Hilarious look at flying with kids

Jamie Kaler and clan at 35,000 feet.

Jamie Kaler and clan at 35,000 feet.

As a family travel advocate, I like to focus on the positives of traveling with kids. The fun parts of road trips. The creative strategies of enduring plane travel. The secret ways to have sex with your partner in a hotel room while the kids sleep.

That said, I certainly can appreciate an honest take on some of the (undeniable) challenges of family travel.

This is why I loved a Babble.com essay by actor/comedian Jamie Kaler that was published earlier this week. The piece, titled, “The one rule you must follow when traveling with toddlers,” offers a hilarious perspective on the inherent insanity of flying with kids. Like Kaler himself, the essay is snarf-your-coffee-and-pee-your-pants funny.

Here’s a fun recap of Kaler’s best one-liners in the piece:

  • On kids in general: “To me, kids are like Vegas. You should have to travel ‘to’ them, and you’re not able to stay for more than three days.”
  • On schlepping a bunch of crap to the airport when you travel with kids: “Getting them to the airport is a disaster: 250 pounds of luggage, and only 5 of those pounds are mine. It’s like I’m a personal valet for the babies from Downton Abbey.”
  • On the hardest part of family travel: “[It] is not just the horror of planes, trains, and automobiles, but the constant fear that your kid is going to get hurt. You see, our house is child-proofed; the world is not. And kids are stupid.”

My personal favorite part of the essay is when Kaler talks about the “inevitable” delay at the gate that seems to make time stand still. He writes: “It feels like that moment in The Matrix when Keanu Reeves is dodging bullets in slow mo. Except that every bullet hits you. And it never ends.”

I loved Kaler on “My Boys” back in the day and have enjoyed his stand-up routines over the years. This piece, though—this piece takes the cake. I dare you to read it and keep a straight face. Once you do, and once you clean up the coffee you snarfed (or you change your underpants), use the comments field to tell me what you think he missed.

Inspired to spread the family travel gospel

FTA Summit crew, September 2015

FTA Summit crew, September 2015

Inspiration is a powerful thing. It’s what lead people to vote for Barack Obama, what has intrigued people about author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and what has compelled people to come together to support Batkid.

As a full-time freelance journalist for the last 18 years, I have spent a whole bunch of my time reporting on other people’s inspiration. Earlier this week, however, as a board member who attended and participated in the first-ever Family Travel Association summit, I was delighted to be the one experiencing the inspiration first-hand.

It wasn’t difficult to be inspired; the summit brought together about 80 of the biggest and boldest thinkers in the world of family travel today. There were experts. There were representatives of big travel companies. There were owners of small travel companies. There were photographers. There were other writers. Almost all of the people present were moms and dads who have traveled with their families.

And everyone descended upon the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch for one reason: To talk about how we can work together to raise awareness of the importance of family travel.

Some people moved me more than others. Like Ida Keiper and Jesemine Jones, the women behind Abeon Travel, a travel consultancy dedicated to assisting families that include children with special needs. And Randy Garfield, the former Disney VP who now devotes his time to the U.S. Travel Association and Project: Time Off, one of the most important research efforts in the history of the American people. And Margo Peyton, who, through her company, Kids Sea Camp, strives to get children travelers SCUBA-certified so they can explore the underwater world. And travel writing icon Wendy Perrin, who’s been writing about family travel forever and simply is flat-out awesome.

And some ideas left an indelible mark on my brain. Like some of the new family travel data from FTA and Expedia. And the “18 Summers” campaign from Idaho (hint: watch the video). And Jim Pickell’s suggestion for a new equation to measure family travel—an equation that compares meaningfulness of experiences to expenditures. (Pickell, the founder of HomeExchange.com, is a pretty neat dude himself.)

Heck, the conference even provided scientific evidence behind the notion that travel makes you smarter; in an intellectually rollicking concluding seminar, Nancy Sathre-Vogel explained how new places and new experiences stimulate the growth of dendrites in our brains.

(Some of us joked that Sathre-Vogel’s presentation provided the basis for a new ad campaign that evokes 1980s anti-drug ads and contrasts a brain to a brain on family travel.)

In short, there was a lot to keep the brain buzzing.

The next step is making it all count. Technically speaking, the FTA’s mission is to “inspire families to travel—and to travel more—while advocating for travel as an essential part of every child’s education.” Now, however, with one summit under our belts, we need to codify a strategy and figure out how and where we want to be. Personally, I’d like to see the group become an information resource for consumers, a networking/best-practices group for industry insiders, and an advocate for the right issues (such as family passenger rights on airplanes).

What about you? What would you demand/expect from a Family Travel Association? What sorts of activities and endeavors do you think the FTA should pursue? Share your opinions and become a part of the discussion.

New data, new look at family travel

Rainer Jenss inspires the gang at the FTA summit.

Rainer Jenss inspires the gang at the FTA summit.

Today was data day here at the Family Travel Association (FTA) Summit in Emigrant, Montana. That means a couple of my favorite people shared some pretty incredible data about family travel.

The FTA itself was up first, releasing the results of a comprehensive study by the FTA and the NYU School of Professional Studies Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. The study revealed three key data points about family travel:

  • Family travel now accounts for a full one-third of all leisure trips booked in the United States.
  • Survey respondents took an average of 3.53 domestic trips and 1.25 international trips with their children in the past year.
  • Families prefer to travel with their children when the children are between 6 and 12.

Also interesting: the data suggested that there are three distinct types of family travelers: Hassle-free travelers, who prefer travel options that require little effort and research; Cautious travelers, who are more willing to spend time researching their travels and more open to try a wider variety of travel options; and Intrepid travelers, who tend to opt for new destinations each time they travel, are most likely to take the kids out of school for vacations, value travel over material possessions, and like to travel to different cultures and unusual destinations. (If you want to read more about this, Rainer Jenss, who founded the FTA, explained these types beautifully in a recent blog post for the organization’s blog.)

After the FTA’s data came data from Expedia—data that resulted from a separate study and echoed a number of the same points.

The Expedia numbers showed that people who travel with families spend 2.5 times more than couples traveling without them. And that 80 percent of people who take vacations regularly report being happier because of those trips. Other key metrics: 94 percent of respondents take at least one trip with their family per year, and 82 percent said they get more pleasure from vacation than from possessions.

(Expedia also conducted research on what kids think about family travel; that’s worth reading, too.)

What does all of this research tell us the ways families travel? How can we make sense of so many disparate data points? In a market where the vast majority of travelers can’t afford much more than road trips, why should we even care? In a nutshell, the answer is this: BECAUSE WE GO.

The bottom line is that we, as families, travel. In a big way. And we’re traveling more. It doesn’t matter how we travel. It doesn’t matter where we travel. It doesn’t even matter why we feel the need to get away. We’re going. We’re taking our kids. And we’re doing it with increasing frequency—so much so that the trend is on the rise.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past where families were an afterthought on the travel landscape, a customer base that existed but wasn’t big enough to matter. Results from these two studies make it clear that those days are over, that families are becoming a formidable market force which commands attention. The mere existence of the FTA—the very need to have a summit in the first place—is proof of this new reality. Now it’s time for the rest of the travel industry to pay attention.

For consumers, for people like you and me, the message is clear: Keep traveling. As I’ve said a thousand times (including 20 times on this blog), you don’t have to go far from home to expose your children to a brave new world. Family travel is a mindset. It’s time we all embraced this new way of thinking.

Alternative to hotel cots: the Kid-O-Bunk

The Kid-O-Bunk.

The Kid-O-Bunk.

Hotels have a lot of nerve charging $10 or $15 for cots in which to put the kids on a family vacation. A cheaper and more efficient alternative: the Kid-O-Bunk, from a company named Disc-O-Bed.

In a nutshell, the Kid-O-Bunk is a portable hammock-like bunk bed comprising two separate portable cots that can be stacked on top of each other. The portable cots also can be used separately, or jerry-rigged to form a bench. The $290 travel tool disassembles completely and fit into supplied carry bags. What’s more, the sleeping “decks” are made of machine-washable polyester, which means you can guarantee that the thing is as good as new after each and every use.

To be clear—I haven’t used the thing yet. But I can only imagine how this would change our family trips.

For starters, we wouldn’t have to share beds with the kids, a common occurrence when the four of us travel as a group. Second, we wouldn’t even have to ORDER cots, something we usually do (though, again, the kids rarely spend more than an hour or two in them).

Finally, the Kid-O-Bunk would give everybody—especially the girls—his or her own space, something we often crave when we’re all crammed into a hotel room on a family trip.

The next time we all stay in a hotel we’ll actually be a party of five, making something like the Kid-O-Bunk even more useful. Add this to my Christmas list, y’all. I can’t wait for our kids to experience it for themselves.

Family travel experiences for all

A family travel hero.

A family travel hero.

A wonderful thing happened today in New York City, when an actor in “The King and I,” on Broadway (at Lincoln Center Theater), spoke up publicly on behalf of a mother who was traveling with a child on the Autism spectrum. The actor’s name: Kelvin Moon Loh.

Kelvin wrote about the incident on his Facebook page, and a friend alerted me to it. Here, in its entirety (and unedited), is his post:

I am angry and sad.

Just got off stage from today’s matinee and yes, something happened. Someone brought their autistic child to the theater.

That being said- this post won’t go the way you think it will.

You think I will admonish that mother for bringing a child who yelped during a quiet moment in the show. You think I will herald an audience that yelled at this mother for bringing their child to the theater. You think that I will have sympathy for my own company whose performances were disturbed from a foreign sound coming from in front of them.


Instead, I ask you- when did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?

The theater to me has always been a way to examine/dissect the human experience and present it back to ourselves. Today, something very real was happening in the seats and, yes, it interrupted the fantasy that was supposed to be this matinee but ultimately theater is created to bring people together, not just for entertainment, but to enhance our lives when we walk out the door again.

It so happened that during “the whipping scene”, a rather intense moment in the second act, a child was heard yelping in the audience. It sounded like terror. Not more than one week earlier, during the same scene, a young girl in the front row- seemingly not autistic screamed and cried loudly and no one said anything then. How is this any different?

His voice pierced the theater. The audience started to rally against the mother and her child to be removed. I heard murmurs of “why would you bring a child like that to the theater?”. This is wrong. Plainly wrong.

Because what you didn’t see was a mother desperately trying to do just that. But her son was not compliant. What they didn’t see was a mother desperately pleading with her child as he gripped the railing refusing- yelping more out of defiance. I could not look away. I wanted to scream and stop the show and say- “EVERYONE RELAX. SHE IS TRYING. CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT SHE IS TRYING???!!!!” I will gladly do the entire performance over again. Refund any ticket because-

For her to bring her child to the theater is brave. You don’t know what her life is like. Perhaps, they have great days where he can sit still and not make much noise because this is a rare occurrence. Perhaps she chooses to no longer live in fear, and refuses to compromise the experience of her child. Maybe she scouted the aisle seat for a very popular show in case such an episode would occur. She paid the same price to see the show as you did for her family. Her plan, as was yours, was to have an enjoyable afternoon at the theater and slowly her worst fears came true.

I leave you with this- Shows that have special performances for autistic audiences should be commended for their efforts to make theater inclusive for all audiences. I believe like Joseph Papp that theater is created for all people. I stand by that and also for once, I am in a show that is completely FAMILY FRIENDLY. The King and I on Broadway is just that- FAMILY FRIENDLY- and that means entire families- with disabilities or not. Not only for special performances but for all performances. A night at the theater is special on any night you get to go.

And no, I don’t care how much you spent on the tickets.

What makes this post so poignant is that Kelvin (follow him on Twitter here) didn’t even know the woman—he just spoke out for what he believed to be just. IMHO, he was 100 percent right. And his argument applies to all forms of family travel activities, not just family-friendly Broadway shows. (For all we know, the mother and her child likely were visiting New York City from somewhere else.)

To echo Kelvin’s point, all families, regardless of their situations or realities, deserve the right to travel and experience new places, people, and things. The more easily we all remember this, the better off we all will be.

Knowing when to fold ‘em on family trips

Bouncing. Before the meltdown.

Bouncing. Before the meltdown.

Poker players and country music fans alike are familiar with the famous 1978 Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler.”

On the surface, the ditty is a song about poker. (You know the tune: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em/know when to fold ‘em/Know when to walk away/Know when to run.”) It’s also a metaphor for life. And, as it so happens, for family travel.

I was reminded of this fact today while trying to balance a jam-packed itinerary of activities on a daytrip around our home county.

The short story: We got through about half our list. Then we aborted the mission. And it all worked out.

Our day began early, as the days usually do with L (for whom 6:30 a.m. is “sleeping in”) and R. After breakfast and an early-morning shopping run, we headed out for a hike and some (seemingly) low-key playing by the river, then headed to the indoor trampoline arena for a little jumping. The problem: It was nearly 100 degrees before noon, which made the kids incredibly cranky.

The afternoon portion of our agenda for the day included swinging by a party/fundraiser hosted by some of our friends. As that part of the plan got closer, however—and at the very moment the two of them decided they hated their lunch—the girls endured a major and catastrophic meltdown.

They were hot. They were tired. They were hungry. And they lost all capacity to act like normal humans.

I could have forced the issue, could have soldiered on in the name of keeping plans. Instead, I did what, IMHO, is perfectly acceptable on a day of family travel of any kind: I capitulated.

I’m not saying I gave up in the traditional sense of the phrase. No, I’m saying I rationally and clearly looked at all of my options, recognized that the kids were done, and changed the plan on the fly. In short, I knew when to lay down my hand and call it quits for the day.

Powerwoman and I have learned this lesson the hard way over the last few years. Time and time again, on those days when the kids are just a little off, it almost always has made more sense to acquiesce when push comes to shove. Sometimes this has meant spending an afternoon in the hotel playing Crazy 8’s. On other occasions it’s meant extended downtime, just to keep everyone happy. Today, it meant bailing on a party. Next time, it might mean bailing on a surf lesson, or mini golf.

The bottom line, folks, is that Kenny was right—you need to know when to hold the plans and when to fold ‘em.

There’s no shame in bagging an agenda if you think your kids—and, through the transitive property, you—will be better off in the long run. Family travel isn’t about WHAT you do so much as it’s about HOW you do it. Remember: Short of big-picture calendar items such as airplane flights or train times, no travel plans ever are set in stone.

Gone but not forgotten

The four of us. Circa 1980.

The four of us. Circa 1980.

They meant so much to so many. Symbols of financial prowess. Pillars of modern engineering. Giant quote marks. Some New Yorkers even saw the two twin towers of the World Trade Center as two huge middle fingers to the rest of the world. “Fuck all of youz, New York is the best!” they seemed to say.

To me, however, 9- and 12- and 15-year old me, they were Daddy’s office. The coolest place on earth to go for the day.

Back then my father was the press secretary for Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, whose downstate office was on the 57th Floor of Tower 2, the one with Windows on the World at the top. Dad commuted from our house on Long Island—a round-trip of nearly three hours each day. Admittedly, I was puzzled as to why anyone would spend so much damn time just getting to and from work. But when I saw how much he loved it, when I saw how much he lived it, I wasn’t angry at all. I just wanted to experience the place for myself.

And I did. Dad took me into work with him regularly, usually when the Governor wasn’t around. Sometimes he even pulled me out of school. It was educational, he told my teachers. And it was.

I’d always bring homework, and Dad would set me up in the press conference room for a few hours while he did work of his own. People would come in to say hi to me, Steve’s son. Sometimes I’d even get up on the podium and pretend I was the governor myself.

There were other memorable parts of the ritual. Like bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches from a deli that delivered (this was an incredible luxury for impressionable moi). And the chance to steal office supplies (which I still do at every opportunity). When I finished my schoolwork each day, I’d sit on the HVAC system in the window bay of dad’s office and peer out the windows, looking out on the harbor and down on the city below. Sometimes I’d just stare for hours. It never got old.

Perhaps this is why, for me, the World Trade Center was so great. Yes, it was my father’s place of work—a place where he spent far more time than he did in our house. And, yes, it was bigger and taller and more grownup than anything I ever could imagine at the time. But it also was a place of excitement. A place of import. A place where I always seemed to feel a lot older than I was. And a place where I could steal a few solo moments with Dad.

Put simply, even though only one of us was on vacation there, the Twin Towers represented one of the greatest family travel destinations ever.

I was in Manhattan the day they fell, 14 years ago. I breathed the dust. I felt the ground shake. I experienced the apocalypse. The day changed everything—how I felt about the world, how I felt about New York, how I feel about being alive, really. But nothing ever truly will take away what those Towers gave to me all those years. Or what they represent in my heart.

The dirtiest place on a plane: The tray table

I got a lot of germs on this flight. Fail.

I got a lot of germs on this flight. Fail.

For generations, traveling parents have assumed the lavatory is the dirtiest part of a plane. But a study released this week offers ground-breaking new data: Nothing on an airplane is more germ-infested than the tray table.

The study, from an organization named Travelmath, gives us family travelers new reason to spaz out about wiping down our immediate seating space when we board.

In other words, now more than ever, it’s critical to disinfect these tray tables for our kids.

Think about it—once your kids are comfortable in their seat, what DON’T they do on their tray tables? Mine use the seatback tables to color, read books, make paper chains, and as a flat surface on which to set their Kindles. At snacktime, which is basically any time they want at 35,000 feet, they eat off those damn things, too.

Reading the fine print of the report (or subsequent coverage) will make you throw up a bit in your mouth. Apparently, Travelmath sent a microbiologist to test five different airports and four different flights on two major airline carriers.

These experts performed tests on different surfaces at each airport and on each plane. The surfaces were tested for the presence of colony-forming units (CFU) that could potentially make people sick (although the presence of bacteria does not necessarily mean that those exposed to it will get sick). Then they ranked each of the test subjects by the median of the results.

Tray tables came in first with 2,155 DFU/square foot. No. 2 on the list: Drinking fountain buttons, at 1,240 CFU/square foot. Third on the list was another common spot, the overhead air vents, and came in at 285 CFU. (If you want all of the results, click through here to a really easy-to-read infographic on the Travelmath site).

If you’re eager to find some good news in all of this, consider the following: None of the samples from airports and airplanes tested positive for fecal coliforms such as E. coli.

Translation: We likely will get germs, but it’s not very likely we’ll get those germs that could kill us.

(There are more juicy tidbits of information in the study, but these are the only ones relevant to the argument here.)

So how do we minimize exposure? We can avoid the brunt of the problems associated with these germs by being super-diligent about disinfecting our areas when we sit down. Bring extra baby wipes or a small spray bottle of bleach solution to wipe down the tray table, seatbelt, and armrests. Another option is to make sure your kids use hand sanitizer repeatedly throughout the flight. If you’re feeling really crazy, you could have your kids wear rubber gloves. (Yes, this last suggestion is VERY Michael Jackson.)

Germs are an inevitability when you travel by plane—especially when you’re traveling with little hands that like to touch everything. Still, moms and dads have plenty options to keep exposure to these sickness-inducing particles to a minimum. Good luck!

Great new tool for organizing family travel

This tool will change my traveling life.

This tool will change my traveling life.

Considering the chaos that is traveling with two (soon to be three!) kids under the age of 7, I’m a huge fan of tools that help organize family travel.

I’ve blogged about some of these tools previously. My new fave: The Qliplet.

Essentially, this tool is a carabiner on steroids. It’s a heavy-duty clip for consolidating bags or other items and holding them to larger objects. It also has a super-strong rotating hook that can be used for other stuff—everything from (more) totes to jackets to milk jugs (really) and more. The hook also can be used to support the carabiner.

The device went on sale at a discounted rate through an IndieGoGo campaign (from parent company, Lulabop) this week. I got to review device earlier this summer and found it useful, durable, and helpful, all at once.

I certainly put a prototype of the Qliplet through some paces. First I took it on a daytrip with the girls to our local children’s museum, and attached it to my backpack to carry L’s water. Next I clipped it to our jogging stroller and attached it to a different backpack while I took R on a run around the neighborhood. After that, just for fun, I hooked it to the back of our buggy and tried to see how much weight I could put on the carabiner part of the tool. I gave up after it easily handled 35 pounds.

The story behind Qliplet is pretty neat; the tool was invented by a mom and former professor of entrepreneurship as a way to manage the needs for lugging additional stuff after the birth of her first child. The inventor’s name is Mina Yoo. (You can learn more about her here.)

In all, the tool seems like a good investment. I’m sure I’ll be using mine frequently once we start schlepping a newborn everywhere later this year.

I’m looking forward to enjoying how much easier the tool makes my traveling life.

What are your favorite family travel tools and why?

Farewell to a friend and family travel advocate

So long, old friend.

So long, old friend.

Keith Bellows was a luminary. In 17 years as Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveler, he pushed his writers to write better, dream big, and allow themselves to be moved by travel. He also took a stand as a staunch advocate of family travel, writing books and essays about the importance of introducing kids to the world.

I never had the privilege of working with Bellows as an editor, never worked up the courage to pitch him a story. But I always dreamed of the day when I would.

Then a funny thing happened. We both joined the board of the Family Travel Association (FTA). Suddenly, we were equals with the same mission: To change lives through travel. We sat in on the same calls, opined on the same issues, even chimed in on each other’s Facebook pages about desultory stuff.

We were starting to become friends. Then Bellows died Saturday after a battle with liver disease.

To say I was shocked by this development would be understatement. I didn’t know he was sick, didn’t really know he was suffering. I also didn’t *really* know the guy at all. Reading the kind eulogies our mutual friends wrote on Facebook was almost voyeuristic—our colleagues poured their hearts out, and with each piece, I got a slightly more complete perspective of the man Bellows was.

Encouraging. Spontaneous. Free-spirited. Worldly. These are just some of the adjectives I took away from the essays. The list could go on for screens.

Fellow writers shared stories of Bellows enabling them to report travel features from just about anywhere, anecdotes about Bellows helping kickstart their careers because he valued hard work and determination.

Some of our mutual colleagues also shared stories of Bellows on the road with his kids—here, there, just about everywhere in the world.

One friend reminded me of this piece Bellows wrote for the FTA’s own Website.

Indeed, above all else, Bellows was a true family traveler. He cherished the relationship he had with his kids, and was committed to taking them places to put them in the position of experiencing the unfamiliar. He was undaunted in this perspective—perhaps his own upbringing in foreign countries cemented in him a love for the magic and wonder of traveling the world. In this belief, this unflagging support of exploring as a family, Keith Bellows inspired me to be a better writer, better father, and a better family traveler myself. I’m just sorry he won’t be around to read these thanks.

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