Jan 05 2012
Our family is blessed to be able to take vacations, whether they be for a couple of days or a longer period of time, several times a year. With this experience, vacation planning has become second nature, and is one of my favorite pastimes.
For families who aren’t able to get away as often, the idea of planning a vacation may be overwhelming. Deciding where to go, when to go, and how much to budget for the trip requires careful thought, especially if schedules or money are tight.
These are the steps I take when planning a vacation. Perhaps some of them will be useful for families planning their first trip, or even for seasoned travelers. Please add your own tips below in the comments, and check out the vacation planning processes of other seasoned family travelers.
Decide when to go
For our family, the timing is the trickiest part. My husband’s work makes it difficult to plan a summer vacation, so we work in trips when we can: Christmas vacation, long weekends, and school breaks. If I do plan something in the summer, it has to be easily canceled (more on that later) or doable by myself and the kids if he’s unable to take time off. Think about how much vacation time you have, and whether you want to use all of that time traveling or would prefer a day or two of recovery before getting back to life’s routines. Consider weather (especially if driving) and busy travel times (especially if flying).
Decide where to go
Once we have a timeline in mind, I begin to explore the possibilities. Since we usually drive, farther-away destinations are reserved for long trips. I’ll think about how many days we have, and how many of them we want to spend on the road, then sketch out a driving radius and see what locations fall in that area. Sometimes we have a specific destination in mind and plan the timeline around it, and sometimes we have the timeline first and try to find a creative destination that will fit into the time allotted. When planning a trip, I ask my kids for ideas. They always seem to have ideas that I’ve never considered, and I throw them into the planning mix.
Decide how to get there
We’re usually road-trippers, and airfare is obvious for overseas destinations, but sometimes we have to run the numbers to find the sweet spot of cost vs. time to see if it’s better to fly or drive to our destination. I price flights for our family and compare them to the costs we’d incur while driving (including gas, maintenance, and hotel rooms and meals if driving would lengthen the trip over flying).
Set a budget
Next, I start running the numbers. I research the following to put together a rough budget: Transportation–flight or driving expenses, rental car or bus transfers; Lodging–hotel or vacation home rentals; Attractions–all of the fun things we’ll do at our destination or along the way; Food–a daily estimate of what it will cost to eat while away; Souvenirs–an estimate of what we’ll spend on remembrances of our vacation. Some destinations are more affordable than others, and sometimes I have to choose a new location or shorten the trip because of the cost involved. It’s also a good idea to throw in a contingency fund in case of unexpected car repairs or medical expenses while away.
Researching a destination is one of my favorite parts of planning the trip. I order visitor’s guides from our destination and check out travel guides and AAA Tourbooks. I scour websites to find interesting things to do along the way that I may not have heard of before. I’ll pile up as many books as I can find, then sit with a pad of paper and a pencil and jot down absolutely everything that looks interesting. Much of it will be weeded out later due to time, cost, weather, or closures, but I like to start with as many possibilities as I can.
Now the fun begins. As soon as I decide on a location and destination, I begin making hotel reservations, being sure that they’re easily canceled if our plans change. For our upcoming California trip, I made our first hotel reservations last July. Rental cars usually are easily canceled as well. Airfare, cruises, and vacation packages lock you in a bit more, so don’t make these until you’re absolutely certain you can make the trip–or else purchase a good trip insurance policy that covers your cancellation fees. Don’t be afraid to make your reservations, but be sure to read the fine print regarding cancellation policies.
I like to keep all of my reservation information (including cancellation numbers, if applicable) in one place–a computer file, a piece of paper in my vacation folder, online at tripit.com–so that I can see at a glance all of our essential information.
As I said, I made some of our hotel reservations almost a year in advance, and since then, I’ve rechecked the prices at least weekly. In one location, the price has steadily risen since I made that first reservation. In another location, the price of our preferred hotel has dropped as our departure nears, and I rebooked at the better price. Some air and cruise fares will issue a credit if the price drops after you’ve bought your ticket, but it’s usually up to you to spot the difference.
Create an itinerary
I draw up a rough itinerary when deciding when and where to go, but as we get closer to our trip, I get serious about penciling in what we can do each day of our trip. Of course, this is always subject to change due to weather, closures, or trying to fit too much into one day, but I like to have a decent plan in place. When creating an itinerary, I find it helpful to make a chart listing the open days and hours, as well as prices, of each attraction we want to visit. Seeing when things are open helps to map out a plan, especially over the holidays, when places have additional closures or special extended hours.
Obsess and rethink and research some more
OK, so maybe I’m the only one who does this. If you can make your plans once and leave them alone, I applaud you! I have so many different itineraries and possibilities in my California folder that it’s bulging. Whenever I create a new plan or possibility or amend the budget, I write down the date of my current state of thinking, and I keep the old plans in case I need to go back to them. This is also the time that I get serious about finding the best prices on attractions, including signing up for our destination’s Groupon site, looking for coupons via the local visitor’s bureaus, and so on.
Make the kids’ vacation books
Before bigger vacations, I make a “vacation book” for my kids that includes information on our destination, maps of where we’re going, journal pages, and reproducible worksheets about the state(s) we’re visiting. Originally designed to eliminate some of the “are we there yet” questioning, it has become a tradition and keepsake for my chidren. It does take some time and planning to get the pages gathered and printed, so I start several weeks before we leave.
I’ll admit it, and you may find this crazy, but for a big trip, I’ll start packing 3-4 weeks in advance. As I think of little things we may need on the trip, but not necessarily before then, I’ll put them all in one location so they’re ready when it comes time to put them in the suitcases. I also start making lists of things easily forgotten–certain medications, sunscreen, gum for on the airplane–in an effort to minimize forgetfulness. This is when I also begin to think about which electronic devices we’ll bring, and which we’ll leave at home: Do we want a video camera? Is the laptop necessary? Are we letting the kids bring any gadgets? Once I decide which things we’ll bring, I start to gather the necessary cables, chargers, and memory cards that go along with them. The actual packing of clothes and such comes closer to when we leave, but I put in plenty of thought so as to find the perfect mix of having everything we’ll need without overpacking.
About a week before we leave, I get serious about rechecking our reservations and flight information, and being sure everything we’ll need to take is on the list. I set aside an area of the house where vacation things can be dropped off. If it’s for vacation, that’s where it needs to be; if it’s not for vacation, it needs to be somewhere else! Then, when we’re ready to go, I know that we have everything when that zone is clear and the lists are checked off.
Prepare for take-off
If we’re driving, my husband checks the tires, oil, and gas levels in the car a day or two before we leave. If we’re flying, I keep an eye on the schedules and recheck the airline guidelines. We keep an eye on the weather, just in case it will affect our plans. I print out basic itineraries and emergency contact information for our parents, in case they should need to reach us while we’re gone. Then it’s time to pack the vehicle, throw in the last snacks and medications, and get on our way for our latest adventure.
Well, there you have it–how I plan a vacation for our family. Do you use similar steps in planning your family’s trips?