March 29, 2010

Don't Be Tripped Up by Travel Insurance

It’s not only a waste of money to pay too much for travel insurance, but if it's the wrong type of policy, a family can still end up losing their entire vacation investment should they have to cancel a trip unexpectedly. And as I have pointed out before, often the insurance provided by a travel supplier, such as an airline or cruise line, is not the best choice for travelers.

As with any purchase, the keys are to know what you need, and understand what you are buying. That means actually reading through the policy so that you understand what is and isn't covered, rather than assuming it will cover you ‘no matter what.’ The most common mistake I see travelers make is purchasing insurance because they have a specific concern, such as a family member who is ill, or an uncertain employment situation, but the policy they chose specifically excluded these situations. Hurricane coverage is also frequently misunderstood. Your resort may offer a "Hurricane Guarantee" but they are certainly not going to reimburse you for missed flights!

To avoid purchasing the wrong policy, read through the list of benefits to verify that they cover anything that might cause you to cancel your trip. (This type of detail may not be in the brochure. You need to find a dcoument called Description of Coverage, Schedule of Benefits, etc.) For example, a basic policy may not offer coverage for work-related reasons, which is often needed by lawyers, doctors, and business owners. This is where insurance sold by travel suppliers may fall short, and they usually charge more to boot! But with a third party insurance policy, you can purchase an inexpensive upgrade which will provide this additional coverage.

It helps to understand insurance terminology, and many policies provide a glossary. Important definitions to check are “trip delay,” “trip interruption,” “family member,” and “pre-existing condition.” For example, does trip delay coverage start after 3, 5, or 12 hours? Is flight cancellation due to inclement weather covered, or just for mechanical problems? Does the policy cover non-related traveling companions and domestic partners?

Here’s one scenario I learned about recently. Let’s say a group of friends who are not related book a cruise together, and purchase insurance. A few weeks before the trip, when most of the cruise fare is nonrefundable, one family has to cancel due to a medical emergency. Their insurance policy covers them, but can the rest of the group also cancel and get a refund? If they purchased the cruise line insurance, probably not. However, if they had purchased a third party travel insurance policy which includes coverage for traveling companions, then the rest of the group could cancel as well.

No matter how you book your vacation, consult a professional when buying travel insurance. Any travel agent should be happy to help you sort through the various options to select the policy that is right for your family. For more information, contact Suzette Mack at suzette@family-treks.com.

March 22, 2010

A Girls' Getaway to San Francisco

San Francisco is a fun city to spend a few hours or a few nights, a perfect destination for a girls' getaway weekend. And when "the girls" are mother and daughter, it makes for great memories.

Recently, my daughter and I spent a night in the city along with a group of friends. Our "home" for the evening: the fun and hip Hotel Triton. The location couldn't have been more convenient. Out the door to the left was the Union Square shopping district. To the right was the gate to Chinatown. Across the street was a Starbucks, and right next door was Café de la Press which had great breakfast and pastries. And cable car stops were just a short walk away.
As soon as you walk into the lobby of the hotel, you know it's a special place. The whimsical decor, bright colors, and wall murals pay homage to pop art culture. It's the kind of place where you notice new details on every visit, and there are fun surprises, too, like Dr. Seuss books on the lobby tables one morning. We were all impressed with the staff, who were warm, friendly, and eager to go the extra mile for their guests. I half expected eye-rolling when they saw a group of 10 year old girls march in the door, but they went out of their way to accommodate us, such as having plenty of juice and soft drinks on hand for the complimentary manager's reception in the evening.
Since there were just two of us, we had a standard room with two double beds. Though on the small side, typical for a boutique city hotel, the details were impressive. A beautiful vanity lined with mirrors, custom glass light fixtures, fun wall art, a checkerboard shower stall, and, much to the girls' delight, zebra print robes in the closet. And if that's not enough, the Hotel Triton welcomes pets, and has also been widely recognized for its eco-friendly practices. Harper's Bazaar named it the best hotel in San Francisco: "a happening and unique escape from the mundane."

For families, I'd recommend the specially themed Häagen-Dazs Suite. It has a king bed, sofabed, and room for a rollaway, so it can comfortably sleep up to four. And the best part: all the ice cream you can eat. There is even a stocked freezer in the room! (The hotel also has two other Celebrity Suites: Kathy Griffin and Jerry Garcia.)

Hotel Triton is a member of the Kimpton Hotels group, which offers a great selection of accommodations in many cities across the country. They all offer the Kimpton Kids program, with special amenities and services for families.

There are lots of activities for all ages in San Francisco. On our trip, we strolled through Chinatown, saw the musical Wicked, and visited the King Tut exhibit at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. If we had more time, some other activities kids love are a cruise on the bay, a tour of Alcatraz, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, and shopping and eating on Fisherman's Wharf. And many other northern California attractions are an easy drive away, including beautiful coastline, giant redwoods, and wine country.

For more information about planning a great family vacation, contact Suzette Mack at suzette@family-treks.com.

March 15, 2010

Family Trip Report: Gran Melia Puerto Rico

A family recently visited Puerto Rico with their children ages 4 and 7. She rented a car for her trip, as there are many fun and interesting places to explore on the island, including El Yunque Rainforest, Old San Juan (a UNESCO World Heritage site), and Rio Camuy Cave Park. (Click here to receive a Puerto Rico Nature and Adventure guide.)

Here are some of her comments about the resort:

"The Gran Melia Resort was nice. The common areas were beautiful. We enjoyed our stay. All the staff we interacted with were welcoming and friendly.

The pool area was excellent! There are 4 pools at the resort. One is a separate kiddie pool for babies - maybe 1' deep. Another is the main resort pool, which is a huge pool shaped like an amoeba. Within the huge pool, there are several parts that are very shallow - families can take their pick from at least 3 different areas of the pool that are shallow (anywhere from 12 inches or so up to 3 feet deep). There is no water slide, and there are no hot tubs or jacuzzis in the pool area - only jetted sections of the pool. There is a 3rd pool which is for Royal Service guests only and is strictly for adults. Finally there is a pool at the spa.

The room itself was comfortable and spacious. It had a separate sitting area. We had a Royal Service room which was in one of the closer buildings to the main resort area. The room decor and overall feel was nice...marble vanities, nice bedding.

Families who stay at the Gran Melia should know that there is a beach but it is very rocky and there is a lot of seaweed. The good news is that nice beaches are very close. Luquillo Beach is 15 minutes away, and Seven Seas Beach (in Fajardo) is 20-25 minutes away. We went to Seven Seas beach and it was gorgeous.

The best meal of our vacation was actually a homestyle Puerto Rican meal at El Punto in Old San Juan. It was a tiny restaurant with maybe 4 tables, tucked in the back of a souvenir-shop alley. Their rice and beans were excellent. We also enjoyed the Brass Cactus in Luquillo, which serves Southwestern cuisine and is owned by a California native. "

It's not too late to plan a great vacation, and many promotions are available for summer travel to the Caribbean. And remember, no passports are required for Puerto Rico!

To receive a Nature and Adventure guide for Puerto Rico, or for help with planning great family vacation to any destination, contact Suzette Mack, Family Travel Specialist, at suzette@family-treks.com.

March 3, 2010

On Vacation, Happy Kids = Happy Parents

My friends told me it would happen, and I heard about it happening to others. But I never actually thought it would happen to us. I guess I had been in denial, I was sure this was not something that my family would go through. We planned ahead, and carefully raised our kids to avoid this problem. Things were going to be different for us!

Alas, we were wrong. On our last trip, it happened. We heard what every parent dreads: “I’m bored.” “Why didn't we just stay home!” I cringed as these words came out of my 12 year old son’s mouth.

Now granted, this was not one of our “big” vacations. It was just an overnight getaway only a few hours from home. I had been frustrated that we had not spent much time enjoying the tourist attractions right in our own backyard. So when we had a free holiday weekend, we took a quick trip up to Pt. Reyes and Tomales Bay, just north of San Francisco. I was looking forward to a fun family adventure: we could visit a spot along the San Andreas fault where it ruptured in 1906, see a beautiful stretch of California coastline, and also go whale-watching. What’s not to like? First stop, the visitor center, and a short interpretive trail along the fault line. The complaints started rolling in: “I hate these trails!” “ Dad’s going to want to stop & read every sign!” “It’s so boring!” “I want to go to a beach!” Given that we had experienced several earthquakes recently, I thought the kids would really be into this. But even my daughter, who’s usually very enthusiastic, had a frown on her face. Apparently the recent quakes had the opposite effect: she was worried that the ground was going to open up right beneath our feet and she couldn’t wait to get back to the car.
Next stop, the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse. But getting there required going to another visitor center to purchase bus tickets, and then waiting for the bus. We were at a pretty beach, so both kids’ eyes lit up and they asked, “Can we go play in the sand?” Well, of course the answer was "No," as we had to get on a bus, so now there was more grumbling and moaning. I was really getting worried that our “fun family outing” wasn’t going to be so fun.

Finally we arrived at the lighthouse, which is exceptionally picturesque perched at the bottom of a very steep cliff. Steep as in over 300 steps almost straight down! This time I was the one not so enthusiastic, trying to decide whether going down or up was going to be more painful. But things were looking up for my kids, who couldn’t wait to race down the stairs. Now I was hearing “Cool!” and “Wow!” The situation was looking better!

From the lighthouse, we started scanning the horizon for whale spouts. "This could be ugly," I thought, “If we don’t see a whale I will never get these kids out here again.” A few minutes later, a shout of “There’s one!” and the kids were hooked. No more complaints the rest of the afternoon. On the bus ride back to our car, the kids happily talked about the day, and kept an eye out for more wildlife, including elk, deer, and hawks.

Whew! We dodged a bullet on this trip, though I see that it may take a bit more work to keep my kids engaged as they grow older. I need to be sure that we budget time for the little things they enjoy most, like playing on the beach. And any opportunity to see wildlife is a sure hit.

There is more good news. My son told me last night he wants to see the fossils at the La Brea Tar Pits – music to my ears!

For help with planning your next family adventure, contact Suzette Mack at suzette@family-treks.com.