Chicago: A Tale of Two Munchkins, part one

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If you’re lucky enough to have nieces and nephews, you’re lucky enough.

You might say Greg and I are some of the most fortunate people on the planet as we have a whopping twenty, with two more on the way. Our siblings have produced tomboys and girly girls, athletes and gamers, sweet angels and little punks, and all of them are incredibly good looking, talented, smart, and funny. One of our favorite things is to get them away from their parents, as everyone knows children are real boneheads when their parents are around. And by boneheads I mean dickcissels. Numbnuts. Morons. Jerks. Crybabies. A-holes, take your pic. But away from them they’re practically perfect in every way. Well, for the most part.

Now we don’t believe in buying kids presents, as we don’t believe in buying ourselves presents. We don’t believe in things, we believe in experiences. Quality time. Real life. That’s one of my favorite personal quotes: “This is real life.” We’re happy to share this real life with others, whether it’s through hiking, or camping, or birding, or road tripping, so when we decided to go to Chicago this summer to see the Cubs we wanted to take a couple of babes along for the ride. Of course with twenty to choose from we had some weeding to do. We wanted kids who:

  1. We hadn’t taken somewhere before.
  2. Don’t get homesick.
  3. Get along with other kids.

If you know our niece Mya and nephew Mason, you know together they are a no-brainer. Aside from being #totesadorbs, they are funny and fun and low maintenance, plus they’d never gotten to go on any ‘big kids’ trips or anywhere with us, they’re able to stay the night(s) away from their parents, and though they’re first cousins they’re as close as siblings. Like I said, no-brainer.

Now I’m definitely more of a rule-maker than Gregory, but I suppose that’s typical of men and women. I’m also definitely more of a rule-enforcer than Gregory and sometimes we like to get into parenting arguments even though we don’t have any babies of our own. You talk about productive. I expect kids to mind, Gregory expects kids to mind most of the time. I say that one time our kid doesn’t mind us is the time he runs into traffic and we’re scooping him off the street with a spatula. Look, I’m pretty easy with kids. I don’t expect kids to be seen and not heard, I don’t expect them to not get their clothes dirty or their shoes muddy. I don’t expect them not to dump Mtn. Dew on their heads when they’re hot, or not to get syrup from the tops of their heads to the bottoms of their feet when they eat pancakes. I don’t expect kids to know bug spray will take the finish off a metal door, or that it’s not okay to kick someone in the head just because they’re wearing a helmet. Their brains aren’t fully formed, I get that. I’m fully supportive of kids being kids, as that’s what makes them so fun. Just mind us, be polite, and don’t lie, and we’ll get along just fine.

Join the Warckens as we experience traveling with multiple kids for the first time, and learn to adjust our budget for two more people.

Not to toot our own horns or anything, but Greg and I are champion road trippers, and we learned a lot about ourselves living out of THE VAN last summer. We like to take our time. Where we used to drive 900 miles a day, now 500 miles is a huge undertaking. Since Greg started wearing a FitBit, we get out to walk about every 100 miles so he can get his steps in. We no longer drive at night, choosing instead to get to our destination in time for supper and a walk, or a swim.  We never go through drive-thrus and we rarely eat in the car; that’s what picnic tables are for. Now all of these things are just great for traveling with kids. We brought a football along for the car and whenever we stopped we’d get out and play catch, or race, or play on playgrounds. Exercise, pee, and wash hands every 100 miles, that’s our plan.

Running them out in Minnesota.
Riverside picnic in Wisconsin.

We took two days to get to Chicago from Fargo, mostly because we didn’t want to pay for parking in the city. You know what it costs to park there? $47 A DAY. Can you imagine? Well obviously that wasn’t an option for the Warckens. I had received two offers from IHG for my next paid stay- one for 7,000 points + 1,000 points for a friend (sorry friends, they went to Greg), + another 3,000 points for being an elite member. I booked the cheapest IHG I could find with a pool within two hours of Chicago- a Holiday Inn Express in Rockford, IL, and though we paid $110 for the night, we earned enough points for two free nights down the road.

Before we left we had stocked up on picnic food and snacks for the games: sunflower seeds (they call them sun seeds in the north), turkey sausage, string cheese, pork rinds, peanuts (but no Cracker Jack), cuties, apples, and peanut butter, and I snuck in some dark chocolate and ThinMints (thanks Steph!) to maintain the kids’ energy in case ball games went too long. We issued one water bottle to each kid, but were disappointed to find they had both been destroyed by the time we got to Rockford. I mean, I never thought to tell someone “Don’t chew holes in your water bottle” because I didn’t know that would ever be like, a concern. We issued one more bottle to each of the kids and warned them this was all they were getting for the rest of the trip. We left Rockford just after breakfast on Memorial Day and drove into that big ol’ city, the kids ooo’ing and ahh’ing from the back seat at the enormous planes landing at O’Hare, and the enormous buildings downtown. Seeing the world through the eyes of babes, that’s about as good as it gets.

Since Greg and I are IHG MasterCard holders, we each get an annual free night stay. We didn’t have any other plans for them, so we used them to stay downtown Chicago. We debated between the Holiday Inn Express with its free breakfast, and the InterContinental with its nice pool, but in the end opted for the free breakfast. Full disclosure: the kids ate Fruit Loops every morning. Sometimes pancakes too, but Fruit Loops every day. At least Greg and I could load up on eggs and meat, and we were able to make pb&js to take with us on picnics. I’m sure people thought I was a real porker every morning taking  a pile of bread back to the room, my pockets stuffed with peanut butter and assorted jellies and honey, but the way I see it is some people probably eat as much for breakfast as Greg and I do for breakfast and lunch, so I don’t feel so bad about taking a little extra. And budgeting for food is great when you don’t have to! Aside from the snacks we bought beforehand, we didn’t use any of our travel budget for food. We ate at the hotel for breakfast, picnicked for lunch, and ate one meal out every night on Greg’s plasma money. With groceries and going out to eat we averaged less than $35/day on food for four people, which is great considering our pizza alone was $38.78 after tip. I’m telling you, donating plasma is great for travel! And it like, helps people, you know.


Rooms at the Holiday Inn Express Magnificent Mile would’ve cost us over $300/night early in the week, and over $700/night on a weekend if we had paid cash. Well we love these kids but not that much. Instead, we booked one night with 25,000 IHG points + $70, and got the next two nights for free.  The hotel is smack in the middle of downtown in the historic Hotel Cass, just two blocks from Michigan Ave. We were on the 10th floor with a view of, well, other 10th floors around us. As I said, we weren’t going to pay for parking downtown so when we arrived I ran inside to see about checking in or at least storing our luggage while we went to a day game. Hooray, they had one ready at 10:30a! We had a bellman take our luggage up (what are we, millionaires?) while Greg stayed in the car in a 15-minute zone. Everyone was ready for the game so we tossed our things in, tipped the bellman, and headed north to Wrigleyville.

We didn’t buy any baseball tickets in advance, but Greg had been keeping an eye on Craigslist for some good deals. I’d only ever been to Wrigley when it was freezing cold or raining, so I wanted the kids to experience it as it should be- in the glaring sunshine of the Budweiser Bleachers. There are cheaper tickets to be had, but Greg’s parents had given us some fun money to show their grandbabies a good time, so we splurged on Memorial Day tickets in left-center. Greg found two season tickets on Craigslist that we picked up at a local bar, and we waited to find two more at Wrigley. The Warckens have developed a system for getting to ball games in Chicago- park on our friend Joe’s street and walk 1.5 miles to the ballpark. Good exercise going in to prepare for all the food about to be consumed, good exercise going home to burn it all off, and it don’t cost nothin’. Turns out Mya and Mason are champion walkers, and good thing. We stopped at a park about halfway to Wrigley to picnic in the shade, and burn some of the kids’ energy as we were still pretty early for the game. Every day we left the hotel we took a picnic lunch, a football, gloves and a couple of balls.


Greg walked on ahead to find more tickets while I stayed back to keep the kids entertained. Unfortunately the kids got a little hot playing catch and they were already begging for shade before we ever made it to the Bleachers. Uhhh… I hate to break it to you, kiddos, but we might never see shade again. We stopped at a convenience store to refill the kids’ water bottles, and to fill their hats up with water so they could soak their heads. Greg had found two more season tickets by the time we got to Wrigley so we joined the queue to get into the park 10 minutes early with all the other season ticket holders. Two hours and ten minutes early, mind you. A Warcken is never late to a ball game. We rushed the kids down and established ourselves on the front row. Unfortunately the Dodgers weren’t taking batting practice (BP, to the layperson), so we were looking at two hours of blazing hot boredom. I took the kids to wander the park, soak in the misters, load up on free sunscreen(!) in the Bleachers bathrooms, and play Heads Up! until game time, and they did just great. I tell you what, I don’t know if those two were threatened we might give them away if they asked for anything, or if they’re just used to not getting anything in public, but neither of them ever asked for a thing. They didn’t ask for a drink other than their standard-issued water, they didn’t ask for nachos or a hot dog, they didn’t ask for a t-shirt or a baseball. It was unbelievable!

It was a slow game, and hot. Did I mention hot? I’m like a living solar panel, so when I’ve had too much sun people around me are most likely melting. They handed out Ryne Sandberg flags to the first 10,000 fans and they came in great use for providing shade to the children. Oh, and Ryno conducted the 7th Inning Stretch, which was pretty cool. Even though there weren’t many hits it was still exciting every time a team took the field because we could try to get a ball from an outfielder. Jason Heyward played center that day, and quickly because one of the kids’ favorites, I think mostly because they could read his jersey. Poor Joc Pederson played center for the Dodgers and it was a non-stop bashfest from the Bleachers. “Pederson, Pederson, Pederson, YOU SUCK.” “Pederson sucks, Pederson sucks, Pederson sucks.” He mostly ignored them, but gave a big shrug to “Hey Pederson, you think your average would improve if you batted right?” The Bleachers are both magical and terrible for kids, as Bleacher drunks can get foul-mouthed and belligerent, and they like to spill beer on everyone around them. But if you can ignore them, the proximity to the field and the players is just awesome. We were lucky enough to see the Cubs win and got out of there while it was still daylight.

We left the car on Joe’s street for the duration of our trip (it’s free! Don’t cost nothin’!), and he suggested we walk four blocks to the Belmont stop on the Red Line to avoid the crowds at Addison. A Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) employee talked us through our different options for riding the rails. It was $20 per person for a 3-day pass on the subway and bus lines, but if we bought a Ventra card, we could load it like a debit card AND get discounted fares for the kids. Thank YOU, kind sir at the Belmont station. It’s $5 to start a new card, but you get your $5 back instantly when you register the card online or over the phone. We put $20 on our new card and Belmont man scanned the kids in for discounted fares, and Greg and I scanned in as adults. There aren’t any passes or tickets you can buy for reduced tickets, as tons of people would claim they were 8 years old, so you must have an attendant scan you in for kids’ fares every time. It takes a bit longer, but it costs a lot less. It would’ve been $80 if we had bought everyone 3-day passes, or $52 if we had bought everyone one-way tickets, but with the Ventra card we paid just $33.85 to get the four of us around for four days in Chicago, and we saved nearly $150 in parking. That’s a lot of McNuggets. It’s rare that Gregory and I will buy a lump fare for anything, be it for mass transit or city passes, unless we plan on visiting every single attraction in a city. We find we save a lot more money looking for free days, discounted fares, and by walking more than riding. I’ve never forgotten the words of my friend Adam as we strolled along Michigan Ave one fine summer day and I asked if Navy Pier was within walking distance. “Anything is within walking distance if you have the time.” I just love that, and it’s true.

The kids got to take their first subway ride to the Chicago stop where we disembarked and headed for the nearest Giordano’s Pizzeria. There was a 45 minute wait, but they let you order as soon as you put your name on the list, so we were happy to sit outside and wait for that glorious pie. Mason declared it the best pizza he’d ever had, and we couldn’t have been prouder. It was a short walk back to our hotel and we played farkle until we couldn’t keep our eyes open.

Heads Up! is a great travel tool for passing the time. It’s free and everyone can play.
Ah God that pizza.

What a great first couple of days with these kids! No crying, no fighting, no injuries, and we maintained a real Warcken budget. Can we possibly keep it up? Stay tuned!


Check out our other Chicago with Munchkins posts:

Part Two

Part Three

3 thoughts on “Chicago: A Tale of Two Munchkins, part one

    1. Everyone assumed they were brother and sister, but no one asked if they were twins. Yeah, they’re alright.

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