Tips for holiday air travel with kids

Enduring delays in mid-air.

Enduring delays in mid-air.

I dole out a ton of advice on this blog about traveling with kids. Sometimes, I like to spread the love. That explains my latest piece for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia—a story that lists five tips for holiday air travel with children. The piece went live earlier today.

The story culls advice and insight I’ve gleaned from six years as a family traveler. Some of the suggestions relate to ideas I’ve mentioned here before. Some of the suggestions are brand new.

The bottom line: We can’t just board a plane and expect our kids to entertain themselves.

Flying with kids at any of time of year requires effort on the part of us parents. Well during the holidays, when airplanes and airports are at their craziest and busiest, it’s even more important for us to stay cool, stay calm, be flexible and be ready to tackle any delay, cancelation, sickness or angry fellow passenger that comes our way.

My No. 1 tip (which you may have read previously in these pages): Bring art projects. Kids love making things at home, so why not put them in position to make the same sort of stuff at 35,000 feet? When we fly during holidays, I bring construction paper and Scotch tape so the kids can make paper chains. My job in the assembly line is to rip the paper into perfect rectangles; from there, L and R take turns making circles, taping circles and stringing the chains up around our seats.

Sometimes we leave the chains for the next passenger (or the cleaning crew). Other times we hand them to flight attendants, who love the thought. Whoever gets ‘em, the process usually kills at least 90 minutes. On a long flight—especially during holiday season—that’s practically a lifetime.

Get me a flying nanny

Adra, courtesy of Yahoo Travel

Adra, courtesy of Yahoo Travel

When I win the World Series of Poker, I’m hiring a flying nanny for a family trip.

Above all else, this is what I took away from a recent Yahoo Travel article by friend and colleague, Jo Piazza. The story, titled, “Confessions of an Airline Nanny,” offered up a Q&A with Sara Adra, one of the flying nannies employed by Etihad Airways.

According to the piece, these “Mary Poppins in the sky” (as Piazza puts it) play entertainment concierge, personal chef, and more. They tackle everything from managing carry-on bags to preparing kids for bed and “distracting” kids when they’re feeling spent. And who the hell wouldn’t want that on a flight with kids?

Specifically, Piazza’s piece notes that many flying nannies are skilled puppetry, origami, face painting, and magic tricks. The story quotes Adra recounting an anecdote about a time when she dressed a 4-year-old passenger up in a flight attendant uniform. It also offers up some of Adra’s “expert” advice on soothing crying babies in mid-air; not surprisingly, she mentions offering the child a pacifier.

The piece is a fascinating perspective into the life of the rich and famous, a look at how someone else might mind your kids at 35,000 feet.

It did not mention how much extra flying nannies cost, though I’m guessing it’s a lot.

The part of the story that stuck with me most was the part where Piazza asked Adra about her “duties” in this job. Her response: “I am there to help any family to have an easier flight—whether that means to cater their meal times differently to our serving times, to distract the child with coloring competitions and other fun games while mom and/or dad take a break or even help mind the children while the single traveling parent takes restroom breaks and a quick stretch.”

For me, the notion of “taking a break” on a family trip seems like an incredible luxury. Someday, dear readers, even if only for a few brief moments, I wish all of us can experience it at the hands of a flying nanny.

Travel fun without screens

The new book from Jervis = Genius.

The new book from Jervis = Genius.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again, probably): We’re not fans of screens in this family. Sure, the girls are allowed to watch programs here and there (as well as the occasional movie), but for the most part my wife and I try to promote tech-free fun.

This is why I was so jazzed when a friend lent me a copy of How to Entertain, Distract, and Unplug Your Kids by San Francisco Bay Area-based writer and maker (and single dad) Matthew Jervis.

The book came out this summer. In it, the author provides a treasure-trove of tech-free options for keeping kids occupied (the subtitle actually is “Tricks, Tools, and Spontaneous Screen-Free Activities”). I know the American Academy of Pediatrics recently stepped away from its previous declaration that parents should eliminate any screen time for kids under the age of two, but research indicates that kids who are encouraged to be creative on their own (read: WITHOUT SCREENS) tend to be more skilled and confident and perform better in life.

That’s where Jervis’ suggestions can come in handy, especially on family trips. Many of the suggestions work well during family travel. Some even work perfectly in the confined spaces of passenger cabins on airplanes or trains.

Take the one on page 60, for instance—“You Complete Me.” In this exercise, Jervis suggests folding a piece of paper in thirds length-wise and having different family members take turns drawing different phases of an object (be it a person or an animal).

This game is one of our favorites on the road, and it usually keep the girls busy for hours (Jervis notes it keeps most kids busy for 30-45 minutes).

Another of my favorite of Jervis’ suggestions: a game he calls “Pebble People” (page 44). In this activity, the author suggests finding 10-15 smooth stones and drawing faces on them, then encouraging kids to draw play environments on a piece of paper so their new friends can have some context in which to interact.

I could go on and on summarizing all of the games in the book but that would spoil the fun. Instead, check it out before your next family trip and leave your tablets and Kindles and iPod Touches at home.

What are your favorite screen-free activities for a family vacation?

Growing the pod

Me, with L, six years ago. Ready to do it again!

Me, with L, six years ago. Ready to do it again!

Look up at the masthead of this fair blog and you’ll notice something new: a fifth dorsal fin. This isn’t just an example of artistic expression. Any day now, we’re expecting another daughter.

I’ve made a few subtle references to the new arrival over the last few months, but consider this the first official word. The Wandering Pod is growing. And that’s a wonderful, awesome, exciting, terrifying, crazy, and unbelievable thing. (As we like to tell our friends, we’re either really committed parents, or we’re fucking insane.)

Baby G, as we’ll call her, already has caused quite a stir. As part of an effort to convert my former home office into her room, I hired a crew to build me a new home office in the back corner of our garage. Then we redid floors and carpets, and painted a bunch of stuff (including the baby’s new room; very trippy to see those walls purple). We bought a minivan (more on that later this week). Earlier this week, I fetched the crib and changing table out of storage and put those back together. We even sanitized some pacifiers.

Of course all of these changes pale in comparison to how this little human will transform the way we Villanos travel. For starters, whenever we fly we once again will get to use my least favorite word in the modern English language: LAPCHILD. Next, after two years of traveling diaper-free, we’ll have to schlep diapers and wipes wherever we go. We’ll need to get back in the habit of requesting cribs at hotels. Also, every night around 5 p.m., either Powerwoman or I will disappear from the face of vacation for a while to get the kid to sleep (which means a new travel pre-bed ritual for the bigger girls, who, as of this writing, are 6 and 4).

These changes are only the beginning. Gate-checked strollers. Ergo baby carriers. Breast pumps. We’ll have to whip them all out again and work them all back into the repertoire.

I’d love to stand here and tell you I’m looking forward to most of these changes. The truth, however, is that I’m not—our pod has established some good routines over the last few years, and changing them undoubtedly will be a challenge.

I am interested to see how L and R respond to traveling with a baby. Up until this point, they’ve been the focal points of every trip; how will they fare when they’re sharing our attention with a needy little one? Logistics will be a learning curve, as well—when Baby G wakes up at 2 a.m. in a hotel room in Anaheim (or Kapalua or Seattle or Chicago or Victoria, B.C.) wanting to eat, will L and R wake up, too?

Don’t mistake these doubts and questions as fear; I’m really not worried. Millions of multi-child families have dealt with these issues before us, and millions will deal with them after. Instead, I’d describe my state of mind as curious: In the months following our expansion into an all-girl band, how will our travel style change?

One thing is certain: Whatever happens, you’ll read about it here. So stick around. Stay tuned. And get ready for a bigger, bolder, and better Wandering Pod.

How has a growing family changed your travel style?

Finding math in nature on the road

Math is cool.

Math is cool.

I never was good at numbers, but one of my fondest memories of math as a teenager was learning about the Fibonacci Sequence.

Ms. Sheehan, my teacher at the time, described this as a series of accumulating numbers in which the next number is found by adding the previous two together beginning with zero and one. The chain of numbers produced (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on) describe natural phenomenon from leaf growth to the curl of a shell. And once you are familiar with what that chain looks like (check out this video), it’s easy to spot Fibonacci just about everywhere in nature.

A recent article in Sierra magazine reminded me of this. The piece, written by an author named Mikey Jane Moran, makes a bold leap from Fibonacci to the importance of play-based learning, and the need to avoid screens. A snip:

“Tell your children to hunt for the curling Fibonacci shape outdoors and they will start to see the patterns everywhere, in the cowlick on their brother’s head and in spider webs—places where there aren’t really Fibonacci patterns. But the beauty is that they are noticing. Instead of staring at a video game screen on long road trips, they are looking at clouds. Walks may take longer as they stop to look at every little thing, but how can anyone complain?”

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know this notion of play over technology is a big one for me. Quite frankly, it’s nice just to see mainstream publications championing the same priorities for a change.

That said, Moran is right—finding Fibonacci in nature is DAMN cool, and something worth doing.

Whenever I head out with the girls, we try to look for Fibonacci and other phenomena like it. The hunt becomes a big part of our adventure; L and R look everywhere for examples, and the two girls compete to see who can find more (they are sisters, after all). As Moran suggests, the search (and subsequent success or failure) introduces a much-needed component of play into the learning-from-nature mix. The result is a wonderful way to experience new stuff.

Great insight from a family travel icon

Amie and family.

Amie and family.

One of the greatest things about being a family travel writer is having the opportunity to meet and talk shop with other family travel writers whom I have respected for years.

Like Amie O’Shaughnessy, who founded a family travel agency named Ciao Bambino in late 2003 after a year-long international travel sabbatical with her husband. O’Shaughnessy added a blog component to the company in 2007, and her blog now is widely considered among the best in the biz. (I could spend a paragraph listing all the awards the site has won but awards mean nothing to me; on Amie’s site, content is everything, and that content is fantastic.)

Given her two-pronged expertise, Amie is IMHO one of the most knowledgeable family travel experts in the marketplace today (especially on the subject of Italy). I also consider her a friend. The two of us serve together on the board of the Family Travel Association. We both were in Montana earlier this year. We’re lined up to work together on some big-time projects in 2016.

As much as I’ve interacted with Amie over the years, I’ve never had the chance to sit down with her and talk to her about the origin of her company.

That’s why I enjoyed the Travel Age West Q&A with her that published earlier this month.

I’m not going to rehash the Q&A for you on this page; you can click through and read it in its entirety in TAW. The bottom line: There are family travel experts for everyone. I specialize in advice and insight but stop there. For more serious assistance, for an expert who can help you and your family conceive, plan, and book a trip, check out Amie O’Shaughnessy. And tell her the Wandering Pod sent you.

Family travel in AFAR

AFAR is paying attention. Are you?

AFAR is paying attention.

It’s always nice to see one of my clients give family travel some love, and I was especially tickled this week to read TWO separate pieces of content about traveling with kids in AFAR magazine.

(Full disclosure: I write a weekly column for AFAR titled “The View from AFAR.” It runs on Fridays.)

In the first effort, an article titled, “These Four Trends are Good News for Family Travel,” friend and editor Jeremy Saum recapped the highpoints of the recent Family Travel Association Summit in Montana. Saum boils down takeaways into easy-to-digest bullet points about why people should care about family travel at all. (In his last point, he quotes another one of my clients, from Expedia. Small and serendipitous world!)

In the second piece, a slide show titled, “Seven Outfitters for Kid-Friendly Treks,” the editors pulled together seven suggestions for outfitters worth patronizing when traveling with kids. I love that one of the picks in the slideshow is Country Walkers, which arranges walks all over the world. (In case you’re wondering, most of the treks in this slide show are for older kids.)

Both stories are worth a read; neither will take you more than five minutes to get through.

Elsa and Anna take to the skies

Let it go, let it go.

Let it go, let it go. (Pic courtesy of WestJet)

Thankfully my kids have grown out of their “Frozen” fetish and grown into “My Little Pony” and similarly inane adorable girly things.

Otherwise, they might have freaked out upon glimpsing the newest plane from WestJet.

According to a company blog post, the plane, a 737, is custom-painted with “Frozen” themes and scenes, inside and out. On the outside, Olaf is toward the nose and Elsa and Anna are on the tail. Inside, the entire cast appears on the outside of overhead bin doors, and “snow” is everywhere.

To be clear, the plane makes a bold statement. It’s a marketing play, plain and simple. It also serves as proof positive of what I’m sure is a healthy and productive relationship between the airline and Disney Parks. That said, especially for the Villano girls, “Frozen” is yesterday’s news, which means WestJet is about a year too late to guarantee this paint job is on trend.

Still, the effort raises some fascinating questions about kids’ preferences and family travel overall. Do kids really get MORE excited about flying in planes with their favorite characters? If so, how much more? I’ve scoured the Internet for data on the subject and can’t find any.  If you find some, let me know.

Meanwhile, here in our house, we’ll keep hooves peeled (get it?) for the day an airline unveils an MLP plane. When it happens, people, we’ll book like the wind.

How much extra would you pay for a seat on a themed plane?

Park passes latest addition to Colorado libraries

"Check-out" this pack!

“Check-out” this pack!

As a staunch advocate of getting kids outside, I was delighted to read news recently about a program at select Colorado libraries through which patrons can check-out 7-day passes to the state’s parks.

The “Check-Out State Parks” program is a partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and eight libraries across the state. The program offers residents the ability to check out one of two seven-day hang-tag park passes (the king that hang on your vehicle’s rearview mirror) at each library.

Each pass comes with a backpack that contains a wildlife viewing guide, a camping guide, a compass, a binoculars, a magnifying glass, and more. There also is general park information, as well as educational activities. (It sounds like the packs are pretty similar to ones I spotted at Spring Mountains National Recreation Area in Nevada, and wrote about in this Expedia Viewfinder post.)

The Colorado passes are good for entrance to all 42 state parks. The passes can be reserved and renewed. The state also is encouraging people who check out the passes to share photos or Tweets from their trip with the hashtag, #CheckOutColorado.

The first eight libraries are part of a pilot program that started Oct. 1 and will run through March 31, 2016. The full program will launch to all 260 libraries in the state April 1, 2016.

Of course programs like this are AMAZING for family travel. They open up the great outdoors to families FOR FREE. What’s more, the educational information in those backpacks can help teach kids lessons about the environment they’ll remember forever. Hopefully my home state of California will adopt a similar program sometime soon.

U-Pick a great vacation activity

Look out, berries. You have met your match.

Look out, berries. You have met your match.

Few activities enable kids to connect with a new place as well as foraging for produce at U-Pick farms.

The endeavor includes the thrill of the hunt, the immediate satisfaction of watching as your baskets empty, and the delayed happiness of sampling as you go. Also, it’s damn fun. Even under the blazing sun.

Over the course of our travels, we’ve U-Picked in some pretty spectacular places: Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Alaska. Hawaii. Southern California. These days, Powerwoman and I try to find U-Pick farms near our home because we feel the experience is a great way to interact with other locals and get the kids to connect with our local environment.

This past weekend, we hit up a U-Pick program near our house: The one at Shone Farm in Santa Rosa.

Technically, at least on this day, the U-Pick was part of a Fall Festival designed to get people to the property and buy some produce.  The kids didn’t care what it was. They had a blast.

And who can blame them? After getting their faces painted by the front gate, R and L headed into a pumpkin patch to select their own pumpkins, which I cut right off the vine. From there we ventured into different U-Pick territories: beans, tomatoes, and, eventually, strawberries.

Of course this was the main attraction. Each girl took a square plastic pint box and set out to pick ripe strawberries right off the plants. Most of the good ones—those that R didn’t eat—ended up safely in their pint boxes. All others were either left on the plants or tossed aside.

Calling my kids strawberry-obsessed for the latter part of the afternoon would have been an understatement. Between the two of them, they must have eaten 200 strawberries in a five-minute period. They also rose to the challenge of spreading out to maximize coverage; each of the girls brought in quite a bounty.

What’s more, their “hunt,” as L called it, was a riveting topic of discussion for most of the drive home. They debriefed on strategies. They shared best-practices. They lamented the “icky mud” that seemed to get everywhere.

My kids were so wrapped up in recapping their U-Pick experiences that neither of them even realized it when, after the 20-minute drive, we returned to the house.

The takeaway: When it comes to nature, simply getting the kids out will create a lasting impression.

(Of course this time around we also got the benefit of berries. If those aren’t adequate representatives of the “fruits of your labor,” I’m not sure what is or what will be.)

Where are some of the most exotic places you’ve U-picked?

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