Hey there! Looking forward to a big trip? Planning your travel itinerary – all the activities you'll do on your trip – is a lot of fun.
But it can feel overwhelming too. I always want to do more than we have time for. And activities can be expensive too!
It's tempting to just cram everything into your schedule and not worry about what it costs… But after nearly 20 years of planning family vacations, let me share my #1 Rule for Planning a Travel Itinerary:
DO LESS. Your trip will be better, your family will be happier, and you'll spend less money.
Trust me on this one. Here is what “doing less” looks like and why it will make your trip better.
List All Your Options
Start with a big list of everything you might want to do on your trip. Look up “things to do in…” Ask your spouse and kids what they want to do and make sure that you include something for everyone.
Learn about all of the free and cheap things to do near your lodging or main activities too. These are great for filling gaps in your itinerary without busting your budget.
Why? Because options are more fun than obligations.
A big list of ideas gives you options. It feels better to have extra time and fill it with a fun optional activity than to wear out your family while trying to do it all. And it's OK to change plans if that's what you feel like doing when you get there.
On our last trip to New York City, we blocked out an afternoon for Central Park. My sister and her family happened to be visiting NYC the same week and they joined us at Sheep Meadow as we finished our picnic lunch.
We all discussed what to do next, and my husband suggested Roosevelt Island – which we had researched but not actually planned to do. The Roosevelt Island tram was a 20-minute walk from Central Park through posh eastside neighborhoods and that's what sounded fun. We spent the afternoon on Roosevelt Island and I loved it.
Options help your vacation feel more like a vacation.
Narrow it Down
Look at your big list and identify the activities that are MOST important to you and your family. Narrow your list to 1-2 main activities per day.
Limiting your itinerary to 1-2 main activities per day creates focus and gives you time to be spontaneous and make special memories. Consider bundling a list of activities into one low-stress tour, such as through Viator or Big Bus Tours.
In The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, the authors studied family vacations and found that after a few years, most people remember one or two highlights and how they felt at the end of the trip. That's all.
So… Spend your time and money on a couple of highlights and aim to come home feeling happy and rested. If there are unexpected highlights, they are probably going to happen in the quiet or spontaneous moments, not in an exhausting rush to do it all.
Narrowing your list happens naturally as you learn more about your activities. Location, cost, age limits, or difficulty are all good reasons to cross an activity off your list.
We are planning a trip to Japan and I recently nixed a go-kart tour in Tokyo, inspired by Mario Kart. It was a potential highlight, but it was expensive and I felt less excited as I learned more about it. My teens protested weakly when I suggested we skip it, which confirmed that for us, it wasn't worth the time and expense.
Schedule Time to Relax
Children aren't the only ones who throw tantrums when they are over-tired. When Mom or Dad melts down on the family vacation, that's what your kids will remember for years.
Build some downtime into every day of your vacation. My family wakes up early to beat the crowds, so we usually head back to our hotel or apartment after an early dinner to wind down for a few hours before bedtime. If you have young children who take naps, build your itinerary around naptime and bedtime.
Consider planning a half or full day of nothing. Or maybe make loose plans like “Beach Day” or “Enjoy our resort.” That doesn't mean that you really won't do anything, but it feels good to have the option.
Last year, we left for a beach/Disneyland trip with my extended family the day after school got out. We were exhausted from the last month of school, exhausted from the long drive, and we needed to recharge if we were going to do three days at Disneyland.
I researched things to do but scheduled absolutely nothing for the three days we spent in beachside condos in Oceanside, California. We slept in, walked to the beach when we felt like it, went out for fish tacos when we felt like it, and didn't worry about what we might be missing. It was exactly what we needed. We made good memories and were ready for Disneyland.
Don't Forget Pool Time
When my kids were younger, their favorite part of every vacation was the hotel pool. They didn't care what we did for the rest of the day as long as we saved an hour or two for swimming.
That gave me the freedom to plan the trips my husband and I wanted. We still visited plenty of children's museums and zoos, but pool time is what bought me leverage for historical sites and scenic drives.
We had car trouble on our first Black Hills road trip. My husband played in the hotel pool with the kids while I spent the morning at a repair shop. The indoor pool was nothing special, but that was their favorite day of the trip.
Come Home Early
Consider coming home a day or two earlier than you have to. This is the “vacation from your vacation” that you will probably need.
I often plan at least one full day at the end of every trip to rest at home. It's nice to catch up on sleep, do laundry, re-stock the refrigerator, and enjoy much-needed “alone time” before we go back to work or school.
BONUS: You won't spend as much money on a hotel or activities if you cut your trip a bit short. Use those hundreds of dollars to upgrade your hotel or activities. Or use it to take another trip – like a romantic weekend without the kids…
My husband and I loved visiting Louisville, Kentucky for his work conference. We planned to rent a car and spend a couple of extra days touring the caves of Kentucky or Indiana.
But as we reached the last day of his conference, we weren't feeling it. We couldn't get a tour of Mammoth Cave and we just didn't feel excited enough about other options. We wondered, “What if we went home early?” And it felt right.
We paid about $200 to change our flights and cancel our prepaid rental car. But we would have spent more to stay and I have no regrets.
It's tempting to try to see and do everything on your first – and maybe last – trip to a new place. But you will have a better experience and come home with better memories if you
- Make a list of optional – not scheduled – activities
- Focus your time and money on 1-2 main activities per day
- Schedule time to relax and recharge every day
- Book a hotel with a good pool for kids
- Give yourself time to rest and get ready for work and school when you return home
If your destination turns out to be a favorite place, don't worry. You'll find a way to go back and do the things you missed. Either way, you'll never regret focusing on quality over quantity.