Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Alice in Pumpkin Land

We had a chance to enjoy one of our favorite new holiday traditions last weekend and took Alice for her second visit to the pumpkin patch. We had such a good time last year, we didn't even need to think twice about where to go. Plus, the drive out to Lombardi Ranch was the perfect excuse to test out our new car on a windy/bumpy road!

We were all excited to hit "the open road," but accelerating up the on-ramp was about as fast as I'd get to go for while. Apparently, this fatal motorcycle accident happened almost exactly as we were getting on the freeway. We wondered about all the motorcycles that were passing us but had no idea about the annual "Love Ride" that was in progress. Between the already awful interchange, the poorly organized major construction happening on that stretch of freeway, regular L.A. traffic AND several thousand motorcycles, it all adds up to a recipe for disaster. It took us about an hour and a half to go about 4 miles. My takeaway? Don't ride motorcycles, kids.

Anyway, Alice used up all her good behavior while we were sitting in traffic, so it was a good thing we'd planned to stop for lunch before the patch. We had our first taste of Habit Burger during last year's trip, and now it's part of the tradition! Everyone recharged with sweet potato fries and then we were on our way again.

The farm was much busier this weekend than on Halloween Sunday last year, and the thermometer was somewhere near 92 degrees, so we tried to be quick about our business. I'd hoped to take a photo of Alice amongst all the sunflowers like last year, but they were all dead and droopy and looked more like the ominous scarecrows nestled between their stalks. So we moved on to the fields of pumpkins for our photo ops.

Alice had a great time walking along the rows of pumpkins. She smacked them all, tried to lift them and pushed and rolled them all about. She made her selection pretty quickly and made sure dad knew which one we'd be taking home. 

"this one, please."
 This year, she didn't cry about sitting in the dirt and she didn't even care that she got her dress dirty! Or maybe she just didn't notice... She loves wearing her costume and we couldn't resist bringing it along for some cute photos. We did a quick change and got a few shots, even though her cheeks were getting a little a warm and pink. 
the cutest little giraffe i ever saw...
I don't know if it was the tail or the hood throwing off her groove, but she did lose her balance and topple over sideways into the dirt. The whole side of her costume was filthy and Jon said, "Surely this is machine washable, right?" And I said, "Surely, it must be." In fact, the tag says HAND WASH ONLY. Who does that??? So now I'm debating whether it's riskier to wash it by hand, try it in the machine's delicate cycle, or just tell people that giraffes live in the dirt, yo. 
a flying giraffe! wheeee!
All in all, it was a great little afternoon trip and Alice enjoyed herself much more than last year. We went from this:

to this:

How about you guys? Have you visited the pumpkin patch yet? Carved your pumpkins??

Saturday, October 22, 2011

One-Car Family

So after all of our budgeting and planning and researching and agonizing, we finally bought a new car last weekend. We've been discussing this plan since last Christmas/New Year's. You could literally gestate and deliver a human child in less time than it took us to make this happen. But we've been gearing up for a while and had started to pick up steam just before my car sealed the deal for us. We're choosing to think that my car laid on her sword and killed her own battery to keep us from driving home on dangerous tires, forcing us to take the leap toward a new car.

I've been driving my beautiful black Toyota 4Runner (affectionately known as Maleficent) for eleven years, nearly exactly. Jon got his beloved white Volvo S70 (aka Pearl) only a few months before he met me, eight years ago. Both of our cars were - and still are - very safe vehicles, but are nonetheless lacking the modern safety features of today's cars. Things like Electronic Stability Control, side airbags, and improved roof strength make many of today's cars considerably safer than '97 and '98 models we drove. Both cars were very well-maintained and will continue running admirably for another 100,000+ miles with proper care and maintenance but we knew that things would inevitably wear and break and we didn't want to have to worry about where we might be stranded when that happened (e.g., in Livermore, with a baby...).

My trusty vessel, Maleficent.
Jon's Pearl
Last holiday season, Jon suggested that we begin thinking about replacing our cars. I agreed, it was getting to be that time. And then he suggested that we turn two old cars into one new car and become - gasp - a one-car family. We discussed and it made a lot of sense. My commute is under two miles a day. I could, and really should, even ride a bike to work. Jon works from home. He rarely needs a car, unless he has some errands to run, which we'd generally know about and be able to work out in advance. He could always drop me off and pick me up when necessary, and in a pinch, a car would be less than two miles away. So we decided to go for it. We just had to figure out what to buy, how to afford it, and the logistics of getting rid of two cars.

We talked about our needs and desires and boiled it down to a few things. We like having a bit of room for when we need it but don't want to drive much more car than we really use, day-to-day. It didn't make sense for us to drive something with tons of cargo space, or seven seats for our future additional kids' friends and relatively rare extra passengers. We really only need to be able to pack gear for the occasional road trip. We decided a small SUV would be a reasonable choice. Plus, I like being up high. I loved driving a stick shift and wasn't ready to give that up, so a manual transmission was one of my main requirements. We also decided that if we were looking for the safest car, it might as well be white. There are varying statistics and opinions about accident rates for different colored cars, but it stands to reason that white ones are more visible - certainly at dusk and dawn. So we set about looking for a super-safe, small SUV in white, with a manual transmission.

We started our research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, by looking at their vehicle ratings. In the 2011 Small SUV category, I was surprised to see the Kia Sportage recommended as a top safety pick, with the Honda CR-V nowhere in sight. I've been admiring the recently redesigned Honda CR-V for a few years now. Quite honestly, I had been suspecting that it might be my next car. It was certainly the model I was most interested in, out of everything I saw on the road. In reading the IIHS ratings, I was shocked to learn that the CR-V scored too poorly on their roof strength evaluations to be recommended as a top safety pick.

According to the IIHS, federal regulations require vehicles to withstand a force 1.5 times the total weight of the car before reaching 5 inches of crush. This is called the strength-to-weight ratio. Many roofs can withstand greater force than the recommended minimum, but the specific information hasn't been available to consumers. The IIHS started performing their own roof strength tests in 2009 and has included this element in vehicle ratings since 2010. 

video of IIHS' roof strength test
To receive the IIHS's "Acceptable" rating, vehicles must have a strength-to-weight ratio of 3.25. A "Marginal" rating value is 2.5, anything below that gets a "Poor" rating. Beginning in 2010, in order to earn their "Good" rating and qualify as a "Top Safety Pick," a vehicle must have a strength-to-weight ratio of 4 or more. I think roof strength is an especially important element in SUV safety; 25 percent of deaths in car/minivan crashes involve rollovers but that number jumps to 59 percent in SUVs. From the IIHS, "a strength-to-weight ratio of 4.0 has an estimated 50 percent reduction in the risk of serious and fatal injury in single-vehicle rollover crashes compared with the minimum level of 1.5." 

The 2007-2011 Honda CR-V gets an IIHS strenght-to-weight ratio of just 2.8. It withstood 9,700 pounds of force to it's 3,469 pounds of weight. Only the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner/Mazda Tribute scored lower in the "Marginal" group, at 2.55. I thought it was especially interesting that only the 2005-10 Kia Sportage and 2005-09 Hyundai Tucson received the worst score - a "Poor" at 2.43 - but then the '11 Sportage and '10-'11 Tucson jumped all the way up to "Good" with a rating of 4.43. They were third in the Small SUV category, behind the Subaru Forester (at 4.64) and Volkswagen Tiguan (at 5.82).

I don't know that I would have even looked at a Kia Sportage if it hadn't been on the IIHS 2011 Top Safety Pick list, but I checked it out immediately and was highly intrigued. The Sportage was totally redesigned for it's third-generation 2011 model under Kia's Chief Design Officer, Peter Schreyer. You may not know his name but you've certainly seen his work - most notably, the 1998 Audi TT and the 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle. As CDO at Kia, one of Schreyer's most important contributions has been the design of a recognizable "face" for the brand, which seems to have been integrated into all of the current year models. Called the "Tiger Nose," I think it's particularly hot on the Sportage. Also hot? The low, low starting price for the base model, which came in a manual transmission. It jumped to the top of our list.

The 2011/12 Kia Sportage. Check out that "Tiger Nose" (left)
We went on our first test-driving expedition early this year. We wanted to drive a Sportage and a CR-V so we could figure out which paths to keep exploring. Kia was our first stop so we could accurately judge the car and the experience without comparing to anything but our own cars. The dealer didn't have a manual transmission base model to drive, but we were happy to take the automatic for a spin. We were actually both surprised by how impressed we were and came away pretty smitten. 

We drove straight to the Honda dealer across town. We were fully expecting a Honda to be way nicer than a Kia and were excited to see what that looked like, if we were so impressed with the Sportage. Perhaps our expectations were too high but we were disappointed as soon as the dealer opened the door to the CR-V. The starting price was a few thousand dollars higher than the Kia but the interior felt cheap and spartan by comparison. Plus, the CR-V isn't available with a manual transmission. Factor in the low roof strength-to-weight ratio, and I decided pretty quickly that this wasn't the car for me. I was also annoyed that the dealer only let us drive it on the freeway in the on/off-ramp lane and then gave us the hard sell for like, thirty minutes. He even brought in a "closer" type. They both seemed surprised when we mentioned that the car wasn't an IIHS Top Safety Pick, and that was pretty important to us. We were only just beginning our research and this guy wanted to sell us a car we didn't want, that very day. He reminded us an awful lot of Ol' Gil Gunderson - "You want a car with a radio, right? You kids like music, right?" ...

Aw, c'mon, do it for Ol' Gil!
So after our first foray, we were pretty keen on the Sportage as our first choice. We even went as far as to hunt one down to rent for a weekend. We picked it up at the Burbank Airport Avis and drove it around for a few days. We tested out the LATCH system and installed Alice's carseat, and drove it over the Grapevine and back to see how it handled the steep grade and how it felt on the road. We only had a few complaints but they were major enough to give us pause. The passenger seat was ridiculously low (which we since determined must have been a problem with that particular car), and the aggressive exterior styling majorly compromised visibility in the rear blind spots. Ultimately, we decided that the pros outweighed any cons, and that we'd be able to live with any shortcomings. 

We started crunching our numbers and keeping an eye out for a white, base model Sportage with a manual transmission. We also investigated different certified pre-owned cars but after we weeded out everything we weren't interested in, it seemed like we'd be paying as much for a used car as we would for one of the new models we were interested in. So we decided to aim for that and invest in a couple of years where we wouldn't have to worry about mileage-related repairs. That was kind of the point here anyway, along with the updated safety features.

Anyway, it became evident that not only were there no white, base model Sportages around, there were hardly ANY base models with manual transmissions available. In any color, anywhere. We finally tracked down a black one in San Juan Capistrano and went down to check it out. We were happy with the stick shift but realized that if we were serious about buying this car, we'd have to order the specific configuration we were looking for. They quoted us a 3-4 month wait but we weren't ready to pull the trigger. Unfortunately, while we were trying to figure out what to do with our cars and get our budget in order, Kia released the 2012 model year. With no manual transmission. So it was back to the drawing board.

My dad had been suggesting we consider the Subaru Forester since we started talking about a new car. We'd looked at the Forester but the photos on the Subaru website are kind of terrible and not super appealing. But then Jon saw one on a walk through our neighborhood and said it looked much better in real life. Once the Kia was out of the picture, we decided to give the Forester a shot and finally found time to drive one late in the summer. And we liked it better than we'd expected to. We actually liked it a whole lot. 

Unfortunately, we found ourselves in a similar situation as with Kia, where we couldn't seem to locate any existing white Foresters with a manual transmission. The dealer told us that we could order one with a lead time of 6-8 weeks and that the 2012 year model had been delayed by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. But again, we weren't quite ready to pull the trigger so we went home and continued trying to figure out how to go about selling our cars, and turning the sales into a down payment that would get our monthly payments where we wanted. The budgeting wouldn't have been so difficult if we didn't also have to put a new roof on our house next summer, per city ordinance.

In the meantime, Jon listed his car on Craig's List, got creeped out by a weirdo with absolutely no trail on the whole wide internet, and then reassessed how much time and energy he was able to invest into selling privately. We stalled some more and then things started falling into place. We drove to Livermore, Maleficent refused to leave and we left her there. Two days later, Jon was checking inventory at Subaru dealers all over the state. He found a car for sale in Livermore that fit the bill in every way but color but at this point, we were willing to consider dark gray. But he got really excited when he found the perfect combination at a dealer in Ventura, only an hour away. After much deliberating, emailing, number crunching, and weeping, we decided to accept my dad's help in selling my car in Livermore, see what the dealer would offer to trade in Jon's car, and just take the plunge. We gave the dealer a deposit to hold the car until we could get out there on the weekend and started to become cautiously optimistic.

Well, the car was perfect. Exactly what we wanted, with a few extra features AND a really great deal on the price. We traded keys with the dealer and took the car for a drive while he looked over Jon's car to determine the trade-in value. When we got back, he solemnly told us what he thought Jon's was worth. I tried not to leap in the air for joy and hoped that I was  able to duck my head and hide my grin fast enough to pass it off as a reaction to Alice eating crackers. Jon then engaged the dealer in a very serious negotiation for a very modestly priced accessory while I tried not to laugh. But he got the accessory, and we got a better trade in price than we were hoping for after CarMax's quote of $600 (ouch). So we signed on many dotted lines and ninety minutes later, as promised, we waved goodbye to Pearl and drove our new car off the lot. WOOOOOO-HOOOOOO!!!!

Looking over the engine 
I promise that handshake connected and resolved.
By the way, if you live in the LA area and are in the market for a Subaru, we had a really great experience with the guy we worked with at Barber Subaru in Ventura. Let me know, and I'll pass his name along. He even took a photo for us! 
the happy family with our newest member
We were giddy and starving, so headed to the nearest dining establishment we could find. After we fortified ourselves with Habit burgers, we headed to the beach (since we were just right there) and walked out on the pier and down a nice trail that stretched along the beach. Alice hadn't slept since 6am that morning though and didn't seem to feel the need to start then, so we called it a day and headed home in our smooth and quiet new ride.

lunch and a long walk on a long pier.
We left Pearl parked here.
Jon was sad about saying goodbye to his car, especially when he thought about how that's how we drove Alice home from the hospital. When he was cleaning it out and sprucing it up for the last time, he found a note that my sister had tucked under the windshield while we were still in the hospital with Alice, telling us to have fun bringing our little baby home. But Jon loves this new car as much as he loved Pearl when he first brought her home. He particularly loves the peace of mind that a new car brings, and loves that we've downsized to be a one-car family. We both love the giant, glorious sun roof, the iPod/Bluetooth connectivity, and that we have our very first new car (for either of us). Oh, and that lovely, new-car smell. Or, as my dad likes to say, the most expensive smell in the world. Now we just need to find a suitable name...
The stroller fits! Hooray!!

And that's the WHOLE story of how we got a new car. I'm just glad it's over. Well, almost over. If you live in the Bay Area and are in the market for a black 4Runner, let me know and I'll give you the digits!!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Catching Up: Livermore Visit

There's been a bit of craziness going on these last couple of weeks but I think we're getting things back under control. Here's what we've been up to...

A couple of weekends ago, we took advantage of an opportunity to sneak away for a long weekend. We'd been trying to get up to Livermore for a visit and thought it would be a good time to catch their Thursday Farmers' Market before it closed for the season, and to do some wine-tasting and restock our cellars. We also planned to celebrate his birthday a few days early.

Anyway, we'd taken my car in to the shop for a little tune-up the day before our trip. Jon was hesitant to sign off on any non-urgent or unnecessary work in case it upset the delicate balance of my aging car and caused something else to malfunction while we were away from home. We decided to do the few routine things the mechanic recommended and when I picked her up, she drove just like the day I bought her eleven years ago.

We loaded everything and everyone (baby AND kitties) into the car and hit the road later than we intended. We made a quick stop mid-Grapevine to clean up the kitty carrier, (Marceline suffers notoriously from car sickness). And then shortly thereafter, we made another quick stop at Laval Road for a diaper check and a coffee run. We then vowed no more stops until Livermore. Or lunch. Whichever came first.

Traffic was nice and light which makes driving more pleasant than the usual bottleneck of bad drivers and brake lights, but unfortunately also means that the California Highway Patrol is looking for things to do. So, while my coffee was still hot, I got to stop again for a quick roadside chat with one such officer. The rest of the drive was extra tedious at our extra-conservative, please-don't-pull-me-over-again pace. If you've never driven down the middle of the state, from Northern to Southern California or vice versa, it is an extremely boring stretch of highway (see below), especially with the current lack of green agriculture to break up the landscape. I rather like it, but it's at it's best when I can drive quickly and purposefully (but not unsafely) through it...
I-5, as captured by greg z.
We had to stop again for lunch and then again to refuel just 20 or so miles outside of town, right in the middle of a lightning storm! Whatever the mechanic did to my car clearly affected my gas mileage, as I used to be able to get from door-to-door on one tank of gas. At some point in the drive, a semi truck launched a stray rock in my direction but we didn't think much about it at the time.

Anyway, the lightning storm chased us into town and then blew over just in time for us to hit up the Farmers' Market. My mom sent me along with a list and we loaded our bags with everything on it until we were laden with beautiful produce. The rain (and cold!) kept lots of people away so the farmers were extra happy to load us up. I'm mad that I forgot to take photos of all the gorgeous veggies, including the purple carrots and cauliflower I went home with. I realized that I love the purple variety of any veggie. If I'd seen the purple potatoes before I bought boring white and red ones, I would have snagged them too. I also gave in and bought a box of figs. They've been teasing me all season with their beautiful, juicy plumpness and I couldn't stand it anymore; I was going to learn to cook with and appreciate figs, no matter what.

We ogled the booth with incredibly delicious-looking desserts and treats fighting for space on every surface. We sampled tasty masalas and asian pears. We did laps around the market and debated whether we wanted sausages or crepes for dinner, until we stopped at the East & West Gourmet Food booth. The Concord-based company sells Afghan food and I couldn't help but think of Khaled Hosseini's Afghani immigrant characters in The Kite Runner living in the East/South Bay. The nice young guy behind the table was an artist, painting his flavors on little pieces of bolani and we were happy to eat up whatever he offered. We took home some spinach bolani and hummus, cilantro pesto, and sweet jalapeno jelly and painted our own bolanis for dinner.

On Saturday, we got in my car to go wine tasting and noticed a big crack in the windshield. We surmised that the errant rock hit us harder than we thought, and just right, and then the cold overnight temps finished the job. Awesome. We pressed on though and headed off to visit some of our favorite vintners so we could restock the Senge cellars.

I forgot to pack the Ergo carrier, so I chased Alice all around Les ChĂȘnes, Charles R., Cedar Mountain, and Eckert while Jon headed up the sampling along with my sister and her gentleman-friend. Luckily for me, Jon shared some sips so I could help with the buying decisions. We came away with a good haul that should get us through the winter, including some of Les ChĂȘnes' delicious mustard. Yum!

luscious grapes.

We also got to visit with some of our very favorite people in the world and continue trying to ignite the spark between Alice and their adorable little guy. Alice should get in on the ground floor, if you know what I'm saying - that kid is too cute!! They bonded over a Halloween greeting card that played "Ghostbusters." I'm calling it as their first dance with Eli grooving exclusively with his upper body and Alice doing a little sit-down shimmy.

silly kids, with their Halloween cards... Alice was in her jammies, how embarrassing for her (and semi-scandalous!)
Our friends took us on a tour of their future house on a former dairy farm, showing us the in-progress renovation of their home and a few of the other farm buildings and houses in various states of completed renovation. It was such a cool and unusual little place, I was enchanted by the rustic, peaceful setting and the novelty of living on a farm - even if it is non-operational. Everyone kept calling the old buildings the "scary dairy" since it looks a bit abandoned and neglected, but I didn't get any scary vibes at all. On the contrary, the whole place seemed imbued with cows' calm and relaxed pace of life. Except for the one chilling moment when we pried open a heavy door to a refrigerated vault-type room and found a child's doll just sitting at the forefront of the debris... Hopefully, that's just someone's idea of a scary joke!

(left) a little reminder of the property's past. (right) this is not their house but another of the buildings nearby.
(left) charming and rustic view. (right) the old drive-up dairy window.
scary dairy? one terrifying doll in a vault. yikes.
On Sunday, after we'd wrapped up all our produce shopping and eating, wine tasting/buying, and visiting, we loaded everything and everyone (including kitties) BACK into the car. We packed and tucked and buckled, waved to my parents on the sidewalk, turned the key...and nothing. My car made some pathetic grinding/clicking noise and didn't start. I tried again. Just clicking. No starting. 

Jon and my dad looked under the hood, Jon was certain it was the starter motor. Despite our reservations about having work done on the car, this was totally unrelated, totally unpredictable, definitely the starter motor. No way to repair it on a Sunday afternoon. Jon asked if I needed to be back in the office on Monday. Uh, kinda, yeah. 

I stood around, annoyed and bewildered, weighing our options. We finally decided to take my parents up on their offer to loan us a car. They were even kind enough to offer to drive my car back to me and trade it for theirs. So we repacked all our stuff, our kitties and our kid into my dad's Honda Accord. Miraculously, it all fit. We left a few things in my car that we wouldn't need right away, like our umbrella stroller. And then, an hour later than we planned, we were on our way back home. But the story doesn't end there.

My dad kindly offered to arrange for my car to be repaired and have the cracked windshield replaced. He called to report that the problem WASN'T the starter motor but the battery. How lame. But worse was the news that the six-year old tires were worn and cracking and unsafe to drive, especially on a long drive back down the state. He urged me to replace the tires but we were really reluctant to put more money into the car since we've been getting ready to sell it. He said he wouldn't drive it back without new tires. I said, fine, let's keep it there and sell it now. He offered to do the hard work and I accepted gladly, knowing his excellent track record selling our family's cars over the years. I realized that after talking about it all year, we might actually be buying a new car soon. But when I realized that I might never see my trusty old 4Runner again, I started crying. Like, weeping. At the office. It was ridiculous.

So it was kind of a cursed weekend for driving, but it certainly could have been worse. We spent all last week making decisions and arrangements and trying to get all of our ducks in a row. And then what happened? I'll have more on that soon. Tomorrow? Soon.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A moment, this morning

This morning, Alice bumped her face on a shelf, alarmingly near her eye. She wailed and then crawled into my lap for a hug, snuggling her head on my shoulder. She rarely stops moving long enough for a cuddle, unless she's very tired and even then, only when I stand with her. I usually stand and hold her for a few quiet minutes before nap time or bedtime, until she launches herself into her crib. I savored this moment when she needed and sought my comfort, and treasured the small blessings and joys of motherhood.

She soon forgot her injury and toddled over to see Marceline playing at the top of her perch. I held Alice up so she could see the kitty, and then something out the window caught her attention. I stood her on the window sill and she leaned against me as she inventoried the houses, cars, trees, and grass. We stood cheek to cheek as she touched the window glass and every piece of hardware with her delicate little hands, pulling at the locks. When a dog walked by, she giggled as it passed our house and then she pressed her cheek to the window and watched it go down the street until it disappeared from view. I kissed her cheek and breathed her warm breath that fogged the window, her long eyelashes brushing mine as I stared at the tiny, reddened swell of skin next to her eye.

It was an ordinary moment in an ordinary morning, but it calmed my heart and was sweet and special nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Traveling with a tot

Travel tip #1 - Give your toddler plenty of piping hot, complimentary coffee. This will ensure they do not sleep a wink on the plane, no matter how much they need a nap.
I was still pregnant with Alice when the last Senge family reunion was being planned. As a not-even-first-time mom, I was way too nervous and unambitious to commit to flying with a three-month old. I was very grateful that they all graciously accommodated my nerves by choosing a location within driving distance for us. 

As we were planning our trip to Colorado over these last months, I realized how foolish I'd been to avoid flying with an infant who sleeps so much and can be soothed and silenced with cuddle naps and marathon breast-feeding sessions. What an easy flight that could have been! Now that I'm more seasoned, I think I'd be much more inclined to consider flying with a littler baby. I don't think I'd go out of my way to plan a plane trip, but I'd certainly consider any opportunity that presented itself. But ask me again, next time I'm in that position...

Anyway, this time, I was on the hunt for any tips and products that would be helpful on our trip and I thought I'd share a few things that worked for us. 

First of all, we opted to buy a plane seat for Alice. Though she is under two and allowed to travel on our laps, we felt it was safer for her to have her own seat and the protection and familiarity of her carseat. Plus, she doesn't really sit still or cuddle, so I'm pretty sure we would have all been miserable with her on our laps. Since we were renting a car, we also felt better about having our trusty Britax Roundabout during the trip, instead of a rental seat.

There are lots of gadgets to make it easier to maneuver your carseat through the airport. The GoGo Babyz Travelmate is basically a dolly that turns your carseat into a stroller. Kind of nifty but kind of pricey (anywhere from $72-90) and still another thing to pack and keep track of on the other end of your flight. 

We also looked at this popular option that lets you fasten your carseat to your suitcase, and then fasten your kid in the carseat and push the whole contraption like a stroller. Though the photo shows a pretty hefty carseat like ours, we were really skeptical that any of our suitcases would be able to handle the 40+ pounds of carseat and kid without breaking. One of the reviewers mentioned that they were able to strap their carseat to their suitcase with a couple of easily obtained hardware pieces for less than the $15 cost of this item. Jon did some experimenting and was able to secure the seat to our little roll-aboard using only the straps already included/attached to the carseat. We certainly couldn't transport Alice in that getup but it at least eliminated the need to carry the carseat by hand.

We didn't want to pay the extra $$ for an SUV on the trip, so we knew we'd have cargo space limitations with a full-size car. Our stroller is too big to share a trunk with a suitcase, and I didn't want to risk damaging or losing it on the plane, so we invested in a cheap umbrella. After our research and test-driving, we were pretty sold on our choice but I have to say, halfway through that 3-mile walk, Jon and I were both wishing for that super-smooth Maclaren. I don't think it's entirely fair to judge the stroller on such a strenuous inauguration, I think it will be just fine for light use and travel. Not totally sure about our future Disney World vacation though.

We know Pack 'N Plays are ubiquitous; we have one and know that almost anywhere we go will have one as well. But it hasn't been the dependable lifesaver we were expecting. Alice doesn't seem to sleep great in them, our AngelCare monitor doesn't work well in them, and they can be noisy enough to keep us all from sleeping soundly. And they aren't easy enough to transport and set up to make them indispensable, in my opinion. I decided to try out something I kept seeing pop up around the internet and baby catalogs, enter the KidCo PeaPod.

PeaPod product image.
Basically a collapsible pup tent with an inflatable air mattress, the PeaPod comes in a few different varieties ranging from super light-weight small and basic, to a bit bigger with more bells and whistles. I thought it looked ultra-portable, great for suitcase travel and unpredictable or small sleeping conditions, handy to take in the car for naps at someone else's house, or the beach or park. I was hoping it would be a great investment for this trip, future travel, and other general visiting. 

We ordered ours only a couple of weeks before our trip and I was afraid we wouldn't be able to get Alice acclimated in time. We set it up as soon as we got it and she and the cats checked it out. I planned to introduce it during her weekend and daytime naps to see how she liked it. Our first couple of tries were reminiscent of getting the cats into their carrier and involved hasty zipping and lots of crying. Alice often has a couple of false starts to her naps involving diaper changes, and it got to the point where I could get her in the PeaPod once but not twice. We also tried it out during our weekend visit to Jon's parents house before our trip, where Alice rested reluctantly but didn't sleep. I suspect that had more to do with her cousins playing with awesome toys right outside her room. In any case, I was getting a little worried that we'd be out of luck on our trip, with no Plan B. We resorted to leaving it set up during the day and encouraging her to play in it to develop familiarity and good associations.

Our efforts must have been enough because the PeaPod worked like a charm on the trip. As soon as we got settled at the inn, we put Alice down for a rest. We set up the PeaPod, zipped her up and retired to the next room for some wine and conversation. It probably helped that she was tired from our day of travel, but Alice didn't complain at all and took a great nap. Bedtime was flawless and she didn't wake at all in the night. The only close call we had was when the AngelCare sensor pad came unplugged and started beeping. She stirred but didn't fully wake up or cry.

In her circus jammies, playing in her PeaPod bed.
We packed the PeaPod for our day trip to Grandpa's house, and Alice took a great nap in another room while we all chatted away. My cousin had thoughtfully set up her spare Pack 'N Play at her house so Alice could nap after baby gymnastics. We gave that a try, but Alice cried and cried and cried and cried, which always breaks my heart and I didn't want her to wake up her sweetly sleeping cousins. We grabbed the PeaPod out of the car, popped it open, and Alice snuggled right in and had a great nap. We were sold. 

When we got to my aunt's house, she had a room all set up for Alice. She's also a grandmother, so had everything already on hand. But Jon felt bad about sticking Alice in a strange room by herself all night, so we set up the PeaPod in our room instead. She slept great there as well, and never woke up when we came to bed. On the morning we left, I got up at 4am and Jon was right behind. We figured we'd rouse Alice as we got dressed and finished packing up to leave, walking right past her bed and making a ruckus in our suitcase not 2 feet away. She was so sound asleep we finally had to wake her so we could get her dressed and fed in out the door. Double sold. I'm pretty sure that would have never happened if she was in a Pack 'N Play. 

We found a good price on the basic "103" model at Amazon, so we opted for that. It is a few inches bigger and more robust than the "Lite" model but not as big as the "Plus." Alice might appreciate a little more room, which would probably give us a little more mileage, but this size is perfectly serviceable. Here's what we like:

1. Super easy set-up:  The whole thing springs right open. It's maybe even a little TOO easy - you really should keep a firm hand on it and keep stray kids and pets out of striking range. 

2. Works great with AngelCare monitor: We like that it's easy to use with the AngelCare, where Pack 'N Plays are not. With the PeaPod, you can set the AngelCare right on the floor so you don't have to rig up a stable base like with the P 'N P, and the inflatable mattress is more forgiving than the Pack 'N Play pad. 

3. Super compact for travel: The 14" diameter storage bag fits perfectly into our roll-aboard suitcase, making it easy to carry on the plane so you don't have risk losing it with your checked bag. My philosophy is to carry on anything and everything that can't be purchased in a jiffy at your destination. 

The only improvement I'd suggest for the PeaPod is custom-fit sheets. There is a zippered compartment for the air mattress so you don't need a sheet, which would be nice for the park or beach or other outdoor environment. Alice got too sweaty sleeping on just the nylon, and it was more inviting for her with a sheet, so we put the mattress inside the tent area. Pack 'N Play sheets don't fit so we used a regular crib sheet which wasn't snug. I think I'll make some fitted sheets especially for it, which I'd definitely recommend for a younger infant, but it would be nice if custom sheets were available from the company.

I wish I'd been using the PeaPod since Alice was much younger but I'm glad we discovered it now. I'd certainly use it for a swaddled infant, either with a fitted sheet or with the mattress in the separate compartment, and definitely with the AngelCare. Though Alice wasn't crazy about it before we left, I think our pre-travel practice made it familiar and secure enough to be comforting in all the new environments she encountered. I know kids love cozy little private spaces, and I imagine Alice will only get more attached to it as she gets older. I think we'll just have to pull it out for an occasional "special treat" so she doesn't forget all about it.

Those were our only revelations for our inaugural baby travel. Otherwise, we just made sure to plan ahead, be prepared, give ourselves plenty of time for every activity, and give the little tyrant whatever she wanted to keep her from throwing tantrums and practicing her newly developed screaming and shouting. Which, for the record, did NOT include hot coffee (see above photo) - just the cup that I had emptied. I always give her my empty sample cups of coffee at the grocery store and I love that they are perfectly baby-sized. 

Do you have any perfectly baby-sized travel tips? Any awesome or awful products to share? Have you taken any great (or horrific) trips with your wee ones?