When it comes to traveling with the family, being prepared with the right info can make a trip far more enjoyable and less costly. Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, editor-in-chief of the family travel website WeJustGotBack.com (www.wejustgotback.com) joins podcast host Kelly Regan to share her expertise. Kelleher points listeners to time-saving, trustworthy planning information and defines what it means to be "family friendly." She also offers tips on how to get kids involved in planning and learning about their destination.
To listen this episode, click the "play" button on the MP3 player below.
Top Tips from This Podcast
See transcript below for links to more information.
- Ask Questions: Don't always trust the hotel brochures and websites. The more questions you ask, the more informed you'll be.
- Hidden Costs: Be aware of the hidden costs, especially on children's activities.
- Family Travel Research: Visit www.WeJustGotBack.com for more straight-forward reviews of resorts which bill themselves as "family friendly".
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Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to a conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's travel guides. I'll be your host.
My guest today is Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of WeJustGotBack.com, a website that the New York Times has called "an authoritative voice on family trip planning." Her family travel articles for "We Just Got Back" appear regularly in the travel section of MSNBC.com. Suzanne has also spent over 15 years as a travel writer and editor, and her writing has appeared in such publications as Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, American Baby, Parents, Esquire, Cigar Aficionado, and Newsweek. She's also a longtime friend of mine, so I'm very happy to have her on the show today. So Suzanne, welcome, thanks for being here.
Suzanne Rowan Kelleher: Thank you for inviting me on.
Kelly: Your site incorporates a lot of user-generated content as well as articles that are written by you and also by the editorial staff, and I'm curious. As someone who has been writing about travel for years now, tell me what prompted you to start the website-- where did you see a need that needed to be filled?
Suzanne: Well, it really is that truism that we saw a need out there and we wanted to fill it. When I became a mom and I started traveling with my own family, there are definitely a half a dozen resources already out there about family travel, but when I started doing research for trips, I was thinking I couldn't find the kind of information, necessarily, that I was looking for. Most of the information, I didn't always trust the delivery of the information, in that sometimes there was a very cheerful and upbeat kind of presentation that left me wondering if I was hearing all the story. And what I wanted was a very straight-forward, honest presentation--I wanted it to be the good, the bad, the ugly. And I have this expression in family travel, when I send correspondence out to review places, I say 'no surprise is a good surprise.'
Suzanne: When you've got two or three little kids with you, you don't want to find out that the pool doesn't have a shallow end when you arrive. That kind of thing. So, we just really saw the need and I've always believed that planning-- for years and years, I've been traveling for business and writing about travel, in all sorts of different publications--but planning a family trip is very different. It's much more complication than planning a business trip, a romantic getaway, or even a girl's getaway.
Suzanne: Because the nature of a family trip is not only do you have a group of travelers, but they have different ages and development levels and temperaments and interests...
Kelly: And interests, yeah.
Suzanne: ...and sleeping schedules, sometimes. And to wrap everything together so that everybody has a good time is a lot harder than when you're married and you and your husband are going off and taking a trip. One size does not fit all. A resort that's good for school-aged kids might not be very good for a family with teenagers, and it might be terrible for a family with preschoolers. Our aim was to design this site that was going to lay it all out there, works and all, and give people the information that they needed to make the right choices.
Kelly: For people that might be coming to the site for the first time, or they're really starting for the first time about taking a family trip, what would you consider to be your top pieces of advice? I know that's hard, because, as you said, there are so many variables -- are you traveling with infants, are you traveling with elementary school-aged kids, teenagers -- but for someone who is just kind of starting out, right out of the gate, and thinking, "I want to take my family on a trip," as you said, you didn't get a lot of that kind of savvy advice. What would be some of the top pieces of advice you could give to people?
Suzanne: I think that people don't ask enough questions, or the right questions, before they go. I was among them. I would make assumptions about a hotel or resort based on the brochure, the website--that's a good tip: just because there's a picture of a family on the home page does not mean that the place is actually very kid friendly!
Suzanne: An example would be, before I launched the site, my husband I took our kids to Vermont for some leaf taping and we went to visit some barn raises, this was in the autumn, and I booked a hotel that looked great, and it had an indoor pool and I thought that would be great for downtime. We get to the pool and the shallow end is four and a half feet deep!
Suzanne: And I have got a three year old and a one year old...it was just so not relaxing. There was not even really a stairway where my kids could sit in the water, and it just became-- had I known that, I might have brought their swim bubbles and had been prepared so they weren't clinging to me in the pool.
Suzanne: Which is what ended up happening.
Suzanne: And it was fine, you roll with these things, it doesn't ruin your trip, but that's the kind of thing that I would have liked to know. I would have liked to know that yes, there's a pool, but it's pretty much a five foot two, nine foot pool.
Suzanne: And you should bring the water wings, the bubbles, some things like that.
Kelly: Right, so it's very nitty-gritty type of information like that.
Suzanne: Yes, it's very practical, very practical.
Kelly: When you look back on the trips that you have taken with your family, are there some, kind of, 'oy, I can't believe I did that' kind of mistakes that you made? [laughter]
Suzanne: It really, it's always, I think about disappointment that you could have packed something had you known, things that you sometimes end up paying for that you could have brought yourself. A typical one, and something we are always saying on the website is that if you're bringing your kids to a resort and you see that they're going to be doing things like scavenger hunts and the kids club and tie dyed t-shirts, you can bet that your kid will have to buy a t-shirt for 20 dollars.
Kelly: Oh, yeah, good point.
Suzanne: If you just go to your neighborhood Big Bucks store and buy yourself a pack of four for $10, things like that, you just kind of think later. Or you go to a beach resort and you find out the resort is renting boogie boards for $15 an hour--you could have stopped at a drug store on the way into town and bought one.
Suzanne: At CVS, or Rite Aid for $4. It's that kind of stuff, we'd like to people to visit resorts feeling like they've been there before, they have an idea of what it's about, they know the pitfalls -- not that the pitfalls they're going to keep them from going -- but they know what they are and they made the choice that that is something they can live with.
Kelly: And they can work around them because they know about them in advance.
Suzanne: That's it.
Kelly: You have an area on the site called "We Just Checked Out" that does review hotels and resorts for family friendliness. You give these resorts a grade from A plus to F, and they do delineate what you call your grading guidelines are, but I was hoping you could kind of talk through a bit for our listeners about how you assign those grades. Hopefully that will give parents some tips for how to gauge a hotel's family friendliness when they're thinking about going somewhere.
Suzanne: Like you say, we grade all the resorts that we review from an A plus to an F. So far, no F's have been given out. We don't send people to review a resort that is clearly not set up for family.
Suzanne: What we do is we target resorts that are billing themselves as family friendly, maybe give us an indication that they're trying to attract families and they might even have a whole section on their website about families. And then we try to see, does the expectation that you're led to have based upon the marketing and the price and all sorts of other parameters, does that actually deliver, and do they live up to that? So it's subjective, but we feel that we are seeing so many resorts that were able to really compare based on price, what resorts really are delivering and which are not. When we review a city hotel, for example, the bar is going to be lower in terms of the activities they provided at a hotel because the assumption is that you're not going to be spending your entire day--
Kelly: --at the hotel.
Suzanne: --at the hotel, whereas if you go to a resort that is on a beach with a destination, chances are, once you pull up in the parking lot, you might never leave there for a whole week. It's based on what we think the typical travelers and the typical family's experience would be, how they would use that resort. We definitely give a ribbing to resorts that have extensive, hidden fees, and we think that they're price gouging and things that are not clear on the website or the brochure, we feel like we're getting stuck with.
Suzanne: Extra costs--we definitely let people know because that is not family friendly at all! [laughs]
Kelly: Sure, I mean, it's just that traveler friendly, to be kind of--
Suzanne: No, it's not. When you travel with your family, you always hear the joke, "family travel, that's an oxymoron". It doesn't have to be an oxymoron. Sometimes some should say, just a little honesty people, you know, in the industry.
Kelly: [laughs] Right.
Suzanne: Just tell us what you're really going to do. I'm not impressed when a resort might say on it's website that they might have free this, free that, free everything and when you get there and then you find out there is a $24 resort fee that is slapped on your bill every night.
Suzanne: Maybe those things aren't so free.
Kelly: Of course!
Suzanne: That gets back to asking the right questions before booking your room. Fairly often things like resort fees are left out when you see the pricing.
Suzanne: In the micro-type at the bottom of the website you can find that, yes they have said that somewhere in their literature that fee exists but they also know that most people are looking for the number of the rates and that is the rate they are going with. So they are not saying, oh yes there might be a parking fee and there might be a resort fee and an automatic gratuity that is added.
Kelly: Yeah. We're definitely seeing an up tick in interest in family travel. People taking their families more on trips that are not just going to the beach or going to a national park but people are being a little more adventurous where they are taking their families too and I am wondering over the course of the last few years, if you have seen hotels respond more to the needs of families and if so, what are some of these developments that you've seen?
Suzanne: I think that the industry is waking up to the fact. I think that people have always traveled with their kids, I don't think that is new. I think that the difference is that the industry is kind of waking up to it and starting to provide a little bit more. One of the best things that some hotel chains and some resort chains are doing, which is wonderful is they are starting to come up with special family deals that are offered that are geared to give families some kind of a break. Either free breakfast or discounted tickets to a nearby attraction like a zoo or a museum or some other kind of added value. You often see a movie package where it will say, OK you take this room and you can have a free DVD rental plus we will order in a pizza.
Kelly: Oh wow!
Suzanne: It makes it a little bit more fun. It is definitely right up the alley of friendliness for kids. You see sometimes, a lot of creative stuff going on too. At some of the more family friendly resorts you see dive-in movies where a family-friendly movie might be screened on a large chain poolside in the evening --
Kelly: Oh wow!
Suzanne: Which is a great way to kill that evening downtime right after dinner. These things are all wonderful and it just -- sometimes those kinds of things are not very expensive for a hotel to set something like that up, but it could be the memory that lingers after the family has come out.
Suzanne: I think that hotels can be smarter about investing in things that are not necessarily super, super expensive.
Kelly: Right. Like a small investment that reaps big rewards with the people who are coming there.
Suzanne: Yeah. Another thing that I love, and you do see this I just don't think you see it enough, is that you might go to a hotel or resort and they might have a beautiful dining room and a dinner that clearly mom and dad would love, but that's just not right for the kids. It's just too dressy, too formal or too expensive.
Suzanne: and yet there is no way for mom and dad to enjoy that because there is nothing offered for the kids in the evening.
Suzanne: and more and more we are seeing "kids night out" where it can be as simple as having a conference room, with again, either a movie screen set-up or a pizza or get a couple of counselor-type staff involved where they do arts and crafts or maybe have a pizza dinner or something like that. Just for two or three hours to pay a nominal fee to get your kids in so you could have a nice dinner with your family, your kids have a fun experience and everybody is happy. That is something that should not cost the resort too much to set-up, but I don't see that enough.
Kelly: No, that's a great idea. It really is. It kind of gives all members of the family something that they want.
Suzanne: Deals can be kind of just that awful thing for families because very often, even if there is a kids menu, kids don't want to hang out and linger over your second cup of coffee. In fact, I can't even recall having a second cup of coffee ever with my kids at a restaurant! My youngest is four. Once he is done, pretty much the time is ticking...
Suzanne: Anything that resorts can do to let that be a more enjoyable experience for parents, I think is a good thing. One resort we reviewed, the Winnetu Ocean Side Resort in Martha's Vineyard has kind of a family dining room and part of that dining room there is a little alcove with some toys, a couple of TVs that is a little bit separated from where you are dining but within view and our reviewer just thought this was wonderful because she could enjoy this wonderful dinner, have a second cup of coffee...
Kelly: She could have the second cup of coffee!
Suzanne: You could see the kids. They weren't getting into trouble or any kind of danger or anything like that. They would finish and they wanted to play and this allowed them to do that. Creative ways just to kind of see it more in tune with the needs of families I think is just starting to happen. The best resorts are doing it, most places are not doing it.
Kelly: A theme from what we've been talking about for the past few minutes is that the trip is not just about pleasing the kids, it's about the parents are on the trip too and so you want an experience that is going to be fun for the kids but fun for the parents as well.
Suzanne: Well that's it. One of the things that I always recommend that people do when they are planning a trip just has to do with an approach. That is, let the kids get involved with every step of the trip. The planning, the packing, the map reading, navigation and when they are old enough -- I let my nine year old get involved to some extent with the budgeting.
Suzanne: We might say something like, we want to keep today's spend under this level. So we might run across, say a souvenir shop, and this is a bad example because usually I give them kind of an allotment for the trip but posing with a restaurant, I might bring her into the decision making. We might be walking along the street and I say let's look at this menu, well what do you think if the five of eat here and can afford this based on what we want to spend for the day. It makes kids actually less inclined to be asking for things all day long...
Kelly: That's great.
Suzanne: and it's just the skill that - kids grow up and we kind of push them out the door off to college and they have no experience making these kinds of decisions. Travel is a wonderful way when you are there, you are totally focused on them because unlike on your regular workday where you are working, they are at school, there is so much coming and going in the household, when you are traveling together you really have that time to say, let's talk through how this decision is made, why did we pick this hotel? Because it's right next to the beach and it has this and mom wants to do this.
When we're planning a trip I always ask my kids, they get involved in the research and they might see something either online or in a guidebook or whatever. They might say, I really want to do this mom and I say OK and I try to incorporate everybody's wish list into the itinerary when we plan our days. Then they see that there are things that I want to do and there are things that dad wants to do and when it's our turn to do what we want to do they have to be respectful because we sat through what they wanted to do.
Getting back to what you were saying, it's not just about the kids, it is important that the kids learn that traveling with a group means that nobody gets to do what they want 100 percent of the time, but if everybody is nice, everybody gets to do what they want to do.
Kelly: That's not a bad lesson for kids to learn. Before we wind down, I wanted to shift our focus a little bit to talk about some specific destinations because we have been talking about hotels and resorts and things like that. Do you see any up and coming family travel destinations, places that are creating kind of a buzz for families right now, both in the US and overseas?
Suzanne: I see less specific destinations coming up. The old chestnuts are very much still top of the line with a lot of families but I've seen a lot of trends that are really good. There is a trend in indoor water park resorts that started in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, which as you could imagine has a very short summer season.
Suzanne: There are these really nice themed hotel chains that have started up, and Holiday Inn actually has just gotten in the act too, and attached to the hotel will be an indoor water park, massive maybe 30,000 square feet...
Suzanne: With a lazy river, water slides, wave pools and all sorts of fun. The advantage is that there are really limited crowds because only the people who are staying at the hotel can go into the water park.
Kelly: Oh interesting!
Suzanne: Every parent has known that when they go to an outdoor water park at a resort can still spend an hour at a time standing in line.
Kelly: Standing in line.
Suzanne: ...before they can go down the slide. We've reviewed a couple of them and it's just amazing fun because there's always a cap of the number of people they let in. You rent your hotel room and built-in surprise is admission into the water park.
Suzanne: You're often spending say in the neighborhood of $170-$220 a night which seems expensive but not necessarily when you factor in that you're also getting admission into the park.
That's a huge trend and they're popping up all over the place. Some of that we were talking earlier about how our website is different. This would be a good example because our approach would be "Less fun for families with kids of all ages" and of course, the answer would be "Sure". But we would ask the next question which would be "When would you start to get your money's worth out of this kind of resort?"
Suzanne: And it comes down to "How tall is your kid?" because...
Suzanne: there are height restrictions.
Kelly: Right. Right.
Suzanne: There are height restrictions on a lot of these rides and until your kid is 40 inches or 42 inches tall, they're not going to be able to go on most of these things in the water park.
Suzanne: So we would say, "Yes, there might be a kiddy section. That is fine, but take in mind that you're paying $200 a night.
Suzanne: You really want to be limited to 15 percent of the park.
Suzanne: Maybe you should wait until your kid is in kindergarten and they meet the height requirement.
Suzanne: Then you get the bang for your buck.
Suzanne: That's the kind of analysis that we would do that I don't really see happening in a lot of other resorts.
Kelly: Part of this whole conversation is also about - as you just pointed out, in these practical matters and also these more theoretical matters, that are about different age ranges, traveling with an infant is very different than traveling with a tween. And what the interests are going to be, what the questions you have to ask.
I think what's nice about the site is that you really do make those kinds of distinction. What kinds of issues do you have to be aware of if you're traveling with a small child versus traveling with a slightly older child because your needs and your requirements are very, very different?
Suzanne Well, we like to think, too that we're providing some kind of educational element that we're hoping to teach parents the difference between marketing spiel and genuine benefit so that if for example, a hotel will say, "Bring the kids. Kids stay free." Well, big deal! 95 percent of the hotels in America let kids stay free in the rooms that are vacant. That's a zero benefit.
Suzanne: Unless the inclusions that you've got your meal built-in and all that. Saying kids stay free doesn't give you anything. One area of the market that is doing amazing things are ski resorts.
There are a number of Colorado ski resorts in Utah where kids not only stay free, they ski free.
Suzanne: Sometimes they fly free.
Suzanne: Steamboat Springs has every year a kids fly free, kids ski free, deal. I know that is amazing. Most Holiday Inns let kids up to the age of 12 eat free. That is an amazing deal. Kids stay free? Not so much.
Kelly: [laughs] Yeah.
Suzanne: You have to look at what is actually point to impact your pocketbook.
Suzanne: Meals are really expensive when you're traveling with kids.
Suzanne: You should buy three meals a day out in restaurant. That can really set you back. Any hotel or resort that's going to let kids eat free while you're staying there, that's a fantastic benefit. That can add up to hundreds of dollars.
A great idea for big families. I know a lot of this myself. I have three kids. I love hotel chains that are all suites.
Suzanne: You know, Embassy Suites, Home Suites. You have a kitchen. You usually have a microwave or something else in your room. Having a mini fridge and a microwave in a room is a God-send if you have small kids.
Kelly: Right. Yeah.
Suzanne: Because chances are that the kids are so keyed up at whatever you're doing. They don't necessarily eat when you want them to eat but they are hungry later when you don't want them to be hungry.
Suzanne: If you take their meals that they didn't finish and you're able to warm it up back in the room and give it to them later, you save money and you're not falling into the trap of just eating junk at every turn and you're eating breakfast in the room because you can get cereal and milk and something very easy like that.
Kelly: Yeah. We were talking about the hidden costs and hotels really can soak you for breakfast.
Suzanne: Oh, my goodness! Yeah.
Kelly: Like you said, renting a place that has kitchen facilities is great. Even if it's just a little mini mart around the corner, you can get cereal, you can get milk and you can get juice. Suddenly your costs have dramatically been lowered.
Suzanne: And not to mention that space you get.
Suzanne...is usually tremendous. You usually have a separate bedroom plus a pull-out couch. You have living space not just breathing space.
Suzanne: ...which even if it's just going to be spending a limited amount of time in the room, it's just still more comfortable.
Suzanne: A lot of hotels now, a lot of resorts, the family kind of resorts, are offering a mix of accommodations - it's very often it's like an inn with typical hotel room style. There are also condos or villas or suites that are available elsewhere and network cottages may be available elsewhere in the property that you can choose. Maybe this cost a little bit more but when you factor in that you'd be able to prepare some of your meals and cut your food bill, sometimes it's worth it.
Kelly: We're just about out of time but I wanted to ask you one last question. A big part of family travel is air travel and air travel presents its own challenges, certainly in this day and age. If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about airline policy or about air travel in general, what would it be?
Suzanne: I wish that one airline just step up to the play and become the friendly family airline not only with apologies but with pricing. This would be my one thing. I hope to see discounts for third and fourth seats the way that cruise lines offer discounts for third and fourth berths.
Kelly: Oh, wow!
Suzanne: It's unbelievable! The cost of say a family of five is just unbelievable to what airfare can cost. I'd love the airlines to do the back of seat TVs, with special kids programming, that's awesome.
Virgin America -- I am waiting to see how they do it because I have a lot of great feelings for Virgin Atlantic. If they play it right, I think they would be a really family-friendly airline. The overseas airlines sadly tend to be much friendlier than American airlines.
Suzanne: So I'm planning to see how that fits out. I'd love to see some kind of pricing for families.
Kelly: Pricing, yeah.
Suzanne: I'd love to see something that's comes up every once in a while is the possibility of a family section on airplanes. I don't see any reason not to do that.
Suzanne: I think that sounds actually good. I actually saw some new stories that came up this year. When you're traveling with a toddler or a baby; they're not necessarily going to be quiet the entire time. And I know, before I had kids, I would be the traveler that would see the family coming towards me and thinking in my head "No, not here. Not here..."
Suzanne: If you can keep them busy, that's half the battle. I'd never really had any kind of bad incidents flying where my kids were crying nonstop and I couldn't control them or anything. I just make sure that they have something to do all the time that keeps them busy. I'd love if they had a TV to watch or a DVD player even for an hour to watch a movie or something like that. I think that that's great.
Suzanne: ...a flight like that. It's at the back of the seat view.
Kelly: Well, that's all the time we have for today. I've been talking with Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is a long time travel writer and editor and co-founder and editor-in-chief of WeJustGotBack.com - a website that specializes in family travel.
Suzanne, thanks for your time. I really enjoyed talking with you today.
Suzanne: Yeah, it's been great. Thank you for having me on, Kelly.
Kelly: Join us next week for another conversation about things travel. I'm Kelly Regan and we will talk again soon.
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