Smaller planning fail: They were sold out of most snacks on the high-speed train. We made do.

Smarter family travel: The importance of planning

Last week I spent some time drawing up our family travel plans for 2013. I’m not quite ready to share them yet as they are still a work in progress, but I will tell you that we currently have at least one trip planned for every month of the year and that our travels will take us to both familiar and as-yet-unexplored destinations.

As much as January is a time for looking forward, I like to think of it also as a time for reflection on the previous year. My family took some wonderful trips in 2012, and I don’t regret any of them. But looking back I see a couple of things that I would like to have done differently. One is that I wasn’t always smart about creating a budget, especially for some of our more spontaneous trips. It’s definitely better to figure out how to pay for your travel before you leave than after you come home, especially when you travel as much as my family does.

Secondly, I didn’t always do a good job of day-to-day trip planning, thinking that since my boys are a bit older I could make decisions on the fly. The consequence of this was that on more than one occasion we ended up eating less-than-stellar food or engaged wild goose chases that did not really have happy endings. All of this has brought me back to the idea of creating a robust, flexible family travel plan before we go away

Why is it important to create a family travel plan? 

It helps you control your spending. Any time I’ve ever taken a trip without a plan I’ve ended up spending more money than I might otherwise have done.

It’s very easy to overspend when you’re on vacation – you are away from the “real” world and money can start to seem like it comes from a Monopoly box (I find this to be especially true when traveling in a country with different currency). The desire to have fun means you’re more likely to say yes to your kids, even if what they are asking for – say a ten dollar Coke in a hotel lobby – isn’t reasonable or necessary. Budgeting in advance for the things that matter to you, whether those things are expensive soft drink breaks or tickets to the theatre, means you can enjoy them with a clear conscience and that you won’t return home to a larger-than-expected credit card bill.

It means you won’t double book. I have school-aged kids who are both involved in numerous activities. Travel is really important to my family, but so are things like karate tournaments and the Little League season. Having a plan helps us be home for the things that matter most to the boys. Which isn’t to say that we never miss a friend’s birthday party or that I never pull them out of school. But when the kids and I know in advance what’s coming, we’re all likely to be happier about our travel decisions.

Chocolate cake comes big at Bill's Prime in Chincoteague

It gives you a chance to get input from your kids. New for me in 2013 is the resolution to involve my seven- and ten-year-old more often in discussions about where we will go and what we will do once we get there. But without some advance planning, there can’t be conversations about what they’d like. Obviously this step isn’t crucial for very young children, but pretty much any kid who can talk can offer an opinion. As soon as your children are old enough to understand the concept of making choices you can at the very least have basic conversations with them about where you might take your next family vacation and what kinds of things you might do.

Food! Water! Shelter! You can and will make decisions on the ground when you travel (and you should leave yourself room to do so – serendipity is a part of the pleasure of going to new places). But when you’re traveling with kids it’s always a good idea to have a backup in the event that you can’t get seats in the great looking restaurant or the tour you wanted to take is booked. Nothing spoils a trip with kids faster than hunger, fatigue, or a lack of something fun to do. Having a plan can help you

Tips for creating a family travel plan

Start by deciding how much money you want to spend. Setting a travel budget isn’t really all that much fun, but it’s a key part of making smart travel decisions.

There are two ways you can approach setting a budget: You can list the places you want to go and then estimate how much it will cost to visit each destination for a given period of time. Or, you can determine how much of your family budget you’d like to spend on travel during the year and then make choices about where to go and for how long based on that amount.

Either way, it’s important to be realistic about how much it will cost to do what you and your family like to do. If you hate camping and are only comfortable in upscale hotels, make sure you include that cost in your planning, even if it means you might spend less time at a given destination. On the other hand, if dining out isn’t all that important to you and you’re happy to make breakfasts and lunches at a vacation rental, you can plan to eat fewer meals out and save money in the process.

Also important to consider is how you’d like to use not just your travel budget, but your travel time: Would you prefer to take one longer, more expensive trip or spread your spending over a series of long weekends throughout the year?

Basic travel costs include transportation, lodging, food, and then any activities you know you’d like to do while you’re at your destination. The Internet is an invaluable tool when creating estimates – you can check the prices of flights, the costs of hotel rooms and rental cars, and admission fees for any attraction you want to visit. And a good rule of thumb is to tack on between $50 and $100 a day for incidentals just to make sure your budget is realistic.

We had a beautiful Chincoteague sunset cruise

Give yourself time. You don’t have to plan your travel for the entire year in January, but honestly, it can’t hurt. In general, the more time you give yourself to plan, the more likely you are find deals and also the more you can learn about the places you want to visit. I also find that having a long-term plan also gives me flexibility to switch the schedule around if weather or illness make it necessary.

Having time to plan also means you have time to have some family meetings and involve your kids in the process of getting ready to go. You can all learn together about the places you plan to visit, and you’ll know that by the time you leave, you’ll have buy-in from everyone who is coming with you.

And when you plan in advance, you can take money-saving steps like setting up airfare alerts, and signing up to receive offers from local coupon sites, and checking hotel websites for special offers and discounts.

Have a macro and a micro plan. Once I have a budget and an idea of where we want to go, I start the travel planning process by looking at the entire calendar year and determining when we have the time to get away and what makes sense for each season (for instance, winter is largely dedicated to downhill skiing).

When I have an overall plan, I create an itinerary for each trip that includes an outline of what we might do each day we’re there, checking ahead to make sure that the museums and attractions we want to visit are open on the days I have planned. I always look for dining options near the things we plan to do as well as looking for a mix of active and sedentary activities. And I try to include backup activities in case something is closed unexpectedly or we just aren’t having fun doing what I planned.

Biking on the Stowe, Vermont Recreation Path

Be flexible. Not every aspect of your trip has to be set in stone and when you’re planning in advance you need to be open to the possibility that things might change. For example, my family likes to go skiing, but it doesn’t always make sense to go on a given weekend if the conditions aren’t great. Unless I’ve bought plane tickets, I view our travel plans as tentative. And I’m always open to new opportunities that arise – even if they don’t leave me a lot of time to plan.

And any itinerary I create is of course merely intended as a guideline – my philosophy about travel is to treat each place I visit as if I’ll return. I would never pull my kids away from something they were really enjoying just to see or do the next thing I have on my list. Things left undone are simply reasons to go back to destinations we love.

I’ve shared some of my tips for planning family travel – now it’s your turn. Please feel free to share your own planning suggestions in the comments.

Smarter family travel will continue here throughout January. Coming up, look for stories from our trip to France last summer, in particular two notable occasions when I didn’t plan adequately and ended up in hot water. I’ll also have an interview with the authors of Family on the Loose, in which they’ll share the story of their favorite family trip and also their biggest family travel fail (note also that the book includes a three-chapter section on trip planning).  I’m going to be taking a look at some of the best online planning tools and apps. And very soon I hope to share a rough outline of our 2013 itinerary. And I’m not the only one thinking about smarter family travel – Check out Travel Tip Tuesday at Walkingon Travels and Suitcases and Sippycups for links to more great tips.

Reader Responses

11 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Besides researching the when & where to go, I like to research about that particular place. We, too, went to France last summer! And, before we went, I studied architecture, the French Revolution, and more. Until last year we homeschooled and it was a part of our daily lessons. Now, I just take notes & share things as we travel!

    • Dana – I completely agree that researching a destination’s history and architecture is a great idea before a trip. We also plan trips sometimes because the boys have studied something about a place in school. For instance, this spring we’re going to try to make it to DC to see the Constitution because Teddy really wants to since his recent socials studies unit. How great is it that you were able to make your studies part of your kids’ curriculum? Thanks for stopping by.

  2. As a part of our research we try to watch movies about our destination. Places like NYC are easy finds, since every superhero defends various parts of the city. But for our trip to Ireland last summer we watched The Secret of Kells. It made the Book of Kells come alive and our boys stared at it for a long time in it’s small room with display case. It added a lot to the experience for them and us as parents!!

    • This is a great suggestion Precia. I think I might have enjoyed that myself before seeing the Book of Kells! (Which I visited without kids.) A resource that springs to mind also is The Little Travelers series of videos (http://thelittletravelers.com) . I’ve never seen these, but know other people who swear by them.

  3. Such great tips! I can’t wait to see where your travels will take you this year!

  4. Great advice. I’m all for research and planning, to the degree that my friends roll their eyes. But these are the same friends who return from trips with disaster tales of all that went wrong for them and their family. Not the way I want to spend my travel budget! I have a similar resolution this year, to get my boys involved in the planning. It will mean releasing some control…not sure I can do it!

    • Amy, I have faith in you. Besides, I bet you’ll find that all of the travel planning you’ve done before has rubbed off on your kids – mine have already made some great choices borne of experience. Sometimes I think I forget that they’ve been along for the ride all this time too!

  5. Great post. Very informative. My family and I loves to travel too. One thing I’ve learned is that we should not fit-in too many destinations/countries especially with kids in tow. You will just end up tired and stressed. Also, I plan for the clothes we bring so that we won’t have a hard time bringing all our stuff during travel. I have posted other travel learnings/experiences on my blog.

  6. Hi Mara, great post…thanks! We just put up 2 dry erase maps– one of the world and one of the US. We circled every place we’ve been in red and then took turns circling all the places we’d like to go in blue. Good geography for the boys (actually, for me too) and it was interesting to see where our blue circles overlapped. Going to work on our family travel plan for 2013 today.

    • Love this idea Emily – I’ve been meaning to get some maps in place in our house too – what a fun and informational exercise. What were some of the places where your dreams intersected? I’d love to hear more.

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