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.

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.

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?

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?

Celebrating Earth Day with a camping blitz

Big Girl and BFF hiking to celebrate Earth.

Big Girl and BFF hiking to celebrate Earth.

Tomorrow is Earth Day, which means it’s a perfect opportunity to teach kids about the wonder of nature what it means to respect the planet. We usually commemorate the occasion with a walk in the woods (which I’m doing with L, on a field trip through her school). This year, we’re taking our celebration one step further: We’re booking a number of summertime camping trips up and down the West Coast.

At least one of these campgrounds will be up on San Juan Island, where we’re headed for a three-week road-trip family vacation in June. Another one will be about 10 miles up the road, at a campground near our home in Northern California.

The others, however, are all over the lot: Eastern California, the Trinity Alps, even the Sonoma County coast.

The tilt for tents is the latest step in our ongoing push to get our girls more comfortable with being and sleeping outdoors. It’s also part of a concerted attempt to make them well-rounded travelers; we usually blow it out by staying in places such as Four Seasons and Fairmont resorts (many of which we book on Expedia), so Powerwoman and I want to make sure our kids can appreciate a breadth of overnight experiences.

We certainly aren’t one of the only families expecting to go camping at a higher frequency this coming year. Looking ahead to the 2015 camping season, a majority of campers plan to spend more nights camping, according to the 2015 North American Camping Report, an independent study supported by Kampgrounds of America, Inc. (KOA).

The report, which was released earlier this spring, also noted that the heart wins out over the wallet, as more people today see camping as a way to escape the stress of everyday life than as an affordable vacation option. More interesting tidbits:

  • According to campers, reconnecting with nature (55 percent), reducing stress (54 percent), and spending more time with family and friends (49 percent) are the key reasons they camp. Economic and practical values were only identified as reasons for camping by less than 35 percent of those surveyed.
  • Campers are likely to say that camping improves family relationships; in fact, 41 percent “completely agree” with this.
  • Additionally, almost four out of 10 campers (39 percent) suggest that camping has “a great deal of impact” on allowing them to spend more time with family. Another third of campers say that camping has a positive impact on their relationships with family and friends (35 percent) and their emotional well-being (36 percent).

Another fascinating finding from the report: Camping rates among nonwhites (those who self-identify as African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander or Hispanic) have doubled from as recently as 2012, jumping to 23 percent from 12 percent.

I won’t get sidetracked with specifics from the KOA report (for more, click here). The gist: Camping is becoming more popular—not just with our family, but with many families across the country.

As you and your family celebrate Earth Day 2015, ask yourself how many opportunities you’re giving your kids to connect with nature. Camping is a great way to build more of this into your life. It’s cheap. It’s outdoors. It’s easy. Best of all, it’s fun. For everyone.

Where have you stayed on some of your most memorable camping trips?

A great precursor to Walt Disney World

Garden Grocer, send up our stuff!

Garden Grocer, send up our stuff!

After this weekend, the four of us are headed to Walt Disney World (the one in Florida) to try out the new Magic Bands service and investigate some of the recent preschooler-oriented upgrades at some of the parks. We’re staying at Disney Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, in a 1-bedroom villa with a full kitchen. Our goal: To save a bit of money on food, instead of paying top-dollar for every meal at restaurants or inside the park.

At the suggestion of a friend, our strategy to achieve this goal is using Garden Grocer, a grocery ordering-and-delivery service that promises to have your supplies waiting in your room for you when you check in.

The interface itself is similar to the online grocery services we used when we lived in London—you shop virtually, put stuff in a cart, and select a specific date and time range when you check out. Item-by-item prices were comparable to what you’d find in a high-end supermarket. The company also charges a one-time delivery fee of $14.

To me, this fee is worth the 60 to 90 minutes it saves me from having to dash out to the Publix as soon as we (fly across the country with two children and) check in.

(It’s also roughly the cost of two pretzels and a soda inside the parks.)

I placed my inaugural order about an hour before I published this post. Will this service work? Will Garden Grocer deliver the convenience it promises? How much money will we actually save? I won’t have any of these answers for you until Monday at the earliest, but you better believe I’ll report them here. Stay tuned.

To what extent have you used grocery-stocking services when you travel with kids?

When Free Is Best

Looking down on the (family-friendly) trout count.

Looking down on the (family-friendly) trout count.

Here in the heart of California’s Wine Country, we locals have plenty of options to spend big bucks on a family-friendly day out and about. We can take the tour at the Safari West animal park in Santa Rosa. We can rent a cabine near the day-use pool at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville. Heck, we even can hop over the Mayacamas Mountains and pay to see the inside of the castle at Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga.

Again, all of these activities kick ass for families. They also all require at least a few hours’ worth of cash.

Sometimes, however, the best options for those of us with young kids are the options that cost nothing at all. Case in point: Our family’s experience earlier today at the Milt Brandt Visitors’ Center and Fish Hatchery near Lake Sonoma in our hometown of Healdsburg.

We went for the trout; despite our drought-like conditions here, the Steelhead are running and I figured at the very least we might spot some of those buggers as they swam up the fish ladder toward the hatchery itself. What we encountered, however, was far more incredible—and something (at least) L will remember for the rest of her life.

If you who don’t know much about fisheries, hatcheries like this one breed fish and release a certain number back into the wild every year in an attempt to control (read: stabilize) population growth. As part of this process, scientists keep tabs of the fish that return to see how many are repeat customers.

This means every year researchers tap a small sample of returning fish to a) check and see if they’ve been tagged previously, and b) keep track of what percentage of them are females.

At Lake Sonoma, they open this process to the public. And we managed to luck into seeing it first-hand.

To a large part, our good fortune was attributable to being in the right place at the right time; when we arrived at the hatchery catwalks (most people look down from here), a group was witnessing the count down on the laboratory floor. When they left, I ignorantly yelled down and asked the biologists if we could be next.

Technically, the answer should have been a resounding no. But because we were just four, and because our littler two found the process fascinating, the researchers let us down.

There on the floor, face-to-face with trout the size of their torsos, the girls were terrified and enthralled at the same time. R kept pointing to the creatures, yelling, “Big fishy!” and “Why isn’t that fishy swimming in the ocean?” L observed intently with her mouth agape, occasionally requesting to move back when she thought a flailing fish might splash her (she does NOT like to get splashed).

We watched as the biologists did their jobs, using a standard-issue hole-puncher to punch holes in the tails of first-time visitors, measuring the specimens, then separating the fish by sex and launching each sex down a different chute (the chutes fed two different holding pens).

The four of us stayed inside the hatchery for the better part of an hour. The girls likely could have stayed longer. But the researchers had to go on lunch.

We spent the rest of our visit walking up and down the fish ladder, ogling fish as they swam upstream and listening to chirping birds in the unseasonably warm morning air. Later, we walked across the street to an often-deserted playground, where, after the girls ran around like maniacs, the four of us had a picnic lunch.

All told, the experience set us back $16—the price for two stuffed birds in the Visitor Center gift shop. Considering how much we all learned about trout, considering how much the girls have talked about the day all afternoon, I’d say it was a great way to spend a day in Wine Country.

What are some of your favorite free (or budget) family activities near your home?

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