Tips for Your Trips: Planning a Vacation to Enjoy Rather than Endure
by Virginia Knowles
Do you get totally frazzled even thinking of taking a trip? Does your brain buzz and boil with all of the details you need to plan? That word PLAN is the key since it makes trips much smoother and hassle-free.
Like many families, we are planning a road trip this summer with several of our children. We’re heading up to Maryland to see my family, and tucking in several educational field trips in the Virginia, D.C. and Pennsylvania area. Though we aren’t leaving for several more weeks, I’m already well into the planning and preparation. I don’t like to leave everything for last minute!
Here are some of the things I work on before a vacation…
- Where do you want to go? Whom do you want to visit? Take into account the desires and age levels of each member of your traveling party. One person might want to relax, while another wants to pack adventure into every possible moment.
- There may even be a time to split up if an activity is not suitable for everyone. For example, one parent could plan a relaxing afternoon at the hotel pool or at Grandma’s house with the younger children while the other parent goes river rafting with the older ones. This can keep your teens from feeling held back to the activity level of your toddlers who need more rest.
- Feel free to brainstorm, with the understanding that you might not get to do everything.
- I try to leave some rest time scheduled in each day, and if there is a big activity one day, plan for a “down day” or at least a light activity day the next.
- I also try to alternate activities to give us a good variety. We plan to visit Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Charlottesville, Virginia), the Shenandoah National Forest, the National Zoo, Philadelphia (Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, etc.), Valley Forge (where the patriot army wintered during the Revolutionary War), and Amish country to see a farm. Along the way, we will enjoy visiting with our relatives from both sides of the family. (They are all extremely hospitable to let 10 of us stay with them, too!) We visited many of these locations 10 years ago with our older children, so this will be especially good for our younger ones. You can read a little about our 2000 trip, with thoughts on their historical significance, here: A Tour Through Liberty
- The Internet is a huge help in planning an agenda. If you know what main city you plan to stay in, you can look up what attractions are in that area. Or if you already know what attraction you want to visit, you can study the web site to find out hours, costs, etc. I try to save all of the information for each place on a page in a Word document I create for our vacation plans. For example, you can enter Independence Hall on a walk-in basis, but you may have to wait a while in line. However, for $1.50 per person, you can reserve times on the Internet.
- Let your children research ahead of time about the places you plan to visit. This will help them understand more while you are there.
- If you are bringing a young child in a stroller, check to be sure you can bring it in to the buildings. If not, consider bringing a baby or toddler backpack to carry your child. If a historical building has stairs but no elevator, you can be pretty sure you won’t be able to use a stroller in it.
- After you have agreed on what places you want to visit, take out your calendar and figure out when you will go to each place and where you will stay each night.
- I created a Word table with the columns Day#, Date, Activity Description, Activity Costs, Lodging, Mileage, and Driving Hours.
- MapQuest.com is a big help. You can type in the addresses of each destination, and have it tell you exactly how to get from one place to another, how many miles, and how much driving times. (We always budget extra driving time for stops, especially since we have a large family with young children.) You can save your itinerary on-line and come back to it later. To make it a little less confusing, I split our trip into two sections for MapQuest.
- Using your tentative itinerary, you can contact the people you plan to visit to make sure it is a good time for them, too. (For example, we have planned a rest day at my parents’ house for Sunday, when my dad is home.) You can also make hotel or airline reservations. If things just don’t look like they are working out, make adjustments as needed.
Prepare a spreadsheet or at least a penciled list of expenses you expect, including:
- Gas — MapQuest will estimate this for you based on mileage
- Oil and other car supplies
- Tolls — should be able to find the amounts on the Internet
- Air, train, bus and/or taxi fare
- Lodging — if you have a large family, you might need two rooms or a suite
- Groceries — packing your own breakfast and lunch in a cooler saves money, plus you may want to pitch in on groceries if you eating several meals at the home of a friend or relative
- Restaurants — including tips (hint: many hotels offer a free breakfast)
- Admission Tickets — find amounts out on the web site, and calculate based on number of adults and children
- Souvenirs — may give each child a certain vacation allowance, or have them earn their own money ahead of time
- Pay for someone who is performing services (pet sitting, etc.) for you while you are gone.
- Items you need to buy to bring along with you
- Miscellaneous expenses
If expenses are adding up too fast, think of where you can trim the budget.
- I keep a master packing list on the computer with the items that we usually take on any trip. Then I save it under a different name for each trip to adjust it for the specific needs. This helps me make a shopping list of things I need to buy before we go.
- Zip lock bags are your friend! Store groups of small items in quart or gallon size bags to keep them together in your suitcase, or to keep toiletries from leaking all over everything.
- The kids pack their own suitcases, using the lists I have printed out for them. However, I check the suitcases before we go to make sure that the clothes are clean, in good repair, in matching outfits, and suitable for the situation. (One time, one of the kids forget to pack underwear and we had to buy some along the way. I learned my lesson!)
- I also keep an “emergency bag” with a change of clothes for each of the younger children in case they mess up what they are wearing with a spill or a potty accident. (We don’t have many of those anymore!)
- Some of our younger children share suitcases. If we are staying in a hotel or a relative’s house along the way, I try to pack one suitcase with toiletries, pajamas, and one daytime outfit each for several people, so not everyone has to lug all of their stuff in. There have been times that I’ve packed a complete outfit for a child in a gallon-sized zip lock plastic bag — shirt, shorts, underwear, socks, etc. This makes it easy to “grab and go” in the morning when we’re trying to get back on the road.
- Each of my kids packs a car bag or bin with books, small toys, and basic art supplies for drawing. The dollar store is a great place to find fresh items to amuse them — as long as they don’t smuggle in a can of silly string! One year I bought a whole bunch of $5 portable cassette players for the kids, along with a box of story and music tapes. Now some of them have MP3 players, which is a lot easier. They also bring a small pillow for resting in the car. When they aren’t using them, they can stash their stuff under the seat. This is when it helps if they use a back pack with zippers or a plastic bin with a lid instead of an open tote bag.
- Since we are taking historical field trips and counting some of our vacation days as home school days, I am bringing a notebook for each child so they can write and draw pictures about the day’s adventures. They can store informational brochures about historical sites we visit. They like to keep lists of the states they spot on license plates, too. I may also photocopy simple maps of our vacation route so they can follow along as we go.
- I pack a medium sized plastic bin with things I want handy up in the front of the van, such as a first aid kit, prescription medicines, flashlight, my own notebook, the camera & extra batteries, baby wipes, a hair brush, sun screen or bug repellent, sun glasses, cell phone charger, permanent marker, blunt scissors, pencils and pens, trash bags for the van, etc.
- An ice chest and/or food box in the back of the van holds what we need for our picnic lunch. It’s the last thing put in the van so we can get it out easily. We always try to remember paper plates, disposable cups, and plenty of napkins. (We might put a Frisbee in it too, if we’re stopping at a rest area.)
- We also stash a food box up front so I can pass out tidy snacks, juice boxes or water bottles, and napkins. You can pack homemade goodies into individual zip bags for each child if you don’t want to buy prepackaged snacks. I even let the kids pack their own custom designed trail mix ahead of time. I set out big bowls of peanuts, almonds, raisins, sunflower seeds, lightly sweetened cereal, and M&M’s and other ingredients, and they scoop them into their own bags. This is a fun way to get them involved in trip preparation.
- Sleeping bags, blankets, and other bulky items go in large plastic storage bin with a lid. These bins can be stacked in the back of our van. If you run short on suitcases, you can pack clothes in these plastic bins, too. Or use a laundry basket. (This is especially good for a beach trip, to hold boogie boards, buckets, etc.)
- My husband packs a bin with car maintenance supplies and tools.
Safety & Sanity Considerations
- Be sure your car is in good working order. Check the tires, belts, and other systems before you hit the road.
- Make sure all of your safety belts and car seats are in good working order, and that everyone uses them at all times.
- Talk to your kids about proper behavior in the car, such as staying reasonably quiet, not pestering others, keeping their stuff organized, etc. It is especially important not to distract a driver in heavy traffic, at night, or when they are already stressed out. That’s when accidents are most likely to happen!
- Brainstorm ways to prevent petty conflicts in the car. For example, arrange the seating so kids aren’t fighting about who sits where, and so that siblings who don’t get along well are not sitting near each other. Plan frequent stops so everyone can get out, stretch, and use the restrooms.
- Remind your kids to keep their hands away from car doors (so they won’t get squished when someone slams them) and to keep their hands inside the car instead of waving them out the windows. At every stop, take the time to tidy up the car so people don’t trip over things when they get back in.
- Teach your child a routine for what to do if they get lost. For example, they should ask for help from either an employee in a uniform, or a mom with children. Then role play the situations until you are sure they understand. (We lost Rachel at Valley Forge when she was nine. She had gone to the bathroom, and I assumed she had walked ahead to the Visitor Center with her siblings and cousins. It was quite traumatic for her, but she had the presence of mind to ask a park ranger for help!)
- Buy matching bright-colored t-shirts for your kids so you can spot them easily in a crowd. This also makes for cute photographs.
- Make sure your kids know your cell phone number so they can call you if you get separated. Attach a younger child’s name and your cell number onto the inside of their clothing in case someone needs to locate you.
- Talk about “stranger danger” in a way that equips your children instead of unnecessarily frightening them. We can be friendly and prudent at the same time.
- Remind your younger kids to hold your hand when you are in a crowd or crossing traffic. If necessary, use a harness/strap system for a toddler.
- Assign “buddies” if you have older and younger children. This doesn’t mean you can ignore what is going on — you are still the ultimate supervisor — but it does give an extra layer of care to the little ones if someone extra is looking out for them.
- Check to be sure that each activity is age-appropriate and safe for your family members. You may need to buy or rent appropriate safety equipment, such as a life vest.
- Be especially careful around water! Do your kids know how to swim yet? You might want to schedule some lessons before you go if you know you will be at the beach, pool, or lake.
- Speaking of water, be careful what you drink! If you are concerned about the water quality in a place you are visiting, bring along some bottled water or water purifying tablets.
- Keep a small first aid kit (bandaids and antibacterial wipe packets) in your purse and a more complete kit in the car. You can buy the little kits in any dollar store.
Caring for Stuff Back at Home
- Let a trusted neighbor know where you are going, how long you will be gone, and how to get a hold of you. Make sure they have a house key in case of an emergency. (Our church once arranged for someone to deliver a large bag of Thanksgiving food to our doorstep one year — not knowing we were out of town. Our neighbor spotted it and stored it safely for us until we came home.)
- Have someone check in on your elderly or handicapped relatives.
- Plan for someone to care for your pets, houseplants, and/or landscaping. Many families we know ask a college age friend to come “house sit” for them while they are gone. Ask around to determine what reasonable pay rates are for these services.
- Arrange for your mail to be held or a neighbor to pick it up for you.
- Hide or lock up any valuables.
- Put lights or a radio on a timer to make it appear someone is home.
- If you live in an area prone to hurricanes, make sure you “batten down the hatches” in case a storm hits while you are gone.
Did I forget anything from these lists? If so, let me know, so I won’t miss out on planning them for MY trip!
Watch this video, too: Homeschool Travel Help