Taking the kids with you, even when they stay home

My phone, after L decorated it

My phone, after L decorated it

Most of my travel time these days is split between family trips (for this blog and additional outlets) and solo trips (to fulfill other assignments). When the kids come with me, it’s easy to monitor how they’re experiencing and internalizing our travel. When they stay home, however, this process becomes a bit more challenging.

Powerwoman and I have tried a number of solutions to overcome this hurdle. When she went to England with her oldest sister to celebrate their dad’s 70th birthday last year, she wrote the girls (just the big ones at that time) separate letters for them to open each day she was gone. When I traveled to Maui on behalf of Expedia last spring, I Skyped with the girls once a day so they could see palm trees and “feel” and “smell” the tropical breeze.

Both of these strategies seemed to work well. The letters, though asynchronous, enabled the girls to feel like as if were connecting with their mom even though she was halfway across the world. The Skype sessions were more interactive, though the kids’ attention spans always were shorter than I’d hoped.

On my next trip, for which I leave Thursday, I’m going to try something new: Text messages with photos.

This new approach is a direct appeal to spark additional interaction—L has become a wonderful writer and enjoys pecking out texts and emojis in response. The way we’ve planned it, I’ll send texts and images once a day. L will respond to hers directly. R will tell L what to type in response to the ones earmarked for her.

I’m eager to see how the girls respond to the texts. I’m headed to Vegas, a place I’ve covered as a beat for their entire lives, so they are particularly interested in the pictures I send back. (To be specific, they are interested in pictures of the private pool in our kick-ass suite, the giant televisions in the sports book, the bingo hall, and pictures of Daddy playing poker. This is what happens when your dad covers gambling.)

Normally I’d say this setup encourages way more screen time than I like my kids to have. In this case, however, I think the additional screen time actually may be a good facilitator for the kids to experience my travel vicariously.

The goal of all of this is to spark the same sort of curiosity that we spark when we travel with them. So long as the texts accomplish that, I’ll be happy.

How do you interact with your kids when you travel and they stay home?

Luxury family rooms coming to airports near you

 

The Family Room inside the Centurion Lounge at SFO.

The Family Room inside the Centurion Lounge at SFO.

American Express has talked about how “membership has its privileges” for most of my life. Now, with the company’s new Centurion Lounge program for Platinum Card holders (such as moi), I totally get it.

The lounges, currently available at four airports around the country, are the ultimate in VIP airport swank: Modern hangouts, free food, free drinks, free WiFi, and a host of other amenities for business travelers (heck, most of the lounges even have shower stalls).

My favorite part of the new spots: The “Family Rooms.” These facilities—available at three of the four lounges right now—boast beanbag chairs, toys, games, video games, giant televisions and a host of kid-friendly movies. They also have fun and colorful wallpaper. And soundproof walls so crazy kids won’t disturb grownups who are relaxing elsewhere in the lounge.

By the way, lounge-facing walls of these rooms are all glass, so, technically, parents can sit outside and drink hand-crafted cocktails while the kids blow off steam inside.

Official Centurion Lounge terms and conditions stipulate that so long as the Platinum Card holder is present, he or she can bring in a spouse or domestic partner and all children under the age of 18, no matter how many kids there might be. That means that when the four of us Villanos travel together, all of us can get in to these lounges free of charge.

I haven’t actually experienced the rooms with my kids yet, but I have visited Centurion Lounges at San Francisco International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, and have admired the facilities in both spots.

(As of now, the other lounge with a family room is at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.)

With that in mind, I’ll tell you this: The next time I book a trip for the lot of us, I’ll be inclined to book from an airline that flies into or out of a terminal with a Centurion Lounge. I pay more than $400 per year for my Platinum Card; it’s nice to know my entire family now can benefit from some of the privileges of membership.

What are some of your favorite airport lounges?

Recalibrating expectations about family travel moments

R and L and a rare 'moment' during our trip to the Anderson Valley.

R and L and a rare ‘moment’ in the Anderson Valley.

I’m writing this post at 35,000 feet above the California desert, en route back to San Francisco after a (busy and) epic weekend in Las Vegas with one of my closest pals.

I was there to report a story about a trail system on the outskirts of the Vegas Valley. The objective: To hike as many of the trails as I could in one weekend. Because hiking is more fun with friends, and because my friend and I live in different cities, I asked him to join me. We had a blast.

Over the course of our 36 hours together, my buddy and I did what 30-something guys do. We talked about sports. We talked about women. We talked about work. We laughed. We listened to music. And we hiked. A lot. (In case you’re wondering, we didn’t gamble together, largely because he doesn’t gamble. I did all of my gambling after he went to bed.)

In short, the trip was full of what I like to call Bromance Moments—those moments during which I felt lucky to have such a good friend, and even luckier to get to spend some downtime with him.

Because we had no other demands on our attention, some of these “moments” lasted for hours.

The whole experience got me thinking about the nature of these moments, and the extent to which Powerwoman and I experience similar moments with the girls when we travel as a family.

My conclusion: Yes, the moments exist. But they’re different. And, in our case, MUCH more short-lived.

I like to call these family travel moments Walley World Moments. The moniker is a blatant reference to the theme park in National Lampoon’s Vacation—the place where Clark Griswold and family spend the entire movie trying to visit. When the family finally gets there, after a litany of ridiculous experiences, there is this sense of true appreciation, that they’re all happy to be there together. The rest of we families experience that, too.

With young kids, however, Walley World Moments are short and sweet, the ultimate quickies. Whenever we do something as a unit, Powerwoman and I stop to recognize how lucky we are to do it together, then one of the girls becomes impatient or trips her sister or nags for a snack or whines about being tired and the family travel magic disappears.

I’m not complaining about my girls being girls (they are 5 and 3, respectively). I’m just stating a fact: It’s hard to hold on to moments of wonder when little ones can’t hold on to anything for more than a few seconds at a time.

This reality has forced us to reconsider how we look at family travel moments overall.

Instead of looking for days or half-days or hours during which we feel lucky to have such wonderful kids and be able to travel with them, we seek mere minutes—ephemeral epiphanies of appreciation.

We’re not lowering our expectations here, people. We’re just abbreviating them—in response to the current attention spans of our little ones. Over time, as the girls evolve into young women, I suspect my wife and I will expand our expectations accordingly. By the time they’re teenagers, perhaps we even will look forward to Walley World Moments that last long enough to thoroughly enjoy.

Until then, of course, we’ll take whatever moments we can get, whenever we can get them, and we’ll savor every second.

What sort of memorable moments do you expect when you travel with your kids?

Soaring above Las Vegas as a family

The High Roller at night, summer 2014.

The High Roller at night, summer 2014.

Most of the time, my two main beats as a journalist—family travel and Vegas—exist in separate spheres.

Sometimes, however, the two come together in odd and wonderful ways. Such as the latest news about the High Roller, which, at 550 feet tall is the world’s largest observation wheel.

Late last month, the folks from Caesars Entertainment (which owns the wheel and the surrounding open-air mall, The LINQ) announced that the High Roller will open for 90 minutes one day a week exclusively for families with young children.

Dubbed the Family Hour Package, the program will allow riders with kids 12 and under to ride the wheel between 10-11:30 a.m. every Saturday in a family setting free of other (read: potentially wasted) customers. The package is priced at $49.95 and is available every week. According to a press release, it includes:

  • Two adult tickets
  • Three children tickets
  • Three High Roller binoculars for guests to keep
  • Three Juice drinks from the Sky Lounge

Having been up in the High Roller a handful of times since it opened in late 2013, I can say this: The package is a super deal. Juice drinks alone probably retail for $18 during regular business hours, which makes the ticket prices of approximately $32 for five people a steal.

The folks at Caesars told me families also can use their ticket stubs from Family Hour Package to receive discounts for a show at The Quad (a hotel that is set to change its name to The LINQ later this year).

My advice? Do the wheel, then wander west up the LINQ toward the Strip, stopping at Sprinkles cupcakes for a morning jolt or Hash House a Go Go (inside The Quad) for heaping portions of eggs and potatoes for brunch. On your way, stop in at the Polaroid Fotobar and print out some of the pictures you took up on the wheel. Even in Vegas, there’s nothing like a souvenir you can touch and hold.

Taking the family on a solo trip

Like thunder.

Like thunder.

This weekend marks my annual pilgrimage with a bunch of guy friends to Las Vegas for the opening rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament. That means I’ll be spending the next four days traveling solo, for fun.

In our family, where the four of us usually travel together, this is big news. And to commemorate the occasion, L made me a present to bring with me on my trip.

She calls it “The Love Book.”

The book is a compilation of drawings she made over the course of the week—drawings that, according to my daughter, demonstrate how much she loves her daddy. Some of the pictures are age-appropriate: Pictures of trees and birds and princesses and butterflies. My personal favorite, the one pictured above, depicts L’s heart full of love for me—when she described it, she said the love was “like thunder.”

As she presented the book to me, L told me to take it with me on my trip, to look at it every day, and to think of her every time I do.

It was the first thing I packed. And I plan to carry it with me wherever I go.

Technically, L and R and Powerwoman will be back at home this weekend while I (gamble and drink and smoke and) hang with the boys in Vegas. Because of The Love Book, however, they’ll be with me the whole time. Which makes me the luckiest guy in town.

Bitten by the Bug

The Villano Family: Coming to a hillside near you.

The Villano Family: Coming to a hillside near you.

My friends warned me. They told me that after spending four months living with my family in London, I’d come back yearning to get the kids out on the road again ASAP. They joked that we’d all catch “the [travel] bug” and return to Wine Country, only to liquidate our assets and start a nomadic life.

Heck, one buddy bet me we’d never actually come home.

While I’m proud to announce that the gambling friend lost, the other predictions haven’t been too far afield. And the fallout has caught this family travel blogger by surprise.

Things developed rapidly over the last few weeks. The day after we got home (Christmas Eve day), my wife and I swore we’d keep our girls in one place for a while. We informed the girls of our decision and they seemed to be on board. L, our older daughter, went so far as to declare that she did not want to step foot in an airplane for “at least a few months, or ever again, unless it was a plane that went somewhere cool.” R, the younger sister, agreed in her own way, stating that airplanes were loud and her ears didn’t want to hear them again for a while.

We held these beliefs for at least a week. Then, just about the moment we were completely unpacked, everyone’s perspective began to change. During a session building Legos, I told the girls about the Legoland Hotel and they insisted we book a trip. Then we started looking at flights for a trip to Texas. And we discussed a trip to Walt Disney World. And we started planning a trip to Lanai.

These were just the family trips. At the same time, we grown-ups were making plans of our own.

Powerwoman started planning a solo trip to help her best friend shop for a wedding dress. I lined up work trips to Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Diego, to name a few. Then my wife and I recruited the grandparents to watch the girls so we could fly back to New York.

In a span of two weeks, we Villanos went from a policy of “No New Trips” to booking nearly 10 of them. And I’m sure there’ll be more.

No, we’re not planning on selling the house and hitting the road for good (though there is a high likelihood we’ll take an RV to Yosemite National Park this spring). But we *did* catch the family travel fever, and especially while our girls are still young, it’s a wonderful affliction to have.

How quickly after a big family trip do you plan your next escape?

Supporting Cancer Research Through Travel

Donate to support cancer research and you can party like a rock star here.

Donate to support cancer research and you can party like a rock star here.

I’m proud to call Expedia one of my biggest clients (I contribute to their Expedia Viewfinder blog), and to celebrate Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Expedia has joined forces with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, giving everyone a chance to donate to a great cause and take a trip of a lifetime.

As part of this promotion, Expedia is giving away 150 trips, including 30 big “Dream Trips” each day for the month of September.

Giveaways last all month, and a new Dream Trip will be showcased each day. To support this effort, my colleagues at Expedia have rallied a bunch of expert family travelers across the country to feature their favorite Dream Trips Giveaways in the Well-Traveled Families for St. Jude Blog Carnival.

Expedia announced the program on the Expedia Viewfinder blog earlier this week. Then, my colleague, Anne Taylor Hartzell (a.k.a. the Hip Travel Mama), kicked things off yesterday with a post about a giveaway to the Fairmont Kea Lani resort in Maui, Hawaii. Today, I’m excited to feature a Dream Trip to Las Vegas, one of my favorite destinations on Earth.

The trip, titled “Experience Las Vegas Like a Rock Star,” revolves around a stay at Aria Resort & Casino. Here are the details:

  • Round-trip air tickets for two (on Spirit Airlines)
  • A three-night stay at Aria Resort & Casino
  • A “Vegas Rock Star” club crawl (which enables you to skip the lines at popular clubs and travel the Strip in a party bus)
  • Maverick “flight-seeing” helicopter adventure for two
  • Two free tickets to Zarkana by Cirque du Soleil
  • A limousine tour of Vegas highlights
  • A $500 Visa gift card.

All told, the estimated value of this package is more than $3,000; it (or any of the other Dream Trips) can be yours for a suggested $5 minimum donation. DONATE NOW for an opportunity to win this trip (and see Expedia for official rules). And, hey, if you donate $25 or more, you can get a coupon for 20 percent off future hotel bookings on Expedia’s mobile app or 10 percent off purchases on Expedia.com.

To reiterate, ALL DONATIONS GO DIRECTLY TO ST. JUDE. That means all donations will help kids who have cancer. I can’t think of a better cause to support.

%d bloggers like this: