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?

The best hotel-room diversion of all time

The morning ritual.

The morning ritual.

We just got home from a week in Hawaii—a week that included some early mornings in some pretty fabulous family-friendly hotels (including this one).

We could have passed the time by having the girls draw or paint or play dress-up. Technically, I guess we also could have let them watch TV (though that’s not our style). Instead, we put them in a position to entertain themselves with another diversion: Perler beads.

If you’re not familiar with Perler beads, they’re fusible plastic beads, each about the size of a chocolate chip. You can do a whole bunch of things with the beads—such as string them and weave them and melt them. We usually go for the third option; the girls arrange beads in particular patterns on a variety of different peg-boards, and when the arrangements are finished, we (parents) melt the beads together with a clothes iron (and wax paper in between).

The iron is what makes Perlers such a fun activity for hotels; every hotel room in America has one, and it’s totally free to use. We rolled into Hawaii with 3,000 beads and six peg boards in different shapes. We rolled out of Hawaii with a few hundred beads and more than two dozen original creations in various forms.

It doesn’t really matter what we do with the finished products (though most of them likely will end up as Christmas tree ornaments); what matters is the fun we all have while making them.

L took her designs incredibly seriously, inventing elaborate patterns every time. R crafted hers with more whimsy, frequently spilling her designs back into the master (gallon-sized) Ziploc to start again. In case you’re wondering, I’m big into color-blocking mine. And Powerwoman really likes symmetry.

As a family, we Villanos became so obsessed that Perlers became a morning ritual—the kids would wake up, Powerwoman and I would set them up with Perlers, and the three or four of us would create designs until breakfast (and sometimes beyond). We couldn’t go to the beach until each of us had made a design. And we couldn’t eat lunch until my wife or I had ironed the creations to make them whole.

Trust me: If your kids like art, try the Perlers. You’ll be surprised how addicting and engaging they are.

What are your go-to hotel-room diversions on a family vacation?

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