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.

Embracing a new travel plan

The Plan.

I’ve made no secret over the years about the fact that our biggest girl, L, struggles with anxiety issues from time to time.

Some weeks, this has no bearing whatsoever on our lives as a family of five. Other weeks, it means our individual and collective lives are characterized by aggressive behavior, wild mood swings, lousy attitude, and more.

As you can imagine, enduring these tough times on the road can be a real struggle for everyone involved. This is why we recently sat down with our (regular) family behavioral therapist to come up with a strategy for navigating any potential behavioral hiccups during our upcoming family trip to Disneyland this weekend.

The therapist worked with us to devise what she calls a “Travel Plan” for the trip. Basically, this document—and it is a physical, typed-out document—serves as a playbook that establishes ground rules and sets expectations for everyone.

The plan lists everything from specific meal times and bed times to time-out consequences for temper tantrums or what to do if someone falls ill (answer: GO BACK TO HOTEL WITH A PARENT).

Our document even has space to list out a specific itinerary for the two full days we’ll be in the park.

As our therapist explained it, Powerwoman and I are supposed to work together to fill out this itinerary on the nights before our park days, then spend five or 10 minutes on the mornings of our park days reviewing the plan with the girls. The goal: To eliminate surprises and potentially challenging transitions for our Big Girl.

If you’re reading this and you think, “That sounds completely NOT spontaneous,” you’re right. And that’s exactly the point.

You see when you travel with kids who experience anxiety, you want to eliminate as much of the unknown as you possibly can. Naturally, when you’re traveling, it’s impossible to manage EVERYTHING. But we *can* manage what we can manage. So we try.

Will it work? Will the plan make a difference? Only time will tell. It’s a good sign that everybody—including L—is excited to use it. This might just be the first trip of the rest of our lives. Wish us luck.

TFW your kids are obsessed with Embassy Suites

My kids love this room

My kids love this room

We’ve stayed in some pretty nice hotels in our days of traveling as a family. Four Seasons properties. Ritz-Carltons. Fairmonts. Heck, we’ve even taken the kids to some pretty romantic five-star resorts here in Wine Country (looking at you, Carneros Inn and Meadowood).

But my girls like to keep it real. Their favorite hotel remains the Embassy Suites hotel near my inlaws’ house in Silicon Valley.

Among the things they like best about the hotel: The breakfast buffet, the indoor pool, and the fact that they can watch planes landing at San Francisco International Airport. We always (for some inexplicable reason) get handicapped-accessible rooms there, so both girls also sing the praises of the bathroom, which they describe as “super big” and “fun because of the handlebars on every wall.”

Lucky for the girls, we’re headed to their favorite hotel tomorrow night. For the third time this year.

This particular Embassy Suites has become our home away from home whenever we hang with my wife’s family. They live too far to drive there and back in the same night, and we’re now too large of a pod to crash at my inlaws’ downsized apartment.

Naturally, we’re headed down for Christmas Day. It will be the second Christmas Day we’ve checked into the good old “E.S.,” as we call it.

My wife and I like the room for its efficiency. The living area has a sofa bed and a drawing table for the kids to use when they wake up at 5:30 a.m. and we do not. There’s a mini-fridge and a microwave. The bedroom has one king bed. Pretty much everything we need for an overnight.

Our routine is simple. I drop off Powerwoman and the girls, then double back to check us in, make the fold-out bed for the big kids, and get all of the bathroom supplies ready for a lightning-fast pre-bed ritual. This way, when we get back to the hotel at 11 p.m., all we have to do is get the kids upstairs and they can crash out.

Is the Embassy Suites fancy? Not by a long shot. Is it cheap? Compared to other hotels, not really—we book on Expedia and it usually runs about $249 per night. But this particular property works for us. So when we visit family in the southern part of the Bay Area, we’re sticking with it. And if you travel regularly to see family members (or for the holidays), I encourage you to find a hotel you like and do the same.

Best site-tour buddies ever

Checking out Timber Cove

Checking out Timber Cove

Sometimes as a work-at-home parent I’m forced to take my kids with me on professional outings. This explains why I schlepped my 5-year-old and 1-year-old assistants with me this week on a pair of hotel site tours.

Considering these types of activities usually involve wandering around hotel rooms, interviewing general managers, and taking lots of notes, I’d say R and G handled the experience like rock stars.

They also had a bunch of fun.

The first of the tours, at Timber Cove, was more subdued. G crawled around on the lobby floor while R marveled at the crackling fireplace and I chatted with the manager. Later, as we poked around to look at rooms, R took on the job of explorer, and scouted out every feature of every room we entered.

(Her favorites were the loft suites, which feature spiral staircases from the living space to the bedroom; and the oceanfront suites with patios that look out on the raging Pacific.)

There were valuable lessons learned, too. Like when R tossed a half-eaten apple into an empty garbage pail, only to learn the pail was empty because housekeeping already had cleaned the room for its next guests. And when yours truly discovered that yes, in fact, the baby does really like eating toilet paper.

In all, Timber Cove received the Wandering Pod stamp of approval: R asked when we could go back.

The second tour was actually an opening—I dragged the girls (with G in a stroller, no less) to the fancypants ribbon-cutting ceremony of the new resort hotel at Graton Rancheria Casino. Yes, people, you read that right. I’m a 41-year-old father of three, and I took my two younger children to a hotel opening at a casino.

While this particular property was infinitely swankier than the first, the tour itself was far less interactive. The three of us followed a crowd of people to the elevator bank, got on, wandered up to the eighth floor, toured some rooms, then came back down.

Excitement reached a crescendo when we did a walkthrough of the spa and R attempted to dip her feet in the hot tub, then surged again when she poured herself a cup full of snack mix in the lounge area.

I also loved our impromptu chow-down in the lobby bar, during which the three of us grabbed a table in the middle of a room full of casino executives, R ate the aforementioned snack mix, and G wolfed down two pouches from Plum Organics.

Perhaps the highpoint of this experience occurred as we made our way to the exit. One of the servers waltzed by with a tray of taquitos and R decided to give it a try. She loved them. A lot. In fact, my kid liked the taquitos so much that she proceeded to grab a dozen of them, plop cross-legged on the lobby floor and stuff her face right in the middle of the event.

You can picture the scene: A 5-year-old girl, eating taquitos on the lobby floor of a brand-new casino resort hotel. It was classic. It was epic. I don’t ever want to do a site tour without my kids again.

Villanos take Legoland, part 2

Hotel lobby. Seriously.

Hotel lobby. Seriously.

One of the coolest things about my job as a family travel writer is that I get to take my kids along on some pretty kick-ass assignments.

Case in point: Our trip this coming weekend, to LEGOLAND California.

You might recall that this isn’t the first time I’ve taken one of my daughters to Legoland; back in December 2014, Little R and I went for a similar weekend excursion/assignment. This time, I’m taking R and L—just the big kids and me—while Powerwoman and Baby G go to visit one of my wife’s buddies in Denver.

R is most excited for the airplane trip; she loves airplanes and cannot wait to fly again. L is excited to see what she missed last time.

We’ll really only be in the park for one day. During that time, we’ll check out some of the new attractions, film some social media projects for a client, report a feature for another client, and try to have some fun (which probably won’t be hard).

Over the rest of the weekend, we’ll also get to see my aunt and some cousins, and visit a bird sanctuary.

Perhaps the highpoint of the trip, however, will be our accommodations: We’re staying in the Legoland Hotel. This is noteworthy for a few reasons:

  1. There are LEGOs everywhere, including a LEGO pit near the front desk and LEGO kits in every room.
  2. Rooms come standard with bunk beds for kids, something my daughters are going to LOVE.
  3. A breakfast buffet is included, and my kids go crazy over those.
  4. The hotel is connected to the park itself, which means convenient returns for bathroom breaks and down time.

Stay tuned here for a blog post following our excursion; I’m not bringing a computer with us on the trip but likely will write about it as soon as we’re home. You also can follow me on Instagram and Twitter for updates there.

Robot toilet overload

Toilet blindfold

Toilet blindfold

Most people who stay at the Four Seasons Lana’i remember the luxurious rooms, the incredible dining options (Nobu! Dean & DeLuca in the minibar! Those amazing malasadas!), the intimate pool, and the picture-perfect sand beach on Hulopo’e Bay.

My kids will remember all of those things. But also, the in-room toilets.

These aren’t just any toilets, mind you. They are what our Big Girl calls, “Robot Toilets.” Toilets with built-in seat warmers. Toilets that open and close and flush automatically. Toilets that sport bidets for those trips to the bathroom you just can’t seem to tidy on your own.

The toilets represent the top-of-the-line product from a company called Toto, a company that makes all different sorts of toilets. The ultra-exclusive fixtures undoubtedly are intended to add to the feeling of luxury—especially since the technology creates this situation that actually obviates the need ever to touch the toilet or toilet seat when you go. (As an aside, they are priced at more than $3,000 apiece.)

But for my Big Girl—a brilliant and creative 7-year-old who suffers from anxiety about foreign toilets in general—they basically were the Devil in porcelain clothes.

At first, before she had to use the toilet in our room, she was fascinated by them, pushing the buttons to watch the lids go up and down. Curiosity quickly turned to fear when she sat down and the toilet unexpectedly started a circulate cycle to make sure none of her “presents” stained the bowl. We quickly figured out to use a (complimentary and posh) kid-sized slipper to “blindfold” the toilet’s electronic eye (which triggers the circulate cycle when you sit down).

For a few days, this plan worked wonders. Her curiosity returned.

Then, drama struck. We refer to it as The Bidet Incident. Completely out of nowhere, while the Big Girl was doing her business on the bowl, the toilet’s bidet feature went rogue and sprayed her bottom with gusto. To say this caught her by surprise would be an understatement. There were many tears. And blood-curdling screams. Then she announced she was “never peeing on Lana’i again.”

Powerwoman and I dried off our daughter’s bottom and did our best to stifle laughter. We spent the rest of the afternoon creating stories about robot toilets gone haywire. Mine evoked the Terminator movies, only with robots that sprayed unsuspecting butts instead of killing people. (The stories worked. She peed again.)

Thankfully, by our last morning on Lana’i, the Big Girl was able to smile about the toilet. She and her 4-year-old sister made up a farewell song. They included the toilets in their recap of their favorite things about the Four Seasons Lana’i. The two of them even figured out how to hold the blindfold slipper without any help from my wife or me.

As we headed for the door, depressed at the thought of leaving this paradise, L ran back to “do something important” and kiss the toilet goodbye.

“I just did it on the top,” she said. “I didn’t want the bidet to shoot me in the mouth.”

Hawaii + Four Seasons = Malasada awesome

The rooms at Four Seasons Lanai are pretty nice

The rooms at Four Seasons Lanai are pretty nice

Hawaii holds a special place in the history of our pod. It’s where Powerwoman and I got married back in 2004, where L said her first word, where R did her first hike in the trusty child-carrying backpack. It also is where I’ve reported some of the most meaningful features of my time as a freelance writer.

In short, we f-ing love the place.

This is why we make a point of returning at least once a year. We’ve been lucky enough to go 15 times (together) in 12 years of marriage. This year’s iteration starts tomorrow.

We’re doing something different this year, spending the first half of our trip on the island of Lanai. Neither I nor Powerwoman has been back there since we went on our honeymoon. This experience is likely to be VERY different for two reasons: 1) Obviously this time we’ll have three kids in tow, and 2) The resort at which we stayed last time is now closed, and the resort at which we’re staying this time is arguably THE NICEST RESORT IN THE WORLD.

That resort, Four Seasons Lanai, was completely renovated in the last few years and reopened in February. (If you’re interested in learning more, this article provides some good context.)

Sure, it’s swanky. And yes, it’s renowned for its incorporation of technology. I’m sure the service is amazing. I know the restaurants are top-notch. The views are incredible. But the sweet tooth in me is excited about our stay for an entirely different reason: The hotel breakfast has a malasada machine. And I know my kids are going to flip out when they experience it.

You see we’re kind of mad for malasadas. I’ve written about malasadas for a bunch of different clients. What’s more, the sugar-covered dough balls have become a mainstay of our Hawaii trips—when we’re on Maui, we hit up T. Komoda General Store in Makawao; when we’re on Oahu, we go to Leonard’s.

Thursday morning—our first at Four Seasons Lanai—we’re going to stuff our faces with as many of them as we can handle. It will be a great way to kick off what is sure to be another epic Hawaii adventure.

Stay tuned for details.

The most family friendly hotel amenity on Earth

The covers.

The covers.

We’ve just returned from our three-day/two-night family getaway at the Fairmont San Francisco, and as far as family trips go, it was one of the best in recent memory. I’ll get to specifics over the next few days. In the meantime, I felt compelled to write a post about one particular aspect of our stay: The outlet covers hotel housekeepers left in our room.

I know what you’re thinking: OUTLET COVERS? WTF? But for those of us who travel with babies that shimmy and crawl around and stick their fingers into everything, these little plastic discs are a necessity.

To be honest, Powerwoman and I have traveled with four or five of these things on every trip since L was a baby. We bring them with us because we’ve never found a hotel that has them available upon request. Until this weekend.

But what made the Fairmont’s outlet covers even more spectacular was the fact that they left them for us WITHOUT REQUEST. Like, they just anticipated we’d need ‘em. Because we were visiting with a baby. It was as if the housekeeping staff crawled into my little brain and asked me what they could do to make the stay more comfortable.

The covers weren’t the only presents/amenities we received from the hotel staff; upon check-in we found a cornucopia of little bonuses. Among them: a diaper genie, a package of wipes, a kit of baby soaps with a little otter washcloth, plush stuffed animals, and coloring books.

The bulk of these goodies made all of us feel extra-welcome; the outlet covers made us feel extra-safe. It all combined to make this a trip for the ages. Thanks, Fairmont!

Dividing and conquering a San Francisco staycation

Our suite (but not us)

Our suite (but not us)

Most of the time, we Villanos prefer to travel as a complete pod—all for one and one for all, wherever our wanderlust (or my assignment) takes us.

Sometimes, however, we also like to try out different permutations of our family for particular trips.

I did this earlier this month (click here and here) on a weekend in San Francisco with L and R. We’ll be doing it again this coming weekend—only this time L will be with her grandparents and my partners in crime will be Powerwoman, R, and Baby G.

Our plan is simple. We’ll crash at the fabulous Napoleon Suite at the Fairmont San Francisco, one of my favorite family-friendly hotels in town. We’ll ride the cable cars to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I have to report a story. We’ll meet up with my sister- and brother-in-law for dinner in North Beach. We’ll Uber over to the recently re-opened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where I have to report another (and completely unrelated) story. At some point we’ll grab drinks at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, the iconic hotel-pool-turned-tiki-bar (where it “rains” periodically throughout each night). For the rest of the time, we’ll just hang.

R says she’ll be happy so long as she can have a milkshake every day. G is always happy. As for my wife and me, well, we notched our 12th wedding anniversary this week, so I guarantee we’ll make some time to celebrate that.

While I’m sure we’ll miss L (she’s often the person in our family around whom the action gravitates), it will be fun to experience the dynamic of our two younger daughters on the road; since G was born in November, the two of them haven’t been away together. As always, it also will be a treat to expose our kids to different parts of their “hometown” city.

The more they get to know San Francisco, the more they love it, and the more they love urban life in general. This is just another part of their education. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Space and comfort: The New York family travel unicorn

Living room at Q&A

Living room at Q&A

Anybody who ever has traveled with children under the age of 10 understands that the two most important considerations when booking a hotel room: SPACE and COMFORT. The reasons for this are simple. Kids like to be kids, which is to say they get silly and cranky and loud and wiggly, no matter where you are. In these instances, it’s good not to be right on top of them.

Many destinations offer thousands of accommodations that fit this bill. New York City, however, typically isn’t one of them.

Nope, my hometown is famous for rooms the size of closets. I’ve stayed in a bunch of these types of rooms on return visits in the years since I left Manhattan for good (in 2002). Every trip—even those during which I didn’t have kids yet—I swore: Never, ever would I attempt to spend a family vacation in a room that small.

This is why I’m so excited about the hotel we found for our trip to the Big Apple next week. Technically, the place is called Q&A, and it’s part of a national brand named Furnished Quarters. It might as well be called NEW YORK HOTEL UNICORN. The company specializes in accommodations that comprise furnished apartments and all of the amenities of a hotel resort (restaurant, bar, fitness center, etc.). The room products are like apartment rentals or high-end AirBnBs. They’re just the nicest ones you’ve ever booked.

I stumbled upon the company by accident, really; I was complaining to a travel industry friend about the size of New York hotel rooms and he scooped me. A few days later, I booked a two-bedroom furnished apartment at Q&A. For relatively the same price as a hotel room in Times Square.

Of course our hotel is NOT in Times Square (thank goodness). Instead, it’s in the Financial District, on the southern (well, southeastern, really) tip of Manhattan.

I’m excited about the location because it’s a short walk from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (to which we’ve never been), and is close to the Governors Island ferry (stay tuned for an original piece about this), the parks at Battery Park City, and pretty much every subway line. It’s also a hop, skip, and a jump from Park Slope, where we’ve got a bunch of friends and family. (It’s also close to the Brooklyn Bridge; yay Little R!)

But, really, I’m most excited about the space. To spread out! On a family trip! In New York!

The fact that Powerwoman and I will have our own space at a New York hotel feels almost decadent. The notion that L and Little R will have their own space feels indulgent. The fact that all of the little ones will have room to stretch and wiggle and run and be kids feels almost too good to be true. Bring it on.

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