Hey there! Want to make the most of your vacation activities? Of course, you do! Good planning is where it all starts.
Planning vacation activities – and actually doing the activities – is usually the fun part of any trip. This is where you check items off your bucket list like going to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park, or learning to surf in Hawaii.
And it's awful when things don't work out like you planned. Sometimes things go wrong due to circumstances beyond your control. But when I read negative reviews about a particular activity, it often feels like that person didn't quite understand what they signed up for…
Don't let that happen to you.
I've been planning family vacations for 20+ years and I've learned a lot about successfully planning vacation activities. Use these tips to help your family choose the right activities for your trip and make the most of them.
Be true to yourself
The only opinions that matter belong to the people who are going on the trip.
So, don't feel pressure to go where everyone else goes and do what everyone else does. And don't worry if you want to do something that's “basic” or “uncool.” Do what YOU (and your family) want to do.
My family visited Disneyland Paris on our trip to France, and we will soon visit Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea. Those activities take valuable time and a big chunk of our budget. And serious travelers would NEVER go to Disneyland, right?? But we love Disneyland and it's our trip, so we get to do what we want!
On the other hand, I know families who have never visited a Disney park and are in no rush to go. Or they've been once and don't need to return. That's OK too!!
How to find activities
You'll probably have a few activities in mind when you book your trip. Here are a few tips for filling the rest of your itinerary with fun things to do…
- Search “Things to do in [destination]” – This is a great place to start. You'll get a list of popular activities from the search engine and lots of articles filled with ideas. You might even find one of my lists…
- Use Viator – Viator.com is a good place to get ideas and find tours. A do-it-yourself approach does not work well for every activity and destination. A guided tour with a local expert can be a low-stress way to enjoy your top activities.
- Look for discount passes – Discount passes like Go City or CityPASS can save you money on popular activities. They are available in many large cities. Buy the pass and then plan your itinerary around the included activities.
- Contact the visitor bureau – Many destinations have official websites for visitors. They are chock-full of helpful information and activity ideas. And if you have specific questions or need more ideas, there is usually an email address or phone number where you can talk to a local expert.
As a travel writer, I have worked with many visitor bureaus. They are a great resource – especially when you want to “discover” an amazing destination farther from the beaten path.
Here are a few favorite destinations where the local visitor bureau helped us plan an incredible family vacation:
Visit the official website
You'll find a lot of valuable information on the official website for your activity. Getting more information will help you know if an activity is really a good idea, and how to get the most from it. Here are a few things to look for and consider.
- How much does it cost? Are discounts available?
- Do you need a reservation or a timed ticket? If so, how and when do you get it?
- Is it open every day? What are the hours?
- When is the BEST or least-crowded time to visit? (Pro Tip: It's usually weekday mornings)
- How much time will it take?
- Where is it located? How will you get there?
- Is this activity right for the ages or abilities of your family members?
- Do you need to bring anything – like a printed ticket or special shoes/clothing?
- What food is sold or included? Can we bring our own food?
Write down all of the details on your travel itinerary.
Reservations are common for popular activities. It's a good idea to get a reservation or timed ticket as early as you can for your must-do activities.
Tokyo's Ghibli Museum was a top priority for my family and timed tickets are required. Tickets become available at 10 AM (Tokyo time) on the 10th day of the month prior.
A quick search told me that 10 AM on May 10 in Tokyo was 7 PM on May 9 in Mountain Daylight Time. I put it on my calendar, set an alarm, and was on my computer at 6:40 PM watching the countdown clock on the official English reservation website for the Ghibli Museum.
At 10 AM Tokyo Time, I was automatically moved to the queue and was #4,294 in line. I double-checked the open spaces in our itinerary in case our preferred date sold out (it did). Ninety minutes later, I successfully got tickets for our backup date. Tickets for the entire month of June were gone in about two hours.
Most reservations and tickets are A LOT easier to get! But it's smart to get reservations as soon as they become available for your must-do activities.
Reading reviews about your activity on TripAdvisor.com, Viator.com, blogs, and other websites can give you valuable information. You'll find out what other travelers liked and what they didn't like. Reviewers often share tips for success and first-hand experiences that you may not find anywhere else.
Reading about travelers' real experiences can help you decide if an activity is truly right for your family. And it can help you make the most of that activity.
I love adventurous activities, but I'm also overweight, middle-aged, and my knees are not great. When we plan something active, I read reviews carefully for clues that will tell me if this activity is a good choice.
We learned from reviewers that climbing the stairs is a good option at the Eiffel Tower. It's often easier to get in and it's less expensive. It's also a good way to savor the experience. I liked the idea but the 674 stairs were an obvious concern… So we compromised. We rode the elevator up and took the stairs back down.
Get an early start
Popular activities are the least crowded first thing in the morning. You will have a better experience at your high-priority activities if you get up early, give yourself plenty of time to get there, and arrive at or before opening time.
I know it's hard to get kids up and out the door early. It's hard to get myself out of bed too. But it will be a lot easier if this is an activity that your family is excited about.
For example, I have no problem getting my teens out of bed for Disneyland. They love theme parks and they know that lines are shortest in the first hour the park is open. The same is true for national parks and popular museums, zoos, beaches, restaurants, shopping centers, festivals, etc.
However, there are a few things you can do to avoid crowds AND get a little more sleep.
- Book a hotel close to your activity – The closer you are, the longer you can sleep. We won't book a Disneyland hotel that is farther than a 5-10 minute walk from the park entrance.
- Eat breakfast at your hotel – If your hotel doesn't offer a complimentary breakfast buffet, stock your mini-fridge with easy breakfast items. You'll save time if you don't stop for breakfast along the way.
- Make reservations – Time your reservation, tour, or ticket so you can enjoy the activity on a schedule that works for you.
- Schedule a “day off” – Save a whole day just to sleep in and hang out at the hotel pool. Plan a few optional activities that day, just in case.
- Go late – Sometimes the end of the day is almost as uncrowded as the beginning.
I have visited Zion National Park in Utah dozens of times. When I was a kid, you could park at the visitor center any day, any time. Now crowds are so heavy you need to arrive before 8 AM or after 4 PM if you want a parking space on most days. If you can't be there early, consider going late in the day.
Activities are the most exciting part of most trips. Good planning makes them even better.
Being true to yourself, researching activities online using official websites, reviews, and other sources, and getting an early start are all keys to success.
And DON'T OVERSCHEDULE! I wrote a whole article about why this is so important. Click HERE to read it now.
I hope that our experience helps your family to plan a great vacation! Please share your own tips or questions in the Comments below.