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.

 

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.

Long lost cousins

This is us

This is us

I’ve mentioned that L and I traveled to Portland last weekend. What I neglected to mention—at least in detail—is why: We went to attend the bar mitzvah of one of my cousin’s kids.

The cousin in question is a relative I haven’t seen in 12 years. That means he’d never met L. It also means L had never met him, or any of his kids. Which means my biggest daughter was meeting some of her cousins for the very first time.

Any other kid might have been daunted by all this unknown, by the possibility of going to a party with 40 other kids and NOT KNOWING A SOUL.

My kid, on the other hand, relished the opportunity. So much that she told me to get lost.

To be honest, I couldn’t really believe my ears. It happened during the cocktail hour of the party—adults were asked to go upstairs to a rooftop deck, while kids were invited to party on the dance floor below. I wasn’t sure how L would fare, so I gave her the option of having me hang around. That’s when she dropped the bomb. Get lost, Dad. I’m fine down here. I’ll make friends.

It was a bittersweet moment for sure. On one hand, I was delighted she felt comfortable being so independent. On the other hand, I was heartbroken that she didn’t need me, especially since she previously has wanted me around for similar situations.

Still, I obliged. I got lost. Despite how difficult that was.

In the end, the kid had a blast. She made friends with her long lost cousins and some of the other kids in attendance. She hung with them at various parts of the rest of the night. She also spent time just chilling by herself, dancing and singing and watching others have a ball. She even participated in some of the games; when she was one of the three finalists for Musical Chairs, she pocketed $20 for her efforts (trust me, bar mitzvahs aren’t what they used to be).

On our way back to the hotel, around 11 p.m., L turned to me and declared it had been “one of the best nights” of her life. I couldn’t help but smile.

I’d like to think travel has played a huge part in getting my oldest daughter comfortable enough to have the kind of night she had last weekend. It’s taught her adaptability and confidence. It’s taught her how to step back and observe. Most of all, traveling has helped my kid get to know herself, an important part of any human’s personal development. It’s a fundamental part of who and what she is.

Some might say we traveled to this bar mitzvah last weekend. I like to look at it a little differently: We attended a bar mitzvah for which travel prepared us all along.

The distinction here is subtle but important nevertheless; if we are, in fact, the sum of all of our experiences, the more experiences we have, the richer our lives become. It’s true for grown-ups and kids alike. No matter how many new cousins you might meet in a weekend, it only gets better over time.

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.

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?

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.

Now is the time for a family trip to South America

20 years ago in Brazil, I wrote this

20 years ago in Brazil, I wrote this

Like the vast majority of American citizens, Powerwoman and I have been watching snippets of the Olympics with the big girls these last few weeks, and the kids are loving it. While they’re interested in the gymnasts and swimmers (and their outfits, of course), they’ve expressed the greatest amount of curiosity about the backdrop, Brazil.

I’m sure part of this is because they know I lived there back in 1995 while volunteering for the International Wildlife Coalition. I’m sure it also is at least in part because they know my wife is an Andean archaeologist, and that the two of us lived in Lima, Peru, for a while back in 2005.

Still, I think the kids are genuinely eager to learn more about Rio. And the Amazon. And South America.

Their interest has triggered my wander bug and I’ve been exploring ways to get the family down south for a post-Olympics vacation.

Surprisingly, there are some pretty cool deals to be had—not just in Rio, but all over the continent. I’ve mentioned that Expedia is a big client of mine and my friends there recently shared some interesting data about trips to the region from the United States. For starters—and not surprisingly, really—ticket demand to Rio has increased by nearly 40 percent and ticket prices are nearly 60 percent higher than they usually are around this time of year.

Perhaps more interesting (to me, at least), were some of the data about ALTERNATE destinations from the United States—that is, places that aren’t Rio or Brazil. Savings on tickets to Bogota, Colombia are hovering around 10 percent. Savings on tickets to our beloved Lima are about 15 percent. And if we wanted to go to Caracas, we could save up to 30 percent.

It’s certainly food for thought. (And when we’re ready to book, we’ll book here.)

Where would we go? That depends on the conditions of your question, and whether I’m responding as travel-loving fan of South America, or the father of three kids under the age of 8.

If money were no issue, I’d sign everybody up for a trip to Manaus, the Brazilian city in the middle of the Amazon. There’s an opera house there that dates back nearly 150 years. I studied the place in college and have wanted to go there ever since. While it’s not exactly a family travel destination, it tops my list.

The sentimental choice would be Chavin de Huantar, the Peruvian town where Powerwoman conducted some archaeology field work in the early part of her career. The big potential problem here is that the site is at altitude, and we have NO idea how the kids would fare up there. (Side note: We *do* know from our experiences in Cusco that I do NOT do well above about 8,000 feet.)

The practical option: Lima, largely because we know it well and it’s easy to get around with kids. See you there?

Just say no to goody bags for fellow passengers

Offending goody bag, circa 2014

Offending goody bag, circa 2014

The family travel world was buzzing this week with outrage over the suggestion that parents who fly with kids should bribe other passengers with goody bags for their patience.

This ridiculous assertion—which first surfaced back in 2014, mind you—was aired anew in an absurd New York Times story by (former editor) Damon Darlin, and was Tweeted and retweeted a zillion times by other family travel haters around the world. Then came the rebuttals, most convincingly from Heather Havrilesky in New York magazine.

At first I tried to downplay the whole thing, addressing it with a throwaway line in my previous post.

Now, however, as more and more of my friends and colleagues have asked for my opinion on the subject, I feel it warrants a degree of standalone treatment here. So let me make sure I don’t mince words.

THE NOTION OF FAMILY TRAVELERS GIVING GOODY BAGS AS OFFERINGS TO OTHER PASSENGERS IS COMPLETE LUNACY AND ABSOLUTE BULLSHIT.

In case my true feelings didn’t come through there, let me repeat: FUCK NO. NEVER.

To further explain my take on this issue, I’d like to pull some text from a column I wrote for Parenting magazine (about a similarly ridiculous issue) back in 2012:

“My pet peeve is this whole notion that we parents somehow bend the rules just by bringing babies into the airplane environment.

Here’s my take, plain and simple: If an airline is going to sell me a ticket and I obtain that ticket in the same fashion as other passengers obtain theirs, I am just entitled to bring aboard my baby as others are entitled to ‘carry-on’ potentially annoying stuff that Federal Aviation Administration regulations allow them.

Like a propensity for loud-talking. Or snoring. Or a knack for passing silent-but-deadly gas.”

You don’t see people who travel with these conditions giving out peace offerings to other passengers. Like halitosis-sufferers distributing nose plugs to help seat-mates avoid the rotten-onion breath. Or snorers doling out ear plugs so people don’t have to listen to them cutting wood for four hours over the red states in the middle of the country.

So why would anyone ever think goody bags to make up for potentially loud babies is OK?

Let’s be honest. Flying has become an exercise in patience. For everyone. Each flight has a lot of people, crammed into tiny metal tubes for long periods of time. Under these conditions, everything is magnified. But the sooner fellow passengers recognize that this reality applies to all of us, the better off we’ll be.

Put differently, if my wife and I fly with our baby and we don’t put forth maximum effort to soothe her when she cries, that’s our fault, not the baby’s, and fellow passengers are more than entitled to hate us accordingly. But if we’re trying like heck to get the baby to calm down and the baby simply won’t stop crying, that’s life. You don’t need to work for The New York Times to understand that sometimes babies are going to act like babies. Fellow passengers never will hear an apology—or get pre-emptive Tootsie Rolls—from this father for that.

Real talk about air travel with kids

My seatmate was cute, but also a handful

My seatmate was cute, but also a handful

Let’s face it: Even for those of us who consider ourselves “experts,” flying with kids is no easy task. I’m not saying you should go and give other passengers goody bags as a way to pre-emptively apologize for your kids being kids (like this NY Times author did this week). I’m just saying that sometimes, as parents, we just need to admit that the majority of the “getting there” part of family travel simply sucks.

I was reminded of this fact on three different occasions yesterday as we returned from Hawaii.

No. 1: Navigating the TSA checkpoint.

When we arrived at the airport to catch our flights, it was hot. REALLY hot. Like, so hot that those prone to sweating (ahem, moi) were sweating like Patrick Ewing hooping it up at Madison Square Garden in the heyday of the Knicks. And that was just when I was standing still.

On the TSA line, the sweat situation got worse. The kids left me with their bags. I was nominated to breakdown the stroller. Then I had to worry about my own stuff.

By the time I got through the scanner, someone asked me if I had just come in from a run.

No. 2: Reacting to the inevitable spills.

Little R, our middle child, is notorious for spilling at least one beverage at every meal. Not surprisingly, her habits don’t change on an airplane. This means that at some point on every flight, the child will spill something. It’s up to Powerwoman and me to minimize the impact of that spill on R and everyone else.

Normally we just bring a change of clothes and administer that change once R has soaked herself. But on this particular flight, when R’s spill soaked her own pants AND the backups—we had to get creative.

The solution this time: Wrapping our wet child in dry sweatshirts.

Yes, this means she was half-naked on a plane. Yes, it meant that the sweatshirt got pretty wet as well. But by the time we landed her primary pants were mostly dry. (My carry-on was another story.)

No. 3: Managing potty breaks on the plane.

Baby G got top priority at 35,000 feet, hanging with me in the only lavatory with a changing table while I handled her business. But when the two of us returned to the seats, BOTH other girls had to go, kicking off an out-and-back parade of Villanos from rows 19 and 20 to the aft lavs.

Don’t get me wrong; everybody went. But getting them back and forth was an effort, and getting them into the lavatory and reminding them to a) Not let their shorts touch the scuzzy floor, b) Not to fiddle with the flush button, and c) Not to freak out about the suction-sink definitely tested some patience.

It also necessitated a Dewar’s from the in-flight booze cart, FWIW.

The bottom line: Though some say the wonder of a trip is “in the journey,” when the journey involves air travel, it’s OK to be realistic about how unpleasant the experience can be.

Remember that the next time you’re traveling with your kids, or when you see a passenger who is.

%d bloggers like this: