Monday, November 10, 2014

How I Plan Trips: Initial Steps

I recently asked on the Arrows Sent Forth facebook page if any readers were interested in hearing more about how I organize our travels and plan our trips. I (happily) answer lots of questions from family members and friends about this, but haven't written much about it.

Some of you experienced travelers may read this series of posts and roll your eyes. What I do is pretty basic stuff. And certainly, there may be better ways. This is simply what works for me and my family. For those of you just starting out in family travel, I hope this is a helpful starting point.

Step 1: Choose a Location

Sometimes this is the hardest part! Prior to moving abroad, we often based trips around things we had going on. Maybe we tagged along on my husband's business trip. Or road tripped it for a wedding. Other times we were craving sun and warmth, and just looked up where the cheapest direct flight to Florida was.

One of our favorite family trips was to Iowa for a big family wedding! (Look at that cute ring bearer!)
Since moving to Europe, we've found that our bucket list is far larger than our vacation time or budget will allow. So we've had to be strategic. Occasionally I'll get writing opportunities that are too good to pass up, and we'll plan a trip around it. Or there's a place that family members want to go to as well, so we'll hit that when they're over visiting.

But our general rule of thumb since moving to England has been to identify places that we can travel to via a direct flight. (Or a 5-6 hour drive.) We live within a 90 minute drive of three decent airports, so the options are plentiful. We also try to factor in weather. Are there areas that are more pleasant in the summer months vs. winter months? Or vice versa?

Do you need travel inspiration? Feel stuck in a rut? Here's how I've found some of my very favorite travel destinations:
  • Poll your FB friends. I think this is more effective if you offer some parameters, like "where should we head with our 6-month old baby in November for a few nights within a 4-hour drive?" I'm constantly trolling the comments when friends do this, even though it's not my post, because if someone is motivated enough to respond, they probably had a wonderful experience somewhere... and I want to know about it!  The best part of this approach is that if you pick one of these suggestions, you already know someone to ask questions of once you start planning further.
  • Websites like Skyscanner make it possible to "browse" flight prices. So if you know you have a tight budget, you could type in your home airport, your dates, and see what pops up!
  • Read travel blogs. Like yours truly. It might be particularly helpful to read those with kids who are a similar age to yours or who have similar interests (camping, skiing, etc.). If you need suggestions, leave me a comment, I might know some!
  • Look at a map. What's within a {insert your drive time limitation here} hour drive of your house? Then google that place and "tourism bureau" and you're likely to find their local tourism office. A quick glance through the site will probably indicate if it's a place you'd enjoy. I planned a lot of our travels around Indiana this way.
Step 2: Price EVERYTHING Out Before Booking ANYTHING

Before booking anything, I get quotes on all the major components of the trip. Flights. Lodging (including the hotel vs. self-catering debate). Car Rental. Any train tickets or other travel we'll do in the middle of the trip. The times that I haven't done this, I've often been burned. I don't decide which hotel to stay in or whether to splurge on a mid-size rental car at this stage. But it gives me a sense of how much things will cost on the exact dates we are considering, which is helpful. Using big travel sites like Expedia, Skyscanner, and Priceline make doing most of this research possible in just a couple of hours.

You'll find that so many things can vary depending on region and season. For instance, it can be really hard to book a self catering place for less than 7 nights during peak travel months. Or some places charge quite a bit to pick up a rental car in one country and drop it off in another. You want to know these things and adjust your plans accordingly before you book anything.

Fond memories of exploring Ireland in this little (and cheap!) rental car.

Step 3: Lodging Before Flights/Transport

Some people may disagree with me, but I almost always finalize and book our accommodation before I book flights or trains. Let me be clear: I research flight options initially to get a general sense of prices and times (see Step 2), but I find it is far easier to make slight adjustments to lodging than it is to change a flight. Plus, I like the comfort of knowing we've found a place to sleep before I book us on a plane.

Doing things in this order has actually saved us a lot of money too. I specifically remember one trip to Florida where the cost of renting the condo we wanted from Friday-Tuesday was far more than Saturday-Wednesday. It didn't change the flight price or the amount of vacation time my husband needed to take, so we quickly readjusted. And we saved almost $200. Had we already locked into flights, it would have been too late.

Step 3: Other Logistics

I then typically finalize any other big expense, like car rental, ground transport, and airport parking. I like to know those things are done and how much the final cost will be. This is also when I really figure out how we're getting from Point A to Point B. How early is our flight? Do we need a hotel room by the airport the night before? What's happening when we land at our destination? Basically, I try to visualize how everyone is getting from their bed at home to their vacation bed. (And knowing how many forms of transit we're taking determines things like suitcases, strollers, etc.)

If I've done a good job during Step 2, then hopefully there aren't any unpleasant surprises during this phase and I'm basically just retracing some of those steps, this time with credit card in hand.

Step 4: Keep Track of the Details

As I book things, I log everything into the TripIt app. I'm not a huge app or tech person, but I like knowing everything is there and accessible on my phone. This is also a good backup in case I forget to print something out, delete an email, or misplace a confirmation number. Plus, you can share the info with anyone else who's traveling with you who has this app. Very helpful for multi-generation or multi-family trips.

In addition, I usually keep a manila file folder of any paper materials I've saved for the trip. I'll print out directions to our hotel or apartment. Flight details. Train tickets. Proof of our parking at the airport. I often print out a walking map of the city we're visiting ahead of time in case we don't come across a tourist office right away.

Step 5: The Fun Part

To me, the thrill of travel planning is not in these tedious logistics (other than booking self-catering accommodation... I'm not too proud to admit that I completely geek out over that). I try to plow through these details as quickly and efficiently as I can. What I really enjoy is thinking about how we'll fill our time once we're there. What should we see, where should we eat, what to avoid.

And just when things are getting good... you'll have to wait for my next How I Plan Trips post. I'll cover how I organize Step 5! (I know, I'm like that dreaded commercial at the end of your favorite television show.)

This post is a part of Travel Tips Tuesday at Suitcases and Sippy Cups and Walking on Travels.

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