Surviving Spring Break Madness In Washington, DC

crowded hotelWhile American college kids bake in the sun, pound tequila shooters and do things they hope won’t end up on YouTube in Cancun, South Padre Island and other venues for Spring Break debauchery, their younger siblings all seem to be on class or family trips to Washington, D.C. I’ve visited D.C. many times over the years and lived there on three separate occasions. But until this week, I’ve mostly managed to avoid the hordes of tourists that descend on the place during the Cherry Blossom/School Spring Break season.

I’ve always been an off-season or shoulder-season traveler but now that my kids are in school, I don’t always have the flexibility to travel when the prices are low and the crowds are sparse. When my kids have a break from school, our choice is to: A) hire a babysitter so we can continue to get work done (expensive and hard to do for just one week), B) stay at home and go stir crazy, or C) bite the bullet and travel despite the higher prices and crowds that are inevitable during school breaks.My wife needed to visit D.C. on business, so I had two and a half days in D.C. with my little boys, ages 3 and 5, this week, when hundreds, perhaps thousands of grammar and high schools around the country are on their spring holiday. The city was absolutely crawling with school groups and families on vacation.

I thought that we lucked out when I bid for a 3.5-star hotel on Priceline and got a luxury chain hotel downtown that had rave reviews from customers on Trip Advisor (4.5-star average from more than 800 reviews) for $105 per night. But even the best hotels fall apart when they are jam-packed and this place was a circus. If you didn’t shower by 7 a.m., there was no hot water. Wi-Fi, which cost $9.99 per day, was ridiculously slow, no doubt due to the volume of traffic. And the breakfast lines were unlike anything I’ve experienced at any hotel in my decades of traveling the world.

museum of african artThe place was so overrun and dysfunctional that I actually felt bad for the employees who had to absorb all of the customer complaints. They were clearly sick and tired of the guests’ complaints and were getting creative in their responses. A woman from Georgia whom I commiserated with in the breakfast line told me that a front desk agent suggested she use the pool, when she complained about the lack of hot water in the room.

I wasn’t brave enough to bring my kids into the Air & Space Museum, the National Zoo, the Cherry Blossom Festival, or the Museum of Natural History (they’ve been to these places before) but I saw how crowded they were and was thankful my kids are too young to insist. Instead, we focused on some of D.C.’s less visited museums, like the Freer and Sackler Galleries, The National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African Art (all are manageable and are highly recommended). We also went to a couple higher profile museums, like the National Gallery of Art, but made a point of getting there at 10 a.m., right when they opened to beat the crowds.

If you’re visiting the free Smithsonian museums on the weekend or during school holiday periods, plan out your strategy carefully. Visit the most popular museums right when they open (usually 10 a.m.) or after 4 p.m. and use the peak hours, around 11:30-3:30 to visit the more off-the-beaten-track attractions. If you aren’t sure what the most popular museums are, have a look at Trip Advisor and take note of how many reviews the place has. The museums with 1,000 reviews are more are the ones you have to be worried about.

cupcakesThe other minefield is trying to have lunch near the museums during peak hours. Packing a lunch is a great idea but if you can’t be bothered, try to eat by 11:30, or after 2 p.m. The cafeteria at the Smithsonian Museum of American History has excellent food, including good BBQ, sandwiches, craft beers and a lot more, along with high prices, but you do not want to try to eat there or at any other popular lunch spot near noon or 1 p.m.

D.C. in the spring is a peculiar brew. You see armies of guys in dark business suits, badges swinging from their necks, marching around dodging strollers and school kids. But despite the crowds, D.C. is still better in the spring, when the weather is mild, than in the summer, when the humidity is brutal. Just get up nice and early, you’ll be sure to have hot water and you’ll be hungry for lunch before the crowds are.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Why Ban Children From Hotels? In Defense Of Bringing Family On The Road

child cryingNo dogs, no children, no lepers please. It’s hard not to feel like an undesirable when a hotel you want to bring your family to says, “Sorry, we don’t allow children.” In America, and many other countries, it’s illegal for hotels and other public establishments to deny service based upon a client’s race, color, religion or national origin.

And it would be unthinkable for any business to exclude senior citizens, homosexuals or the disabled, for example. But it’s perfectly legal for hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, resorts and even restaurants to ban children. A growing number of childless couples, singles and empty nesters are seeking out hotels and resorts that exclude children, but are kids really the greatest threat to rest and relaxation?

These issues came to the fore for me last week while I was planning a trip to Costa Rica for my family of four, which includes two boys, ages 3 and 5. Almost every nice hotel anywhere near a beach in this country is booked over the long President’s Day weekend, and several of the places I contacted, including a couple that had vacancies, noted that they don’t allow small children (though most allow teens).A website called Leave Them Behind has a modest list of adults-only establishments and according to stories that have appeared in Yahoo, ABC, Ad Week and other media outlets, the travel industry is moving to meet a growing demand for child-free holidays. According to Ad Week, there are more childless couples in the U.S. now than ever before, and 20 percent of American women never have children, compared to just 10 percent in the 1970s.

Moves by Malaysian Airlines to ban children from first class in 2011, and from the upper deck of its Airbus A380 in 2012, also promoted debate on the issue of traveling with children. Spud Hilton, travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, defended the move and went so far as to claim that “with the exception of a family emergency and moving to another state, there is almost no good reason to take a baby on the road.”

Hilton referred to babies, not children in general but I think that a lot of parents don’t travel, or for that matter even bring their kids to restaurants or other public places, precisely because they fear that other people will find their children annoying. But I’ve found that the more you expose your children to hotels, restaurants and the like, the more they learn how to act in public. If we shut our children off from these experiences, they’ll never learn how to act in polite society.

I’m a parent but I can understand why some people want to patronize establishments that ban children. And I agree that in some ways, our kid-centric culture, where some parents allow their children’s activities to rule their lives, is out of control. But I question the notion that children are so disruptive that one can barely enjoy a holiday with them around and I can’t help but wonder what truly motivates those who seek out places where children aren’t welcome.

I estimate that I’ve spent somewhere between 500 and 1,000 nights in hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and inns around the world over the last 20 years. Out of all those nights away from home, I’d say that I’ve been disturbed by another guest or guests at a hotel perhaps a few dozen times. By disturbed, I mean occasions where someone caused me to lose sleep, made me want to leave the pool or other common area, or something along these lines. Out of these few dozen incidents, only one of them involved a small child or baby.

Several years ago, at a bed-and-breakfast in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a crying baby kept us up half the night. That incident occurred before we had children and it has colored our own travel habits – we never stayed in small bed-and-breakfast places, especially ones with hardwood floors where noises seems to echo, when our children were very young.

Of all the other instances of annoying and obnoxious behavior I’ve encountered in hotels, I’d say about 25 percent of the offenders were teens, most of them members of school or sports groups, and the rest were adults. Most of the obnoxious adults that have caused me to lose sleep or sanity on the road were also parts of groups – wedding parties, teams, family reunions and the like – and many were intoxicated.

Unfortunately, some people have no regard for other guests in a hotel and think nothing of slamming doors, shouting in the hallways, partying in their rooms, and blasting their television sets at odd hours. Two years ago, I stayed at a Westin in Mexico that allowed wedding receptions to rage until 6 a.m. with music loud enough for a rock concert and drunken guests rampaging around the hotel on consecutive weekends. This summer I stayed at a Westin in suburban Chicago where a family reunion got so out of control that the police had to actually make arrests in the middle of the night. And at an upscale hotel in Philadelphia last winter, members of an out-of-control wedding party actually brawled in the hallway outside our room at 3 a.m.

A certain percentage of all travelers – children, teens and adults – are going to behave poorly at hotels but I would argue that children are no more likely to cause other guests grief than teens or adults. In fact, I might assert that small children are less likely to be disruptive than teens or adults because they don’t get drunk and they aren’t up late at night when other guests are trying to sleep.

I’m not one of these blind parents who is incapable of seeing that kids can be annoying and I hate clueless parents who fail to control their children as much as anyone else. I know that kids can be disruptive and downright infuriating and I recognize that some businesses, especially intimate bed-and-breakfasts, aren’t a good choice for families with young children. But I think that most children are pretty well behaved and the adults-only movement is a kind of collective punishment that penalizes parents who do a good job with their kids.

Even before I had kids of my own, I never felt the need to seek out hotels that ban children. For me, kids are an integral part of the world and I wouldn’t think to try to avoid them any more than I’d try to avoid birds or squirrels or any other living thing.

I don’t tend to take these kinds of trips, but if people want to spend a week sitting by the hotel pool and can’t bear the thought of having kids splashing about, then by all means, go to an adults-only resort. I certainly wouldn’t legally compel all businesses to welcome children, but I find the ban-kids trend a little misguided and indicative of how intolerant and self-absorbed we’re becoming as a society.

I’ve noticed when we bring our kids to other countries, like Mexico and Greece, for example, that they are valued, cherished and fussed over. Those societies still view children as a blessing, not a nuisance. Yes, there are unbearably annoying kids out there, and we’ve all sat near crying babies on planes, but in most cases, it’s their clueless parents who are to blame. And if you’re looking for R & R, watch out for youth sports teams, wedding parties and drunks, not little kids.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, Pink Sherbert on Flickr]

Parenting On The Road: How To Connect With Your Kids When You’re Traveling

parentingParenting is a tough job. It’s even tougher if you have to travel a lot for work. Being away form home doesn’t mean that you have to be away from your child’s life, however. Here are eight tips on how to keep connected to the rugrats while you’re on the road.

Skype. The greatest aid for the wandering parent ever invented. Why miss story time when you can pack a few of their favorite books and read to them over the computer? One guy I know even puts on puppet shows for his two boys. There’s also a fun coloring tool where you and the little one can paint each other’s faces.

Email. If you want something more old school, get them an email account and send them messages. Attach some photos of yourself on your travels. You can stay current with their schedule too. If you know they have a history test coming up, send them an email the night before wishing them luck (and reminding them to study).

Postcards. Or go classic with postcards! Nothing is more personal than getting a handwritten note from mom or dad with a cool picture on it. Once you’re back you can share your own photos with them.

Studying Maps. Show them where you’re going with an atlas, globe, or Google Earth. My son loves Google Earth and likes to zoom in on the places I am, and he often goes to sleep with his illuminated globe shining Africa or Asia over his bed. You can also use programs like Tripit to show your itinerary so the kids know where you are. One friend also shared that her son has a “huge world map and every time I take a big trip I text him often on the way and he marks my progress. This was a lot of fun when I circumnavigated the globe. He learned about flat maps in a round world!”

Planning for the future. Figure out what to do together once you’re back under the same roof and mark it on a calendar in their room. This gives the kids something to look forward to.

Online Games. Hey, you know they’re playing tons of video games while you’re gone anyway, so why not join in?

Hide things. Gadling’s Chris Owen shares, “I hide things for them to find later, when I am away. Once I folded very tightly a permission slip one of them needed for school and put it in their cereal box..” Libby Zay says, “My mom and I used to tuck notes into each other’s bags/coat pockets/lunch box/purse/wherever. To this day she’ll sometimes put a coat on that she hasn’t worn in awhile and find a note in the pocket from little Libby!” My son does this to me too. I always end up finding one of his toys hidden in my bags. One has even made it onto Gadling!

Put them to work! Give them a complicated puzzle or Lego set to work and challenge them to get it done before they come back. Dave Seminara’s two boys like to be given titles. “Leo, 5, is the man of the house while I’m gone, and James, 3, is the ‘associate’ man of the house. They like these roles and if they do a good job they get souvenirs. Actually, they get souvenirs either way.”

What do you do to stay connected with your kids? Share your advice in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy user woodleywonderworks via Flickr]

Shapinsay: Visiting A Wee Scottish Island


No trip to Orkney is complete without seeing some of the smaller islands. They offer plenty of natural and historic sights as well as peaceful solitude.

Little Shapinsay can be seen from the main harbor at Kirkwall, but visitors often overlook it. Even though it only measures six miles long at its longest and has only about 300 residents, it’s served by a regular car ferry from Kirkwall. My family and I noticed that the locals getting on board at Kirkwall harbor were loaded down with groceries. Apparently there aren’t many shopping opportunities on Shapinsay.

The boat pulled out of Kirkwall and passed some old gun emplacements on the Point of Carness. Orkney was a major base during the two World Wars and there are plenty of remains from that time. We also saw a tiny island called Thieves Holm. Local folklore says thieves and witches were banished here. It’s not too far from the Mainland, but with the water so chilly I doubt anyone could have made the swim. Then we pulled out into The String, the exit from Kirkwall Bay, and felt like we were in the open sea, with clean air blowing on our faces and seagulls wheeling overhead.

%Gallery-161148%Twenty-five minutes later we pulled into Shapinsay harbor. Like most of the islands up here, it’s been inhabited since prehistoric times. There are a couple of megalithic standing stones, including one called the Odin Stone, like the one that used to be near the Standing Stones of Stenness. There’s also an Iron Age broch built by the Picts.

It seems, though, that Shapinsay was mostly a sleepy place inhabited by farmers and fishermen. That all changed in the late 1700s when the Balfour family decided to build an elegant estate on the island. The first step was to build Balfour village for all the workmen, and then work began in earnest on a grand home that looks like a castle. Balfour Castle is now a hotel and a good spot if you want to splash out on a quiet retreat.

And quiet it is. Even in the center of town all we heard is the wind, birdsong and the distant drone of a tractor. After a minute even the tractor cut off. We had a quick coffee at The Smithy, a little cafe/restaurant/pub (you have to multitask when you’re one of the only businesses on the island) and headed out for a coastal hike.

For me, the biggest attraction of Scotland is the countryside, and Shapinsay certainly didn’t disappoint. After a gloomy northern morning, the weather had turned gloriously clear and warm. We chose a five-mile loop hike along the shoreline and through some woods behind Balfour Castle. My 6-year-old son is an experienced hiker and can manage five miles over easy terrain. Of course, when hiking with children make sure you give them a steady supply of water and snacks!

We started out by passing Balfour Village’s little pier and a crumbling old tower called The Douche, which used to be a salt water shower for the local residents. Then we tramped along the stony beach. Orkney is rich in bird life and we saw terns, seagulls, and several other types of birds I couldn’t identify. Every now and then a curious seal would pop its head out of the water and examine us. In the distance we saw a few sailboats and fishing vessels. Otherwise we saw nobody and heard nothing. That was exactly what I wanted.

After climbing a steep slope, our path cut inland and we tramped over lush fields carpeted with yellow, white and purple wildflowers. My son picked a couple for my wife to put in her hair and we headed through a little forest and ended up in the lush garden of Balfour Castle. It wasn’t long before we were back in the village, where we relaxed in the garden of the Smithy looking out over the water and doing nothing for a while except admiring a beautiful day in northern Scotland.

Orkney has plenty of islands to choose from. Do a bit of research ahead of time online and with the local tourism office and head on out. Pay careful attention to the ferry schedule, though, because on many islands the last ferry for the day leaves pretty early.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Eynhallow: Visiting Orkney’s Haunted Isle!”

Toddlers Partying In The Piazza At Midnight: Tips for Traveling With Small Children To Italy And Beyond

kids in italyIt’s ten o’clock on a Saturday night and for Italian children, the night is still young. In the small, seaside town of Polignano a Mare, in Puglia, children of all ages convene in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle to play soccer and tag, fill balloons with water in an ancient fountain and have the time of their lives under the not-very-watchful glances of their parents, who may or may not be very nearby.

Oh to be a small child growing up in Italy, or any number of other Mediterranean countries where the parents couldn’t possibly be more different from the hyper-cautious American super-parent. On Saturday night in Polignano, we let our boys, ages 2 and 4, play in the piazza until 10 p.m. and couldn’t help but feel as though we were doing something illicit.

“We could probably get in trouble for keeping our kids out this late at home,” my wife remarked.

But in Italy, especially on weekends, the night is just getting started around 10. Many restaurants don’t open until 8 – my children’s bed time in the U.S. – and you wouldn’t be a very nice parent if you didn’t let your kids have some gelato afterwards, right? Then it’s time to burn off that sugar in the piazza. In Polignano on a Saturday night, it’s not unusual to see toddlers strolling the streets and playing in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle close to Midnight.Italians love to indulge their children. We were recently on an Italian cruise line, Costa, and were amazed by the protocols in their children’s club. First, it’s open until 1:30 a.m. Perhaps even more remarkably, the night owl kids are given sugary snacks at, get this, 11:30 p.m. each night! This isn’t a dirty little secret – the plan is printed right on their schedule. You could seriously be arrested in the U.S. for that.

You might not want to take a completely go-native approach to parenting while in Italy, but here are some tips for helping your kids enjoy themselves while visiting.

small child on a train in italyTake the train. Long bus and car rides are more confining than taking the train. On the train, your kids can walk around and on some of the regional train lines, the drivers will let your kids come into the driver’s car to blow the whistle if you ask (see photo). On Italian trains, children 4 and under are generally free, though in practice, I’ve noticed that most Italians don’t pay for kids who look even older. My older son is 4 and no conductor has ever asked us how old he is. The downside of train travel with kids is lugging your baggage. Larger train stations have elevators, which make it easier, ask for the ascensori (ah-shen-sore-ee).

Rent an apartment. Even in the U.S., sharing one hotel room with small children can be a tribulation, but quarters are even tighter in Italy, so if you want to preserve your sanity, look for an apartment. You’ll have the added benefit of a washing machine and a kitchen, which come in very handy when you’re traveling with kids.

Mangia. You can get plain pasta and pizza everywhere and there are McDonald’s locations in most larger towns and cities. Places that serve paninis, can make you something that approximates a grilled cheese sandwich. Nutella and gelato are available everywhere. Many restaurants don’t charge the coperto, or cover charge for small children. In practice, this is negotiable and if you balk at paying it for small kids, they’ll usually take it off the bill. Make sure you have snacks as restaurants open later in the evening.

La Pausa. Day trips are tricky to navigate in Italy, thanks to La Pausa – the siesta – when most sites, shops and many restaurants, especially in smaller towns and cities, close from about 1 or 2 p.m. until 4, 5 or 6, depending on the place. It might take some adjustment, but if you can get your kids to nap, or at least rest, during this time of day, you won’t feel so bad about letting them stay up late.

Set a Modest Itinerary. The American mentality is to try to run around and see the whole country in a week. Make peace with the fact that you aren’t going to see everything and go slow. There are pros and cons to using the home base/day trip approach to travel in Italy. If you choose the home base option and plan to make day trips, you won’t have to pack and unpack, a big plus if you’re traveling with a lot of baggage, but the downside is that day trips can be hard to manage in many parts of Italy where La Pausa is observed.

If you sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast and catch a late morning train to your destination. You’ll arrive just in time for the whole place to shut down for several hours. Depending on the transportation options, you might consider traveling during La Pausa – and arriving at your destination in the late afternoon, and then stay until dinnertime, enjoy the evening passegiata (stroll) – and then catch the train back to your base.

Playgrounds. Trying to find playgrounds, called gioca per bambini, near touristic centro storicos is tricky, but if you ask around you can usually find one in the vicinity. Many Italian towns also have pay-per-ride midway rides. Toy stores are also nice for the kids but note that many store owners aren’t wild about letting kids touch things. We’ve had some instances where we were followed around the store as though we were shoplifters.

Bath time. Space is always at a premium in Italy, and many hotels and apartments have showers rather than baths. If your kids are used to taking baths and don’t like the shower, let them handle the showerhead themselves to make it more fun for them.

Strollers. Navigating strollers in Italian towns and cities can be tough. The general rule of thumb is that you want to bring a compact, very lightweight stroller with you but understand that in some places, like hill towns, they’ll be essentially useless. Depending on the size and weight of your children, think about bringing some type of carrier. I don’t envy anyone who tries to navigate a double stroller in Italy.

Fun in the piazza. Find the liveliest piazza in whatever town you’re in and there’s instant entertainment for your kids, especially in the evening.

Italian TV. Let your kids watch some of their favorite cartoons in Italian. They’ll pick up some of the language and they won’t mind the fact that they don’t understand what’s being said.

Go with the flow. Italy’s a great country to travel in with small children but you need to have patience and a sense of humor. You won’t be able to stick to an American schedule and your kids won’t get everything they want, but if you go native while in the country, at least to a degree, you’ll have a better time.

Useful Terms.

diapers- pannolini
wipes- salviettine detergenti
playground- gioca per bambini or terreno di gioco
beach- spiaggia
plain- semplice
merry-go-round- giostra

[Photos by Dave Seminara]