In less than two months, we will be heading off on our annual family vacation. Being a traveler at heart, I am always yearning for travel and adventures, but with kids, I am somewhat limited by how often I can travel. That’s not to say that we don’t ever travel as a family. Throughout the year, we will do mini-road trips around the United States. We love heading down to sunny Southern California in the wintertime, and in the spring and summer months, we will often explore the various locales in the Puget Sound, or make a trek up to Canada.
In addition to our little trips, we try and maintain the tradition of doing an annual family vacation. In 2012 we went to Southeast Asia, visiting Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia. 2013 saw us heading south to Paraguay. And last year we stayed stateside, spending a week in New York City. This year, our travels will take us back to Southeast Asia, but this time, we will be spending three weeks in Indonesia. We’ll watch my sister get married in Bali, visit with family and friends in Java, and hang out with orangutans in Sumatra.
How to plan a vacation
Planning a big family vacation can often seem daunting. There is a lot that goes into the planning, especially if you are going overseas. Luckily, after three years of doing this with my family (in addition to the countless trips I’ve taken solo), I have a few tips and suggestions that I can share with all of you.
Here’s a run down of tasks to do and things to keep in mind as we begin our countdown to a family vacation.
Twelve months to go
In a way, this is my favorite part, as there are countless possibilities. The biggest thing to do at this point is to choose your destination. There are a number of travel sites out there to help you choose the right place for your family vacation, but I often just ask my husband and kids where they think they might like to go.
Once you have made a decision, You can begin to do your preliminary research. My favorite part of a bookstore is always the travel section, and if money were no object, I could easily spend thousands of dollars on guidebooks and travel memoirs. Fortunately, our local library has a pretty good selection of guide books to give ideas for how to plan a vacation. If you’re more of a digital research kind of person, there is a plethora of resources available online to help you learn about your destination, including Lonely Planet, WikiTravel, and Trip Advisor. Many guidebooks are also available in ebook format.
Six months to go
This is the point in your family vacation planning when you can start getting serious. One of the most important tasks to do at this point, when thinking about how to plan a vacation, is to buy airplane tickets. When traveling with kids, there are some considerations to take into account. In addition to cost, the time of departure, length of flight, and length of layovers are all good things to keep in mind when choosing the right ticket. Also, if you’re traveling with a child under two, you may want to consider buying a seat for him or her, even though you don’t have to. It may cost more, but in my experience, having that extra seat is the difference between a stressful flight and a relaxing one.
You can also take this time to start researching lodging options. I am a big proponent of Airbnb, and over the years, I have seen a growth in international properties being offered through Airbnb, even in lesser traveled countries in Africa and Asia. If you still want to go the hotel route, Booking.com and Agoda are both useful sites to use when researching lodging options at your destination, and I also recommend using Trip Advisor for user-generated reviews of hotels and other kinds of lodging.
Four months to go
With four months to go until your family vacation, now is the time when you can begin to book lodging. For our upcoming trip, we’ve booked most of our lodging with Airbnb mainly because it’s cheaper. But we’ve also booked lodging with traditional hotels. One thing I always keep in mind when I think of how to plan a vacation is sleeping arrangements for my family. If you’re traveling overseas with young kids, it helps to book family rooms so your kids don’t end up sleeping in their own separate room in some strange hotel.
Another important thing to do at this time, especially if you’re traveling overseas, is to obtain or renew your passport. Most countries require at least three months left on your passport for entry, so make sure your family and you have up to date passports. You don’t want to risk arriving at the airport the day of travel only to have the airline block your kid from entering the plane because their passport is expiring in less than three months (this actually happened to a friend of mine!). Standard passport processing takes about six weeks, so this will give you enough time to get visas if you need to.
At this time, you can also start to think about what you will pack for your trip. If your little one is still sleeping in a crib, are you planning on bringing a pack and play? Will you need to bring a stroller, or baby carrier, or both? Will you need to bring special gear for your trip? What kinds of toys and activities will you take along to help the kids pass the time? These things don’t need to be set in stone at this moment, but it helps to start thinking about it. My philosophy is to pack as minimally as possible, but with young kids, some things (like a stroller or baby carrier) are a necessity.
Two months to go
At the two month mark, your date of departure is now just around the corner. At this point, you can go ahead and book activities that you plan on doing during your family vacation. I personally like to keep my itineraries fluid and flexible, but it doesn’t hurt to have some pre-booked activities that you can look forward to doing.
If you’re traveling to a country that requires a visa, and doesn’t offer visa-on-arrival, you should probably take this time to apply for a visa. Visa processing can sometimes take a long time, so it’s good to plan ahead. Check your destination country’s embassy or consular website for information regarding visas.
Also, if you’re planning on traveling in the tropics, you will need to get vaccinations before your trip. Check the CDC website to see what vaccinations are recommended for the country you are visiting. Most hospitals have travel clinics where you can talk with a nurse about what vaccines are needed for your trip. Your health insurance may even cover these costs, depending on your plan. When you travel with your kids, it’s important to protect them as much as possible from any diseases that may be common in your destination country.
On a similar note, now is the time to buy travel insurance, if you haven’t done so already. I never used to buy travel insurance, but since I started traveling with my kids, I do this for every overseas trip, and it has helped me out on at least one occasion. People often overlook the benefits of travel insurance when they’re thinking about how to plan a vacation.
One month to go
Once you’re at the one month part, most of your major family vacation planning should be done. One of the things you will need to do now is arrange ground transportation both at your destination, and to and from the airport in your hometown. If we’re traveling for short trips, I usually like to do the cheap daily parking options near the airport, but if it’s for a longer trip, I’ll actually arrange for a shuttle pickup.
Another thing you can do at this point is obtain foreign currency. Most places you travel to, unless you’re heading to a remote destination, will have ATMs. However, it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of cash ahead of time, in case there are no money changers at the airport. I buy my foreign currency through Bank of America since I already have an account with them, but you can also do it through Wells Fargo and Travelex.
The final thing I like to do one month before a family vacation is to register with the State Department. This is another one of those things that I never did before I had kids, but is now an important part of how to plan a vacation for our family. But if you’re a United States citizen, registering with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) has a couple of good benefits. First, you’ll get email updates of any potential issues going on in the country. Additionally, in the case of natural disasters or civil unrest, the State Department is aware of your presence in that country and will help evacuate you. Other countries may have similar types of registries for their nationals traveling abroad, so do some research before you go. Again, when traveling with kids, I always err on the side of caution, and always take the necessary steps to prepare my family and me for emergencies.
Two weeks to go
At the two week mark, you’re starting to go into the home stretch. This is a good time to arrange for hold mail service during your family vacation, especially if you’re going to be gone for an extended period of time. These days, you don’t need to actually go to the Post Office to set up hold mail. You can do it all online, and even arrange for your held mail to be delivered to you the day after you return from your trip.
Another thing you can do at this point is to finalize your packing list. Make sure that you have purchased all the items you need for your trip. To save space in our luggage, we like to buy travel-sized items of toiletries like toothpaste, lotion, shampoo and deodorant. We also like to go through our clothes and set aside the outfits we will be taking along for our trip. In terms of the type of luggage, it’s a toss-up for us between a hiking style backpack and a rolling suitcase. Backpacks free up our hands, but rolling suitcases are easier on our backs. In some cases, we may end up using both.
One week to go
With one week left to go until your family vacation, the only thing you should be focused on is getting mentally prepared for your trip. The major task to do at this point is to start packing your bags. Since you’ve already finalized your packing list, this step should be relatively simple. But in actuality, it always ends up not being that way. Most likely you’ve packed way too much for your trip. The common packing advice when thinking about how to plan for a vacation is to pack half of what you need and carry twice as much money as you need. This is sage advice, but can sometime be hard to follow when you have kids who require diapers, extra change of clothes, wet wipes, etc. In any case, when it comes to packing, try and leave at least a third of your bag empty for souvenirs.
Another important thing to do with one week left to go is to double check all your travel arrangements. Are all the tickets for airfare and regional transportation paid for? Have you booked your lodging (or have plans for lodging)? Do you have all the travel documents you need for travel? Have you received all the appropriate vaccinations? Do you have enough space in your camera for the thousands of pictures you’ll be taking on your trip? This is more of a piece of mind check than anything else.
On the day before the trip, I like to print out copies of all the travel documents and put them together in an envelope. This includes copies of plane ticket reservations, travel itineraries, contact lists, hotel reservations, activity reservations, and anything else related to what we will be doing on our trip. I will also make sure my travel budget is up to date, and ready for me to track my travel expenses. I use the Sheets app on my iPhone to keep track of my travel expenses, but there are plenty of travel budgeting apps out there that you can use. I try not to do too many things the day before, because I want to make sure I’m rested for the trip.
When getting ready for a family vacation, the best thing to do to keep from getting stressed out is to space out your tasks over a period of time. This countdown to a family vacation can be a great tool for you and your family as you get ready for your own family trip. If you feel like I may have missed a step, or if there are things that your family does differently when you’re prepping for your trips, let me know in the comments below. I always love hearing about how other families do travel.
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