January 23, 2009

A Fun Riviera Maya Family Vacation

Iguanas and geckos and lizards, oh my!

That’s what my kids were saying on our vacation to the Riviera Maya. Of course they raved about the pool, and the waterslide, and the cool bathroom with the glass wall. But the biggest reaction came from seeing geckos hanging out (literally) on the patio, or huge iguanas sunning themselves on the roofs or in the middle of the sidewalk. My kids were in lizard heaven. But what else would one expect when vacationing in the middle of a jungle?

Extending almost 90 miles down the coast south of Cancun, the Riviera Maya is one of the hottest family vacation destinations right now. The tropical climate draws visitors year round, as daytime temperatures stay in the upper 80’s, evenings rarely dip below 70 degrees. And as word spreads of the amazing natural beauty, gorgeous beaches, and large variety of kid-friendly activities, it’s been growing in popularity with families.

The hotel industry has responded by building dozens of new resorts, both family-oriented all-inclusive chains like Palace, Dreams, Barcelo, and Iberostar, as well as luxury resorts with state-of-the-art spas and exceptional dining. In fact there are several Virtuoso properties in the Riviera Maya, including the Fairmont Mayakoba, Mandarin Oriental, Rosewood Mayakoba, Hotel Esencia, Maroma, Tides Rivera Maya, and Royal Hideaway Playacar. All offer exclusive amenities such as private airport transfers, champagne, spa treatments, or complimentary breakfast when guests book through a Virtuoso agent such as me.

My family has what I call an “eclectic” travel style – we enjoy everything from backpacking and camping to sipping drinks poolside at a five star luxury resort. So when planning this vacation, I was torn between trying out one these resorts, or staying at a small, laid-back property with local flavor. We managed to have it all by dividing our time between a boutique hotel in Akumal, and the Fairmont Mayakoba near Playa del Carmen.

Our first four nights were spent at Hotel Akumal Caribe, a small property with hotel rooms on the beach, and bungalows set back in the garden. The rooms were simple, the beds a bit hard, but the location could not be beat. We were steps from one of the most beautiful bays in the Riviera Maya, a place where the locals and many tour boats would come to snorkel because it is a nesting site for sea turtles. We snorkeled daily, and every trip in the water we were sure to see turtles and stingrays, and even an occasional barracuda.

Staying in the southern end of the Riviera Maya was convenient for sightseeing, as most of the archeological and natural sights are located nearby. Tulum is the most well-known of the ruins in that area, but easily reachable in the same day is Coba, less excavated and thus more natural (and less crowded), than Tulum or Chichen Itza. While my husband and I were fascinated with the Mayan history, my kids were more enamored, again, with the hundreds of iguanas that currently reside there. Obviously the environment suited them, as these guys were 3 or 4 times the size of the ones at our hotel!

Xel-Ha water park was only minutes away from Tulum, and we spent a full day snorkeling in the huge lagoon. This is a great spot for teaching young children to snorkel, as they provide life vests, there are no waves, and there are numerous platforms around the lagoon where swimmers can exit. The admission includes food, drinks, and snorkeling gear, and for an additional fee guests can swim with dolphins or walk underwater with Sea Trek, a “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” style experience.

Atkun Chen was another hit with the whole family. Even the kids enjoyed an hour long guided tour into a beautiful cave with a pristine cenote, which remains so because it is off-limits to swimmers. We unfortunately we unable to fit in Xcaret, another eco-park, so hopefully we can plan a trip back soon. Their focus is more on educating guests on the Mayan culture through exhibits and shows, but they also have dolphins, snorkeling lagoons, and a fun float on an underground river.

But our favorite part of Akumal had to be the food. We had an amazing seafood dinner at the tiny restaurant next to the marina one night, with the fattest, sweetest shrimp I have ever tasted. And the tiny little food counter attached to the grocery store wasn’t much to look at, but we frequently reminisce about the wonderful taco platters they served.

Though we were sad to leave Akumal, we were excited about our home for the next six nights, the new Fairmont Mayakoba luxury resort, just north of Playa del Carmen. When we checked in, we were handed a drink and a cool towel, and told that our butler would be with us shortly. Our butler?! Unbeknownst to me, we had been upgraded to a Signature Casita in the exclusive beachfront section of the resort. While at first I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with a butler, it turned out to be a wonderful perk that is becoming increasingly common at luxury resorts, and even on cruise ships.

The butler was basically our personal concierge, ready to do anything from unpacking our suitcases and ironing our clothes, to giving advice on where to park in Playa del Carmen, and reserving our chairs on the beach. And he made sure we were introduced to the other butlers, so wherever we went we were greeted with a wave and a friendly “Hola, Mack Family!” I’ll be posting more details about the Fairmont Mayakoba in a separate blog.

For more information about family vacations in the Riviera Maya, contact Suzette Mack, a Virtuoso Family Travel Advisor at suzette@family-treks.com.

January 15, 2009

A Dozen Disney Deals

As a Family Travel Specialist and College of Disney Graduate, I stay in touch with Mickey to make sure I am up to date with the latest offers from Disney. Here are a dozen great deals currently available:

1. Buy 4 nights get 3 nights free at Walt Disney World®. Offer applies to 4-night, 4-day Magic Your Way Package at a select Walt Disney World® Resort Hotels purchased by March 29. Valid for stays most nights Feb. 9 — April 4 and April 19 — June 27, 2009.

2. Kids 12 and under sail free on most 3-night Disney Cruises® from March 12 – May 28, 2009 with two full-fare guests in the same stateroom. Government taxes and fees not included.

3. Receive a fourth night free at a participating Disneyland® Resort Good Neighbor Hotel through the end of 2009.

4. Adults play for the kids’ price at Disneyland Resort® from January 6 through April 30, 2009. Offer applies to 3-Day or longer Disneyland® Resort Park Hopper® souvenir tickets, including tickets purchased in packages.

5. Kids fly free to Disneyland® on Alaska Airlines or United Airlines through June 17, 2009. Offer applies to 2-Night or longer Walt Disney Travel Company® vacation package booked by March 18, 2009.

6. Receive a Disney Gift Card for up to $150 when staying a minimum of 2 nights at the Hotels of the Disneyland® Resort. Offer valid January 6 through April 30, 2009.

7. Early Bookings Rates are available from Adventures by Disney® on select new 2009 itineraries when booked 90 days prior to departure. A family of four can save at least $1600!

8. Walt Disney World® is offering discounted room only rates. A standard room at a value resort is just $74 per night, plus tax, and a standard room at a moderate resort is just $124 per night plus tax. Rates valid most Sunday through Thursday nights, Feb. 16 – April 4, 2009.

9. Free admission on your birthday in 2009 to Walt Disney World® Resort in Florida or Disneyland® Resort in California. If you book a vacation package with multi-day tickets, you can choose from three alternate birthday gifts.

10. 25% off Platinum Magic Your Way packages for Walt Disney World® visits most nights January 4 through April 4, 2009 and April 19 through June 30, 2009. The Platinum package includes park tickets, a dining plan, itinerary planning assistance, a spa treatment and other magical extras. Must be booked no later than February 15, 2009.

11. Disney Cruise Line® Magical Rates are offered weekly on select 3-, 4-, and 7-night cruises. Rates are limited to 50 cabins per sailing, so book early!

12. Complimentary, customized, day-to-day itinerary planning when you book your trip with Suzette Mack, a College of Disney graduate and Virtuoso Family Travel Advisor.

For more information about any of the above offers, contact Suzette at

* All offers subject to availability, and may be changed or canceled at any time without notice.
* Restrictions or blackout dates may apply.

January 12, 2009

Tour Operators Help Families Save Money on Travel

Travelers often have the wrong perception of travel agents and tour operators. They assume that because there is a middleman, the price will be higher. But in the travel industry, the opposite is usually true. Tour operators use their bulk buying power to provide packaged vacations at a reduced rate. And they can usually negotiate extra perks like complimentary breakfast, shopping vouchers, or coupon books for added value. Travel agents have the additional advantage of knowing which tour operators have the best prices to various destinations, and also can book trips with companies who do not work directly with the public.

For example, I priced a 7 night vacation package to Maui in August for a family of four through a tour operator who specializes in Hawaii. The grand total, including non-stop flights out of SFO, full size car, 1 bedroom suite at the Fairmont Kea Lani (my personal favorite), taxes, and travel insurance, was $5978 for the lowest category room. An upgrade to an ocean view suite brought the package to $7288. And since I am a Virtuoso Travel Advisor, my clients would also receive a gift basket on arrival full of munchies.

Next I priced everything separately on the internet. The nonstop flights alone for four came to over $3400. Add the least expensive rate on the hotel’s website was $3783 including taxes. That’s $7200 total for just the airfare and hotel, so clients are essentially getting the car and insurance for free when booking a tour operator package.

An important note about insurance, which every traveler should be purchasing these days. This particular supplier allows cancellation for any reason with a complete cash refund (minus the travel protection plan cost which is quite reasonable). Even the airfare is completely refundable! So that is a great advantage for families who know they have to plan far in advance to get the best rates, but may need to change their plans down the road due to sports schedules or other conflicts.

Another destination with jaw-dropping hotel rates is New York City. I checked The Plaza’s rates over Thanksgiving, and they started at $1005 per night plus tax. A hotel package through a tour operator (one that happens to only work with travel agents), was $4432 including taxes for five nights. That’s a total savings of over $1200 when taxes are figured in! But in this case an even better value is to make a direct hotel booking through a Virtuoso agent. The Virtuoso rates net about $1000 in savings, and include exclusive amenities: an upgrade based on availability, a $100 dining credit, and daily buffet breakfast for two. That’s the advantage of working with a Virtuoso travel advisor – I check all options to find out which gives the best value for my clients.

Speaking of holidays, booking through a tour operator is a one way to find hotel space during busy travel periods. Hotels block off rooms for tour operators, and cannot sell them until the space is released back to the hotel, usually quite close to the travel date. So even though a hotel says it is “sold out,” a tour operator may still have rooms available in their allotment.

This is also true when trying to book a flight to a popular destination. I have been able to book the most desirable nonstop flights to Maui for Spring Break when the airline itself doesn’t have seats to sell, and at a significantly lower cost than the less desirable schedules. But the number of seats available is limited, so my savvy clients know to contact me very early to get the best package rates.

For more details, contact Suzette Mack, a Virtuoso Family Travel Advisor at suzette@family-treks.com.

January 6, 2009

Treating Families Like Royalty in London

London is a great destination for families, with lots of kid-friendly activities such as watching the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, riding on a double-decker bus, visiting Harry Potter movie sights, or exploring the Tower of London. But parents often get frustrated trying to find suitable accommodations. As a Family Travel Advisor, I know which hotels go out of their way to make children of all ages welcome, and how to obtain the best value and extra amenities.

One of the most kids-friendly hotels in London is The Goring, a Virtuoso hotel in a wonderful location next to Buckingham Palace. And they are one of the few hotels that will guarantee a complimentary upgrade at time of booking for clients of Virtuoso travel advisors. A free upgrade is a standard Virtuoso amenity, but it is usually based “on availability.” That means you won’t find out until you check-in if you will be bumped up to a better room. By guaranteeing the upgrade “at time of booking,” you pay for one room category but are confirmed in the next higher room category. So you can book the room or view you want and be assured of a discounted rate. Virtuoso clients also receive complimentary daily breakfast for two, flowers, fruit, and a selection of teas.

The Goring welcomes children with open arms, and even has a connecting room configuration – just ask for the “Delightful Family Accommodation.” Yes, that's what it's really called. In fact, The Goring has some of the most unique names for their rooms I have ever seen, including “The Most Splendid Balcony Room” or my personal favorite, “The Best Room.” There is no stodginess here!

Parents of very young children will find all the essentials they need, from changing pads to bath toys, and children of all ages are welcome to check out books from the Bedtime Story Library. A "For Kids Eyes Only" pack includes an activity book and crayons, and a Goring Passport to be stamped as they visit different areas in the hotel, including the kitchen where they will decorate cookies with the chef. The beautiful gardens also provide a safe area for kids to run around and burn off energy.

The Draycott, located between fashionable Chelsea and Knightsbridge, also has rooms designed just for families. Most popular are bunk bed rooms adjoining to a double room, many which have their own fireplaces and sitting areas. For more space, families can book the two bedroom Draycott Suite, which spans an entire floor of the hotel and includes a fully equipped kitchen. Children receive a gift bag on arrival, and have access to a library of CD’s, DVD’s, and Playstation games. Families are pampered with gourmet picnic lunches made to order, special breakfast for children, champagne and tea for the adults, and hot chocolate at bedtime for the kids.

For families spending a weekend in London, The Stafford near Piccadilly is offering special rates on connecting rooms in the Main House, or connecting junior suites in the Stafford Mews. A recent upgrade provides modern amenities such as air-conditioning, complimentary wireless internet access, US power sockets; satellite television, plasma TV’s and a fitness center.

And for the most discriminating families, Ritz-Carlton can always be relied upon to offer impeccable service and elegance. Keeping with the luxury chain’s family-friendly reputation, The Ritz London gives children the VIK (Very Important Kid) treatment with their Kidz@TheRitz program, including a welcome goodie bag, bathrobe and slippers, complimentary ice cream, milk and cookies at bedtime, and even a Teen Concierge. Virtuoso guests also receive preferred rates, a complimentary upgrade (based on availability), and daily breakfast for two.

For more details, contact Suzette Mack, a Virtuoso Family Travel Advisor at suzette@family-treks.com.