Self-park Schlep

Two littler sisters, early in the day.

You’re not a truly intrepid family traveler until you’ve schlepped five days’ worth of gear and three tired kiddos from self-park to a hotel lobby, BY YOURSELF.

Such was life earlier tonight upon checking in at the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort & Hotel.

I’m here solo with all three girls on the sedentary part of a week-long road trip/family vacation. We left our home in Wine Country Thursday morning. After an overnight with friends in San Luis Obispo, lunch with a buddy in Santa Monica, and dinner with cousins in Carlsbad, we checked in here tonight around 8:30, well beyond the girls’ bedtime.

But tiredness wasn’t the real challenge. The true gauntlet was managing those tired kids while getting all of our stuff from the van onto a luggage cart, lugging cart and kids up the elevator and into the lobby for check-in, then getting everything and everyone out to our room.

I know what you’re probably thinking at this point: Why the hell didn’t Matty just do valet? The reason is simple: Valet is expensive, and most families don’t have the resources to go there. Beside, we had a coupon for free self-park for the duration of our stay. (For more on the logic behind this decision, see this post about what I’m calling the “Schoolyard Test.”)

Thankfully, I managed to find an underground spot right next to an abandoned luggage cart. The Big Girl and Little R got out of the van and watched (and complained) while I loaded our gear onto the cart; Baby G watched directed traffic from her car seat.

Once the cart was loaded up, I grabbed G and held her in my left arm while pulling the cart with my right.

(If you’ve never pulled a full luggage cart with one arm, let me tell you: It works your pectoralis muscles. Big-time. Like, I won’t need to bench press anything tomorrow. Shit, I’ll be lucky if I can raise my arm above my head.)

Somehow we made it to the elevator. From there, somehow we made it to the front desk. Following a snafu at check-in (which, in all fairness, was resolved quickly and painlessly), I trudged onward with the kids and cart to our room, a one-bedroom suite that quite literally was the farthest possible accommodations from the front desk.

By the time we managed to round the bend for our wing of the hotel, I was literally dripping with sweat. My right pec was burning. My left arm was numb from carrying the baby. In my head, I heard the “Chariots of Fire” theme song as I reached for the room key and swiped it through the lock.

Now, here I am.

I could go on about how the Big Girl claimed the pullout couch, Little R grabbed the bedroom floor and Baby G passed out on the bed. I could take a picture of myself sitting on a dining room chair in the bathroom, where I’m writing this post (and soon will write a newspaper article, as well). Hell, I could wrap the night by doing 30 burpees on the balcony outside, and all of it would pale in comparison to the self-park schlep I endured earlier tonight.

In doing so, however, I saved nearly $40 per night, or $160 total. I am family travel warrior. Hear me roar.

New Year, New Beginnings

Fully “exploring” the Astro.

Our most recent family getaway comprised one night in a room at The Astro Motel, a brand-new property near my home in Northern California.

The place soft-opened in October after a pretty major renovation; the new owners redesigned it to celebrate mid-century modern flare. While some of the furniture and wall decorations are vintage, the place is mostly no-frills. In our room, a small flat-screen television hung on a wall bracket in the corner above a modest mini-fridge. Over near the sink—which was exposed to the rest of the room—a tiny plastic hairdryer was nestled into a cradle high on the wall.

It’s worth noting that the nightly rate of $160 included complimentary coffee and muffins in the morning. Guests also have access to a decent-sized library of children’s books such as “Snowy Day” and “The Giving Tree.”

In short, the Astro is a veritable poster child for family travel.

What makes the place so great for traveling families? It’s affordable. It’s authentic. It’s clean. It’s efficient. Also, it’s fun. After more than eight years of traveling with kids, I’ve determined that these five attributes are all we moms and dads *really* need from hotels when we travel. Anything else is superfluous; nothing more than a profit source for the parent company.

That last sentence was meant to be contentious. By stating that anything beyond these attributes is “superfluous,” I’m intentionally stirring the pot. Put differently, I’m calling out the dozens of hotel brands that double-down on perks they consider to be family-friendly but charge an arm and a leg for the privilege of staying there.

Sure, there are parents who feel a certain sense of comfort with “free” plush toys for the kids at check-in. Yes, there are moms and dads who love a property-wide kids’ menu. I’m sure somewhere on Earth, there even are guardians who aren’t completely creeped out with the idea of a butler coming to your hotel room to tuck in your children and give them warm cookies in bed. For me, however, it’s time to rethink what’s most important in family travel. It’s time to focus on what really matters to actual families.

. . .

This post has been a long time in the making. If you’ve followed this blog with any regularity, you probably noticed that I haven’t written anything in a while. That hasn’t been by accident. I’ve taken a sabbatical, if you will. A sabbatical to learn more about how people travel with their kids.

This research was inspired in part by my buddy Erin Kirkland, and began in my role as a board member of the Family Travel Association. There I had the benefit of talking to travel agents and vendors about what they think traveling families want. Armed with these examples, I sought anecdotes from families, chatting with real-world parents I’ve met on playgrounds, in museum cafes, and online.

Conceptually, the two sides weren’t that far apart; everyone agreed travelers want meaning from travel.

The similarities ended there. For vendors (and, subsequently, agents), there seemed to be a correlation between cost and meaning—the more of an “investment” made on a hotel, the more meaningful the subsequent experience likely would be. For moms and dads, however, the relationship wasn’t necessarily direct; even among those moms and dads who have the means to spend big bucks on family travel said they try to reserve the bulk of their budget for doing stuff.

This told me that most families prefer not to spend big bucks on hotels. It means they’d opt for modest accommodations if it meant a richer experience overall.

I asked my interview subjects for specifics, and dozens upon dozens of them threw out brand names such as Motel 6 and KOA as their go-to “lodging” on family trips. Others swore by Best Westerns, and Red Roof Inns. Still others hailed vacation rentals. Many people even said they still purchase family trips through travel agencies and online travel agencies where bundling hotel with airfare and activities can save money. (It’s worth noting after that kind of statement that I’m no longer on the payroll at Expedia, which sells bundled trips; I’m just reporting what people told me.)

Normally this is the part of a post where I’d call upon my training as a journalist and drop in some scientific data to back up my research and prove my point explicitly. But I don’t have stats to sprinkle into the narrative. I haven’t conducted a study to determine the socioeconomics of the average family traveler in America. To my knowledge, this kind of data doesn’t exist. Not yet, at least. (Get on it, FTA!)

What I do know is this: As life in America becomes increasingly expensive, traveling does, too. Traveling with a bunch of humans can get extra-spendy. I leave Thursday for a week-long road trip with my daughters, and one of the reasons we’re not stopping at Universal Studios Hollywood is because it would have cost us nearly $600 to spend five hours in the park.

With price tags like these, it’s no wonder families are opting to cut costs whenever they can.

Of course herein lies the great disconnect. Families are trying to cut costs on the nuts and bolts of travel to maximize their on-the-ground experience, while big brands are paying big bucks to market high-dollar products to everyone as the kind of travel that is most fulfilling. The result, for the most part, is aspiration overload. Most family travel coverage is chock-full of safari narratives or stories that extol the virtues of hotels that cost $700 per night. This is travel for the 1 percent. It’s nothing but an extension of lifestyle (or, as the case may be, perceived lifestyle).

Open up the latest issue of Travel + Leisure or Conde Nast Traveler and tell me different. Even The New York Times is guilty of this phenomenon (though Freda Moon’s occasional “Frugal Family” pieces for the Travel section are a shining example of what great and thoughtful family travel writing can be).

IMHO, most mainstream family travel writing is completely out of touch with the way actual families travel.

. . .

Before you start calling me a hypocrite, I admit it: I’m guilty of perpetuating this disconnect. That’s why I needed time away. It’s why I needed to go back to basics and hit the streets. It’s also why I’m starting off the new year with this post. Because from here on out, Wandering Pod will look and feel a little different.

Put differently, I vow to cover family travel the way most actual families do it.

What does this mean, exactly? It means more posts about the ins and outs of planning, more details about finances. It also means more stories about the journey, about the meaning behind the “bucket list.” I’ll write more pieces about challenges we face, particularly as the parents of a child who has sensory integration issues yet yearns to see and explore and experience more. Even my descriptive pieces will change a bit—I’ll still show you readers what makes destinations worthwhile, but I also will put that into context, too.

Overall, my new aim is to add more value to the conversation, and get even more real about what it means to hit the road with kids in today’s day and age. On a week-to-week basis, it means covering more places like the Astro—places that are affordable, authentic, clean, efficient, and fun. On a post-by-post basis, it means adding more dollar amounts to every service piece, so readers can see exactly how much each of my experiences costs.

The goal of this glasnost is simple: To get real. If I spotlight a hotel perk, I’ll spotlight it because it’s legitimately different and cool, not because I think that’s the story the hotel wants to tell (or because some PR person in a cubicle in Midtown Manhattan asked me to share). If I wax poetic about a promotion, it will because the promotion provides undisputable savings and value—to customers of all kinds. If I spread the word about a niche vacation rental site, it will be a niche vacation rental site with prices middle-class American families can actually afford.

Sure, from time to time, I’ll still cover high-dollar stuff. This summer, we Villanos will visit Flathead Lake Lodge in Montana, and our stay is my compensation for a huge copywriting project.

When I see value, I also might even write about theme parks (though I’ll buy my tickets at Costco).

For the most part, however, my new standard will be the Schoolyard Test: If the moms and dads in our local schoolyards wouldn’t invest in particular travel products on the next school break, I don’t really want to be writing about them here.

Consider this my resolution for Wandering Pod in 2018. Hopefully it will make my voice in the industry even more reliable. Hopefully it will inspire you to think about family travel in a new way, too.

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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