Happy Free National Park Day

Big girls. Beach. Beautiful.

Today, our annual celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is the first free national park day of the year.

This means every single American gets free entrance to every national park and national monument site in the country. It also means you’ve got no excuse to spend the kids’ day off from school bumming around indoors.

But before you get too excited, before you furiously fire up another window in your Internet browser to locate your nearest park and figure out how to get there, I want you to get angry, I want you to get pissed. This year the National Park Service is granting us only four free days, down from 10 last year.

Let me repeat that. Last year and years before it, we had 10 free days. This year we have four.

If you think this is just a coincidence, think again. Under the “leadership” of our new President and Secretary Ryan Zinke, the U.S. Department of the Interior is abusing our national park system, shrinking national monuments, attempting to change rules to sell off land for profit, proposing rate hikes, and, yes, even taking away free days.

Put differently, the people running our government are cheating us out of the park system that was established for the “enjoyment of the people” all those years ago.

IMHO, there are two main ways to fight back. First, of course, is to take advantage of all of the free days we now get. Go today. Go April 21, which is the first day of National Park Week (also the week of Earth Day). Go Sept. 22, National Public Lands Day. And go on Veterans Day, which is Nov. 11.

In addition, please support our parks throughout the rest of the year, however and whenever you can.

Remember: Family travel doesn’t have to be big or expensive or once-in-a-lifetime incredible. It can be a few hours at your closest park. Just get out there.

Hunting for Dollars

Little R and some of her bounty

When my wife and I pre-booked the final night of our road trip in Morro Bay, we had one thing on our minds: Walking on Morro Strand State Beach. Which is precisely how we spent the last day of our trip on Wednesday.

But the Villano family beach walk brought with it a surprise. Sand dollars. Hundreds of them. All over the beach.

It turns out January is prime time for finding dead and desiccated sand dollars on the sandy beaches of Central California. Because Morro Strand is one of the longest beaches in the area, it is renowned for its sand dollar-hunting. Naturally, then, once we found our first dollar of the day, we treated the excursion like a treasure hunt.  Each of our three girls walked away with quite a bounty.

Later in the day, as we sped home in our Honda Odyssey, we hit the Internet to do some research.

We learned that sand dollars actually are close relatives of sea urchins. We learned that live sand dollars are a bit like ravioli—tough outside, soft inside. We also learned that the petal-shaped design actually is a bunch of pores that help the animals move.

Without question, the three-hour stroll was my favorite segment of the entire trip. A quest! Science! Beautiful views! The best part: It was all totally free.

These types of escapades represent the very best of family travel. They incorporate serendipity and fascination. To be clear, none of these moments is perfect; at one point there on the beach, Baby G was upset that a sandpiper flew away and started bawling like she’s never bawled before. Overall, however, these adventures are magical. I wish all of you at least one of these experiences on your next trip.

Toddlers as Truth

One of the best things about exploring the world with a toddler is that she lacks all semblance of an internal editor. When things suck, Baby G says so. When things rule, she says that, too.

Naturally, then, when the two of us rode the Alaska Airlines Skyfari gondola ride today during the Villano family’s rain-soaked visit to the amazing (but outrageously expensive at $54 per grownup and $44 per adult) San Diego Zoo, I was eager for my youngest daughter’s hot take.

It came one minute into our ride. She looked over the side, giggled, and said, “Fun, Daddy! Fun! Fun!”

From that point until the end of our round-trip journey, the child must have uttered the word, “Fun!” at least 60 times. At one point, she screamed it, screeching like one of the macaw parrots down below. Every time she repeated that word, she made me so happy that all I could do was laugh. My heart was so full I felt like it might pop inside my chest.

Baby G was right, it *was* fun. Our day at the zoo was a day I’ll remember forever—toddler truths and all. I hope she feels the same.

The Gambler Lesson

Calmer times, today at Legoland California.

Here’s how tonight was supposed to go: The girls and I would leave our hotel at 4:45, pile in the car, drive 15 minutes to the house of an old college friend, and hang there through dinner before coming back. I had no set bedtime in mind for the kids, but I figured maybe they’d be down by 930 or so.

Here’s how tonight actually went: The four of us never went anywhere, we ordered room-service dinner, and all three girls were asleep by 8 p.m.

Of course there’s more to the story than that. Like how the baby threw the wildest tantrum of her life, her nose was a snot faucet, and she took Little R’s brand new Lego set and smashed it to bits. Or how the same baby nailed her head on the door jam as she was flailing about in an attempt to avoid my clutches. Or, going back even farther, how that very same 2-year-old slept for 20 minutes, then woke up and refused to go back to sleep.

I mean, really, take your pick.

Meteorologists have been calling the unusual cold snap back East a “bombogenesis.” With that in mind, I’d like to refer to what happened on Day No. 3 of my solo road trip with the girls a “behavior bombogenesis.” To be completely honest, I’m somewhat relieved that the only casualty was my social life.

What’s more, now that I’ve got the perspective of time (and now that all three girls are fast asleep and I’m typing this blog post from a darkened living room), I also think tonight’s events are a valuable reminder that sometimes when you’re traveling with kids, it’s OK to give up.

I wince to think about how the night would have played out if I had forced the issue. Perhaps the baby would have fallen down stairs? Perhaps she would have fallen asleep in the car, only to become inconsolable upon waking (or, even worse, incapable of going back to sleep later in the night). I certainly wouldn’t have relaxed, instead feeling the need to monitor her every move.

No, I’m not jazzed about having spent $70 on room service. And I’m downright disappointed to miss catching up with my old pal (and meeting her kids).

But when it comes to family travel—especially when you’re traveling with young kids—you need to heed the wise words of Kenny Rogers: Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.

The bottom line: There’s never shame in surrendering as a parent. The real mistakes arise when you push too hard .

 

Self-park Schlep

Two littler sisters, early in the day.

You’re not a truly intrepid family traveler until you’ve schlepped five days’ worth of gear and three tired kiddos from self-park to a hotel lobby, BY YOURSELF.

Such was life earlier tonight upon checking in at the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort & Hotel.

I’m here solo with all three girls on the sedentary part of a week-long road trip/family vacation. We left our home in Wine Country Thursday morning. After an overnight with friends in San Luis Obispo, lunch with a buddy in Santa Monica, and dinner with cousins in Carlsbad, we checked in here tonight around 8:30, well beyond the girls’ bedtime.

But tiredness wasn’t the real challenge. The true gauntlet was managing those tired kids while getting all of our stuff from the van onto a luggage cart, lugging cart and kids up the elevator and into the lobby for check-in, then getting everything and everyone out to our room.

I know what you’re probably thinking at this point: Why the hell didn’t Matty just do valet? The reason is simple: Valet is expensive, and most families don’t have the resources to go there. Beside, we had a coupon for free self-park for the duration of our stay. (For more on the logic behind this decision, see this post about what I’m calling the “Schoolyard Test.”)

Thankfully, I managed to find an underground spot right next to an abandoned luggage cart. The Big Girl and Little R got out of the van and watched (and complained) while I loaded our gear onto the cart; Baby G watched directed traffic from her car seat.

Once the cart was loaded up, I grabbed G and held her in my left arm while pulling the cart with my right.

(If you’ve never pulled a full luggage cart with one arm, let me tell you: It works your pectoralis muscles. Big-time. Like, I won’t need to bench press anything tomorrow. Shit, I’ll be lucky if I can raise my arm above my head.)

Somehow we made it to the elevator. From there, somehow we made it to the front desk. Following a snafu at check-in (which, in all fairness, was resolved quickly and painlessly), I trudged onward with the kids and cart to our room, a one-bedroom suite that quite literally was the farthest possible accommodations from the front desk.

By the time we managed to round the bend for our wing of the hotel, I was literally dripping with sweat. My right pec was burning. My left arm was numb from carrying the baby. In my head, I heard the “Chariots of Fire” theme song as I reached for the room key and swiped it through the lock.

Now, here I am.

I could go on about how the Big Girl claimed the pullout couch, Little R grabbed the bedroom floor and Baby G passed out on the bed. I could take a picture of myself sitting on a dining room chair in the bathroom, where I’m writing this post (and soon will write a newspaper article, as well). Hell, I could wrap the night by doing 30 burpees on the balcony outside, and all of it would pale in comparison to the self-park schlep I endured earlier tonight.

In doing so, however, I saved nearly $40 per night, or $160 total. I am family travel warrior. Hear me roar.

New Year, New Beginnings

Fully “exploring” the Astro.

Our most recent family getaway comprised one night in a room at The Astro Motel, a brand-new property near my home in Northern California.

The place soft-opened in October after a pretty major renovation; the new owners redesigned it to celebrate mid-century modern flare. While some of the furniture and wall decorations are vintage, the place is mostly no-frills. In our room, a small flat-screen television hung on a wall bracket in the corner above a modest mini-fridge. Over near the sink—which was exposed to the rest of the room—a tiny plastic hairdryer was nestled into a cradle high on the wall.

It’s worth noting that the nightly rate of $160 included complimentary coffee and muffins in the morning. Guests also have access to a decent-sized library of children’s books such as “Snowy Day” and “The Giving Tree.”

In short, the Astro is a veritable poster child for family travel.

What makes the place so great for traveling families? It’s affordable. It’s authentic. It’s clean. It’s efficient. Also, it’s fun. After more than eight years of traveling with kids, I’ve determined that these five attributes are all we moms and dads *really* need from hotels when we travel. Anything else is superfluous; nothing more than a profit source for the parent company.

That last sentence was meant to be contentious. By stating that anything beyond these attributes is “superfluous,” I’m intentionally stirring the pot. Put differently, I’m calling out the dozens of hotel brands that double-down on perks they consider to be family-friendly but charge an arm and a leg for the privilege of staying there.

Sure, there are parents who feel a certain sense of comfort with “free” plush toys for the kids at check-in. Yes, there are moms and dads who love a property-wide kids’ menu. I’m sure somewhere on Earth, there even are guardians who aren’t completely creeped out with the idea of a butler coming to your hotel room to tuck in your children and give them warm cookies in bed. For me, however, it’s time to rethink what’s most important in family travel. It’s time to focus on what really matters to actual families.

. . .

This post has been a long time in the making. If you’ve followed this blog with any regularity, you probably noticed that I haven’t written anything in a while. That hasn’t been by accident. I’ve taken a sabbatical, if you will. A sabbatical to learn more about how people travel with their kids.

This research was inspired in part by my buddy Erin Kirkland, and began in my role as a board member of the Family Travel Association. There I had the benefit of talking to travel agents and vendors about what they think traveling families want. Armed with these examples, I sought anecdotes from families, chatting with real-world parents I’ve met on playgrounds, in museum cafes, and online.

Conceptually, the two sides weren’t that far apart; everyone agreed travelers want meaning from travel.

The similarities ended there. For vendors (and, subsequently, agents), there seemed to be a correlation between cost and meaning—the more of an “investment” made on a hotel, the more meaningful the subsequent experience likely would be. For moms and dads, however, the relationship wasn’t necessarily direct; even among those moms and dads who have the means to spend big bucks on family travel said they try to reserve the bulk of their budget for doing stuff.

This told me that most families prefer not to spend big bucks on hotels. It means they’d opt for modest accommodations if it meant a richer experience overall.

I asked my interview subjects for specifics, and dozens upon dozens of them threw out brand names such as Motel 6 and KOA as their go-to “lodging” on family trips. Others swore by Best Westerns, and Red Roof Inns. Still others hailed vacation rentals. Many people even said they still purchase family trips through travel agencies and online travel agencies where bundling hotel with airfare and activities can save money. (It’s worth noting after that kind of statement that I’m no longer on the payroll at Expedia, which sells bundled trips; I’m just reporting what people told me.)

Normally this is the part of a post where I’d call upon my training as a journalist and drop in some scientific data to back up my research and prove my point explicitly. But I don’t have stats to sprinkle into the narrative. I haven’t conducted a study to determine the socioeconomics of the average family traveler in America. To my knowledge, this kind of data doesn’t exist. Not yet, at least. (Get on it, FTA!)

What I do know is this: As life in America becomes increasingly expensive, traveling does, too. Traveling with a bunch of humans can get extra-spendy. I leave Thursday for a week-long road trip with my daughters, and one of the reasons we’re not stopping at Universal Studios Hollywood is because it would have cost us nearly $600 to spend five hours in the park.

With price tags like these, it’s no wonder families are opting to cut costs whenever they can.

Of course herein lies the great disconnect. Families are trying to cut costs on the nuts and bolts of travel to maximize their on-the-ground experience, while big brands are paying big bucks to market high-dollar products to everyone as the kind of travel that is most fulfilling. The result, for the most part, is aspiration overload. Most family travel coverage is chock-full of safari narratives or stories that extol the virtues of hotels that cost $700 per night. This is travel for the 1 percent. It’s nothing but an extension of lifestyle (or, as the case may be, perceived lifestyle).

Open up the latest issue of Travel + Leisure or Conde Nast Traveler and tell me different. Even The New York Times is guilty of this phenomenon (though Freda Moon’s occasional “Frugal Family” pieces for the Travel section are a shining example of what great and thoughtful family travel writing can be).

IMHO, most mainstream family travel writing is completely out of touch with the way actual families travel.

. . .

Before you start calling me a hypocrite, I admit it: I’m guilty of perpetuating this disconnect. That’s why I needed time away. It’s why I needed to go back to basics and hit the streets. It’s also why I’m starting off the new year with this post. Because from here on out, Wandering Pod will look and feel a little different.

Put differently, I vow to cover family travel the way most actual families do it.

What does this mean, exactly? It means more posts about the ins and outs of planning, more details about finances. It also means more stories about the journey, about the meaning behind the “bucket list.” I’ll write more pieces about challenges we face, particularly as the parents of a child who has sensory integration issues yet yearns to see and explore and experience more. Even my descriptive pieces will change a bit—I’ll still show you readers what makes destinations worthwhile, but I also will put that into context, too.

Overall, my new aim is to add more value to the conversation, and get even more real about what it means to hit the road with kids in today’s day and age. On a week-to-week basis, it means covering more places like the Astro—places that are affordable, authentic, clean, efficient, and fun. On a post-by-post basis, it means adding more dollar amounts to every service piece, so readers can see exactly how much each of my experiences costs.

The goal of this glasnost is simple: To get real. If I spotlight a hotel perk, I’ll spotlight it because it’s legitimately different and cool, not because I think that’s the story the hotel wants to tell (or because some PR person in a cubicle in Midtown Manhattan asked me to share). If I wax poetic about a promotion, it will because the promotion provides undisputable savings and value—to customers of all kinds. If I spread the word about a niche vacation rental site, it will be a niche vacation rental site with prices middle-class American families can actually afford.

Sure, from time to time, I’ll still cover high-dollar stuff. This summer, we Villanos will visit Flathead Lake Lodge in Montana, and our stay is my compensation for a huge copywriting project.

When I see value, I also might even write about theme parks (though I’ll buy my tickets at Costco).

For the most part, however, my new standard will be the Schoolyard Test: If the moms and dads in our local schoolyards wouldn’t invest in particular travel products on the next school break, I don’t really want to be writing about them here.

Consider this my resolution for Wandering Pod in 2018. Hopefully it will make my voice in the industry even more reliable. Hopefully it will inspire you to think about family travel in a new way, too.

What family travelers can learn from road warriors

Shut up!

If we’ve learned anything during a week when a man was assaulted for failing to give up his seat on an airplane, it’s this: As life-changing as travel can be, it often brings out the worst in people.

Family travelers have known this fact for years; in many cases, simply walking onto an airplane with a baby draws dirty looks, sighs, and “talking tos” from passengers who want to make sure our kids know how to behave at 35,000 feet.

Increasingly, however, this fact is becoming clearer to everybody else.

The tragedy, of course, is that for the most part, moms and dads who travel with kids are among the most empathetic of all passengers. Heck, even when we moms and dads aren’t traveling with our kids, we tend to be more aware of ourselves and the people around us and how everybody can live together most peacefully.

I’m experiencing this very fact as I type these words. I’m sitting in the Centurion Lounge at San Francisco International Airport, where I am surrounded by three “road warrior” business-traveler types who are literally screaming into their cell phone headsets.

To my left, a man is yelling so he’s heard during a conference call. To my right, a dude is talking to a colleague IRL, and they’re yelling about a client and how “stuck up” he or she is. Across the way, some dude is yelling at his voice recognition software to answer a ringing phone. ANSWER! ANSWER! ANSWER! He won’t stop. ANSWER! ANSWER!

Oh, there’s also the dude who’s actually traveling with his wife and child and is trying to conduct some sort of business call and keeps shushing his kid with the most disruptive and offensive shush you’ve ever heard in your life. (Why he doesn’t just politely ask his wife to entertain the child, who knows.)

Am I ranting? Perhaps. But it’s also painfully clear to me in this moment that even when my kids are acting up at the airport, they’re not nearly as loud or disruptive as these men (they’re all men, of course, aren’t they always?). Put differently, families and family travelers get a bum rap for being loud and obnoxious and annoying but the reality is that most of the time kids are no more loud and obnoxious and annoying than grownup fliers.

The takeaway, of course, is just to be aware. When you’re traveling with kids, be aware that kids will be kids, and sometimes it’s perfectly OK for them to laugh and exclaim and be excited about the fact that they’re going to fly like birds. When you’re traveling solo, be aware of others around you and adjust your own behavior accordingly.

I guess a secondary takeaway from all of this is always to travel with earplugs. You never know when you might need some outside help.

Resistance in the name of family travel

My three, at Disneyland

It’s a weird time to be in the travel industry.

On one hand, we’ve got a number of media outlets (including the AP) describing what they’re calling a “Trump Slump,” a potentially crippling blow to our local tourism infrastructure due to all of the foreigners who don’t want to come here because of how our new president rules the roost.

On the other hand, we find ourselves on the brink of an all-out visa war with Europe, with both sides considering reversing the commitment to visa-free travel between regions and requiring visas for everyone. (As much as it pains me to say this, technically the new president isn’t responsible for this one; the brouhaha started back before he took office.)

The current climate would make any travel writer—really any American who travels for a living—paranoid.

For us family travel writers, however (and for those of us in leadership positions at the Family Travel Association), the stakes are even higher; not only must we navigate these quagmires on our own, but we have to figure out a way to do it with our kids—all without disillusioning them completely and forever.

This challenge is not easy. First, simply explaining the current situation to an 8-year-old and 5-year-old is difficult, especially since the very last thing I want to do is undermine their faith and trust in our leaders at such an early age. What’s more, the visa situation requires even more preparation than ever before—a reality that is downright exhausting for a family of five.

Then, of course, there’s the process of navigating new travel rules abroad.

With all this in mind, I’m not going to let the current climate deter me from my goals of exploring the world at large and teaching my daughters through travel. We haven’t been scared of traveling after acts of terrorism, and we won’t be scared of traveling now.

Here, then, is my step-by-step guide to resisting the threat of chaos in travel, and to doubling-down on travel as a form of exploration, education, and fun.

  • Reverse the “Trump Slump.” Now more than ever we must travel around our own country and spend money in other local economies. New York says they’re feeling a pinch? We’ll book a trip there this fall. Central California is struggling to recover from floods? We’re headed there for a week later this month. It’s not hard to be smart about maintaining pre-Trump spending levels and be tactical about where to dump travel dollars back into the economy. Like any good form of protest, it just takes thought.
  • Plan ahead for visas. Contrary to popular belief, travel can still be spontaneous if you’ve been planning a trip more than six months out. Given the uncertainty about visas for travel to Europe, at this point it’s probably best to get in touch with the embassies of where you’re hoping to go and line up all the paperwork for what you need or might need to make it happen. Obviously in order to do that you need to make sure your kids have current passports. So be on the ball about that, too. (Full disclosure: Both L and R have passports that have expired; renewal is on my to-do list.)
  • Don’t be scared. With all the uncertainty in the world right now, it’d be understandable to declare that you’re not going anywhere. But this is precisely the kind of sentiment the fearmongers and hatemongers in government hope to spark. Instead—and this is SUPER important, y’all—leap outside your comfort zone. Commit to traveling abroad, commit to exposing your kids to differences in the world around them, commit to being a de facto ambassador for the America that still gives a shit about kindness and tolerance and compassion and all of those other good things.
  • Get real. It’s easy to cite your kids’ ages and decline to *really* explain to them what’s happening in the world right now and why it’s so cataclysmically important. That’s a cop-out. I’m not suggesting that your sit down with your second-grader and enumerate all the reasons you’d like to punch our president in the face. What I am saying is that it’s important you explain how international perception of Americans is changing, and how it’s important you and your family go out and make good impressions so people realize not all Americans have lost their minds.

IMHO, as my colleague Joe Diaz at AFAR magazine put it so eloquently at the end of 2015, it’s more important now than ever before to round up the kids and get out there to see the world. At a time when our leaders are thinking narrowly, the right play is for the rest of us think more broadly and approach the world with the same degree of curiosity and respect we always have. I’m proud to embrace this philosophy at this moment in history. I’m also proud to pass it along to my girls.

Theaters with a playful twist

Playground + theater = AWESOME

If you’ve ever been to the movies with a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old, you understand that it can be difficult for the little ones to sit still for the duration of the film.

For this reason alone, two new movie theaters from Mexico-based Cinepolis, which debut next week to screen Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” remake, are AWESOME.

In a nutshell, the new theaters are mashups of regular cinemas and indoor playgrounds. Under one roof. The Cinepolis configuration—formally dubbed the “in-theater concept”—offers something for everyone. Moms and dads can sit and watch a film while the kiddos play on a play structure. It’s that easy.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the new theaters boast jungle gyms, cushy bean bag chairs, and climbing structures. These play areas are flush up against one of the walls near the screen, and are big enough to satisfy a handful of kids but small enough to make certain that parents can keep an eye on their kiddos at all time.

Lest you think this setup is too good to be true, it comes at a cost; Cinepolis plans to charge an additional $3 per ticket. That means standard prices could put tickets around $20 a pop.

Meanwhile, a separate story, this time on The Huffington Post, alleged that the kid-friendly push reflects the increasing importance of the family audience as Hollywood studios spend heavily on animated productions.

Whatever the driver, I must admit: I’m intrigued by this development. I’ve seen five or six movies with our big girls over the years, and I’m always frustrated by their inability to sit still. (Heck, even when they watch movies at home, the two of them are jumping all over the living room.) While it might be awkward for certain audience members to have kids running and jumping on a playground during a movie, I’d argue that this sort of behavior is far LESS disruptive than kids bopping around in their seats.

The bottom line: I’m certainly willing to give it a try. And the next time we’re in LA, we will.

The squatter

Mid-squat

We came, we saw, we did Disneyland and nobody had sensory overload. I’ll write more about that in the next few days. Today, however, the focus is on something far more fascinating: Our squatting baby.

Yes, the very same baby you see in the photo here to the right. One minute she’s running around like a chicken evading slaughter. The next minute, she screeches to a halt, squats at the knees and pushes a poop into her Size 4 diaper.

This scene played itself out at least two or three times daily during out weekend in the House that Mickey Built. Baby G squatted and pooped her way through two airports, two theme parks, Downtown Disney, and the walk back to our hotel (which was about 1.2 miles from the park entrance). And she seemed to enjoy it more and more each time she pulled it off—donning a mischievous smile every time.

After the third or fourth squatting incident, I started wondering what must have been going through Baby G’s mind. Wandering around Adventureland? Let me squat here, you guys. Waiting in the queue for the Teacup ride? No problem, I’ll just squeeze it out here.

Part of me can’t blame my youngest (or any kid, for that matter) for going on the go. I’m the kind of guy who hates wasting time, and I’ve always envied babies for their ability to do business in motion. No matter how many times you read in “The Bathroom Reader,” the place is a time vortex. Diapers vanquish that.

The other part of me thinks the kid’s antics are flat-out ridiculous; her own little way of getting comfortable with her little body and asserting control over the rest of us.

Whatever the scoop, after a weekend of squats and poops, one thing is certain: Baby G is quite a ham.

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