best Family Travel Advice where other family travel experts answer your questions.

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