Embracing a new travel plan

Self portrait by the Big Girl

I’ve made no secret over the years about the fact that our biggest girl, L, struggles with anxiety issues from time to time.

Some weeks, this has no bearing whatsoever on our lives as a family of five. Other weeks, it means our individual and collective lives are characterized by aggressive behavior, wild mood swings, lousy attitude, and more.

As you can imagine, enduring these tough times on the road can be a real struggle for everyone involved. This is why we recently sat down with our (regular) family behavioral therapist to come up with a strategy for navigating any potential behavioral hiccups during our upcoming family trip to Disneyland this weekend.

The therapist worked with us to devise what she calls a “Travel Plan” for the trip. Basically, this document—and it is a physical, typed-out document—serves as a playbook that establishes ground rules and sets expectations for everyone.

The plan lists everything from specific meal times and bed times to time-out consequences for temper tantrums or what to do if someone falls ill (answer: GO BACK TO HOTEL WITH A PARENT).

Our document even has space to list out a specific itinerary for the two full days we’ll be in the park.

As our therapist explained it, Powerwoman and I are supposed to work together to fill out this itinerary on the nights before our park days, then spend five or 10 minutes on the mornings of our park days reviewing the plan with the girls. The goal: To eliminate surprises and potentially challenging transitions for our Big Girl.

If you’re reading this and you think, “That sounds completely NOT spontaneous,” you’re right. And that’s exactly the point.

You see when you travel with kids who experience anxiety, you want to eliminate as much of the unknown as you possibly can. Naturally, when you’re traveling, it’s impossible to manage EVERYTHING. But we *can* manage what we can manage. So we try.

Will it work? Will the plan make a difference? Only time will tell. It’s a good sign that everybody—including L—is excited to use it. This might just be the first trip of the rest of our lives. Wish us luck.

Family travel through her eyes

Chilling.

With three kids under the age of 8, it’s easy for Powerwoman and me to get caught up in planning trips around the bigger girls and not the baby.

Earlier this week, however, 15-month-old Baby G made sure I saw a family daytrip to our favorite Sonoma County beach from her point of view. The experience made me a better traveler, a better dad, and a better man. It also made me laugh.

The specifics are almost irrelevant—the big kids had off from school so I took the three of them out to Goat Rock State Beach, our favorite (despite its tendency to receive rogue waves). Because it was windy and the waves were big, I carried Baby G in the backpack while I monitored the whereabouts of her bigger sisters up the beach. After about an hour, however, the baby wanted out.

I obliged at lunch, when we set up a picnic blanket near the dunes and ate while we watched the waves.

That’s when it happened. After lunch, the big kids were clamoring to head down the beach to look for beach glass, but I didn’t want to go. I gave Baby G the option of getting back into the backpack or just hanging with me on the blanket. She very clearly slapped the blanket and grunted. She wanted to stay.

So we stayed. I sat her on my lap. We marveled at waves. We pointed at gulls. We played with sand. All told the two of us probably sat there, just enjoying the beach, for the better part of 45 minutes. She didn’t fuss or whine once. She didn’t complain about the wind. She didn’t even insist on peas, which she usually does at picnic lunches. In short, the baby was completely enraptured. As was I.

I’ve probably written about it 100 times, but this particular experience was yet another in the litany of experiences that taught me to slow down even more and take the time to appreciate life on the road.

Travel isn’t always easy—especially with kids. But I do know that in this case a little bit of extra effort went incredibly far with our baby, which is always a good scenario to cultivate.

The ice-skating debut

Northstar-Village-Ice-Skating

Skating at Northstar (not my kids)

They were so excited to go ice-skating, I wasn’t about to stand in the way. And so, on our first full day of our annual trip to Tahoe this weekend, I waltzed L and R into the skate rental shop at the Village at Northstar and got us our skates.

“What’s it like, Daddy?” L asked.

“Are we gonna fall?” R followed-up, not even giving me a chance to respond to her sister’s query.

“It’s…fun,” I said, trying to be as convincing as possible. “We’ll take it slowly and I’m sure you girls are gonna love it.”

Before you start thinking about what a great dad I am, know this: I abhor ice skating, much like I despise a great many other winter sports. I don’t like the way the shoes feel on my feet, I can’t ever skate for more than three or four sweeps of my feet before I fall on my ass, and I’m SUPER neurotic about any sport during which I can fall and break my wrist and impact my life as a writer. There are an infinite number of things I’d rather do than ice-skate.

Yet there I was, wobbling my way over to the rink, desperately trying not to fall while I held the girls’ hands and tried to keep them from falling as well.

When we got to the entrance, a bunch of drunk dudes clapped to commemorate my successful walk from the bench where we laced up. The girls turned around and smiled. I was mortified but my kids had no clue. They were loving every minute of it.

Our “session” began with both girls trying to skate out into the middle of the rink—and both girls falling squarely on their butts in a matter of seconds. Neither got frustrated, but both looked to me for guidance. So I did what any other self-respecting parent would do in that situation: I encouraged them to “get comfortable” by holding on to the railing while they “skated” around the perimeter of the rink.

Around the rink we went, one-half skating, one-half walking. Every few panels of glass, one of the girls would slip and fall on the ice with a thud. Every time, the fallen child resumed the position of the afternoon and continued unabashedly.

When we finished our first lap, I asked the kids if they’d had enough. “NO!” they both shouted.

When we finished our second lap, I asked them again if they’d had enough. “No way Daddy!” they shouted.

When we finished our third lap, before I could even ask the girls how they were feeling, they both turned around and told me we were going to continue.

Mercifully, however, it was Zamboni time. Workers rushed onto the ice and guided everybody off. The girls and I followed suit. When we made it safely outside of the rink, Powerwoman convinced the kids to put their boots back on. Miraculously, we had survived, and nobody had chipped a tooth.

To say I was relieved by the sudden change in plans would be an understatement. But the girls were genuinely bummed. Even though they never really got the hang of ice-skating, the kids loved it. Even though I wasn’t much of an instructor in the rink, they were thankful and appreciative of the time I spent with them inside.

The whole experience was a lesson in opening the mind. The kids didn’t care that they didn’t “succeed” at this new sport. They had fun trying. They felt awesome doing it. And that was enough.

Moving forward, perhaps it can be enough for me, too.

TFW your kids are obsessed with Embassy Suites

My kids love this room

My kids love this room

We’ve stayed in some pretty nice hotels in our days of traveling as a family. Four Seasons properties. Ritz-Carltons. Fairmonts. Heck, we’ve even taken the kids to some pretty romantic five-star resorts here in Wine Country (looking at you, Carneros Inn and Meadowood).

But my girls like to keep it real. Their favorite hotel remains the Embassy Suites hotel near my inlaws’ house in Silicon Valley.

Among the things they like best about the hotel: The breakfast buffet, the indoor pool, and the fact that they can watch planes landing at San Francisco International Airport. We always (for some inexplicable reason) get handicapped-accessible rooms there, so both girls also sing the praises of the bathroom, which they describe as “super big” and “fun because of the handlebars on every wall.”

Lucky for the girls, we’re headed to their favorite hotel tomorrow night. For the third time this year.

This particular Embassy Suites has become our home away from home whenever we hang with my wife’s family. They live too far to drive there and back in the same night, and we’re now too large of a pod to crash at my inlaws’ downsized apartment.

Naturally, we’re headed down for Christmas Day. It will be the second Christmas Day we’ve checked into the good old “E.S.,” as we call it.

My wife and I like the room for its efficiency. The living area has a sofa bed and a drawing table for the kids to use when they wake up at 5:30 a.m. and we do not. There’s a mini-fridge and a microwave. The bedroom has one king bed. Pretty much everything we need for an overnight.

Our routine is simple. I drop off Powerwoman and the girls, then double back to check us in, make the fold-out bed for the big kids, and get all of the bathroom supplies ready for a lightning-fast pre-bed ritual. This way, when we get back to the hotel at 11 p.m., all we have to do is get the kids upstairs and they can crash out.

Is the Embassy Suites fancy? Not by a long shot. Is it cheap? Compared to other hotels, not really—we book on Expedia and it usually runs about $249 per night. But this particular property works for us. So when we visit family in the southern part of the Bay Area, we’re sticking with it. And if you travel regularly to see family members (or for the holidays), I encourage you to find a hotel you like and do the same.

Night in the city without a phone

We’re in San Francisco for the remainder of the holiday weekend, and tonight I found myself alone with the big girls and no smartphone. Instead of panicking, the three of us got resourceful and saw a movie, found and booked a dinner reservation, and got around just fine.

The takeaway: Technology is awesome but grossly overrated.

The phone snafu was a pretty dumb mistake on my part. The five of us drove down in our minivan together, but Powerwoman and G dropped the big girls and me off at our hotel before continuing down to see some family members in Silicon Valley. When we arrived at the hotel, I was so fixated on getting L and R out of the car safely that I forgot to take my phone. We didn’t realize it was in the car until Powerwoman already was effectively out of the city.

This could have been a disaster. We were planning to Uber all over town, find a movie theater showing Moana at a reasonable time, then use Yelp to find a good restaurant before the show.

Instead, we did it the way I did it when I was a kid and the way countless others did it when they were younger: We winged it, we flew by the seats of our pants. And it worked. Masterfully. Almost without a glitch. (The glitch: NO PICTURES TO DOCUMENT THE NIGHT.)

To meet the challenge of picking a movie theater, we fired up the old laptop and I wrote (with pen on paper) some options down. To find a good restaurant, we used our voices to ask the concierge. Finally, to physically get ourselves from one part of town to the other, we shot our left arms into the air and hailed taxis.

Admittedly, the girls were a bit confused. HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET FROM HERE TO DINNER, asked a befuddled L, the Uber addict, when she learned Mommy had my phone. R was more concerned about no music.

But we did it, people. And you can, too.

Poetically, our night in the big city without a phone came on Black Friday a day when REI and other big companies encourage people to ditch technology and “opt outside.” We opted outside all right. Not internationally, but we did. And it made for a holiday gathering I’ll remember for a long while.

Remembering holidays abroad

Thanksgiving dinner. In England.

Thanksgiving dinner. In England.

As Thanksgiving 2016 approaches, I can’t help but think back to Thanksgiving 2013—when our family (then there were only four of us) was in England.

We took a long weekend from our apartment in London for Thanksgiving that year, vacationing at Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire while I completed an assignment there. We didn’t expect much of a traditional American Thanksgiving because we were abroad.

Then the chef at the on-site restaurant learned of our visit, and made us a feast with all the trimmings.

Turkey. Stuffing. Brussels Sprouts. Cranberry sauce. Dinner rolls. You name the Thanksgiving staple, we ate it then and there. Chef even made the girls a little marzipan turkey, and filled the rest of the plate with jelly beans. While the food wasn’t as good as it is when we cook it here at home, it *was* delicious. And it made us feel welcome in a way for which we were incredibly thankful (see what I did there?).

Remembering the wonderful Thanksgiving meal got me thinking about some of the other factors that contributed to a successful Thanksgiving-away-from-home celebration that year. Here, then, in no particular order, are three of them.

Decorations from home

When we left for London that summer, we remembered to bring with us decorations for all the holidays we’d be celebrating abroad. This meant bringing birthday decorations for our September and November birthdays. It meant bringing Halloween decorations. It also meant bringing construction-paper turkeys and pilgrim hats. (We also brought stockings and Xmas decorations, FWIW.)

For the girls, seeing the very same decorations they knew and loved from home helped make the holiday seem more “typical.” L went so far as to declare that her decorations made everything feel exactly the same.

Traditions

Most specifics of individual holidays don’t matter as much as the traditions. I’m not talking about the “tradition” of having turkey with all the fixings; instead I’m talking about traditions such as sharing what you’re thankful for, watching the live broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from New York, engaging in a post-meal walkabout, and so on. For us, THESE were the activities that we strived to replicate abroad. We did a decent job. For the kids, that was more than good enough.

Family touchstones

Extended family is a big part of our annual Thanksgiving ritual when we’re home, and Powerwoman and I were worried about how we’d replicate that for the girls while we were away. Thanks to Skype, we didn’t have to worry at all. On the actual day of Thanksgiving (back in California), we Skyped over to my sister-in-law’s house and had a fabulous conversation with everybody who was there. The technology was nothing new at the time and it’s nothing new now. But it works. And it’s made a HUGE difference.

The bottom line: A little familiarity goes a long way, especially when you’re traveling with young kids. If you plan to be abroad—or just away from home—for a major holiday, go out of your way to make the kids feel like nothing is out of the ordinary. Even if they don’t seem appreciative in the moment, they’ll appreciate it. As parents, that’s all we can really ask for anyway.

What are the most far-flung places you’ve spent holidays?

Why family travel is not a waste of money

This was worth every penny

This was worth every penny

Family travel haters love to complain about vacations with kids as a waste of money. The kids won’t remember it, they say, or they’re too young to appreciate it.

Naturally, I think these arguments are a bunch of horsefeathers. And I’m not alone.

To that end, my colleagues at the Family Travel Association (FTA) this week published a wonderful blog post with insights from 33 of our members about why family travel is NOT a waste of money. The post is the kind of work that will make you stand up and clap. It might even inspire you to book a trip just to show those haters they’re wrong.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the FTA’s post comes just before our annual summit, which kicks off THIS WEEKEND in Tucson, Arizona. I’ll be handling the organization’s social media from the event, so please be sure to follow along. I’ll publish updates here when I can as well.

The ultimate fall family travel destination

G watching L and R get corny

G watching L and R get corny

Fear not, intrepid family travelers. The ultimate fall family travel destination isn’t some far-flung destination such as Cuba or Botswana. It’s not an autumnal urban adventure in Amsterdam. Nor does it have anything to do with a big theme park that charges upward of $100 per person to get in.

No, the ultimate fall family travel destination likely is within a short drive of your home—no matter where in the United States you might live.

Because it’s the corn pit. At your local pumpkin patch.

You know the corn pit—the giant ball-pit style, bathtub-shaped area bound by hay bales and filled with nothing other than corn kernels. My kids discovered this attraction for the first time in their lives today. I’m not sure I’ll ever hear the end of it.

Our experience was part of a larger mission to dodge raindrops, get to the pumpkin patch, and wrap-up Halloween decorating shopping on a high note. Thankfully we got the pumpkins first, because as soon as the big girls jumped into that corn pit, they were lost for the better part of an hour (which happens often on family trips…that’s the subject of another post for another time).

During that time, the girls jumped and flopped and crawled and made snow angels in the corn. Baby G even got in on the fun, venturing into the mix with a pacifier in her mouth, then laughing at her sisters when she insisted on popping the paci out.

Perhaps the only downside of the corn pit: The corn itself. I was still finding kernels in the girls’ clothes tonight. Two particularly stubborn kernels were hiding in L’s underwear.

These stragglers are a small price to for an experience that fun. Corn pit, we salute you!

The ultimate LEGO party at Legoland California

R building her lighthouse

R building her lighthouse

If you like LEGOs, Legoland California, in Southern California, is pretty much heaven. LEGOs are everywhere. LEGO sculptures. LEGOs with which you can build. Giant LEGOs for little kids. Even humans dressed to look like characters from LEGO sets. Seriously.

Because my big kids are obsessed with LEGOs these days, I’d been meaning to take them to Legoland for a while. This past weekend, we finally made the trip.

We landed in San Diego late Friday, drove a rental car up to Carlsbad, and checked into our Kingdom-themed room at the Legoland Resort Hotel. We spent the entire day Saturday inside the park, going on rides, spending way too much money on games and food, splashing around in the water park with friends, and eating LOTS of ice cream. Sunday, after sleeping in, the girls and I stopped in Cardiff-by-the-Sea for donuts, then made our way back to the airport and eventually flew home.

One might expect that the highpoint of this trip was one particular ride or one specific water feature in the water park.

The reality: The best part was a LEGO-building party back in the hotel room Saturday night.

I’m not the only one who thinks so; both L and Little R agree, too. The three of us stayed up until close to midnight building the girls’ new LEGO sets, and that was the most fulfilling time the three of us spent together all weekend.

We loved this part of the trip for a number of reasons. First, the girls only were going to receive their new LEGO sets if they made good choices about how they behaved, so the sets represented a bit of a reward. Second, the sets themselves were super cool—L got a plane and R got a lighthouse. Third, the girls were stoked about the building party because they got to stay up late; I suspended normal bedtime for the sake of togetherness and everybody appreciated the change. The fourth and final reason: We got to build together, something that doesn’t typically happen when we all are at home and their baby sister is crawling around.

What I took away from this experience was a simple lesson I’ve learned in different ways countless times before: Often on family trips, the little things matter most.

Sure, the kids loved being inside the park. And yes, they really enjoyed the water attractions. But the combination of undivided attention from dad and a night without bedtime was MAJORLY AWESOME. Because it was so different.

Looking forward, I’d like to think this experience will change my approach with the big kids on trips. Undoubtedly I can be more lenient about bedtimes every now and again. And ultimately, I’d like to get back to a place where undivided attention from dad *isn’t* unusual. Now that I know these simple tweaks make my kids happy, I’ll do my best to replicate them again and again.

Three attributes of winning family travel

The scene

The scene

I get to meet some wonderful people through my job as a journalist, and this weekend was no exception. Powerwoman and I attended a swanky dinner in a local vineyard, and ended up sitting across the table from a fascinating couple. We got to talking and discerned that the duo value family travel as much as we do. That’s when things got really interesting.

The woman, general manager at the host winery, asked me what attributes I hoped travel would instill in my kids. Before I could answer, she shared hers with me: CONFIDENCE and CURIOSITY.

It was hard to argue with these, especially after she and her husband explained their picks with anecdotes about their kids in faraway places such as Asia and Europe, always asking locals questions about culture, always longing to explore on their own.

Still, to me, it felt like something was missing. These two attributes simply weren’t enough.

That’s when it dawned on me: While I certainly would agree with her picks, I undoubtedly would add a third: HUMILITY.

In many ways, humility acts as a check and balance for confidence and curiosity—it’s good to be confident and curious when traveling, but it’s also good to make sure you’re not so confident and curious that you offend the locals. Put differently, in the age of Donald Trump, a time during which American behaviors are scrutinized more than ever, it’s important to teach our kids to be self-aware enough to know when they might be overstepping their bounds.

I never got a chance to share my picks at dinner; conversation turned sharply and moved on to other topics. But I’m delighted to share them here. And I’m eager to get your feedback—what attributes do YOU hope travel instills in your kids? Please leave your thoughts in the comment field below.

 

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