I’m in the middle of planning my Summer trips and thinking about all of the different details that it takes to pin down each location and ensure that I’ve smoothed out all the potential bumps in my travel road. As always, I divide my planning into three distinct stages: plane tickets, lodging and transport, and lastly, sight seeing needs. I do this for two reasons. First, it allows me to extend my budget over a couple of months and second, it gives me a chance to research and know that I’m doing exactly what I set out to experience. So, what have I learned over years of planning? Here are a few well worn travel tips!
As I piece my travel puzzle together, it certainly brings to mind the ebb and flow that’s needed to make any trip a success. How do I choose the most convenient and economical hotels? What if my kids have jetlag? What if I choose sights that are boring to some of my travel partners? It can drive any trip planner a little nutty! Whether you are traveling with kids or friends, a little sage advice can make or break your trip. So, let’s break down each of these steps and ease the pressure with a few well worn tips!
Stage One: Planning plane travel
By far, your biggest single expense you will deal with on any trip are your tickets to get you to your destination! How do you choose wisely? Well, there’s more to consider than just price.
1. Choose a family friendly hub.
Most airlines like to route travelers from smaller airports to designated hubs that allows for easy transfer to international flights. When deciding which tickets to purchase, take into consideration that hub and whether or not it’s convenient for your whole group to meet at or simply pass through. For example, Atlanta has a lot to keep kids entertained while you wait for your flight while Newark- not so much! Palm Beach has a little putting course and playground after the TSA check while Miami has a row of bars. Choose accordingly! In addition to your wait time, you may have others, like grandma and grandpa, joining you on your trip to, say, Europe. Consider having them meet you at you hub so you can all fly to your final destination together. This gives you more adult hands on the longest leg of your trip.
2. Share your trip wisely.
Whether I’m traveling on my own or with a group, I use the TripIt app to keep my itenerary straight. This app imports your email details into an easy to use timeline that helps you ensure that all of your reservations are taken care of and not overlapping. This includes flights, lodging, sites and transportation. Once you have a trip started, you can share it with all of the travelers in your group and interested parties who need to know where you are. Everyone in your group can keep up with the planning progress and share in the excitement. This works particularly well with small groups like moms and daughters.
3. Plan your luggage needs.
When buying your tickets, check into the luggage policies. Will the amount of bags you are taking be covered? What are the stroller and car seat policies? Can you choose your seats ahead of times? What are the carry-on requirements? Packing for a trip is dicey. You want to take everything you will need but you don’t want to lug it all around. Research the best advice out there and keep it to a minimum. For example, your airbandb may be able to provide you with a pack and play and a stroller and your hotel may be right next to a pharmacy. Checking for good laundry options will also help you pair down your packing. All in all, pre-pay for what you need so you don’t have to deal with it at the counter.
4. Choose an alternative airport.
You are headed to London and the tickets are expensive. However, there’s a $500.00 difference from home to Paris. Okay, get to Paris and take the train straight into Victoria Station. You just saved about $1000.00! Consider other airport alternatives: Shannon and Dublin, Warsaw and Krakow, Glasgow and Edinburgh, the list goes on. You may find that you have the opportunity for an adventure you never even considered.
5. Download the state department’s Mobile Pass app.
Skip the global entry fees and use this quick kiosk to get through customs and immigration just as fast. I once raced my Global Entry carrying mom through immigration and we tied. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. This is also a good time to check on customs policies for your destination. For example, travelers go through customs before boarding flights in Dublin. Know what to expect.
Finding a place to rest your head
The next biggest chunk of money you will spend is on lodging and ground transportation. I use the word lodging because there are quite a few options out there.
1. Shop around.
There are more than just hotels available for your stay. Bed and Breakfasts, airbandb’ s, pensions, boutique hotels, and major chains await your stay. Look around and have a firm hold on all of your choices before you commit. Look them up on websites and apps, hunt them down in guidebooks and blogs and see exactly where they are located on google maps. Are your choices in good neighborhoods and close to what you want to do and see? Do they have rooms and amenities that fit your needs and budget? One last tip on this: the best smaller places go fast and you’ll need to book these early (especially the best airbandb’ s).
2. Location, Location, Location.
Take a moment and think about your trip. Is it a one city stay or are you planning to town hop? If you are planning to explore just one area, it may be more reasonable to rent a place with a kitchen, close to a train, as a launching pad for all of your adventures. Conversely, if you plan on town hopping, perhaps a mix of city centers and sleepy hamlets will be a better choice.
Personally, I am always looking for lodging that allows me to be car free. I like to be able to stay right in the city center and walk. Think about your fellow travelers. What’s the best mix for you? One last note, sometimes we like to travel sans kids and if you are looking for a hotel that has fewer kids (I’m a teacher and like to travel kid free every now and then) check out the business hotel options. They usually have less family friendly amenities and a quieter feel.
3. To rent a car or not to rent a car?
That is definitely an important question. Let me keep this simple, if you are staying in a city center and you don’t plan to leave it, skip the rental. If you are town hopping with more than two people or any sort of car seat, get a car. If you plan on going to the British Isles, the Black Forest, Northern Italy or Normandy, rent the car. Public transport in most of Europe is spot on and used more commonly than in the States. However, if you have a large group, it can be less economical. Keep this last thought in mind: standards are cheaper to rent than automatics. Practice before you go!
4. Book as directly as possible.
We are all fans of sites like TripAdvisor and Expedia but before you click the “check out” button, google the hotel and check their rates directly. If the website isn’t in English, just look around the screen for a flag, and click on it for language options, easy peasy. If the rate is the same or better, put the money directly into your service provider’s hands- no middle man needs to hold on to your private information without a reason! You can also simply click on your hotel of choice on google maps to access their site. If you can’t find the website, think twice! This may be an excellent time to use a booking service and buy the insurance for a small add-on fee.
5. Breakfast plans, anyone?
There are a few things you need while you travel and one of the most important is breakfast! You won’t enjoy your jam packed day if you don’t have any fuel. I consider two main choices. Some lodgings include your morning meal and others don’t. If it’s included at no extra charge, great! If not, check into how much you are being charged. You may find out that the price of one in house meal can cover your whole group at a local place that offers more local flavors. Consider finding a local bakery or deli to get your morning started.
Stage Three: Planning Activities
It’s the reason you have done all this planning. The reason you are willing to endure an uncomfortable airline seat for 7 plus hours. The fun stuff! There are so many choices to enjoy and it’s hard to know where to even start.
Know what you want to do and how you should go about doing it. As you put together your list of must do’s, take into account not only the time to do something but also the time to get there. Additionally, help kids out by not making everything a surprise. If you are going to Paris, let them read about the Eiffel Tower. If you are off to Japan, cherry blossom information is a must. The more kids know, the more they will enjoy the experience. This includes food! Allow kids to get used to the menu of your destination so that they are looking forward to all the local eats.
It doesn’t matter how you journal just do it. You can simply post to Facebook or get a new fancy leather book. Somehow, someway, journal. Seriously. I have never met a traveler who has looked back at a trip and said, “gee, I wish I hadn’t spent all that time writing or posting about all the cool things I did”. If anyone on your trip needs to journal, it the kids. Let them learn about where they are going and let them collect all the pamphlets and pictures they can. Let them become the trip expert. Put a small pair of kid scissors and tape in your bag so that they can cut a tape things into their journal along the way.
3. Find a playground.
That means you too, adult. Find a few places along the way to take a break. Rent some bikes (very easily done in most cities) and ride along the river for an hour. Go to an iconic park and take in the gardens. Take the kids to a neighborhood playground and let them make friends. (Language is no barrier for kids.)
4. Book some downtime.
Let’s face it, we all get tired out on our travels. It first starts with that nasty jet lag we have to shake and then it hits us again about 6 or 7 days in when we have traipsed all around taking in as much as we can. It’s at this point, in mid vacation, that I schedule something different. If I’m in Athens, a day Hydra or a day to just enjoy a stroll, to sleep in a bit, or simply enjoy all of the hotel’s amenities that we are paying for! Double or triple that downtime when traveling with kids.
5. Be your trip’ s editor.
Face it. There is never enough time in any trip to see everything on your list. You have some tough decisions to make. Be prudent on what you include on your itenerary. Include a few bucket list icons, some experiences, some out of the way spots. Consider your much needed downtime and chances to eat at different locations.
Over plan to your heart’s content and then acknowledge that you will not get to do everything on your list. It just won’t happen and that’s just fine. It only means that you have a good reason to go back! One last tip: pre-book tickets and reservations for high volume sights so that you can skip the ticket lines and ensure that you have a guaranteed entry. I once walked right past 300 people standing in line in Giverny and used my tickets to breeze through a back gate.