Wendy Perrin has traversed the globe with her two young boys (now ages 5 and 6). As the award-winning Consumer News Editor for Condé Nast Traveler, she knows more than anyone I know about the best (and worst) travel resources. What I love about Wendy’s work is that she provides practical, nitty-gritty details in her articles — names, numbers, URLs — not just high-level advice that leaves you scratching your head for next steps.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to get to know Wendy a bit in our interview — there is much to learn — from how she manages her travel-intensive career and kids to lessons from her own experiences with her boys on the road.
Your job seems so ideal and exciting from the outside. What is the reality and how do you balance working and kids?
People think I’m on vacation all the time and I have to clarify that my trips are grueling and hard. I don’t like to be away from my kids — it’s challenging to reconcile the need to be traveling for work with the fact that I have young boys at home who need me. Juggling a job and kids is hard for any woman — add travel to that and it is insane.
I used to go away for two plus weeks at a time for a story. Now I do little trips and try to get more articles out of the time away — the downside is that there is zero relaxation time on the road and I’m working every second so I can get back quickly. My husband is home which is lucky because there is no way this lifestyle would be possible without his flexibility to help care for the kids at home and while we’re traveling on assignment.
How do you feel about taking your kids out of school to travel?
In recent years I’ve tried to take my kids with me whenever possible, but this is getting harder now that they are older because it means I have to take them out of school. Just today I had to tell my son’s school that he’ll be out of class next month — again. I feel like it is OK since he is in the first grade, but as time passes, this won’t be as easy.
Seeing the world is such an important part of a child’s education — the things they learn while traveling helps them become citizens of the world and to understand what life is really like in other countries.
Of all the places you’ve traveled with your kids, what is your favorite destination with them?
One favorite experience was a trip to Spain where we rented a villa in an extremely rural area where people still live off the land. My boys had the opportunity to experience this different way of life and it was eye opening for them. Simple things surprised them like picking oranges every morning and putting them in the hand-press for juice — there is no concept there of a trip to Costco for a year’s supply of breakfast.
Last month we took a Mediterranean cruise that stopped in Egypt. The boys absorbed such a surprising amount of information — we’d ask them random details and they would know the answers and then bring up what they learned on the trip on their own later. Like the fact that hieroglyphics is language in pictures — we’ll see an example of that and they’ll say “Oh yeah, that’s how the ancient Egyptians did things.” I prepared them for Egypt with books on the history, pyramids, and mummies — this is part of why all of this stuck in their minds, but the vivid memories are amazing. My older son Charlie will never forget our camel ride through the desert — it was really bumpy and when he got off the camel his tooth fell out. He put the tooth under his pillow that night with a note in hieroglyphics — lo and behold the tooth fairy came and left a note for him in hieroglyphics (which he could translate, thanks to the books on Egypt). He loved that the tooth fairy visited him in Egypt and takes care of kids all over the world. He will always remember this experience.
One thing we try to always do is take the boys to schools to interact with local kids — this has made a big impression on them. Irrespective of the color of skin or the language spoken, they realize that kids around the world are just like them.
Your kids-focused tips can be very funny — I laughed out loud when I read the post Top Ten Ways to Occupy Kids on Planes. Are there any amusing travel moments you want to share here?
Of course there’s the trip to California where both boys threw up next to other passengers … One fun moment was in Jamaica when we visited a school. This particular school was very well supplied with new computers and these little kids were well behaved and seemed so smart. At the time my older son was taking Chinese and when he learned there was a little girl at the school who spoke Chinese too, he went up and said “Ni Hao.” There were in the middle of Jamaica speaking Chinese. It was so fun and strange.
You often write about finding the best deals on airfare. What is the key strategy?
Date flexibility is essential to getting the best pricing, although I know this is difficult with school schedules. Even a day here or there can make a huge difference. I use travel search engines with flexible date searches like Orbitz, although many of the online flight tools have this now. Seating is a big issue on planes when traveling with kids — I’m always moving us around the plane on our trips. On a recent trip to Madrid we were on a 767 with a 2-3-2 seat configuration. Our assigned seats were in adjacent 2-seat rows, but then we learned that there were center seats that were open, so we moved to adjacent 3-seat rows and our kids each had 2 seats for sleeping.
Try and get the best seats possible when you book the tickets by using seatguru.com and seatexpert.com. These websites show detailed seat maps of the best and worst seats on specific flights. After you book, return to the airline’s site several times before the flight date to see if better seats have opened up. When it’s time to check-in online, do it as early as possible; often you’ll find that seats have opened up that weren’t available before.
At the airport, I often try to switch to better seats by asking the gate agent whether any empty middle seats are available and moving next to them. Most gate agents are nice to families and try to be as accommodating as possible. For us, the priority is having extra space for toys, so we avoid the bulkhead. We also like flights where coach has personal TV screens — seatguru.com and seatexpert.com show you that as well.
Ciao Bambino doesn’t handle cruise lines right now, but I’ve heard feedback that this is a great family travel option. What are your thoughts?
I’ve been on three cruises with my kids and while we’ve had every kind of problem, we’ve also had every kind of fabulous experience. Cruises are good for a variety of different ages of children because many ships have kids clubs, activities, and programs for specific age groups. My kids adore these clubs — it is their idea of nirvana and they are protesting when we need to leave. Meanwhile, my husband and I can be out sightseeing and doing the activities we enjoy.
Selecting the right ship is key. It is essential to find a ship that has appropriate facilities for the age of your kids. Most cruise lines won’t allow kids who are not potty trained to use the kids club or pool (even the kids pool). We had an experience where our younger son, who had just turned 3, was kicked out of the kids club on a ship because, even though he was potty trained on land, our routine was turned upside down at sea and he had a few accidents. This was a nightmare: one of our kids was allowed to go to the club, and the other wasn’t!
There are a few toddler-friendly cruise lines like Disney where kids can be in swim diapers. Also, some lines have water parks that all kids can use and kids clubs where diapers are allowed if parents are on hand to change them (but then you can’t leave the ship). See my article on Cruising with Kids. Also, cruisecritic.com is a good resource for reviews and they have a family-focused section.
We all have “do-overs,” meaning things we’d do different the second time. Do you have any to share?
I went to Club Med in Ixtapa when my older son was 17 months old and I was pregnant with my younger son. This trip was a disaster and the property had a lethal layout for a toddler — see my article on the trip. Ironically, now we could go back to that hotel and my kids would be in seventh heaven. With really young kids you need to take that extra step and do your homework to make trips successful. There are so many sources of advice for travel with kids — the problem is that every child is so different and what works for one family, may not be right for another. An example is the advice that when kids are under 2 you can save money by not buying them a seat on an airplane — there is no way that would have worked with either of my boys — but for my friend with calm daughters, it’s a great idea.