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.

 

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.

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