In this episode I’m joined by Tamara Gruber from We3Travel.com.
Tamara is a self-described “obsessive travel planner”, and her website shares in depth information about destinations and travel advice.
In the show she shares her coronavirus cancellation story, advice for getting refunds from various travel suppliers, family travel tips, and mistakes to avoid.
Selected Links from the Episode
Show Notes & Timestamps
- The story of how Tamara became an “Obsessive travel planner” 00:00:35
- The “A-Team” approach to travel planning 00:01:15
- Tamara’s story of dealing with her derailed Paris trip 00:03:09
- How “escalating” customer service calls can help solve problems 00:05:55
- Lessons learned from Covid19 for future booking 00:12:32
- Predicted changes to travel going forward 00:13:58
- More about how Tamara became an obsessive travel planner 00:16:12
- Tips for traveling with children 00:17:28
- The “sweet spot” age for kids and travel 00:18:02
- Common mistakes to avoid with family travel 00:20:35
- The difference between a Trip and a Vacation 00:22:16
- Final “Big Idea” piece of advice 00:22:48
Damian: In this show we’re joined by Tamara Gruber, who runs a great website called We3Travel.com…and there she documents everything that her and her family have learned from traveling to 30 countries and 49 States. But more than just tips and travel guides, Tamara is a self-described “obsessive travel planner” and the website really shows it.
There are a ton of travel planning tips, there’s insights into everything that she’s learned doing that. Tamara’s also a co host of a podcast named Vacation Mavens, a family travel show with destination ideas and tips for traveling with kids. Thank you for joining us today.
Tamara: I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Damian: So I love the expression obsessive travel planner. A lot of people dread that. How did you find a way to enjoy it and then even get really good at it?
Tamara: I think it’s just part of my personality. I’m a little bit type A when it comes to those things. And what I found was that when we were on a trip and we didn’t have things planned, it led to too many moments where we’re kind of bickering with each other, you know, like, what are we going to do? I don’t know.
And you get into that, you know, and that either analysis paralysis or just that limbo of indecision and time ticks by, and by the time something is finally decided, everyone’s kind of angry. Maybe it doesn’t go the way you hope it, it’s going to. And it just takes away from the overall experience.
Whereas if you’re going and you’re following a plan, then things tend to go a little bit smoother. But my, one of the sayings that I’ve used is like, do you remember the show, The A-Team? And they used to say, it’s good to have a plan or something like that…
Damian: “I love it when a plan comes together”
Tamara: I love it when a plan comes together, exactly. And so my thing is like, I do love it when a plan comes together, but it doesn’t always, and then you have to go with the flow and, you know, we’ve gotten better at adapting and moving things around, but at least if you start with a plan, you’re better off.
Damian: it gives you a good structure to begin with.
Tamara: Yeah, exactly.
Damian: Yeah, I know what you mean. We’ve had moments where, you know, we start off something and then all of a sudden everyone’s looking at each other wondering, you know, so do we want to eat now…where should we go, which way should we head? And it’s great to have some sort of direction.
Tamara: Yeah. The only downside is when you are the planner, then you’re making all the decisions and sometimes it’s nice when you get to take a back seat and not have to do all of that work. I don’t mind the pre-planning, but sometimes like when you’re there, you’re like, “Oh, I have to decide. Am I your tour operator here?”
Damian: Right…somebody else make the call on this one
Tamara: Yeah, exactly.
Damian: And how frequent does the family travel?
Tamara: Well, it’s a little bit less than it used to be because I have a high schooler and she’s quite busy with her own life and obviously we can’t pull her out of school. And so we stick to mostly the spring break and in the summer we take a few trips. And you know, maybe one or two, one or two other trips throughout the year.
But it used to be, you know, gosh, it used to be like as many weekends as we could, you know? But now it’s just more concentrated into these like longer, bigger trips. But we also do, you know, we do a lot of mother daughter trips as well. So my husband can’t always join us…and so my daughter and I will take off on our own adventures, which has been great bonding time for us.
Damian: So I know you do have an interesting story as far as the recent events with coronavirus and a big trip that you had planned. Can you talk a little bit about that? What’s your coronavirus story as far as your trip?
Tamara: I feel like there’s going to be many stories by the time this is done, but it started off with, we have a two week spring break, well I should say my daughter has a two week spring break in March, and we were planning on leaving on a trip to Paris and Amsterdam on March 13th and you know, all throughout, like late February, early March, we’re watching things, wondering how it’s going to go, but we’re still in that stage where it’s not quite hit home yet.
You know, and you’re not quite sure how quickly things are gonna progress. Like looking back, it’s almost unbelievable that we were naive enough to think that we were going…but at the same time, we had a lot of money wrapped up in that trip and we really didn’t want to just walk away from that. And so we kind of held on to the very end, kind of assuming that we’re probably going to have to cancel.
But it wasn’t until there was the announcement of the travel advisory to Europe that we made the move to cancel. So I ended up the day before we’re leaving, having to cancel everything. And at that point I had made dinner reservations and bought museum tickets, you know, I had a whole huge list of things, you know, to go through one by one and, and get canceled.
And some of that went well, and some of it didn’t go as well.
Damian: So you had every detail ready to go for the trip, and it came down to the day before
Tamara: the day before. Yeah.
Damian: And so the trigger was that CDC travel warning, is that correct?
Tamara: Yeah. I mean we were, we were pretty hesitant about it to begin with. And all the news I’ve been watching, it kind of looked like Macron was going to make an announcement about locking down. But I just wanted it to happen so that we had a clear guidance on what to do, because we didn’t want to be there and get locked down.
But we also knew we wouldn’t get any money back if we just canceled cause we were afraid, you know, that’s not really a reason. So we really waited until the last minute, and once there was the travel advisory, or at least had that as something to go to people and say, and then a few days later, France was in lockdown.
So we were very, very relieved that we didn’t go on the trip, but it was very stressful, like a week or two leading up to it. Just indecision…and, you know, as I said, I’m type A, so indecision kind of drives me crazy.
Damian: Well, it happened so quickly. Everyone went from being a little bit aware of the situation to getting it escalating so quickly that I can see what you mean.
Tamara: Yeah, exactly,
Damian: From, you know, “this will probably work out and let’s just see what happens” to, “oh my gosh, this probably is not going to happen” to, “it’s definitely not going to happen” within 10 days or so…
Tamara: yeah, yeah.
Damian: And what was the overall result of the cancellation? You mentioned everything from restaurant reservations and shows to flights and hotels. What was the general result, with the cancellations?
Tamara: I mean, it was a challenge…we had booked the airfare with points, which was helpful, at least, you know, we were pretty sure that it wasn’t going to be a problem depositing them back into our account.
But the problem was, of course, everyone jumped on the phone to try to make those cancellations. So it took 10 hours, I think, for us to get a call back.
And then luckily we were flying, we were flying Delta and they refunded the points and even refunded the taxes. So that wasn’t a problem, except for the time that it took to get through to them.
But then we had decided to do an apartment rental in Paris, cause you know, Paris is so expensive and trying to fit a family into a room, you tend to need a couple of rooms.
So we had done an apartment rental in Paris. Perfect. And their cancellation policy is 60 days. So we had to make our final payment on that in December, and from that point it was nonrefundable and we had travel insurance, but not that covers a pandemic as pretty much none of them do.
I had reached out to them maybe a week before we were supposed to leave a little bit less than that and asked, you know, like, “Hey, we’re watching this situation and if things change, you know, would you consider making a change to your cancellation policy if there’s a chance that I’m not even going to be able to get there?”.
And at that point they said, absolutely not. You know, it is what it is. And so we’re like, okay, we’re going to have to walk away from a lot of money there,but then after, ou know, things changed. And we said, look, we have to cancel. Like we’re not supposed to come to your country. They said, all right, let me get back to you and see what we can do.
And what they ended up doing was a 75% credit, which could only be applied to the same apartment, not even another apartment in their portfolio within the next year, so we took that because we didn’t really have a choice.
So we’re hoping at some point we can still do Paris. We ended up actually rebooking for December, which we went from going in low season to going in a higher season.
So now we’d have to pay more because we have to make up that 25%, but then it’s also a higher rate. So that was, you know, not great, but then all of the other things I had bought trip insurance for our train from Paris to Amsterdam. So that was not a problem to cancel and refund.
I think I was able to do that online. It was very easy, but then like one of the tour companies that I had booked with, I reached out to say, you know, look, I can’t come. And the tour guide, it was through a platform so you can communicate through the platform, kind of like the way Airbnb does, where, you know, strips out the email addresses of the person.
But I said, you know, we can’t come. And he said, okay, it’s not a problem. We’ll refund you. And then he got back to me to say, Oh, the tour platform actually says, no, we’re not going to refund you because it’s within the 14 day window.
But then the museum closed, so I was like, there’s no way that you cannot refund me. You couldn’t have done the tour if I was there because the museum is closed. So it took me like raising that and escalating it a bit to be able to get that refund.
And, you know, same with our Airbnb in Amsterdam. We canceled on the last day that I could still get a 50% refund. But then like a day later, Airbnb announced that they were going to give a hundred percent refunds for stays for certain days.
And so I reached out and tried to escalate that, and I said, look, we were staying within these days and we’re only given a 50% refund. And they’re like, well, but you canceled like the day before we made this announcement. I’m like, yes, but the stay is still within your policy.
So again, that took like some escalating, but I was able to get a full refund there and then slowly like the museum, like you buy timed entry tickets to like the Reich’s museum, or the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House, you know, things like that. And so slowly, you know, reaching out to them, they ask, you know, would you like to make a donation or would you like your money back?
So it took a few weeks to get all of those refunded. So, yeah, it was, it was a mix. It definitely took a lot of time to work it all out, but it did work out in the end and we were relieved that we weren’t there when everything locked down because yeah, that certainly would have been miserable, but at the same time, we’re really wishing that we got one more trip in before all this happened.
Damian: Right. It seems like in a few of those cases you mentioned it took getting through to just a human on a phone and kind of getting beyond the general policy and getting to kind of explain a specific situation that seemed to help a little bit. Is that right?
Tamara: Yeah, I was able to do it all via email, but it did take, you know, a few rounds of trying to escalate things. And, and now we’re eagerly watching our summer trips that we also have planned and waiting for airlines to cancel so that we can get refunds there at least. And you know, all of that. So fun times.
Damian: I know. So when’s your next trip? What’s the next thing that you have concerns about?
Tamara: Well, we’re supposed to go, my husband and I are scheduled to go on a big splurge vacation for our 20th anniversary and my 50th birthday to Greece on July 2nd. And my daughter is supposed to go on a group trip to Israel leaving the end of June. So both of those things have still not formally been canceled.
And with Greece, the hotels are nonrefundable, so once again, I’m in that situation of going to be out a lot of money. You know, I would happily postpone to 2021 if they would allow us, but I’m waiting for the airline to make the first move, or for at least Greece to announce if and when they would, you know, open their border.
Right now, their borders are closed and I’m pretty sure they’re not going to want Americans back anytime soon, but they also need to worry about their economy. So waiting and seeing and reading the news every day.
Damian: It’s very frustrating because that seems so far off, you said, I think late June, early July, right? And it’s still months away, but with the way that this is going, it’s hard to say…the rules keep changing every couple of weeks it seems.
Tamara: Yeah, exactly. And that’s why as much as I just want to know what the timeline is, no one can really tell us that because you know, no one can predict the future quite that much. So unfortunately , I’m really needing to learn to work on my patience.
Damian: Which it sounds like is a challenge for you.
Tamara: It is, I’m not a go with the flow kind of person.
Damian: You’re an obsessive planner.
Tamara: Yeah, exactly.
Damian: So in dealing with the different companies that you did have to do cancellations with, do you have any general takeaways that you would take into a future booking?
Tamara: Well, I would definitely never book a nonrefundable hotel again. When it comes to the Greece situation, but with Paris, you know, it’s tough because it would definitely be better to be in a hotel and have that 24 hour kind of cancellation policy. But at the same time that it’s really nice to be able to have the space and more of the feel of living like a local to get an apartment.
And so I think you just really have to look at those cancellation policies and, you know, decide, you know, which is better. I mean, at the time we figured, okay, the only reason we’re not going is if we’re sick or something horrible comes up and we have travel insurance for that. So it didn’t really cross our mind that there would be a way that we weren’t protected, you know, but I’ve learned, you know, that lesson now.
So for the near term, I think I would, you know, bypass, you know, some of that vacation rental, unless they clearly had a good cancellation policy.
Damian: Because in this case, Airbnb, they changed their policy just because of this unique situation.
Tamara: They did, they stepped up. So, you know, that was good. And, but with the other…Paris perfect, they did not. And I understand it’s just hard for a lot of these companies to afford to be able to do that too. So, you know, Airbnb has a little bit more cash in the bank to be more generous in terms of the cancellation.
Damian: And going forward, I’m sure there’s a lot of changes that will happen when we get back to traveling, and with your experience in scouring hotels and flights and things like that, I’m sure you have some ideas about what might change when we do get back to it.
Tamara: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been reading a lot and you know, some of it is becoming clearer as we go. You know, the airlines have started to announce what their policies will be mostly requiring. A face covering, certain policies around their extra cleaning, changes in the way that they do check in and boarding and even food service and in-flight service.
So I think…well, flying hasn’t been fun for a long time. It’s going to continue to be worse, you know, so you have to kind of be prepared with your mask, you know, and all of your sanitizing supplies as well as, you know, bringing your own snacks and water and things like that. So it’s definitely going to change.
I have heard that many of them are going to try to block out middle seats, to give more social distancing. At the same time, I’ve just heard of someone being on a fairly full flight because there’s so few flights running, you know, if you only have a flight every couple of days or you know, maybe every day, then you might get a few more people on that flight because obviously the airlines can’t afford to keep flying 10 people around the country.
Damian: Exactly. Well, this is a difficult situation and I agree we’ll get through it, but for right now, it’s very frustrating for everybody, for people that want to travel and just in general.
Tamara: It is. It is. And as you know, as much as we recognize the bigger challenges that are in play here from health and economic perspectives, you know, we all sometimes need something to look forward to…to get through tough times. And travel tends to be one of them. And so not knowing what that’s going to look like is hard, but you know, you don’t have to give up the dream. You could just have to postpone it.
Damian: Wait…maybe make some plans, some tentative plans while you’re waiting.
Tamara: Yeah. Cancelable refundable changeable plans.
Damian: Right. There’s a few asterisks there.
Well, moving on from coronavirus, I think you have a lot of stuff to share as far as travel planning, because I’m still fascinated with that. My wife does most of our travel planning, I just find it to be a challenge.
So I think you can share a lot with that. Was there a point or a trip that you kind of knew that you actually enjoyed it, that you liked digging into it?
Tamara: Well, I think when my daughter was young, we tended to do, you know, like simpler trips, like to the beach or to a resort or something like that. But it was one of our big trips when we went to Europe with her for the first time. We took her to Spain and I spent a ton of time researching that and trying to make sure that everything would go smoothly.
And I had this itinerary document printed out one time. And I was showing it to a friend of mine and she’s like, wow, you should do this for other people. And I was like, Hmm, maybe I should. And so that kind of set me on the path of, you know, a whole new business of, you know, should I do travel planning for people?
And I realized what I really loved was sharing what I’ve done, you know, with others and making it easier for people that want to do it themselves. And I did venture down the path of travel planning. As a travel advisor for a while, and I still do a little bit of consulting for destinations that I know really well.
But I just love sharing what we’ve learned, sharing my research, you know, sharing our experiences and helping people that have similar travel styles…figure out what they want to do and how to do it.
Damian: And specifically with family travel, because it’s certainly a different style of travel than, than a solo or couples traveling, marry couples, something like that. So what have you learned in family specific travel, traveling with children?
Tamara: Yeah, I mean, I think she took her first flight at five months, and we had done some road trips before that. So she’s been traveling for quite a while, and it definitely changes, you know, along the way. But it’s also nice to start early because they do get used to it. I’ve talked to a lot of families over the years, and some of them are like, well, we want to do something when they’re teens.
And I’m like, Ooh, you know, by that time it actually gets more challenging. I would start younger, like for me, the real sweet spot for some of those bigger trips were the school age because you have kids that are just sponges and they want to soak up the experience and learn and they’re excited about it.
the real sweet spot for some of those bigger trips were the school age because you have kids that are just sponges and they want to soak up the experience and learn and they’re excited about it.Tamara Gruber, We3Travel.com
And that was just, it was beautiful from a parent perspective to see that excitement in their eyes and to see them making connections, you know, to something they’ve seen in a book to real life. And I remember being in a museum in Madrid, and my daughter was like, I saw that painting and one of my books and I was like, Oh, that’s so amazing.
You know? So , I think, you know, it all starts with, with starting early and starting small, you know, like, don’t make your trip to Europe the first thing that you do with kids, because. They need to kind of ease into things. And every kid, you know, has different personalities. But I found just starting at home by doing day trips, visiting museums, exploring parks, taking hikes, you know, just, it gives them that adventurous spirit where they are moving outside of their bubble, whether that bubble is their neighborhood or their preschool or school, you know, or their family…it exposes them to new experiences. And, you know, hopefully sparks their curiosity. And so we’ve done a lot of, you know, more local types of exploration, turned into shorter trips, turned into road trips, you know, before we really took on a two week European trip.
Damian: Yeah. Just something much more manageable to ease into it.
Tamara: Yeah. And to get them used to those experiences. And I always feel like if you can do some, like laying the groundwork before you go. I’ve always been big on using things like books or TV shows or movies to try to introduce, you know, concepts.
I remember before taking my daughter to the dentist for the first time, I think we read like Curious George goes to the dentist, you know, like you try to help them understand what it’s going to be like.
And so I find with kids like getting them excited, you know, exposing them maybe to the food or showing them pictures or a video or reading a book together about the destination, they have more of a connection with it. It’s not like suddenly they’re just in this place. They don’t know where they are.
They don’t know why someone’s telling them about something that’s 2000 years old, instead we’ll be like, Oh yeah, I’ve learned about that. And, and suddenly it’s a lot more interesting.
Damian: I would think there would be just so much more engaged that way that you’ve tied it to something that’s in their day to day life like that.
Damian: So what sort of mistakes might people make when they’re planning a family trip, things they might overlook?
Tamara: Well, I found, you know, both with myself and you know, when I was helping various families as a travel advisor, that everyone has a tendency to want to pack things in.
You know, I just think, especially in the U S we have limited vacation time and we want to maximize it. And you know, I also want to utilize that vacation time that you have to have some kind of big experience and you feel like, well, I may not come back, so let’s fit it all in.
But that tends to lead to a lot of over tiredness and crankiness and other things. So I’ve really had to teach myself to slow down and make sure that I build in that downtime.
It was funny because for a Paris trip, you know, obviously there’s so many museums, so much to do in Paris. But I thoughtfully put together our itinerary so that we would have more downtime. And I found with a teen that teens actually need more downtime than younger kids, which seems counterintuitive, but it’s true, at least with the parents of other teens that I’ve talked to.
And so a friend of mine was going to be in Paris at the same time. She’s like, Oh, can we meet up for a glass of wine? And I’m like, well, I have some scheduled downtime on the Tuesday afternoon, and she just had to laugh at me that I had scheduled in downtime.
But I’m like, otherwise it’s just too tempting to fill that, so definitely making sure that you have time. To chill out and relax is, you know, important and both in enjoying where you actually are so it’s not this forced March of we’re going to see this and do this, you know, but that you also just give people time to recover, get over jet lag, you know, and just take a little time.
You know, I always differentiate between a vacation and a trip. In that, you know, a vacation…sometimes you think of sitting around and doing nothing. Sitting on a beach, just relaxing. Right? And a trip is more like seeing and doing, and we tend to do more trips, so I need to make sure that there’s a vacation in our trip.
Damian: Right. And just like you say, just planning a little bit of time to just be, or just, it’s amazing how kids fill in those blank spaces with something that’s very fun, but since they’ve chosen it…it just, it’s a little bit more organic, it seems to be a great break for them.
Tamara: Yeah, exactly.
Damian: Tamara, if there’s one piece of advice that you could impart on the audience before we wrap up here, what would that be?
Tamara: Hmm. Well, I feel like in different times I might have something different to say, but I will say for now that I will follow everyone else’s advice, and as much as I want to encourage people to travel, I will encourage them to stay home for now until it is safe to travel.
But as we mentioned earlier…start planning, start thinking about the future.
So I guess that’s the advice that I will leave them to, because I know for myself, when I have something to look forward to, it really gets me through some times that are a little bit more of a struggle.
Damian: Yeah. It’s amazing what that anticipation of a trip can do. Tamara, I really appreciate you joining this week. , where can people find you online? Where would you like people to go to find you and read more about you?
Tamara: Well, the best place is my website, which is We3Travel.com, and from there you can find links to tons of blog posts, but you can also find links to my social, which is pretty much We3Travel across Instagram and Facebook and such…and if you are a podcast listener, we’d love to have you pop over to Vacation Mavens, which is on all the Apple podcasts and all the rest…and give it a listen.
Damian: That’s fantastic…all of that will be posted in the show links as well. I appreciate you joining this week and, we’ll talk to you soon. Thanks very much.
Tamara: Thanks, Damian.