Previewing the family road trip of my dreams

Come June, this will be us.

Come June, this is how many days will end.

It’s easy to make excuses to put off big trip. We lead busy lives. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Especially for family travelers, it seems there’s always a convenient excuse to cite as the reason for NOT taking the vacation of your dreams.

Which is precisely why it’s so liberating to finally say, “No excuses,” and take the leap.

This concept of “No Excuses” is the basis of a major advertising campaign from Expedia, one of my biggest clients. And because I’m the senior editor of the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog (a great source of inspirational travel content, by the way), the concept also was the basis of a recent blog post, which was published on the site earlier this weekend.

In the post, I essentially preview what will become our big trip of the summer—a three-week (and maybe longer) road trip from our home in Northern California to the San Juan Islands in Washington State.

As I note in the post, the SJIs hold a special place in my heart, and I’ve dreamed of taking my family there for more than a decade. Finally, with the support of Expedia, we’re making the trip happen in a big way.

Our plan is simple. We’ll rent a house. We’ll explore. We’ll watch for whales. I’ll run a half-marathon. And we’ll just relax.

Sure, we’ll book some day trips (I mention a few of them in the post itself). And, as of right now, it looks like my inlaws will join us for part of the time. But there’s no grand scheme. We try to take one big trip every summer, and the goal of that trip is to assimilate, to become part of the local zeitgeist. This trip to the San Juans will be no different.

I’ve made excuses for years—the girls were too young, they wouldn’t appreciate it, blah blah blah. The truth: The time for excuses is done. I’m delighted and excited to finally have the opportunity to take my family on this adventure. To be honest, June can’t come soon enough. (Oh, and stay tuned for updates.)

Where have you always dreamed of visiting and why?

The evolution of hiking chatter

R, in full hiking attire.

R, in full hiking attire.

As an avid hiker, I’ve spent a good tenth of my life ambulating on trails. Most of those hikes have been alone or with friends. In recent years, however, many have been with different companions: my daughters, L and R.

Naturally, the change in partners has resulted in some subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences, as well.

Specifically, the chatter is a lot different with my kids.

I have spent most of my solo hikes, for instance, daydreaming about winning millions in the World Series of Poker Main Event. In my 20s and early 30s, when I hiked a ton with guy friends, we spent the majority of each tromp talking about girls (as in, women we were dating, not 3- and 5-year-olds).

Now, of course, since I do most of hiking with my own kids, conversation ranges from the educational (“Wow, honey, that’s a madrone!”) to the inspirational (“I love the sound of the wind in the oak leaves”). Sometimes, especially when we come upon animal poop, it’s comical (“Dad, what does frog poop look like?”).

Still, I’m not sure any hike chatter can beat the game I played on a recent midday hike with Little R.

We were hiking in an open space preserve near our house here in Northern California. About halfway out on a two-mile loop, the kid was getting restless and I asked her if she wanted to play a game. She responded by creating a clue-based quiz about Disney princesses. The rules were pretty simple: She gave me clues and I had to guess which princess she was describing. I got a point for every princess I guessed correctly.

Over the course of that second mile, we went through EVERY princess, twice. She liked the game so much she insisted we continue playing back at the house. (I think “Ariel” was an answer nine times.)

Was the game my idea of fun? Not exactly; I can deal with Disney but something about the mix of Disney and nature just feels wrong. Still, I embraced it; considering how hard it is to get kids to embrace the outdoors these days, I’ll take whatever sort of motivation I can get.

I might even suggest the “Princess Game” on our next tromp. I’ll just have to study to improve my score.

Great tips for improving family vacations

Tip: Have kids do research before a big trip.

Tip: Have kids do research before a big trip.

I enjoy many benefits of being on the Board of Directors of the nascent Family Travel Association (FTA). One of my favorite perks: Getting to know people such as fellow Board member Keith Bellows.

Keith, emeritus Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveler, has been an advocate of family travel for years. Covering it was a priority of his when he headed up editorial coverage at Traveler. He also wrote books and longer articles on the subject himself.

His most recent piece, which appeared today on the FTA blog, might be my favorite of his family travel pieces ever. In it, he lists 10 very simple tips for improving our family vacations. Some of the tips are straightforward—most of us traveling with children likely would share experiences with them and regale them with stories and myths about our destinations before we go. Other tips are new and life-changing; Keith’s expertise changed my entire perspective on how I’ll approach our next family trip.

My favorite tips of his promote individuality in kids. No. 1 on my list: His tip to give each kid $10 to spend on whatever he or she wants every day, so long as the purchase is a tangible good that is difficult to find at home.

Other highlights IMHO include giving kids destination-specific challenges to solve on the trip, and encouraging them to make and/or tell their own stories about the experience.

I won’t steal all of Keith’s thunder; for a more complete POV on his tips, read the whole piece here.

Once you’ve read it, feel free to add some tips of your own in the comment field below. I’ll make sure Keith sees them before our next board meeting. Who knows? Maybe you can change his life the way he has changed mine.

Ashton Kutcher feels our pain

Our new spokesperson. Credit: Jason LaVeris, FilmMagic.

Our new spokesperson. Credit: Jason LaVeris, FilmMagic.

In America, for better or for worse, nothing really is news until a celebrity deems it so. With this in mind, thank goodness we traveling dads have actor Ashton Kutcher on our side.

Kutcher was gallivanting in Los Angeles with his daughter this weekend. The kid needed a diaper change. But when Kutcher looked for a public restroom with a changing table, he came up empty. So he Facebooked about it. And his 18.7 million followers listened in a big way.

Within 24 hours, the episode was grabbing headlines on E! and other news sites. Two days after the post, his initial rant (if you want to call it that) had garnered 220,000 likes. Three days out—in other words, this morning—the subject had crept into the national discussion, popping up on morning news broadcasts and talk shows from sea to shining sea.

As the father of two girls who is out and about with them all the time, I can’t help but be amused.

I mean, Kutcher is right: More men’s rooms need more changing tables, absolutely yes. But thousands of traveling dads (including yours truly; this post was published back in 2012) have been saying the same thing for years, and nobody has so much as moved a muscle about it, ever.

Now that we’ve got this mouthpiece, here are a number of other fatherhood/travel issues I propose Kutcher espouse:

  • How condescending it is when strangers see us dads out and about with our kids on a weekday and think it must be “mom’s day off.”
  • The assumption that because we’re dads, our jobs are to schlep the family luggage through airports.
  • The proliferation of “Mommy Groups” that don’t include dads.

While he’s at it, I’d love for Kutcher to become the face of the anti-family travel hater movement. Even if he and Mila and Wyatt flew coach JUST ONE TIME and suffered the fools who assume the worst when they see parents and a young baby, raising awareness about their “hardships” could help the rest of us tremendously.

Kutcher, dude, we’re counting on you. Don’t let this opportunity disappear.

Potty breaks while traveling solo with kids

Too old for the men's room? Then what?

Too old for the men’s room? Then what?

I travel a ton alone with my girls. And considering that they are developing female humans and I am a grown male, sometimes potty breaks while we’re out and about can be a bit, well, dicey.  Naturally, then, when a reader wrote in recently with a question about how to handle this very scenario, I figured it was time to address the point here.

The bottom line: There’s no good answer here.

At the heart of this issue is the question about the cutoff age for children of the opposite sex being in a restroom. There’s no hard and fast rule here, but generally speaking, I’d say the age is somewhere around 4 or 5.

This is the age when kids start to internalize differences in body types; the age when daughters might notice certain parts near the urinal, or when sons might feel the need to comment about sanitary napkin pails. It’s also around the age when strangers (in this case, other grown-ups) might become uncomfortable with your kids seeing them doing their business.

I know at my gym, the rule is that no opposite-sex kids over the age of 4 are allowed in locker rooms. I know other gyms and YMCAs have that same cutoff. Personally I use that as my barometer.

Of course it’s not always so easy; especially when complying with this (totally arbitrary) rule could put your child in danger. Let’s say I need to use the men’s room in a crowded airport—do I leave L standing by herself outside?

Sometimes, sort of, yes.

My first choice in this situation always is to look for family restrooms. These usually are private rooms that comprise one toilet and one sink—and have a door you can close and lock so you and the kids can do your thangs without fear of interruption. Many airports offer this amenity (one at PDX recently saved R and me during an extended flight delay), and a growing number of shopping destinations do, too.

If I can’t find one of these wonder rooms, I usually have the girls “give a pee-pee concert.” This is our code for my Backup Bathroom Plan B.

In this scenario, I go into the bathroom to do my business and have the girls stand right outside the door, belting out “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “Let it Go,” or some other tune so I can hear that they’re safe. As soon as I’m finished, I race outside to meet them. Then I clean my hands with a wipe or their antibacterial gel.

I’m sure this strategy looks—and sounds—completely absurd to passersby. Still, it satisfies all objectives: I get to pee, we respect the privacy of other men, and the kids stay safe outside.

The Concert Plan certainly can backfire. My kids know that if they need me for any reason during a pee-pee concert, they are to scream a secret word (I’m not sharing it here to keep it secret). One time, one of the kids lost a hairclip and thought that constituted an emergency. I rushed out to find everything under control. My pants, however—let’s just say they didn’t fare so well.

(Obviously, there also are potentially more serious outcomes of this scenario, as well.)

Again, the rub here is that there’s no right answer. I’m sure other parents have other ways of dealing with this challenge. I suspect there also are some parents who scoff at social mores and bring along kids of the opposite sex when they must.

What’s your strategy? When do you think kids of the opposite sex are too old to accompany mom or dad into the bathroom? Please leave your thoughts in the comment field below.

Chatting about family-friendly spring travel

Little R, using technology.

Little R, using technology.

I’m lucky enough to have some pretty incredible friends in the family travel blogging space. Naturally, then, when a handful of them ask me to participate in a TwitterChat about something near and dear to my heart, I drop everything to make it happen.

That’s precisely why I’m participating in the next #KidsNTrips chat, scheduled for tomorrow—Thursday, March 5, 2015.

The chat kicks off at 9:30 a.m. and lasts for an hour. The subject: family-friendly spring travel.

Over the course of the hour, I’ll share my picks for best spring break trips with kids, off-the-beaten-path destinations in spring, and more. I also will share some tips about maximizing car space on spring break road trips, getting overtired kids to do homework on the road, and how to make sure you’re choosing the best hotel for everyone in your brood.

Of course I’ll be in illustrious company. Also on the line will be Coleen Lanin, of TravelMamas.com; Katie Dillon, of La Jolla Mom; and my buddy, Jen Leo, who reviews kids apps at BestKidsApps.com and also writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Did I mention we’ll be giving away some pretty amazing prizes? You can read more about the chat by clicking here.

Again, to follow along or get involved, go to Twitter, and search for the haghtag, #KidsNTrips.

Tomorrow’s chat comes on the heels of yet another spring travel TwitterChat—one I did today on behalf of my client, Expedia, in conjunction with the Expedia Viewfinder blog. This one didn’t have a family focus, but I seized the opportunity to Tweet about heaps of family stuff nevertheless. (I also embraced the chance to make tons of obtuse Spring Breakers references, as well as one shout-out to 22 Jumpstreet.)

For me, these chats are a fun way to interact with readers and get the word out about the blog. Hope to see you participating in one of these events down the road.

Understanding the science of car naps

Snoozing. On the Hana Highway.

Snoozing. On the Hana Highway.

The world is abuzz about billionaires today, as Forbes magazine has released its annual list of the richest humans on Earth.

If I were a billionaire, I’d spend my cash on running shoes, buy-ins for poker tournaments, and lots and lots of international family travel. I’d also set aside a fat wad of it to fund research into the study of car naps.

Seriously. I mean, what parent wouldn’t?

How is it that these kids of ours manage to stay awake for 85-90 percent of every road trip, only to fall asleep for the home stretch? Why is it that kids who never in a million, billion, trillion years would nap at home, actually fall asleep in a moving car? Finally, why do most kids sleep through any number of noises in the moving vehicle, then awaken immediately when you try to transfer them to their beds at home?

I’ve got questions, people. And as someone who spends a ton of time road-tripping with girls who generally don’t nap, I demand answers.

My kids would be great case studies. This past weekend, for instance, after a fun-filled day in the city, the two of them resisted sleep for 65 of the 75 miles home, then—inexplicably, really—dozed off less than 10 minutes from our house.

Last month we endured a similar scene—I was so happy to see them sleeping in the middle of the day that I sat in the parked car in my own driveway for nearly 30 minutes, just to score them decent rest.

How long must the erratic realities of car napping plague us moms and dads? Is there any hope for us at all, short of blasting music and constantly turning around to tickle our kids in the knees and keep them awake? If a billionaire can’t fund research into this area, perhaps we can get some cash on Indiegogo or Kickstarter. Surely I’m not the only parent determined to find out.

Talking about adventure travel with kids

11008331_427287300759512_1056352386_nMost of the time, the virtual pages of this blog comprise my most prominent platform for discussing family travel. Sometimes, however, I get golden opportunities to present my perspective in other formats. Namely, talking. On a stage. In front of a room full of people.

That’s the way things will roll this weekend, when I participate in a panel discussion as part of The Great Baby Romp, held at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito on Sunday, March 1.

My panel, which kicks off at 11:45 a.m., will focus on adventure travel with kids. I’ll be asked to talk about our family’s experiences in faraway places such as London, Ireland, Hawaii and Vancouver Island. I likely will mention some of the very same anecdotes that first appeared here. Heck, I’ve even shared a few snapshots that many of you have seen once or twice over the years.

The other panelists certainly are esteemed. I’ll be speaking alongside Katie Hintz-Zambrano, the co-founder and editor of Mother Mag; as well as Jennifer Latch, another freelance writer. Our panel will be moderated by Erin Feher Montoya, who is the Bay Area Editor of Red Tricycle.

Perhaps the biggest treat for me on Sunday will be the audience. Organizers are expecting a crowd of mostly families. And at least one of those families in attendance will be my own, making this the first time my kids ever have heard me speak publicly (provided they pull themselves away from the exhibits long enough to see Dad on stage).

Our panel isn’t the only educational session of the day, either. Between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., The Great Baby Romp will sponsor a host of other talks, covering issues such as making baby food and toddler snacks, navigating household employee contracts and California taxes, and baby sign language.

The event will conclude with an all-ages dance party.

If you’re in the neighborhood, come check us out! If not, stay tuned for a recap post and some pictures from the event.

A different kind of family travel

The Three Musketeers.

The Three Musketeers.

Family travel comes in many shapes and sizes. Most of the time in Villanoville, the equation is the same: Me + Powerwoman + L + R. This past weekend, however, the formula took on a new look—my kids were hanging out with their Momma at home, and I was traveling with *my* parents (who are known in these parts as Grammy C and Grampy V).

We were in San Diego for a wedding. We had separate rooms (thank goodness), but it was the first time JUST the three of us (I’m an only child) have traveled together as a family since I was in high school.

Which means it was quite a hoot.

Exhibit A: I arrived at our hotel for the weekend, the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina, to find my parents drinking beer by a fire pit—something they NEVER did when we vacationed together during our younger days. (Later, my dad also ordered beer at the hotel bar. Who has he become?)

Exhibit B: My mother, who from time to time still harbors a Long Island accent, wore a knitted sweater thing over her shoulders to keep her warm. She called it a SH-AWWWWWWWWWL. And every time I heard her say the word I laughed.

Exhibit C: The three of us vowed to meet in the lobby so we all could drive to the rehearsal dinner together, but my father was 30 minutes late. When I asked my mother what he was doing upstairs, she said he ran up to get something just before I had arrived. She noted the errand should have taken no more than five minutes. It took WAY longer than that.

Exhibit D: After the aforementioned rehearsal dinner, the three of us hit the game room. The two of them stood there and watched me gun for the record at the lone Pop-A-Shot game (I came within 20 points). Then Dad took a turn. (He was less efficient. Think Herb Williams, circa 1994 New York Knicks.)

Those were just the highlights from the first day. The rest of the weekend was filled with foibles over umbrellas in the rain, botched directions despite the help of a GPS, deep conversations about child-rearing, and discussions about life after Social Security. Throw in a hearty dose of nagging from Mom and a bunch of incessant whistling from my Dad (trust me; that shit is PIERCING), and it was just like old times.

In my teens, this degree of intensity drove me nuts and soured me on the mere mention of going away with the two of them later in life. Now that later has arrived, however, now that I’m a grown-up myself, I was able to laugh off the more stressful parts of the family dynamic when I had to and appreciate it at all other times.

In other words, I had a blast.

So often we new-ish parents think family travel must be confined to the people in our immediate families. This weekend with Mom and Dad reminded me that they’re my family, too. Traveling with them was just as fulfilling as traveling with my wife and girls, only in entirely different ways. I’m not sure I could do it again for a few months, but I’m certainly more willing to consider it than ever before.

To what extent do you vacation with your extended family, and where do you go?

Travel adventure as a state of mind

R, beachcombing.

R, beachcombing.

Our family is always seeking new adventures. Near, far—we don’t care where we travel, we simply make habit out of striving for something out of the ordinary.

Nevertheless, we have developed some travel favorites over the years. We love vacationing in Hawaii, largely because nobody wears clothes. We love public transportation, because the girls always can find something at which to marvel. We love shopping at farmers’ markets, because the produce is so fresh.

We also love spending days at the beach—not so much because we like to surf or swim (both girls actually are afraid of the ocean), but because we LOVE to go beachcombing. We don’t have preferences about what we hunt—beach glass, sea shells, pretty rocks, and more. If we’re on the beach with a mission to find cool stuff, we’re a happy crew.

With this in mind, we usually try to incorporate a beach visit into each and every one of our coastal vacations.

And when we’re not traveling, we try to drive the 45 minutes from our house to the coast once a month.

I went earlier today with R. Our mission: To find beach glass for L (who is an avid collector). She has an extensive collection of green glass, but lacks diversity in her stash. Specifically, she asked us to look for glass that was red or blue.

The fact that we achieved our mission was irrelevant; R and I just loved the challenge. At one point, she was so enthralled with our search that she jumped up and down screaming, “BEACH GLASS!”

What’s more, this was the first visit on which my little girl worked up the courage to brave the loud and scary crashing surf and walk up and down the beach to hunt (previously she would just pick a spot to sit and only investigate the sand in her immediate vicinity).

Wherever and whenever we have them, our family beachcombing experiences are proof that you don’t have to travel very far outside your geographic area or comfort zone to take a meaningful journey together.

My advice? Find something you and your family enjoy together and seek it out wherever you are. This enables you to have life-changing experiences at any place and any time, to turn the sense of travel adventure into a state of mind. It also means you’re never too far from a great day out and about. Or new items for your beach collection.

What sorts of family travel adventures do you like best?

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