A Second Home & Summer of Travel

Why did we do so much traveling and activities this spring and summer? Most people probably assume all our travel was making up for a year of not traveling during the pandemic, but we came at it from a different perspective.

We’ve had a long term goal of a beach/lake/mountain home. After another failed search to make this dream come true this past Spring, we decided to redirect that money to trips this summer. I’ll run through the background, the financial decision, and how we spent our travel “budget.”

BACKGROUND

We first looked into a vacation rental in Snowshoe, WV – six years ago. Snowshoe is a ski resort, and one of the better available ones to those of us south of the Mason Dixon. It also has a draw during the summer with hiking and mountain biking, albeit not as constant of a stream of people needing a rental. The draw for us was that it was halfway between our home in VA and Mr. ODA’s family in KY.

We went as far as meeting a Realtor and looking at properties. If the house was off Snowshoe proper, it was a good distance from the ski lifts and not in great condition. If the house (condo) was on Snowshoe proper, it came with a lot of rules and regulations and costs. Everything near the ski lifts had to be under Snowshoe’s management, which included their cleaning costs, and their booking process. This meant that someone couldn’t necessarily go onto the website to book our unit. Someone would go on their website and book “a 2 bed and 1 bath unit” and the system would cycle through the bookings. With the high condo costs and the uncertain bookings for those units, as well as the distant location of the units that weren’t subject to the condo process and cost (plus finding a management and cleaning company for that), we stopped the search.

Since then, it’s been on the wish list, but we weren’t sure what direction we wanted to go. 

When we moved to KY, we decided to look into a lake house. We want it to be close enough that we could just pick up and go (e.g., trying to keep it under 2 hours), we want it to be on a lake that allows motor sports (so this rules out anything that’s “no wake” or prohibits motors of any kind), and we want it to be lake front (we learned this during our recent search, and hadn’t fully realized how much we wanted this until we saw a house that wasn’t on the lake directly). 

We looked at parcels of land and kept an eye on a few houses listed in the March/April timeframe of this year. Our initial thought was that we would purchase land and hold it until we were ready to have a house built. The parcels of land we looked at didn’t meet the criteria we wanted (good size, on the water, ability to build a dock). I started to feel like we were pressuring ourselves to make a decision for something that we didn’t actually need. 

We took a break and just kept an eye on Zillow. We went to see a new construction house on Herrington Lake, but it wasn’t actually on the lake. It was next to the community pool, across the street from the community’s dock, had 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms with a loft, and it was brand new. It even had a two car garage, which wasn’t something on our wish list. However, the price tag was high; it had been listed for many months, and we didn’t feel the comps supported such a cost for it not being literally on the lake. We spent a lot of time mulling it over, but decided to not even put an offer in. Lucky for the seller, they did get a full price offer shortly after that. 

I decided that we should wait at that point. I figured we may have better luck waiting until the end of the summer (perhaps people will think they’ll spend their last summer on the lake and then unload it?), and that we shouldn’t force this decision to not get exactly what we want for something that isn’t a necessity. 

THE FINANCIAL DECISION

If we purchased a $250,000 second home, and I assume an interest rate at 4.5% (even with excellent credit, the rates you see advertised are for primary residences), we’re looking at a mortgage payment of $1,200. On top of that, we’ll have escrow costs, HOA costs, the possibility of management fees, and then even PMI costs. That was another big factor; we’ve been throwing any ‘extra’ money towards paying off two rental property mortgages, so we don’t have $50,000 liquid to cover a 20% down payment. Without having the 20% down payment, it wasn’t even guaranteed that we’d be able to get a loan for a vacation house.

Knowing $250,000 was even more than we expected to spend, I conservatively assumed $1,200 in monthly house costs. Instead of spending $1,200 each month to go to the same destination over and over again, why don’t we just mentally allocate $1,200 each month to travel and go to all different places? And so, months of a crazy amount of travel began.


HOW DID WE SPEND OUR ENTERTAINMENT ALLOCATION?

MAY: $618

We started with a last minute trip to Atlanta to see the Braves. We spent 4 nights in Atlanta, went to two baseball games, met up with family for lunch, visited Stone Mountain, and explored the city parks. We stayed in a 2-bedroom hotel room because it was cheaper than any AirBnB options, and I was highly focused on giving the kids separate sleeping spaces. The hotel experience was less than favorable (dirty, AC broken, limited breakfast, roaches … and a good name hotel!), and after some conversations with the hotel, we ended up not paying for it. They had credited us one night without us asking after the AC continued to not work after their “fix.” Mr. ODA then had a casual conversation with the manager about the stay as he was checking out, and the manager credited a second night. I thought we paid for the rest of the nights, but it never showed up on the credit card. Our total trip cost was $460.

Later in May, we went camping in the Daniel Boone National Forest with some family. We booked a “cabin” (I used that term loosely; it was walls, a roof, and platforms for sleeping bags, but it had electricity and AC!) for two nights. We went swimming, rode bikes, and hung out under a canopy while it poured on us for most of the main day we were there. Our dog got to come on this trip, so we didn’t have any pet fees. We brought groceries to cover our meals since there’s nothing close by. Since we’d be buying groceries anyway and gas is negligible since it’s an hour away, I’ll just focus on lodging, which cost us $158.

JUNE: $200

Almost a year ago, we planned a trip with the extended family to Hocking Hills. This shouldn’t really count against our “monthly allowance” mentality since it was going to happen regardless, but I’m including it anyway since we didn’t do any other June trip. Mr. ODA’s parents covered the cost of lodging, and the rest of us covered the cost of food and our canoe rentals. We went hiking, got rained on, and played games at our rental. On the last full day, we rented canoes and went down the Hocking River, which was a great experience. We went with 6 kids, 3 of which were under 3 years old. So if you’re a beginner or looking for something to do with little ones, this was a fun time for $52 per canoe! This trip cost us about $200.

JULY: $690

Before we left Virginia, we discussed doing walk throughs of our properties and being more present with them. There were some properties that we hadn’t seen since we bought it because they don’t have maintenance requests or we call someone else for the work. Well, it was a whirlwind to move, and we didn’t do that last summer. After the debacle with the flooring replacement at one of the houses, we knew we needed to get back there to tie up loose ends. We have a wedding to attend in the area in September, but decided this couldn’t wait until then. The first weekend we could go ended up being the 4th of July. Being in Richmond, VA, there isn’t a large AirBnB market for a normal sized family. All of the options that were available were meant for multiple families in a large house, and we just aren’t interested in paying $700 per night for ourselves. We went with a hotel halfway between Richmond and our old neighborhood, and because we stayed for 5 nights, it was considered “long term,” and it only cost us $525, which included $75 for the dog being with us. Since our entertainment was either working on rental houses or visiting with our old friends, we just had food and gas costs. The total trip cost was $690 (and most of that was tax deductible!).

AUGUST $1069

We learned that St. Louis is only about 4.5 hours away from us, so we looked to see the Braves’ schedule. They were scheduled for mid-week games for the first week of August, so we marked it down. Unfortunately, things were busy, and I didn’t make the plans in advance. I struggled to find pet care for our dog, and I ended up booking an AirBnB the morning before we left. We searched and searched, and this one randomly popped up that morning, and it worked out well. Lodging cost us $585. Our entertainment (tickets and parking) cost us $135. Food and gas cost us $213. Total trip cost was $933.

My plan to visit my family in NY in July didn’t come to fruition because we had to manage 4 days worth of our builder being here to fix things in the house, and then I had a doctors appointment pop up that had to be a specific time. Instead of driving there and back (12+ hours each way), we booked some flights. We’re able to go from Cincinnati to JFK directly (such a blessing with 2 kids under 3!). The flight was 2 hours, plus an hour on each side for driving (although, it took us an hour and a half to get to my parents’ house when we landed at JFK because a 3:20 arrival, plus what felt like a 2 mile walk from the gate to passenger pickup, put us at getting on the Belt Parkway at 4 pm – that’s not good for that area!), and getting to the airport an hour early. We left out of LGA, but it was still a direct flight, and we arrived 25 minutes early! We had hardly any wait at TSA for either leg, no issues with boarding or the flight, and we got our gate checked bags easily. I’ll take 5-6 hours of travel over 12+ hours. The flights were booked through our Chase Travel Portal, costing us the equivalent of $833 in points. The parking is $9 per day, the gas to get there is negligible, and we actually didn’t spend anything on food (I very much owe my parents for that!). Our entertainment goal was to go swimming in my parents’ pool the whole time, and that’s just what we did! The trip cost us $36 in parking and $100 for our dog’s boarding.


On top of these long trips, we also did a lot more activities that were just for one day. We went to 2 Reds games, the Cincinnati Zoo several times, a UK baseball game, Bernheim Forest, and random family/friend activities. It turns out we didn’t spend the $1200 per month we had mentally allocated, but we kept ourselves really busy and had a great time making memories! 

Now it’s time to enter a new phase of life: preschool and sports! I’m pretty excited!

Visit St. Louis

While I plan on sharing all about our summer of travel at the end of the month, we thought this last trip deserved a post with more detail than what that post will entail. We went to St. Louis from 8/1 to 8/5. It’s 4.5-5 hours from Central Kentucky and a really easy drive on I-64.

When we mentioned to people that we were going there, it was usually a negative reaction. I was starting to get concerned about how safe it would be, but the moms in one of my Facebook groups always raved about their trips out there. I was concerned enough that I didn’t book our lodging until the day before we left.

LODGING

We went back and forth on whether our dog would take the trip with us, which affects our lodging options. Our usual sitter (through Rover.com… and if you’ve never used it, let me know because I could save you $20) wasn’t available for our trip dates, so it left us in limbo on what we wanted to do. Taking the dog with us hinders our ability to be out all day, but the more we thought about the logistics, it seemed none of our plans were for a full-day activity at once. I searched through Rover to see if there was anyone available for about $25-30 per night either near our home, or in Louisville, or in St. Louis. I came up with nothing. I contacted 3 different people in St. Louis who had availability on their calendar, but then they said they were busy.

Knowing that we’d have the dog with us, I went back and forth with whether to go for a hotel or AirBnB. At a hotel, I felt more confident that we’d have a clean and comfortable experience, plus we’d have the amenities of a pool and breakfast provided. St. Louis reinstated their mask mandate as of 7/26, so that may have limited the breakfast options to bagged food rather than something substantial. The pet-friendly hotel that I was looking at was about $700 for our stay to include the dog. I started looking at AirBnB and VRBO options. The pro to that type of option is that I can have separate bedrooms so that: 1) I can black out the windows with multiple layers of curtains for my children, and 2) we can still hang out in the house once the kids go to sleep.

If you’re looking at AirBnB in the area, stay away from any of the listings by “The Stay.” While one of their properties may have good reviews, nearly all of their properties have very bad reviews. I’ve never experienced as many listings with negative reviews as I did when searching this area. I’m used to deciding between someone with a 4.8 star or a 5.0 star review. “The Stay” had many negative reviews, and then there were even others in the area that had 3.0 star reviews. “The Stay” had all the same issues – the property wasn’t the same as the one pictured (that they circumvent by saying in their listing that pictures are of similar units), they provided the bare minimum on towels and linens, their doors were questionable if they closed and locked, and some units were even dirty.

I searched several times. The morning before we left, I found one that I hadn’t seen before. It was a 2 bedroom and pet friendly; she had a rating of 4.85, but the reviews were all glowing. I decided to go for it and messaged the host, who accepted our reservation request within the hour! Even better, it was only $585, where I was earmarking about $700 for lodging.

ACTIVITIES

St. Louis has a lot to offer. Many activities/attractions seem to have adopted a model where entry is free, but you pay for parking. There are many parks to explore, including the massive Forest Park, which is larger than Central Park in acreage. The parks have lots to offer – from sports to the arts, and they’re free. When we were in Atlanta, we explored parks, but the parking was always a beast, entry cost a bit, and the park was dirty and overused. Conversely, St. Louis’ parks are used, but not overused; parking is free, and there’s plenty of it; and they’re clean.

We visited the Gateway Arch, which is a staple. We made reservations online and paid their fee to ride to the top, which was $35 (2 adults, both kids were free). Their website includes a link to a nearby parking garage that is $9 for 5 hours of parking. The garage was about 3 blocks away from the entry to the Arch. Note that if you click the link, it auto populates for one hour; you need to manually change it to a 5 hour reservation. If you don’t make it a 5 hour reservation, then you’re charged for going over that 1 hour. We learned through experience. The parking garage was so nice about it though, and they refunded us for our screw up on the reservation when we had to pay for going over time.

There’s a museum that’s free under the arch; you still need to go through security, but you don’t need a reservation or have to pay the entry fee to see it. Once you get through the museum, you get in line for the ride to the top of the arch (either the north side or south side, based on your reservation). Strollers are permitted everywhere except here. We simply left our stroller at the bottom, and it was there when we returned. They give you some history about the arch and show you a video about the 60s and building the arch before you get in line for the elevator. Then you get in a little “pod” that takes you to the top. It’s little. It’s confined. It only has 5 seats. It’s “scary,” but only a 4 minute ride to the top. You spend a few minutes looking around, and then you head back down when the next group arrives. You’re assigned a “pod” number, so they make sure you leave with the group that you arrived with.

The Science Museum (pictured above with our itty bitty daughter waving to the dinosaur) is free! The parking is $12, which we paid. There were spots outside the museum on the street that were free, but we didn’t feel the need to seek a spot out. It was a last minute decision to go here. They closed at 5:30, and we wanted to get in as soon as possible since we were already arriving about 1:30. They had a lot to do there. Our almost-3-year-old had a great time exploring. They had dinosaurs, puzzles, arcade games, infrastructure exhibits, space exhibits, and a fire show to see. Everything was hands-on, and we had a great time. We really didn’t expect to spend nearly 4 hours there, but we did!

The Zoo is free! And it’s incredible! Parking in their lots (one on the south side and one on the north side) is $15. But we parked on the street in Forest Park and walked 0.4 miles to the entrance for free. Honestly, we planned on paying the $15, but we don’t like sitting in long lines to get somewhere. When we saw the line, we checked the map, saw it was about a 10 minute walk, and we just parked the car right there. It worked out perfectly. The zoo was well maintained and very shaded. We were impressed by the aesthetics of the exhibits for all the animals (e.g., grass, blending of tree protection instead of wire cages). We spent about 4 hours there, moving at a fairly slow pace. We contemplated purchasing the “Adventure Pass,” but decided against it. There are several activities within the zoo that you can pay for individually, or you can buy the Adventure Pass. For example, it’s about $8 per person to ride the train. That’s something that our son would really enjoy, but that seems steep. So we thought about the adventure pass, which is about $15 per person and includes the train, carousel, sea lion show, stingray exhibit, 4D theater, and a dinosaur exhibit. Our son would have loved all of those things, but as we wandered the zoo, we noticed all the lines were really long. Our two kids would not have enjoyed standing in long lines in the heat, so we decided to see how far we got without the activities. Since that brought up to nap time for our daughter, we decided to just go back to the AirBnB at that point.

We did a brewery tour at Anheuser-Busch. Tickets were $33 total for the adults. The tour was 75 minutes long with a lot of walking (and a lot of time spent outside). At the end, they gave us a bottle of beer to take home that was fresh off the production line (yet ironically we haven’t drank it yet), and then they gave us a beer from the tap to enjoy in the biergarten. Their food options were expensive though. We looked into an appetizer to enjoy with our beers since it was about lunch time, but chose to pass. The kids ran around the picnic table while Mr. ODA and I chatted and enjoyed our beers.

While on the tour, they mentioned Grant’s Farm. Their website hadn’t been very clear on what the experience entailed, so I had written in off. We decided to risk it. It was free admission, but you had to pay $15 for parking. We arrived and were still lost on what to do! We went to see the Clydesdales in their barn, and then we walked across the parking lot to a bridge. When we got to the other side, we were in a queue and still really lost – haha. We ended up getting on a tram that took us on a 20 minute ride through their property. We got to see a lot of animals like a safari tour (e.g., water buffalo, bison, several types of deer, yak), and then they dropped us off at the end. It was a zoo of sorts with a bunch of animals to look at, and some that you could feed for a fee (milk bottle for goats… which was only $2 and I would have done if it didn’t involve standing in a really long line with two kids in the heat; and pellets for llamas, cows, and goats in another section). They offered other things, like parakeet feedings ($7) and camel rides ($10). At the end, you enter a little german-looking village that had food for sale and some horses to see. Most interestingly, it had two free beers per adult. So again, we enjoyed our beers while the kids ran around the table and ate some pretzels!

The reason we picked this timeframe was because the Braves were in town playing the Cardinals. We bought tickets on StubHub for $23.80. We paid the $9 for the Arch parking garage for a 5 hour window; the garage is one block from the stadium. I still can’t believe it worked because game day parking was actually $25 or $30 for the garages on that block. We got to the garage at 5:30 for a 7:15 game, so we got a great parking spot that was easy to leave from (no long queues after the game lets out!). We explored the Ballpark Village before the game. There were lots of restaurants, but we had already eaten, so we just played with the giant games (Connect4, Jenga) in the center of the Village. We walked the whole stadium, as we like to do when visiting a new one. While it was nice, it wasn’t anything special. We really like how the Braves have a section for their history that you can visit, and we were surprised that this was a newer park and didn’t have such a section. The Braves won, so we ended on a great note.

FOOD

I’ve mentioned before that we don’t spend a lot of time or money on food when we travel. We’re not “foodies,” looking for the eclectic options of a region. We usually rotate between fast food options while we’re racing between activities. However, we purposely spent more time on this trip to spread everything out, so we ended up having an evening free. We went to the “Delmar Loop” to try a place that had good reviews: Blueberry Hill. We were disappointed. We tried fried raviolis, which claims to be a St. Louis “must have,” but other than that, it was just regular bar food (that was overpriced). The “Delmar Loop” was cool to walk down after dinner, but the drive to get there was sketchy.

SAFETY

There are areas of the city that are run down with boarded up buildings, just like with any city. While we drove through a couple of these areas, it wasn’t our destination. Even driving through it didn’t feel overwhelmingly unsafe (as it did in certain areas of Detroit). Our destinations were always in safe-feeling areas that were clean and well-lit. Whether we were downtown or in the suburbs (where our AirBnB was), we weren’t concerned.

As for the pandemic concept, the mask mandate was put into effect again right before we arrived. We had to wear masks for all indoor activities, regardless of vaccination status. Some places also required masks during entry (like at the zoo) or in crowded areas.

A FUN MIDWEST TOWN WITH A BUNCH TO OFFER

The whole trip was amazing. There was obviously a great selection for a family with young kids, but many more things to do if your traveling party is just adults. Bars, the Arts, Local Food, Museums, etc. There are even more things available to do (Botanical Gardens was one on our list if we had the time). The people we interacted with were all very pleasant, and the price was right. It’s worth putting on a travel list if you haven’t been!