A new way of talking about family travel

Picking poppies is totally free

Picking poppies is totally free

Most current family travel coverage skews toward upper middle class families, I’m at least somewhat guilty of perpetuating this shortsighted homogeneity, and now is the time to figure out how to mix things up.

If that opener jars you a bit, good—I wasn’t really sure how else to dive into a post about the accessibility of family travel coverage, and it’s a subject that’s been bugging me for a while.

Think about it. Most family travel coverage—again, admittedly including some of the travel coverage you read ON THIS BLOG—is by people with money writing for other people with money. We speak of luxury brands. We chronicle experiences on airplanes. We detail safaris. We review new rides at theme parks where admission costs upward of $100 per day. We wax on and on and on about meals that include $7 kids’ grilled cheeses and $12 cocktails.

I’m not saying this coverage is bad—for some readers, it can even be aspirational. But I am saying it’s the same stuff aimed at the same crowd.

The world of family travelers is diverse and represents families who come at travel with a litany of different financial means. To appeal to more of them, we need to mix it up. And we need to do it quickly, because the collective effect of all this privileged coverage is a message that tells the less fortunate family travel is something you only do when you have cash.

(As my friend Erin Kirkland puts it, “No one should ever feel as if they ‘just’ went here, or ‘only’ went there.”)

I’m not entirely sure how we meet this challenge.

Freda Moon’s intensely honest “Frugal Family” columns (see here and here) in The New York Times are a good start, but the publisher *is* The New York Times, which means the audience still is likely on the upper-end of the income scale (and therefore isn’t taking enough of a real-world, let-me-follow-in-her-footsteps interest in the pieces).

On the flipside, it seems way too simplistic to sit here and call for more service pieces that tell readers to drive if they can’t afford a plane ticket, visit a state park if they can’t swing Disney, and camp if they can’t justify shelling out $289 per night for a boutique hotel. The notion of providing different perspectives is more nuanced than that.

The way I see it, the best strategy for overcoming this shortsightedness in family travel coverage is a multifaceted effort.

Part of it can come from the industry side. I’m on the board of the Family Travel Association, and I intend to discuss the issue with my colleagues at our annual summit next month in Tucson. Our organization has dozens of big-time corporate sponsors, but very few of those sponsors have products designed for the layperson. We can be better.

Another big part of the effort has to come from publishers big and small. Magazines and websites need to bend over backward to publish stories about all kinds of family travel—not just the kinds packed with anecdotes about safaris and check-in amenities at Four Seasons hotels. At the same time, we content creators (we’re publishers of a different sort) can take a new approach, too, going out of our comfort zones every now and again to report and write travel pieces from a completely different (and non-condescending) perspective.

Finally, readers can play a part in this transformation, as well. How? Demand more variety. Tell us what you want to read. Help us help you by informing us where you want to go and trusting us with truth about the means you have to get there. In many ways, open dialog is the only way out of this rut the family travel industry finds itself. I’m all ears.

How can family travel writers help make family travel coverage more accessible and affordable?

Managing family travel on a budget

There are a lot of misconceptions about family travel out there these days. One of the biggies: That traveling with kids is expensive.

Sure, fundamentally, going on vacation as a family of three or four or five is going to cost you more than going on vacation as a “family” of two. But it doesn’t have to be much more expensive. At least not if you do it right.

A friend recently interviewed me on this subject for a story she was writing for a major international bank. During the interview (which, by the way, I did from a car parked outside L’s school), I gave her eight tips for managing family travel on a budget. Here, in no particular order, are the five best pieces of advice I shared.

Bundle

Travel is a lot cheaper when you book airplane and hotel (and sometimes even rental car and activities) at the same time. This is a mantra at one of my biggest clients, Expedia. It’s also truth. We go to Maui every year with the girls, and the same trip with the same flights and same hotel in different years cost us more than $500 less when we booked through an online travel agent. According to recent data from Expedia, bundling for travel this coming summer can save you some serious cash—travelers looking to travel to San Diego, Seattle, Maui, and Las Vegas can save more than 25 percent by booking flight and hotel together. If you don’t believe me, do a search before your next flight and prepare to be amazed.

Think vacation rentals over hotels

Whenever we travel as a clan, we often prefer vacation rentals to hotels. We make this choice for two main reasons: 1) Rentals usually give us more space to spread out, and 2) When you amortize the total cost of a rental over the number of nights you’ll stay, the rental option usually is cheaper. Obviously when you’re thinking about which decisions can save you money, No. 2 is a critical choice. We’ve stayed in VRBO and HomeAway properties that have averaged out to less than one half per night of their hotel room equivalents. If you’re as lucky as we were, that’s a whole lot of money you’d be able to put back into the vacation fund.

(Side note: For our upcoming trip to New York, we found an apart-hotel—a hotel comprised of furnished two-bedroom apartments. It’s called Q&A, and I’ll be blogging about it quite a bit in the coming weeks.)

Picnic lunch with two of my three favorite humans. #sistergram #BabyG #LittleR

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

Eat in

Food is one of the biggest expenses when you’re traveling—with or without kids. Instead of dropping $70-$100 every meal by eating out, consider spending $200 or $250 on groceries once, then cook your own food. Naturally this strategy requires you to have accommodations with at least an efficiency kitchen. It also requires you to suspend your innate desires to spend every meal at the most delicious restaurant in town. In the end, consider this: We estimate we save between $750 and $1,000 on every major vacation (in our family, that means vacations of two weeks or longer) during which we prepare our own sustenance.

Put a cap on souvenirs

Especially if you’ve got multiple kids, expenditures on souvenirs can add up quickly. In our family, we combat this threat in two ways. For starters, we put a dollar-amount cap on souvenirs for each child. The cap is the same for each girl, and we tell the kids what the cap is, so they know exactly how much each souvenir would eat into their budget. Second, we turn the process into math practice. Instead of managing calculations on our own, Powerwoman and I have L balance the books for her and her sisters, subtracting each expenditure from the overall budget for each girl. Everybody wins in this scenario—L loves the homework and we love not having to worry about keeping tabs on who has what left in her account.

Leverage the lapchild

Most airplanes have rules regarding children ages 2 and under—technically these travelers don’t need their own tickets and can spend the duration of any flight on mom’s or dad’s lap. Flight attendants call these passengers “lapchildren,” which is one of the most disgusting words of our time. Still, by leveraging the lapchild, you can save one full airplane fare. I know what you’re thinking—once your kid starts walking, there’s no way you can stomach having him or her on your lap for an entire flight. My advice? Suck it up and milk the lapchild rule for every cent until that kid turns 3. You can’t cash in on this one forever.

Obviously this list could go on and on. What are your suggestions for managing family travel on a budget? What would you add to this list?

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