(Traveling with Tigran, Irene Yeu and her mom Veronica, to Austria for the World Cup.)
Traveling for Tournaments
I had no idea when my son started fencing, that in a few years we would be traveling all over the country and even internationally, going to new cities, and having some great adventures together. There is a lot of stress and pressure involved in these trips, especially as fencing becomes a more and more important part of life. It is helpful, I think, to remember that there is more to this life than bouts and training and results, and I try to mix in some fun and unique experiences while traveling. When we went to a tiny town in Austria for the World Cup in October, after all of the fencing was over, we traveled to Vienna and spent a day exploring the city before flying home. Luckily, we get along well and enjoy traveling together, and through trial and error, together we have come up with a healthy routine to minimize the stress of traveling for competitive fencing. Stafford is an active part of this process. I try to involve him and expect him to remember ways that he can avoid stress, so it is not all on my shoulders. Please bear in mind, this blog is only my experience. While writing this, I have been talking to several other families about their experiences. This blog offers solutions that I have found in dealing with time change, unexpected travel delays, packing, but most importantly, trying to make the experience not only low stress, but also fun. In the end, of course, you will have to figure out what works best for your family and fencer.
In 2017-18, Stafford and I went to Kansas City, Anaheim, Memphis, Baltimore, Virginia Beach, and Vienna, Austria, with Saint Louis still to come. We also hit regional tournaments in San Diego and Escondido. And we anticipate the same amount of travel next year, barring injuries, etc. We have learned a lot on the road, and with each trip, we learn more. One of my biggest goals, as a mother and fellow traveler, is to avoid stress, support my son’s goals and make the experience of traveling and competing a positive one.
Your child is going to be under a lot of stress before a tournament. You are also going to be under a fair amount of stress. At least I am, and for me the stress is spread out among several issues, including packing (and not forgetting anything), logistics of getting from here to there, reservations, weather concerns, and finances. 2017-18 was especially stressful due to snowstorms, a closed airport in Norfolk, thunderstorms in Dallas, and other issues. Anticipation is an important element of avoiding stress. Keeping in mind what "might" happen, can certainly help if and when it actually does happen. And it is important to realize that some things you can control and some things you can’t. When things happen that are just out of your control, it helps to be able to roll with the situation and show your child that everything will be fine. Easier said than done.
Planning how to get where you are going can set the tone for the entire experience. Because of work and school issues, we typically leave the day before the event. Some people have the luxury of leaving two days before the event. I have not yet seen the need to do that. Note – this does not include international events, when you leave several days before the event.
Getting there - Basic travel tips:
· Sign up for TSA Precheck or, better yet, Global Entry. Global Entry costs $100, and it comes with TSA PreCheck. This has saved countless hours in security lines. It makes a difference and is a great investment. If you have an American Express platinum card, at this time you can sign up and they will reimburse the membership fee. For more info: Global Entry
· Tripit Pro, TripCase, Triplist, helpful apps for travel, packing, etc.
Tripit Pro and Tripcase keep track of your reservations, including flights, hotels, trains, etc. You can get notifications on delays, etc. Very helpful. In Triplist, you can create packing lists or import lists from excel, etc., and use them repeatedly. Tripcase and Triplist link together. I have created a fencing equipment list and a packing list that I shared with my son. As he packs his stuff he checks it off the list. It gives him a sense of independence and responsibility. It also keeps me calm. Don’t think however that means I don’t review everything on the way to the airport. And yes, we almost always have to pull over and check in the bag to make sure.
Book Your Hotel Early. USA Fencing releases the North American Cup schedule usually some time in May. In fact, the schedule for 2018-19 is already available online. Once they announce the schedule, they also include hotels at a discount rate. You will be charged, at this point in time though it could change, $4.50 at the time of booking for your room. Make your reservations for the duration of the event because the day schedule will not be available until closer to the tournament time. Last year USA Fencing announced the location for Summer Nationals in 2018 in April of 2017. I reserved a room, a double, at the Hilton, from June 27th through July 7th. I now know I need the room from the 27th through the 4th. It is much easier to change a reservation that to scramble for a room closer to the time. Figure for Summer Nationals there are several thousand fencers coming into town. Better safe than sorry.
Some Hotel Suggestions – The closer the hotel, the better.
I recommend choosing hotels that connect to the venue during winter months on the East coast, for obvious reasons. Nothing is worse than watching fencers struggle through snow or an icy wind with those big bags. I also recommend choosing hotels close to the venue for the rest of the NACs. Some fencing families intentionally stay far away from the convention centers so as not to be overwhelmed by all of the fencers visible all the time during these events. And sometimes, you can find cheaper rooms further away. However, for me personally, I know that Stafford is not going to be jumping out of bed at 5:30am to get to the venue by 7:00am. Especially if there is a time change. My goal is to make sure he gets a good night’s sleep, get him up, get him fed, and get him to the venue not only by close of check in, but with enough time to check and make sure his weapons are working, warm up, get in a few practice bouts. Often, the first day starts with equipment check, which can also take a lot of time.
· A word about equipment check – if you are not able to get everything checked the day before the actual fencing event, and the event starts early in the morning, be prepared to wait in line with your fencer’s equipment. I want Stafford to be focused on warming up. A light jog around the venue, jumping rope, etc. In these instances, I am happy to stand in line so he can prepare. And sometimes, that line can be long.
Also, these trips have proven a great opportunity to give Stafford a bit of freedom. When he was 11 or 12, I would let him go to the convention center by himself after we had gone together once. He loved the feeling of independence, and, if our hotel adjoined the convention center, or was across the street, I didn’t have to worry as much that he might get lost or forget to look both ways before crossing those streets.
Sign up for rewards programs at hotels.
· Try to Book a Direct Flight to the Event. Nothing is worse than flying in to some new city for a tournament, and having to worry about making a connection. And, lets face it, even if you have tons of time between flights, there are always those unexpected problems. Your first flight gets delayed so you miss your connection, or, after racing to the next gate, you find your connecting flight is stuck in Atlanta due to a tropical storm. You’ve already invested a lot in this event, not just the entry fees, but also the training and the time and emotion that goes into training. Why risk missing the actual event? Fly direct.
· Try to Book an Early Flight. If you are on an early flight and something happens to your flight, you are far more likely to be able to catch the next flight. If you are leaving later in the day, there might not be a later flight. Most of the NACs are in the Midwest or on the East Coast. Being from California, we have the serious disadvantage of dealing with a time change. If we are going to the East Coast, we have a three hour difference. The March NAC always lands on the weekend that the time springs forward. I have a great photo of my son on his way to check in at 7:00am, which was 4:00am our time. Getting up early to catch a flight helps kids (and parents) fall asleep early that night. I take any help I can get. Another reason for an early flight is so your child can get to weapons check the day before the event.
· Get to the Airport Early. This is a great way to start the trip and avoid unneeded stress. When I am running late, I get impatient. I snap at my son and usually we race out the door without something. And then, we both arrive at the airport frustrated and annoyed with each other. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport, check in, and get through security.
· Carry on the Mask, Glove, Fencing Shoes, and Jacket. Do not check them. Another important reason to book a direct flight is you have a better chance of getting all of your bags, including that fencing bag. Nothing is worse than the face of a fencer as he watches all of the other fencers claim their fencing bags at the end of the flight, and realizes his bag is not actually going to appear. I have seen fencers have to buy all new equipment the morning of the event. New glove, new mask, new jacket. So much for the glove that finally got worn in so it fits the hand perfectly. Weapons are easy to replace, and once your child is competing at the national level you will become familiar with the armorer and become accustomed to purchasing new weapons as well as repairing those blades that worked perfectly that morning. But masks, gloves, and shoes are important personal items, much harder to replace. And masks are expensive. One of our fencers lost her bag on a flight and it was delivered to the hotel at 3:00am. So that fencer and mom had a stressful night worrying about getting up early enough to replace the equipment, and then, the mother had to go down at 3:00am to claim it when it arrived, so neither got much sleep. I am happy to report that the fencer did very well the next day, despite the added stress. And she carries her mask, glove, shoes, and jacket with her now.
· Checking That Fencing Bag. I strongly recommend investing in a good fencing bag for traveling. We use a Leon Paul bag. A lot of fencers use a hard plastic case that is for golf bags. If an airline asks what the bag is when you are checking in, say it is sports equipment (which it is). If you say weapons or swords, you might get an uninformed baggage checker who is going to get concerned. If you are checking in your bag online ahead of time, just say it is a regular bag. If there are any issues with it, you can always deal with it at the airport. At worst, there might be an extra fee. I have never heard of a bag being refused, so don’t over worry about this. I almost never have any issues with traveling with a fencing bag. Southwest just checks them right through, and they don’t charge any baggage fee for the first bag. Some airlines will actually try to charge extra saying it is a bulky item. International Tip: A fencing mom whose daughter traveled to several World Cups gave me some great advice. If you are going to a World Cup and are traveling with another fencer, divide up the swords between fencing bags. This improves the odds that you both will have at least two swords. Hopefully both bags make it, but just in case….
· Bring Food for the Flight. This might seem obvious, but bring food for your child. I pack my carry on with food for my son, cliff bars, chips, fruit, Hawaiian rolls, pretzels, etc. You can’t take liquids through security, and so, for some reason, a lot of people think you can’t take food. You can. And you can bring it from home and avoid waiting in long lines for overpriced food at the airport once you get past security.
· Booking Your Return Flight. I try to book a flight leaving the day after my son fences. And, I make a reservation for the afternoon, not early in the morning. It is a luxury, which doesn’t actually cost anything more. Other than time. You never know how long these events will last, and having to worry about making a flight the night of an event when you would like to just focus on supporting your fencer is a drag. And your fencer can sense that tension. It is a challenge no matter what, but you certainly don’t need to add the stress of seeing the time frame slowly close on catching your late afternoon or evening flight. You can spot those parents a mile away, bent over ipads or squinting at phone screens, trying to figure out what flights are available the next morning, calling the hotels to add another night’s stay. Traveling on Southwest has definite advantages, as you can cancel a flight up to 20 minutes before, and get a full refund and apply that full fare to travel the next day. No penalties. Thank you, Southwest! Another advantage to leaving in the afternoon the next day is you get to wake up without stress and just enjoy a little break from fencing and school, a little mini-vacation. And you have time to yourselves. So often during these NACs, all day is spent at the venue. My son and I have so many great memories of cities that we would not have even seen if we didn’t stay that extra half-day. In Milwaukie, for example, after a long weekend of fencing, because we chose to fly out in the afternoon the day after fencing, we were able to sleep in, go say hi to our friends who were fencing on Monday, and then take a great walk along the river and explore the city. That was the only time we had on that trip that wasn’t either in the hotel or in the convention center. In Kansas City, when it was raining, we had a fierce couple of ping pong games on the top floor of our hotel before we checked out. We didn’t even know our hotel had a ping pong table before that last morning. This isn’t just about fencing. Or at least, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be.
· Have Some Fun! Research the cities. In the past two years we have been to Dallas, Seattle, Cleveland, Baltimore, Milwaukie, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Virginia Beach, and Saint Louis. We are getting a chance to see cities that we might never have visited otherwise. It is nice to take some time to really experience these places. Find a local restaurant. Try the local flavors. Memphis and Kansas City have great barbeque. Milwaukie has a great river walk. Also, if we have a free day between events, we will try to get a group of the kids together and go to a movie. It is great to find a way to forget about the fencing and all of the stress for a while. I hate that phrase "making memories" because it seems to take spontaneity out of the equation. Enjoy. Even if everything goes wrong, it can be great. And, my philosophy is nothing ever really goes wrong. It just changes. This is all a great adventure. So, are you ready?
Kathryn Atwood, fencing parent for seven years. I welcome any comments, questions, suggestions for topics, etc.