Planning Great Family Vacations

Planning Great Family Vacations

Travel sellers and parents talk about planning vacations that make the entire family happy By: Chelsee Lowe
Properties with kid-friendly restaurants onsite are ideal for parents with younger travelers. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Properties with kid-friendly restaurants onsite are ideal for parents with younger travelers. // © 2014 Thinkstock

Before I had my daughter, the better part of my expendable income went toward backpacking trips in far-flung places, and in the months before each journey, I’d spend hours online researching rail passes and hustling through hotel listings. If anyone had told me that there would be a time in the not-so-distant future when even the thought of this kind of travel would exhaust me, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Once Olivia arrived in all her adorable glory, I was keenly aware that life and travel as I knew them would be very different. Given that every itinerary would now include toting around a small, temperamental being — not to mention an awkward infant travel bed and a bulky, collapsible stroller — I was ready to simplify future vacations.

Like so many other parents, I now found it challenging to write out a complete grocery list, let alone plan a family adventure. Luckily, skilled travel advisors are happy to take the task off of any parent’s plate, and they are just an email or phone call away.

Agent Advice
Mimi Cassidy, co-owner of Moraga Travel in Moraga, Calif., is as busy as the next modern-day parent — she’s a full-time travel seller and a mother of two young children, ages 4 and 5. Her own experiences as a mother have helped her understand family travel better.

Cassidy recommends that agents working with families first consider the ages of the children who are traveling. Then, keep personal experiences and those of past clients in mind in order to customize the vacation.

If a new client is vacationing with infants or toddlers, Cassidy advises domestic travel, one-stop trips or all-inclusive properties that are close to home. International trips, in her opinion, are best for families with older kids.

“A 12-hour flight with a toddler is rarely fun for anyone, and neither is bouncing around from hotel to hotel,” Cassidy said. “Toddlers like to know their space, whether it’s their seat in the rental car or their bed in the hotel. These little things make it easier for them to process the experience.”

Cassidy followed her own advice this year when she and her husband opted to take their kids to a nearby theme park in lieu of a farther destination. They stayed overnight in a hotel and called the trip a “super secret family vacation” to get the kids excited.

“If I’m going to plan a truly enriching vacation — a trip to Peru, for example — I want my kids to be at least 8 or 9 years old,” Cassidy said. “You can take a 4- or 5-year-old anywhere, and they’ll love it. Once they’re 8 or 9, they’re ready for a scavenger hunt in the Louvre or a Harry Potter tour in London — and they’ll remember those moments forever.”

Happy Kids, Happy Parents
Production manager and writer Samantha Davis-Friedman agrees that a child’s age is the most important factor for a family travel agent to think about. Davis-Friedman has been vacationing with her boys since they were small; now they are 13 and 16, and their travel wish lists have changed dramatically.

When she has time, Davis-Friedman likes to organize family trips on her own. When she wants advice on a less-familiar destination or is planning a more complicated trip, she calls a travel agent. But not just any agent will do.

“Traveling with kids is completely different than traveling without kids,” Davis-Friedman said. “To book this type of travel successfully, an agent has to think about different things, and they need to be able to steer their clients in the age-appropriate direction.”

When Davis-Friedman’s kids were younger, for example, a great vacation often meant a stay at a property with a private beach or a pool and an on-site restaurant with a kids’ menu. Now that her sons are young adults, they want a wider range of entertainment options. Game rooms, movie nights, teen lounges and guided excursions are now among their must-haves.

Hotels and resorts that have more unusual entertainment choices are especially appealing. On Davis-Friedman’s recent trip to Florida with extended family, five boys ranging from 5 to 16 years old were thrilled with a back-of-the-house tour of Four Seasons Hotel Miami.

“Kids want to do cool things that they can’t do in other places,” Davis-Friedman said. “It’s important that a travel agent knows what amenities a hotel has so that they can pass that information onto clients. Sometimes these details aren’t on any website.”

Mom and Dad Count, Too
Keeping the children safe and happy is every parent’s top priority, but that doesn’t mean that mom and dad have to leave their own interests at home. According to Cassidy, a stellar travel agent customizes trips that incorporate everyone’s idea of fun.

Cassidy and her team spend time qualifying their clients in order to get a clear picture of what they want out of a trip. Of course, it’s helpful when clients are open and honest about what they are looking for.

Coming prepared was no problem for Melissa Durkee, who started working as Moraga Travel’s office manager earlier this year and planned a recent vacation with the agency. When she and her husband travel with their two young daughters, they want a suite with separate rooms, easy dining options so that they can take a break from cooking and access to different sports activities. Sticking to a tight budget is also vital.

With this in mind, Durkee’s agent advised the family to vacation at Mexico’s Club Med Cancun Yucatan, an all-inclusive property. It was a great fit for the family — the children enjoyed the beach and pool, Durkee was thrilled with the variety of restaurants, and her husband took advantage of the resort’s exercise classes. Best of all, Durkee didn’t have to squeeze vacation research into her busy schedule.

“It would have taken so long for me to understand all of our destination and property choices,” Durkee said. “Working with an agent saves time and money, and that’s really valuable to me.”

A Good Fit
For Davis-Friedman, the stress of selecting a travel agent is eased when she asks for recommendations from friends, and that’s good news for travel agents.

“You wouldn’t take your kid to a pediatrician or a preschool without knowing someone else who has had a good experience there,” Davis-Friedman said. “The same goes for family travel. If parents want things to go smoothly, they should work with an agent that a friend recommends.”

Travel agents who go the extra mile are easy to remember, and word of their superb efforts gets around quickly. When Davis-Friedman was planning a whirlwind family tour of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, her sister’s friend referred her to Disney specialist Meredith Wallace of Minnie Memories Travel in Bedford, N.Y.

After a few emails with Wallace, Davis-Friedman was impressed. She had simply asked for tips on tackling the park in one day — what she got was a step-by-step itinerary and a list of details someone new to the park likely wouldn’t know. And Davis-Friedman wasn’t even booking anything with Wallace — at least not yet.

“My philosophy is to manage every vacation as if it were my own,” said Wallace. “A good agent listens, understands what clients want, then delivers more than she promised. That’s what I do, because that’s what I would want someone to do for me.”

By going out of her way to help Davis-Friedman — the two even corresponded via text the day the family visited the park — Wallace laid the foundation for future business. This year, when Davis-Friedman and her sister decided to plan a joint family trip to Florida, they immediately started working with Wallace.

Ultimately, travel advisors should know that many parents who are looking for an agent are hoping to find a trusted partner as well. And if the first run is too bumpy, they are likely to try a new path.

“There’s a lot of trial and error in parenthood,” Davis-Friedman said. “Maybe your first travel agent won’t be the right one for you — maybe the first three won’t be the right ones. But when you do find the right agent, it’s going to make traveling with kids a happier experience.”