Wandering Pod hits BBVA Compass blog

This trip was cheap!

This trip was cheap!

I never shy away from acting as a family travel expert—it’s a title in which I take great pride. That’s precisely why I was eager to help friend and fellow freelance writer Katie Morell when she called me asking for input on an article.

That article, titled, “Affordable Wanderlust: Traveling with Children,” was published on a BBVA Compass blog earlier this week.

The story takes the format of a Q&A, with Katie asking me a series of questions about how families can travel as families on a budget. My favorite tips: Bundle air and hotel through an OTA (such as Expedia!) to save money, consider vacation rentals so you can prepare your own food, leverage the “lapchild” distinction as long as you possibly can.

I also really appreciated her question about how families should handle incidental spending on mementos such as souvenirs. Here’s my response:

This type of spending can really add up. We will set a limit for each child. We might tell our oldest child (the one that can do math) that she gets $50 per trip and then allow her to make choices on how she spends that money. For our middle child, we will tell her she can get three things within the same dollar amount but that we will track how much she spends. We try to make it fun and tie it into a math lesson.

What are your tips for family travel on a budget? Please share them in the comment field below.

Raising a fan of travel journaling

Write, baby, write!

Write, baby, write!

The assignment from her second grade teacher was simple: Keep a journal on your weekend trip to Portland.

Thankfully my Big Girl took the task seriously. And what followed warmed my heart.

I’ll spare you the gory details of her journal entries from our time last weekend in P-Town. The highlights: Recollections of an afternoon spent wandering around Washington Park, details about our fabulous room in the boutique Hotel Lucia, and meandering recaps of experiences with her grandparents and me at her first-ever bar mitzvah.

(The bar mitzvah recaps were by far the most colorful; L was one of the final three in a game of musical chairs and won $20 cash for her exploits.)

Of course she also covered finding a rock with a picture of a cat. And all the donuts we ate.

She scribbled in the journal every time we stopped—at meals, in the hotel for down time, or on the plane. And since we’ve been home, her writing streak has continued; she has written four “books” this week alone, and all of them are loosely connected to things we saw and did on our trip.

The bottom line: After seven years of watching her dad furiously scribble notes on just about every family trip, L has become a fan of travel journaling herself. Add to this her fascination with taking her own pictures (more of those in a subsequent post) and she’s developing into a pint-sized digital journalist.

It doesn’t matter to me whether L decides to pursue this as a career—that’s way too far away to think about seriously now. I’m just delighted she is enjoying the process of telling stories about her travels.

And I sure as hell am enjoying reading them.

Join me at the 2016 Family Travel Association summit

Westin La Paloma. PARTY!

Westin La Paloma. PARTY!

I take great pride in my involvement with the Family Travel Association (FTA)—I was one of the founding board members, and have been an active participant ever since.

With this in mind, I invite you to join me and my FTA colleagues at our annual summit next month.

The shindig takes place Oct. 23-26 at the Westin La Paloma in Tucson, Arizona. It comprises three days of inspiring presentations, interactive workshops, enlightening research, and a diverse array of networking opportunities. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

This year, I won’t just be attending the summit, I’ll be delivering some of the content. On Monday, Oct. 24, I’ll be delivering a talk about understanding millennial parents—what makes them tick, what sort of experiences they seek, and how they approach family trips once they set out to experience them. My talk will be engaging and fun! I might even make emu noises.

(Also, it’s likely that during my talk I’ll be giving away travel vouchers from Expedia, a client of mine and an FTA sponsor.)

Registration for the event is $650 for members and $950 for non-members. Considering all of the information we’re primed to share, I’d say that’s a bargain. And I’ll sweeten the deal: BOOK NOW AND DRINKS THE NIGHT OF MY TALK ARE ON ME.

If family travel is something you love, this is an event you won’t want to miss. See you in Tucson!

Smiling about rocks in Portland

14203305_10155274339786632_312131353204661656_nTravel is at its best when it’s serendipitous—when magical coincidences make seemingly ordinary happenings feel extraordinary.

Such was the case this weekend when I traveled to Portland with my biggest girl, L.

We were in town for a number of reasons: 1) To attend the bar mitzvah of a cousin, 2) To see one of my closest pals, 4) To report a story in Washington Park, and 4) To poke around one of the weirdest and coolest cities in the West. But the best part of our trip happened when both of us least expected it.

It was mere hours after we landed. L and I had checked into our room at the Hotel Lucia downtown and were on our way to find a place to eat lunch. L spotted some steps and sat down so I could take her picture. After the snap, she looked to her left and spotted a silver dollar-sized white rock painted with a cute design. The rest is a part of history we’ll remember forever.

There on the rock was a cartoon drawing of a kitty cat. Normally this would be just another detail. But for L, who is cat-obsessed, it was a HUGE DEAL. Immediately I started thinking of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca waxing poetic about how there were all the public steps in the city, and we had to find a cat rock on that one. Even L was skeptical at the serendipity of it all. She kept asking me if I had put the rock there. She kept wondering aloud whether “somebody” knew how much she loved cats. At one point I think she convinced herself SAR was her grandmother.

Of course the artist had no idea who’d be finding the rock after he or she put it there. We found an Instagram address on the back of the rock, and three minutes on that page made it clear that the artist—a person who goes by the name Smiling About Rocks, or SAR—painted dozens of these rocks and placed them all over the city. (FWIW, our rock had the number 221 on it, which probably meant the artist has made at least 221 of these things.)

Instructions on the Instagram page were simple: “If you found a rock, take a picture of it and send it direct to me. I will post it on my feed.”

So we did. I had L pose holding the rock and snapped the shot you see atop this page. We sent it to SAR. SAR reposted our image the following day with full caption (and note that spoke directly to my kid). For my daughter, this only made the experience seem more serendipitous. Upon seeing the repost she exclaimed: “It’s like a fairy tale!”

Would we have had fun in Portland without our run-in with SAR? Of course. But this run-in made the trip even richer, and provided us with an instant memory I’m sure we both will have for many years to come.

The experience also served as an inspiration. When we got back to our hometown L reached out to a friend about doing a similar project here. The two have been talking about painting rocks all week. To be honest, I hope they follow-through. It’d be nice to pay the serendipity forward for a change.

What is the most serendipitous experience you’ve had on the road?

Polling kids’ perspectives on family travel

I’ve got great colleagues on the Expedia Viewfinder blog, and two of them recently published a video worth watching.

The video, dubbed “Kids Talk Travel,” is two minutes of bliss in which Rick Griffin and Sandi McKenna (the duo behind Midlife Road Trip) interview a number of kids on the subject of what the kiddos like best about traveling.

Of course the video is adorable; anything that culls insight from kids is bound to be that. But some of the responses also are profound. Like when the interview subjects talk about their favorite trips. And when they list the things that make them most excited about traveling again.

(My favorite of all might be the line where one kid says he plans to stop peeing in his Pull-Ups so he can go to Disney.)

I could tell you more but I don’t want to ruin it for you. Check out the video below. And if you’re not already following Midlife Road Trip, do so here (and thank me later).

A new way of talking about family travel

Picking poppies is totally free

Picking poppies is totally free

Most current family travel coverage skews toward upper middle class families, I’m at least somewhat guilty of perpetuating this shortsighted homogeneity, and now is the time to figure out how to mix things up.

If that opener jars you a bit, good—I wasn’t really sure how else to dive into a post about the accessibility of family travel coverage, and it’s a subject that’s been bugging me for a while.

Think about it. Most family travel coverage—again, admittedly including some of the travel coverage you read ON THIS BLOG—is by people with money writing for other people with money. We speak of luxury brands. We chronicle experiences on airplanes. We detail safaris. We review new rides at theme parks where admission costs upward of $100 per day. We wax on and on and on about meals that include $7 kids’ grilled cheeses and $12 cocktails.

I’m not saying this coverage is bad—for some readers, it can even be aspirational. But I am saying it’s the same stuff aimed at the same crowd.

The world of family travelers is diverse and represents families who come at travel with a litany of different financial means. To appeal to more of them, we need to mix it up. And we need to do it quickly, because the collective effect of all this privileged coverage is a message that tells the less fortunate family travel is something you only do when you have cash.

(As my friend Erin Kirkland puts it, “No one should ever feel as if they ‘just’ went here, or ‘only’ went there.”)

I’m not entirely sure how we meet this challenge.

Freda Moon’s intensely honest “Frugal Family” columns (see here and here) in The New York Times are a good start, but the publisher *is* The New York Times, which means the audience still is likely on the upper-end of the income scale (and therefore isn’t taking enough of a real-world, let-me-follow-in-her-footsteps interest in the pieces).

On the flipside, it seems way too simplistic to sit here and call for more service pieces that tell readers to drive if they can’t afford a plane ticket, visit a state park if they can’t swing Disney, and camp if they can’t justify shelling out $289 per night for a boutique hotel. The notion of providing different perspectives is more nuanced than that.

The way I see it, the best strategy for overcoming this shortsightedness in family travel coverage is a multifaceted effort.

Part of it can come from the industry side. I’m on the board of the Family Travel Association, and I intend to discuss the issue with my colleagues at our annual summit next month in Tucson. Our organization has dozens of big-time corporate sponsors, but very few of those sponsors have products designed for the layperson. We can be better.

Another big part of the effort has to come from publishers big and small. Magazines and websites need to bend over backward to publish stories about all kinds of family travel—not just the kinds packed with anecdotes about safaris and check-in amenities at Four Seasons hotels. At the same time, we content creators (we’re publishers of a different sort) can take a new approach, too, going out of our comfort zones every now and again to report and write travel pieces from a completely different (and non-condescending) perspective.

Finally, readers can play a part in this transformation, as well. How? Demand more variety. Tell us what you want to read. Help us help you by informing us where you want to go and trusting us with truth about the means you have to get there. In many ways, open dialog is the only way out of this rut the family travel industry finds itself. I’m all ears.

How can family travel writers help make family travel coverage more accessible and affordable?

Have backpack, will (family) travel

G and me on a hike last week

G and me on a hike last week

I’m not a gear head, but when it comes to traveling with babies, I’m not going to lie: I sort of geek out about the equipment I love.

This explains why I adore my taxicab-yellow BOB Ironman fixed front-wheel jogging stroller. It also explains why I am in love with my pale green, external-frame Kelty child carrying backpack (and the sunshade/rain visor accessory).

We’ve owned both pieces of equipment since L was about six weeks old. Which is to say these tools have served our family for all three kids.

The jogging stroller doesn’t stray too much from home—while we’ve brought it with us on a few road trips here and there, I use it mostly when I have to cram in a run with one of the kids in tow (literally). The backpack, however—let’s just say that thing has visited more states than most of my friends. It’s also been to England.

I love the pack for its versatility. I also like it because I can’t comfortably wear Ergos or Baby Bjorns.

Technically, you’re not supposed to take kids in there until they’re old enough to hold up their heads when they are sitting or standing. I admit—I’ve been tooling around with Baby G in there since I used it to bring her to our town’s July 4 parade (which, technically, was two weeks after her 6-month birthday).

Since then, I’ve used the thing at least once a week. Sometimes on hikes. Sometimes at Costco. Sometimes for regular Saturday grocery-shopping at Safeway. Sometimes I’ll just put her in there when I’ve got stuff to do around the house. Sometimes I get her in when I need to finish a story and I don’t feel like plopping her in the seat at the foot of my stand-up desk.

She loves the pack because it’s spacious and it enables her to stand and see what’s going on from a bird’s eye view. I love the pack because it’s comfortable and I know she’s safe.

(It also has a TON of storage space.)

Of course the big question will come once Baby G outgrows these trusty devices; what do I do with them then? Do I sell ‘em? Do I keep them for posterity? Do I give them to friends? Letting go of favorite family travel gear can be difficult. I hope I’ve got the fortitude to make the right call when it’s time.

Butterfly-watching in Sonoma County

Whoever said daytrips can’t be magical clearly hasn’t spent time in Sonoma County.

How else to describe the morning the Big Girl and I had today? How else to describe the wonder we felt while watching fledgling monarch butterflies emerge from their tiny little chrysalises?

The experience was wonderful in its simplicity. Earlier this week, a friend at Safari West, a local animal park, tipped me to a new exhibit that features caterpillars as they undergo metamorphosis into monarchs. This morning, after breakfast, L and I went to check it out. The exhibit itself was much more modest than I expected–in all there only were about a half-dozen caterpillars, and about two dozen chrysalises.  Lucky for us, when we arrived some of the critters were in the midst of emerging from their transformations. We actually got to watch one of the butterflies climb out of its chrysalis completely.

I never had seen anything like it. When the creature first broke the thin exterior of the chrysalis, its wings were crumpled, almost velvety. Gradually, however, the insect managed to straighten out its wings, and the butterfly took flight. The whole process took the better part of an hour. L was transfixed. I was, too. I only wish we’d done some time-lapse video. Instead, this pic will have to suffice.

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

The bottom line: family travel + science = FUN. Put differently, the monarch migration is on now, so if you live near Safari West or ianother spot (in the wild!) where you can get out to see these beautiful butterflies, do it before it’s too late.

Happy 100th, National Parks

Moi, in Alaska, a few days before the whale.

Moi, in Alaska, a few days before the whale.

It started as a rustle. Then, sniffing, lots of sniffing. By the time I heard the snorting on the other side of my canvas tent, I was pretty certain my early-morning visitor was a bear.

The problem, of course, was that I was in the middle of nowhere, kayak-camping on Strawberry Island, one of the Beardslee Islands at the mouth of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. Despite all of the warnings about not camping alone, I was out there all by my lonesome. Just me and the bear.

So at 3:14 a.m., I started reading Allen Ginsberg poems. Really loudly.

Eventually (maybe it was “Please Master”), the animal retreated back into the woods. When he left, I broke camp faster than I’ve ever broken a camp in my life, stuffed it all back into the kayak, and paddled like an Olympic rower out of the cove. About 100 yards from shore, I spotted my black ursine friend, clearly curious about the disappearing poetry. I stopped paddling just long enough to mutter the words, “Holy shit.”

Five minutes later, I was greeted by yet another animal; this time, a 50-foot humpback, which surfaced just off the port stern.

The whale signaled its arrival with a blow—I was so close that within seconds I was enveloped by the moist stench of rotting fish. Then it dipped beneath the water line out of sight.

I knew it wouldn’t go far—I had studied humpbacks for most of my 20s and knew that a lone humpback hanging out during summer in Alaska was either feeding or sleeping or maybe a bit of both. So I took my paddle out of the water and waited.

Two minutes later I saw the leviathan again. This time it announced itself with a flash of white down below—undoubtedly a flipper or maybe the underside of some tail flukes. Then, closer to the surface, just beneath the boat, I spotted the animal’s eye. Looking right at me. So close I could practically reach out and poke it.

The whale hovered below the kayak for a few moments, staring at me. The animal dwarfed me and all of my poorly packed possessions. It surfaced with a blow, then dived and hovered again.

Surface, dive, hover; again. And again.

After about five cycles, it hit me that this animal wasn’t going anywhere. I’m sure the whale was just curious, probably thinking, What the fuck is this guy doing in his kayak at 4 a.m.? Of course in my sleep-deprived mind, I convinced myself the whale somehow knew that bear had scared the shit out of me and driven me from my tent. I kind of thought the whale was hanging around to protect me.

We floated together for what seemed like an eternity. Surface, dive, hover. Surface, dive, hover. I didn’t even realize I was crying until I tasted my own tears.

I’m not a religious guy (that’s another subject for a less public venue). But in that moment, on that night in Glacier Bay, I had the most spiritual experience of my life. When the whale finally got bored with me and my kayak, it pumped its flippers and waved goodbye with a raise of the tail flukes before diving to the depths. The image of those flukes, the quiet with which they slipped beneath the water as the giant animal disappeared forever—those details will be among the last things I remember on this Earth. They’ll be right there with the births of my girls, my wedding day, singing with my high school choir at a wood stave church in Norway.

And the whale encounter never would have happened without the national parks.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, our country’s greatest invention. I can’t help but remember that fateful night without thinking of the parks. The open space! The untrammeled landscape! The fact that I was the intruder! That I was able to have this experience is reason enough to celebrate the parks. And when you consider how many lives the parks have touched in similar fashion over the years, you recognize what a big deal this centennial really is.

As of this summer, the only national parks my girls have visited are here in California—Yosemite and the Presidio. Someday, I’ll take my them to Glacier Bay and introduce them to the wonder and beauty of it there, too. I know I can count on the Beardslees being just as great down the road as they were back in 2003.

And so, to the National Park Service (and the federal government, really), I say this: THANK YOU. And Happy Birthday, indeed.

More cats, more cat videos

Another day, another video of our time at the Lana’i Cat Sanctuary. The latest video, an edited version of the original that appeared on AFAR.com, ran on AFAR’s Facebook page. The 50-second clip has no speaking, but with images and captions it gives a great sense of what the place is like.

To refresh your memory, we visited the Lana’i Cat Sanctuary last month during a four-day stay at Four Seasons Lana’i. The experience changed our lives. Especially for L and R.

Below you’ll find a screen shot. To see the whole video, click here.

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