I knew my 9-year-old daughter had spent an unusual amount of time in hotels when her question to the general manager of the Cavallo Point Lodge near San Francisco spurred a double take.
"Are most of the rooms here one-bedroom suites?" she asked him on a recent afternoon tour of the military base-turned-resort, generating a similarly bemused look from her father.
With the exception of June, January is the month that's most likely to make any parent of relatively young children assess, reassess, appreciate or sometimes even bemoan the concept of family travel. The sector is a lucrative one, generating an estimated $150 billion in annual revenue from intrepid U.S. parents willing to
schlep the kids on cruises, to theme parks, on cross-country road trips or to all-inclusive resorts.
None of which we've ever taken our kids to.
Travel habits, like team loyalties, flat feet and the ability to handle hard liquor, tend to get passed down from generation to generation. And, like my parents before me, cruises, all-inclusives, theme parks and even camping trips have been forsaken (Jewish families and campsites tend to make for a good story but a bad experience) in favor of cities and historical towns.
That being said, my wife and I are probably at about the halfway point of exerting our influence while the kids remain impressionable.
With my becoming a full-time travel-industry writer more than six years ago, our efforts began in earnest in the summer of 2012, when a trip to New York (chronicled in these pages
) with our then 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter nearly derailed over an unscrupulous Airbnb host before a hotel-industry contact came to the rescue.
With our appetite for improvisation only slightly dimmed, our kids have grown to the ages of 12 and 9. And with the very good fortune of both having a parent who writes about travel for a living and living on a continent with such a wide variety of natural and cultural experiences (they haven't been overseas yet), the kids appear to be approaching the point where they're becoming as much of an asset as a liability when it comes to the sometimes grueling act of traveling.
An editor’s lessons learned from family travel include getting the kids to be resourceful with their summer attire. Photo Credit: TW photo by Danny King
This means they're starting to come in handy when doing everything from calling the hotel desk for extra pillows and tipping (more on that later) to helping pack up four large bags, four smaller bags and about three-dozen pieces of strewn-about clothing in time for the cab ride to the airport.
And when the parent is overwhelmed by his technological limitations, watching the kids figure out how to stream the Netflix content from a smartphone onto the hotel room's flat-screen TV can be a "she-just-ditched-the-training-wheels" kind of moment.
While maybe not as sexy as adult travelers or business travelers relying on an expense account, family travel is believed to be growing as fast or faster than the rest of the industry, as more child-rearing millennials who grew up traveling with their parents are taking their kids along for the ride.
According to a study released last year by the Family Travel Association and the NYU School of Professional Studies, the phrase, "I want to raise my children so they love to travel" was the most agreed-upon among 14 phrases survey recipients chose to describe their travel behavior, ahead of safety concerns, entertainment options, luxury amenities or ease of search.
With the survey recipients indicating that the median amount spent on family travel per year was about $3,500, travel agents would do well to pay attention to a sector that can at once be high maintenance but also generate business for years, if not decades, to come.
The good news is that many of the overall travel trends dovetail with the type of activities that can make family travel easier. As more professionals and businesses gravitate back to city centers, more urban areas continue to gentrify, attracting hotels that can house families looking to explore cultural or historical destinations by foot, cab or ride-hail.
Also helpful are the technological advancements where TV, movie and music subscriptions that the kids or parents may have on their mobile devices can be accessed via laptop on a road trip or on a hotel room's flat-screen.
Of course, both technology and the urban experience can be a double-edged sword. Yes, our son can rig our Netflix subscription to stream content all the way through a six-hour drive (my data overage fee is a small price to pay for a quiet back seat), but the kids risk missing the highway scenery, and the Griswold-style family singalong is definitely out of the question (actually, we've never done a family singalong).
Mix a great flat-screen programming menu with a plush bed and the lack of a homework assignment, and you may get kids who will need some cajoling to get out of bed, get dressed and make the most of the invaluable and expensive exploration time you've arranged.
As for cities, whether they be San Francisco, New York, Montreal, Los Angeles or even Portland, Maine, they can provide more of an educational opportunity than bargained for, as crime, homelessness and the general disparity of fortunes are often on full display when newer and usually upscale hotels are opening in burgeoning or gentrifying parts of town.
As for hotels where space is too tight for a pool or dedicated kids area, a few well-placed amenities and services can do wonders, including:
- Free newspapers. They do double duty as a time-killer and a way for the kids to help plan the day's local activities.
- Downstairs pool table. Rarely used by adult travelers during the day, this underrated amenity is also a low-maintenance activity that can help pull the kids out of their bubbles while also preparing them for a lucrative career in pool-sharking.
- Good staff knowledge of nearby restaurants that deliver. Hell hath no fury like a parent who's spent six minutes on the phone with a hotel-suggested local Italian joint running through a family's dinner order before being told they don't deliver.
Of course, there are things to remind you that the kids are still novice travelers. Some are cute enough to make a parent a little verklempt, like when your son looks out the window to see the bright red "W" logo of a nearby W Hotel and tells you it looks like the logo from the kids TV show "Wonder Pets!"
Some reminders are slightly more painful, like when that same son is sent with a $20 bill for a coffee and pastry and ends up leaving a $12.50 tip on a $7.50 tab.
That said, like the Booking.com commercial where the exhausted family finds redemption with the first site of a finely appointed hotel room, the effort continues to be more than worth it.
And with such accommodations often outstripping whatever amenities we have at home, our version of family travel has also given birth to a family motto: "Don't get used to it, kids."