It can be the worst, right? And if you're like me, you probably didn't book the hotels a year plus out because um... COVID, four kids at home, working, and did I mention the kids? But now, I have to plan a three week vacation (and set aside days for my husband to work) while still managing said list above.
Thankfully, the kids have been vaccinated, and we booked the flights two months ago. I should name my next book: Passports and Pacifiers —Lessons Learned (But Clearly Didn't).
Although it can be stressful, planning can also be a lot of fun. Truly. Last week at an alumni event for my college, I met a woman whose eyes grew wide when I mentioned the spreadsheet I started for our upcoming trip.
"You must love planning," she stated. I quickly corrected her.
"I wouldn't say I love it..."
"Well, I love planning," she responded. "That's my favorite part."
What do I enjoy? The excitement and the anticipation.
The kids' bedtime stories have turned into, "...and on this island we'll see orcas," and "Yes! You'll get to see Mt. St. Helen's, the volcano you read about in the I Survived series. And no, it won't erupt." (I hope.)
I love finding a good deal and fitting the pieces together so we can eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream on a store brand tub of ice cream budget. (Credit B and her ice cream obsession for that one.) You don't have to spend the bank to make it a memorable and family-fun adventure.
Here are some tips to get you started and how we made it work for this summer:
1. Book the flight first. May may (like that?) be a little late to say, "Early," but there are still deals to be found. If your kids go to school after Labor Day, there may be low prices the last week of August when others are back in school. (Looking at you, Maryland and Michigan friends.) Consider a location that may not have been your number one choice. We found the Azores through an email ad and loved the green, lush islands off the coast of Portugal. If you have credit card points since you haven't travelled in over two years look into those. Or, if you really can't find a decent-priced flight, consider a road trip. This summer, we're using Airline Miles. We snagged 6 flights to the Pacific Northwest for 90,000 miles. (FYI, signing up for the credit card gave me the first 70,000.) I had to be flexible with location — we're flying out of Chicago after dropping the pup with my parents — and date — flying out on a Wednesday and back on a Tuesday — but paying $0 for airfare is incredible.
2. Figure out transport for when you're there. Rental cars are extremely expensive again this summer. If you don't need a car, don't get one! Ubers or trolleys around bucolic islands (one can dream, right?) may be a lot cheaper. We rented our car through a discount site, but in the past have used the corporate discount from my employer. If you take a moment to look into it, you may be shocked by some of the deals you can find booking through your or your spouse's intranet.
3. Plan a tentative itinerary. I like to start with a recommended itinerary from a guidebook or a tour company, then modify it to make it ours. When we traveled to Scotland a few years ago, we copied a popular tour route via our rental car to save loads of money (and the ears of fellow passengers, most likely). Once you have your basic 3 days here, 4 days there, 2 days there arranged (or one week on an amazing resort if you so choose), then the Tetris begins.
4. Book your lodging. National Parks in season can be tricky to secure with little notice. If you have your heart set on a certain place, you probably should have booked a year ago(!), but you're also a parent, so there are other priorities. Just make some magic happen.
It's not the first time you've had magic in your house (see Christmas, a Science Fair project the night before it's due, and Amazon Prime delivery). See if there are any openings and modify your dates accordingly. Or maybe there's a nearby location that can serve as a stand-in. Or camp. (I shudder with that last option.)
For last summer's trip out west, we rearranged a few days when an opening came at the amazing Zion National Park Hotel. We shortened our time in Las Vegas when I secured cabins in Yosemite. We stayed across the street from the majestic Hotel del Coronado to save money. Be flexible but know your must-haves.
5. Fill in the details. Ask the kids what they want to do, book any tours (Groupon is great for deals), and find the rest of the lodging. Or don't. Sometimes it's good to have a place to stay, sometimes you want to drive as far as you can. I try to book refundable when I can because as you can see above, sometimes I'm a bit indecisive.
Yeah, I don't always love the planning. But I do enjoy the anticipation, the excitement, and the stories. Most of all, I love the traveling. With my husband and the kids.