How To Plan the Perfect Family Vacation

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Inside: How to plan the perfect family vacation. Pick the perfect destination, plan everything effectively, and have a fun time making memories.

How to plan the perfect family vacation. Pick the perfect destination, plan everything effectively, and have a fun time making memories

I love a family vacation. Traveling has always been one of my favorite things to do. While a lot of people get bored in a car for long hours, I get a thrill seeing the different landscapes as you drive mile after mile. I always said when I was younger that I would love to live in a different area of the world for 4-12 months at a time to get a feel for what it is like there.

That sounded fun before I had kids; now I of course prefer stability and sending my kids to school, so we travel. We didn’t always travel long distances. When my family as a whole was a younger family, we traveled close to home and for shorter spurts–more “long-weekends” than full vacations. I don’t regret that; it was the best for our family of nappers and littles at the time and we still had a lot of fun.

Now that my family as a whole is in the middle stage of raising kids life, we are in full-on travel mode. We have a list of destinations we want to hit before Brayden, our oldest, graduates high school (only five years folks!). We are taking full advantage and getting our travel on.

Prepping for a trip is not easy, and let’s be real, for most families, the bulk of the burden lands on mom. Mom plans the trip, mom preps the pets and house to be left, mom packs her stuff, mom packs her own stuff, and mom answers dad’s 65 questions while he packs his own stuff. Not to discount the stress or efforts dads put in to a trip, but in most cases, mom puts the most effort into prepping for a trip.

All of this added burden (for fun, but a burden all the same) to everyday life can lead you to feeling stressed and extra grumpy. My husband and I both really strive to stay as patient as possible as we prep for a trip. We don’t want vacations to be dreaded because it means mom and dad go into major grump mode.

How to Plan the Perfect Family Vacation

One of the best ways to stay calm and collected is to have a plan for how to prep and plan for the trip. Here is my method for planning the perfect family vacation.

Decide on a Travel Location and Dates

The first thing you need to do when planning a family vacation is to decide where to go and when to go. I really like having a master list of places we would like to go. We always decide at the end of one trip what our next one will be. Consider things like how far away it is, how expensive-ish it would be and how that would fit in with your budget, and how your kids would handle it at their ages. Not all places are great for kids at all ages. For example, on our someday list is Washington D.C. This is a very far away destination for us, so it is a once in a lifetime type of trip. We plan to wait until Brayden is a senior before we go there. There is a lot of walking involved and we want our kids old enough to be able to physically handle that. We also want them as old as possible to hopefully appreciate what is there.

Sometimes your travel location is chosen for you. You might be visiting relatives over the holidays or going to a family reunion. In those cases, you don’t get to choose where to go.

If you are traveling because you want to do a family vacation, consider your destination carefully. What is your goal for your vacation? How much are you able and willing to spend? What do you want to do while there? Where is the best place to go to meet your goal?

Once you know your location, get some date options. Look up online great times to travel to the location. What is a less busy time of year? Those will be less expensive and less crowded. Look at the weather at the different times of year you are considering. Be sure to consider school dates and work needs when considering your travel dates.

We plan to go to Florida next year. We wanted to go over spring break, but once I started researching, I soon realized Florida has spring break the same time we did…it was literally twice as expensive to book lodging as other times of year we could go. So we are looking at other date options.

When we had three young children, most of our travel was done relatively close to our home. I think just about wherever you live, there will be lots of neat places for you to visit close by. Our goals for vacations were simply to have a fun time without it negatively impacting our children. We live in the West of the United States, so we have lots of neat National Parks and Forests close by. We also have several lakes.

Think Through Schedule Changes

Something to take note of when traveling is if you will be changing time zones, and if so, what you will do about it. For me, when I travel just one hour hour out of my time zone, I don’t bother messing with the schedule at all. We will either be an hour ahead of or behind local time. No big deal. We are then either early rises or sleep in a bit. I find that makes much more sense than spending weeks before and after the trip preparing for and recovering from shifting time zones. I think with a two hour difference, you might be able to do the same, but it depends on what the sunrise and sunset are like and what your child is used to.

You will have to decide what to do. You can treat it like a time change and prepare weeks before and then spend weeks after moving back. I would consider that with a baby–babies are not as flexible and you might enjoy your trip more if it is a smooth transition for baby. For toddlers and older, though, I don’t think I would mess with it. I wouldn’t want to spend two months on this for one week of vacation. I would just make sure the child has consistent naps and bedtimes before the trip so the child is well-rested when the trip starts. Then I would work with it all when we got home.  

Plan and Book the Details

How will you get there? Drive? Fly? Where will you stay? Rent a home? Hotel? All-inclusive? Where will you go?

Figure out how far in advance you need to book things. You can shop around and find better deals the earlier you start booking. If you are going to a show or game of some sort, you can get better seats if you buy tickets earlier. Google best times to fly. Search for things in an “incognito” window so the Internet doesn’t remember you are looking. Flight prices in particular will jump if you forget this step.

Choosing Where to Stay

Once you know where you are going, you will figure out where you will stay. Will it be a hotel? A camper or tent? Rent a home? Know the conditions for where you will be staying. You can then start to think about what kind of bedding you need to bring for your children. Do you need to bring your pack and play or peapod? 

I like to bring their own pillow–even if the place has pillows. I also like to bring one favorite stuffed animal and one blanket. I know I sleep better with my own pillow and blanket, so I figure children might also. 

I don’t do any extra sleep preparation before we travel. I don’t have them sleep in different places. My children all sleep in other places without issue. As babies, Brayden slept in different places often enough that to go on vacation and sleep somewhere different was not a big deal. Kaitlyn as a baby took at least one nap a day in my room in the bassinet or pack and play, so she was used to sleeping in those beds.

McKenna was just a sleeper. I kind of figure there will either be potential for a couple of adjustment sleep days on the vacation or at home–it doesn’t matter to me where those adjustment days happen. If you have a touchy or sensitive child, however, it might be a good idea to prepare by sleeping in other places. Your child might do better with one change (location or type of bed) rather than several (different state, house, bed, time zone, etc.). Go with your own judgment on your child.

Do you need to bring some sort of white noise? An ipod with white noise tracks? A machine? Think about what will make sleeping the most successful basked on where you are staying. Picture putting your child to bed in that location so you don’t forget anything.

Plan Your Activities

I think one of the biggest worries about traveling is how will the child do while confined during travel time? No matter the age of the child, have a pack of activities for your child to do while traveling. I pack a bag for each of my children that is their special travel bag. What I put in that bag ranges based on the age. Older children are easier and need less because they have longer attention spans. We do things like books, coloring activities, puzzles, favorite toys, and learning activities. Often times, a new toy is a good idea for traveling. New toys are very novel and tend to hold attention longer than a familiar toy. 

Plan the Food

We love to stay somewhere with at least a little mini fridge so we can pack lunches when possible. We don’t like eating out for every single meal, plus it saves money to pack food. We typically try to eat out no more than once each day, and try to do less if possible.

Decide where you will be eating meals, and then plan what they will be and where you will eat them.

Also, in planning your food, don’t forget to have some snacks planned. Kids are much more pleasant if they aren’t hungry, and often when traveling, you are moving around more and kids can get quite hungry.

I like to pack some of our food–even if it is just snacks. I like to have healthy snacks while traveling. I don’t like to eat out for every meal, so we try to have some meals made by us.

How to plan the perfect family vacation. Pick the perfect destination, plan everything effectively, and have a fun time making memories.

If we are not flying, I like to make food ahead of time to take with us. I will boil some eggs to have as snacks. I will bake some banana bread. It is a great way to use up food that would otherwise go bad and have some yummy snacks for your trip.

Make a Budget and Save

Taking a vacation with the money pre-saved makes the trip a thousand times more enjoyable. I love buying things ahead of time as I can to spread out the expenses. I always estimate how much the entire trip will cost and figure out how to save for the trip so that while we are on the trip, it is all paid for and the money is there to cover what isn’t already paid for so we can just enjoy the trip without worrying about going into debt.

Make a Packing List

Make a packing list for each person so you can check things off as you pack. I try to pack light, but I also want everything we need. I always pack 1-2 extra pairs of underwear and socks per person just in case something happens. I even make a packing list for my husband so he can just consult it instead of asking me what he needs to pack and if there is anything else he needs. Be sure you think through your activities and that you have what you need to do them. I mentally walk through each day so I don’t forget anything. Check the weather of where you are going and have plans for inclement weather happening. What will you need if it rains or snows? Do you have what you need for the sun? What is the climate like? Is it more humid? Are there lots of bugs (and bug spray needed)?

For at least a week before you leave, keep a list close by for packing. Anytime you think of something, write it down. I currently keep my lists on my iPhone. When the time for packing comes, check things off as you go. Also, pack as you get ready that day. So as you dress your child, pack the clothes, diapers, socks, underwear, etc. you will need for the trip. As you put shoes on, pack the shoes you will need. As you do hair, pack the hair stuff you will need. Do this throughout the day. Try to not stress about the list, though. My husband always says if we forget something, we will just buy it when we get there.

Schedule Hair/Nails/Doctor Appointments

If you like to have a fresh hair-cut or you want your nails done, make sure you make the appointments with enough time. If you need to see a doctor for any reason (certain vaccinations, clearance, medications, etc.) be sure to schedule with enough notice.

Prepare the Home

There are a variety of things you need to prep at home before you go. I always like to put a hold on my mail. You can go here to set up your own mail hold. If you have pets, find someone to take care of them while you are gone. We always get a neighbor. You might need to board your pet at the vet or a boarding place. If you have plants or a garden going, you will want to make sure you have someone lined up to water those things if needed.

Arrange with Work, School, Family, and Extra Curriculars

Let your work colleagues know when you will be gone. Arrange for your responsibilities to be covered while you are gone. If your child is in daycare, let them know. If your child will miss school, talk to the teacher ahead of time. They will often gather up work your child will miss so he/she can do it ahead of time. If your child is in dance, music lessons, or a sport, be sure to let those in charge know your child will be missing.

It is also smart to tell neighbors you trust that you will be leaving and your dates. It can help them keep an eye on your house and know if they see things going on that something isn’t right. It is also smart to let your family or close friends know when you are going, how long you will be there, and how you will be traveling. That way if something happens, someone knows you aren’t where you should be.

Charge and Prep Electronics

In the last couple of days before you leave, make sure your electronics are ready to go. If you plan to take a Kindle, make sure the movies and books you want on the device are loaded. Make sure your devices are charged fully.

How to plan the perfect family vacation. Pick the perfect destination, plan everything effectively, and have a fun time making memories

Prepare Your Vehicle

If you will be driving at all for your vacation, clean your vehicle out. Check the fluids and the tire pressure. Get the oil changed if it is due. Fill up with gas. Be prepared and ready to go.

Home Prep Right Before You Leave on Vacation

Just before you leave, there are some things you will ideally do. One is clean up a bit. I love coming home to a clean house and it is so nice to not have a mess on top of the mess you bring home. You will have unpacking and laundry to take care of.

If you have the time, clean your refrigerator out in the few days before you leave. You can get food out that is bad or about to go bad. It is also wise to empty all garbages just before you leave so you don’t have anything in the house rotting and/or stinking up the place.

Check the windows and doors and make sure all are locked. Do a walk through and make sure the lights are all off and the electronics are unplugged. Turn down or up the thermostat (depending on the time of year). Before you leave, give your pets and/or plants one last check/feeding/watering.

Be Flexible Where You Can

Though you want to get the sleep your child needs, try to recognize where you can give. Your child might be able to skip a nap every other day or go to bed an hour or two late. Your ability for flexibility will depend on your child’s age (the older the child, the more flexible) and personality type. Remember your reason for the vacation and make your flexibility decisions based on that reason.

One example of how we are flexible with our children at their current ages is time allowed for videos in one day. I typically try to stay at 30 minutes or less. When traveling, however, I allow for a lot more while locked in a carseat for a long period of time. Oh, that reminds me of a random tip. If you use videos or other electronics when traveling, I suggest you wait at least an hour before getting started on those electronic devices. Let your children explore their travel bags and figure out how to self-entertain. It is easier for children to think of ways to have fun if they aren’t influenced by the easy way out in the form of shows and video games.

Ultimate Vacation Planning and Packing Checklist

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Conclusion

We don’t do a lot of things differently when we go on vacation. We basically:

  • Decide where to go
  • Think through where we will be staying and what we need to do for preparations and packing
  • Prepare based on method of travel
  • Make packing lists
  • Try to eat and sleep well
  • Allow for variations to normal life while traveling (flexibility)
  • Be patient when you get home
  • Spend a few days being very consistent in routine

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