The family travel sweepstakes dream

Duns. OMG.

What family wouldn’t want to stay in a medieval Scottish castle for a week? The history! The secrets! The creative play for your kids (and the grown-ups)! The excuses to go out in public wearing plaid knee-length kilts!

This is what makes a recent promotion from HomeAway so incredibly awesome The offering, held in conjunction with the Family Travel Association to celebrate the upcoming Disney live-action adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast,” will land one lucky family the keys to the 12-bedroom, 9-bathroom Duns Castle in Scotland, about one hour south of Edinburgh.

The promo started earlier this month and ends March 31. No purchase is necessary to participate, though it’s only open to residents of the United States, UK, France, and Germany.

Obviously, the stay at Duns is the grand prize. With five nights in the castle, transportation from your home to the Scottish countryside and back, and all meals as part of the deal, the value of the package is somewhere around $25,000. (The place normally rents for about $3,200 per night.)

Oh, and because the place is so big, HomeAway is letting the winner bring 20 family members or friends.

Five other prize-winners can win up to seven nights with four guests at another HomeAway property of their choice, with transportation included. Depending on where you stay, this prize could be pretty valuable, too.

In order to enter the drawing, click here and answer a few simple questions about yourself and your ideal vacation. Participants also must answer a question about how many lodging options travelers can find on HomeAway. I’ll save you the Google search and tell you here: It just surpassed more than 2 million.

Disney fans, take note: The landing page for the promotion also has links to all of the official “Beauty and the Beast” trailers, so you can enter and geek out at the same time.

Good luck! And if you win, take us!

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?

Mess masters

The mess. Tahoe. 2014.

The mess. Tahoe. 2014.

It truly is amazing how much havoc three little girls can wreak in a matter of hours.

Case in point: The garbage dump we’ve designated as the “play room” this week at a vacation rental in Lake Tahoe. (We’re here with another family.)

When we arrived, we told the kids—L, R, and their friend, whom we’ll call S—they could use a section of the family room for their toys and games. And they did. A few hours later, however, the place looked like a tornado had come through. Board game pieces were strewn like trash. Dolls lied like corpses. Frilly Frozen dresses were everywhere. In some corner of the mess, a magic wand stuck out from between two couch cushions.

The mess gets worse/grows every night. And every night after the kiddos go to bed, we grownups are faced with an important question: To tidy up or not to tidy up? And because the mess is so sizable, because we’re on vacation, none of us has opted for the cleaner (and more responsible) option.

Of course we’ll *have* to clean it up before we head home. When we do, you’d better believe we’ll be putting the kids to work.

In our family, the rules are simple: You make the mess, you own it and you clean it up. In the meantime, however, the situation certainly makes for a great laugh.

A key to good naps on family trips

Knock, knock...

Knock, knock…

If your family is anything like my family, good naps for the kids are hard to come by on family trips. General excitement, unfamiliar sleeping environments, and jet lag often work together to disrupt even the most necessary of afternoon siestas. To make matters worse, on those rare occasions when one of our girls actually does doze off, something inevitably wakes her up.

This why I am currently obsessed with the Knock Nanny, which debuted at the 2014 ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas this week.

In a nutshell, the product is a universal doorbell cover that gives would-be sleep disruptors a stern-but-loving warning about waking the sleeping kid. The covers fit perfectly over doorbells at most vacation houses. They also fit nicely over many (but not all) doorbells inside luxury hotels.

Think of the product as the modern take on a handwritten note you’d tape to the door.

Because the Knock Nanny physically covers the doorbell, however, there’s no chance a would-be child-awakener can wake up the sleeping babe.

The device has 27 available decals you can affix to the front—stickers with cute slogans designed to give people the message to keep it down. Most of the slogans are PG; stuff like “Please knock softly,” and, “Shhh! Baby Sleeping.” I also like the one with tiny star icons that says, “Future Star Sleeping Inside.”

Perhaps the best thing about the Knock Nanny is the price: No matter where you buy it, you can get it for less than $6. Not a bad investment for a nap or two on your next big trip.

What are your secrets for getting kids to nap on family vacations?

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