Eileen Ogintz is a longtime family travel expert and syndicated columnist of the weekly column Taking the Kids featured on CNN.com, MSNBC.com, as well as a lengthy list of leading national newspapers. Eileen has been writing about family travel for over 20 years and has managed to transition her column to a Web 2.0 world.
The number of family travel blogs and websites has exploded over the past few years. How has traveling with kids changed? Eileen offers her perspective on the growth of family travel.
Tell me about your background. How did you get into writing about family travel?
I was a national news reporter at the Chicago Tribune in 1987 when the Travel Editor asked me to do story in Wisconsin with my two kids. Although they assured me the property was kid-friendly, it didn’t take long for us to get kicked out once my three-year-old pushed their kitty into the goldfish pond (apparently the kitty wanted a snack). I ended up writing a story about our misadventures and it got a big response. At the time, there were many baby boomers with kids trying to figure out how to travel in an industry that was not amenable to families.
I started Taking the Kids shortly thereafter during a time when nobody was writing about family travel. I’ve always approached my work as a beat by interviewing other people and experts versus only talking about my own travel experiences.
Ludlow’s Resort, 1989
How has family travel changed since you started writing about it?
The shift came when the travel industry started to realize that family travel is a huge market and people wanted to go beyond the beach, theme parks, and national parks.
Keep in mind that some of the young families from 20 years ago who were breaking family travel ground are now grandparents and are continuing to travel with their kids and grandkids. We’re seeing more multi-generational trips than we used to. Families are spread across the country and would rather fly to do something fun then being stuck at a senior complex in Cleveland.
Families are looking for more adventure now and are comfortable going further afield with kids. Instead of apologizing for kids-in-tow, people are more demanding in what a hotel, resort, or whatever is doing for them. Parents have many more choices now — if a property is not up to snuff, they can just go down the street and find another. Hoteliers that are smart recognize that families are lucrative — more rooms, more food, more drinks — it behooves them to acknowledge this very big market.
While parents may still use kids’ clubs, it’s not for the entire day because they want to spend time their kids on vacation. If they do opt for a kids’ club, parents are looking for more interesting programs — it can’t be just babysitting.
I just wrote a column about how moms don’t get a break on vacation and shouldn’t feel guilty about that. There are many more moms working now and they aren’t used to being around the kids all day. They expect vacations to be one Kodak moment after another. It’s not going to be like that.
The other change is that people are taking their work with them. It is very unusual for people to be unplugged for a whole vacation. This may not be a good thing, but it is reality.
How has the growth of Social Media changed what you do as a journalist?
Information is more immediate now. When I’m traveling, I’m twittering and doing Facebook posts in real time. In the early days, my column would be sent out by mail and every article had a two-week lead time. Now, everything happens right away.
For me this is great as it gives me a chance to jump on the news if something happens. I also find I have to work more now given that my website features daily tips and a blog — it’s more work than just filing a column once a week.
From the consumers perspective, they are getting their information from the web and are much more interested in hearing from “real’ people via Trip Advisor or Snow Mamas or the Disney Moms Panel website where 85,000 questions are asked and answered.
Parents have always used “knowledgeable neighbors” — well, now they have millions of them or at least people that think they are. This is scary because nothing is vetted and a single experience is not the same as universal perspective.
How has technology changed the way you travel?
It’s much easier to prepare for traveling with kids than it used to be. Now, you can look online to access immediate information about special events or do a virtual tour of a museum or accommodations with kids ahead of time. Families now have a much better vision of what a trip will like before they get there.
British Virgin Islands, 2005
What are some of your family travel favorite destinations?
My daughter and I loved our hiking trip along Amalfi Coast with Backroads. We never would have found all of these places on our own. Hikes were challenging but we ate well and the guides took care of everything.
I love city trips. San Francisco is a favorite — everything looks different yet everyone speaks English.
I’d say the most fun family vacations are ski trips and one of our favorite places is Crested Butte, Colorado. It’s a smaller resort area with a great mountain. The town is historic and has great restaurants (not fancy like Aspen) with a 3-minute shuttle ride to the mountain so teens can ski on their own.
Adventure trip with kids
Most recently we were in Atacama in Chile. We stayed at Tierra Atacama, a small, wonderful hotel where all the excursions are included. There is a tremendous variety of things to do — hot springs, a salt lake, and the highest geyser field in the world. After touring, everyone comes back together for great meals — the set-up is conducive to meeting other international travelers.
My most memorable adventure was hiking Kilimanjaro with my daughter when she graduated from high school. It is one of hardest things I’ve done. We switched roles — my daughter was leading and helping me for a change.
Chartering a sailboat is an amazing experience. The Caribbean is a great venue for this because you get to sample lots of different beaches.
Lakes are great for families too. Ludlow’s Island Resort in Minnesota is a wonderful, old-fashioned place. It’s on a lake and whole resort is offshore where you stay in cabins and go canoeing, fishing, and boogie boarding. This is the kind of place where even six and seven-year-olds can run around from the beach to the cabins.
For families with younger children, Azul Beach Hotel in Playa del Carmen does a good job. It is small with only 90 rooms but all-inclusive and laid back. They have a playground on beach with counselor-led activities.
You have great perspective on value and discounts. Where are you seeing great deals?
Mexico for sure. The thing to remember is that chances are the resort areas are not near the violence in the news these days. Hotels are discounting rooms while airfare is rising — you may be able to afford more than you think in terms of accommodations right now. Consider staying a day less and upgrading to a nicer place.