Making a Splash with Family Travel

Feet in puddles. The best part of our trip.

One of the biggest misconceptions about family travel is that you have to splurge for airfare and fly somewhere faraway to have an experience your kids will remember.

The truth: All you have to do is get the kiddos out of the house.

I’m reminded of this all the time, as we’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world with seemingly infinite natural beauty. When we tire of the routine, we pile in the car and head to the Pacific Ocean, about 45 minutes away. When we want a Big City experience, we shoot down the freeway and spend the day in San Francisco. Heck, sometimes we rarely leave our town.

Such was the case this past weekend, when, after a big rainstorm, I took the girls to a local park. The park sits next to the Russian River, and I know the place gets pretty muddy after a rain. That’s precisely why we went. Seriously.

I told the girls we were going to “hike.” Really, however, I had one plan and one plan only: To bring them to this trail system, encourage them to splash in puddles, and sit back to enjoy what happened next.

They followed the plan perfectly; all three of them were up to the tips of their rainboots within five minutes of leaving the parking lot. They enjoyed the puddle jumping so much that the three of them ran ahead on the trails to make sure they “scouted” puddles before I could find them and assess them myself.

One time, Baby G misjudged the depth of a puddle and got a boot full of water. Another time, Little R lost her balance and fell backward—straight on her rear. Then, of course, there was the Big Girl, who loves puddle-jumping but has anxiety about muddy clothes, so she hiked her pant legs up to her knees.

We stayed for nearly two hours. We were never more than seven miles from our front door.

About a week has passed, and the girls have talked about or puddle adventure at least two times every day. For them, this was a major family travel experience. Yet we didn’t “travel” at all.

Feeling the pain

Clint Edwards and family.

Family travel can be full of wonderful, magical moments that everybody remembers forever. Most of the time, however, as any parent will tell you, the experience verges on shitshow, complete with meltdowns, tantrums, complaining, and whining—from kids and parents alike.

This is precisely why I loved a recent post from Clint Edwards, a fellow father-of-three who blogs about parenthood at No Idea What I’m Doing.

The post in question wrapped up an Edwards family trip to Disneyland, and was titled, “What a trip to Disneyland really looks like.” Edwards set up the piece by explaining that he and his wife spent three days on the ground with three kids under the age of 11. Then he launched into a laundry-list if stuff that went wrong along the way. The bullet points tell frightening tales of everything from the challenges of managing connecting flights with kids to the fact that kids will hang on fences and guard rails no matter where they are.

Sure, the specifics might be different, but we Villanos have had this same experience at Disneyland time and time again. We’ve had the experience at other destinations, too. I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say that every parent has had it every time he or she has ever taken with kids. It’s part of what makes traveling with kids real. It’s simply part of the deal.

I think Edwards himself says it best at the very end of the post: “Swore up and down that we were Disneyland[ed]-out, but feel confident that this will all happen again and again and again until we are broke or dead.”

Quite honestly I’m not sure I could have said it better myself.

The Worst Family Travel Destination in the West

No pictures, no fun on this walk.

It is with great embarrassment and shame that I admit I never had visited the Grand Canyon before this month.

It is with even greater embarrassment and shame that I admit I tried to rectify this sad reality with a road trip to the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a South Rim attraction far away from the Grand Canyon National Park entrances that everybody knows and loves.

Let’s just say I was sorely disappointed.

It wasn’t the view that bummed me out—so long as you’re actually looking at the 4,000-foot-deep chasm in our continent, you pretty much can’t go wrong there.

No, instead I was disappointed by the underdeveloped facilities, the poor signage, the terrible food, the overrated and overblown “skywalk,” the price, and—perhaps most egregiously—the complete and total lack of safety precautions, considering that the attraction sits on the edge of one of the steepest cliffs in North America.

Put differently, I’m glad I didn’t take my kids to the Grand Canyon Skywalk because (they would have been bored out of their minds and) at least one of them surely would have fallen to her death.

To be fair, the idea behind the attraction is great. The Skywalk itself is a semicircular glass walkway cantilevered out over the edge of the South Rim of the canyon. The Hualapai Tribe built the place in 2007 as a way to get tourists to their reservation—a massive parcel of land far from the national park sites but close enough to be a day trip from Las Vegas. Because it was the first of its kind at the Grand Canyon, the Skywalk got major attention when it opened. It has been a pretty well-known tourist attraction ever since.

Execution, on the other hand, is lacking. Now visitors must park at a visitor center and board busses that stop at three spots along the way: A recreated (and supremely contrived) Old West village, the Skywalk, and Guano Point—the site of an old guano mining operation.

Of these three stops, the Skywalk is the main attraction. It is attached to an elaborate building with a small museum about the Hualapai tribe. It is surrounded by food trucks. Off in the distance, there’s a modest amphitheatre. Rules on the glass walkway are bizarre. You must wear booties on your shoes so you don’t scuff the glass. You have to stick your bags in lockers before you head out—nobody can carry anything with them. Also, and most annoyingly, you’re not allowed to bring cell phones out onto the walk. If you want pictures, you have to pay (a ton of money to) the Annie Leibovitz wannabes on staff.

Also peculiar: the lack of safety protocols.

Outside of the main Skywalk building, there is absolutely no fence or security system preventing visitors from falling over the edge of the canyon. Sure, the tribe employs a few folks who walk up and down the path near the edge warning people to stand back if they get too close, but if you go with a kid who’s quick and doesn’t listen, you could lose your kid forever. (If you go with a stupid grownup, you might lose him—the dumb ones always are men—forever, too.

The Guano Point area is infinitely more interesting than the Skywalk. There’s history in the remnants of a 1960s-era mining apparatus. There’s a decent hike. The view down the canyon provides great scale of just how deep the chasm really is, and a unique perspective of the Colorado River as it snakes by.

Still, the name—which effectively invokes bird shit—also is a very strange choice. Nothing named “guano” sounds appealing. Why not just use the tribal name?

My final complaint about the Grand Canyon Skywalk experience revolves around price. Unless I read the website incorrectly, the basic ticket came in somewhere around $60. For just a few dollars more, I was able to prepay for a “meal.” The website said nothing about what this meal comprised, but it seemed like a good deal until I was on site. After polling workers about which stop had the best options for the ticketed meal, I beelined for the café at Guano Point. Here, with my admission, I received a scoop of barbecue beef, a scoop of mashed potatoes, a half-ear of corn, a bowl of wilted salad, a cookie, and a bottle of water. It was underwhelming and would not have satisfied my kids.

Perhaps the biggest positive of the day trip to Grand Canyon Skywalk: The drive from Las Vegas. I went out with two friends, and on our journey we drove through one of the largest natural Joshua Tree forests in the world. The views were insane—almost alien. At one point the three of us parked the car, got out and walked around amid the trees, giddy with excitement. Compared to the experience of walking out over the edge of the Grand Canyon, this was what I’ll remember most on the day.

I know my kids would have felt exactly the same.

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.

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