If you think taking your kids on vacation is rough, try eight or 12.
As the mother of eight, Mary Ann Pfleger has made it her business to know a lot of little things. Like whose socks belong on whose feet and whose turn it is to do the dishes.
But on her last vacation trip by car to the beach, she also knew one very big thing: On Tuesdays and Sundays, cheeseburgers at McDonald's cost 39 cents.
This is the kind of vital information that parents of large families hoard like gold, in a never ending quest to make it through each day in the most cost-efficient manner while savoring the richness of life with lots of children.
When it's summer vacation season, large families face their own special challenges: from fitting into the car to surviving a trip to a restaurant without breaking the bank to keeping everyone from killing each other.
"The secret is lots and lots of Valium," joked Pfleger, 44, who lives in Pittsburgh.
Actually, she said, the family now travels in two cars. "The last time we went in one, it was kind of rough."
"We can't afford junk food with eight kids," she said, noting that she usually packs vegetables and sandwiches to be eaten during a stop at a picnic area along with soda pop poured into paper cups. But the family got a fast food treat on their way back from the beach three years ago because of careful planning.
"We deliberately drove back on a day when McDonald's had its discount. We ended up ordering 32 cheeseburgers, and it took a half an hour to make them, but they brought them out to the parking lot, no problem," she said.
AAA, the national auto club, dispenses plenty of advice for large families with small children: drive at night, if possible, to avoid construction and traffic; make frequent stops; play road trip games; provide plenty of snacks; and issue headsets for teenagers to avoid arguments over music.
But such rules are made to be broken, and the parents interviewed for this story had developed their own unique ways of coping with life on the road.
A relatively relaxed mother — "I just can't get all bent out of shape if the laundry isn't done" — Pfleger is extremely well-organized, due in large part to the fact that she has plenty of baby-sitting help. Her three oldest girls look after her five younger sons.
"I thank God for giving me girls first, three built-in baby-sitters," she said, noting that she relies on lists "and everyone has chores to do. My Jennifer, who's 20, loves to organize the boys' clothes (for a two-week trip, that's four outfits per boy — shorts, a T-shirt and underwear all rolled up into a little ball and packed in a plastic container). Megan, who's 21, will get the laundry ready. And Heather occupies the little ones while I pack."
Terri Aquilina's family is somewhat smaller than Pfleger's, but with five children ranging in age from a 12-year-old boy to a nursing infant, she also plans trips with military precision — play lots of Al Simmons kids' tapes, take plenty of Barbies and coloring books, and rely on her older children to keep order with the younger ones.
"Rule one, when the baby's sleeping, we don't stop. Rule two, take plenty of drinks and food, but don't give it away all at once."
Rich and Kathy Fitzgerald have their annual trip with their eight children to Bethany Beach in Delaware down to a science, albeit one that violates AAA's dictum to make frequent stops.
"We leave at 5 a.m., and once we get in the car, we don't stop," Kathy Fitzgerald said. "The less time in the car, the happier everyone is. There's no food or drink; otherwise, everyone would have to go to the bathroom. By 10, we're about an hour and a half from the beach, so we stop at this McDonald's where the kids can order food and drinks. But no one gets out of the car unless there's a major bathroom emergency. By the time we get to the beach an hour or so later, the kids can go to a public restroom and then head for the beach while we wait for our accommodations to be ready."
Each child has one small duffel bag, "although the girls always want extra stuff — diaries, the hair things, the shoes, while my son would wear the same T-shirt for a week if we let him."
One disaster people may wonder about with large family trips has never happened to Pfleger. She has never left a child behind by mistake.
"Roll call is key," she said.
Stan and Marie Klos might get the award for most daring journey by a large family. They decided to drive their eight children to Disney World during spring break.
"It was wonderful," Marie Klos recalled of the 10-day adventure featuring four girls and four boys between the ages of 3 and 14.
"I packed as little as possible, which wasn't too tough since the kids would be wearing summer clothes," she said. Each child carried his or her own fanny pack filled with water bottles that had been frozen the night before and bags of raisins and granola.
For the most part, traveling with a lot of children isn't the nightmare it's cracked up to be, especially because many large families have learned how to get along in close quarters, Marie Klos said.
And there's some wistfulness in her voice, because this year, for the first time, the family is splitting up. Four children are going out to Wyoming on a dinosaur dig with their father, while she takes her youngest children and her older sons to the beach.
"I think big families don't tend to travel as much as smaller families, because it's so much more of a production. But when they do go, it's more special and the kids seem to be better behaved.
"It is a treat, and we tell them that, that this is a gift, something really special. And I think they would agree that it is, too."