A Step-by-Step Guide to Planning the Ultimate Family Vacation
Family vacations are an annual priority for many families. For others, vacations might not happen as frequently due to limited resources. Taking vacations together can work wonders for you and your family. They can allow for the opportunity to reconnect with one another and alleviate stress for all family members.
No matter your unique circumstances, if you’re like the 88 million other Americans who plan to take a vacation this year, you want to be sure that it is memorable.
But planning a vacation can be stressful. Often, you have to balance family dynamics, address individual needs and include activities that will appeal to all family members. You must also consider what your budget is and stay within it. While this sounds simple, it’s incredibly easy to blow your budget quickly while on vacation.
There is good news, however. With sufficient upfront planning, you can experience a memorable vacation that’s fun for the whole family!
Below are the key steps necessary for planning the ultimate vacation for your family.
1. Selecting a Destination
Selecting the right destination for your family can be more challenging than you initially think it may be. This is especially true if you have children in different age groups and with different interests.
If you have very small children or infants, there are certain destinations that you can immediately eliminate. Every parent can recognize that hiking Machu Pichu or exploring the Amazonian rainforest with an infant isn’t a great idea—for everyone involved!
Selecting the ideal family vacation can be kicked off by listing the interests of your family members. Families that enjoy exploring history and museums might plan a very different ideal vacation than those who enjoy more outdoor activities.
But what if your family has individuals with wildly competing interests? Well, you can still plan a phenomenal trip – but you might have to think outside the box a bit!
If you are looking for ideas to kick off your vacation planning, some common ideas include:
Cruises are great for family vacations. They often feature activities for children in all age groups, as well as fun things for adults. Cruises often also offer the opportunity to take excursions at ports so that you can explore the local area.
A cruise can also be as adventurous as you want it to be. You can select popular tourist areas that cater to American travelers, or you can select something more exotic. You can even take a cruise to the polar regions.
Another key factor that makes cruises a great option for families is that they often include the cost of amenities, food, and even drinks upfront. This means you won’t be hit with unexpected expenses that can blow your budget!
City-based vacations can help your family to experience the culture of the city itself. This is especially true for major cities like New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles. Within the city, you can often explore museums, attend concerts or theatre events, visit historical locations, and see amazing architecture. Bonus: many attractions in large cities like Denver and Washington DC are also free!
National parks are a frequent destination for family vacations. There are 16 unique national parks in the US. While common thought might have you believe these would only be a great option for families with older kids, some of them are great options even with young children.
Some have easy hikes or infrastructure that allows for a stroller or driving from sight to sight. And best of all, national parks give your family an opportunity to experience a stress-free vacation. You can connect with nature, view wildlife and explore the great outdoors.
Lakes or mountains
If you are seeking a restful and peaceful escape for your family, visiting a lake or mountain range can be an excellent destination for your family.
You can often enjoy the activities at your own pace and on your own schedule, while surrounded by beautiful scenery. Depending upon the location of the lake or mountains, you may also find other activities available that interest your family members, such as skiing, canoeing or swimming.
If you ask any young child between the ages of 3-10 where they want to go, they will almost always respond with Disneyland, Disney World, or Legoland! These types of destinations are hugely popular for families with small children, and for good reason.
They specifically cater to young children, but also have options, rides, and activities for older children as well. The one major drawback of these destinations is that they often require standing in long lines.
All-inclusive resorts can be found almost anywhere in the world, including some located in the United States. For families looking to travel outside of the country, they offer more safety than traveling independently. Like cruises, all-inclusive resorts often have activities geared toward all age groups and have very few costs outside of the upfront fees.
Sometimes, a vacation can be planned that includes several of these options. But listing your interest and talking with all members about what they want to do is a great way to identify the best destinations for your family!
2. Discussing your budget
Discussing your budget is another one of the first steps you need to take when planning a family vacation. Some families may want to start here before discussing potential destination options depending upon their resources.
But creating a vacation budget can be much more difficult than managing a family budget. Unlike recurring monthly or weekly expenses, vacations often have irregular or one-time expenses in a destination you may be unfamiliar with (which also means you will be unfamiliar with standard pricing for most products or services).
In addition to this, you need to think of all the small things that can eat up your budget if you don’t allow enough to cover their expenses. This includes things like snacks, amenities, souvenirs, tipping and entertainment costs.
At a bare minimum, your vacation budget should cover the following expenses:
Depending upon the type of vacation you choose and its geographical proximity to your home, your transportation costs can be minimal, or they can make up the majority of your vacation expenses.
In addition to major transportation costs like airfare or train tickets, you will also want to allow for transportation expenses once you reach your destination. This could include car rental, car services like Uber or Lyft, or public transportation options.
Hotels are a common option for individuals looking for a place to stay. However, they are not the only option. Doing a little research can help you to identify alternatives that might be more affordable or give you a better bang for your buck.
This is particularly true of owner-listed residences or rooms (such as with Airbnb or VRBO). Either way, you will want to select something that is within your budget.
Food and Drink
Unless you are on a cruise or at an all-inclusive resort, you will have to make allowances for meals and snacks. And as everyone knows, this is generally more expensive than eating at home.
Although, if you select an accommodation option with a full kitchen, you may be able to make some meals there, which can save on some of the food expenses. However, if you are on vacation, it’s still pretty likely that you are going to want to experience the local or regional dining options. Maybe you even want to look into a family-friendly food tour to sample the best of the local flavors!
Most major vacation destinations have options that can meet any budget (from fast food to fine dining), so it’s really up to you how much you’d like to set aside for this expense category. If you are visiting somewhere a bit more remote, you will likely have fewer options and a bit of additional planning in this category may be necessary.
Tipping is generally a relatively small expense for those on a traditional vacation and would only be expected in scenarios where tipping is generally expected (such as for a server at a restaurant or for a valet). However, some people plan vacations that allow them to pay upfront and not think much of a budget once they’ve arrived at the destination—like during a cruise or at an all-inclusive resort.
However, during these types of vacations, tipping is much more common and is expected in many other scenarios. It may or may not be included with the vacation package price, so it is important to read the fine print here and understand local customs regarding tipping.
You can always consult with the booking agency or parent company if you are unsure about when tipping is expected and how much is generally tipped. This will give you a good idea of how much you will have to budget for in this category.
Once you are on vacation, you will certainly want to enjoy it! This generally means you will be participating in activities that have an additional fee. This could be as small as a suggested donation to a smaller museum, to heavy fees for amusement parks. A one-day pass for ages 10+ at Disney World now costs more than $109 per person.
Even recreational activities can have additional expenses, such as watercraft rentals or guided tours of local landmarks. Identifying your family’s top pics for entertainment options and pricing them all out beforehand can help you to determine how to budget for entertainment expenses.
While the majority of vacation expenses are outlined in the categories above, you may be faced with some other costs. If you are traveling to a foreign country, you may have administrative costs, passport fees, or foreign transaction fees if you use your debit or credit card.
You may also want to allocate some of your budget to this category in case any emergency expenses come up; you must purchase something you forgot to pack, or you want to participate in spontaneous activities.
3. Scheduling and Booking
Once you’ve identified your budget and destination, it is time to pick the travel dates and start making arrangements. If you have kids, summer break or winter break is usually the preferred times of year to travel since school is not in session.
Traveling in the summer can often mean paying peak season prices. You can usually get a better deal in the fall or spring if that is an option. Some schools may allow some flexibility for make-up work during vacations if they know in advance.
Consider the Weather
You will also want to consider the weather conditions at your destination during your selected timeframe. While a Caribbean vacation during the summer may sound nice, it is also hurricane season. The local conditions are also very hot and humid.
You might have a better time there during the winter. Similarly, booking a trip at a ski resort in the summer will likely mean you won’t be able to ski! Just something to keep in mind!
Once you have identified the best dates for your family, it’s time to start booking the travel arrangements and accommodations. This process can be incredibly stressful, and often requires thorough research and a lot of patience.
If you have children, you also need to familiarize yourself with any applicable policies. For instance, most airlines allow a child under 2 years of age to sit on a parent’s lap, rather than requiring their own seat on a flight.
Timing Can Impact Available Deals
Comparing prices at different times of the day or across a period of time can help you to identify the best travel deals. This can save you a ton of money in travel expenses if you plan to fly and/or stay at a hotel.
While booking arrangements, you will also want to identify the cancellation policies of the companies as well as what the process would be like if you wanted to reschedule for different dates. This is important information, and if they have inflexible policies, you may want to consider purchasing travel insurance.
If you would like additional information about any accommodations or travel options, you can always look to user reviews or ask the company any questions directly.
4. Planning and Packing
The planning process for a family vacation can look vastly different across different families. Some like to have a detailed agenda, while others want to wait until they arrive and explore freely. Some families have both types of individuals.
In this scenario, the family will likely have to negotiate and settle on having some activities (like major family dinners and events) planned and leaving some time free to enjoy spontaneous opportunities that may arise.
Whatever the planning process may look like for your family, it’s important to that you keep two things in mind. First, plan at least one big activity for the entire family as this is often the best way to ensure that lasting, enjoyable memories are made and opportunities for bonding are created.
Secondly, be prepared to throw your entire agenda out the window if need be. No matter how much time you pour into planning, the inevitable can always occur and some incidents or events can derail your entire agenda.
Perhaps you planned a perfect ski trip in the middle of winter, only to arrive in the middle of a record-breaking year of no snowfall. Or perhaps your entire family’s baggage is delayed for a day or two. This chaos will certainly have an impact on your scheduled plans, but it’s still worth salvaging the vacation, identifying your ‘must-do’ activities and reworking your agenda. This means that the whole family will still be able to enjoy at least part of the vacation!
BabyQuip: Making Vacations Possible for Young Families
Despite its challenges, vacations are especially enjoyable and memorable when your children are young. The magic and joy in their eyes when they are young is priceless. But these vacations are often the most stressful for parents who may be juggling the desire to take their toddler or young child on a vacation with a fear of leaving home with a baby.
“Vacations matter for everyone, but especially for busy families with young children. The change of pace and environments provide new ways to connect. I can remember sharing observations from nature (“Why are those trees so tall?) and from urban settings too (“Why are those buildings so tall?”) with my young sons years ago. And of course, I absolutely treasure some of those pictures and memories. We hope BabyQuip helps you make those memories.”– Fran Maier, Founder | BabyQuip
Traveling with Babies
Traveling with babies requires having a barrage of equipment and accessories—all of which makes traveling by air or car dreadful.
BabyQuip is focused on making this process easier for parents with young families. Once you’ve selected a destination, you can select a quality provider who will deliver clean, safe and insured baby gear to anywhere you choose, whether it be the airport, a hotel, or any other accommodation.
Parents can select from a wide selection of gear or even choose complete gear packages. Items include cribs, car seats, strollers, high chairs, toys and so much more.
The process for using BabyQuip is simple:
- Visit BabyQuip.com
- Enter your vacation location and travel dates
- Browse available equipment and providers from the list of results. Rental rates are also included on this page.
- Once you’ve located the items you would like, simply click on “Add to Reservation’
- When you have all of the items you need, click on the shopping cart to check out and enter payment information.
- You will also enter the delivery information at this time.
That’s it! It’s that easy.
All you have to do is arrive at your vacation destination and the provider will arrive at a mutually agreed on time for delivery and set-up. BabyQuip allows parents to travel without the burden of hauling bulky baby gear items, yet still, have them available for their convenience.
Recognizing familiar items (such as a sleeping environment) can also help to ease a baby’s anxiety while on vacation. Payment is provided online, and once you have selected the items you want and paid, delivery will occur without hassle—allowing you to focus completely on enjoying your vacation!
In addition to planning for the vacation destination itself, it’s also crucial to plan for travel, especially if you have small children! Nothing can make a vacation turn sour quicker than hopping in the car for a road trip only to have cranky and bored children minutes later.
Packing age-appropriate entertainment, snacks and distractions is crucial, whether you are traveling by car or by air. This will keep the kids happy and distracted, and it will definitely make the travel time more pleasant for the surrounding adults.
5. Enjoying your Vacation
After you have made all of the preparations and are comfortably on your way to your destination, there’s only one thing left to do: enjoy your vacation! Again, the definition of how this is accomplished will look different for all families. Generally speaking, however, some keys for maximizing your enjoyment (and that for the whole family) include:
Balance family activities with alone time.
While it can be difficult, if the parents can get a little alone time, do it. Mom and dad will generally feel more refreshed and relaxed while engaging in family activities. So, if possible, have older children, grandparents or a trusted sitter service take the kids for a bit so the parents can have a date night.
Similarly, some individuals in the family might enjoy certain activities alone while on vacation. This can be hugely relaxing for certain people. If it’s safe to do so, it may make for a better, more refreshing vacation for all.
Make sure there’s at least one thing that each person enjoys every day.
Most families understand that bickering and squabbling between siblings or with parents is standard. However, this can be minimized when each person feels like they are getting something, whether that be one activity, selecting what’s for dinner, or purchasing a desired souvenir. This makes each family member feel vested in the vacation and all parties will be more amenable to meaningfully participating in the activities that they didn’t pick.
Try not to cram too much in each day.
Vacations are supposed to make you feel rested and refreshed. This often means you need to balance a desire to explore with the need for relaxation. Don’t plan too much for each day. Allow yourself time to enjoy each site and activity to its fullest (rather than worrying if you are on schedule to get to the next one).
BRING A GOOD CAMERA – but be careful not to make it all about getting the perfect picture. Try for the more spontaneous shots that capture the activity. Sure it’s great to get a few posed shots of the family, but be careful not to overdo it! Take an opportunity to teach about how a camera works too!
You should also try to be flexible, when necessary. If your children are tired and on the verge of having a meltdown, slow down. Racing to the next activity just to say you did it isn’t going to make anyone happy. It is usually be better to take a break, allowing for rest, and rethink your plans and priorities.
Why It’s Worth It
Planning a family vacation is not for the faint of heart. It often requires balancing many different desires or needs with a fixed budget. You may also have to negotiate many times in order to make each family member happy.
But the process is so worth it. When you see the fruits of your labor in everyone’s happy smiles you’ll know that you are creating lifelong memories. You are also forging closer relationships with your children. This is especially true for families with young children. With the help of BabyQuip, stress-free travel with infants and toddlers is now a possibility!
Fran Maier is CEO and Founder of BabyQuip, the leading baby gear rental service and marketplace. She is a serial entrepreneur and brand builder with nearly 25 years experience in B2C and B2B internet businesses. She is best known for her 10+ years leading TRUSTe (now TrustArc), the leading privacy trustmark and solutions provider, and as Co-Founder and first General Manager of Match.com.
Fran speaks widely on several topics relating to women in business, including opportunities for women in the collaborative economy, addressing the lucrative family travel segment, women in entrepreneurship and on boards. She serves as an advisor to many start-ups including Ruby Ribbon, Portfolia, Women’s Start-up Lab, Sign-up.com, Kango, and Dabbl.