Planning a Family Vacation Abroad

This vacation had been a long standing statement in our home.  We constantly referred to “Dream Trip 2016” (which thanks to unforseen circumstances happened a year early). It was a goal that we constantly put into words, a reinforced family vision statement.  For a while we weren’t even sure where it would take us, but we had a goal. Our interest was piqued by ideas like snorkeling the reefs of Austrailia or hiking lush valleys to Machu Picchu, and we even discussed an African Safari…ironically, the day after we discussed the magic of sleeping among elephants and lions, I made the mistake of watching Disney’s “Tarzan” with my youngest….thus followed the immediate demise of ‘Operation Safari’. (For now).

There is no “right time” to go…..So just go….

“Travel while you are young and able.  Don’t worry about the money, just make it work.  Experience is far more valuable than money ever will be.” – Unknown

We tend to believe that tomorrow is a guarantee, don’t we?  People avoid taking trips for so many reasons, finances, busy schedules, or simple fear of the unknown. It’s also common to hold off “until the kids are old enough to appreciate it“.  I’ll never forget the look of sheer boredom on the faces of high school kids as the tour guide led their zombie like bodies thru the Vatican…The Vatican…they could not be more unimpressed.  My girls stood in silence under the Sistine Chapel and basked under the sun in the Collosseum.  Ask them what historical piece they remember?  It would be Michaelangelo’s ‘David’….because he was a gigantic naked man.  It’s the way kids work.  They will create incredible memories of their own, and it will be about favorite gelato flavors, that awesome sidewalk artist, the kids they met, or the bike ride thru the train tunnel, so lower your expectations on that one to a level of real.  It’s their vacation too, let them explore and discover their way.  The girls may not remember La Pieta inside St Peters Basilica, but they will remember doing cartwheels in front of it.  And so will I.

Cartwheels in front of St Peters Basilica
Cartwheels in front of St Peters Basilica

A family vacation should involve every member’s voice…

When planning a family trip, it’s important that everyone feels like their opinion matters, so involve your kids in the decision and allow them to voice goals and dreams, too. When we officially started planning we asked our kids where their dreams took them. What types of things did they want to see?  What would fill their buckets? Brooke craved the magic of Disney and all things Princess, and Sydney dreamed of standing under the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  As for Sam and I?  I had left my heart in Rome, probably near a wine rack or across from some tiramisu, and Sam was game to head back to Italy as well.  Well, Paris has an Eiffel tower AND a Disneyland, and Italy is practically next door. This was beginning to sound like a workable family dream trip.  Perfect, let’s make it come to life.

Princess Anna waves to Brookes
Princess Anna waves to Brooke…Check
Sydney on the first level of the Eiffel Tower
Sydney on the first level of the Eiffel Tower….Check
Back in Rome with Sam...Check and Check
Back in Rome with Sam…Check and Check

Time and Budget….

These are two of the most important factors in family travel planning.  Most of us live in a world that’s more coach than private jet, more ferry than 300 foot yacht, so we travel with a budget in mind.  It’s reality that our lives are ruled by dollar signs, dictating when and what we are capable of. When it comes to vacation budget, couples need to be on the same page, and most importantly, you need to be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot afford.  Discuss the financial requirements that come with travel with your kids.  We had our kids save spending money, holding conversations about how fortunate we are and how thankful we need to be.  It’s important for them to realize that the world is at their fingertips, but is anything but free, and that hard work can have payoffs that feed the soul, not just the bills.

Budget can define where you are able to go, but so many places can be experienced for so much less than you would initially think if you are willing to put in the work or be flexible on expectations. Begin with flights, as this will be one of the largest financial chunks.  Unless you have an affinity for a specific airline, be open to multiple carriers in order to get the best deal.  On our trip we flew on four, a different carrier for each leg.  We got a great price and excellent service on each.  If you want to visit multiple countries, consider an “open jaw” trip, landing in one place and flying out of another.  This allows more time in other cities, without having to make your way back to the beginning.

Time consists of the number of days you can physically be away, as well as what time of year you plan to travel.  You should always account for when rainy season is, what major festivals or holidays may affect your stay, or when “peak season” is, as costs and the sheer number of tourists will be much higher.  Mixing the extreme heat and humidity of summer’s peak, with masses of tourists in constant two hour lineups is the perfect recipe for cranky kids and frustrated parents.  While eventually, all parents are railed in by “the school year”, it will all be about what works best for your family.  For us, it was pulling them out 2 weeks early and going in mid-June. I’m not necessarily advocating for this, but we literally walked onto rides at Disneyland Paris…just saying.

Pick a beginning and an end, and go from there….

You don’t have to have the entire trip mapped out to get started.  When we stepped onto the path of this family journey, we began with the easiest part; plane tickets arriving in Paris, and then return tickets out of Rome 27 days later. If you need inspiration, try a site like Route Perfect , the perfect place to discover new and exciting routes based on your personal interests.

Fill in the blanks…..

We had bases to begin and end on, and filling the spaces between was the most difficult, yet rewarding part.  I spent over a month on this part, but it was so worth all the effort. With so many incredible destinations to possibly explore, it can be overwhelming.  You can choose to jam in as many cities or countries as possible, or you can narrow down the scope for more quality time.  We had a month, and varied from a single night to six, covering 6 home bases from which we branched out on day trips.  This was absolutely perfect for us. Come up with a list of the family’s “Must See” places and sights, and figure out how much quality time you will need to comfortably spend in each.

One of our 'Must See' moments, the Cinque Terre Trail
One of our ‘Must See’ Moments, the Cinque Terre Trail
Another Must See...The Tuscan Hillside
A check on our “Must Do” list…Wine in Tuscany

Research Accommodations, cross reference, and book what speaks to you….

While a travel agent may reduce planning stress, I take extreme pleasure in the planning process.  I love searching for “gems”, those places and experiences I might otherwise have missed had I given over the opportunity to someone else.  There is simply no greater feeling than coming across something that speaks to your heart, an accommodation that instantly feels like home.  For hotels or even B&B’s I use sites like Expedia or  I found my airfare and best Disney Hotel deals on AMA Travel.  For a more private accommodation there are fantastic sites like the ever popular VRBO and Airbnb.  Find a place that speaks to you, look at the actual website (if they have one) and then view it on Tripadvisor.  I use this site for everything.  I take the reviews with a grain of salt, but it’s a great tool to see where the accommodation stacks up against other places.  Tripadvisor is also fantastic for discovering local things to do.  It’s how I discovered unique experiences like the private Monkey Sanctuary in Mexico and the Ferrari Test Drive in Florence.  Trust me, all the extra effort is so worth it.

If you are considering Italy with the kids, please check out my previous blog:  “Local is the New Lux”

Don’t take the fun out of the experience….

You will be surprised how a simple 4 hour train ride to a new check in location can eat up an entire day, and travel days can be exhausting, so always account for travel time as extra days.  Account for jetleg and sicktime as they are apt to take down someone at some point.  Account for unexpected adventure.  Most importantly, account for down time.  Kids need beach days, time to splash in a pool, read, play on gadgets, make travel friends or time to simply vegetate.  My point is, don’t jam pack your vacation so there is no wiggle room for the unexpected.  When you are in a country where you can’t possibly see everything in an entire lifetime, it can be sensory overload.  It can be tempting to spend every waking moment on the go, jamming in as much culture as humanly possible.  Trust me,  everyone will have a much better vacation if you take time to breathe.  Parents need a breather, too.  Grab a glass of wine, share some bread and cheese from the market, spend time reconnecting as a couple, and appreciate the surroundings you’ve worked so hard to be a part of.

The Perfect Beach Day
The Perfect Beach Day
Relaxing and Reconnecting
Relaxing and Reconnecting
Downtime Poolside
Downtime Poolside

Never let the unexpected rain on your parade…………

No matter how much effort, planning and research you put into a trip, eventually, something will go sideways.  Resorts will have less than stellar food, passports will get stolen, a staff member will be unpleasant or there will be ants in the room.  Maybe some tween girl will get kicked off the metro by an Italian hero for having her hand in your purse, or you will pull into Venice on the overnight train to find out your accommodation has been flooded….and your “make up accommodation” (luxury with stunning views of St Marks) won’t have any hot water.  It happens. But the outcome is determined by your mindset.  I am always boggled by the things that “ruin” people’s trips.  My favorite being those who go to foreign countries and are so utterly irritated that the staff and locals don’t speak English…honestly, I’m shaking my head as I write.  Accept that crap happens, but don’t let a minor incident overshadow the other 99% that is spectacular.  Travel is a mindset, and those that go in with an open mind and an open heart shall never fail.

Travel planning is ultimately limited by time and budget, but never by options.  There is a vacation, an opportunity to explore, for every level of spending.  There are private luxury cruises, there are hostels for backpackers, and there are hotels and B&B’s in between.  Be confident in your ability to make it happen!

If you have any questions, please by all means, ask me.  I could talk travel and vacation  If you have any great travel tips of your own, I’d love to hear from you.  Knowledge is always power and helps us grow.

Live a fortunate life and count your blessings.  Today has arrived, and tomorrow is always a journey.

La Dolce Vita.


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2 thoughts on “Planning a Family Vacation Abroad

  1. Amy, you are as wonderful a writer as you are wife, mother, friend and my daughter. I love reading your blogs and seeing through your eyes, especially the journeys we have shared. I am in awe of your approach to life and the joy you find and bring to all of us. I am so proud of the woman you are and I’m looking so forward to our adventures on our next family trip.
    Love you

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