For the love of Monopoly

20160801_165215One of our favorite things about vacation rentals on family trips: The surprises we find in the cabinets and drawers.

No matter where we go, no matter what sort of rental we get (house, apartment, etc.), L and R always manage to discover some sort of treasure with which they become obsessed. The treasure usually then becomes part of our lives.

Our recent vacation on Maui was no exception. The item of choice: Monopoly.

To be fair, L had played a version of this game before—Monopoly Junior, which is a version of the original game that has been simplified for kids under the age of 8. This time, however, she and her sister, R, were digging a rare and unusual grown-up version: a Peanuts-themed take on the original game.

(The Peanuts theme was a weird coincidence; Charles Schulz spent the latter part of his life near our home in Santa Rosa, California, and we’re members of a museum there in his memory.)

The sisters found the game in a chest of drawers. Once they checked out all the pieces, once they had me teach them how to play, they became full-on junkies, insisting that we play for at least a few hours every day of the trip.

Most of our games took place before 9 a.m.; I had the morning shift and this was how we spent it.

Invariably, R would start out strong, buy a bunch of properties, then lose interest when she ran out of cash. L, on the other hand, was a veritable shark, waiting in the weeds for tactical purchases, accumulating monopolies, then building houses and hotels to wipe the rest of us clean. She also went after the game’s equivalent of utilities, which always cost of the rest of us dearly.

Of course we tweaked the rules a bit. R was *very* upset at the idea of going to jail and refused to play unless I guaranteed she and her sister didn’t have to go. As a result, only the grown-ups could end up in jail; the worst fate for those of us under the age of 8 was “Just Visiting.”

Another change had to do with paying rent. If either of the girls didn’t have enough money to pay me rent, I would accept payment in smooches, with an exchange rate of one kiss for every $10.

(One game, I had three monopolies with hotels on every property. I got a lot of kisses.)

In the end, though I think I would have rather spent that time with the girls outside, it was wonderful to see them taking interest in a board game, and even more uplifting to see them wanting to experience it TOGETHER. They’ve been clamoring to spend a Saturday playing here at home. The requests are proof positive of how this past family vacation changed their lives—that makes me very happy, indeed.

What do you love most about vacation rentals when you travel with family?

Wandering Pod debuts in Businessweek

Family travel isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek. Yet a few months ago, a friend of mine who is an editor there approached me to see if I’d contribute to a section they were doing about traveling with kids.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance. The resulting story appears in the May 2-8, 2016 issue, which hit newsstands this week.

My piece is short and sweet; it appears as a three-panel, illustrated “as told by” piece near the back of the book. In the graphical account, I (re)tell a story I first shared on the pages of this very blog–a piece about how Powerwoman and I kept L and R occupied with paper chains on a flight from San Francisco to Maui. Want the scoop? Check out the Instagram pic below.

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

Patience is a virtue on family trips

Before the eel, I saw this.

Before the eel, I saw this.

Squiggling and wriggling like a pudgy underwater ribbon, the pale-green moray eel moved along the coral reef quickly—almost too fast to spot.

As a relative novice snorkeler, I probably would have missed it, had I not glimpsed a small school of tropical fish dart out of the way of the creature, fleeing for their lives. I kicked my flippers and dove deeper into the warm water, inching closer to the beast with every stroke.

Finally, the eel came into full view. I could see its undulating tail, its dark-green splotches, and the ugly (horrifying, really) teeth protruding from its mouth.

In reality, the ocean was eerily quiet. In my head, I could hear the Hallelujah chorus to Handel’s Messiah.

Understandably so. Over the course of the last 11 years I’ve made 16 visits to Maui and hired local outfitters to take me snorkeling nine different times.  Before every trip, I convinced myself *this* would be the trip on which I’d see a Moray in the wild. Every time I came up empty. Finally, on a two-hour jaunt with Hawaiian Paddle Sports, my string of bad luck came to an end. And the sighting was well worth the wait.

This life-changing spectacle actually occurred last month, smack in the middle of a trip to Maui with the Expedia Viewfinder team (full disclosure: Expedia is a client). The trip was an off-site of sorts; I was surrounded by some of my favorite work friends. Noticeably absent: my kids, who have become mainstays of my Hawaii visits.

Still, the experience got me thinking about an important—and often underappreciated—philosophy we parents can espouse on family trips: To practice patience.

I mean, think about it. I had visited the islands 16 times. I had gone snorkeling nine times. And over that stretch, I had *never* seen a Moray. After a schneid like that, I had every reason in the world to give up hope or try a new activity (or, even more dramatic, start vacationing somewhere else). But I persevered. I hung in. Because I knew that sooner or later, I’d spot one.

This patience, this quiet confidence in letting the world come to you (as opposed to going out there and getting caught up in grabbing it), comprises a huge part of my outlook on travel. It also is one of the most important concepts I can pass along to L and R as they continue to explore the world.

The lessons are subtle. When we go whale-watching, for instance, I’m careful to remind the girls that the whales aren’t on a payroll and largely do their own things. When we go beachcombing, I explain how the waves always churn up different stuff, and that you really never can “count” on anything in particular hiding in the sand underfoot. Even when we’re hiking, I remind the kids to look beyond the trail map.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m *not* saying we parents shouldn’t teach our kids to be proactive about experiencing the world. Instead, I’m emphasizing the importance of not overdramatizing the choice part of a choose-your-own adventure. I’m suggesting that the best (family) travelers put themselves in a position to get the most out of a new experience, but then sit back and let that very experience run its course.

Someday, I’m sure L and R will have their own personal Moray stories. They’ll have stuff they desperately want to see in particular destinations and will find themselves faced with the same choice that faced me: Persevere or go in a different direction?

When they reach these junctures, I only can hope they decide to practice patience. In the short term, it’s a great exercise in appreciating a process. And in the long term, the results can be magical.

Visiting the special family place, without kids

Maui. With my loves.

Maui. With my loves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your favorite family travel destination and why?

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?

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.

Family Travel Food for Thought

Have farmers' market, will travel.

Have farmers’ market, will travel.

The June issue of Conde Nast Traveler is jam-packed with suggestions about places to take the family on vacation this summer (and beyond).

While I take issue with the feature’s headline (sorry, folks, but no vacation involving the vagaries of children ever is “foolproof”), I think the piece is a solid collection of service-oriented destination write-ups, travel tips and first-person suggestions/anecdotes.

In short, I wish I had written the damn thing myself.

In particular, I admire the magazine’s selections of vacation destinations for big families on a budget. We never have visited Sayulita, but we have good friends who go there with their kids every year and describe it as “the cheapest and most laid-back beach town on Earth.” We have visited Honua Kai Resort on Maui, and the 2-bedroom units indeed are a great value for the price. (Usage of the phrase, “mod cons,” however, should be outlawed in all 50 states.)

It also was exciting to see the magazine give some love to the Tyler Place Family Resort, in Vermont. This place is renowned in family travel circles for programs that include supervised morning and evening activities for kids up to 30 months old.

Tyler Place also an all-inclusive, which some say are a great value for families. (In case you were wondering, I am not one of these people, and am skeptical of all-inclusives in general. But that’s another subject for another post.)

In any event, the article is worth a read.

Where do you plan to take your family for vacation this summer? Let me know in the comments field.

Embracing Accidentally Family-Friendly Hotels

Bathroom televisions: Better than stuffed animals.

Bathroom TVs: Better than stuffed animals.

It’s one thing for a hotel to go out and declare itself as “family-friendly” and stock the rooms with all sorts of kid-oriented goodies and treats. It’s another thing for a hotel that doesn’t make a big deal about family travelers to boast the kinds of amenities that make us who vacation with kids feel right at home.

I like to consider this phenomenon “AFF,” or Accidentally Family-Friendly. As a traveler, when you experience it, it’s the best kind of surprise. Like a dollop of caramel in the center of a chocolate cupcake. Or a clutch hit from a rookie who just got his call-up to the Big Leagues.

Different families can deem different hotels AFF for different reasons. Here’s a rundown of some amenities that have made qualified properties as AFF in our recent experiences:

  • Bathroom televisions. Sure, L loved the free stuffed animal she received upon checking in to the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, but she’s still talking about the tiny television in the bathroom. The kid liked this TV so much she refused to watch the big one out in the bedroom. It also came in handy for me—while I shaved, she chilled out next to me and hung with “Sofia the First.”
  • 24-hour room service. When we travel internationally (or just cross-country), we usually reward good in-transit behavior with favorite foods. This means ordering odd items (French fries, hummus) at all hours of the day and night. It also means we’ve become huge fans of all-hours room service. The girls love knowing they don’t have to wait for their rewards. We love the good behavior this reality usually engenders in mid-air.
  • Flashlights. My kids love building forts and “camping out” (pretty much all the time at home and) in hotel rooms. The one item from home that’s always missing: A flashlight. I usually bring a headlamp for nighttime runs (yes, I’m that guy who runs at 11 p.m.), but the big boys are just too clunky to bring along. Naturally, then, you can imagine how excited the girls get when they find a flashlight hiding in the closet of a hotel room.
  • Extra space. We love hotels like Maui’s Fairmont Kea Lani, where even the “standard” rooms actually are suites. When everyone’s awake, this configuration gives the girls room to spread out and do puzzles or have dance parties. When the girls go to sleep, it also gives Powerwoman and me the chance to shut the door to the bedroom and have some semblance of alone time.

The bottom line: Some hotels might be more family-friendly than you think. For an honest rundown of how other family travelers have rated a hotel, call the concierge and ask what in-room features seem to resonate with other customers in your demographic. Another, easier option: Ask friends, either in person or through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. And remember, there’s more to “family-friendly” than toys and games.

To what extent have you found hotels AFF? Which amenities in particular did your kids adore?

Also: For more information about hotels and hotel amenities, join me this Wednesday, May 15, between 10:30 a.m. and noon, as I co-host a Twitter chat for Expedia. To follow along or participate, just log on to Twitter and search for the hashtag, #expediachat.

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