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How to Take a Work Trip across Three Countries with Your Three Kids–and No Partner–without Losing Your Mind

I’d been planning a Cuba trip for a while–I had work to do there and in-laws to visit, and I hadn’t been since early 2013–but for one reason or another, dates just weren’t lining up. Finally, the calendar cleared and I secured multiple assignments that would help pay for the trip, so it was game on– time to book flights.

Except I wasn’t traveling alone.

Four passengers = four passports and four visas. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

Four passengers = four passports and four visas. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My oldest daughter, who would turn six during our trip, had been to Cuba twice, but the youngest, ages 2 and 1, hadn’t yet met their abuela and tias and tio. With a mother-in-law who’s in her 90s, it’s not as if I have the luxury of putting off a visit with the grands. Yes, I needed to work–covering everything from the papal visit to restoration projects and new entrepreneurial ventures–but I also needed to make sure my kids and their father’s side of the family were getting some quality time together.

Only my husband wasn’t going to be a part of the equation.

A complicated immigration status would keep him at home in New York while I sat on airplanes and hauled two suitcases and as many strollers through three airports in three different countries with three children, starting out at 4 AM in New York City and ending up 15 hours later in Havana.

“Are all these kids yours? Are you a sadist or something?” That’s what the US Immigration officer asked when I came back to the US 10 days after I’d left. I just gave him the evil eye. My kids are great travelers.

My two-year old looks out the window on our approach to Mexico City, our layover on the way to and from Havana. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My two-year old looks out the window on our approach to Mexico City, our layover on the way to and from Havana. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

That being said, enough people asked how I managed to make the trip alone that I thought it might be worth sharing my clutch tips about how to travel alone with three kids on a work trip without losing your marbles.

1. Pack light.
Yes, you’re traveling with kids, but trust me: kids don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think they do. I managed a single carry-on for all the in-transit essentials: diapers and wipes for the youngest, a change of clothes for each, passports and all other IDs, plane tickets and documentation, my laptop and wallet, a camera, a book, my phone, and a coloring book and pack of markers. Kids–even kids who travel a lot, like mine–can be entertained for a good long while with seat back safety cards, barf bags (make puppets!), headphones, and tray tables (sorry, passenger in front of us; I’ll try to keep it gentle).

Don’t pack the entire toy box. And as for all those things you think are essential: My rule of thumb when traveling is to not pack items you can buy at your destination. A caveat for Cuba is that you probably should pack all the diapers you’ll need; diapers can be tough to find and are expensive and of poor quality. Ditto wet wipes.

2. Stay organized.
Keep all the paperwork you’ll need in airports close at hand, organized and accessible. Bring along a notarized letter from your children’s other parent–even though many airlines don’t require them–in which that parent gives her or his consent to take your children abroad. You probably won’t need the letter, but you don’t want to be in a situation where you need it and don’t have it. Because my children carry both my husband’s last name and my last name (and because this confounds so many officials), I also carry birth certificates, a copy of our marriage certificate, and vaccination records as evidence of our respective identities and relationships.

3. Accept help if offered and ask for it if it’s not.
The toughest thing about a 14-hour day of travel was–I kid you not–finding a way to go pee without worrying that my one year old would tumble head-first out of her plane seat and onto the floor. Pressing my five year old into service worked for much of the trip and those tasks where I needed an extra set of hands, but never when I needed to go to the bathroom. I searched for a trustworthy-looking adult and asked them if they could watch my kids for a few minutes.

4. Trust your oldest with age-appropriate responsibilities…
… and reward them with praise (and, if you can, a special treat) for shouldering an extra load. My five year old pushed one of her siblings in a stroller through all three airports and even operated a special elevator by herself when we couldn’t all fit into the elevator for a single trip. I knew that she was a little scared, but I also told her I was totally confident in her abilities and that I was watching her the whole time (which was true). When we had a free moment, I bought her a small bag of chocolate-covered coconut as a thank you.

5. Know your danger zones.
I wish I’d thought to ask whether my airline, Interjet, had milk on its afternoon and evening flights, as both of my youngest children drink milk from bottles. It does not– it only has milk available on morning flights. On the last leg of our return flight home, I had no milk and kid #2 spent the last 20 minutes curled up in the fetal position on top of his tray table.

6. Ease your reentry.
I scheduled in a two-night layover in Mexico City on our return trip, mainly because I love Mexico City, my former home, and because I had some reporting work I needed to do there. But it also ended up being a welcome way to transition between Cuba and home, what with a comfy hotel bed, running water (which we did not have in Cuba), and a room service splurge. If you can break up your travels into more manageable bits, it will be easier on kids… and on you.

7. Take advantage of Trusted Traveler, Global Entry, and similar services.
When booking your tickets, make sure you elect for TSA pre-check if you’re eligible, and take advantage of your trusted traveler/Global Entry memberships if you have them so you don’t have to wait in line for ages when you return home.

8. Bring snacks. Lots of snacks.
Cheerios, fruit chews, apple bars… these are my go-to snacks for kids when we’re on the road or in the air. A snack produced with a parental flourish at the precise moment preceding a meltdown can prevent crisis.

Also, if traveling in areas where you’re not the one in control of when, what, or how you’re eating (as was the case at my in-laws’), bring some breakfast basics for your kids. Instant oatmeal is the best choice; it packs flat, weighs practically nothing, is easy to make, and is filling.

9. Have a clear work plan.
I had A LOT to do in Havana, and while I had my sister-in-law and niece to help care for the kids, I was still the one who had to fit all the usual parenting tasks in at the beginning and end of the day. Being organized before I landed and staying organized each day by following a work plan I’d set for myself was essential to not losing my mind.

Do you speak another language?

One of the very best things I’ve ever done, besides marry Francisco, was learn Spanish.

It’s been incredible for my career and it’s been indispensable in my personal life.

But I’m not talking about Spanish (or French or German or Mandarin or….) when I ask whether you speak another language. I’m talking about the language of other professionals outside your own discipline.

Earlier today, I was on a conference call with more than a dozen staff members of a tourism board’s* public relations and marketing firms; the goal was to streamline efforts and ensure that everyone was aware of each team’s projects. I was probably the only person on the call who doesn’t come from the world of PR and marketing. Though I considered myself to be someone who’s quite comfortable with PR and marketing folks, I quickly realized that people from these fields speak differently–really differently–from writers.

“We have to find our sexy look,” said one person on the call, much to my amusement. Writers say things like, “We have to find our hook” or “We have to find our angle” or “What’s the story?” PR people, apparently, say things like “We have to find our sexy look.” It took me a couple seconds to realize what she was talking about– we have to find the event/experience/idea that will make us stand out, make us different. I wanted to say, “Sexy look? Are you serious?” Instead, I thought about what our sexy look might be.

There were lots of other words used on the call that were fairly foreign to me. I understood what they meant in the context, but they’re words I don’t use in my own daily work and words that would sound strange coming out of my mouth. They aren’t words I want to use, but they’re words that are worth learning– they’ll make for a more effective collaboration.

Now, excuse me while I go back to brainstorming about our verticals.

If you’re collaborating with professionals from other fields, what challenges and opportunities have you encountered? 

*I’ve been working as a manager of a writer- and photographer-in-residence project for the Belize Tourism Board since April.

Food & Travel Writing Workshop in NYC on 1/21

Ring in the new year by developing some new writing skills!

My next food and travel writing workshop, offered through MatadorU, will be held in New York City on January 21 (a Saturday, by popular request) from 12:30-4:30 PM.

Here’s the description:

Food is a central part of most travel experiences. In this four-hour workshop, participants will learn how to pay more attention to what they eat while they’re traveling, as well as how to write about food in a compelling, memorable way.

There are still a couple more spots available in the workshop, so register soon!

Details about registration can be found here.

What’s a blog trip? How is it different from a press trip?: An interview with Arantxa Ros

View of the Pyrenees from prop plane, one of the incredible #inPyrenees blog trip experiences

View of the Pyrenees from prop plane, one of the incredible #inPyrenees blog trip experiences

This year, I’ve participated in two trips spearheaded by Arantxa Ros, who collaborates with regional tourism boards in Spain to plan “blog trips” for travel writers who are deeply engaged with digital and social media.

During the first of these trips, I wasn’t entirely sure what a blog trip was and how it differed, if at all, from a traditional press trip (also called a FAM trip, such a dumb and ugly term). I soon learned that it was quite different, and in important ways. During the second trip, while on a bus transfer through the Pyrenees, Arantxa and I spoke at length about the distinguishing characteristics of a blog trip.

**

Julie:  What is a blog trip, and how is it different from a traditional press trip?

Arantxa: A blog trip is a different, unusual, and modern initiative to promote destinations or a brand [within the] tourism industry. The first thing is the high tech component; we want to focus on digital users. That’s why we need digital magazines, applications [apps], and blogs–to approach those users who are more into the Internet world than into traditional media. But [we don’t want to] forget about traditional media, especially nowadays. The wisest thing is not to think only about bloggers; I believe in communicators.

Julie: In terms of the actual outcomes on a traditional press trip, often the PR firm or the DMO [destination management organization] is looking for coverage in a print magazine. What are the products or outcomes you’re looking for on a blog trip?

Arantxa: We want to promote [the destination and its stakeholders] but we are not focused only on media [outlets]; we’re focused on the people who are representing those media. [With blogs], the interests and reach of these people are wider; they have different readers and users with different interests. The real-time factor is also important. By using social networks such as twitter, flickr, instagram, or facebook, [these bloggers reach more people through diverse media].

Julie:  Talk a little bit about those applications and the real-time effect of the #inPyrenees trip, both in terms of the reach that you’re seeing during a trip and the impact after a trip. How key are the social media platforms for real-time dissemination of what’s happening on the trip?

Arantxa:  The real-time impact is something we like and we’re experimenting with, but these actions are not just for the moment. If that were the case, we could just organize a tweetup or a facebook meeting, or whatever- have an event, select a group of participants, and and as soon as the event is over, you measure and that’s it. With the blog trip [it’s different]; it takes seven days; it’s a very [diverse] group of people. I expect immediate results, but also long-term results.

Nellie Huang of Wild Junket blog

Nellie Huang of Wild Junket blog

Julie: How do you choose the people who come on the blog trip? When you look at people who are “travel blogging influencers,” how do you make those determinations about who to invite on trips?

Arantxa: Well, first of all, I’ve been following all of them for three years… not just the people on this particular trip, but [travel bloggers in general]. You get to know the person in this way. I have done my best to meet most of them personally, not just me [face-to-face], but attending meetings or conferences, seeing how they interact [with others]. You also investigate the interactions they have with other bloggers and their own audience. I do this by looking at several sites, not just their own blogs. There’s also an interest in their market– the adventure market, for example–and languages. I’m looking for bloggers who are from or who reach readers in countries that produce actual visitors for Spain. Someone in New Zealand, for example isn’t very, very important for us; they might be very cool, but we can’t expect many visitors from there. [I have a] meeting [with the tourism board] and we decide what languages we need, what topics we need–gastronomy, adventure, culture–, and then we start to find the digital ambassadors.

An important part of the decision-making involves [making an assessment about] quality. You can’t determine quality by reading just one post. You have to be following for a long time. The technical tools available on the market also give me a lot of information about [readership/statistical] data. I also request information [from prospective bloggers] to get the data I can’t collect with my tools. If someone does not want to give [that information], then they’re not invited.

Chef Xesc Rovira of Michelin-starred Fonda Xesc

Chef Xesc Rovira of Michelin-starred Fonda Xesc

Julie: The activities we’ve had on this trip have been top-shelf experiences, and it seems like a massive amount of planning and coordination goes into the blog trip. How far out do you start planning them and what are some of the behind-the-scenes challenges and tasks involved in planning a blog trip of this magnitude?

Arantxa: It is a lot, because as I said before, we’re not planning an itinerary for a particular media [outlet], but for the people who are coming… the things they like, the things they don’t like, the things they are willing to do, and the things they’ve already done. We want the trip to have a “wow factor”– an element of surprise. And that’s something that we’re giving to a person. We’re not giving it to a magazine or a newspaper, but to the person. We’re looking at their interests, their dreams, their expectations. The itinerary is built up around all these considerations.

Jaume Marin of Costa Brava Tourism Board, briefing bloggers on #inPyrenees blog trip

Jaume Marin of Costa Brava Tourism Board, briefing bloggers on #inPyrenees blog trip

It’s quite complicated [planning the trip], because it’s not just the tourism board doing it alone. They involve a lot of people, a lot of brands and other [local] tourism boards, to create a collaborative team. That is very nice because everyone feels like they’re a part of the promotion or at least they had the chance to participate. It’s up to them. There are people [in the tourism industry] who are very willing to try new things [like the blog trip]. There are others who are more conservative,  but they are all given the chance.

To do things properly and get everything coordinated–the hotels, the providers of meals, and all the activities–takes a minimum of four months. Six months are ideal. There are always things you want to get–something important you don’t want to miss–and you depend upon the agenda of other people, so that has to be factored into the planning process. When nature is involved, you have to take weather into account and you have to have a Plan B. So you can have a great itinerary, but you have to have a side itinerary too.

Julie:   It also seems that a key factor in planning for a blog trip versus a traditional press trip is making sure that you have the technological connection. Having the MiFis on this trip, for example, is really critical. If the tourism board is going to get maximum return on its investment on a blog trip, then the bloggers have to be connected.

Arantxa: Of course. Without it, there’s no real-time element. We’re aware that [the participants] are working on these trips. It’s not just have the experience, take the photo, and you’re done. You’re [all] editing, uploading, writing blog posts, and communicating with your followers. Some of you are managing [online] communities; we understand you can’t just disappear for a week.

Julie:  You have really been the forerunner in establishing a blog trip model but I think that, as with any promotion, you can’t just pick up the model and import it to another destination and expect the same efficacy. If other people are looking at your efforts as a model for blog trips, what are some of the things you think are key that they could adapt for their own market?

Owner of SK Kayak, one of many industry providers on #inPyrenees blog trip

Owner of SK Kayak, one of many industry providers on #inPyrenees blog trip

Arantxa: These initiatives have to be inside a frame, aligned with a marketing and communications strategy. You can try to do one to see if it works, if you feel comfortable [doing this sort of initiative], and see if brands [and industry stakeholders] are willing to get involved. You have to experiment. There’s not a magic formula. Within [a tourism board’s] marketing plan, there has to be a digital marketing plan. Do your first blog trip as a test to see what works. Then, develop a long-term plan. Otherwise, you’re not going to get the maximum value.

Julie: How do you measure the return on investment of a trip like this? This is a massive investment.

Arantxa: I prefer to talk about “return of engagement.” Obviously, this is not cost-free, but when you get [industry stakeholders] involved, the costs are not as high as other [marketing] actions… if the brands really want to work with you. This is key. Working together, we spend less, we get more, we go farther. I think collaboration is a must.

Julie: Anything else you want to say about blog trips or about what you’ve learned after having planned several blog trips?

Arantxa: I think we have to keep exploring. We have to lose fear. We have to be wise, have wide expectations, think about the future and the new generations and the digital world and its continual evolution. There are many opportunities. The ones who try and test will get results. I don’t think you can maintain your brand simply by doing the same thing you’ve been doing for the past 50 years because it’s not enough. Communication for me is a must and focusing on the people is everything; the bloggers who come here become part of a project, a collaboration that continues beyond the trip.

Notes on criticism and praise after the social media workshops

Among my character flaws is the difficulty of accepting criticism without taking it personally. I’ve had no shortage of opportunities to practice becoming better at this; nonetheless, I have not, in fact, gotten better at it.

Another character flaw is my inability to lie, even when it would be beneficial to do so, or to “play the game.” I don’t have a high tolerance for b.s., I’ve never conformed simply for the sake of fitting in, and if I don’t agree with something, it’s almost impossible for me to play along. I’m just real, and in certain situations, that’s not particularly helpful.

*

Two weeks ago, I presented three back-to-back social media workshops in three different cities in Belize. Participants included hoteliers, tour operators, small business owners, a dry cleaner, and other folks both affiliated and totally unaffiliated with the tourism industry.

The first two workshops were loads of fun. I felt like I was “on,” that the audience and I had established a pretty good rapport, and that I was sharing information and ideas that the majority of the participants would benefit from. There was give and take and a true dialogue, and when a participant didn’t agree with what I was saying, he or she would speak up and we’d have a thoughtful, respectful conversation about it. By the time I got back to my hotel in the evenings, I had a dozen or more emails, thanking me for the workshop and asking more questions. I felt great. Who doesn’t love praise?

The vibe of the third workshop was completely different. The audience’s affect felt flat, for the most part, and there wasn’t much conversation. By looking at their faces, I couldn’t tell if the participants were feeling like the workshop was a valuable use of their time; in fact, I couldn’t even tell if they were “with me.” I finished the presentation exhausted and a little disappointed, and hopped back in the car to drive back to Belize City.

Before I left, though, a woman approached me and clasped my hand in hers. She wanted to tell me that the workshop was “fantastic” and that what she loved the most was that I “admitted” I was ambivalent about Facebook. I was somewhat relieved; at least the workshop had been beneficial to her. I still didn’t know about anyone else though.

As I grabbed a snack off the coffee break table, I happened to glance at one of the participant evaluations. “Julie was NOT passionate about social media,” the feedback on the top sheet read. The handwriting even looked angry. “The fact that she said she hates Facebook means she shouldn’t be leading a social media workshop.”

It’s insane, I know, but this one guy (because, of course, I KNOW it was a guy) temporarily undid all the good mojo that had built up in the preceding two days. It didn’t matter that 30 people had emailed me to tell me I’d done a great job, that they felt like they’d turned a corner in their business, that they suddenly felt less intimidated by social media, and that they felt validated by what I’d told them… the fact that this one guy thought I was a loser, well, that left me feeling like one.

I had not, for the record, said that I hated Facebook. I said that I feel “profoundly ambivalent” about Facebook because while it is inarguably a critical social media tool for the business I’m in, the company doesn’t really respect its users and has crappy privacy policies. I suppose the guy wanted me to be a cheerleader for Facebook and the other social media we discussed; in reality, one of my primary messages was that not every social media tool works well (or at all) for everyone, AND that if using social media is going to distract you from doing what you do best (providing excellent customer service as a small business owner, which is 99% of the businesses in Belize), then don’t do it. 

Anathema, I know.

I wish I could wrap this up by saying that I’ve learned, once and for all, that not everyone is going to like me, that no one is ever going to be 100% happy with me 100% of the time. I know this, of course, but I’m clearly not truly incorporating it into my worldview, since I’m still thinking about this guy two weeks later.

What I have taken away, though, is that whenever you stand by what you believe in, even if it’s something as unimportant in the larger scheme of things as social media, there will always be people who get all twisted up about it, and that’s ok. You’ve only ever got to be confident enough in yourself and in your ideas and beliefs to stand by them.

Actual email exchange about free trip for “positive coverage”

Actual exchanges from a series of emails:

[Travel company]:

…I’d be happy to offer you a trip, FOC if you managed to guarantee 4 pax on the same departure (or if you write a positive article on our trips). You can document the trip, travel for free and promote your work as well as [redacted] trips at the same time. Sounds like a no brainer!….

[Julie]:

Thanks for the clarification.
Journalistically speaking, it’s unethical for a writer to guarantee a positive review of an experience that he or she hasn’t yet had; it’s akin to a food writer or movie reviewer promising to praise a meal or a movie they haven’t yet had. I’m uncomfortable, then, with the notion of a promise as the condition of an agreement….
[Travel company]:
…We’ll most likely run some invite only trips to [country A], [country B], [country C] and [country D] in the coming months. If you’re comfortable with being on such trips, then I can offer you any trip, FOC. I’m fully aware of the size of Matador’s readership and the quality of your writing….

I look forward to hearing from you.

Writing about places we’ve just passed through: Perils, problems, power, & privilege.

The thing about being a (travel) writer is that we’re often writing about places we’ve only really just passed through.

I thought about this a couple weeks ago as I sat at The Barnard Inn in Vermont, eating so-tender-I-could-cry pot roast and talking with Francisco and our new friend, Sara, about our 36 hours in Pittsfield.

We were working on this article about what makes hotels “green,” and we’d spent two nights at Mountain View Grand Resort in Whitefield, New Hampshire, and two nights at Amee Farm in Pittsfield, Vermont, both of which promote themselves as environmentally conscious beyond the norm.

I’m the first to admit that 48 hours anywhere doesn’t make anyone an expert, and I was saying as much to Francisco and Sara. “I have a lot of questions,” I said to Sara. I talked for a bit about what we’d seen and heard in New Hampshire and Vermont, and the ideas I was beginning to formulate as a result. It seemed that there was an active, passionate “back to the land” movement. A divisiveness about alternative energy: the acknowledgment that it’s needed, but the worries that the most promising options–wind turbines–will also mar the landscape. There was a just barely noticeable tension among locals toward and about “outsiders.” “I don’t exactly know what I’m going to write,” I concluded.

*

After coming home and mapping out some story ideas, I’m only slightly more clear about what I intend to write, and I’m acutely aware of how much I don’t know. Yes, I could (and should and have and will) do more desk research, but I’ve been left with a slightly uneasy feeling regarding writing about places we’ve just passed through.

*

My traveling style is to go long and to dive deep.

If you wanted to get into a pissing contest with me about how many countries or places we’ve visited, you’d probably win, and that’s just fine by me. For the most part, I’m not a whirlwind kind of traveler. I need to know what the name of the local newspaper is. What sounds characterize a place. How people live and what they think about, what they care about. I want to know what moves people in a place to action or holds them in inertia. I want to know how history influences the present, how people view their future. What subjects are kept secret, what stories don’t yet have voice.

It’s hard to get more than the most superficial handle on any of that in 48 hours and even the most thorough desk research will fail to convey all these things. There’s something about becoming a part of a community for a while that gives you a greater stake, that gives you access and understanding.

*

I’m aware of this in my own work, and I’m attuned to it now in other writers as well. Yes, there are different types–many different types–of travel writing, and not all of them require deep knowledge of a place. But there are, I think, very particular perils and problems when we write about places we’re only passing through, problems of power and privilege that must be examined.

As writers, our particular power is our audience– the readers who believe what we write and consider it to be the truth… not a version of the truth (or, in some egregious but not, sadly, uncommon cases, inaccurate or flat out wrong), but The Truth. We take them to places they can’t or won’t go, where they haven’t been, that they didn’t even know about. If there is an onus on the reader to be critical (and I believe there is), there is also an onus on the writer to be critical, too. That critical ability is conveyed, at least in part, by the acknowledgment that we are writing about a place that we were only passing through.

Such an acknowledgment does not take the form, necessarily, of an asterisk followed by the disclaimer: “I only spent 48 hours in this place,” though it might. But there are other subtle and important ways that we can convey that the conclusions to which we have come reflect our opinions, our impressions, our view as outsiders.

There is a certain privilege in writing, and in travel writing, I think that privilege is still more powerful and more profound. Just as we are taking readers where they haven’t been, we are telling stories of people who, in many cases, cannot do so themselves–maybe because they don’t have the platform, perhaps because they don’t have the interest, who knows? But there is a responsibility in carrying others’ stories, and even in a basic service or destination article, I don’t think we should ever overlook that responsibility.