When pictures and video take over

One of the few pix from our recent trip to the San Juans.

One of the few pix from our recent trip to the San Juans.

How many pictures do you take on your family trips? How much video? According to a story in this weekend’s edition of The New York Times, it might be too much.

The piece, which appeared in the Style section (technically it’s Fashion & Style, but I’m old-school), was titled, “That’s a Wrap. What Did I miss?” It investigated the current phenomenon through which traveling families—including kids themselves—feel such a need to document vacations that they run the risk of failing to experience the trip without the help of a lens and screen.

Though the story was a bit superficial (most Style pieces are), it raised some interesting questions. IMHO, the most important one is this: In today’s age of Smartphones and GoPros, how many pictures and/or videos are too much?

It’s a question I ask myself on every trip. My wife is a bit of a Luddite, which means all of the documentation falls on me. I embrace this role because I’m a journalist (and because I’m always thinking about what will make good shots for this blog). At the same time, I shun the role because I’m a huge proponent of living in the moment and I can’t stand having to experience stuff with a device in my face.

(This, of course, is separate from our annual tech-free trip, about which I blogged earlier this month.)

What usually ends up happening is what I like to call the “hunt-and-peck” method of photography. We go places. I keep my phone (a Samsung Galaxy S5) in a manpurse (yes, I carry a manpurse). I whip it out to snap individual photos every now and again. I usually get one or two decent shots. And that’s it.

Because I’m such a spaz about privacy, most of the pictures I do take have nothing but the backs of the girls’ heads. Also, at no point on our family vacations do we do video. And I don’t let the kids use my GoPro (I use it mostly for adventure travel assignments such as this one).

The result? We rarely capture that many images from our trips.

Most of the time, Powerwoman and I are fine with this reality—as parents we share the belief that experiences are the most important part of traveling together as a family (for more on our philosophy, read this and this). When we come home, however, we usually lament the fact that we don’t have pictures of Adventure X or Beach Day Y to print out, frame, and toss on the mantle.

Where does this leave us? Ahead of the game but behind the curve, I guess. I encourage everyone to take fewer pictures, record less video and just BE with your kids on vacation. At the same time, don’t give it up cold turkey. Every now and then a memento or two can be nice and can make you smile.

What’s your approach to pictures and video on vacation and why?

Jumping away the last days of summer

The trampolines at Rebounderz.

The trampolines at Rebounderz.

As much as our family loves to travel to faraway places, we also love discovering new family-friendly stuff in our own proverbial backyard.

Today we found a new fave 30 minutes south of our house: Rebounderz, an indoor trampoline park.

The place is a kids’ fantasy land with dozens upon dozens of trampolines. Plain trampolines. Trampolines on walls. A basketball court made out of trampolines. Even trampolines that enable kids to bounce themselves into a giant pit of foam cubes.

There’s also a three-story indoor playground, an epic arcade (with Pop-A-Shot), a regular hardwood basketball court, and a snack bar.

It’s been over 100 degrees here all week, so Rebounderz was the perfect place to bring L and R to blow off steam. The facility is the first West Coast outpost of an East Coast franchise. It was well-organized. It was clean. Perhaps the only downside to the place: It was SUPER expensive, as in, $48 for both girls for two hours. (It was so spendy, in fact, that I decided not to jump; if I had joined them, it would have cost us another $21.)

We went with some of the girls’ friends—five girls in all. The trip was sort of a last hurrah: The girls all start school next week.

Sure, the kids liked the trampolines, but the undisputed highpoint actually was the playground, which boasted a corkscrew tunnel slide, two platform ladders, lots of rope bridges, and a bunch of bouncy-house type obstacles. Once the kids tried all the everything else (except the basketball court ones; the kids were intimidated to try those); they insisted on returning to the playground. Afterward, that’s the part L and R remembered most fondly.

We didn’t really hit up the snack bar; I and the other parent for the day smuggled in our own (healthy) snacks but relied on the in-house options for cups of Dippin’ Dots as a special bonus for the girls. As for the arcade, I’m still not sure how much each game actually cost ($20 bought me a bunch of credits, and each game cost different amounts of those), but it felt like my money disappeared particularly fast.

Next time, I’ll take advantage of booking jump times online. I’ll also make sure we arrive right when the place opens; we got there about 30 minutes after the joint opened, but by lunchtime, it was a zoo.

Overall, I’d say our first experience at Rebounderz was a positive one. I’m not sure we can afford to visit more than once or twice a quarter, but it’s nice to know we’ve got such a fun new option so close to home.

What are your go-to daytrip spots within 30 minutes of your home?

Golden Gate Park by Segway on a family trip

Golden Gate Park is one of the greatest urban parks in the world. It’s even better when you explore it on a Segway.

You know the Segway; that two-wheeled transportation device made famous by the movie, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” The one that looks like a futuristic scooter. The one that simultaneously looks like the dorkiest dorkmobile in the history of humankind.

At least, I thought the things were dorky. After riding one around Golden Gate Park for half a day earlier this summer, I can safely say they are way cooler than I ever thought.

I did the tour as part of an epic two-city road trip I took with my family in June. The trip was on behalf of my client, Expedia. While my wife and kids were back at the hotel (the kids aren’t big enough to ride Segways, and somebody had to watch them), I was tooling around the park and making emu noises as I went.

I shot video as I went, and, when I got home, worked with my pals at Expedia to cut a 3-minute video of the experience. The video was published in mid-July. Finally, I have the opportunity to share it with you here.

So take a peek. Enjoy. Laugh. Cry. And whatever you do, open your mind to the coolness of a Segway. You’ll be glad you did. (And even if you’re not so glad, you’ll have fun pretending to be Paul Blart.)

Family travel inspiration from the Mendocino Coast

It's good now; it'll be even better in 2020.

It’s good now; it’ll be even better in 2020.

Most of the time, family travel is all about the ins and outs of traveling with the kids. Other times, it’s about family-oriented epiphanies, observations, and/or discoveries when traveling while the kids are back at home.

This past weekend, Powerwoman and I were lucky enough to experience the latter form of family travel. The two of us were traveling solo—my mother-in-law was watching the girls—as part of our annual unplugged and tech-free trip. We were staying just north of Fort Bragg at the Inn at Newport Ranch, a breathtaking new spot on the Mendocino Coast. And we had dinner with some wonderful people on the first night.

Our hosts, Creighton and Cindi Smith, are the innkeepers at Newport Ranch; they’re the ones who prepared the meal. In addition to us, they invited two of their friends, Guy and Sarah Pacurar.

Guy and Sarah are innkeepers, too—they own the Brewery Gulch Inn, another great spot on the Mendo County coast, much closer to Mendocino. When Guy and Sarah aren’t running their inn, they run a fledgling winery.

This is where the family part comes in. You see, the name of Guy and Sarah’s winery is Fathers & Daughters. Guy named it after his two daughters. Since Sarah’s father owns the vineyard in which the winery’s grapes are grown, Guy also named the endeavor after his father-in-law. Do the math: The label celebrates two fathers and three daughters.

You can’t get much more family-oriented than that.

I admit, I’m a sucker for the whole daddy/daughter story; I’ve got two daughters now and will have three of them by the time I turn 40 later this year. Still—the story behind Fathers & Daughters is a juicy one (pardon the pun). And the wine is great, too.

We tasted the 2012 Ella’s Reserve Pinot Noir; a bright, fragrant and complex pinot made with some of my favorite clones (I won’t get too wine geeky here, I promise). I’d describe the wine as being light and full-bodied at the same time (the tasting notes use the phrase, “lean and lush”). Most important, the wine is named after Guy and Sarah’s daughter, Ella.

While I like the wine itself, the family connection is what I like best about this brand. And that doesn’t surprise me at all. Even when we’re not on a “family vacation,” we can be inspired by family-oriented experiences on the road. Even when we’re not traveling with our girls, they’re with us when we go.

Once a family traveler, always a family traveler, I guess. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Family time, unplugged

I unplug to escape stuff like this. (Me! In Times Square!)

I unplug to escape stuff like this. (Me! In Times Square!)

As a freelance writer, I have to stay connected most of the time. My business depends on it—if I miss an email from an editor, I might miss out on a potential assignment, which means missing out on cold cash.

Generally speaking, I don’t mind this constant state of connectedness. It enables me to stay on top of trends, and to build my brand as a family travel blogger by posting Instagram pictures and other social media missives when we travel as a clan.

Still, every now and again, it’s nice to take a trip on which I’m completely unplugged.

Powerwoman and I try to take one such trip every year. For better or for worse, these tech-free trips usually happen when the two of us have the opportunity to steal away together, without the girls. In fact, we leave later today for four days of disconnected bliss on the Mendocino County coast (which is about three hours from our home).

The plan for these trips is pretty simple: Keep me away from technology at all costs. No Facebooking. No Tweeting. No Instagramming. And almost certainly no email.

Of course going away without the children necessitates a certain degree of connectivity; my mother-in-law, who’s watching the girls back at our place, needs to be able to reach us in case of an emergency. What’s more, Powerwoman often brings her phone so the two of us have at least one camera to document great places and fun times.

Still, for me, these trips are glorious. Because I get to just be in the moment. Every moment. All day long.

Preparing for our tech-free vacations always reminds me just how dependent on technology we’ve become. It also inspires me to try to be more tech-free in my everyday life. Especially when I’m with the kids: Do I really need to check my phone every time the damn thing vibrates or sends me a notification?

Of course the answer is no. And of course it will be far more difficult to ask and answer that question one month from now, when this unplugged vacation is long over and I’m back in the thick of life. Still, the question itself is a good one. And the self-examination it inspires almost always leads to more self-awareness, and at least the recognition that I could and must be better.

The bottom line: We all could stand to ditch some technology. I challenge you to take the same break in your life and evaluate the consequences. Big changes take time. This one’s worth waiting for.

Sucker for the midway

Yours truly. With an emu. On the carousel.

Yours truly. With an emu. On the carousel.

My name is Matt Villano and I’m a sucker for a carnival midway.

I’ve been a midway maniac for most of my life. I play games. Lots of games. I’ve never seen a ping-pong-ball-in-the-goldfish-bowl game I didn’t like. I can’t whack enough moles. I love shooting water into a clown’s mouth. And I wholeheartedly embrace the challenge of knocking down three milk jugs with one bean bag.

I chose this forum in which to come clean because, well, attending carnivals always is better with kids. And because the county fair has been going now for the last two weeks. And because I just went with my kids and their two cousins.

You read that right, people: This year I hit up our local county fair solo, in charge of four kids between the ages of 3 and 14.

I like to think of the experience as EXTREME FAMILY TRAVEL: One almost-40 dad and four kids brave 100-degree temperatures to go on rides, pump their veins full of sugar and shoot baskets until their wrists fall off.

We took a wagon for my girls. We alternated between little-kid rides and big-kid rides. And—of course—we snuck in dozens and dozens of games. We won a few fish. We won 19 stuffed animals. We even won some silly little necklace.

Along the way, I taught L and R how to bash rubber frogs from catapults and on to lily pads. I gave my niece and nephew a crash course in fair food (Lobster Corn Dog 1, Niece & Nephew 0).

Oh, and I must have spent like $500 in an afternoon (seriously).

Still, IT WAS THE FAIR, which means, it was a blast. Some traveling parents may strive to avoid these types of chaotic environments like the plague. I, for one, embrace them wholeheartedly. Whether I’m 30 minutes away from home or 3,000 miles away from the nearest national border, if there’s a carnival midway, I’ll be there. Experiencing it all with my kids makes the fun even better. Which is precisely why I don’t plan to break this addiction any time soon.

A hook that makes family travel easier

The Airhook, in action.

The Airhook, in action.

Considering how frequently I travel with my kids, I’m always looking for gadgets and gizmos that can make the experience easier and more efficient. That’s one of the reasons I love a new product from an inventor named Craig Rabin. He calls the product The Airhook. And though he designed it to help business travelers, I see a ton of family travel implications as well. I recently caught up with Rabin over email to chat about his new product. Here is an edited transcript of our chat.

MJV: What prompted the invention of The Airhook? What challenge were you trying to solve? What was your frustration?

Craig Rabin (CR): I was flying from Seattle to San Francisco and was wearing a sport coat. After boarding the plane, I asked the flight attendant if there was space to hang my coat. There was not.  That left me with two options: Store it overhead (and have a horribly wrinkled coat) or wear it on the flight (and be horribly overheated). After choosing to wear it on the flight and noticing the sweat start to run, I sat there staring at the tray table in front of me. How handy would it be if there was a clip or hook that could better utilize the tray table to hang up my coat?  An invention was born.

MJV: For whom do you see this tool working best? Biz travelers? Leisure travelers?

CR: Our Design & Testing team has flown with The Airhook on many flights which span tens of thousands of air miles during the course of product development. On every trip we have met interested consumers that were all flying for various reasons. Some were road warriors, others were parents with families and some were big and tall and unable to utilize the tray table. But everyone seemed to want greater convenience now.  The common comment was something like, ‘The Airhook is great timing because as airlines are making seats closer and closer together, the tray table remains the same size.’

MJV: You mentioned family travelers. What specific benefits does The Airhook deliver for them?

CR: Families come in all different ages and sizes. Someone in a family headed to Las Vegas to celebrate a child’s 21st birthday will use The Airhook to hold a cocktail while practicing blackjack on the iPad. The family with young children will use The Airhook as hands-free entertainment to keep the little ones entertained while the grownups enjoy easy access to anything in a carry-on bag. One of the most interesting parts of testing and showing The Airhook simply has been telling folks about the concept. Everyone seems to have a different key benefit in mind, since everyone has their own travel quirks.

MJV: Are there any ways for moms and dads to use The Airhook to solve another problem/need associated w/family travel? If so, what are some of them?

CR: I have no children just yet, so I figured I would consult a higher authority and asked my mother what I was like as a child on an airplane. She said, ‘You never sat still and had to go to the bathroom every half hour!’ So for the child in me, The Airhook would have allowed me to have hands-free entertainment while still bouncing around in my seat. The tray table constricted me and I guess my kicking spilled a few drinks! The Airhook would also have allowed me (and the entire row most of the time) to freely stand and move out of the row when I asked to go to the bathroom for the fifth time.

MJV: How does Kickstarter play into your story?

CR: Kickstarter for us was more about marketing then crowd funding. We had already raised a friends-and-family round of funding that secured product development to date and allowed us to obtain global patent protection on the Intellectual Property.  We wanted to utilize Kickstarter for its viral abilities in order to get market validation and approval. The team decided to set our fundraising goal based on the minimum number of people we needed to reach (funding goal/lowest donation amount) vs. how much we hoped to raise. Once the Kickstarter community gave us their stamp of approval (they funded our dream in 73 hours), Kickstarter became a landing page for PR inquiries in order to further get the word out. Media outlets were reaching out to us saying, ‘We just saw your Kickstarter page.’ That further accelerated our growth.

MJV: When/where can people buy the product, and how soon will it be available?

CR: Right now we are taking orders on our website. It’s $24.95 per unit with discounts as quantity increases. We plan to ship product the first week of December as we are dedicated to getting The Airhook in customers’ hands by the busiest travel time of the year: THE HOLIDAYS! That means The Airhook is a perfect gift for the family travelers among all of us.

Mad about Mad Libs

Big Girl. Wrapped up in a game.

Big Girl. Wrapped up in a game.

It was big news around these parts earlier today when our grammar-loving 6-year-old discovered Mad Libs for the first time. Not surprisingly, the kid is now obsessed.

Because Mad Libs are so portable, this means our next family road trip just got a ton more fun. Now, instead of singing along to Ellie Goulding or telling progressive stories the whole drive, we can mix it up with a little Mad Libs action.

In other words, Powerwoman and I just got a whole new way to advance L’s love of literacy.

Already the discovery is paying huge dividends. Before this afternoon (when we came home from a trip to the toy store with two new pads of Mad Libs), the soon-to-be-First-Grader only had a general understanding of adverbs; now she can provide them without a moment’s hesitation. Before today, she couldn’t differentiate between a noun and NOW (as in, “I want it NOW”); now she points to random stuff on the street and calls out, “noun” in celebration of knowing the part of speech.

Oh, and for the record, the one time (to this very moment) we’ve used Mad Libs in the car, the activity made the 20-minute drive on the freeway feel like a five-minute jaunt down the street.

Perhaps the only unresolved issue at this point is how long it will take L (and her sister, for that matter) to discover the fun and wonder and silliness of submitting potty words instead of actual nouns and verbs and adjectives.

Some friends predict this de-evolution will happen within weeks. I’m holding out for age 7. At least.

What are some of your favorite road trip games when traveling with family?

San Juan Islands family travel recap

Sisters. Eagle Cove. Beachcombing.

Sisters. Eagle Cove. Beachcombing.

If you’ve been reading this blog over the last few weeks, you undoubtedly already have read all about our family trip to the San Juan Islands. Now, however, there’s a place where you can read a recap of the entire adventure IN ONE POST.

The spot: The Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia (a client). The post: This piece, titled “Summer in the San Juans.”

My story, which published earlier today, summarizes our time on the San Juan Islands in about 1,400 words. It includes details about our marine animal sightings, our beach time, the fun we had at Roche Harbor, and even our side-trip to Orcas Island. It also chronicles some behind-the-scenes color from the downtime we spent as a family at the incredible house we rented.

I am especially proud of the photos that accompany the piece; I took hundreds of shots during our two weeks on the island, and was delighted to be able to publish a few of them somewhere other than Instagram.

(If you’re not currently following me on Instagram, by the way, you should.)

Even if you think you’ve read everything about our trip, I encourage you to take the time to give this story a read as well. Thanks in advance for the support.

Lessons from Maine: Don’t be an asshole family traveler

Good for you, Marcy's.

Good for you, Marcy’s.

By now you probably have read about the diner owner in Portland, Maine, who screamed at a mom and dad for not quieting their crying toddler while the family dined in her restaurant this past weekend. You might have read some high-level etiquette theory about who was right, who was wrong, and what might prompt someone to go berserk under these circumstances. Maybe you even read the mother’s response.

My take: Though the restaurant owner seems like a bit of a loose cannon, the parents in question also behaved badly, and as parents, we really shouldn’t be assholes when we are dining with our kids away from home.

You read that right, folks. I’m saying I support the rabid restaurateur.

Could the restaurant owner have been a bit less crass in her tirade? Of course. Am I cool with the fact that the restaurant owner directed some of her vituperation at the 21-month-old herself? Not at all. Generally speaking, however, I think the diner gal was totally right for going off on these negligent parents, and think the vacationing parents were totally in the wrong.

I mean, the facts almost speak for themselves. The child screamed incessantly FOR 40 MINUTES and the parents didn’t even try to take the kid outside. The owner gave the family to-go boxes and asked them to take off. It was at that point, with the kid still crying, the owner went Andrew Dice Clay.

(UPDATE: Some reports suggest the child cried for only FOUR minutes. To me, the duration of the episode is irrelevant; after about 30 seconds of crying the parents should have had the kid outside.)

What’s more, the mom said she didn’t want to take her child outside because it was raining.

Again, I don’t condone cursing at kids. But I certainly understand the restaurateur’s frustration. Reports indicate there were more than 70 other diners in the restaurant at that time. Crying babies are loud. Other patrons were getting annoyed. Somebody had to do something.

So what if it was raining. Didn’t the family have a rental car? If so, that would have been a great enclosed and confined space in which the child could have cried it out. If not, surely there were awnings or vestibules of nearby businesses that would have proved worthy shelters to shield the shrieking child from the rain.

In short, I believe, the parents completely failed in their responsibilities as traveling parents who had taken a baby out to eat.

These duties aren’t complicated. They involve three basic rules: 1) Pay attention to your kid, 2) Try to keep your kid happy, and 3) Remove your kid from the situation if the kid can’t deal. According to eyewitness reports, these parents failed in each and every one of these cases.

When dining out with kids—whether you’re vacationing or not—it’s up to us traveling parents to make good choices and take responsibility for our children’s behavior, no matter what the circumstances. In this case, on that fateful Saturday in Maine, IMHO these particular parents acted like assholes and got what they deserved. Let the story be a lesson to all of us. Don’t be like these parents on your travels. Ever.

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