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New association fights for rights of family travel

As an event planner with offices in New York and Los Angeles and the mother of two, Jenifour Jones knows what it’s like to travel with kids — and to not travel with them.

“My biggest challenge is flight attendants,” says Jones, who flies frequently with her sons Wesley, 2, and Grant, 1. Some crewmembers don’t know which restrooms have changing tables. Others aren’t familiar with the rules on child seats. Many “lack empathy” for a mom traveling with two young children, she says.

Parents such as Jones have had to fight those battles alone — until now. A new organization called the Family Travel Association launches today as an industry group to help such people.

“We want to help parents and inspire them to travel,” says Rainer Jenss, the FTA’s president. The association will do that by educating families on the positive and lasting impact travel has on young people. It’ll promote child-friendly experiences and work to simplify the real and perceived complexities of planning and taking a family getaway.

Jones says she’s done her best to overcome her family’s airborne challenges. She always asks about restroom facilities before takeoff, just in case there’s an in-flight bathroom emergency. She flies with downloaded copies of the airline’s contract of carriage — the legal agreement between her and the carrier — just in case a crewmember hassles her about her child seats.

What if there was an association that promoted travel companies based on their child-friendliness? What if it could bring together the world’s leading suppliers, resources and experts on traveling with kids?

No matter how you define it, family travel is huge. A 2014 survey conducted by TripAdvisor found 92% of travelers said they plan to take their family along, up 7% from the previous year. More than half said they’d be on the road with their spouse and children, and 20% would travel with extended family.

Family travel is hugely stressful. Another recent survey conducted by MasterCard found that 89% of families were frazzled by the amount of time and effort required for planning a successful trip.

Travel companies know they can’t ignore the needs of families. Hotel chains such as Home2 Suites and Homewood Suites, both owned by Hilton, constantly tweak their product to suit families. They offer bigger rooms with separate living and sleeping quarters that allow privacy for parents, as well as swimming pools and sport courts so children can stay active. Home2 recently upgraded its breakfasts to be more kid-friendly, adding favorite cereals, breakfast sandwiches and waffles. My kids, ages 8, 10 and 12, fondly call Homewood their “duck hotel” after its mallard mascot.

The question is, can travel companies do better? The most forward-looking ones, which constantly innovate their products, would say “yes.” But too many of them simply leave well enough alone. You’ve probably seen the kids’ “programs” at resorts with the tattered furniture, the indifferent babysitter and the DVD of The Lion King playing in an endless loop. Or the car rental company with the “complimentary” child safety seat that looks more like a bacteria colony for a science lab. Your baby is almost safer not wearing a seat belt, like in the old days.

I said almost.

The industry can serve family travelers better, and the Family Travel Association is determined to make that happen – one aircraft, kid’s club and car rental location at a time.

“The fact is, the industry has never before come together for the specific purpose of helping families and inspiring them to travel,” Jenss says. “Now, the industry is joining forces to present a clear and unified message — that travel with kids can be transformational, not just recreational, and that there are things you can do with your children that you may never have dreamed possible.”

That’s one thing parents agree with, too, and I include myself in that group. My family and I have been on an open-ended, around-the-world trip since 2011, and it’s been worth the trouble.

“Traveling with children is hard,” says Hilarye Fuller, a children’s book author and family travel blogger. “But then again, anything with children is hard. The point is, it’s a worthwhile task. Memories are made and families bond through new experiences.”

Maybe the Family Travel Association will make the journey easier for all of us – and more enlightening.

Tips for traveling with kids

• Keep ‘em entertained. Travel isn’t always exciting. Long road trips can be boring. “Having some age-appropriate games up your sleeve to keep kids engaged should be part of the overall travel plan,” says Talia Wagner, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. But don’t overpack. Simple and small works better when you’re on vacation.

Learn a few hacks. That’s what family travel blogger Yoni Passwell calls his trick for creating more bedding in a hotel. “A double air mattress and pump will fit into any small size luggage and doesn’t weigh much,” he says. “Inflating before bedtime is a real hoot for the kids, and this really solves the problem of extra beds, without too much extra space or cost.”

Don’t forget the rewards. Adam Dailey, who is on a year-long trip with his four kids, has a points-based rewards system for the children (sound familiar?). “They revolve around treats, points and sometimes even a movie,” he says. “We’re constantly exploring new places, and I can tell you that 3-year-olds don’t get excited about 7-mile hikes through the mountains. So we play games.” The games reinforce good behavior.

MORE: Read previous columns

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and editor at large for National Geographic Traveler. Contact him at [email protected] or visit elliott.org.

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