#FBF: Followback Friday is our new interview series where we get real with some of our favorite travel influencers. We want to learn what makes them tick, their best tips and tricks, and share stories of (mis)adventures from the road.
It’s funny how paths can collide unexpectedly. Beth, Jen, and Kara used to be do-it-yourself travel writers. Then, they met and, despite living in three different states, became The Vacation Gals. Their family travel blog is full of tips, tricks, and ideas for kids and couples who want to see the world — and don’t mind becoming tourists in their own cities occasionally, too. We caught up with Kara Williams to learn more about her top Colorado adventures and how The Vacation Gals stay on the move at home and abroad.
How did The Vacation Gals come to be?
I met Jen Miner and Beth Bair on a now-defunct travel writers’ online “bulletin board” back in 2007. We met in real life at a Travel Media Showcase conference in Palm Springs that same year. We had a ton in common: not only did we have six children among us all age 10 and under, but we loved to travel and write about it. We launched The Vacation Gals blog in September 2009, with a focus on family travel, romantic escapes and girlfriend getaways. We live in three different parts of the country – Jen in California, Beth in Minnesota and me in Colorado – and we write a lot about our own backyards, as well as our far-flung travels. We’ve also evolved to cover plenty of outdoor adventures, wellness trips, travel fashion and gear, as well as some home and lifestyle topics, on the blog today.
All three of you are professional travel writers with families. How often are you traveling each year? Do your children have an active role in picking out the next vacation spot?
On average, we each seem to take about five trips annually with our families. Those could be “big” trips, like Jen’s recent vacation in Amsterdam and Iceland, or Beth’s big road trip from Minnesota to Florida combined with a Caribbean cruise last summer. Or they’re shorter weekend getaways or ski trips. Our children definitely have a big say in where we travel. For example, Beth’s tween daughter is a humongous Harry Potter fan, so a trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios was a key visit during that road trip last year. Jen’s daughter digs outdoor adventure, so their trips typically include activities like kayaking, ziplining and hiking. My landlocked Colorado kids love the beach – boogie boarding is a favorite activity – so we make a coastal destination a high priority each year.
What are the secret ingredients to a fun family vacation?
I think one secret is to make sure everyone understand the importance of being flexible. Kids can learn this at a young age. If something goes wrong – a flat tire, a missed flight – children notice how Mom and Dad react. So we adults try (operative word, try) to go with the flow and adapt quickly when mishaps happen and plans inadvertently change. Since my children were little we’ve also made sure let every family choose at least one activity on vacation. A nine-year-old may be more apt to tolerate dad’s choice of history museum if she knows she get to play on the beach (her choice) in the afternoon.
How would you describe your travel style? Has it evolved since The Vacation Gals first began?
For Jen and I, currently moms to teenagers, our travel styles have evolved from searching for great on-site child care (such as the kids’ clubs at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico) to booking vacations in places where everyone can immerse themselves in the local culture, with plenty of outdoor activities to boot. Beth’s family has long been a fan of road trips since her oldest child was a toddler. Now, with a 12-, 10- and a 2-year-old, her family has found that cruises suit everyone’s interests with arcades and kids’ clubs, as well as plenty of opportunities for the entire family to spend time together on the ship and exploring in ports. All three of us certainly appreciate luxury hotels, but we don’t mind “roughing it” every once in a while if it means such accommodations bring us closer to nature. We all love being outdoors!
A lot of times packing can be especially stressful for families. What are the packing essentials you guys keep with you?
I’ve become a big fan of packing cubes to help keep clothes and electronics organized.
My teen children are now old enough to pack themselves – not only their checked luggage but their carry-on bags, too. I’ll usually “approve” their clothing picks, but they’ve gotten very good a packing appropriately and making sure they have their phone charges, headphones, and books for the plane. It helps that I put them in charge of their own “stuff” since they were kindergarten age.
Jen takes her packing a step further. She says her family hasn’t checked luggage for family trips in ten years! “It only took one experience with waiting for luggage that never showed up at baggage claim, with our exhausted little kids in tow, for us to make this decision! But, we still manage to take 2 or more weeks at a time overseas for our "big summer vacation" every year. We do laundry while away, be in with a travel-sized Woolite, local laundromat, or (most expensive option) using hotel laundry services. It's such a relief to get off the plane and leave the airport without hanging around baggage claim for half an hour.”
Be honest, what’s one item you refuse to leave home without?
I cannot sleep without my foam earplugs – at home or on the road. I make sure never to leave them behind. Wadded up cotton balls or tissues don’t work nearly as well to block out noise at night. I asked The Vacation Gals Jen for her must-pack item, and she said, “Honestly, it’s official, ‘real’ Q-Tips. Those off-brand cotton swabs just don't cut it for me.” And Beth says, “My family always, always has some variety of trail mix on hand since unexpected things come up (flight delays, closed restaurants, etc.). A fed family is a happy family.”
How do you save money while you travel?
My family likes booking hotels that offer included breakfasts – and we make sure to fuel up well at those breakfast buffets. We tend to graze at lunch, picking up picnic foods and snacks at a local grocery store, saving our “splurge meal” for the dinner hour. Alternatively, booking a condo or apartment accommodations with a kitchen can help save on eating out, since we can make inexpensive breakfasts (bagels and eggs) at our home away from home, and store picnic fixings and snacks and drinks in the kitchen fridge, too.
We’re big fans of Colorado and we love that you’re Instagram has been full of local adventures this summer. What are your top five adventures families must try while they’re in Colorado?
I love my state! For adventurous families, I’d suggest the following:
- Hitting any or all of our national parks; they are different from one another, and each has its merits! Rocky Mountain National Park has oodles of opportunities for hiking amid tall pines and tall peaks; Mesa Verde has really cool ancient dwellings built in the cliff walls that you can tour with a park ranger; at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison you can peek over railings into a wildly steep canyon; at Great Sand Dunes have fun rolling down humongous sand dunes.
- Visit Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, with its Giant Canyon Swing ride that launches riders 1,300 feet above the Colorado River. Not for the faint of heart!
- Book a whitewater rafting trip in the summer months. Many resort areas offer “mild to wild” trips on rivers throughout the state.
- In the winter, hit the slopes. Any slopes. I grew up skiing in New England, and it does not compare to the incredible powder skiing and the expansive mountains found at the big resorts in Colorado. Whether you ski Aspen or Vail, Beaver Creek or Breckenridge, I am confident you’ll love it – even if you’re a newbie. Children as young as 3 can get enrolled in ski school.
- Go dogsledding in Breckenridge. While you can find dogsledding outfitters throughout the state, I recommend Good Times Adventure Tours, where you can mush the sled! Even my 8-year-old son (at the time) got to drive, and he loved it!
What’s been your favorite travel memory (solo, family, or otherwise) so far?
In the summer of 2014 I had the pleasure of serving as Communications Coordinator for Semester at Sea, which took me and my family (and 465 college students) to 11 European countries over the course of 10 weeks. Even though I had to work (a lot!) while the ship was at sea, when we docked, I was able to enjoy some dynamic ports with my husband and kids. We made so many memories that summer – from getting hopelessly lost on the trains in Scotland to hiking glorious forest trails in Sweden to navigating foreign menus in Russia. It was a dream come true.
Do you have any bucket list adventures you haven’t crossed off your list yet?
I still need to get to Iceland and New Zealand; those are two spots I’d love to explore and enjoy some outdoor adventures. But I regularly dream about a relaxing overwater bungalow with my husband somewhere in the South Pacific. I am confident that will happen once my kiddos head off to college. Perhaps that will be our celebratory trip once they’re out of the house – four more years!
What are some upcoming trips you’re super excited about?
Two immediate trips on my docket include four days of hiking in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, followed by five days in New York City – where I plan to eat, walk, eat, walk, and see as many Broadway musicals as time allows.