Inspired to spread the family travel gospel

FTA Summit crew, September 2015

FTA Summit crew, September 2015

Inspiration is a powerful thing. It’s what lead people to vote for Barack Obama, what has intrigued people about author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and what has compelled people to come together to support Batkid.

As a full-time freelance journalist for the last 18 years, I have spent a whole bunch of my time reporting on other people’s inspiration. Earlier this week, however, as a board member who attended and participated in the first-ever Family Travel Association summit, I was delighted to be the one experiencing the inspiration first-hand.

It wasn’t difficult to be inspired; the summit brought together about 80 of the biggest and boldest thinkers in the world of family travel today. There were experts. There were representatives of big travel companies. There were owners of small travel companies. There were photographers. There were other writers. Almost all of the people present were moms and dads who have traveled with their families.

And everyone descended upon the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch for one reason: To talk about how we can work together to raise awareness of the importance of family travel.

Some people moved me more than others. Like Ida Keiper and Jesemine Jones, the women behind Abeon Travel, a travel consultancy dedicated to assisting families that include children with special needs. And Randy Garfield, the former Disney VP who now devotes his time to the U.S. Travel Association and Project: Time Off, one of the most important research efforts in the history of the American people. And Margo Peyton, who, through her company, Kids Sea Camp, strives to get children travelers SCUBA-certified so they can explore the underwater world. And travel writing icon Wendy Perrin, who’s been writing about family travel forever and simply is flat-out awesome.

And some ideas left an indelible mark on my brain. Like some of the new family travel data from FTA and Expedia. And the “18 Summers” campaign from Idaho (hint: watch the video). And Jim Pickell’s suggestion for a new equation to measure family travel—an equation that compares meaningfulness of experiences to expenditures. (Pickell, the founder of, is a pretty neat dude himself.)

Heck, the conference even provided scientific evidence behind the notion that travel makes you smarter; in an intellectually rollicking concluding seminar, Nancy Sathre-Vogel explained how new places and new experiences stimulate the growth of dendrites in our brains.

(Some of us joked that Sathre-Vogel’s presentation provided the basis for a new ad campaign that evokes 1980s anti-drug ads and contrasts a brain to a brain on family travel.)

In short, there was a lot to keep the brain buzzing.

The next step is making it all count. Technically speaking, the FTA’s mission is to “inspire families to travel—and to travel more—while advocating for travel as an essential part of every child’s education.” Now, however, with one summit under our belts, we need to codify a strategy and figure out how and where we want to be. Personally, I’d like to see the group become an information resource for consumers, a networking/best-practices group for industry insiders, and an advocate for the right issues (such as family passenger rights on airplanes).

What about you? What would you demand/expect from a Family Travel Association? What sorts of activities and endeavors do you think the FTA should pursue? Share your opinions and become a part of the discussion.

New data, new look at family travel

Rainer Jenss inspires the gang at the FTA summit.

Rainer Jenss inspires the gang at the FTA summit.

Today was data day here at the Family Travel Association (FTA) Summit in Emigrant, Montana. That means a couple of my favorite people shared some pretty incredible data about family travel.

The FTA itself was up first, releasing the results of a comprehensive study by the FTA and the NYU School of Professional Studies Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. The study revealed three key data points about family travel:

  • Family travel now accounts for a full one-third of all leisure trips booked in the United States.
  • Survey respondents took an average of 3.53 domestic trips and 1.25 international trips with their children in the past year.
  • Families prefer to travel with their children when the children are between 6 and 12.

Also interesting: the data suggested that there are three distinct types of family travelers: Hassle-free travelers, who prefer travel options that require little effort and research; Cautious travelers, who are more willing to spend time researching their travels and more open to try a wider variety of travel options; and Intrepid travelers, who tend to opt for new destinations each time they travel, are most likely to take the kids out of school for vacations, value travel over material possessions, and like to travel to different cultures and unusual destinations. (If you want to read more about this, Rainer Jenss, who founded the FTA, explained these types beautifully in a recent blog post for the organization’s blog.)

After the FTA’s data came data from Expedia—data that resulted from a separate study and echoed a number of the same points.

The Expedia numbers showed that people who travel with families spend 2.5 times more than couples traveling without them. And that 80 percent of people who take vacations regularly report being happier because of those trips. Other key metrics: 94 percent of respondents take at least one trip with their family per year, and 82 percent said they get more pleasure from vacation than from possessions.

(Expedia also conducted research on what kids think about family travel; that’s worth reading, too.)

What does all of this research tell us the ways families travel? How can we make sense of so many disparate data points? In a market where the vast majority of travelers can’t afford much more than road trips, why should we even care? In a nutshell, the answer is this: BECAUSE WE GO.

The bottom line is that we, as families, travel. In a big way. And we’re traveling more. It doesn’t matter how we travel. It doesn’t matter where we travel. It doesn’t even matter why we feel the need to get away. We’re going. We’re taking our kids. And we’re doing it with increasing frequency—so much so that the trend is on the rise.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past where families were an afterthought on the travel landscape, a customer base that existed but wasn’t big enough to matter. Results from these two studies make it clear that those days are over, that families are becoming a formidable market force which commands attention. The mere existence of the FTA—the very need to have a summit in the first place—is proof of this new reality. Now it’s time for the rest of the travel industry to pay attention.

For consumers, for people like you and me, the message is clear: Keep traveling. As I’ve said a thousand times (including 20 times on this blog), you don’t have to go far from home to expose your children to a brave new world. Family travel is a mindset. It’s time we all embraced this new way of thinking.

Golden Gate Park by Segway on a family trip

Golden Gate Park is one of the greatest urban parks in the world. It’s even better when you explore it on a Segway.

You know the Segway; that two-wheeled transportation device made famous by the movie, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” The one that looks like a futuristic scooter. The one that simultaneously looks like the dorkiest dorkmobile in the history of humankind.

At least, I thought the things were dorky. After riding one around Golden Gate Park for half a day earlier this summer, I can safely say they are way cooler than I ever thought.

I did the tour as part of an epic two-city road trip I took with my family in June. The trip was on behalf of my client, Expedia. While my wife and kids were back at the hotel (the kids aren’t big enough to ride Segways, and somebody had to watch them), I was tooling around the park and making emu noises as I went.

I shot video as I went, and, when I got home, worked with my pals at Expedia to cut a 3-minute video of the experience. The video was published in mid-July. Finally, I have the opportunity to share it with you here.

So take a peek. Enjoy. Laugh. Cry. And whatever you do, open your mind to the coolness of a Segway. You’ll be glad you did. (And even if you’re not so glad, you’ll have fun pretending to be Paul Blart.)

Visiting the special family place, without kids

Maui. With my loves.

Maui. With my loves.

Hawaii is a special place for everyone in our family. It’s where Powerwoman and I got married, where L said her first word (the word was, “again;” she said it at the ocean waves), and where R fell in love with the beach.

It’s also a place to which we’ve traveled as a unit multiple times.

For this reason, it’s hard for me to think about Hawaii without thinking of my family. The two go together like light rum and dark rum in a Mai Tai, like palm fronds and tropical breezes.

That’s the main reason this week has been particularly odd. I’m on Maui all week on behalf of my client, Expedia. We’re here to participate in an off-site for the Expedia Viewfinder team, to run a number of contests (like this one), and to report on all things sun and sand and surf in this part of the world. All of my favorite colleagues are here. The only thing missing: my brood.

Trust me—I’m having a blast. And I’m enjoying the restful sleep at night. But everywhere I look, every sight and smell and sound I experience, I’m wishing the girls and Powerwoman were here, too.

This morning, for instance, I joined a colleague for a run along the beach in Wailea and we spotted a giant snail inching along in a pointy seashell—notably different from the snails we see at our home back in Northern California. When I saw the creature, I couldn’t help but think of the girls. They would have been talking about that thing all day.

Later this week, when I take some of my fellow Viewfinders on a run to get malasadas (i.e., fried donuts) from my favorite bakery on the island, I’ll be thinking of L, since malasadas comprise one of her favorite food of all time.

The phenomenon has taught me that solo travel to one of the destinations you usually frequent as a family is a variation on family travel as a whole.

They’re not here, but they are. It’s magic. It’s amazing. And it makes perfect sense.

If nothing else, the last 48 hours have inspired me to come back before the end of this summer, with my loves in tow. Maui is wonderful no matter what the circumstances of the visit. But for me, it’s especially wonderful with my kids and wife. As any favorite family travel destination should be.

What is your favorite family travel destination and why?

Previewing the family road trip of my dreams

Come June, this will be us.

Come June, this is how many days will end.

It’s easy to make excuses to put off big trip. We lead busy lives. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Especially for family travelers, it seems there’s always a convenient excuse to cite as the reason for NOT taking the vacation of your dreams.

Which is precisely why it’s so liberating to finally say, “No excuses,” and take the leap.

This concept of “No Excuses” is the basis of a major advertising campaign from Expedia, one of my biggest clients. And because I’m the senior editor of the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog (a great source of inspirational travel content, by the way), the concept also was the basis of a recent blog post, which was published on the site earlier this weekend.

In the post, I essentially preview what will become our big trip of the summer—a three-week (and maybe longer) road trip from our home in Northern California to the San Juan Islands in Washington State.

As I note in the post, the SJIs hold a special place in my heart, and I’ve dreamed of taking my family there for more than a decade. Finally, with the support of Expedia, we’re making the trip happen in a big way.

Our plan is simple. We’ll rent a house. We’ll explore. We’ll watch for whales. I’ll run a half-marathon. And we’ll just relax.

Sure, we’ll book some day trips (I mention a few of them in the post itself). And, as of right now, it looks like my inlaws will join us for part of the time. But there’s no grand scheme. We try to take one big trip every summer, and the goal of that trip is to assimilate, to become part of the local zeitgeist. This trip to the San Juans will be no different.

I’ve made excuses for years—the girls were too young, they wouldn’t appreciate it, blah blah blah. The truth: The time for excuses is done. I’m delighted and excited to finally have the opportunity to take my family on this adventure. To be honest, June can’t come soon enough. (Oh, and stay tuned for updates.)

Where have you always dreamed of visiting and why?

Romancing a return to Cusco, Peru

My bride and me, on the Inca Trail (circa 2005).

My bride and me, on the Inca Trail (circa 2005).

More than anything, what I remember most about the time my bride and I spent in Cusco, Peru, are the headaches.

Those damn altitude headaches. That simply wouldn’t go away.

The year was 2005; the two of us were there on a “vacation” from a four-month stint of living in Lima while my wife, an archaeologist, researched her dissertation. The city sits somewhere around 9,000 feet above sea level. I, a chronic sinus sufferer, had serious problems with sinus pressure the entire time.

Still, this did not derail our fun. Over the course of five days, the two of us tromped all over the city, hiking from one archaeological site to the next (including Qurikancha and Saksaywaman), strolling through vendor booths near the Plaza de Armas, sampling coca leaves and choclo from a variety of different storefronts, and marveling at all of the hand-crafted art.

(Then, of course, we did a 3-day, 3-night trek to Machu Picchu.)

I’ve often thought about how much I wished our children were with us in the ancient Incan capital, how much they would have loved the colors and sights and sounds (and super-sweet cookies).

These fantasies—along with a promotion and travel deals from Expedia, a client, and LAN Airlines—have inspired a vivid daydream for a return.

In my daydream, we take the girls down for a week and stay at the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, a hotel that incorporates pre-Inca architecture and is now arguably the swankiest property in town. From there, we fan out for daytrips around the city, showing the girls the giant boulders at Saksaywaman and the different architectural eras at the Quirkancha. We take our 5-year-old along for some Spanish immersion classes. We have the 3-year-old learn how to weave. And we eat ceviche. Lots and lots of ceviche.

Granted, the visit would be more of a family trip than a sexy, sultry getaway. But because my wife and I would be returning to a place that meant so much to us once before, it would be romantic in a totally different kind of way.

Expedia has a great new ad campaign that revolves around the concept of “No excuses” for taking the trip of your dreams. It’s time we stop making excuses and get back to Cusco with our kids. The trip likely won’t happen this year, but perhaps it’s time to start planning it for 2016. Who knows? By then maybe they can hike the Inca Trail, too. And maybe I won’t have any more headaches.

If you could take a romantic trip with your partner in the near future, where would you go and why?

Inattentive parents no longer most annoying air travelers

Being "inattentive," en route from SAN to STS.

Being “inattentive,” en route from SAN to STS.

Here’s something worth celebrating: “Inattentive Parents” no longer are the most annoying air travelers, at least according to the second-annual Airplane Etiquette Survey from Expedia (a client of mine).

The survey, released today, revealed that “Rear Seat Kickers” replaced slacker moms and dads in the top spot in the 2014 poll. For family travelers, this gives the haters one less thing to throw in our faces the next time we fly.

(Though you could make the argument that most of the rear-seat kickers are kids.)

It also means there’s a brand new reason to talk about airplane etiquette, especially as it pertains to families.

One of the most colorful parts of the discussion revolves around “Seat Back Guy,” that passenger who unapologetically and repeatedly reclines his seat on you. This is irritating for all passengers, but it is particularly irksome for family travelers (as we need all the space for the kids we can get). In short, one aggressive recliner can make even the shortest trips with kids miserable.

I’ll never forget the trip on which some dude tried to recline his seat back toward L. My older daughter, who was maybe 4 at the time, let the guy have it, yelling at him for “invading my personal space!” until the dude sat back up.

It might be one of the best family travel moments of my (short-lived) career.

Of course another engaging part of the discussion on airplane etiquette is an analysis of what constitutes “inattentiveness” among parents. When R threw a temper tantrum on the flight home from San Diego last weekend, was I being “inattentive” by not stopping her but letting her work it out? Or does “inattentive” describe the mom who is pounding nips of vodka while junior runs up and down the aisle?

The survey, which catalogued opinions from 1,000 Americans, didn’t specify on these subjects, but we only can imagine.

Anyway, if you’re interested in airplane etiquette—or you’ve thought about how you might be more considerate the next time you travel with your kids—give the study a read. Also, check out Expedia’s fun (and easy-to-navigate) infographic on the subject.

What kind of air traveler do you consider to be the most annoying passenger?

Family travel for road warriors

As someone who does a significant amount of solo travel for work, I’m always planning epic trips as a way to reconnect with the family members I’ve left behind. For us, these trips (such as last month’s week-long escapade at Walt Disney World Resort) aren’t only about escaping, they’re about escaping together. And the adventures almost always are the kinds of jaunts we’ll all remember for life.

This is why I particularly was moved by a new ad from one of my biggest clients, Expedia. On the surface, the ad, a television commercial, trumpets Expedia’s new Expedia+ rewards program, which gives customers one point for every dollar spent on travel.

Really, however, the ad is a comment on the notion of reconnecting with family after a series of business trips.

The family in the ad uses some of the dad’s 83,000 Expedia+ Rewards points to head out on an African Safari. While we Villanos haven’t traveled that far afield, we have come close, and we certainly aren’t ruling out that type of trip in the future.

For me, the bottom line here is that sometimes, family travel is about more than the travel itself. It’s refreshing to see an online travel agency like Expedia recognize that reality in this medium.

‘Storybook’ Yosemite post comes to life

Little R, seeking a cozy hideaway.

Little R, seeking a cozy hideaway.

As I have noted here in the preceding weeks, we’ve just come back from our biggest trip of 2014—a family excursion to Yosemite National Park.

We took the trip as part of an assignment from Expedia, for whom I serve as (senior editor and) a contributing writer to the Expedia Viewfinder blog. Now—finally, IMHO—my main narrative piece from the trip has been published for all to read.

The piece, titled “Family adventure in Yosemite” appeared on the Expedia blog today—just one day after Earth Day.

It kicked off the blog’s “Storybook” campaign.

In the story, I detailed the best parts of our four-day excursion from our home in Northern California to Yosemite. Some of these highlights:

  • Our day “hiking” with the girls to Mirror Lake
  • Our game of “Pooh Cones” in Tenaya Creek
  • Our trip to Lower Yosemite Falls
  • Our rock-tossing session on the banks of the Merced
  • Our nighttime stroll under the starry sky

Perhaps the biggest personal milestone: The trip was the first time the four of us had visited a national park as a family, and the first time my lovely bride ever had stepped foot in the park (considering she has spent nearly half of her life in California, this is a big deal).

Yes, regular readers of this blog have read portions of the Viewfinder recap before. But there’s new stuff in there, too. And there’ll be more; I plan to publish two additional installments over the next few weeks. Please give it a read! Please check back often! And please follow along with the rest of the campaign, as my colleagues will be writing their own “Storybook” posts between now and July.

Doing is believing

Tossing rocks (and pinecones) into the Merced.

Tossing rocks (and pinecones) into the Merced.

There are logical reasons why touch tanks always are kids’ favorite part of the aquarium. The exhibits are at kid-level! They’ve got stuff kids can reach in and grab! Most important: They are one of the only places in the facility where kids can DO instead of just SEE.

This last reality is one we traveling parents often overlook. Yes, it’s amazing to expose our kids to international cities and world-class museums and great music and all sorts of cultural phenomena like that. It’s also a big deal to let ‘em get down on their knees, roll up their sleeves and interact with stuff for themselves.

I was reminded of this last weekend, during our storybook family vacation to Yosemite National Park.

Sure, the kids loved it when we hiked to Mirror Lake. And yes, they loved it when we traipsed around Yosemite Valley for different perspectives on Yosemite Falls, the highest measured waterfall in North America.

But they were happiest when they were able to get their hands on the nature around them.

The first example of this came during our hike (from The Ahwahnee hotel) to the lake. About halfway out, L and R insisted on wandering off-trail, exploring the granite boulders around us for “cozy hideaways” for fairies. I monitored these activities closely; technically they weren’t supposed to be off-trail at all, and the terrain wasn’t exactly easy to navigate. Still, amid the boulders, picking at moss and leaves and all sorts of other stuff around them, the girls played for hours (literally).

The second example of the importance of doing came toward the end of our visit, on a day when L and I went out to explore while R and Powerwoman napped back in the room.

My older daughter and I wandered out of the hotel and back toward the Merced River. There, along the riverbank, we spent 15 minutes tossing pinecones into the current and watching them head downstream. I could tell L was curious about something, so I asked her if there was anything else she’d like to do. Her response: “I want to feel the water, Dad.”

And so, I let her. I held her jacket while she leaned out from the side of the bank and dipped her hands in the Merced. Once her hands were wet, she pulled them back and wiped the water on her tiny face. As the droplets ran down her cheeks, she stuck out her tongue and giggled.

“It’s cold!” she commented. Then she dipped her hands in again. And again.

To be honest, I had no idea how meaningful that moment was until the drive home. Somewhere around Mariposa, my wife turned around and asked the girls what they liked best about our trip.

R’s answer was simple: She loved the waterfalls. L’s response, however, caught both of us grownups off-guard. “My favorite part was feeling the river,” she said. “It was fun to see the waterfalls but touching the water itself was amazing.”

I’m not sure I could have said it better myself.

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