Coming up with a vacation plan can seem insurmountable, as there are so many obstacles: How much will this cost?; How will we get there?; What will we do?; How much time can I get off from work?; Can I convince my family; etc..
I found it best to take these issues on, one by one, lest I get overwhelmed by them all at once. So here’s a step-by-step vacation planning guide to help you get started:
Step 1: What are your budget parameters?
Every year, my wife (keeper of ‘the books’) lets me know what our vacation budget looks like. Some years, we stay within budget by driving everywhere and packing meals. Other years, we’ve been able to find tremendous cruise deals and vacation rentals for very reasonable amounts. As an example, we were able to rent a 2 bedroom beach-front condo in Destin, Florida for $1,800…1/3 the amount of a beach-front rental at the Jersey shore! And sometimes, gas & tolls are a much better deal than 6 round-trip airline tickets! It costs our family about $150 to drive to Orlando, Florida and it takes us approximately 15 hours to do it. And although we’d shave off 10+ hours of travel time each way by flying, it would cost us over $1,000 more! Flexibility is a key factor in keeping your dream vacation within budget.
Check out the Cheap Family Vacations page to help stretch your dollars!
Step 2: RESEARCH!
Our world today is a glut with information and you’ll want to consult multiple sources. Look at websites, blogs, and travel sites and jot down all of the attractions that look like fun for you and your family. Over time, you’ll have to reduce this list to what you can fit in your schedule and budget. I’ve found that some vacations are worth purchasing a book. For example, one of the best travel books out there for Yellowstone is Travel Brain’s Yellowstone Expedition Guide (pictured above). I also found many helpful packing tips in reading All Aboard prior to our train vacation. Some books are worth reading and returning to the library…others are worth carrying with you on the vacation.
Step 3: Convincing your family
Is this something that your family can get excited about? Often times the biggest obstacle can be convincing your own family! A few years ago, I told my wife and 4 boys that I wanted to take Amtrak across the country. To my surprise, they all scoured and wrinkled their noses. I couldn’t believe it?! They must be picturing something a whole lot different than what I envisioned. So I created a “vacation sales pitch”; sat them all down in the family room; and played it. The results were an awesome 2013 family train vacation! My original ‘sales pitch’ is below:
Step 4: Layout your itinerary
Creating a vacation itinerary can be a trial and error effort. For example, on our train vacation there were some legs of the trip where it was very economical to upgrade from coach to a sleeper car, while other days were very expensive. I had to try many variations of our itinerary before I came up with a good vacation plan. I also had to overlay the anticipated costs to make sure that our budget would last the full vacation length. Click on the picture below to open the full pdf of the itinerary with budget from our train vacation (Note: these were the costs from 2013).
Step 5: Refine your vacation plan
You’ll notice that the plan from my sales pitch video to the itinerary changed a bit. And it changed yet again in the months leading up to our trip (See our actual train vacation itinerary). This is because as I read more about each destination, I would revise our plan to make sure that we hit all of the Must See attractions. Don’t worry about changing your original plan to improve it – plans were meant to change!
As mentioned above, I check out travel websites, TripAdvisor, and scour the search engines until I get a comfort level with what we’re planning to see and do. I love spontaneity and flexibility, but I also know that it would be foolish to go into a new area blindly without planning to see the main attractions. Try to build your vacation plan with downtime to explore while also making reservations for the key attractions.
There have been times when our vacation plans have taken over a year to plan and save for. And that’s been fine with me. So what if it takes 2 years to save for the vacation of a lifetime…far better than settling for the alternatives. So go ahead…get started! Write down you dream vacation idea and your momentum will build from there.