Planning for Success: Getting the most fun out of your family vacation
Every family has their own traditions. For some people, nothing says “vacation” like visiting a familiar location and taking part in annual traditions. For others, it’s all about visiting a new location and having new adventures. Whatever your preference, doing some thoughtful planning up front can result in more fun later on.
Maybe this is a non-issue for you because you visit the same place every year, but if you like exploring new places, you’ll need to decide where to go! Consider whether you are planning to drive or fly, how stressful traveling will be (especially with kids), and what kind of budget you have for your trip. Asking friends or family members for recommendations can make visiting a new location less stressful! Also, keep in mind what type of activities are likely to be near the location you are considering. My summer vacations are usually with extended family, and we always rent a house instead of staying in hotel rooms. My favorite two websites for finding houses are Home Away and Vacation by Owner. If you are vacationing with other people, try to get a sense regarding what is most important to the group as a whole? A cheap house? A house with lots of amenities? Number of bedrooms? Location? (One tip: if you have young children in your party a home owner may be flexible about the number of guests. The house we are staying at this summer has a listed max occupancy of 12, but the owner said it was ok for us to be there with 14 since we had young children along.)
If you’re on a budget then you might have to compromise! For example, this year we are vacationing in the 1000 Islands region of New York State. I couldn’t find a house for 14 people (!!) that was affordable and really close to our desired location. In the end, we decided that having enough beds for everyone and being on budget was more important than being right in Alexandria Bay. We will spend more time driving, but we won’t all be on top of each other in the house, and we’ll have enough money for some fun day trips. If we’re temped to get annoyed
at the kids at the traffic while we’re driving to our day trip destinations, we’ll just need to remember that this is the inconvenience we chose and that the good and bad of vacation is a package deal!
Plan your Itinerary
Depending on your destination and your family’s vacation preferences, this might not be an issue. If you’re going to the beach for a week then your itinerary might be 1) apply sunscreen 2) go to beach 3) repeat as needed. But if you’re visiting someplace new or your destination doesn’t have obvious built-in entertainment, then researching some activities before you leave is a great idea! Do you remember back in college when you and your friends would sit around for half the evening trying to “decide what to do”? (At least that’s what we did!) Well I’ve discovered that’s a lot less relaxing when there are 17 bored children running around demanding things (Ok not 17, but it kind of feels that way!).
As my family’s designated vacation planner, I love coming up with a list of things to do at our vacation destination! I research family friendly activities near our location, and email everyone a list with descriptions, links, costs, and driving times. Here are some things that are helpful to remember when planning your itinerary.
- Kids may be different ages and have different schedules, and even adults naturally enjoy different levels of activity. So every person may not participate in every activity.
- If you spend some of your time apart, you may actually enjoy your time together even more!
- It doesn’t hurt to have a “what if it is pouring down rain for days and days” plan. I’ve got some museums that I hope we can visit in NY this summer, and they’d be fine to visit on a rainy day, but if the weather is terrible all week and we exhaust the local tourist options, I know there’s a mall 30 minutes away, along with a movie theater and a bowling alley.
- Try alternating days that are more “relaxing” and days that are more “adventurous”, and make sure everyone knows what the most expensive outings on the list are so that they can budget appropriately.
If you’re renting a house, make sure you clearly understand what is being provided and what you have to bring. If you’re staying in a “cabin” at a state park, have fun packing your entire kitchen. Thankfully most vacation houses will at least have dishes available! Here are some tips for making that packing list:
- If there’s a food prep item you can’t live without (like the coffee maker), then check with the owner or plan to bring your own. I always bring a couple of sharp knives
for when the relatives get really annoyingbecause trying to slice apples with a dull knife is super irritating and dangerous!
- If you’re traveling with extended family, then make a list of all the “general” things that are needed and divide them up. Not everyone needs to bring paper towels and laundry detergent!
- Bring some toys, but keep in mind that whatever you bring could end up getting lost! Tiffany wrote a great post about good toys to bring on vacation. Games for adults are a good idea too.
- Think about what will help the kids sleep. Last year my sister brought some black garbage bags and hung them over the windows in the room where her baby was sleeping. He’s got room darkening shades at home, and trying to get him to nap in a bright room would have been difficult. Do your kids have a special alarm clock? A white noise maker? If packing the item is likely to result in a little more sleep for Mom and Dad, then bring it!
Food Glorious Food
Wouldn’t it be nice if going on vacation meant we didn’t have to feed anyone? But it doesn’t and even grownups get cranky when hungry. Here’s what we’ve done to avoid spending all of vacation in the kitchen:
- Decide how often you want to eat out. Make it part of your budget!
- If possible bring as much food from home as you can. Wouldn’t you rather think about food before vacation instead of on vacation?
- If you’re traveling with extended family, then divide the meals up for different people to be in charge of. On our vacation last year, each family was in charge of two dinners and one “non-sandwich” lunch. It was up to the family whether they wanted to do food prep on location or at home. I chose to make a large batch of chili and a large batch of pulled pork at home. I froze these meals in gallon sized bags and brought them along in a cooler. It was especially convenient when we arrived at dinnertime on the first day to have a meal that was ready to be heated up and served.
- If you can’t bring much food with you because of space or travel time, then make a shopping list before you leave home. And when planning your menu, keep in mind that different items may not be available in different parts of the country. I made the mistake of planning a dinner that contained edamame only to discover that that’s apparently not a popular food item in Gatlinburg, TN. Also keep in mind that food may be more expensive at your destination than it is at home. I think it’s almost always worth it to drive to a “real” grocery store for a major shopping trip, and then hit the corner store when you run out of
wine and coffeemilk and bread.
Get the Kids Excited
Nothing will wreck a vacation faster than whiny misbehaving kids (except maybe a stomach bug, but there’s not a lot you can do about that…). I love helping my kids know what to expect on vacation! Before we leave I always show them on a map where we are going. We look at photos of the place we are staying at. I show them the websites of some of our day trip destinations, and check out library books if the area we are visiting has certain historical or geological features I’m interested in. For example, this spring we took a weekend trip to Williamsburg, VA and visited the Jamestown Living History Museum. Before we left, we visited a local museum with an exhibit about Jamestown, read library books about colonial Jamestown, and watched videos on the Museum’s website.
When I had my kids’ parent teacher conferences last week both of their teachers mentioned that trip and they were amazed by how much the boys had learned and remembered. I think all the “prep” I did beforehand really helped the kids get the most out of our visit. They had a frame of reference for what to expect, and they anticipated having fun!
Embrace what is Real
So you can plan for what is ideal, but you won’t have a good vacation if you don’t embrace what is real. The weather may not be what you had hoped for. Maybe someone gets sick. Just remember that being together and making memories is more important than anything on your itinerary. Be open to the spontaneous fun that might end up being better than whatever you had planned. And when you are tempted to get stressed out and think that it’s not worth all the work, keep your eyes open for the little blessings that are happening all around you.
There you have it! Chose your destination and your itinerary carefully. Prep your packing list, food, and kiddos. And embrace what is real. Because in the end, that’s all you’ve got.