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.

Holiday family travel tips in local daily

R, planespotting

R, planespotting

I’m a newspaper guy at heart, so it’s always nice to get some actual ink in an actual newspaper on the subject of family travel.

That’s why I’m so jazzed about my latest article for the Press-Democrat, our local metro daily.

The story, titled “Ten tips for easier holiday family travel,” appeared in today’s edition, and offers just what the headline promises: A bunch of suggestions for making holiday travel with kids easier. My editors published the piece with a bunch of pictures from our family travels over the last few months. They included even more of the pictures in the gallery online.

Among my suggestions:

  • Embrace apps
  • Take advantage of the lapchild rule while you can
  • Stick to schedules
  • Let kids own part of the plan

One of the tips I didn’t include: Bring backups—backup snacks, backup books, backup crafts, even backup clothes for those unforeseen bathroom debacles. Because you never know when a delay or a missed connection will result in extra travel time to kill.

What tips would you add to my list?

 

 

 

 

 

Managing family travel on a budget

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

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

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

Bundle

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

Think vacation rentals over hotels

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

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

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

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

Eat in

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

Put a cap on souvenirs

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

Leverage the lapchild

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

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

Tips for holiday air travel with kids

Enduring delays in mid-air.

Enduring delays in mid-air.

I dole out a ton of advice on this blog about traveling with kids. Sometimes, I like to spread the love. That explains my latest piece for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia—a story that lists five tips for holiday air travel with children. The piece went live earlier today.

The story culls advice and insight I’ve gleaned from six years as a family traveler. Some of the suggestions relate to ideas I’ve mentioned here before. Some of the suggestions are brand new.

The bottom line: We can’t just board a plane and expect our kids to entertain themselves.

Flying with kids at any of time of year requires effort on the part of us parents. Well during the holidays, when airplanes and airports are at their craziest and busiest, it’s even more important for us to stay cool, stay calm, be flexible and be ready to tackle any delay, cancelation, sickness or angry fellow passenger that comes our way.

My No. 1 tip (which you may have read previously in these pages): Bring art projects. Kids love making things at home, so why not put them in position to make the same sort of stuff at 35,000 feet? When we fly during holidays, I bring construction paper and Scotch tape so the kids can make paper chains. My job in the assembly line is to rip the paper into perfect rectangles; from there, L and R take turns making circles, taping circles and stringing the chains up around our seats.

Sometimes we leave the chains for the next passenger (or the cleaning crew). Other times we hand them to flight attendants, who love the thought. Whoever gets ‘em, the process usually kills at least 90 minutes. On a long flight—especially during holiday season—that’s practically a lifetime.

Finding math in nature on the road

Math is cool.

Math is cool.

I never was good at numbers, but one of my fondest memories of math as a teenager was learning about the Fibonacci Sequence.

Ms. Sheehan, my teacher at the time, described this as a series of accumulating numbers in which the next number is found by adding the previous two together beginning with zero and one. The chain of numbers produced (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on) describe natural phenomenon from leaf growth to the curl of a shell. And once you are familiar with what that chain looks like (check out this video), it’s easy to spot Fibonacci just about everywhere in nature.

A recent article in Sierra magazine reminded me of this. The piece, written by an author named Mikey Jane Moran, makes a bold leap from Fibonacci to the importance of play-based learning, and the need to avoid screens. A snip:

“Tell your children to hunt for the curling Fibonacci shape outdoors and they will start to see the patterns everywhere, in the cowlick on their brother’s head and in spider webs—places where there aren’t really Fibonacci patterns. But the beauty is that they are noticing. Instead of staring at a video game screen on long road trips, they are looking at clouds. Walks may take longer as they stop to look at every little thing, but how can anyone complain?”

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know this notion of play over technology is a big one for me. Quite frankly, it’s nice just to see mainstream publications championing the same priorities for a change.

That said, Moran is right—finding Fibonacci in nature is DAMN cool, and something worth doing.

Whenever I head out with the girls, we try to look for Fibonacci and other phenomena like it. The hunt becomes a big part of our adventure; L and R look everywhere for examples, and the two girls compete to see who can find more (they are sisters, after all). As Moran suggests, the search (and subsequent success or failure) introduces a much-needed component of play into the learning-from-nature mix. The result is a wonderful way to experience new stuff.

Knowing when to fold ’em on family trips

Bouncing. Before the meltdown.

Bouncing. Before the meltdown.

Poker players and country music fans alike are familiar with the famous 1978 Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler.”

On the surface, the ditty is a song about poker. (You know the tune: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em/know when to fold ‘em/Know when to walk away/Know when to run.”) It’s also a metaphor for life. And, as it so happens, for family travel.

I was reminded of this fact today while trying to balance a jam-packed itinerary of activities on a daytrip around our home county.

The short story: We got through about half our list. Then we aborted the mission. And it all worked out.

Our day began early, as the days usually do with L (for whom 6:30 a.m. is “sleeping in”) and R. After breakfast and an early-morning shopping run, we headed out for a hike and some (seemingly) low-key playing by the river, then headed to the indoor trampoline arena for a little jumping. The problem: It was nearly 100 degrees before noon, which made the kids incredibly cranky.

The afternoon portion of our agenda for the day included swinging by a party/fundraiser hosted by some of our friends. As that part of the plan got closer, however—and at the very moment the two of them decided they hated their lunch—the girls endured a major and catastrophic meltdown.

They were hot. They were tired. They were hungry. And they lost all capacity to act like normal humans.

I could have forced the issue, could have soldiered on in the name of keeping plans. Instead, I did what, IMHO, is perfectly acceptable on a day of family travel of any kind: I capitulated.

I’m not saying I gave up in the traditional sense of the phrase. No, I’m saying I rationally and clearly looked at all of my options, recognized that the kids were done, and changed the plan on the fly. In short, I knew when to lay down my hand and call it quits for the day.

Powerwoman and I have learned this lesson the hard way over the last few years. Time and time again, on those days when the kids are just a little off, it almost always has made more sense to acquiesce when push comes to shove. Sometimes this has meant spending an afternoon in the hotel playing Crazy 8’s. On other occasions it’s meant extended downtime, just to keep everyone happy. Today, it meant bailing on a party. Next time, it might mean bailing on a surf lesson, or mini golf.

The bottom line, folks, is that Kenny was right—you need to know when to hold the plans and when to fold ‘em.

There’s no shame in bagging an agenda if you think your kids—and, through the transitive property, you—will be better off in the long run. Family travel isn’t about WHAT you do so much as it’s about HOW you do it. Remember: Short of big-picture calendar items such as airplane flights or train times, no travel plans ever are set in stone.

More tips for road trips with kids

Sleeping beauties. In the car.

Sleeping beauties. In the car.

We take a ton of road trips in this family, and I’m always eager to share some of my tips and lessons learned with the masses. Case in point: My latest piece for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia, which outlines five can’t-miss tips for road-tripping with kids.

The post was inspired by our recent road trip from Portland, Oregon, to the San Juan Islands, and back down to Seattle. All five of the tips relate directly to the experiences we had on the trip.

At least two of the suggestions echo some of the pointers I laid out in an interview with Juliana Shallcross of Trips + Giggles earlier this month. The other three are brand spanking new, and feature anecdotes that I’ve never shared anywhere else. (Gotta keep you regular readers on your toes, you know.)

We certainly will be calling upon some of our own suggestions again later this month, as we’ll be road-tripping down to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to report another family travel piece.

(There also is a potential road-trip to LEGOLAND California in the works; stay tuned for details on that.)

We even are open to new road-trip tips; if you’ve got advice to share, please feel free to do so in the comment section below. And in case you missed the link the first time, check out my Expedia Viewfinder piece about road-trip tips here.

Dishing tips for Trips + Giggles

Power, indeed.

Power, indeed.

It’s always fun to share family travel tips with other experts. That’s why I’m especially excited to share a Q&A I did with my buddy, Juliana Shallcross, the gal behind Trips + Giggles.

In the piece, I offer a number of creative options for keeping kids happy and entertained during family trips. Perhaps my favorite hack: Progressive Storytelling, a fun and no-tech game that the four of us played at least once a day on our recent trip to the San Juan Islands.

I also used the opportunity to share some news: Our pod is expanding this November when we welcome another daughter into the mix. (Stay tuned for more on this, obviously.)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll recognize some of the other tips—Perler beads for hotel rooms, window clings on long plane trips, Dum-Dums for take-offs and landings, and Rory’s Storycubes for more creative fun.  For a complete transcript of the interview, click here. And if you’re not currently reading Trips + Giggles, add it to your list.

Great tips for improving family vacations

Tip: Have kids do research before a big trip.

Tip: Have kids do research before a big trip.

I enjoy many benefits of being on the Board of Directors of the nascent Family Travel Association (FTA). One of my favorite perks: Getting to know people such as fellow Board member Keith Bellows.

Keith, emeritus Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveler, has been an advocate of family travel for years. Covering it was a priority of his when he headed up editorial coverage at Traveler. He also wrote books and longer articles on the subject himself.

His most recent piece, which appeared today on the FTA blog, might be my favorite of his family travel pieces ever. In it, he lists 10 very simple tips for improving our family vacations. Some of the tips are straightforward—most of us traveling with children likely would share experiences with them and regale them with stories and myths about our destinations before we go. Other tips are new and life-changing; Keith’s expertise changed my entire perspective on how I’ll approach our next family trip.

My favorite tips of his promote individuality in kids. No. 1 on my list: His tip to give each kid $10 to spend on whatever he or she wants every day, so long as the purchase is a tangible good that is difficult to find at home.

Other highlights IMHO include giving kids destination-specific challenges to solve on the trip, and encouraging them to make and/or tell their own stories about the experience.

I won’t steal all of Keith’s thunder; for a more complete POV on his tips, read the whole piece here.

Once you’ve read it, feel free to add some tips of your own in the comment field below. I’ll make sure Keith sees them before our next board meeting. Who knows? Maybe you can change his life the way he has changed mine.

Turning family travel disaster into fun

Airplane impersonations at PDX, Gate C5.

Airplane impersonations at PDX, Gate C5.

You probably have heard a saying about making lemonade when life gives you lemons. As a family traveler, I embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly.

My commitment was put to the test today on what amounted to a 15-hour travel day to fly 600 miles after a weekend in SoCal (and Legoland California) with Little R. Yes, the day was exhausting. Yes, in the scheme of things, it was wildly irritating. But I learned some valuable lessons about being prepared, staying positive, and never letting the kiddos see you sweat—lessons that forever have changed the way I’ll approach parenting on a family trip.

So when our flight from San Diego to Santa Rosa circled the Santa Rosa airport nine times to wait out bad weather, I dug deep into my (literal) bag of tricks and gave R a brand new sheet of Melissa & Doug reusable stickers. And when R decided (and threw a tantrum because) the on-board toilet was too high for her to use, I simply reassured her that if she couldn’t hold it in and she wet her pants, I had a change of clothes ready to go.

(ICYW, she held it, then fell asleep.)

Later, when the pilot announced we were running out of fuel and needed to divert to Portland, Oregon, I made up a story about how our plane had been hand-selected by Queen Esmerelda to come and visit her kingdom of Portland and how this was a great honor bestowed only on the luckiest of passengers.

After we deplaned, when R started losing her bananas in the rebooking line, I handed her blank paper and crayons, and asked her to draw the gate agent a special thank-you card—a card that not only got her an entire sheet of (really awesome) Alaska Airlines stickers in return, but also made the gate agent smile (something I didn’t see the agent do very much in the 45 minutes of yelling she received from other passengers on our flight.)

Upon learning that we’d have to wait four hours in Portland, I told R that Queen Esmerelda sent us a credit for the gift shop, and allowed her to pick out $20 worth of toys (she got a stuffed pony, among other things).

I improvised in other ways during the wait, too:

  • When we happened upon an empty gate, we played football with my hat.
  • At another empty gate, we pretended to be airplanes and ran around in circles for a good 20 minutes.
  • Thanks to a Facebook tip from a friend, we took the moving sidewalks down to an area with kids’ games and spent 45 minutes playing with those.

Oh, and when R had to use the bathroom (always a dicey proposition in our family when “magic-eye” automatic flushers are involved), I pretended to take a call from Queen Esmerelda, who “directed” us to a special family bathroom where R was able to get totally naked, spend quality time on the toilet, listen as I read her a few books on the Kindle, and do more than her fair share of business (if you know what I mean).

After the flight back to San Francisco (on which R watched “Peppa Pig” shows the entire time; at that point in the day, I was more than happy to relax my screen-time restrictions), I even tried my best to turn the ordeal of a one-way rental car into something fun: We pretended the AirTrain to the rental car facility was the Monorail at Walt Disney World Resort, and I let R select the car (she chose a “sparkly silver” one).

On the way home, before the kid passed out in the car, I asked her about her favorite parts of the trip. Her response: “Today was really fun, Daddy.”

To say this comment made me happy would be an understatement. (Actually, I started crying the moment she said it; thankfully it was dark.) It was clear that my kid didn’t consider the ordeal a pain in the ass because I never gave her a reason to do so. To R, it all was just another part of our trip; a wonderful perspective that taught me a ton about parenting, traveling, and, quite frankly, myself.

So often when we travel, our kids feed off of us. They take cues from us. They read our body language. If we wig out, they wig out. Which is precisely why we always need to stay cool and take everything in stride.

Sure, our day today was COMPLETELY exhausting. And, yes, the delay was wildly inconvenient (in more ways than one). I’m sure I’ll be feeling the effects of it all throughout the course of the week. Thankfully, however, my 3-year-old will not. In my book, given the circumstances we overcame, that is the sign of a family travel victory.

What have been some of your worst family travel experiences, and how did you cope?

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