New family travel fave: Flathead Lake Lodge

Sunset at Flathead Lake Lodge

Sunset at Flathead Lake Lodge

No, I didn’t have my family with me on a recent trip around Glacier Country, Montana. But I didn’t need three kids in tow to appreciate the family travel awesomeness of Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge (FLL) in Bigfork.

I stayed at the lodge two nights as part of the week-long #PictureMontana summit through my client, Expedia. I walked away with a new addition to my travel-dream list.

Much of what makes FLL kick-ass appeals and applies to guests of all ages. Horses you can ride every day. Boats you can take out on Flathead Lake. Communal meals in an authentic western lodge. S’mores by the campfire every night of the week. The fact that the place is all-inclusive means you don’t have to fumble around for cash or credit cards, and don’t have to worry about the a la carte pricing on activities. The fact that it’s been there for more than 70 years means it’s oozing with history.

(True story: Chase Averill, who’s my age, runs the place now. His dad, Doug Averill, ran it for years and still plays a pretty important and visible role today. His grandpa, Les Averill, started the place in 1945.)

But the lodge also is PERFECT for families. My accommodations—Cabin 2—had two bedrooms, one with a queen-sized bed and another with two twins (which would have been perfect for L and R). During the summer season, kids have dinner together 30 minutes before the grownups, then head out on horseback rides to give the grownups some time to themselves. There’s cornhole and beach volleyball and board games galore.

Heck, on the night of the weekly steak fry, everyone gathers ‘round to hear a cowboy sing folk music.

(Also, the beach at the lodge was made for skipping stones. See the slo-mo video of me doing that here.)

The reality is that absolutely everything is included in the one-week stay—lodging, food, activities, and more. The only thing that’s not technically part of the package is alcohol; instead, FLL encourages you to bring your own and help yourself to it whenever you desire.

I’m not going to lie—at $3,808 per adult, $2,842 per kid ages 6-17, $1,546 per kid ages 3-5, and $182 per infanct, the place ain’t cheap. It would cost our family of five $12,236 plus airfare. But when you consider what seven days of this experience would cost if everything was priced individually, the rate is reasonable. What’s more, when you consider that FLL serves up a dude-ranch experience unlike any other in the West, it seems even more worthwhile. The only question left for us: When do we return?

Room-service breakfast FTW

One of our favorite places to stay: the Fairmont San Francisco

One of our faves: the Fairmont San Francisco

Powerwoman and Baby G are headed out of town next week so my wife can conduct some research at a major university, which means I’ll be flying solo with the big girls for quite a while.

Most of this time will be spent winding down their respective school years here at home. I also have promised L and R we can spent at least part of the time doing something we Villanos do pretty well: Traveling. We won’t go far, just from our home in the northern reaches of Sonoma County down to the big city of San Francisco for a few nights. The only must on our agenda: A visit to the new SF MoMA.

As I started contemplating what to do for the rest of our time away, I decided this time I’d let the girls choose. And so, after snack time, I asked each of them individually to name three activities or experiences she would like to see on our agenda.

Both kids tabbed “room-service breakfast” at No. 1.

On the surface, this was completely shocking in the absolute best way—room-service breakfast is one of my very favorite guilty pleasures when traveling, and I love that my two oldest girls agree.

The more I thought about it, however, the less shocking this selection really was. Whenever Powerwoman and I want to celebrate something special on a family trip, we splurge for room-service breakfast and make a big deal out of it. We reinforce this ritual by talking about how much we love it, even when we’re not, in fact, having room-service breakfast ourselves. The fact that L and R chose this means they’ve learned from our examples and appreciate the choice.

Put differently, it means we’ve taught them well.

Lest you think we’re going to spend the entire time eating omelets and French fries in bed, the other two items on their respective lists were carousel time and the California Academy of Sciences (which they love because of the exhibit where butterflies can land on your head).

Throw in a trip to the sushi boats restaurant for dinner and it sounds like a pretty awesome family getaway to me.

What are your favorite things to do on a family vacation?

Win for family travel in British court

The dad. Courtesy of The Independent.

The dad. Courtesy of The Independent.

Cheers to Jon Platt.

How else to lead into a story about the British father who fought and beat a silly law forbidding kids to miss school for travel? How else to celebrate a man who established legal precedent for British—and, hopefully, at least eventually—American families to pull kids from school to experience the world.

The story is convoluted to say the least. Last April, Platt pulled his daughter from school on the Isle of Wight for a family vacation to Florida and the Walt Disney World Resort. When the family returned, he was hit with a £60 fine for violating the Education Act, which stipulates that parents are guilty of an offence if they fail to ensure their child “attends regularly” at school. Platt fought the fine. It doubled. So he took it to court.

The battle escalated to reach the Isle of Wight Magistrates’ Court in October, where Platt won his case, but the local authority appealed the decision to the High Court, which this week finally ruled this week in Platt’s favor.

All told, Platt told The Independent said the case had cost him £13,000, which he described as “money well spent”, and has crowdfunded £25,000 to cover legal costs.

Coverage of the decision was fantastic because much of it included running quotes from Platt after his big win. During an interview with ITV’s Good Morning Britain program, Platt said: “If the law required 100 per cent attendance, if the law said your children must attend every single day in order to get a great education, the law would say that, but it does not. We are not arguing on behalf of people whose kids don’t go to school, I’m arguing on behalf of people whose kids go to school every single day and maybe once a year they take them out for five days. It does not harm them at all. How do I know? Because my own kids are doing really, really well in school.”

Sounds like a regular guy airing pretty understandable gripes against an inflexible system. Every district should be lucky enough to have a Jon Platt on the parents’ side. As for moms and dads, any parent who thinks twice before taking kids out of school for a family vacation should think again. There’s learning in travel, too. You might just have to work a little harder for it in the end.

Family destinations in Missoula

Hissing cockroaches. Yuck.

Hissing cockroaches. Yuck. (But cool!)

Even when I travel without the kids, I’m always on the hunt for awesome family travel destinations. That explains why I just spent two hours of my (solo) afternoon here in Missoula, Montana, poking around two of the city’s most family-friendly spots: the Missoula Insectarium and the University of Montana’s spectrUM Discovery Area Downtown.

I’m here in Missoula for the next five days on behalf of a client, Expedia. Every year those of us who contribute to the Expedia Viewfinder blog get together in a faraway place for a week of strategizing and bonding. Last year’s summit was in Maui; this year’s is in one of my favorite places on the planet: Western Montana (a.k.a., Glacier Country). I arrived earlier this afternoon and had a few hours before our first official #PictureMontana meeting. So I hit the streets to explore.

I didn’t have to go too far from our hotel to find kid-oriented stuff; the Insectarium and spectrUM share a building that was literally two blocks away.

The Insectarium was first on my list. After paying the $4 admission fee and grabbing a magnifying glass at the front desk, I perused the exhibits, marveling at some of the arthropods (not just insects!) on display in 18 terrariums that ring the room.

I’ve detailed how much L and R despise bugs, but I had to think they would have found parts of this place really neat. Like the habitat full of butterflies. And the millipedes. They probably also would have enjoyed the touch table where visitors can interact with walking stick bugs (and a variety of other critters).

(Without question, they would NOT have liked the habitat with a dozen Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. Or the one with the scorpion.)

The kids also would have adored participating in the Insectarium’s scavenger hunt, which anyone can do.

My favorite part of the Insectarium? The Goliath Bird-Eater Spider, which is a species of tarantula. When I was there, this spider was hidden at the bottom of a flower pot in its habitat. Even though it was motionless, even though it was all scrunched up, I could tell the thing was HUGE. My mind was blown.

(I also enjoyed learning that Roly Poly bugs are actually not bugs at all; they’re crustaceans—cousins of crabs and lobsters.)

After hanging with the bugs, I ventured downstairs to the spectrUM facility—one of the cleanest, nicest, and most approachable museums I’ve ever seen. Technically the museum is a science museum, not a kids’ museum. Whatever you call it, the place is perfect for kids ages 12 and under, and you can plan on spending at least an hour there.

The modest museum is broken into two main parts—the main museum and a hands-on area, which is dubbed BrainLab. Today in the BrainLab, visitors were learning about brain maladies during Shakespeare’s time, part of a week-long celebration surrounding Shakespeare’s First Folio, which is on display in Missoula until the end of the month. I watched long enough to see kids playing with plastic brains.

In the main museum, an exhibit on large river ecosystems gave kids the chance to soar (via virtual reality) above the Clark Fork River, create their own virtual floodplain, and more. Another exhibit, the SciGirls DigiZone, offered the opportunity to play with different kinds of technologies. A third exhibit, the Discovery Bench, encouraged hands-on play with science.

What struck me about spectrUM was how engaged and satisfied all the kids seemed. It’s truly remarkable how much more palatable learning is when you’re having fun. Clearly, here in Missoula, they know this better than most.

What are your favorite museums for families and why?

Managing family travel on a budget

There are a lot of misconceptions about family travel out there these days. One of the biggies: That traveling with kids is expensive.

Sure, fundamentally, going on vacation as a family of three or four or five is going to cost you more than going on vacation as a “family” of two. But it doesn’t have to be much more expensive. At least not if you do it right.

A friend recently interviewed me on this subject for a story she was writing for a major international bank. During the interview (which, by the way, I did from a car parked outside L’s school), I gave her eight tips for managing family travel on a budget. Here, in no particular order, are the five best pieces of advice I shared.

Bundle

Travel is a lot cheaper when you book airplane and hotel (and sometimes even rental car and activities) at the same time. This is a mantra at one of my biggest clients, Expedia. It’s also truth. We go to Maui every year with the girls, and the same trip with the same flights and same hotel in different years cost us more than $500 less when we booked through an online travel agent. According to recent data from Expedia, bundling for travel this coming summer can save you some serious cash—travelers looking to travel to San Diego, Seattle, Maui, and Las Vegas can save more than 25 percent by booking flight and hotel together. If you don’t believe me, do a search before your next flight and prepare to be amazed.

Think vacation rentals over hotels

Whenever we travel as a clan, we often prefer vacation rentals to hotels. We make this choice for two main reasons: 1) Rentals usually give us more space to spread out, and 2) When you amortize the total cost of a rental over the number of nights you’ll stay, the rental option usually is cheaper. Obviously when you’re thinking about which decisions can save you money, No. 2 is a critical choice. We’ve stayed in VRBO and HomeAway properties that have averaged out to less than one half per night of their hotel room equivalents. If you’re as lucky as we were, that’s a whole lot of money you’d be able to put back into the vacation fund.

(Side note: For our upcoming trip to New York, we found an apart-hotel—a hotel comprised of furnished two-bedroom apartments. It’s called Q&A, and I’ll be blogging about it quite a bit in the coming weeks.)

Picnic lunch with two of my three favorite humans. #sistergram #BabyG #LittleR

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

Eat in

Food is one of the biggest expenses when you’re traveling—with or without kids. Instead of dropping $70-$100 every meal by eating out, consider spending $200 or $250 on groceries once, then cook your own food. Naturally this strategy requires you to have accommodations with at least an efficiency kitchen. It also requires you to suspend your innate desires to spend every meal at the most delicious restaurant in town. In the end, consider this: We estimate we save between $750 and $1,000 on every major vacation (in our family, that means vacations of two weeks or longer) during which we prepare our own sustenance.

Put a cap on souvenirs

Especially if you’ve got multiple kids, expenditures on souvenirs can add up quickly. In our family, we combat this threat in two ways. For starters, we put a dollar-amount cap on souvenirs for each child. The cap is the same for each girl, and we tell the kids what the cap is, so they know exactly how much each souvenir would eat into their budget. Second, we turn the process into math practice. Instead of managing calculations on our own, Powerwoman and I have L balance the books for her and her sisters, subtracting each expenditure from the overall budget for each girl. Everybody wins in this scenario—L loves the homework and we love not having to worry about keeping tabs on who has what left in her account.

Leverage the lapchild

Most airplanes have rules regarding children ages 2 and under—technically these travelers don’t need their own tickets and can spend the duration of any flight on mom’s or dad’s lap. Flight attendants call these passengers “lapchildren,” which is one of the most disgusting words of our time. Still, by leveraging the lapchild, you can save one full airplane fare. I know what you’re thinking—once your kid starts walking, there’s no way you can stomach having him or her on your lap for an entire flight. My advice? Suck it up and milk the lapchild rule for every cent until that kid turns 3. You can’t cash in on this one forever.

Obviously this list could go on and on. What are your suggestions for managing family travel on a budget? What would you add to this list?

Indian Springs: family-friendly resort in Wine Country

Bunk beds, Cottage 8.

Bunk beds, Cottage 8.

People assume that because California’s Wine Country is all about wine, it’s not a destination for families. I live here, and let me tell you – this could not be farther from the truth.

My wife and I were reminded of this again this past weekend when we spent a night at Indian Springs Resort & Spa, a Bohemian paradise at the north end of the Napa Valley. The resort dates back to the late 1800s and currently is at the tail end of a multimillion-dollar expansion and renovation that basically tripled the size of the place. Another benefit of all the construction: The place now is more family-friendly than ever before.

Our accommodations—Cottage No. 8, for those of you scoring at home—reflected this perfectly. When the cottage was built, in the 1930s, it was a one-bedroom/one-bathroom with a kitchen. Today, the cottage still has the main bedroom (with a queen-sized bed), the bathroom, and a sitting room. But as part of the upgrade, the kitchen was converted into a second bedroom with bunk beds.

The bunks, from Restoration Hardware, were a great design: queen on bottom, twin on top. As part of the rehab, the resort also covered one of the windows with a chalkboard on which kids could draw. (ICYW, the resort provided a little basket of chalk.)

Elsewhere in the cottage, in the main sitting room, we found a mini-fridge, and plates and silverware.

The cottage would have been great for our family of five. Though Powerwoman and I appreciated escaping with Baby G, we lamented that we hadn’t brought our big girls to experience it, as well.

We thought of L and R at other moments during our stay. Near the main pool, which is fed by a natural spring and has waters that are always somewhere between 92 and 102 degrees, the resort has set up two kid-sized picnic tables with cups of colored pencils. Near the main spa building, there’s a Gratitude Tree on which guests of all ages can write down what they’re grateful for and hang the tags on the tree.

The resort also has shuffleboard, ping pong, and bocce. And a restaurant with a killer kids’ menu (and churros flavored by candy-cap mushrooms). For the grown-ups, there’s an amazing spa, and an adults-only pool.

In short, if I were visiting Wine Country with young children, Indian Springs would be one of the first resorts I called upon to inquire about availability. Not only do I recommend the place, but I can’t wait to get back (with big girls in tow). Maybe we’ll see you there.

Wandering Pod debuts in Businessweek

Family travel isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek. Yet a few months ago, a friend of mine who is an editor there approached me to see if I’d contribute to a section they were doing about traveling with kids.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance. The resulting story appears in the May 2-8, 2016 issue, which hit newsstands this week.

My piece is short and sweet; it appears as a three-panel, illustrated “as told by” piece near the back of the book. In the graphical account, I (re)tell a story I first shared on the pages of this very blog–a piece about how Powerwoman and I kept L and R occupied with paper chains on a flight from San Francisco to Maui. Want the scoop? Check out the Instagram pic below.

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

When crying babies mean free flights

Crying baby, from the video.

Crying baby, from the video.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 (maybe 20?) years, here’s a news flash: A whole lot of people hate flying on airplanes with crying babies.

I’ve been on flights where other passengers have thrown me dirty looks for simply boarding with one of my babies. I’ve seen fellow flyers accost parents about their babies before the babies even make a peep: “You’re going to keep that child quiet on this flight, right?” they ask pre-emptively. I’ve even heard travelers tell flight attendants that they “WILL NOT SIT NEXT TO THAT BABY UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.” (FWIW, most of the people who do and say this heinous stuff are straight men.)

And this is what makes this week’s new campaign from JetBlue so frieking brilliant.

The campaign, released in conjunction with Mother’s Day, comprises a 3-minute mini-documentary video about a recent JetBlue flight from New York to Long Beach—a flight on which the airline gave people significant discounts on a future flight every time a baby cried.

As the film explains, the first cry netted passengers a 25 percent discount, the second cry 50 percent, the third cry 75 percent, and the fourth cry a free flight. Of course all passengers aboard the flight in question received free tickets for a future flight. And interestingly, the babies on board actually managed to last more than four hours into the 5.5-hour flight before notching that fourth and final cry.

But, really, the stunt wasn’t about crying babies or free flights. It was about changing public perception, about incenting passengers to cheer for crying babies instead of passively encouraging them to mock and jeer the all-too-familiar condition of tots being tots. As a whole, the campaign takes a look at current thinking about babies on planes, turns that thinking on its head, and tells the haters to suck it—ALL IN THE NAME OF A DAY CELEBRATING MOMS.

I can’t think of a better message to jolt people into transforming their POVs. Even if the impact is minimal, the statement needs to be heard (and heard and heard and heard again). On behalf of family travel gurus and parents with babies everywhere, thank you, JetBlue. The next time Baby G cries on a plane, I’ll laugh and think of this.

New effort to stock airports with kids’ books

The Read on the Fly team, with Erin Kirkland in blue

Read on the Fly, with Erin Kirkland in blue

Family travelers get shit done. How else to explain the latest exploits of my buddy Erin Kirkland, the woman behind the travel blog AKontheGO?

Erin, who lives in Alaska and is a fellow member of the Family Travel Association, recently kicked off Read on the Fly, an initiative to stock boarding areas at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (TSAIA) with a library of children’s books. As Erin explains it in a post on her blog, she was inspired to start the program after cleaning out books from her son’s closet and realizing the books could be put to good use in a second life.

The goals of the project are to promote literacy and keep kids happy while they’re waiting to travel with their families. As of right now, the program will maintain six different mini libraries in the Anchorage airport, and will stock these libraries with books suitable for children ages 0-16. When kids are flying with their parents, they can either borrow books to read at their gates, or take books from the shelves and bring the books with them on their respective journeys. The hope is that kids will return the books they borrow. If they don’t, Erin plans to collect donations to keep libraries robust.

(Airport officials actually gave Erin security clearance so she can tend to the libraries whenever she likes. How cool is that?!?!)

Erin notes that Read On the Fly is truly a collaborative effort among AKontheGO, Alaska Airlines, and TSAIA, not to mention the long list of individuals and businesses who have offered books, time, space and effort to push this project to fruition. She adds that the bookshelves were designed by volunteers from the Alaska Aviation Museum, and likely will be built by those folks, too.

Eventually, the plan is to expand Read on the Fly to other airports. For now, however, the focus is on Anchorage. If you want to be one of the founding donors, click here. You also can email the Read On the Fly team at readontheflyak@gmail.com and let them know how you want to contribute. FWIW, I’ll be shipping some books north next month.

Oh, and if you’re as eager as I am to see the program in action, Erin says it launches formally this June.

Delta launches Atlanta airport facility for Autistic kids

Ball pit in the multisensory room.

Ball pit in the multisensory room.

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and I’m sure parents with children on the autism spectrum rejoiced last week when Delta opened Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s first multisensory room.

The project, a partnership with autism advocacy group The Arc, provides a calming, supportive environment and includes a mini ball pit, a bubbling water sculpture, a tactile activity panel, and other items children can interact with to help calm them and prepare them for travel. The room is located in a quiet space on the F Concourse, one of the busiest airport terminals in the country.

In short, it’s the perfect facility in the perfect spot for parents traveling with kids on the spectrum.

I was hipped to this news by buddy Damon Brown, who blogs about these sorts of things for Inc. magazine. In a post published yesterday, Damon noted that the room isn’t just good news for Autistic kids, but also for anyone who struggles with the sensory overload of today’s airport experience.

In related news, as I wrote in my weekly travel roundup column for AFAR.com, The Arc also sponsors “familiarization tours” during which pilots and flight attendants lead autistic children and their parents aboard parked planes to help alleviate any fears and uncertainties about the boarding process. The program is called Wings for Autism. For more information, click here.

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