I have read some blog posts lately where people shared their thought process for planning a family vacation to the National Parks or any destination. I was intrigued to read about the methodology others use to plan a successful trip. I will attempt to share the steps I have used for 20 years of family vacation planning. It’s worth stating, trips for my family have evolved over the years. When my kids were very young, a 12 hour drive to the beach requires far less planning and preparation than a 30 drive from Ohio to Montana.
For at least 15 years now, when I returned from a vacation or even a business trip, I would take the time to write a review of my own trip. I would document the hotel where I stayed, how much the room cost, how good / bad the location was, nearby restaurants, quality of the pool, etc. I also chronical any things I would do differently if I were to go again. You would be surprised how quickly you’ll forget these details. I have then been able to share with friends traveling to the same area advice on planning their trip. This blog has been an extension of that same desire to share information and help others not stress over planning a vacation.
I also save every hotel receipt, take-out menu from places we eat, National Park brochures, ticket stub, etc. I save all these and put them in my in scrapbook along with pictures I have taken. My grandchildren may love seeing this someday.
This is the process I use and is not for all people. I have found my wife and kids love traveling knowing everything is planned and they can just sit back and enjoy.
- Who is traveling? All 5 of us or just my wife and I? If all 5 of us are traveling, there is an obvious impact to the budget for food and plane tickets if we are flying.
- When will be travel? I review the calendar and look for dates that fit our family work and sports schedule.
- Airline pricing: If it’s a flying trip like our upcoming trip to Utah, I spent a good deal of time combing the airlines for the best pricing out of Columbus, OH. I prefer to fly SouthWest since we all 5 have Rapid Rewards accounts but I will choose the best deal in the end. Don’t be afraid to price flights out of alternate airports. Initially, our trip to Utah was $100 / per ticket cheaper for us to depart from Cleveland. That would have been inconvenient but worth the $500 savings. However, over time, the prices out of Cleveland went up and the prices out of Columbus came down. I also check the Cincinnati and Akron/Canton airport when pricing flights.
- Rental car pricing for flying trips: I find out rental car prices based on the length of trip and how many of us are driving.
- Map study: I love studying Google maps and measuring distances between the airport, National Parks, hotels and other points of interest we may want to see. All this information is captured in a Word Document. I include a screen shot of the map view I have plotted and paste it into the doc as a visual aid for the kids to see. I find that it helps the kids to understand what states, cities and highways we will be traveling along the way. This has been a tremendous benefit for them from a geography perspective in school too.
- I use both TripAdvisor and Expedia to understand hotel prices and quality in the areas where we will be staying. This helps me develop my budget for the overall trip.
- I next use TripAdvisor and Yelp to find possible restaurants that highlight local cuisine and character. We try to avoid chain restaurants when possible. We pretty much always eat breakfast in our hotel to help save money. I always type in names and addresses of these restaurants into my doc in case I don’t have cell service when we are actually on the road.
- Next, I include any “can’t miss” activities or sights to see in the areas where we will be. Since we are trying to hit all the National Parks, I study the best day hikes, trails, waterfalls, sun rise / sun set photo opportunities.
- I total up all my cost estimates and discuss with my wife. Since I generally plan our trips at least 9 months in advance, this gives us ample opportunity to begin saving money for the cost of our trip. We like to pay cash for trips.
- Book all flights and hotels 3 -6 months in advance. Some areas like the Grand Canyon or Moab, UT are extremely busy during the summer season. Hotels book up early so I book even earlier.
- Create a packing list of items we should have based on the type of trip and climate where we will be. In Utah and Arizona, it can be 50 degrees in the morning and 90 in the afternoon. We need to be dressed accordingly.
- Get excited! I start talking about our trip months in advance. I give them a countdown 100 days, 50 days 30 days till we leave. They don’t start getting excited till about 2 weeks away. I show them pictures of things we will be seeing. You may be surprised the positive impact traveling will have on your kids. My kids have confidence and can engage adults in conversation about places they have visited.
Again, this is simply how I do it. This has worked for me and my family. Some people may love “winging it” and not planning anything. There will always be surprises and things that don’t go according to plan but being prepared has worked well and allowed this “RegularGuy” to make countless memories for my family. I would love to hear any feedback.