Step by Step Vacation Planning

Photo Credit: David Smith CC Lic.

The ‘Planning Process” of vacation planning can begin FAR before any reservations and payments are made.  Even though job restrictions may keep you making any financial commitments, don’t wait that long to begin the exploration, fact-finding, bargain shopping part of the process.  Our family vacations were often in May or June and I began thinking and planning in the fall (Oct/Nov).

Confession:  We often begin discussing next year’s vacation as we’re returning home from the current one.  Really!!!   We begin throwing out ideas and discussing possibilities.

Of course, the OTHER reason I like to start this process early is that it spreads the work out over time.  My perspective is that the sooner I get ‘on’ it, the more time I’ll have and the less stressful the planning will be. It Works!!  🙂

Vacation Planning 1-2-3:

  • 7-12 months before the vacation:  Everyone gets in on the brainstorming process of places we’d like to go. We may be discussing 4 or 5 (or 6 or 7) options at this point…  We talk about our ‘time’ and ‘distance’ restrictions.  Details involved in Drive vs. fly?  (time, distance, cost)  How much time does each destination “require’?  For an EXTENSIVE list (along with tips) of some of our favorite destinations- Vacation Destinations –With Children
  • 6-8 months before the vacation:  Through this ‘exploration’ phase, we will narrow down our choices to 2-3 destinations.  Maybe I’ll do some ‘general’ cost-checking to get an idea of costs for these destinations. I need to be certain there aren’t any astronomical costs involved that would be prohibitive. I’m just wanting a rough estimate here so this doesn’t take more than 15-30 minutes.
  • Through this exploration phase,  one destination will begin to stand out. Maybe that will be because we find it more interesting.  Maybe it will be because it fits our budget or time constraints better.  For whatever reason, usually by 4-5 months before the proposed vacation date, we will have settled on ONE vacation destination.  (which is great, since one is all we can go on at a time)  🙂
  • 4-5 months before the vacation: Now it’s time for serious research

    • How much time should we plan for the trip?   A little research of the area will answer this question.  🙂   Are we ‘touring’? (i.e. driving and sightseeing as we go)  If so, how many nights do we stay in each place?  How many miles can we cover in a day and where will our hotel stops be?
    • Comparison shopping:  flights & rental car (if applicable) and hotels;  Kayak  has been my consolidator of choice in the past, though TripAdvisor and Trivago seem to be taking the forefront recently.        
    • Check the Dates: Are we traveling at the best time/best week to get the best deals?  (Sometimes we can be flexible with date; other times we can’t….)  If it’s possible to move our vacation date, would we save anything?   

Only once have we changed the destination this late in the game…but that one time, YES we did.  Decision was based on timing and other logistics…just fyi….

Once the preliminary research is done and decisions are settled, we can request vacation time from work.  This is somewhat of a ‘non-refundable’ request so we like to be VERY sure before making it. Obviously, we won’t make any reservations or pay deposits until AFTER vacation time is approved.   

After vacation requests are approved I can Continue On:

  • 4 months prior to the vacation
    • Airfare: According to Airfarewatchdog, the best time to purchase airfare is 49-54 days out.  What I personally have found is that when purchasing for an Alaskan cruise, 4-5 months out was the best price.  By 2 month pre-trip, the rates had gone WAY HIGH!!!  From that, I deduce that any time from 2-4 months is best…just start price checking as soon as possible so you know what a ‘good price’ is.   I actually track the prices on paper…..for a LONG time….
    • Rental Cars: If we need to rent a car, I make those reservations as soon as airfare is purchased…and maybe even before.  I never use sites that require a credit card to reserve.   This way, I can cancel if the rate goes down (which it usually does….)  I’ve detailed the process I go through to get the REALLY good rates on  Bargains on Rental Cars.      
  • 2-3 months prior to the vacation: 
    •  Itinerary:  If this is a driving/touring vacation, I need to set up an itinerary – where our hotel stops will be and how long we’ll stay at each place….  🙂      . 
    • Hotel reservations:  Finding Frugal Accommodations Part 1Part 2   has suggestions for getting the best rates on accommodations.  I ALWAYS make reservations.  It allows me to check prices and find the best deal.  “Spontaneous” almost always costs more money.

As you make all the reservations, (flights, hotels, tickets et al)  drop the confirmation e-mails into a “vacation” folder in your email program.  Also, add the totals to your vacation budget sheet (You can create a computer spreadsheet for this, but honestly, a sheet of notebook paper works too….and takes a lot less time…).  This will help you to always know ‘where you are’ with costs.  More info on this topic:  How To…Vacation Budget Part 1 and  Part 2  

  • 6-8 weeks prior to the vacation: 
    • Information Gathering:  What do you need to know about the activities, sightseeing, et al. you want to do?   Confirm hours of operation…so you’re not disappointed by arriving on a day it’s closed. Confirm that GPS directions are correct…ugh! Of course, you can always get or print a map.   Search for coupons or ‘offers’  online and either save to your phone/ipad or print them. If you print, put them in an envelope and add the envelope to your list of ”Things to Take”.
    • Meals:  What will you do about meals?  Bring your own food? Eat out?  Vacation Meals on a Budget will give you suggestions of easy-to-prepare meals if you decide to provide some or all of your own meals.
    • Budget:  Pull together all the budget numbers: hotels, airfare, rental car, admission/tickets, food/meals, fuel, PARKING! etc… as you make plans. Don’t forget to budget some money for purchases – souvenirs, ice cream 🙂  etc…
  • Photo Credit: Matt McGee on Flickr CC Lic.

    4 weeks prior to the vacation: 

    • Gather coupons:  Do you need grocery coupons?  Fast food venue coupons? Online coupons for the theme park or museum?  Collect these and put in an envelope or save to your phone/device.  Make sure your coupon envelop is on your “Items to Take” list.  
    • Shop for sales on snack items you want to take.  We like microwave popcorn (which NEVER goes on sale, ugh!)   😦
    • Make Lists:  Miscellaneous items are the ones most easily forgotten…that’s the reason we need lists.  
    • If flying, how will you get to the airport?  Do you need parking arrangements for your car? Reserving that spot in advance may get you a discount (it does at our airport…)  or is there a coupon for the airport parking?
    • If travel will take you to areas where you may not have cell phone service (cruise, Alaska, National parks etc..) call your cell phone carrier to find out coverage areas, roaming charges, et al.
  • 2 weeks prior to the vacation: 
    • Make arrangements for your home, pets, newspaper, mail.  Notify a trusted neighbor that you will be gone. Begin creating an itinerary with hotel locations/phone numbers for family member(s) or neighbor/close friend(s).  SOMEONE will need a way to contact you (IN ADDITION TO your cell phone)  if your phone is out of service area or you are otherwise ‘out of contact’.
    • If driving, take care of any car maintenance that is due.  New spark plugs can improve gas mileage.
  • 1 week prior to the vacation: 
    • Finalize and send your travel itinerary to the people you’ve chosen as your ‘contacts’.  I find this important because we have traveled in areas of Yellowstone or Yosemite…or on cruises etc.. where our cell phones did not have service.  Family needs a way to contact us OTHER than our cell phones.  Make sure you can be contacted through landlines – typically at your hotel if traveling to these types of areas.  🙂 
    • Make a final contact/confirmation with those who are taking care of your home or pets. Confirm with the Kennel? 
    • This last week is reserved for laundry and packing (and making peanut butter cookies  🙂  )  
  • Go on Your Vacation and Have Fun!!!

I plan to write a post about that final week – ‘Crunch Week’ as we refer to it.  Planning that week carefully and tightly makes things a LOT more pleasant.  haha!


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