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.

The family travel sweepstakes dream

Duns. OMG.

What family wouldn’t want to stay in a medieval Scottish castle for a week? The history! The secrets! The creative play for your kids (and the grown-ups)! The excuses to go out in public wearing plaid knee-length kilts!

This is what makes a recent promotion from HomeAway so incredibly awesome The offering, held in conjunction with the Family Travel Association to celebrate the upcoming Disney live-action adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast,” will land one lucky family the keys to the 12-bedroom, 9-bathroom Duns Castle in Scotland, about one hour south of Edinburgh.

The promo started earlier this month and ends March 31. No purchase is necessary to participate, though it’s only open to residents of the United States, UK, France, and Germany.

Obviously, the stay at Duns is the grand prize. With five nights in the castle, transportation from your home to the Scottish countryside and back, and all meals as part of the deal, the value of the package is somewhere around $25,000. (The place normally rents for about $3,200 per night.)

Oh, and because the place is so big, HomeAway is letting the winner bring 20 family members or friends.

Five other prize-winners can win up to seven nights with four guests at another HomeAway property of their choice, with transportation included. Depending on where you stay, this prize could be pretty valuable, too.

In order to enter the drawing, click here and answer a few simple questions about yourself and your ideal vacation. Participants also must answer a question about how many lodging options travelers can find on HomeAway. I’ll save you the Google search and tell you here: It just surpassed more than 2 million.

Disney fans, take note: The landing page for the promotion also has links to all of the official “Beauty and the Beast” trailers, so you can enter and geek out at the same time.

Good luck! And if you win, take us!

FTA Summit a smashing success

My mind is still spinning from this week’s Family Travel Association summit. The event was an overwhelming success.

I could regale you with hour-by-hour recaps of what we did and how it went, but I’ve already done that for the FTA blog here and here. I also could sum up the best and biggest moments of the week, but I’ve done that for AFAR.com here. Heck, if you really wanted to, you could check out the FTA’s Facebook page and listen to archived versions of my Facebook Live interviews with keynote speakers there.

Whatever you do, please follow up and read and listen and think more about family travel. The girls and I are headed to the coast for storm-watching and some R&R. Check back next week for more targeted impressions and more specific action items for the weeks and months ahead.

FTA Board of Advisors. I love these peeps.

FTA Board of Advisors. I love these peeps.

Showtime for FTA Summit

FTA, here we come!

FTA, here we come!

Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! It’s time for the second annual Family Travel Association (FTA) summit, to be held over the next four days at the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa in Tucson, Arizona.

I’m filing this post from the Oakland International Airport, which means I’m en route to the summit right now. My excitement is palpable—I’m on the Board of Advisors of the FTA, and we’ve been planning this summit for the better part of the last 10 months. I cannot wait to see this thing kick butt.

The agenda for the event is jam-packed with goodness. Keynote speakers. Breakout sessions (including one in which I’m speaking). Networking activities. Even some cookouts and other fun get-togethers. Because the La Paloma is in the hinterlands of Tucson, I’m sure I’ll round up some of my colleagues and drag them to Saguaro National Park, as well.

Oh, I’m also stoked to explore downtown Tucson, which recently was named a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy.

Anyway, here’s a preview post I wrote about the event for the Expedia Viewfinder. I’m doing a ton of social media for the FTA during the summit, so I probably won’t be able to blog about it again until I’m home. Until then, watch my Twitter and Instagram for updates from the field.

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.

Join me at the 2016 Family Travel Association summit

Westin La Paloma. PARTY!

Westin La Paloma. PARTY!

I take great pride in my involvement with the Family Travel Association (FTA)—I was one of the founding board members, and have been an active participant ever since.

With this in mind, I invite you to join me and my FTA colleagues at our annual summit next month.

The shindig takes place Oct. 23-26 at the Westin La Paloma in Tucson, Arizona. It comprises three days of inspiring presentations, interactive workshops, enlightening research, and a diverse array of networking opportunities. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

This year, I won’t just be attending the summit, I’ll be delivering some of the content. On Monday, Oct. 24, I’ll be delivering a talk about understanding millennial parents—what makes them tick, what sort of experiences they seek, and how they approach family trips once they set out to experience them. My talk will be engaging and fun! I might even make emu noises.

(Also, it’s likely that during my talk I’ll be giving away travel vouchers from Expedia, a client of mine and an FTA sponsor.)

Registration for the event is $650 for members and $950 for non-members. Considering all of the information we’re primed to share, I’d say that’s a bargain. And I’ll sweeten the deal: BOOK NOW AND DRINKS THE NIGHT OF MY TALK ARE ON ME.

If family travel is something you love, this is an event you won’t want to miss. See you in Tucson!

FAA reauthorization to include provision for families

Together! At last!

Together! At last!

In what can be described as the first big legislative win for the Family Travel Association (FTA), the latest FAA reauthorization includes a provision that will make it easier for families to sit together on flights.

Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Rodney Davis (R-IL), members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, earlier this week put forth the provision to require airlines to ensure children ages 13 and younger are seated adjacent to an adult traveling with them or an older child traveling with them.

Formal groundwork for the provision actually started last year when the two Congressmen introduced similar legislation, H.R. 3334, the Families Flying Together Act of 2015.

The FTA—an organization for which I have sat on the board since the beginning—has been a huge advocate of the move and advised the legislators on this decision. What used to be a given—families seated together on a flight—is not so much the standard anymore. As airlines have added more and more ancillary fees, including fees for seat changes and seat upgrades, traveling companions sometimes get separated.

According to an article on TravelPulse, the reauthorization is expected to be approved by the House and Senate sometime before the July 15 deadline, which means FEDERAL REGULATORY PROTECTION TO KEEP FAMILIES TOGETHER ON FLIGHTS SHOULD HAPPEN BY FRIDAY. Yes! Power!

I think my favorite part of today’s news are the official quotes from the two senators involved.

“The Families Flying Together Act will put an end to the absurdity of toddlers sitting separate or unattended on an airplane — requiring airlines to plan ahead so that families with young children can fly together,” Nadler said in a statement issued through his office. “For several years, we have tried to force the airlines to enact family friendly seating policies, and to not shift the burden onto other passengers to vacate their seats so that children can sit with their parents. Thankfully, the new FAA bill includes this common sense measure allowing families with small children to travel together safely and reliably without disrupting other passengers.”

Davis echoed these sentiments.

“Traveling with young children can already be very stressful for parents and when you can’t sit together on a flight, it only makes this process more difficult,” Davis added. “All we’re asking is for airlines to do a better job of accommodating parents ahead of time so we can make flying a better experience for families and other passengers aboard. I think most airlines have the same goal. This provision is important to updating an industry that continues to see growth in family travel. While my first choice is a long-term bill that includes major reforms that I believe are necessary to improve safety and increase global competitiveness within our aviation system, I am glad this provision and other sensible reforms are included in this extension and I look forward to voting for it.”

If you see me drinking champagne with breakfast this morning, now you know why. Kudos to all of my colleagues at the FTA, and to traveling families everywhere.

Note: The picture that accompanies this post was from Air New Zealand via TravelPulse.

Making family travel more meaningful

Making travel meaningful on San Juan Island

Making travel meaningful on San Juan Island

I’m lucky enough to serve with a bunch of great people on the board of the Family Travel Association. Jim Pickell, CEO of HomeExchange.com, is one of those folks.

Earlier this week, Jim penned a great piece for HuffPost Travel about 10 ways to make family travel more meaningful. The story was republished on the FTA’s own website, and you can read it in its entirety by clicking here.

I’m not going to summarize all 10 of Jim’s tips; y’all can read and y’all can read ‘em for yourselves.

That said, I did want to spotlight a few of my favorite suggestions. Like his call for taking travel days out of the equation and including the journey as part of the trip. Or his suggestion to embrace nature. I also really appreciate how Jim recommends giving kids a camera and getting creative with family photos. I plan to do this with L and R in Yosemite next month.

All told, I think my favorite part of the article is this: “Good times and happy moments are single instances in time, whereas meaningful experiences bridge the past, present and future, and can have a lifelong impact.” Quite literally couldn’t have said it better myself. Well done, old pal.

What are your tips for making family travel more meaningful?

Fresh take on multigenerational family travel

multigen00tr2

Heather and her peeps.

As a board member for the Family Travel Association, I get to work regularly with some pretty incredible people. One of them: Heather Greenwood-Davis, one of the best family travel writers in the biz.

I’ve blogged previously about Heather’s prowess with the pen—her piece about canal boating around England with her husband and two kids was a tour de force (and a story I dreamed about writing when we lived in London back in 2013).

Last week, HGD was at it again, this time with a piece about multigenerational family travel.

The story first appeared in The (Toronto) Globe and Mail, but was reposted everywhere, including on the FTA website (hence the weird tiles you see when you click through that link above). IMHO the piece can’t be reposted enough; as it delivered one of the freshest and sincerest perspectives on multigenerational travel I’ve ever read.

I appreciated Heather’s tips regarding who will parent the kids on a multigenerational trip—the few times we’ve traveled with family members, this has been a source of tension for us as well. I also like her note about not over-planning.

But my absolute favorite part of the story is the section where she talks about using the generations against each other and to your advantage. Here’s a snip:

“Don’t ask your parents to babysit. Instead coach your kids in the exact words they can use on Grandma. Phrases like, ‘Granny, can we have some just-you-and-me time tonight?’ or, ‘Grandpa, I love the way you read me stories. Can I have a sleepover?’ are the types of things that evenings alone with your significant other are made of. Embrace it early and create opportunities for the generations to enjoy each other while you enjoy the quiet.”

Yes, this last bit from HGD is a different way of approaching a multigenerational trip. But it’s a great perspective. And one I intend to try the next chance I get.

What are your tips for surviving multigenerational family travel?

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 HomeExchange.com, 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.

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