Thursday, June 13, 2013

Daytripping: Amtrak Capitol Corridor to SF Exploratorium and Pier 39

This is the week that both of my boys are out on summer vacation before my youngest returns for 4 weeks of summer school. My plan was to take them to San Francisco via Amtrak. Follow me as I recount our day trip.

We live in the Sacramento region of California. On a good day it's about a two hour drive to San Francisco from where we live. I don't mind driving; I don't even mind driving in San Francisco. I grew up in the Bay Area, lived in Oakland for a number of years, and spent alot of time in SF. I always liked living in Oakland because it was only a bridge away from SF.  Even though I love SF, I never wanted to live there. The reason? Parking sucks. It's not the driving that bothers me; it's the parking. Oh, and freeway traffic sucks, too.

With this in mind, I thought it would be cool to take the boys on an Amtrak ride and spend the day at Pier 39. If you are considering a similar day trip, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. The Amtrak train does not go to SF.
You take a train to Emeryville and then board a bus to SF. There are several bus stops in SF: Ferry Building, Financial District, Moscone Center, Caltrain Station, Shopping Center, Civic Center, and Fisherman's Wharf. The Fisherman's Wharf bus stop actually drops you off at Pier 39, but Fisherman's Wharf isn't too far. The Ferry Building bus stop is down by Pier 1. If you're going to the Exploratorium, which is located at Pier 15, then you could use either of those two bus stops.

2. Decide how many bus-train transfers you want to make.
Even though it's called "The Capitol Corridor" and runs from Auburn to San Jose, it's not always a direct train service. If you are coming from the Auburn, Rocklin, or Roseville stations, you might have to take a bus to Sacramento and then catch the train in Sac to Emeryville. (Keep in mind that you'll disembark at Emeryville.) Of course, it goes without saying that the most direct service is also the earliest service. However, I chose the one train and one bus option because I wanted to make as few transfers as possible. The price is the same regardless of what you choose; it just depends on how early you want to get started. If you live close to Sacramento, just go to the Sacramento Amtrak station.

3. Be prepared to transfer quickly.
We had less than 5 minutes to make our connections. This wasn't a problem going from train to bus as the bus driver had to scan each person's ticket. However, going from bus to train on the way home, we had to haul it. It's not as bad as it sounds unless you or your child have mobility issues. I don't want to scare you off, but prepare yourself for the fact that there is almost no time to linger between connections.

4. Amtrak is not cheap, but it's convenient and comfortable.
Don't think that taking the train is a cheap way to go. The fares listed in the above picture are for 1 adult and 2 kids each way from Auburn. Note: Fares may change at any time, so be sure to go to the Amtrak web site for the latest fares. My plan was to include the train ride as part of the day's fun. Both of my kids thoroughly enjoyed the train ride, and I enjoyed bypassing all of the freeway traffic and avoiding the parking in SF.

5. BYO snacks and water.
There is a cafe car on the train, but I think it's a little pricey. If money is no object to you and this is part of the overall experience, then go for it. I like to economize when I can, so I brought some water, crackers, and granola bars. Plus, I like having my own water when we're doing alot of walking.

View of the Bay Bridge from the Exploratorium at Pier 15
We got to SF at 10:00am. Most of the people got off at the Ferry Building, but four of us were going to Pier 39. As we were passing the Exploratorium at Pier 15 on our way to Pier 39, the bus driver mentioned that he thought it was free on Wednesdays (it wasn't). The other lady on the bus said that my boys would have a wonderful time there, especially my youngest son. The Exploratorium had not been on my agenda, but I said we'd go. The bus driver was very kind and let us off well before the Pier 39 bus stop. He only did this because there were four of us on the bus; I'm positive this would not have happened with a full bus.

As it turned out, the lady and the bus driver were correct: my boys had a wonderful time at the Exploratorium. No, it wasn't free on this Wednesday and yes it was pricey. However, it's one of the few places that both of my boys enjoyed. All of the exhibits are touchy-feely, so they're perfect for kids. My youngest son was absolutely giddy when exploring the sound exhibits. All in all, we spent about two hours at the Exploratorium. I will definitely be taking them again before the summer is over.

The sea lions at Pier 39
After a quick bite to eat at the Exploratorium's cafe, we walked to Pier 39. My original plan included lunch at Pier 39 and then going to Ghirardelli Square for some chocolate and then hanging out at Fisherman's Wharf. Because of the detour, we did not have time to go to Ghirardelli Square mainly because my youngest son is a slow walker. We stayed at Pier 39 and found a chocolate place. My oldest son was in heaven. We saw the sea lions and I was blown away by the size of those animals; the picture doesn't do them justice.

Since the Amtrak bus stop is right in front of Pier 39, we didn't have to walk too far. We caught the bus back to Emeryville and quickly boarded a train bound for Auburn. On the return trip, we sat on the top level of the train. The boys and I were tired. As we passed Hwy 80 and I saw all of the traffic, I was glad to be aboard the Amtrak train. All in all, another fun day trip.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Summer Lunches: Check the Freezer

Today is the last day of school for my boys. Our annual tradition is that I take them out to lunch after school. We're trying a new burger place, which I'm told has awesome milkshakes and fries. And burgers. Yum!

Although we like going out to eat, my bathroom scale and my checkbook both dictate how often we can do this. You may have guessed that it's not very often. In order to circumvent these benevolent dictators as well as trying to be frugal and fun, I started the tradition of buying prepared freezer food and Top Ramen noodles to have on hand for summer lunches.  I never said it was healthy, but then eating out isn't healthy either.

Whenever my oldest son asks if we can go to McDonald's I say, "Check the freezer." If he complains, I remind him that he is the same kid who will eat peanut butter sandwiches every day during the school year and that he's welcome to eat one of those.   My youngest son is more flexible in his lunch preferences so he is easier to please. He's happy with the chicken nuggets or the frozen burritos.

Is this really frugal? No. The most frugal option, of course, is to eat leftovers or make a sandwich. However, I look at it this way: there are some foods that I only buy at certain times of the year, like pumpkin pie. I only buy pumpkin pie in the fall. If buying prepared freezer foods is something that I only do during summer, then I'm okay with it. And buying prepared foods is cheaper than eating at a restaurant - even a fast food restaurant. By the time you buy a burger, fries, and a drink you can easily spend $4 - $6 per person. Is any of this necessary? No, but my kids enjoy it and it gives me a break from making lunches. Happy Summer!


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