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?

Free at last

Little R, mid-flight, on her first diaper-free plane trip.

Little R, mid-flight, on her first diaper-free plane trip.

If Powerwoman and I seem more unencumbered than usual during our annual Hawaii trip this week, it’s because the journey itself was easier than usual: It was the first time ever that we made the journey without diapers.

Those of you with kids ages 8 and under understand WHAT A BIG DEAL THIS REALLY IS. The two of us have traveled with diapers on every single family airplane trip since L was born in 2009. That stretch has included five trips to Hawaii—all of which played out with at least a sleeve of 24 diapers sitting at the bottom my suitcase.

This new era is liberating. It’s effortless. And it frees up a ton of space in our bags.

Diaper-free travel also a ton easier on the girls. Gone are the days of diaper changes in the public parks, only patronizing those restaurants that have bathrooms with changing tables, and the seemingly never-ending quest for supermarkets that carry the right size of diaper for our girls’ buns. (When I went food-shopping in the Lahaina Safeway this week, I almost jumped for joy when I did *not* have to walk down the baby aisle.)

Now, on the ground, all we need are some undies and we’re good to go. And at the pool or the ocean, having two girls who wear nothing but bathing suits makes swimming a cinch.

A good family travel friend says that we parents haven’t truly arrived as travel gurus until we can take a trip without diapers. If that is in fact the case, consider this my coming-out party, people. We Villanos are free of diapers, and unless another baby joins this family down soon, we’re never traveling with them again.

Where did you take your family on your first diaper-free vacation?

All about the storybook(s)


Inside spread, Alaska Airlines magazine

This is shaping up to be the biggest week of the year for those of us here at Wandering Pod, and it’s all about the placements.

First, on Tuesday, the April 2014 issue of Alaska Airlines magazine hit seat-backs with a cover story written by yours truly. The story, which runs nearly 4,000 words, spotlights family travel in Hawaii. In it, I pulled together anecdotes and experiences from five years of visiting the Aloha State with (at least one of) the girls.

Check it out by clicking here (and then scrolling to page 34, where the piece begins).

Next, later this morning, Powerwoman, L, R, and I will hop in the Prius and head out to Yosemite National Park, where we’ll spend the next four days disconnecting from the world and exploring as a family.

This trip is part of a HUGE package of articles I’ll be writing for Expedia’s Expedia Viewfinder blog. The effort is in conjunction with Expedia’s new “Find Your Storybook” advertising campaign; during the promotion, each Viewfinder will create content about a dream trip.

The first of *my* storybook stories is slated to run on the Expedia Viewfinder later this month. I’ll be creating oodles of content for this site, too. Stay tuned!

Five funniest family travel moments

The human pretzel-napper, a.k.a., Little R.

The human pretzel-napper, a.k.a., Little R.

Spend enough time traveling with youngsters and (in between those inevitable meltdowns) you’re bound to accumulate a handful of hilarious anecdotes. I scored a new No. 1 with Little R this week. It involved an F-bomb. That she uttered. In a crowded locker room.

We were on a daytrip here in the San Francisco Bay Area. The baby—who has become quite a water kid—wanted to go swimming, so I obliged her by tracking down a family-friendly gym with a pool we could use for a few hours one day. We showed up at the gym and she was super-excited to get in the water. As I led her into the men’s locker room, she decided to blurt out a new word.

“Fuck!” she yelled out in her 2-year-old voice. A bunch of (half-naked) men turned around. Then she yelled it again.

By the third time—the only time she yelled, “Fuck me!”—most of the guys were razzing me about the things kids learn these days, etc. Sure, I was mortified. But considering that she almost certainly picked up that language from me (after all, people, I *am* a transplanted New Yorker living and driving in California), all I could do was laugh (on the inside; thankfully I did not reinforce her comment positively by letting her see me laugh about it).

The incident got me thinking about some of the other incidents on my funniest family travel list.

No. 2 would have to be back in London this fall. The girls and I were on the 187 bus coming back from St. John’s Wood, and the two of them had just pigged out on their favorite frozen yogurt. They were happy. They were hyper. And they were in the mood to sing.

Simultaneously, the sisters broke out into a rollicking version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” They belted it at the top of their lungs. And when they were done, all of the passengers applauded.

No. 3: The time L found a stash of “Gold Squares” (that’s my oh-no-gotta-think-of-something-quick nickname for foil-wrapped condoms) in my bag and used them to build a fort for a plastic dinosaur—at the dinner table in a hotel restaurant. (Pretty sure I don’t need to elaborate on this one.)

No. 4 takes us back to Maui, during the summer of 2012. We had gotten up early and left our hotel in Kaanapali to drive the Hana Highway. By the time we checked into our room at Travaasa Hana, the kids were zonked. L face-planted on her bed and passed out instantaneously. R, on the other hand, fought the nap valiantly for about 35 minutes.

Powerwoman and I listened to the entire episode from the lanai. Finally, when we heard silence, we went into the room to see what was up. We found the baby hunched over her own legs like a pretzel, fast asleep (see the image above). She slept like that for nearly 90 minutes.

It’s tough to settle on a fifth-funniest item for my list. Maybe it’s the time the Big Girl started talking to Bruce Willis (yes, THAT Bruce Willis) about flowers while in an elevator. Or the time she escaped the changing table at the California Academy of Sciences and went running around an aquarium naked. Whichever anecdote we decide to put in the No. 5 slot, one thing is certain: With our girls, we’ll never be wanting for new material.

What are some of your funniest family travel moments of all time?

An Open Letter to a Trusted Pram

Our stuff (and a girl), with Old Faithful

Our stuff (and a girl), with Old Faithful

Dear Mr. Umbroller:

I might as well come out and just say it: When we received you as a gift at my wife’s first baby shower, I was not impressed. Your fraying nylon seat made you seem flimsy and cheap. Your plastic wheels made you feel disposable.

Also, you came from Wal-Mart, and for some reason, back then, my wife and I were hoity-toity about only getting baby products at Target.

You and I didn’t get off to such a great start. The first time we used you—on our first family vacation to Hawaii—I caught my pinky in your locking mechanism and (after a string of expletives) wanted to smash you against a wall. Then there was the trip to Denver, during which L, the older daughter, got her foot stuck in that plastic strap your manufacturer likes to call a footrest. (Lucky for you, she wriggled it out when she did; I had an Exacto knife ready to roll.)

There was more drama after that. During the first trip England, during which we nearly left you behind in the overhead bin (in case you’ve forced yourself to forget, the gate agent didn’t think you were “substantial” enough to warrant a gate check).

And on the third trip to Hawaii, when we wheeled you to the beach, a surging tide nearly took you out to sea.

To be fair, our tumultuous relationship has normalized a bit since R, the baby, joined the pod. She digs the way you ride close to the ground, and enjoys pushing you when you’re empty. Yes, she generally is more agreeable than her sister. But I think she just genuinely likes you.

Because of this, over the course of her 2 years on Earth, R has insisted we take you everywhere, from the mall to the farmers market to the city and on hikes. R lobbied hard to get us to bring you with us this week to London. Initially, however, she lost the battle; and her mother declared it would be better to take the fancier, studier and more practical double-pram.

Then a funny thing happened: That big-ass double-stroller didn’t fit in the truck. In a rush to get out of the house and head to the airport, we grabbed you, assuming you wouldn’t last a week.

Once again, we were wrong.

Not only did you survive the check-in line at SFO, but you survived the Heathrow Hike, too—rolling nearly 1.3 miles from our gate to the arrivals show. Since then, you’ve strutted around London proper in the rain and sun, jumping from high-speed river bus to the sidewalks in front of Parliament, the paved walks of Tower Bridge to the cobblestones of East London.

In short, Mr. Umbroller, you have been a lifesaver, and I am truly sorry for ever doubting you at all.

The truth is that you have been as much a part of our family’s travel as washable crayons and goldfish crackers. We’ve relied on you time and time again. And every one of those times, you’ve come through. At a time when many strollers retail for upward of $400 (or more), the $29.99 our friends spent on you has proven to be a stellar investment. We’ll continue to get their money’s worth, as long as you’ll allow us to do so.

Someday, when you you finally do go to that Umbroller Heaven in the sky, I vow to have you gilded and hung in our garage. In this state, you will serve as a constant reminder that ordinary can be wonderful, and that one never should judge a stroller by the name on its cover.


Lessons in Family Travel Preparedness

Our recent family road trip along the western side of Oahu certainly was filled with surprises.

Some of them were pleasant—on the way from Disney’s Aulani Resort & Spa to Ka’ena Point State Park, we spotted a pod of dolphins frolicking in the surf and pulled over to watch them for a while.

Others , however, were not. Like the archaeological site that was closed due to vandalism. (Remember, Powerwoman is an archaeologist; ruins are regular stops on our vacations.)

And the flat tire that we picked up outside of Waianae.

Spotting dolphins, before the flat.

Spotting dolphins, before the flat.

I’ll spare you the details of how we got the flat (to be frank, none of us really knows). The important stuff: The rear driver’s side tire on our rented Chevrolet Equinox croaked, we called AAA, and the four of us spent three hours at a roadside McDonald’s waiting for a tow truck to come and pop on the spare.

(At this point, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just fix the flat myself. Let’s just say that I’ve learned the hard way that rental car companies don’t trust you to fix stuff that goes wrong with their cars, and if they find out that you did anything outside of you contract to the vehicle—anything at all—they will charge you. Exhorbitantly.)

(Oh, also, the rental car company could have come to fix the tire. But they estimated a six-hour wait.)

Ultimately, the encounter was nothing but a hiccup in an otherwise fun and fruitful trip. Still, the experience offered lessons in preparedness for family vacation road trips. Here’s a sampling:

  • If you’re planning on doing any major driving with the kids while you’re away, be sure to sign up for AAA Plus or Premier Service (or an equivalent) before you go. No, the three-hour wait time wasn’t ideal, but they did come and fix the flat for free. Had the damage been worse, they would have towed us back to Honolulu for free as well. When traveling with the kiddos (or solo, for that matter), It’s nice to know that you won’t get stranded.
  • Since space isn’t an issue, take the time to pack extra arts and crafts for the kids, just in case. If your children like sports, toss a ball in the vehicle as well. If you find yourself with a few extra hours to kill, these sorts of additional diversions certainly can’t hurt.
  • Triple up on healthy snacks so you’ve got enough to go around in case you end up staying out longer than expected. (We could have ordered just about anything from the McDonald’s at which we were stranded, but, quite frankly, Powerwoman and I don’t like our girls to eat that crap. We gave them blueberries and grain crackers instead.)

Also, if things go wrong, remember to keep your cool in front of the kids. Especially if they’re little (read: under five), the only reason they’ll get stressed by the situation is if they think you’re stressed. This means no panicking. It also means no snipping at your partner, and no yelling at deceitful customer service representatives (unless, of course, you can do so in a private spot).

Years from now, we’ll all be joking about the flat tire on that crazy day in Waianae. Hopefully, if you ever encounter similarly bad luck on the road with the family, you’ll be able to laugh about it someday, too.

What is the most unexpectedly stressful travel situation you’ve endured with your kids?

Balancing Work and Family Travel on the Road

Yours truly, working the cameras from HI.

Yours truly, working the cameras from HI.

As many of you know, Wandering Pod is only one of the things I do professionally; I actually earn a living writing about family travel (and business, technology, education, science, gambling, and other stuff) as a full-time freelance journalist.

This means that many of my family’s trips are work trips for moi. It also means that a big challenge on every trip for me is figuring out a delicate balance between time for work and time for family fun.

On some trips, finding that balance is easy—if we’re doing an overnight on which I’ve got only one assignment to report—I can scribble notes here and there but otherwise can relax. On other trips—those during which I’m juggling multiple assignments for various clients in different industries—equalizing the work/life equation is a constant struggle.

No matter how crazy a trip gets, I do have a few rules.

First, I always try to involve the girls in reporting. When we’re out and about, I explain to them what I’m writing about, and ask them to give me feedback on what they experience. I do this because I think it helps foster a sense of curiosity. I also want them to understand the effort that goes into creating original work (in case they ever weigh the potential benefits of cutting corners).

Second, even if I’m working my tail off, I try to log my screen time away from the girls. At night. In the early morning. In an independent coffee shop around the corner from the hotel. My thinking here is simple: They see plenty of me standing here in front of the computer at home, and I don’t want their lasting memories of me on the road to be me in front of my netbook or Galaxy tablet.

Finally, I make it a priority never to stress about work on the road. For my kids (and, really, the four of us as a unit), travel is an adventure; I don’t ever want it to feel like a chore.

I rarely am shy about sharing these rules with others; during lectures and other speaking engagements, these form the bulk of my presentations. In recent weeks, however, a few friends have asked me to supplement these strategies with everyday “secrets” to successfully managing work and family travel. Here, then, in no particular order, are my top five tips for juggling a little better.

  1. Spread out. One way to keep work and family interactions separate when traveling is to keep them physically separate. For me, this means spending extra money for additional space. Sometimes I’ll book a suite with a separate room in which to work. Other times I’ll opt for accommodations with a large balcony. When options are limited, I’ll go for a standard room and improvise in other ways. I’ve been known to turn the bathroom into an office for the night. (As an aside, from a tax POV, if you’re spending more on a room for space to work, you can deduct more of your hotel expense.)
  2. Communicate with your partner. Especially when you’re traveling with the whole family, it’s important to give your partner an honest AND REAL-TIME sense of what your daily workload is going to be. In our family, this means a daily debriefing on a) what assignments I need to tackle b) how much time each will require and c) when it would be most convenient for everyone for me to work. These chats help keep Powerwoman and I working as a team. They also enable her to figure out how and when she can plan solo time at the gym or spa.
  3. Focus. With distractions such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we modern humans have plenty of outlets to procrastinate and waste time online. When you’re trying to balance work and family travel, however, you can’t afford to be so profligate. To minimize distractions when we travel, I force myself to spotlight one task at a time, avoiding diversions such as email or social networking until I’ve met my deadline for the day. If I’m having particular trouble concentrating in the room, I’ll change the scenery, spending a few hours in the hotel lobby or the business center.
  4. Flex your schedule. Just because you’re grappling with work on a family trip doesn’t mean you’ve got to do so during normal business hours. My solution: I write at night, after Powerwoman and the girls have gone to bed. This works for two reasons: a) It helps me keep writing time and family time separate and b) Life is a lot quieter when everyone else is snoozing. Of course this strategy isn’t applicable when the “work” involves conference calls. Also, if I wasn’t a night owl, I probably wouldn’t be able to roll after midnight. Nevertheless, the point here is that schedule flexibility is your friend.
  5. Say, ‘No.’ Perhaps the best way to balance work and family travel is to minimize the balancing you have to do in the first place. This means thinking carefully about every assignment you allow to creep into your time on the road. In some cases, it also might mean rejecting certain opportunities, or requesting to push deadlines far enough away from your trip so the work won’t conflict.

Look, I don’t for a moment pretend to have all the answers. And, to be frank, after four full years of experience juggling work and family life away from home, sometimes I still really screw things up (let’s just say this month’s Hawaii trip was *not* a paradigm of balance).

At the end of the day, your top priority when engaging in family travel should be just that: family travel. For everything else, hopefully some of these insights can help.

What are your secrets to balancing work and family travel on the road?

What Does ‘Family-Friendly’ Really Mean?

Daddy and daughters, enjoying the view.

Daddy and daughters, enjoying the view.

One could make the argument that the overall experience of family travel is dramatically different from the sum takeaways of, say, romantic or adventure getaways designed exclusively for grown-ups.

Still, just because you travel with kids doesn’t mean every vacation activity must revolve around them.

After four years of traveling extensively with at least one child (and two years traveling with two of them), Powerwoman and I have become firm believers that every family trip should include at least two or three activities and outings that we would do even if we didn’t have kids in tow. Sometimes, we might hit up a happening hotspot. Other times, we might check out a historic church or archaeological site (my wife is an archaeologist).

Saturday, here on Oahu, we dragged the kids on a 2-mile round-trip hike along the paved Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail.

The girls did fine for the first half-mile or so. Then the heat got to L. Upon her request, I carried her for about a quarter-mile. From there, we put her in the stroller and I carried R. This meant that one of us was carrying a child for the duration of the hike.

For some, the additional burden of schlepping 25-45 extra pounds might have detracted from the overall experience.

But for us, having the kids with us while we took in sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the windward side of Oahu made the hike even more epic. We watched waves. We spotted little red-headed birds. We marveled at turquoise waters. At one point, we even spied Molokai and Maui in the distance (this was particularly exciting for L, who is fascinated by Hawaiian geography).

Sure, by the time we got back to the trailhead, the girls were ready for a big lunch and long naps. And, yes, they might have been a bit more tired than they would have been otherwise. But considering L was still raving about the views at dinner, I’d say the experience made quite an impression.

These impressions, this sense of wonder, is the main reason Powerwoman and I travel with our kids. We know they can get these experiences doing typical family stuff; we also know they can get them doing certain grown-up stuff. Working to achieve a balance between these two approaches makes vacations more memorable for all of us.

Vacationing with the Spawn of Satan

Calm, after one of the storms.

Calm, after one of the storms.

When everyone in the family is behaving relatively well, family travel can be one of the most fulfilling experiences as a parent. But when one of your children is in perpetual meltdown mode, a family trip can be downright awful.

Powerwoman and I lived this nightmare for the first three days of our current trip to Oahu. From the moment we landed until almost exactly three days into our trip, L’s “spirit of Aloha” included prolonged temper-tantrums, hitting, biting and more hideousness.

In short, my older daughter was a demon.

As you can imagine, managing her during this dark period was challenging to say the least. We had plenty of the typical traveling-with-a-4-year-old negotiations (“If you eat three spoonfuls of corn, you can color in the giant coloring pad”). We also grappled with yelling, mood swings and paranoia. Minding our little spawn of Satan even had physical ramifications; because the child loves to scratch limbs when she’s frustrated, my biceps look like I’ve been attacked by a small mountain lion.

Thankfully, Powerwoman and I persevered through the misery until L’s behavior improved.  Here are some of the secrets to our (recent) success.

  1. Ignore. It’s tempting to be excessively hands-on while traveling, but the best way to handle freak-outs still is to ignore them. Yes, this meant that my child was the one screaming like a banshee outside the Ali’I Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center earlier in the week. It also meant that each of her major tantrums passed quickly, like tropical squalls.
  2. Be stern (when necessary). There’s a time and place for discipline on the road, and that time and place is different for every family. For us, it all came down to being kind; we raised our voices when L was being intentionally hurtful (usually to her sister), but otherwise kept an even-keeled, almost saccharine tone.
  3. Communicate. When one of the kids is having trouble behaving on the road, Powerwoman and I make a concerted effort to talk with each other about parenting strategies. I admit—I tend to analyze stuff too much (um, hello, I’m a blogger). Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to remind your spouse that you two are teammates. Then, of course, you must play like them.
  4. Remember the big picture. There were times in the early part of this week during which I contemplated flying home early with our offending daughter. Then my wife reminded me: We have two kids. From that point on, for R’s sake, I redoubled my commitment to engineering a FUN vacation, knowing that, eventually, L would come around. Sure enough, she did.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t pass along the stuff that *doesn’t* work. No. 1 on my list: Sarcasm. The few times we applied it with L, she neither understood nor appreciated it as a concept. The use of sarcasm also can be debilitating for the grownups. Yes, in the heat of the moment, Powerwoman and I would ask rhetorically, “Is this really happening right now?” Looking back, though, the question itself was just hot air; the truth is that L’s bad behavior was happening, and the only way we could get past those hiccups was just to continue exploring.

Another no-no for me (and I’ve mentioned this before): The screen as a babysitter. In our family, we believe in disconnecting when away, which means minimal screen time of all kinds. Believe it or not, old-school alternatives such as crayons and paper, books and stuffed animals are just as good today as they have been for generations. Even for kids acting like the spawn of Satan himself.

What types of strategies do you implement when our child acts like the spawn of satan on family trips?

Aloha Mickey, Here We Come!

R getting ready for the flora of the Islands

R prepping for the flora of the Islands

I mentioned in my last post that we leave Sunday for two weeks on Oahu. We’re spending the first part of the trip at Aulani, a two-year-old resort that represents Disney’s foray into the Hawaiian market.

No-one in our family has visited Aulani yet, but a number of reviews have helped me get a sense of the place from afar.

This piece, for instance, from Babble, offers a good overview. And this one, by my friend and fellow Expedia Viewfinder contributor, Kara Williams, is particularly good for budget-conscious travelers. Finally, this one, from Inside the Magic, does a great job of walking would-be visitors through portions of the resort.

We’re headed to Aulani for three main reasons.

  • Together, my wife and I have visited Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island a total of 13 times since we got married on Maui in 2004, but we’ve only been to Oahu once.
  • L and R (and Powerwoman, for that matter) are big fans of Disney Parks and Resorts, and since our last Hawaiian vacation comprised a lengthy stint on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, we figured the girls would appreciate a completely different type of experience.
  • I’m under contract to write a few pieces about Aulani, and I also am updating the Hawaii 2014 guidebook for Insight Guides.

As it turns out, this Wednesday (June 12), I’m also hosting a Google+ Hangout on Air from Aulani. I’m hosting the event on behalf of Expedia. The subject: Disney Parks and Resorts. During the 45-minute event, I’ll be interviewing three Disney ambassadors about three resorts:  Aulani, Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

For more information about the Hangout on Air, click here. To participate in the event, simply go to Expedia’s Google+ page on Wednesday from 1 p.m. until 1:45 PDT; there, you’ll be able to watch the event live and comment to ask questions.

Meanwhile, stay tuned throughout the next two weeks for dispatches and insights from the field!

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