Surviving Chaos, Travel, When in

How to Choose A Vacation Rental Property

As we get ready for Summer, I’m sure everyone has planned or are in the process of planning their vacations. After this past year, these are much needed vacations and I highly encourage you and your family to take one. While most people choose a hotel, there is a growing set of vacationers looking into vacation rental property. We have used vacation rental properties for over a decade and it definitely comes with its pros and cons. We have some really great ones and some horrible ones. We put a together a list of tips to help you choose a great vacation rental so your vacation will be smooth sailing.

  • Know What You Want: Before your book your vacation home, know what type of property you want. Do you need a lot of rooms? Do you want lots of amenities like washer and dryer or family board games? Do you need an ocean view, really? 5 minute walk or 10 minute drive to the beach? Pet friendly? Make a list and then do your research! Know your preferences and what makes you and your family most comfortable is key. If you don’t know your preferences, then your vacation property may disappoint. Also, be sure to know what is included in your vacation property such as shared beaches with other properties, kayaks, BBQ grill, etc.
  • A MISSING Picture Is Worth 1000 Words: If your like me, I like to look at ALL the pictures of a vacation property to get a good feel for place. Good property managers have lots of pictures in order to really sell you on their property. But what about the things that are not captured in pictures?? Vacation properties that don’t have pictures of all the rooms or pictures with the just the bathroom vanity should raise alarm. Pictures where only half of the kitchen or bedroom are shown or properties where there are no views of the beach even though it s a beach house rental are definitely a red flag. Also check reviewers pictures – if they don’t match the official sites pictures there may be a problem. This may be an indication that the owner is hiding something or the home is not as updated as they say. Trust me – we learned the hard way and were very disappointed with our not so updated 1970s yellow and green decor multiple property beach shared vacation home!
  • Not All Reviews Are Created Equal: Vacation properties with 5 stars reviews are great! But how many 5 star reviews is too good to be true? Too few 5 star reviews may give you pause and too many be sign that they may not be real. There is a sweet spot with reviews – there should be a good number of them with vacation properties that have been around for 1-2 years, but if there are more reviews than the number of times it has been rented be cautious. Be sure to read every review carefully especially ones within the past year. We I read a review, I look for topics about cleanliness, decor, amenities and if the reviewer would rent the property again. Also, if you see multiple reviewers complain about the same thing, be on alert! Reach out the property manager to see if these issues have been addressed or are currently being addressed. Good property managers will be honest and upfront about any issues…..and are very responsive to inquiries.
  • Cleaning Fees: Vacation rentals can be inexpensive based on what you are looking for. However, with the recent pandemic, we have all taken another look at how we clean our homes. This is especially true for vacation rentals. With the number of residents renting from all over the world, vacation rentals already had pretty good cleaning crews and schedules. But now those cleaning fees are much higher to due extra cleaning that needs to occur between renters. You will need to take this into account when budgeting for your vacation rental. Also, know what is expected from you in terms of cleaning. For example, the property owner may want you to start the dishwasher before you leave or put all the towels in the washing machine and start it. This helps both the cleaning crew and the property owner prepare for the next guest.

While these are not the only tips that can help you choose a vacation rental, we feel these are the most important ones that help us when decide to rent. Remember to make a list of preferences, do your homework, and read EVERYTHING! You’ll be glad you did!

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5 Reasons to Travel by Train

If you plan on traveling, why not take the scenic route and travel by train. Traveling by train gives you plenty of opportunities to the see your country and towns, both big and small. Other than the great views, there are some other reasons you should travel by train. Here are out top reasons to travel by train.

  1. Save Money: Traveling by train is very cost effective no matter the destination compared to other forms of travel. Plus, you get deep discounts on tickets for children, seniors and students.
  2. Flexibility: Unlike flying, you can literally go to the train station and buy a ticket the day of you trip. No worries about reservations, seat availability or last minute fees. Its the perfect way to do a spur of the moment trip.
  3. Eco-friendly: Trains are more energy efficient per mile than planes or cars. Carbon emissions from trains are less damaging to the atmosphere. In turn, this keeps fuel prices low and less susceptible to price increase. Thus, train prices stay pretty consistent and affordable especially in an unstable economy.
  4. Relaxation: Trains and their seats are roomy, comfortable, and have plenty of leg room. unlike on an airplane. Trains are soothing and less stressful especially as you watch the beautiful scenery go by.
  5. Family Friendly: Along with ticket discounts for children, traveling by train is a great opportunity to spend quality time with your children. They will be thrilled and full of questions about all the things they will see along their trip.

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Weekend Trip: Houston, TX

Houston, Texas

*Note: This trip was taken pre-pandemic.

“Space City” or Houston is the largest metropolis in Texas and is the anchor of the mega-region known as the Texas Triangle. For all you history buffs, Houston was named after General Sam Houston who had one Texas independence from Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto. With lots of rich history and culture, Houston offers a ton of things to see and do from the Space Center to art and music to sports. On our trip, we definitely had some places in mind that we had to see but there is still plenty to do when we go back.

Houston Zoo

If you couldn’t tell, we are big fans of the zoo. We visit a zoo in each city we travel to and Houston was no exception. The world famous Houston Zoo houses over 6,000 animals from 900 species and sits on 55-acres of land. Its the second most visited zoo in the United States and now we know why! You’ll definitely need a map to navigate this zoo as there are 12 exhibits to explore from the African forest to The World of Primates to The Bug House. Our favorite exhibits were the African Forest with the rhinos, giraffes and zebras and the McNair Asian Elephant exhibit. Plan a full day for these adventures as there are plenty of animals to see.

NASA Space Center

The NASA Space Center was by far our favorite place to visit while in Houston. We as a family have always loved learning about space, astronauts and rocket ships so the space center was a must see. The pictures don’t do it justice but the rocket ships are HUGE! We felt like little ants when standing next to them. With lots of exhibits like Rocket Park, Mission to Mars and Independence plaza you definitely won’t be bored. Plus, once your inside there are LOTS of children’s activities such as Space Center Theater, A Stellar Science Show and lunch with an astronaut. If your not afraid of heights, you can up and inside the Independence replica that sits on top of the NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft. It’s not for the faint of heart but we loved it and the views!!

Downtown Aquarium – An Underwater Adventure

The Houston aquarium is a beautiful site to see with lots of exhibits, activities and restaurants. From the Texas Bayou to Shipwreck to the Stingray, these are just some of the exhibits featured at the aquarium-we suggest you get a day pass and visit them all. There are 300 aquatic species from all over the world and get the opportunity to touch and feel a stingray, our son’s favorite part! Once you’ve completed your tour inside, head outside for games and amusement rides. Carnival style games, Diving Bell Ferris Wheel where you can see almost the whole city, shark voyage some of the things offered outside the aquarium. Some people come just to visit the amusement park-its that fun! And remember to bring your appetite; the Aquarium restaurant offers a variety of specialties and delicacies.

But that’s not ALL the things you can do in Houston, TX. We have some honorable mentions that we think you should check out during your trip:

  • Houston Museum of Natural Science
  • Kemah Boardwalk
  • The Museum of Fine Arts
  • Hermann Park
  • Discovery Green
  • Teo Chew Temple
  • Vietnam War Memorial

Surviving Chaos

We had a great time in Houston and although we did a lot, there is definitely more to explore. Here are our surviving chaos trips so that your trip will go swimming well!

  • Sunscreen: Be sure to put on plenty of sunscreen while your visiting the zoo. Some exhibits have shade and some don’t. Also be prepared for the Texas heat and Houston humidity.
  • Walking Shoes: There is a lot of walking in the at the zoo and the aquarium so where comfortable shoes.
  • Backpack: By the time you tour the zoo and aquarium, you will quite a few new souvenirs! Keep a backpack handy for all your goodies, snacks and water while you are site seeing- you’ll need something to carry all your stuff!
  • CityPass: To save money (and time) and buy a Houston CityPass. With CityPass you make 1 simple purchase for 5 different attractions that must be redeemed within 9 days. You can visit the attractions in any order and you’ll save 47%! Who doesn’t love saving money!

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Weekend Trip: Kingsland, TX

Located an hour and half from Austin, Kingsland, TX is famously known as the place the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was filmed. Yes, the infamous house from the film is located here; now a restaurant it’s a frequent tourist attraction. You’ll pass “the slab” or the clear section of the Llano River as it crosses over granite slabs and boulders, on your way to the Texas Chain Saw house. But Kingsland has so much MORE to offer than famous movie spots and rocks! Our trip took us off the normal beaten path and into new and fun adventures.

Packsaddle Mountain

During out trip, we decided to stay at an AirBnB rental property with a semi-private beach. One of the best choices we made! Not only is it social distancing safe because it just us in the house but you also get your own beach! The house and beach were on Lake LBJ and had plenty of activities: kayaks, a boat dock, wake boards, Sonos music system on canopy at the beach and so much more. Plus, there was a spot for a bonfire so our first night we stayed warm by the fire and viewed all the stars. Our kids had a great time building sand castles each day of our trip; each day the castles got bigger and better. One even has a moat around it! The house had great views of pack saddle mountain and the surround area. Named after its shape, Packsaddle mountain is a great place to hike and is of interest to both geologists and historians. It’s the location of the Packsaddle mountain fight, the last major Native American battle area and is believed to have been mined for gold before the Texas Revolution. If you choose to hike the mountain, there is a historical marker at the location of the battle.

Boat Day

On day 2 of our trip we took advantage of the boat dock and rented a pontoon boat for the day. This by far one of our favorite things to do when we’re on the water. The rental company literally boats to your location, drops off the boat for you and then picks it up at the end of the day. Easy peasy – I highly recommend it! Here you can see why we love renting a boat and plenty of reasons why you should too! My husband is usually the captain but I did drive the boat more this time around. We explored the whole lake and even stopped at Wakepoint LBJ; a place to fill you boat with gas and your belly with food. We had delicious barbecue from Uncle Arnold’s BBQ for lunch and then it was back on the boat. One of my favorite sights were all the lake houses – these houses were phenomenal! They all had their own boat docks but some houses added additional features: slides, fountains, double patios, boats houses and so much more. Here’s to keeping our fingers crossed that we can get a like house like the ones we saw!!

Longhorn Cavern State Park

On our last day, we took a socially distanced tour of Longhorn Cavern State Park. If your into rocks, caves and history this is the place to be. Longhorn Cavern is a beautiful limestone cave that has been used for many things: concerts, speakeasy, outlaw hideaway, church services and more. We took the walking cavern tour but they also offer the wild cave tour where you get to crawl on your hands and knees through the many crawl spaces. The tour took about 90 minutes and there was lots to see; from the bats to the crystals to Indian arrowheads left behind. Once your done with the tour, you can tour the park which has plenty of “parkitecture”, benches for family lunches, hike trails like Backbone Ridge and the CCC Observation Tower.

But that’s not ALL the things you can do in Kingsland, TX. We have some honorable mentions that we think you should check out during your trip:

  • Falkenstein Castle
  • Llano Slab
  • Lake LBJ
  • PackSaddle Mountain Hike Trail
  • Inks Lake State Park

Surviving Chaos

We had a great time in Kingsland and had plenty of adventures. Here are some of my surviving chaos tips so your trip will go splendidly!

  • Sunscreen: Be sure to put on plenty of sunscreen while and the beach, on the boat and wherever you decide to go. Bring 2 bottles…you’ll need it.
  • Light Jackets: The temperature is significantly cooler at the lake’s edge so you’ll want a jacket especially if you do a bonfire at night. The mornings can be quite cool as well when you sit on the patio and drink your coffee. Also, the cavern is cooler, between 60-65, so the jacket will come in handy.
  • Walking Shoes: There is a lot of walking in the cavern so where comfortable shoes.
  • Life Jackets: Either bring your own or check if your rental property includes them. All kids under 18 have to wear one and its good have when your kayaking.

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Weekend Trip: Waco, TX

*Note: Trip taken pre-pandemic

Known as “the Athens of Texas” due to its many fine schools, Waco is nestled in between Dallas and Austin and sits along the Brazos River. Since it only takes about an 1-2 hrs no matter which city you are coming from, its the perfect weekend trip for the whole family. You can stay in Waco or in one of the many suburbs such as Hewitt or McGregor. For our trip, we chose to stay in a vacation rental property; you can find our tips for choosing a vational rental here. Home to Baylor University, there is so much to explore within Waco. But our eyes were keen on seeing the Magnola Silos and all things Chip and Joanna Gaines!

Magnolia Market at the Silos

First up on our trip were the Magnolia Silos which is the best place to be! There is so much to see and do from the open courtyard for cornhole games, garden, picnic tables to eat ALL the yummy food to the Magnolia Market at the Silos store full of Chip and Joanna Gaines fantastic home decor. This is a place that cherishes family, food, and fun! The Magnolia Market has so much stuff that you will leave with bags full of decor, coffee mugs, planters,etc. Can’t fit your items in your car, ship it home using their onsite Fedex station! When you leave you will definitely be inspired to start redecorating with all the home goods you found. My personal favorite was the Magnolia Seed and Supply where you can pick up seeds, garden tools, planters and flower growing kits for your kids. I’ve always loved flowers and gardening, a little something I picked up from my grandfather, so I spent most of my time in there. My favorite part of the silos is seeing all the families have an amazing time and getting chance to bond. Families from all over come to sit, enjoy the warm sun and create memories with their loved ones.

Cameron Park Zoo

Next up was something for our kids….the zoo! Prices are reasonable and if you have children under 2 they are FREE. This 52-acre natural habitat zoo was the best and favorite of our kids-we spent the whole day there. With lots of waterfalls, ponds, and lakes it is picturesque! We started our adventure at Gibbon Island with all the monkeys and worked our way through the zoo. Our favorite exhibit was the African Savanna where the elephants, rhinos, and giraffes call home. We had perfect timing because a baby giraffe had recently been born so our kids were very excited to see a baby giraffe. If your looking for some peach and serenity from all the excitement at the zoo, head to the lush green bamboo forest in the Asian forest section.

Waco Mammoth National Monument

If you love paleontology, science, animals and bones this is the place to be. The Waco Mammoth National Monument has fossils from 24 Colombian mammoths and other mammals. Its the largest known concentration of mammoths dying, possibly during a flash flood. Our kids had a field day with this site and had so many questions-it really sparked their interest. They loved standing next to the leg bone of a wolly mammoth and be shocked by how big they were-it makes for the perfect photo-op! Once your finished learning about the mammoths, spend some time walking the trails where you see honey locust plants, Texas Live Oak and a few roadrunners.

Although we did a lot, that’s not ALL the things you can do in Waco, TX. We have some honorable mentions that we think you should check out during your trip:

  • Waco Suspension Bridge
  • Texas Rangers Museum
  • Dr. Pepper Museum
  • Baylor University
  • Mayborn Museum | Baylor University

Surviving Chaos

We did a lot during our trip to Waco! So here are some good surviving chaos trips when planning your visit:

  • Comfortable Shoes: Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, you’ll be doing a lot of walking at the Magnolia Silos and the Cameron Park Zoo.
  • Sunscreen: Don’t forget your sunscreen! The Texas summer can be brutal and hot so don’t get burned. Slather on sunscreen before and during your outside time-there’s not a lot of shade at the Magnolia Silos.
  • Water: Pack plenty of water and drink it often. Texas summer heat is like not other; try to visit your outdoor adventures early in the morning.
  • Wear a backpack: By the time you shop at the Magnolia Market, buy souvenirs, bring snacks and water you’ll need something to carry all your stuff. Plus, you need your hands free to play football or cornhole games!

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