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In the past couple of weeks, we shared how to choose your next destination and saving money with accommodations and transportation methods. As part of planning for your next family vacation, we now discuss itinerary planning.
“You have to be incredibly organized when planning your itinerary,” explains Kris of Gadsventure, “especially when you are on a short trip, and when you have a bunch of kids of different ages!”
This statement couldn’t even ring truer. For this week in the Planning Your Next Vacation Series, our panel of family travel experts discusses tips, ideas and inspiration to help you decide what to put in your trip itinerary.
Making a List
Nikki, who writes a family travel blog over at Yorkshire Wonders, shares her tips on choosing activities for her family. “If you are looking to make the most out of sightseeing then what we do is make a list of all the things we want to do at a particular destination. Then we each vote on our favorites until we have a shortlist. Then we either do all the things, if times allows, or we choose the top three or five attractions that got the most family votes and do them. If you are visiting a city like London, also take into consideration how close attractions are to each other and plan your route ahead of time.”
“Just pick your top 3, 4, or 5 absolute must see sightseeing locations and let the rest fall into place,” recommends Tiffany of Mommy and Me Travels. “You will not believe everything there is to discover when actually at your destination. Remember you are on a family vacation, and ensuring it is enjoyable for everyone will help to build the true memories that you and your kids will remember.”
“Everyone gets to pick 1 thing we absolutely have to do. That way everyone gets a say in how the vacation goes,” says Melissa, lead writer for Disabled Disney, who also looks at accessibility for her wheelchair.
Keep in Mind the Interests of the Group
Kris of Gadsventure shares an example from their recent trip to Tokyo, Japan for 5 nights, with 4 kids. “Tokyo is such an incredible place to visit, but there is just sooooo much to see and do!”
“We had to consider the weather, it was freezing cold. We were really there for snowboarding in the alps which made Tokyo around 5ºC during the day.” Kris recounts their trip to Japan with the kids.
“Our boys are into anime and computer games and our daughter loves animals. The baby was easygoing luckily,” citing that different interests of the members of the family also comes to play.
“So, we made a list, and we prioritized. Unfortunately, Tokyo Disney was not an option for us thanks to the cold weather. We didn’t fancy queueing for ages in a light Siberian breeze. But we made sure that every person had something that really appealed to them. Miss 5 got to go to a Hedgehog Cafe, Mr 7 loved the robots at the Miraikan Museum and the giant Gundam Statue, while Mr 9 especially loved all the gadgets at Akihabara Electric Town. Then, there was Karaoke Kan, Segaworld VR, a Maid Cafe, Kiddyland Toystore, Takeshita Street, and so much more!”
Deborah of World Wise Kid tries to do background research with her family before getting to their destination to know about the history, culture, wildlife, language and people. “A story helps the kids connect to sights. Maps are fantastic visuals.”
Shannon of Grab My Passport shares her usual go-to sites to learn about their destination.
- TripAdvisor: We usually start by seeing what TripAdvisor has to say. We’ll read through user comments for additional tips and “can’t miss” ideas.
- Family Travel Blogs: Obviously! We’ll do a good old fashioned Google search for “things to do in [+ city].” We’ll comb through family travel blogs for the best family-focused activities and tips, as well as “travel hacks” for traveling with younger kiddos.
- Discount Deal Sites: We’re always checking sites like Groupon or Living Social for deals in the local area. You can find everything on these sites, from discounted shows, activities, restaurants, hotels, and more!
Adding Variety to the Mix
Shannan of Captivating Compass uses this formula when planning her family’s itinerary: E=MC2.
“Excitement = Museums X Coffee 2 – That was our travel formula before we had teenagers,” Shannan clarifies. “It was perfect for our little crew. It’s my number one sightseeing and activity planning tip. We’d take in a museum in the morning when we were fresh, stop for a spot of lunch near somewhere that had a place to let the kids get rid of some energy while the parents grabbed a coffee (double shot, of course). Then, it was onto the next exciting activity. We found that our kids regularly needed time to just play – at a park, in the water, along a hiking path or out in a grassy field.”
Shannan suggests museums as a fantastic place for families. “Art, history, and science are all incredibly inspiring but don’t forget to sprinkle in a bit of free play to let their little brains organize and process all that information.”
The formula also works when traveling with older kids according to Shannan. “Now that we have teenagers, we still follow this sightseeing and activity formula. It’s worked for so many years, it’s now a comforting routine for all of us.”
Have Time for Breaks
Tiffany of Mommy and Me Travels reminds everyone to breathe and relax. “You are not going to get to see and do everything in a new country or city if you are on a 1, or even 2, week vacation with kids. This does not mean that you can’t make the most of your trip and still get the cultural or relaxing vacation of your dreams. Traveling with young children just means that you have to be creative in your strategy for sightseeing.”
Fear of Missing Out or FOMO is real. It’s a common mistake to condense everything into how long the trip is. You’re already there, might as well do it, right?
“Another thing that we do is take a “day off” day where nothing is planned so we can rest,” adds Melissa of Disabled Disney. “If you don’t get to everything you want to do, just go back!”
Try to not be tempted to overachieve. Enjoy and relax. Don’t drive yourself nuts as I did when we went to Walt Disney World for the first time. Have time for rest and cool spots. Otherwise, it would just feel like you are running appointment after appointment between every hot spot.
Doing nothing should be in your itinerary. Take this time to rehydrate, rest your aching feet from walking, or talk to your family and reflect on what you just saw and experience.
Sticking to the Plan (or maybe not)
“Be flexible,” Tiffany of Mommy And Me Travels suggests making room for spontaneity. “Traveling with a baby/toddler means a lot of unplanned activities and stops. It’s nice to sit and enjoy the scenery, smell the roses, or chase a bird. Welcome these breaks instead of worrying about staying on a schedule.”
“Most important is balancing the kids’ and adults’ needs. Check in with everyone and learn how to compromise,” according to Deborah of World Wise Kid. “Don’t be too attached to an idea of what the experience should be. You might not have time to see it all but you have an introduction to the place and can plan to return someday!”
Sometimes, things might not come out as planned. Regina of Full Time Field Trip recommends preparing for these unplanned moments. “Be prepared in case you’re out longer than you plan. For us, this means snacks and refillable water bottles. It might be extra diapers or cash for the next family. When you’re in the moment or the commute takes twice as long as planned, be prepared.”
Stay Active, Explore the Outdoors
“Activities and sightseeing on a family vacation are very important to us. We choose our destination based on these things,” according to Annette, a wife and mother to 5 kids. She writes the blog, Tips From A Typical Mom, where she shares family friendly recipes, parenting tips, and product reviews. “We love to be outdoors, so, we look for a place with a lot of hiking, camping, swimming or historical sites to see.” Annette starts by finding the website for the destination they are going to and see what the locals recommend. “We plan our itinerary around these activities starting with the most active activity since the kids have been sitting in a car or airplane for so long.”
Unique Transportation Methods
Sarah of Dandelion Seeds shares an interesting idea for sightseeing: incorporate some memorable, fun, and unusual-for-you modes of transportation into your sightseeing activities. “Preview the area you’re visiting online, including mapping distances, then decide who in your family can walk, light rail, bike, or tuk-tuk to whatever sights you’re prioritizing.” Sarah says. “If your kiddos are little, they might get a thrill from an open-air bus tour, and you’ll see places where you want to return and spend more time. The internet is great, but there’s just no way to replace getting the lay of the land with your own eyes.”
“One of my favorite vacation activities of all time was a horseback ride through the rainforest of Costa Rica, surrounded by howler monkeys, before swimming in a waterfall-fed pond.” Sarah reminds family travelers, “Getting there was (more than) half the fun. Make the journey part of your sightseeing adventure!”
True enough, here is our family enjoying our trolley ride when we went to West Baden Springs in French Lick, IN.
Look into City Tour Packages
“I normally Google the location to see what is interesting around the destination and also look for tours,” according to Melissa of Disabled Disney.
Tour packages are pre-chosen set of activities that often save you time when planning your vacation. Most often times, they are available in a discounted rate.
Annette of Tips From A Typical Mom gives another tip that could save you money and time when looking for possible attractions to visit. “We look for deals online from websites like Groupon. There is even sometimes a “City Pass” type of card that you can purchase for each family member that gets you into the most popular places.”
We were able to enjoy Chicago’s top attractions during a weekend in the city by using a Chicago CityPass booklet which included VIP passes to the attractions. Another option for a city tour package is through GoCard.
“Take your time and I’m sure you can find some great deals to maximize your time spent there,” advises Annette.
Doing Tours Yourself
Deborah of World Wise Kid shares another tip in creating memories. “Allow yourself the opportunity to ease into a place, walking around or sitting at a cafe to observe the surroundings and environment, soaking in the sounds, smells, and energy of a place. We find that discovering sights and wildlife on our own is so much more memorable than taking an expensive tour and having someone else show us and tell us about a new place.” Deborah has often find that tours go too fast and don’t allow time to just wander.
Some Fun Yet Inexpensive Ideas
“Well, being that we are very budget conscious, we try to participate in family-friendly, inexpensive activities that we all will enjoy,” shares Sarah of State By State. “This often includes hiking and playgrounds, but can also be visiting museums and historical sites too.” Sarah, who is a RV traveling wife and mother of three, states that having an ASTC membership has saved them tons of money. Allowing their family to visit some incredible museums across the country, for free. “If you don’t have one of these ASTC memberships but you enjoy visiting museums when you travel, I highly recommend getting one,” she adds.
“Sometimes, the kids are happy just to walk around town. Other times, they may need a little more entertainment. We are always on the lookout for a great value. For me, this translates to: Are we getting a good amount of entertainment, education, or fun, for the price? By waiting until October to visit San Diego, for instance, we were able to save a ton of money because kids go free the whole month. So, instead of just being able to buy tickets to Legoland, we were able to visit several attractions.”
More Practical Tips When Sightseeing with Kids
Regina of Full-Time Field Trip adds more quick tips to consider when planning for your itinerary:
- Balance must-see spots that require a ticket purchase with free things to do.
- Be prepared in case you’re out longer than you plan. For us, this means snacks and refillable water bottles. It might be extra diapers or cash for the next family. When you’re in the moment or the commute takes twice as long as planned, be prepared.
- Download the app Field Trip and find things to do everywhere.
- Break up into two groups. One parent with the older kids, the other with the younger kids. Or some other way to divide that suits your family. This works great at theme parks.
- Workaround the busy times. Don’t plan to use public transportation during rush hour. Do take advantage of evening or extended hours for sights. Don’t visit at the busiest time of the year. Do go to things early at the opening time when you’re more apt to see the things most important to you. Always look for crowd calendar type apps and sites to stay informed.