Happy Free National Park Day

Big girls. Beach. Beautiful.

Today, our annual celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is the first free national park day of the year.

This means every single American gets free entrance to every national park and national monument site in the country. It also means you’ve got no excuse to spend the kids’ day off from school bumming around indoors.

But before you get too excited, before you furiously fire up another window in your Internet browser to locate your nearest park and figure out how to get there, I want you to get angry, I want you to get pissed. This year the National Park Service is granting us only four free days, down from 10 last year.

Let me repeat that. Last year and years before it, we had 10 free days. This year we have four.

If you think this is just a coincidence, think again. Under the “leadership” of our new President and Secretary Ryan Zinke, the U.S. Department of the Interior is abusing our national park system, shrinking national monuments, attempting to change rules to sell off land for profit, proposing rate hikes, and, yes, even taking away free days.

Put differently, the people running our government are cheating us out of the park system that was established for the “enjoyment of the people” all those years ago.

IMHO, there are two main ways to fight back. First, of course, is to take advantage of all of the free days we now get. Go today. Go April 21, which is the first day of National Park Week (also the week of Earth Day). Go Sept. 22, National Public Lands Day. And go on Veterans Day, which is Nov. 11.

In addition, please support our parks throughout the rest of the year, however and whenever you can.

Remember: Family travel doesn’t have to be big or expensive or once-in-a-lifetime incredible. It can be a few hours at your closest park. Just get out there.

Hunting for Dollars

Little R and some of her bounty

When my wife and I pre-booked the final night of our road trip in Morro Bay, we had one thing on our minds: Walking on Morro Strand State Beach. Which is precisely how we spent the last day of our trip on Wednesday.

But the Villano family beach walk brought with it a surprise. Sand dollars. Hundreds of them. All over the beach.

It turns out January is prime time for finding dead and desiccated sand dollars on the sandy beaches of Central California. Because Morro Strand is one of the longest beaches in the area, it is renowned for its sand dollar-hunting. Naturally, then, once we found our first dollar of the day, we treated the excursion like a treasure hunt.  Each of our three girls walked away with quite a bounty.

Later in the day, as we sped home in our Honda Odyssey, we hit the Internet to do some research.

We learned that sand dollars actually are close relatives of sea urchins. We learned that live sand dollars are a bit like ravioli—tough outside, soft inside. We also learned that the petal-shaped design actually is a bunch of pores that help the animals move.

Without question, the three-hour stroll was my favorite segment of the entire trip. A quest! Science! Beautiful views! The best part: It was all totally free.

These types of escapades represent the very best of family travel. They incorporate serendipity and fascination. To be clear, none of these moments is perfect; at one point there on the beach, Baby G was upset that a sandpiper flew away and started bawling like she’s never bawled before. Overall, however, these adventures are magical. I wish all of you at least one of these experiences on your next trip.

The Gambler Lesson

Calmer times, today at Legoland California.

Here’s how tonight was supposed to go: The girls and I would leave our hotel at 4:45, pile in the car, drive 15 minutes to the house of an old college friend, and hang there through dinner before coming back. I had no set bedtime in mind for the kids, but I figured maybe they’d be down by 930 or so.

Here’s how tonight actually went: The four of us never went anywhere, we ordered room-service dinner, and all three girls were asleep by 8 p.m.

Of course there’s more to the story than that. Like how the baby threw the wildest tantrum of her life, her nose was a snot faucet, and she took Little R’s brand new Lego set and smashed it to bits. Or how the same baby nailed her head on the door jam as she was flailing about in an attempt to avoid my clutches. Or, going back even farther, how that very same 2-year-old slept for 20 minutes, then woke up and refused to go back to sleep.

I mean, really, take your pick.

Meteorologists have been calling the unusual cold snap back East a “bombogenesis.” With that in mind, I’d like to refer to what happened on Day No. 3 of my solo road trip with the girls a “behavior bombogenesis.” To be completely honest, I’m somewhat relieved that the only casualty was my social life.

What’s more, now that I’ve got the perspective of time (and now that all three girls are fast asleep and I’m typing this blog post from a darkened living room), I also think tonight’s events are a valuable reminder that sometimes when you’re traveling with kids, it’s OK to give up.

I wince to think about how the night would have played out if I had forced the issue. Perhaps the baby would have fallen down stairs? Perhaps she would have fallen asleep in the car, only to become inconsolable upon waking (or, even worse, incapable of going back to sleep later in the night). I certainly wouldn’t have relaxed, instead feeling the need to monitor her every move.

No, I’m not jazzed about having spent $70 on room service. And I’m downright disappointed to miss catching up with my old pal (and meeting her kids).

But when it comes to family travel—especially when you’re traveling with young kids—you need to heed the wise words of Kenny Rogers: Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.

The bottom line: There’s never shame in surrendering as a parent. The real mistakes arise when you push too hard .

 

Self-park Schlep

Two littler sisters, early in the day.

You’re not a truly intrepid family traveler until you’ve schlepped five days’ worth of gear and three tired kiddos from self-park to a hotel lobby, BY YOURSELF.

Such was life earlier tonight upon checking in at the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort & Hotel.

I’m here solo with all three girls on the sedentary part of a week-long road trip/family vacation. We left our home in Wine Country Thursday morning. After an overnight with friends in San Luis Obispo, lunch with a buddy in Santa Monica, and dinner with cousins in Carlsbad, we checked in here tonight around 8:30, well beyond the girls’ bedtime.

But tiredness wasn’t the real challenge. The true gauntlet was managing those tired kids while getting all of our stuff from the van onto a luggage cart, lugging cart and kids up the elevator and into the lobby for check-in, then getting everything and everyone out to our room.

I know what you’re probably thinking at this point: Why the hell didn’t Matty just do valet? The reason is simple: Valet is expensive, and most families don’t have the resources to go there. Beside, we had a coupon for free self-park for the duration of our stay. (For more on the logic behind this decision, see this post about what I’m calling the “Schoolyard Test.”)

Thankfully, I managed to find an underground spot right next to an abandoned luggage cart. The Big Girl and Little R got out of the van and watched (and complained) while I loaded our gear onto the cart; Baby G watched directed traffic from her car seat.

Once the cart was loaded up, I grabbed G and held her in my left arm while pulling the cart with my right.

(If you’ve never pulled a full luggage cart with one arm, let me tell you: It works your pectoralis muscles. Big-time. Like, I won’t need to bench press anything tomorrow. Shit, I’ll be lucky if I can raise my arm above my head.)

Somehow we made it to the elevator. From there, somehow we made it to the front desk. Following a snafu at check-in (which, in all fairness, was resolved quickly and painlessly), I trudged onward with the kids and cart to our room, a one-bedroom suite that quite literally was the farthest possible accommodations from the front desk.

By the time we managed to round the bend for our wing of the hotel, I was literally dripping with sweat. My right pec was burning. My left arm was numb from carrying the baby. In my head, I heard the “Chariots of Fire” theme song as I reached for the room key and swiped it through the lock.

Now, here I am.

I could go on about how the Big Girl claimed the pullout couch, Little R grabbed the bedroom floor and Baby G passed out on the bed. I could take a picture of myself sitting on a dining room chair in the bathroom, where I’m writing this post (and soon will write a newspaper article, as well). Hell, I could wrap the night by doing 30 burpees on the balcony outside, and all of it would pale in comparison to the self-park schlep I endured earlier tonight.

In doing so, however, I saved nearly $40 per night, or $160 total. I am family travel warrior. Hear me roar.

Family travel through her eyes

Chilling.

With three kids under the age of 8, it’s easy for Powerwoman and me to get caught up in planning trips around the bigger girls and not the baby.

Earlier this week, however, 15-month-old Baby G made sure I saw a family daytrip to our favorite Sonoma County beach from her point of view. The experience made me a better traveler, a better dad, and a better man. It also made me laugh.

The specifics are almost irrelevant—the big kids had off from school so I took the three of them out to Goat Rock State Beach, our favorite (despite its tendency to receive rogue waves). Because it was windy and the waves were big, I carried Baby G in the backpack while I monitored the whereabouts of her bigger sisters up the beach. After about an hour, however, the baby wanted out.

I obliged at lunch, when we set up a picnic blanket near the dunes and ate while we watched the waves.

That’s when it happened. After lunch, the big kids were clamoring to head down the beach to look for beach glass, but I didn’t want to go. I gave Baby G the option of getting back into the backpack or just hanging with me on the blanket. She very clearly slapped the blanket and grunted. She wanted to stay.

So we stayed. I sat her on my lap. We marveled at waves. We pointed at gulls. We played with sand. All told the two of us probably sat there, just enjoying the beach, for the better part of 45 minutes. She didn’t fuss or whine once. She didn’t complain about the wind. She didn’t even insist on peas, which she usually does at picnic lunches. In short, the baby was completely enraptured. As was I.

I’ve probably written about it 100 times, but this particular experience was yet another in the litany of experiences that taught me to slow down even more and take the time to appreciate life on the road.

Travel isn’t always easy—especially with kids. But I do know that in this case a little bit of extra effort went incredibly far with our baby, which is always a good scenario to cultivate.

American families set to hit the road

A whole bunch of American families are expected to travel this year—great news for us family travel bloggers and just about everyone else.

The stat comes from a recent survey report from AAA, which suggested that roughly 35 percent of American families will travel more than 50 miles away from home with at least two other family members in 2017.

The report was released earlier this week and included replies from 1,006 respondents. It also comprised a number of data points on the kind of trips family travelers plan to take. 

Leading the charge: the old-fashioned road trip (79 percent of respondents), national parks (51 percent), and theme parks (40 percent). Trips to international destinations (33 percent), guided or escorted tours (22 percent), and ocean cruises (20 percent) also made the list.

Drilling deeper, road trip numbers were 10 percent higher than last year—a curious finding, considering that gas prices are more than 50 cents higher than they were in February 2016. 

I wrote about the survey for AFAR, and a press release that hit wires Tuesday quoted an AAA executive as saying that Americans preferred the “structure and convenience” of group tours over the flexibility of a road trip. 

“Many tours are specially designed for multi-generational groups, plus there’s no better way to learn about a destination than from a knowledgeable, local guide,” said Bill Sutherland, AAA’s senior vice president of travel and publishing. 

Overall, survey data indicated that while the vast majority (70 percent) of respondents said they were planning to take one or two vacations this year, 28 percent of respondents said they would take three or more. AAA did not offer any explanations for this data, but it did note the number of frequent family travelers rose 13 percentage points over last year. That’s music to this dad’s ears.A

Walking like a pro

Conquering the plaza

Conquering the plaza

The big news from our world over the last few weeks is that Powerwoman and I now are the proud parents of three fully ambulatory human beings.

Allow me to translate that for you: Baby G is walking up a storm.

The littlest Villano isn’t just meandering here and there. Instead, girl is marching with purpose, often leaving her sisters and me in the dust. In practice, this can be difficult to manage, as the baby is always a few steps ahead of us old fogies. In theory, however, it’s a harbinger of great times to come, since we clearly have added a third adventuresome daughter to the mix.

Our new status as a family with three ambulating kids means our travel experiences will be completely different from here on out. Less stroller time. Less backpack time. More time with everyone on foot.

So far—thankfully, I might add—the big girls have taken to keeping tabs on their little sister, often holding G’s hands when we’re out and about. When the big sisters aren’t around to hold the baby’s hands, Powerwoman and I happily oblige.

It will be interesting to see how these trends continue on our next big trip: Disneyland. Will L and R take the time to look after their sister at a theme park? Will G be overwhelmed by the rides and crowds and not want to walk around on her own? These all are questions we’ll be able to resolve over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, Powerwoman and I fully intend simply to enjoy the ride.

G is still in that wonderful stage where walking is so new that everything she sees while she’s ambulating is amazing and great and wonderful. She could see the same stuff in a stroller and not care at all. On her own two feet, however, look out!

How did your kids’ ambulation change your family travels?

New Plum video series about family travel

Note the emoji

Note the emoji

Over the years I’ve made no secret of my love for Plum Organics.

My kids—all three of them, if you can believe it—are addicted to the puffs, and Baby G guzzles at least one (if not two) pouches every day. Little R was a maniac about Shredz, Plum’s nod to Big League Chew. And every now and again, L likes to devour some Mighty Snack Bars, which basically are Plum’s answer to granola bars.

I’ve written about Plum. I’ve visited their offices. I’ve interviewed their founder and (former) CEO. In short, I’m a Plum fanboy, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

But even if I weren’t such a zealot, I’d *still* love the company’s new online video campaign.

Dubbed #TeamParent, the social media campaign uses texting as a way to show how two spouses rely on Plum to make family travel easier. The latest video focuses on having enough snacks to survive a plane trip with a baby. Another video in the series focuses on leveraging snacks to overcome a cranky toddler during a road trip. A third video revolves around snacks as a way to avoid a park meltdown—something to which every parent can relate (even those who don’t travel that much).

While the videos themselves represent a brilliant perspective on how real-world parents interact about their kids, the comments on the videos offer an entirely different kind of education, providing insight to how those same real-world parents feel about the way the campaign represents them.

Even if you don’t travel with your kids, you’ll appreciate the new campaign. But for those of you who do travel with your little ones, the videos take on even more significance.

Don’t take my word for it; see for yourself. I dare you to watch without smiling.

A new alternative to schlepping gear on family trips

Schleppers no more

Schleppers no more

Ask any family traveler to describe the most annoying part of traveling with kids and he or she will tell you quickly: schlepping the gear.

Between strollers, high chairs, and Pack-N-Plays, moms and dads often exert more energy carrying baby accessories than they do carrying the babies themselves. Trust me when I tell you this, people: I’ve had the sore shoulders to prove it.

This is where Babierge comes in. The Albuquerque, N.M.-based company rents unwieldy gear of all shapes and sizes to parents in 22 different U.S. markets. Prices usually range from $6 to about $15 per item per day. In many cases, the Babierge people will even pick up and drop off items, and (when applicable) set up items that might be too confusing.

I learned of this great company during a recent chat with a local mom. Two weeks later, after chatting with the company founder and the two women who run the Babierge outpost in the northern San Francisco Bay Area, I wrote up this Q&A for AFAR.com (one of my recurring clients).

What struck me about the interviews was the breadth and depth of thought that has gone into the Babierge product offerings. Not only does the company offer “typical” items such as high chairs and BOB jogging strollers, but it also offers “toy packages” and “book packages,” which essentially are small (and customizable!) collections of toys or books for those families who don’t want to have to worry about bringing that stuff when they travel, either.

These real-world options indicate clearly that real-life moms and dads are the people behind this company. In an age where entrepreneurs often do anything to make a buck, the authenticity is refreshing. For that reason alone, I’m happy to try out the service on our next trip.

Yosemite through the words of my 7-year-old

The journal.

The journal.

Visiting Yosemite National Park has become an annual ritual in this family. We go (usually in spring), we hike, we commune with nature, we take a continuing education class or two, then we come home.

We’ve done this sort of thing just about every year for the last six. For almost all of those years, I was the one who did most of the writing—not only in my journal, but also for my clients, on my computer, both there in the park and here back at home. (I’ve updated a few guidebooks about the park.)

Last year, however, L got in on the action, too. As part of a broader effort to get her to journal, I challenged her to write about our multigenerational experience inside the park when we visited back in April 2016. She took the task very seriously, scribbling copious notes throughout our visit. Before we began, she agreed that at some point I could use her work in an article. That article published yesterday on the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia.

The piece, titled, “Yosemite, daughter-style,” comprises whole snippets from her journal—entire passages that describe slices of Yosemite in her words. I edited the copy only for style and grammar.

In the story I quote her on a wide range of subjects, from the road trip there to shufflepuck, our room at Evergreen Lodge to my father’s wacky way of ordering salad. I also tried to preserve her cadence—this totally unique voice that falls somewhere between innocent and totally irritated; a perfect mix for 7-going-on-17.

The process of flipping through her journal to find these passages gave me a newfound appreciation for everything we experience when we visit Yosemite. I hope her words have the same effect on you.

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