Jun 10

The U.S. travel industry is predicting that slightly more families will be traveling for summer vacation this year, but significantly more will be taking the frugal route, looking for cheap and affordable family trip alternatives. Barring any additional extraordinary environmental or economic events, parents will be doing lots of advance planning, using vacation deals and discounts, and looking for tips about how to substitute cost for creativity when creating memorable family vacation fun in the 2010 summer months.

A 2.3% increase in summer vacation travel in 2010 has been predicted by the U.S. Travel Association, compared to the Great Recession summer of 2009. According to the American Express Spending & Saving Tracker, 51% of Americans plan to take a summer vacation this year, and 80% of those vacationing families will be consciously working to save money during their vacation travels.

Despite the cataclysmic Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that the price of gas will remain fairly steady in the summer months, at an average of $2.98 per gallon, which is 4% higher than last summer’s average of $2.86 per gallon. In comparison, airline industry domestic fares are expected to be 21% higher than they were in the 2009 summer vacation season.

All of these numbers can be boiled down to three things that will describe most American family summer vacations this year:

1) Road trips
2) Frugality
3) The need for tips and tools to create road trips that are more frugal, but not less fun.

Frugal family fun, whether on vacation or not, is a matter of substituting creativity for cost, according to Robyn Spizman and Evelyn Sacks, the authors of “Eat, Nap, Play.”

“Our vision of a less money-dependent lifestyle does not mean a ban on spending for entertainment or satisfaction,” Spizman and Sacks say in their book. It means just saying no to ‘everybody’s doing it’ or ‘everybody’s buying it,’ and relying on your own creativity and innate parenting skills instead.

Creativity that cuts costs is something that American families are going to have to look for if they want to spend less than the $1,000 per person average that American Express estimates the average vacation will cost this year. That is a high price tag for the 54% of Americans who are still cutting back on discretionary spending, and the 39% who are still worried about the economy and their jobs, according to the “Portrait of American Travelers” study.

Spending twice as much time and half as much money on a family vacation is something that is a reasonable family vacation goal, Spizman and Sacks say. “It’s easy to spend money on our kids,” Spizman and Sacks say. “But when special memories are made, not purchased, the entire family wins.”

Replacing vacation costs with vacation creativity requires some preparation, and Spizman and Sacks have these ideas about how to plan for frugal family fun:

How to Save on Meals – Before you leave on your trip, find restaurant and hotel deals for kids. There are a good number of kids-eat-free deals at local and national restaurant chains in this post-recessionary economy. And often you will receive food freebies and discounts by joining e-clubs on restaurant and hotel websites. Marriott, Omni, Hilton, and Kimpton hotel chains have announced special amenities and freebies specifically targeted at children and families this summer, for example. Consider the amount of money you will save by staying at a hotel with free breakfast or free kids meals when deciding where to stay.

How to save on Souvenirs – Instead of spending lots of money on vacation souvenirs, get your children excited about creating a scrapbook as the souvenir of your vacation instead. Instead of focusing on buying things, your children can be focused on taking photos of things they want to remember, collecting napkins, matchbooks, postcards, flowers, brochures, and other vacation memorabilia instead. Have an envelope for each child to put their own scrapbook stuff into so they can each create their own pages. If you bring inexpensive scrapbooking supplies, creating the scrapbook can be the primary activity that keeps children entertained during the car trip home.

How to Save On Hotels – Most Americans live less than a day’s drive from a national park and don’t even know it. Go to nps.gov/parks and nps.gov/kidszone for destination ideas close to home that will require fewer nights in a hotel.

The Vacation Journey, Not Just the Vacation Destination

One of the important things to remember about a family road trip vacation, Spizman and Sacks say, is remembering that the vacation is about the entire journey, not just the destination. The time spent together in the car on a road trip is a significant part of the entire adventure. Your travel time can be magic, or it can be tragic, depending on how you well prepare themselves and their children for it. Spizman and Sacks have these tips for putting fun into the are-we-there-yet part of your family vacation:

To Each His Own – Forced sharing in a small space is a setup for squabbles. Make sure each child has their own pillow, their own blanket, their own favorite game, their own cup, their own backpack, etc.

Seek and We Shall Find – Don’t forget the value of the good old-fashioned car games that families used to play together before handheld videogames and DVD players were invented. One game that can be started in the car, and carried throughout the entire vacation trip is the “Countdown Game.”

The object of “The Countdown Game” is to look for and find numbers everywhere you go on your trip. Start with the number “1,” and find the numbers in order and see how high the family can get in its number search. Make this a family activity that everyone contributes to, rather than a competition. You can even keep a list of where and how the numbers were spotted and include that as part of the trip scrapbook. It can become a family tradition to try to break the previous “countdown” record with each family outing.

Good Behavior Is Its Own Reward – Create a “Star of the Car” award and give points when children exhibit desirable behaviors like sharing, using a quiet voice, or saying please or thank-you. Periodically throughout the trip, you can give rewards to whoever has the most points. Rewards could be choosing the next movie, picking the next car game, or even an extra special snack that is reserved only for the “star of the car.”

Get Out and Wear Out – Plan plenty of stops in your travel itinerary, and make sure your children expend energy every time they’re out of the car. Making time for walking, cartwheels, skipping, races throwing a frisbee, playing catch, running with the dog, etc. will help children be less antsy, and more likely to nap when the car ride resumes.

Keep Their Eyes on the Prize – You can stage mini contests throughout the trip to see who can be quietest the longest, who can keep their mouth or eyes shut the longest, who can write the name of your vacation destination the most times in a minute, etc. Give out points for the winners, and translate those points into special privileges during vacation or when you get home.

Redefining “Family Time”

“A more authentic, easygoing approach to life with kids starts with the universal wisdom that it’s all about keeping it simple,” Spizman and Sacks say. This is a mental adjustment for parents who have become accustomed to buying entertainment and children who have become accustomed to getting satisfaction from stuff. But a summer family vacation adventure is a great way to start new family interaction patterns.

“That happy, tired feeling at the end of the day can come from interacting in ways that are about spending time, not money,” Spizman and Sacks say in “Eat, Nap, Play.” And isn’t that happy feeling what a summer family road trip vacation is all about?

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Feb 22

Thirty million obese children in the U.S. might be slimmer and healthier if they read more, according to the findings of a recent study by the Duke University Medical Center. The “Study of Children’s Literature and Healthy Lifestyle” found that obese girls from 9 to 13 years old who read an assigned novel decreased their Body Mass Index (BMI) seven times more than girls in the program who were not assigned a book to read.

The results of this study seem counterintuitive since sedentary lifestyles are pointed to as one of the major causes for childhood obesity and reading isn’t exactly an aerobic activity. In this case, though, the assigned reading was a fiction novel with an overweight heroine who creates a healthier lifestyle for herself. Presumably, the heroine became a role model and her success in the story inspired readers to create success for themselves.

It makes sense that a fictional character could make this kind of impact, considering how much teens are influenced by fictional characters in movies. A 2006 study by Dartmouth Medical School found that the more movies that children watched in which alcohol was consumed, the more likely they were to start drinking alcohol while they were still in their teens. Dartmouth researchers also found that the children who most often observed smoking in films were twice as likely to start smoking themselves.

So if the real-life behavior of teens and pre-teens is influenced greatly by entertainment channels, it only makes sense that messages that combat the growing childhood and teen obesity epidemic would be best delivered through an entertainment medium that has an impact on them.

This is exactly the logic that led a 14-year old boy in Georgia to create a fitness plan for himself that was inspired by his favorite video games. He called it “The Ultimate Fitness Game” and, with the same gaming strategies he had used to rack up high numbers on a video game scoreboard, he started creating low numbers on his bathroom scale. Three years after taking on the starring role in a three-dimensional game of his own creation, Taylor LeBaron has lost – and kept off – 150 pounds, half of his highest body weight of 297.

“As soon as people started noticing my weight loss, I began to hear, ‘How did you do it?’” Taylor wrote in his book, “Cutting Myself In Half,” which explains his Ultimate Fitness Game. “They were looking for my secret so they could lose a lot of weight too.”

“The secret is: There is no secret,” LeBaron writes. “Weight loss isn’t quick. It isn’t easy. And gimmicks don’t work for long.”

LeBaron believes that taking it slow is one of the most important strategies that can help other obese teens. “Naturally we all want fast results – we’re the DSL generation,” he says in his book. But trying to achieve too much too fast with weight loss is a big mistake, in his experience. Putting it into video gaming terms that teens can relate to LeBaron says, “In gaming, that’s called ‘overlocking’ – running your processor at a faster speed than it’s rated. That burns up the processor and can ruin it permanently.”

The teenage desire for instant gratification is not an easy mindset to reboot, however. Perhaps that’s why there is so much discussion going on about using gastric band surgery as a treatment for obesity in teens. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that gastric band surgery resulted in obese teens losing more weight more quickly. This surgical approach, however, is controversial because it creates a drastic change to a child’s physiology, and there are no statistics about what kind of long-term effect those changes might have on their overall health and well-being.

Instead of making drastic surgical choices, First Lady Michelle Obama is working to encourage obese children to make drastic lifestyle changes instead with her “Let’s Move” program. The First Lady is challenging children to take one hour out of the usual seven that they spend in front of electronic entertainment each day to work on achieving the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award. The award is given to children who achieve exercise goals five days per week for six weeks.

Speaking about exercise, Obama said, ‘There are so many ways that we can make this fun, make it a competition, have the rewards be really cool. And kids respond to incentives.”

That’s a philosophy that LeBaron agrees with wholeheartedly. That’s why he thinks about everything in his own fitness regiment in gaming terms. Calories are money. Unhealthy food is the enemy. Eating healthy food gets energy points. The overall score is measured in weight loss. Just like the First Lady says, LeBaron made it fun, made it a competition with himself, and the rewards, so far, have been much “cooler” than he could have imagined. LeBaron has discovered that permanent weight loss is all about attitude.

In January, Taylor LeBaron was one of ten teens who were chosen by Coke to carry the Olympic torch in the relay leading to the 2010 Vancouver games. As an obese video gamer he couldn’t walk to his mailbox without getting winded. As a physically fit “Ultimate Fitness Gamer,” the 300 meters he ran with the Olympic torch in his hand was “the most incredible distance I’ve ever traveled,” LeBaron said in his blog.

According to the Journal of Obesity, if things keep moving the way they have been in the United States, 86% of men, women, and children will be overweight or obese by the year 2030. For future generations, that statistic would resemble the tragic life depicted in the Disney movie, “WALL-E.” For Michelle Obama, that statistic would represent a “move” in the wrong direction. For Taylor LeBaron that statistic would mean one thing for the population of the United States of America… “Game Over.”

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