September 20, 2011

Cool Things to Know About Germany

There are 33 UNESCO World Heritage sites.

1.5 million gallons of beer are consumed at Oktoberfest.

Germany represents the largest ethnic community in the US, and there is a website dedicated to exploring German heritage.

AMA Waterways is the only river cruise to offer internet access in every cabin.

Erfurt’s Christmas market is 161 years old.

The Museum of Military History will open in Dresden in October.

The supposed relics of the Three Kings, or biblical Magi, are housed in a golden shrine in Cologne.

Dusseldorf’s beer festival in July has more visitors than Oktoberfest in Munich.

Porsche’s can be rented exclusively from Avis. (And 2011 marked the 125th anniversary of the invention of the automobile.)

Mt. Zugspitz is the highest mountain in Germany at 9700 ft, offering skiing November through May. The summit is accessible by cogwheel railroad and cable cars.

Why is Germany a great destination for families?
• It’s inexpensive compared to other European countries, for both accommodations, food, and sightseeing.
• It’s easy to travel by car or by train, so you can plan a flexible, stress-free itinerary.
• You can enjoy both city sights and the countryside in one trip. Many cities make a great base for fun day trips, but the country is small enough you can combine multiple destinations.
• There’s something for everyone, from art museums & historical sights, to kid-friendly castles and theme parks. Teens and young adults like visiting the BMW and Porsche museums, and they even offer special tours for younger kids.

I'd love to help you plan a fantastic family vacation! Contact me at suzette@family-treks.com

August 30, 2011

3 Must-Do's When Planning a Cruise Vacation

This week there were reports of travelers left stranded when cruise ships were forced to set sail early due to Hurricane Irene. These events reinforced three key things that I have stressed over and over again to clients planning a cruise:

1) Purchase travel insurance - Each cruise line handled the situation differently. Some took care of the passengers accommodations for the night and arranged for them to fly to the ship the next day. Another only helped clients who booked their air with the cruise line, and told the others they were on their own because it was a weather-related incident.

If you think the cruise line is required to make good, you'd better re-read the fine print in the cruise contract. They generally have it pretty well covered that they can change anything without notice, especially when it’s due to bad weather. Instead of spending your time on hold with the cruise line trying to argue about the fairness of it, you can be on the phone with the insurance company’s customer service department working on your alternate arrangements. And you can submit a claim to get your extra expenses reimbursed, including hotel stays and transportation to the ship, subject to the policy’s terms & conditions. 2) Arrive in the embarkation city at least one day early – When a ship’s schedule is moved up, passengers arriving the same day have a much shorter time window in which to absorb schedule changes. Traveling can be nerve-wracking at times, but when schedules are packed too tightly, the slightest mishap can send stress sky-rocketing. This week, even if the ships were going to leave at the scheduled time, inclement weather could have caused flight delays into the port city. Arriving the day before is always a good idea, even if your destination is just a short flight away. Imagine the airport being completely shut down because of a bomb threat, a hazardous chemical leak, etc. Unless you are able to drive yourself to the port at short notice should flying become impossible, you should fly in at least a day early. For travel across an ocean, I’d suggest 2-3 days early.

Now you may say, “I was smart & bought insurance, I’m covered if my flight is delayed.” But did you read the fine print to know if there a minimum delay time required for insurance to kick in? For example, your policy might require a delay of at least 5 hours before they will cover you for missing your ship. What if your flight was only delayed 3 or 4 hours, but your schedule was so tight that you still couldn’t make the ship? You may be out of luck. 3) Carry a valid passport (and make sure it does not expire for at least 6 months beyond the last day of your trip) -
Some cruises, such as closed loop itineraries which sail to & from the same US port, still allow travel with only a birth certificate and photo ID. But a prepared traveler ALWAYS takes a valid passport. During Hurricane Irene, passengers that were trying to reach their ship needed to fly to the next port. But if they didn’t have a passport, they were out of luck, a birth certificate is not acceptable ID for air travel outside the US.

Similarly, what if something happened that required you to come home early, such as illness, injury, or family emergency. Or what if the ship had mechanical problems and was forced to unload passengers in a foreign port? You will be scrambling to contact the nearest embassy in order to get home.

Whether or not a cruise line acted fairly is not the issue here. When you’re traveling and things go wrong, you want them fixed ASAP so you can get on with your vacation. Even if someone could guarantee you that your travel supplier was wrong and you were owed compensation, that’s no comfort in the moment, when all you want to do is go on that family vacation you have been dreaming about. Be proactive, and do everything you can to minimize stress, delays, and expense when something goes wrong, by following these three rules.

August 17, 2011

Back to School Tip: Old Luggage Tags

When my kids were young, they had a variety of after-school activities. I worried how they would remember that on Tuesday and Thursday they had Homework Club, or every other Wednesday was Spanish Club. Because my kids rode a school bus, it was important they did not forget and take the bus home, or else they could be dropped off at an empty house.

I was wracking my brain to think of how I could give them a note that would last the duration of the school day in a visible place. A Post-It just wasn’t going to cut it, and pinning a note to their clothes would have just been mean.

As I worked in my office one afternoon putting together documents for a client, the idea came to me: luggage tags!

We had a surplus of luggage tags from our travels, as well as ones I have picked up over the years from travel trade shows. Using a Sharpie marker, I wrote the name of the activity and the location on the back of the address card, or if that wasn’t suitable, just flipped over one of my business cards.

I made one tag for each activity, and simply attached it the backpack on the appropriate day. My kids NEVER missed an activity. They were always reminded of where they had to be as they packed up their backpack at the end of the school day.

My kids don’t need this system anymore, but I have been seriously thinking of reviving it to remind ME when I need to do something. Pick up the dry cleaning, buy a birthday gift, take the dog to the vet, ... Now where's my Sharpie?

As the school year begins, it's time to think about planning holiday trips, spring break, and even next summer's vacation. Don't miss out on a great family trip because you got so busy with work, volunteering, or chauffering kids around that you didn't have time to plan. Contact me at suzette@family-treks.com to get a head start!

July 25, 2011

A Whale of Fun in Monterey

I love any activity involving nature, & especially wildlife watching, because by definition, wildlife is unpredictable. It’s often like a treasure hunt, requiring me to listen & watch carefully in hopes of spotting an elusive creature. I feel privileged when I get to spy on their everyday mundane activities, amazed at how much time animals spend just trying to stay alive. My life seems so unnecessarily hectic in comparison.

So I was excited when we decided to take the kids to Monterey for a whale watching cruise with Princess Monterey. It’s one of those close to home touristy activities that we often overlook, and in fact my husband & I had not gone on one in at least 15 years. My 11 year old daughter was excited, but my teen son wasn’t particularly enthused, saying the whole thing sounded pretty boring.
So shortly after we parked our car, I was happy to see him perk up as we noticed two otters lounging on the walkway alongside the marina. How can anyone not enjoy these cuties? We stood there for several minutes, watching them rolling around on their backs, and jumping in & out of the water to cool off. We were used to seeing sea lions sprawled everywhere, but this was not typical behavior for otters. Our first wildlife surprise of the day, yay! We found the boat, and as we waited to board, the marine biologist who was accompanying us gave an orientation talk. Katherine was funny and enthusiastic, and I thought how great for someone to love her job this much. That she could be this excited about seeing whales and other marine wildlife day after day after day, with a bunch of tourists, no less.

As we headed out of the bay, she told us about the various kinds of wildlife we were likely to see, and how to spot the whales. Humpbacks were commonly sighted, but they had also been seeing a lot of blue whales during the week, including some just that morning. But because they are always moving, there is never a guarantee they’ll be in the same spot, even just an hour later. So I reconciled myself to being happy with seeing humpbacks and considering it a special treat if we saw a blue.
As we motored out to open waters, we enjoyed watching the marine birds swim & dive, and the funny looking “egg yolk” jellyfish floating in the sea. As we approached the mouth of Monterey Bay, we were able to see spouts in the distance, which was a thrill in and of itself. “Kids” young & old ooh’ed and aah’ed as they pointed excitedly towards the horizon. But these whales were far away, so our captain headed towards another boat that had located a something special: a mother humpback and her baby! This was a special because the babies are only obvious in their first year. Very quickly they become as large as their parents, making it almost impossible to recognize a mother/child pair. So even Katherine was excited for this unique opportunity.

We followed the momma and her baby for at least an hour, and kept an eye out for blues, but no luck. However the humpbacks gave us a nice show, frequently spouting and showing off their flukes as they dove.It was time to return to the dock, so we settled in to enjoy the views of the Carmel coastline on the way back. Suddenly, over the loudspeaker came Katherine's excited voice: “Left side, left side!" We jumped up just in time to see a spout only about 50 yards away, and a large, sleek mass rolling slowing through the water. A lone blue whale was cruising by in the opposite direction, moving so quickly we realized we were fortunate to have crossed paths with him. (They can travel at speeds of up to 30 mph!)

As we watched in awe, Katherine reminded us that this was the largest living creature on earth, and I was so happy that my kids had the chance to see one in the wild. The whale remained in sight only a few minutes, but the memory will remain much longer.

Once again, a wildlife outing created wonderful family memories for us, and we didn’t even have to travel far from home. And by the way, my teenager was all smiles from the moment we saw the otter, until we got back to our car after the cruise.

I love helping families create wonderful memories like this. For help planning your next family vacation, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com

June 16, 2011

Last Minute Luxury from Rosewood Resorts

Great family vacation values are to be found this summer through all the luxury Rosewood Resort properties. Their “Summer with Rosewood” promotion includes either a complimentary night or special room rate including breakfast, for travel through September 30, 2011.

Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda, offers the 5th night free, or if you pay for 5 nights, the 6th and 7th night free. Their acclaimed children’s program espouses environmental appreciation in the Children's Grove, a 2,500 sq. ft. facility boasting a miniature Caribbean chattel house, dress-up parlor, arts and crafts center, shipwreck, outside play area and many other exciting tropical activities. A complimentary children's Pirate Party and buffet is held every Monday, and even teenagers have their own private space.
Las Ventanas al Paraíso, a desert beach resort in Los Cabos, offers suites starting at $515/night including breakfast and butler and concierge service. Though known as one of the most romantic resorts in the world, Las Ventanas also welcomes children of all ages and offers items such as cribs, changing tables, baby baths, and more for parents.
Additionally, several Rosewood properties offer even more values exclusively for clients of Rosewood Elite agencies:

* The Carlyle’s Suite Deal package includes limousine transfers from any airport in the New York City metropolitan area, one 60-minute massage, and breakfast buffet for two daily. Located in the trendy Upper East Side, the hotel’s spacious suites offer a ‘home away from home’ for families with separate sleeping and living room areas, and a kitchenette for simple meal preparation. And throughout 2011, The Carlyle will extend to all Rosewood Elite Agency guests complimentary cover charge for two and $50 cocktail credit at Bemelmans Bar.

* At Rosewood Mayakoba in the Riviera Maya, receive a guaranteed upgrade at time of booking with the Rosewood Escapes package, as well as Virtuoso amenities which include daily breakfast for two, a $100 spa credit, free internet, and a tequila amenity. Facilities for children include the complimentary Toolok Kid's Club for ages 3-12, a TV & Game Room, and an Arts, Crafts & Board Games area. Babysitters or parents can relax with children <3 in the Soft Room. * At all-inclusive Jumby Bay in Antigua, book a guaranteed Pool Suite for $1150 ($375 off rack rate). Rate includes welcome amenity, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, beverages, house wine and cocktails by the glass, afternoon tea, water sports, fitness center, croquet field, putting green and children's program, Manager's Cocktail Party and Sunset Cocktail Cruise. Exclusive rates are also available for 2, 3, and 4-bedroom villas.
For more information about exclusive rates and amenities for families, contact Suzette Mack, Family Travel Advisor at suzette@family-treks.com.

May 29, 2011

What's in Your Suitcase?

There are lots of packing lists for travel, and plenty of reviews on the latest “must have” travel gear for families. But here is my list of mostly low tech items that we always take on vacation, whether it’s a local road trip or a flight overseas.

Individual powdered drink mix – Such as Propel or Crystal Light. It saves money since we don’t have to buy as many beverages on the go, it’s green because we recycle bottles, and it’s healthy because my kids are more likely to stay hydrated than if all they have to drink is plain water. It was especially useful in Europe where the selection of soft drinks was limited, often all the only options were Orangina or regular Coke.
Nightlight – I take one traveling with or without the kids, because hotel rooms and cruise staterooms often have blackout curtains. It’s easier to find the bathroom in the middle of the night, and prevents tripping over or stubbing toes on a suitcase in a pitch black room. They’re available at dollar stores so if I leave it behind accidentally, no big deal.

Power strip – A family of four often carries more electronic gadgets that there are wall outlets available, so a multi-outlet strip helps prevent arguments. I bought a dual voltage power strip from a travel shop for our recent trip to France, and it had a USB port as well. It allowed us to could get by with fewer adapters, too.

Extra ear buds and a splitter – I save all the ones we pick up while traveling, and keep them with our travel gear. It’s nice to have backups in case one breaks, or is forgotten. The splitter allows two kids to share one iPhone to watch a movie or listen to music.

Collapsible insulated tote – I have a fairly large one that is light and packs almost flat. It does not have thick insulation, but works well if items are already cold. It’s convenient & a cost savings to purchase drinks and a picnic lunch while traveling.

Swim rings, floats, and beach balls – I buy cheap ones for less than $2, and leave them in the package so they are flat and compact. Then we don’t have to buy or rent while on vacation, and each kid has their own (again, avoid arguments). When heading home, we can leave them behind or give them away. Though my ever-thrifty husband has been known to deflate & pack them down to almost the original size so they fit back in the suitcase.

May 23, 2011

The Family Vacation Un-Deal

I am going to tell you how to get the absolute lowest possible price for your family vacation. The catch? It will only be valid the moment I give it to you, and could possibly disappear within hours, or even minutes. Purchasing travel is sometimes like buying stock. It might be best to buy right now, it might be best to buy a few months from now. But without a crystal ball, who knows?

Oh, but you say, you are a travel professional, so you should know the trends and patterns. Well, the trends and patterns we can rely on are simply supply vs. demand. Demand is high during holidays and school vacations, so prices will be higher. Demand is lower in fall, and between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so prices will be lower. But if a volcano erupts, or there’s a political uprising, prices will probably drop no matter what time of year. But then you probably don’t want to go anyway, do you?

My point is, when you’ve decided that you are going to take a family vacation, and you have a pretty good idea of where you want to go, then book it! It’s fine to do some price-shopping, to see if it fits your budget. But once you see what you consider a “fair price,” don't agonize that you might save $50, $100, or even $500 by waiting for a better deal to come along. Because that later deal might not save you any money.

Case in point: A client booked an all-inclusive resort in Mexico in March, for travel in July. We found a good package, and in fact the vacation was less than he budgeted. Now in May, the resort is advertising a “Kids Free” promotion. So he contacted me and asked if he could switch to the new deal and save money. Well, it turned out that this "deal" would actually double the price of his vacation! If he had procrastinated in booking his trip, it would have cost him several thousand dollars more. (Yet he'd be proud of himself for having scored this "deal.")Another marketing ploy to be wary of is “special” or “exclusive” rates. They imply they are cheaper, but note that isn’t what they said. I once saw a popular internet travel site advertise their exclusive rates for a luxury resort on Maui. I checked it out, because our relationship with that resort was supposed to ensure nobody could offer a better value. It turns out the internet site did have a special rate: they were offering the rooms for $1/night more than the hotel’s regular rate! A little tweak in the rate, just so they could say it was "exclusive."

These stories support the two rules that I go by to get the best value: book earlier rather than later, and book through the right supplier, because travel companies are not all created equal. The reason I say “value” instead of “price” is that it’s not always about the money. You have to look at the whole package: can the supplier guarantee a USD rate for a European hotel, will you get first priority for a complimentary upgrade, are meals or spa treatments included?
It’s true, there are last minute “fire sales” when suppliers have unsold inventory, and they can be very, very good. But trust me, nobody is giving away travel for free! Also remember, you don’t get much choice in that situation. It’s like shopping at a “Going Out of Business” sale. If you don’t mind taking whatever’s left, you’re happy to go or stay anywhere if it’s cheap, then knock yourself out. But if you have an image of the “perfect” vacation for your family, do you really want to risk not getting what you want, or worse, get stuck paying more than you should have?

So stop stressing over when and how to book your next family vacation. Instead set your budget, tell your travel advisor what you're dreaming of, and sit back & relax as they figure out how to get you the most for your money. To learn more about, please email me at suzette@family-treks.com

May 16, 2011

The Best of Paris (As Per My Kids)

I asked my 11 year old daughter and my 13 year old son what they liked most about our recent trip to Paris, and to my surprise they came up with almost identical lists.

1. Climbing the Eiffel Tower – This was number one on both their lists. Because we did not buy elevator tickets in advance (shame on me, I knew better), we opted for the much shorter line to take the stairs. There was no complaining about the hour long wait, or the 668 stairs to the second level, the highest you can go without an elevator ticket. Though we weren’t at the very top, the views were amazing, and the kids were just thrilled to be there.
2. Old buildings – That’s exactly how they both put it. They thought the bridges and buildings were cool, because “they don’t make stuff like that anymore.” And that they looked completely different from what they would see at home. They especially liked all the bridges crossing the Seine, and the “love locks.”
3. Great food – Even the fussiest of eaters (my daughter) can appreciate French cuisine. Or maybe everything just tastes better when we're on vacation. But even familiar dishes like frankfurters & frites or ham & cheese sandwiches were a bit different from what we got at home, which made them extra yummy and fun to eat. My son, the adventurous eater, was in heaven, even willing to forego fries in order to try ratatouille. And we all agreed the gelato was outstanding. (Does it get better the closer you get to Italy?) I just know that we all feel much more sophisticated now that we can talk about our favorite place for [insert food here] in Paris.
4. The Louvre – I had considered skipping the Louvre, because I wasn't sure my kids were going to enjoy it. But the second I mentioned the Mona Lisa was there, they said we had to go. (I did have advance tickets this time, which meant we got to skip a very long line outside.) We spent four hours in the museum, going through just about every wing. I know many will cringe at the image of us briskly walking through the halls without stopping. But I left the pace up to the kids, and when they saw something they liked, we stopped and savored it. (They especially liked the statues.) My son confessed that he was surprised by how much he liked the Louvre: “I expected it to be boring, but the huge paintings were impressive.”

5. Walking along the Seine – My daughter liked strolling along the river, because it was "just like what I see on TV and in movies." And in fact on the flight home we saw The Tourist, with opening scenes shot in Paris and Gare Lyon, where we had just been a few days earlier. Seeing these places on the big screen was, and always will be, a treat for them. The kids also had fun checking out the souvenirs offered by the vendors along the river. And we ended our trip with an evening cruise to see the city lights.

What's great about traveling with kids is that they are generally happy just to see new things, and they are easily pleased. The key is to let them make some decisions, and go at their pace. This is actually a good thing for us parents, because it forces us to slow down & enjoy the moment, rather than rush through trying to see the every highlight in the guidebook.

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

May 5, 2011

The Ritz Carlton, Lake Tahoe: Ski Paradise for Families

Today I am going to write about a amazing ski resort. Now it may seem strange that I am covering this topic when most people are pretty tired of cold weather and eagerly waiting for summer. But the fact remains, if you want to plan a family ski vacation for next Christmas or winter break, you need to think about booking it now!

There are many great ski destinations, but I have admit I am biased towards California, and specifically Lake Tahoe. The views, great weather, and abundance of local activities are hard to beat. And now families have a great option for a luxury ski vacation which will please all ages: The Ritz Carlton, Lake Tahoe.

This relatively new resort (opened December 2009) was not quite what I expected. It being a mountain lodge, I anticipated a rustic décor, including knotty pine, antlers, and Native American textiles. The Ritz Carlton, Lake Tahoe does rely heavily on outdoor themes, featuring wood, water, and gr
anite throughout the property, but it’s done in a simple, modern style with clean lines and earth tones.

Despite its modest size, only 170 rooms & suites, it offers all the services & amenities of any large resort. And perched high on the mountain above Northstar Village, it has spectacular views and true ski in/ski out access. It is literally surrounded by ski runs, and from every vantage point in the hotel (fitness center, spa, meeting space, rooms, or club lounge), skiers can be seen zipping down the slopes.

My favorite feature is the ski valet. Guests check their gear with the valet for the duration of their stay, then when ready to ski simply call ahead to have everything ready & waiting for them. Even their boots will be warmed up! Beginning skiers can hitch a ride with “The Sherpa” to mid-mountain for lessons or to access easier trails and the cross country area. (I really like cross-country skiing at Northstar. Because the trails are up on the mountain, you can get great views easy on the easy trails.)
After a day on the slopes, guests can relax in the The Living Room, with floor to ceiling windows, a large central fireplace, and bar. There is a fire pit on the terrace, with live music occasionally, and guests can purchase a s’mores kit. And the family pool is maintained at 92F in winter, offering comfortable swimming year round. For guests who want to go out, a gondola runs to the Village for shopping, dining, ice skating, and more entertainment. Staying in? Try the “Experiential Shower” in their beautiful spa, which is included in the resort fee.

All rooms are spacious, but best for families are the one bedroom suites, which have a king bed, and separate living room with sofa bed. And there are two full baths with showers, making it easy for the whole family to get cleaned up quickly after a day of skiing. All the suites connect to a room with 2 queen beds, great options for larger families, or those traveling with grandparents.

The Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe is also a great warm weather destination, with plenty of outdoor activities in the area, from fishing & kayaking to hiking and cycling. You can even take the ski lift to the top of the mountain!

To get the best rates and amenities, such as complimentary breakfast and an upgrade (based on availability), contact Suzette Mack at suzette@family-treks.com.

May 1, 2011

The Grumpy Garçon: A Family's First Dining Experience in Paris

We just returned from our spring break trip to France, visiting Paris and Provence. I have so many things to write about, but one experience keeps coming to mind. It was our first full day in Paris, so we wanted to see many of the famous monuments.

We spent a leisurely morning walking along the Seine from our Left Bank hotel to the Eiffel Tower, photographing famous sights along the way. We were a bit overwhelmed by the crowds & lines in the plaza beneath the Tower, as it was Easter weekend, one of the busiest times of the year. We decided to cross the Seine and find a quieter spot for lunch on the way to the Arc de Triomphe.

Using our map as a guide, we headed up one of the quieter streets that led towards Place Charles de Gaulle. We saw a quiet café on the corner of Rue Monceau, were only a few tables were occupied. It looked like more of a local spot than a tourist hangout which was just what we wanted, and we took a seat outside to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather. We appreciated the fact that this wasn’t going to be hectic & touristy, but also realized that we probably would not have the luxury of English translations on the menu, as we had seen in other restaurants. So we were a bit apprehensive at having to try out our limited French, especially when the sole waiter looked like the stereotype of the stern Frenchman who would have little patience for American tourists. And it was clear he did not speak much English (or at least wasn’t going to let us know that he did).

Fortunately, we knew enough French to recognize ham & cheese sandwiches & a few other items, including hot dogs which my fussy daughter figured was a safe choice. (We found throughout our trip that interpreting French menus wasn't too difficult, once you learned to recognize common dishes and the words for ham, beef, chicken, raw, smoked, etc.)

We placed our order and reviewed the map and our plan for the day while we waited. Three of our dishes arrived quickly, roasted chicken with side salad, and two open face grilled sandwiches with cheese bubbling on top. (And they all tasted as good as they looked.) But there was no sign of Katie's lunch. After setting the plates down, the waiter gave a us a quick nod as if to say “there you go” and then immediately turned and headed back inside. While Katie sat looking puzzled, the waiter stopped & pivoted to face her, shook his head, and made a gesture indicating she did not want her waist to get too large. Then he disappeared into the café. Before my daughter could get too flustered or upset, he reappeared with her plate of "frankfurters and frites," much to her relief.

After placing it with a flourish in front of her, he stepped back expectantly, as if waiting to see if we needed anything else. I noticed no condiments on the table, and realized I was going to have to figure out how to ask for ketchup (which, it turns out, is also "ketchup" in French). He just looked at us expressionless as we fumbled around a bit trying to explain what we needed & gestured pathetically, then with a sly grin pulled out the bottle he had hidden behind his back. We all had a good chuckle, including our “grumpy garçon.

For help with planning your family's dream vacation, contact Suzette Mack, Family Travel Advisor, at suzette@family-treks.com