Standing up for family travelers

The smoking gun.

The smoking gun.

We family travelers have to stick together. That’s why I get outraged when haters lambaste us for bringing kids on planes. It’s why I wig out when people (usually people without kids) try to convince me that my children won’t remember anything about the trips we take until they’re at least 5.

It’s also why I support other family travel writers when they speak out against some of the idiocy others throw at globetrotting families around the world.

Naturally, then, I was happy to rally behind this recent blog post from writer, Zach Everson.

In the post, Everson (whom I’ve never met IRL) calls out #CarryOnShame, a hate-filled campaign about which I’ve ranted previously. In a nutshell, at least on paper, this hashtag was devised by a well-known newspaper editor as a way to shame airlines for not enforcing their own policies regarding carry-on luggage. The reality: Most of the shamers actually end up shaming other travelers.

To prove this ignominy, Everson essentially punked Spud Hilton, the man behind this shameful exercise in bad behavior.

A little while back, Everson Instagrammed a picture of a purported violator and tagged it with Hilton’s hashtag of hate. Earlier this month, Hilton included the photo with a clickbaiting roundup on the San Francisco Chronicle’s travel blog, adding some directed mockery of his own.

That mockery, of course, represented a smoking gun in Everson’s case against #CarryonShame. Among other things, Hilton poked fun of a “woman” who actually was Everson (a male human), and condescendingly snarked about a) the number of bags Everson was holding and b) a Hello Kitty design on one of the pieces.

Everson used these missteps to make two incredibly valid points concerning carry-on items and family travelers: 1) For us family travelers, it is common to have one parent bear the brunt of luggage-lugging, and 2) When we families purchase seats for each kid, we are entitled to bring along one carry-on and one personal item PER TRAVELER, just like everyone else on the plane.

(Also incredibly helpful was Everson’s link to a Consumer Reports piece about carry-on restrictions, and how some airlines exempt kid-related items such as medical equipment, diaper bags, and food.)

I won’t summarize the entirety of Everson’s piece here; I encourage you to click through and read it for yourself. Bottom line: It was brilliant. It railed on behalf of all family travelers. And it proved the hypocrisy, stupidity, and venom of this ill-conceived effort to make others look dumb.

I encourage you to fight this mean-spirited #CarryonShame campaign, and see shaming in general for the passive-aggressive hatemongering it is. I also encourage you to take positive and constructive action when you see carry-on violators. Quietly ask gate agents to enforce airline policies. Write letters to airlines about specific violations you’ve witnessed. This is the way to respect others and engineer change. Anything else is just trolling for attention.

Luxury family rooms coming to airports near you

 

The Family Room inside the Centurion Lounge at SFO.

The Family Room inside the Centurion Lounge at SFO.

American Express has talked about how “membership has its privileges” for most of my life. Now, with the company’s new Centurion Lounge program for Platinum Card holders (such as moi), I totally get it.

The lounges, currently available at four airports around the country, are the ultimate in VIP airport swank: Modern hangouts, free food, free drinks, free WiFi, and a host of other amenities for business travelers (heck, most of the lounges even have shower stalls).

My favorite part of the new spots: The “Family Rooms.” These facilities—available at three of the four lounges right now—boast beanbag chairs, toys, games, video games, giant televisions and a host of kid-friendly movies. They also have fun and colorful wallpaper. And soundproof walls so crazy kids won’t disturb grownups who are relaxing elsewhere in the lounge.

By the way, lounge-facing walls of these rooms are all glass, so, technically, parents can sit outside and drink hand-crafted cocktails while the kids blow off steam inside.

Official Centurion Lounge terms and conditions stipulate that so long as the Platinum Card holder is present, he or she can bring in a spouse or domestic partner and all children under the age of 18, no matter how many kids there might be. That means that when the four of us Villanos travel together, all of us can get in to these lounges free of charge.

I haven’t actually experienced the rooms with my kids yet, but I have visited Centurion Lounges at San Francisco International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, and have admired the facilities in both spots.

(As of now, the other lounge with a family room is at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.)

With that in mind, I’ll tell you this: The next time I book a trip for the lot of us, I’ll be inclined to book from an airline that flies into or out of a terminal with a Centurion Lounge. I pay more than $400 per year for my Platinum Card; it’s nice to know my entire family now can benefit from some of the privileges of membership.

What are some of your favorite airport lounges?

Recalibrating expectations about family travel moments

R and L and a rare 'moment' during our trip to the Anderson Valley.

R and L and a rare ‘moment’ in the Anderson Valley.

I’m writing this post at 35,000 feet above the California desert, en route back to San Francisco after a (busy and) epic weekend in Las Vegas with one of my closest pals.

I was there to report a story about a trail system on the outskirts of the Vegas Valley. The objective: To hike as many of the trails as I could in one weekend. Because hiking is more fun with friends, and because my friend and I live in different cities, I asked him to join me. We had a blast.

Over the course of our 36 hours together, my buddy and I did what 30-something guys do. We talked about sports. We talked about women. We talked about work. We laughed. We listened to music. And we hiked. A lot. (In case you’re wondering, we didn’t gamble together, largely because he doesn’t gamble. I did all of my gambling after he went to bed.)

In short, the trip was full of what I like to call Bromance Moments—those moments during which I felt lucky to have such a good friend, and even luckier to get to spend some downtime with him.

Because we had no other demands on our attention, some of these “moments” lasted for hours.

The whole experience got me thinking about the nature of these moments, and the extent to which Powerwoman and I experience similar moments with the girls when we travel as a family.

My conclusion: Yes, the moments exist. But they’re different. And, in our case, MUCH more short-lived.

I like to call these family travel moments Walley World Moments. The moniker is a blatant reference to the theme park in National Lampoon’s Vacation—the place where Clark Griswold and family spend the entire movie trying to visit. When the family finally gets there, after a litany of ridiculous experiences, there is this sense of true appreciation, that they’re all happy to be there together. The rest of we families experience that, too.

With young kids, however, Walley World Moments are short and sweet, the ultimate quickies. Whenever we do something as a unit, Powerwoman and I stop to recognize how lucky we are to do it together, then one of the girls becomes impatient or trips her sister or nags for a snack or whines about being tired and the family travel magic disappears.

I’m not complaining about my girls being girls (they are 5 and 3, respectively). I’m just stating a fact: It’s hard to hold on to moments of wonder when little ones can’t hold on to anything for more than a few seconds at a time.

This reality has forced us to reconsider how we look at family travel moments overall.

Instead of looking for days or half-days or hours during which we feel lucky to have such wonderful kids and be able to travel with them, we seek mere minutes—ephemeral epiphanies of appreciation.

We’re not lowering our expectations here, people. We’re just abbreviating them—in response to the current attention spans of our little ones. Over time, as the girls evolve into young women, I suspect my wife and I will expand our expectations accordingly. By the time they’re teenagers, perhaps we even will look forward to Walley World Moments that last long enough to thoroughly enjoy.

Until then, of course, we’ll take whatever moments we can get, whenever we can get them, and we’ll savor every second.

What sort of memorable moments do you expect when you travel with your kids?

Adventures in family travel reporting

Downtime, before the poop.

Downtime, before the poop.

Because I’m such an advocate of family travel, I have no qualms about taking L and R with me when I go away to report non-family travel assignments. When I do this, my trips become a tale of two experiences: The reporting process, which often is kid-oriented, and the write-up, which can lack mentions of the girls completely.

We found ourselves in one of these situations this past weekend. My goal: To report a feature about the Anderson Valley for the travel section of a major international newspaper. Momma was away at a conference. So I schlepped girls along for the ride.

The effort alternated between amazingly awesome and incredibly stressful.

On Friday, when we arrived at our 9-room luxury hotel, the girls ran around like wildwomen. (At one point, R screamed the word, “vagina,” incessantly; thankfully we were the only guests there at the time.) On Saturday, when we toured a local artisan cheese operation, the girls couldn’t get enough of the goats and sheep. Dinner one night, at a local pub, was a breeze (thank you, colored pencils). Lunch the next day at a local drive-in was a nightmare that resulted in R picking someone else’s chewed gum off the bottom of the table (and nearly eating it).

The low point of the trip: Both kids crapping out about 15 minutes into a hike in Hendy Woods State Park. The high point? Well, um, it, too, had to do with crapping out.

It happened Saturday, just before we cleared out of town and headed for home. I had to interview a winemaker, and set the girls up for some downtime of quiet drawing at a bistro table just outside. For the first 15 minutes, they behaved perfectly. Then, out of nowhere, L came into the winery and interrupted my interview with a frantic declaration: “Dad, I know it’s downtime, but I have to go poop.”

Thankfully we were in the uber-laid back Anderson Valley—had we been in Napa or even Sonoma, I’m sure the winemaker would have scoffed (or at least winced uncomfortably). In this case, the winemaker took the interruption in stride, and led me and my daughter to a spacious bathroom in the back.

Seconds later, the winemaker chuckled when L insisted on keeping the door ajar while she did her business.

“It’s [Boonville],” the oenophile said. “We’re all pretty open here.”

L’s work in the restroom was a booming success; something about the winemaker’s kindness must have relaxed my daughter in unprecedented ways. More important, the experience gave me perspective on the Valley that I’m not sure I would have gotten any other way: There aren’t many tourist destinations that are great both for luxury travelers and for 5-year-olds needing to go. This specific epiphany probably won’t end up in my finished product, but the lesson wasn’t lost on me.

These are the kinds of things we family travelers remember forever.

All Elsa, all the time

Elsa, surveying the North Mountain (and snow-covered deck).

Elsa, surveying the North Mountain (and snow-covered deck).

A funny thing happens when you vacation with three girls between the ages of 3 and 6—you feel like you’ve stepped into a Disney movie. All. The. Damn. Time.

Such was life last week when we spent five days in Lake Tahoe with great family friends. The girls could see or touch snow every waking moment of every day. Which meant they convinced themselves they were living in the movie, Frozen.

This alternate reality manifest itself in a number of hilarious ways.

First, we grown-ups were subjected to the word, “Elsa” no less than 70 times every hour of every day. The girls screamed it. They sang it. They took turns being Elsa 1, Elsa 2, and Elsa 3. One morning, the three of them got into an animated conversation of what Elsa would do if she were annoyed at her sister for not including her in a game with friends. (Their answer: Elsa would freeze everyone. Of course.)

Second, every day comprised multiple costume changes. Immediately after awakening for the day (at 5 a.m.), each girl raced to the room we had designated as the play room to get first dibs on the dress of their choice. Choices included three Elsa dresses, one Anna dress and a few other non-Frozen options. Two of the three girls also had plastic, turquoise Frozen heels, which they wore at all times in the wood-floored house, thus preventing the 7-month-old baby sleeping downstairs from getting a decent nap.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering, those dress negotiations never EVER went smoothly.)

Finally—and this was perhaps my favorite—the kids took to citing lines from Frozen, and bending those lines to fit just about every situation in which we found ourselves over the course of the trip. Whenever wind gusts took the temperature from the teens into the single digits, at least one of the kids would state, “The cold never bothered me anyway.” When L got the brilliant idea to amass snow to build a man-like sculpture, she didn’t ask her sister or friend to help, but sang, “Do you want to build a snowman?”

It’s important to note here that I am in no way complaining about this phenomenon; on the contrary, I found it fascinating and instructive and endearing (most of the time). Multifamily travel in and of itself is one thing. Apparently, multifamily travel while playing princess pretend is entirely something else.

Weighing in on the #UnitedWithIvy case

The Kirschenbaums (pic from GMA)

The Kirschenbaums (pic from GMA)

By now you’ve probably heard about the brouhaha last week over the Kirschenbaum family’s ill-fated family trip on a United Airlines flight from Costa Rica to New Jersey.

The family’s mother, Elit Kirschenbaum, went off on United after a flight attendant refused to let her hold her disabled 3-year-old daughter on her lap during take-off. Turns out the daughter, Ivy, has one of the worst forms of cerebral palsy—a kind that prevents the child from sitting up by herself. Momma Bear tried to turn the incident into some sort of discrimination case, and went to Facebook, Twitter and morning TV shows with a smear campaign.

The only problem: Momma was in the wrong.

As Hallie Levine pointed out in a recent post for Yahoo! Travel, FAA regulations require all children over the age of two to be able to sit in their own seats for take-off and landing. The Kirschenbaums actually HAD a seat on the plane for little Ivy. If she wasn’t able to sit in it on her own, the family simply should have brought along an FAA-approved car seat (which is what most airlines and the FAA recommend).

Look, there are plenty of other issues in this episode (for a relatively unbiased account of the facts, read this). Like why Elit Kirschenbaum and her husband had two tickets in first class and four tickets for their kids back in economy (and, um, who the heck was gonna sit with the kids in steerage). And why the airline allowed the parents to argue with flight attendants for a full hour before resolving the situation (the argument and subsequent delay forced many of the other passengers on board to miss their connections).

One even could assail the flight attendant herself for perhaps coming on too strong. Of course it also is understandable to ask why the family didn’t seek some sort of compromise before raising the stink—some reports I’ve read indicated they could have brought a wheelchair for the child, and that the airline would have been required to accommodate it because the flight had more than 60 seats.

(Ultimately, the pilot had Ivy lie belted across her father’s lap for the duration of the flight.)

Still, the fact remains: The Kirschenbaums should have been traveling with an FAA-approved seat, and the fact that they were not lies squarely WITH THEM.

It’s easy in situations like this one for families to cry foul, blame the airline, and demand sympathy. Heck, I’m usually the first guy to stand up and support the family traveler—especially when that traveler has the added challenge of traveling with a special needs child. But airline industry rules exist for a reason, and if some of us have to follow them, all of us should. The Kirschenbaum case reminds all of us that just because we’re traveling with children doesn’t mean we’re always right. Remember that the next time you fly with kids. I know I will.

To what extent do you think Elit Kirschenbaum was in the right?

On the rails for a family holiday travel day trip

Little R (and cat), enjoying the view.

Little R (and cat), enjoying the view.

While I always love family treks to faraway places, I also am a huge fan of day trips close to home. These excursions are great ways to introduce kids to new stuff in their own (proverbial) backyards. They also usually are cheaper and less disruptive of the family routine.

One of our favorite “local” day trips in recent weeks was a holiday-themed ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train. The excursion represented my parents’ Christmas/Hanukkah gift to my 3-year-old daughter, Little R.

Considering how much fun I had, it might as well have been my gift, too.

Our experience started at the bustling depot in downtown Napa, where hundreds of families waited patiently (and some not so patiently) for engineers to signal it was time to board. A large number of these folks waited in queues to have their photos taken with Santa. We lingered near the platform, marveling at the size of the train wheels and admiring the train itself.

This was a wise spot to wait; when it came time to board, we were that much closer to the front of the line. Everyone had assigned seats, so once the ticket-taker let us through, we headed toward the rear of the train for Car No. 11, where we were escorted to a spacious booth in a refurbished dining car. The booth became our home for the next two hours. As the train headed north toward Yountville, the four of us colored pictures of trains (with crayons provided by servers in the car), played word games with each other, and watched in amazement as the world zoomed by outside.

(A bridge! A vineyard! A truck full of bottles! )

Of course we snacked, too. Though food wasn’t included in the $30 ticket fees, servers in our car presented us with a menu featuring a handful of (reasonably priced) breakfast goodies (such as fruit, pastries, etc.) and a variety of drinks (non-alcoholic options, such as milk and hot chocolate, for the kids; alcoholic options, including wine and spiked eggnog, for the grown-ups).

As a family, we went in for a bunch of different stuff. (Little R is not a fan of cheese Danish. Now we know.) Dad got sparkling wine. I got the eggnog.

By the time the train stopped outside Domaine Chandon, in Yountville, to turn around, R was ready to get some wiggles out. Thankfully, that’s precisely when a cavalcade of mascot-like beings started making their way through the train to interact with kids and pose for pictures.

First came a person dressed as Frosty the Snowman. Then came someone dressed as Rudolph. There also was a giant gingerbread man. And, of course, Santa. R took in all of it, clapping and smiling and staring at every one of the characters. When the train started moving again, she was transfixed by the scenery as if she was seeing all of it for the first time.

And when the train finally stopped back at the depot in downtown Napa, her comment was, quite simply, “But I want to keep going on the train!”

Sure, there was more to our afternoon in Wine Country, including lunch at the Oxbow Public Market (C Casa in the house!) and a stop at The Model Bakery in St. Helena for peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. But the highlight of R’s 2014 holiday celebration was a special ride on the Wine Train. As far as day trips go, you can’t get much richer than that.

What sorts of family day trips do you like to take from your home?

When family vacation rentals get weird

Yours truly, with bear and panties and cat mug.

Yours truly, with bear and panties and elf and cat mug.

For years, I’ve been an outspoken advocate of vacation rentals for family travel. When you work with a reputable (and hands-on) agency and you get a good place, there’s nothing better. But when you work with a hands-off agency or you book directly with an owner and you get an iffy place, the experience can color your entire vacation. And not in the best of ways.

We have been reminded of this truism this week during our time in Lake Tahoe. While here, we have rented a house (with another family) through Airbnb. And while we had a fabulous time overall, the house was…well…in a word…ODD.

Examples of the weirdness:

  • When we arrived, we found a pair of purple satin women’s underwear just sitting in the washing machine.
  • There were clumps of dog hair on two of the three beds (this one might have been our fault; even though neither vacationing family owns a dog, we opted for a pet-friendly house because we thought it’d be better for the kids).
  • The refrigerator was FULL of food, and the note on the counter made clear that we were not allowed to use any of it except condiments. (The freezer also was full; some of the items there included frozen bananas—with the peels—and frozen cold cuts.)
  • In looking for television remotes, we found a kleptomaniac’s stash of fancy salt-and-pepper shakers and a file folder with the owner’s birth certificate and Social Security card. (Honestly, it’s a good thing we are not hackers or identity thieves.)
  • The owner had a fascination with bears; there were three life-sized stuffed bears on the main floor, and more than 60 bear images throughout the house.

I chronicled some of the most eccentric details on my Instagram account over the course of our trip. To check them out, click here.

Again, to be clear, I don’t blame Airbnb for the shortcomings of the place we got. That said, considering the success Powerwoman and I have had with vendors such as Rural Retreats and One Fine Stay—brands that keep much tighter control over quality—I think we’ll pay more for a hands-on agency next time around.

What have your experiences been? When you opt for vacation rentals, where do you book and why?

Mess masters

The mess. Tahoe. 2014.

The mess. Tahoe. 2014.

It truly is amazing how much havoc three little girls can wreak in a matter of hours.

Case in point: The garbage dump we’ve designated as the “play room” this week at a vacation rental in Lake Tahoe. (We’re here with another family.)

When we arrived, we told the kids—L, R, and their friend, whom we’ll call S—they could use a section of the family room for their toys and games. And they did. A few hours later, however, the place looked like a tornado had come through. Board game pieces were strewn like trash. Dolls lied like corpses. Frilly Frozen dresses were everywhere. In some corner of the mess, a magic wand stuck out from between two couch cushions.

The mess gets worse/grows every night. And every night after the kiddos go to bed, we grownups are faced with an important question: To tidy up or not to tidy up? And because the mess is so sizable, because we’re on vacation, none of us has opted for the cleaner (and more responsible) option.

Of course we’ll *have* to clean it up before we head home. When we do, you’d better believe we’ll be putting the kids to work.

In our family, the rules are simple: You make the mess, you own it and you clean it up. In the meantime, however, the situation certainly makes for a great laugh.

Weight training, family travel style

Little R, (well) before the body bench press.

Little R, (well) before the body bench press.

There are a lot of benefits to traveling with family for the holidays. Enabling your kids to build bonds with cousins is a big one. Watching them engage in extended family traditions is another (even if you, like I, are NOT a fan of The Sound of Music).

Another benefit: Building muscle mass by carrying sleeping kids like potato sacks.

I’m not talking about lugging all the crap (though I have written about that before). Instead, I’m talking about actually carrying the kids AFTER THEY HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP. If you’re a mom or dad, you know what I mean here—the end-of-night ritual where you have to pick up your sleeping child, somehow grapple with the kid’s apparent bonelessness as you toss him or her over your shoulders, and stumble out to the car, only to do it all again when you get back to the hotel (or wherever else you’re staying).

I’ve done with at least one child this every holiday now for the last five. And let me tell you—as the kids get older and bigger and heavier, it schlepping them around at midnight never ever gets easier.

The first challenge: They weigh a lot. At L’s last checkup, she clocked in at just under 50 pounds—no small potatoes, even for a bruiser like myself (that was a joke, people). The second challenge: Temporary blindness. When you’re carrying a child across your upper body, you can’t really see. This means you need to be extra-specially careful navigating stairs and corners.

Of course the third and final challenge is simply keeping the child asleep, knowing full well that if you wake up the little Mister or Miss, all hell will break loose and you’ll spend the next hour of your holiday struggling to get the kid back to dreamland.

I’d like to sit here and tell you I’ve got all sorts of tips for doing this easily. The problem: I don’t. My advice on this subject is especially typical. Bend at the knees, use your body to support the child, don’t make loud noises. If you’ve got input to share, please do so in the comment field below. If not, rest assured that I’ve been working out quite a bit these last few weeks, and I should be ready to bench press a small 13-year-old by the time Kwanzaa is done.

What are your tips for carrying a sleeping kid after a long holiday with family?

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