Archives for Great Family Vacations

10Best Readers’ Choice awards

Winners: Chosen by readers of USA Today and 10Best

I served as an expert for 10Best Readers’ Choice awards, nominating best waterparks, best destinations for teens, and best pet-friendly hotels.

10 Best Waterparks

1. Splashin’ Safari – Santa Claus, IN
2. Schlitterbahn – New Braunfels, TX
3. Noah’s Ark – Wisconsin Dells, WI
4. Great Wolf Wilderness Lodge – Williamsburg, VA
5. Wilderness Territory – Wisconsin Dells, WI
6. Water World – Denver, CO
7. Water Country – Williamsburg, VA
8. Raging Waters – San Dimas, CA
9. White Water Park – Branson, MO
10. Wet ‘n Wild Emerald Point – Greensboro, NC

10 Best Destination for Teens

1. Wisconsin Dells, WI
2. Orlando, FL
3. Chicago, IL
4. San Antonio, TX
5. Gatlinburg, TN
6. Myrtle Beach, SC
7. Riviera Maya, Mexico
8. New York City, NY
9. Grand Teton National Park, WY
10. Oahu, HI

10 Best Pet Friendly Hotels

10best-dog-friendlyThe Little Nell – Aspen, CO

Click here to see all 10 winners.

1. El Portal Sedona Hotel – Sedona, AZ
2. Red Mountain Resort – St. George, UT
3. The Benjamin – New York City, NY
4. Fairmont – Washington, DC
5. Hotel Monaco – Alexandria, VA
6. W Hotel Midtown – Atlanta, GA
7. Loews Coronado Bay Resort – San Diego, CA
8. The Little Nell – Aspen, CO
9. The Loden – Vancouver, Canada
10. Galleria Park Hotel – San Francisco, CA


Guilt trip: Pet travel can be stressful for people, too

by Candyce Stapen, USA TODAY

pet travelEver smuggle your dog or cat into your hotel? If so, you’re one of the pack. According to the first State of U.S. Pet Travel study conducted by, a home dog boarding registry, 15% of pet owners confess to sneaking their furry pals into no-four-paws allowed guest rooms, or even onto airplanes.

For pet parents, “guilt trip” can take on a new meaning. When not bringing along four-legged friends, 72% of people companions worry about the pets left behind at least some of the time, and 24% of people worry during all or most of their trips. Even when friends or family host the pups and kitties, 50% of owners feel bad requesting the stay.

The survey, conducted online by Harris Interactive, uncovers other pet-travel challenges. A majority — 75% — of the 2,341 respondents of whom 1,423 are pet owners, do not trust airlines to care for animals safely when they fly in a plane’s hold, whether as checked baggage or as cargo. Another bone of contention: 21% of pet lovers cite difficulties digging out pet-friendly lodgings or pet-friendly airlines.

Launched March 2012, combines Yelp-like, user reviews of vetted home-boarders with a booking engine.

Co-developer of the site Aaron Hirschhorn says “DogVacay was founded to create an alternative for traveling dog parents to board their pet in a loving home. We hope this survey will inspire more innovation in pet travel so that next year’s survey results will show even more improvement in options available to those traveling both with and without their pets.”

Tips for traveling with your Dog

Photo by H. Darr Beiser
Click on image to view the video

How to avoid stress during family holiday travel

The best way to minimize holiday travel hassles with your family: plan ahead. Whether you’re driving or flying, these tips will help you avoid stress.

by Candyce H. Stapen, special for USA TODAY

Traveling Family

Stock Photo

6:13p.m. EST December 5, 2012 – The best way to minimize holiday travel hassles: plan ahead. Even after you’ve locked down the cheapest airfares, plotted the easiest driving routes and lightened your load by mailing the presents, sweeten the festivities by following these stress-busters.

Getting There

Allow extra travel time. Don’t be a turkey and arrive late. For Thanksgiving 2012, AAA estimates more than 43.6 million Americans will head 50 miles or more from home, a 0.7% increase over 2011’s 43.3 million travelers. Factor in the crowded roads and slow moving lines at airports when calculating your travel schedule.

Keep essentials handy. More hours en route means you need extra batteries and electronic chargers so that your computers, video games and cell phones will last as long as your road trip. With babies on board, pack extra diapers, changes of clothing, food and bottles. Be sure that this bag is easily accessible in the car’s front seat (not the trunk) or as an airline carry-on (not as checked luggage).

Make “what if” plans. When meeting friends or relatives at a destination or at an airport, don’t rely only on cell phones. Go low tech too; just in case your phone dies or service isn’t available, develop a plan B on how to meet up and what to do in case of  missed connections.

Bring food and water. Like armies, families travel on their stomachs.  Healthy snacks and bottles of water and juice go a long way toward quashing the crankies. When flying, allow additional time in the terminal to purchase sandwiches and drinks to take on board.

Plane Tips

Check-in at the airport early. Be aware that the airline may reassign reserved seats if you haven’t obtained boarding passes 30 minutes before departure. If you fail to show up at the gate within 10 minutes of scheduled take-off, the airline may cancel your reservation. See more tips at

Know your rights if bumped. Getting involuntarily bumped is relatively rare.  According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, about one passenger in every 10,000 suffers that fate because of an oversold flight. During the busy holiday travel season, however, volunteers to take later flights may be in short supply.  Although there are exceptions, if bumped and delayed between one and two hours on a domestic flight, you may receive compensation equal to double the price of your ticket up to $650.  If your delay is longer, payments may be four times the value of your ticket up to $1,300.  Read the fine print at

Understand options for delayed or canceled flights. For these situations, unlike being bumped, there are no federal compensation requirements. Instead, each airline determines whether to offer meal vouchers or other reimbursements. Salvage your trip by being savvy. While lining up at the ticket counter for a new flight, call the airline’s reservations number on your cell phone as this might be quicker. If a blizzard closes the entire airport, don’t leave the facility until you have a confirmed flight out even if it’s several days away. Also, ask to be wait-listed on several, earlier flights. Then, when the airport reopens, show up with your bags in case better connections become available.  Check out

Car Logic

Stow emergency gear. Be prepared for car problems and bad weather by equipping your car with jumper cables, flashlights, extra batteries, a first-aid kit, ice scraper and blankets; thermal reflective blankets are thin, moderately priced and effective at retaining body heat.

Click USA to read the article.


Easing family air travel for the holidays

Air travel with your family during the holidays can be stressful and challenging. Here are tips to ease the pain.

by Candyce H. Stapen, special for USA TODAY

Airtravel passenger waiting to check in

Photo from stock

7:40PM EDT October 30, 2012 – If the best thing about the holidays is celebrating with friends and family, then the most difficult tasks may be making your way through the crunch of airport passengers and the maze of carrier fees and regulations. Until we can fly by saying “Beam me up, Scotty,” consider these tips for easing air travel.

Plane Sense

Use a smaller airport. Regional airports, as opposed to major hubs, come with the conveniences of easier parking, fewer crowds as well as shorter check-in and security lines. These advantages can outweigh any added drive time required to get from the gate to your downtown destination. To visit Boston, for example, consider landing at Manchester Boston Regional, Manchester, N.H., 50 miles north of the city instead of at Logan International.

Book tickets early. To get the best fares and connections plus seats next to your children without paying for prime spots, purchase tickets as far in advance as possible. Flying on non-stop or through flights (no change of plane required after a layover) eliminates missed connections.

Travel on less busy days. While houses may be quiet the night before Christmas and Thanksgiving, airports are packed. Escape the thickest throngs by flying on Thanksgiving and Christmas days, an especially good solution when landings allow you to arrive in time for the turkey dinner.

Factor in luggage fees when comparing fares. More and more airlines tack on charges for checked luggage, typically $25 for the first piece and $35 or more for the second. A family of four who manages to pack their holiday clothing and gifts into one suitcase per person can pay $100+ each way for checked bags. On JetBlue, for example, the first checked bag is free, but the second costs $40. On Southwest, two bags fly free. Sites such as offer handy luggage charts.

Lessen bag charges. Loyalty pays off: Use credit cards and take advantage of airline club memberships that cover luggage fees. When flying Delta and charging tickets to a Delta Sky Miles Gold credit card, wave goodbye to the first checked-bag fee for up to nine people traveling together on the cardholder’s reservation, a savings of $225. With an AMEX Platinum card, receive a yearly $200 credit on the carrier of your choice for luggage fees and airline incidentals. Research your frequent flyer membership; at some levels, your bags go free.

Family & Friends Rules

Reserve wheelchairs. During the busy holidays, be sure to ask ahead of time for a wheelchair (always free) for granny who tires after walking a few steps. Doing so will lessen her wait time for assistance.

Consider extra travel help. According to the Department of Transportation, if someone cannot be counted on to follow safety procedures, then he can no longer fly alone. To get great-uncle Louis to the holiday table, ask a friend or relative to be his flight buddy or engage a travel companion whose services include taking Louis to the airport, checking him in and flying with him. Preferred Travel Helpers,, and Flying Companion,, are among the companies providing such assistance.

Click USA to read the article.


How to save on family holiday travel

by Candyce H. Stapen, special for USA TODAY

Christmas in Washington DC at the Capitol (Photo: Candyce Stapen)

Christmas in Washington DC at the Capitol (Photo: Candyce Stapen)

6:05PM EDT October 16. 2012 – During the holidays, family travel usually involves visiting friends and relatives or that much-anticipated vacation destination. But the holidays are also high season. That means top hotel rates, restaurants serving expensive meals, and stages hosting sparkling ballets, plays and rock concerts at premium prices. Here are some tips on how to stretch your holiday budget by saving money on food, lodging and fees.

Cheap eats on the go

Eat the street food. Take advantage of the food truck revolution to cut your lunch costs. In Boston, New York, Washington, D.C, Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin and other urban locales, skilled cooks serve up imaginative fare from their mobile kitchens. The vendors tend to specialize in one main dish, tweaking the ingredients. Empanadas can be beef with potato or Jambalaya style with shrimp, sausage and rice. Tacos come filled with chicken, beef or even lobster. And for dessert, look for trucks selling waffles, cupcakes or custom-made ice cream sandwiches. These mobile meals-on-wheels rove the downtown districts, parking for awhile and then moving on. To track the trucks, check the destination’s official visitor website for links and for apps.

Browse the green markets. Indoor farmers’ markets bloom in major cities from Toronto to Los Angeles. Although winter might mean fewer home-grown vegetables, the markets lure neighbors and visitors by selling aromatic breads, fresh-baked pastries, crisp apples and other seasonal fruit as well as organic salads and deli meats. Dine in at the markets’ inexpensive cafés or bring some goodies back to your hotel room or to your relatives’ house.

Rooms with meals

Pick a property that includes breakfast. When rates include complimentary breakfast, whether it’s a cooked-to-order meal or a Continental spread, you start your day saving money.

Make sure your room has a refrigerator. Stock your fridge with milk, juice and bottled water purchased at a nearby store, thus saving money on costly honor bar items. When traveling with little ones, buy plastic bowls and spoons as well as cold cereal and baby food. Tots can then eat breakfast when hungry, even if it’s before the hotel restaurant opens. If refrigerators aren’t standard features, hotels may supply them for a fee. Like all extras, availability is limited, so request a fridge when you make your room reservation.

Book a condo. Not only do these lodgings offer more space for the money than hotel rooms, but they also come with kitchens. That makes it easy to cook breakfasts and dinners, thus saving on restaurant bills.

Cook for relatives. Instead of taking Aunt Sally, Uncle Bill and their families out to a restaurant to thank them for their hospitality, cook dinner for them. This is less costly and often less hectic than requiring youngsters to sit through a multi-course meal at a restaurant.

The destination

Consider a home exchange. By swapping your vacant place for someone else’s, you can enjoy a getaway in Europe, the Caribbean or anywhere else you can find a family to live in your home while you live in theirs, all for much less money than renting a hotel or villa. Depending on what you want, trading places can get you multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, maybe a backyard and possibly extras like a car. Home exchange companies typically charge a membership fee and/or a monthly listing fee. If you’ve always wanted to treat your mom and dad to Christmas in Rome, then swapping homes can make this dream trip an affordable holiday gift.

Click USA to read the article.

How to make holiday travel planning a family affair

by Candyce H. Stapen, special for USA TODAY

Photo: Thinkstock

5:44PM EST October 2. 2012 – The December holidays—Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa—provide families the opportunity to celebrate together, see friends and relatives and even treat themselves to winter vacations. But these getaways, whether to grandma’s or grand resorts, take extra planning. A key to ensuring that crowded roads, airports and hotels plus other potential travel glitches don’t squelch your family’s joy is to turn your gang into a team. Involving your kids in the holiday process, from planning to partying, goes a long way toward gaining their cooperation and lightening your load. Here are some suggestions.

The vacation destination

–Ask for input. Do your kids want to ski and snowboard or surf and swim? You may not be able to afford the far away slopes or sands of their dreams, but ski areas or beaches within a short flight or doable drive make a good compromise.

–Keep the holiday spirit. Task your children with decorating the hotel room or condo. Little ones can hang crayon drawings and fashion mini-Christmas trees or menorahs from pipe cleaners, cardboard and other easy-to-pack objects.

–Pick a family project. Get back to the meaning of the holidays by helping the community. Suggest your teens contact the destination’s Chamber of Commerce or the resort to discover the local community’s suggestions. Send clothing or toys ahead of time or have your children pool their allowance to purchase a holiday meal for a family in need.

–Select a special activity. Instead of the typical individual presents, consider gifting your family with a memorable group outing you wouldn’t normally do such as a horse-drawn carriage ride to a mountain lodge dinner or a day-long snorkeling outing. Give kids travel apps and guides to review the possibilities.

The relatives

–Tell kids about the family history. Use the time en route to let kids learn about their relatives. Your youngsters may only know 60-something Uncle Fred as that cheek-pincher. Let them hear how he helped save his platoon in the Vietnam War.

–Use tweens’ and teens’ digital expertise. Ask these Web wizards and YouTube masters to chronicle the family holiday by taking photos, shooting videos and editing them into a family movie. Be sure these budding directors interview grandparents, great-aunts and any senior family members. Years from now, this family feature will become a treasured memento. Little ones can get into the act by asking questions. Try “How did you celebrate the holidays as a kid?” Before any posts, be sure to exercise your right of the final edit just to make sure the finished product fits in with your family’s values.


–Mail gifts ahead of time. Morph your older kids into Santa’s helpers by having them take presents to the post office. Shipping gifts in advance lessens your luggage load, eliminates excess baggage fees and prevents the disappointment of watching airport security personnel select your painstakingly prepared package for unwrapping.

Click USA to read the article.


How to Entertain Kids on the Road

By Candyce H. Stapen, special for USA TODAY

how to entertain kids on the roadMay 11, 2012 – Think of road trips with your children as rare opportunities. When else do you have a long stretch of time with your kids uninterrupted by television, homework, phone calls, their friends or other distractions? Especially with kids along, getting there can be half the fun.

To make sure, plan ahead and follow the cardinal rule of family travel: maintain a sense of humor. After all, sometimes cars break down, babies spit up, traffic crawls and attractions get crowded. Here are some suggestions, oriented to age groups, to make your road trip memorable for all the right reasons.


Talk with them. Get the conversation going by telling tales of your childhood. Kids love to hear about their parents at their same age.

Listen. A car provides an ideal venue for older children to open up about their feelings. Since the driver looks straight ahead and the passengers often do too, conversation feels much less judgmental than a face-to-face talk. On a long stretch of highway when it’s dark, you’re likely to find out what it really felt like to come in third at the swim meet.

Let teens pick aspects of the trip. The ultimate procrastinators, most teens won’t have given your journey much thought, although they will express definite opinions. Once on the highway, hand your teens guidebooks and travel apps so they can choose a few activities and restaurants.

Share music. Music really can soothe the soul. Ask your teens to share songs from their personal iPods or MP3 players that the family might like. Use your car’s stereo system or tote a portable speaker.

roadtrips with kidsGRADE-SCHOOLERS:

Vary the seating. After miles on the road, it’s common to hear such backseat cries as “His foot is on my side.” To manage a meltdown, divide and conquer. Switch places so that the child old enough to sit in the front moves next to the driver. If there’s another adult, have him sit in the rear. That not only stops squabbles, but gives each child important one-on-one time with a parent or grandparent.

Use the baby to mark a border. With three children, place the littlest one in the middle of the car’s backseat. That creates a buffer zone between fighting older siblings and positions two kids to play with the tot.

Think picnic. Tweak the tried-and-true rule of taking a bathroom and snack break every two to three hours: pack a lunch and pause for a picnic and a Frisbee game at a local or state park along your route.

Bring games and toys. Bring the movies, portable electronic games and other hi-tech toys your brood favors. But think low-tech, too. Pack pipe cleaners for making crazy-shaped critters, as well as coloring books, crayons and sticker games, plus a few new toys as a surprise.

Arrive by late afternoon. After a day on the road, everybody looks forward to an out-of-car experience. Plan to arrive at your daily destination well before dinner so that you and the kids can take advantage of the swimming pool or play area.


Understand your family’s rhythms of the road. Some families prefer putting little ones in pajamas and starting the drive after dinner when traffic diminishes and kids sleep. Others find that early-morning departures enable them to be at their destination before the late-afternoon, kid-cranky hours.

Click USA to read the article.


How to Travel with another Family

How to Travel with Another Family and Still Remain Friends

Families traveling together
Traveling with another family can be lots of fun. Your kids have buddies to share adventures with and you can share responsibilities like driving, shopping, leading outings and other tasks. Plus you save money by splitting costs for lodging, gas, food, rental van fees and other expenses.

Sounds good right?

It can be – just remember the big beware: ruining the friendship.

Liking a family is not enough. Even the most complementary couples who are the best of friends can have different travel rhythms and goals. Don’t think that just because you enjoy Sunday barbecues or movie nights together that you and the other family make good travel partners. If you plan on sharing a beach house or even exploring a city with another family, you need to be able to live with them, their children and tolerate their habits for 8+ hours a day.

Click here to read the article.

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Great Family Vacations

Highly respected family travel expert, Candyce Stapen has authored 30 travel guide books—including two for National Geographic-- appeared on the TODAY Show and written 2,300+ travel articles for a variety of outlets.
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