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