Travel is the lifeblood of many "Wow, we did that!" memories that will be revisited around the family dinner table for years to come. It has long been studied and reported that travel memories far outlast material goods. As founder and CEO of Austin Adventures, I love encouraging and helping families to make the most of their traveling opportunities.
After more than 35 years of curating travel itineraries for families, I'm the first to tell you there's a lot that goes into crafting the ultimate family vacation. No matter who's tagging along — restless toddlers, hard-to-please teenagers, or Grandma and Grandpa — it's important to try to satisfy everyone's travel needs and expectations. Let me break down a few things to help you know where to start and how to execute a fantastic family trip.
Begin With Brainstorming
Get everyone involved! Make planning part of the overall process and part of the fun. At our home, we typically start with a pizza party, where we bake some pizzas and throw ideas out there. Make sure everyone has a say.
Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? What kind of lodging do you like? What is important to you? I like to get thoughts flowing by asking, "What is your favorite type of trip or activity?"
This first phase is about free associations — no rules! — so don't worry about the details. I always like to have a few travel brochures nearby and maybe a few maps to get the thought process flowing. Take what you learn and start adding to a file that can come in handy once you hit the trails. This is a great time to teach children how to read a map (a lost art in the age of Google Maps). Make a few homework assignments.
You can establish a few boundaries by asking yourself these other important starter questions too: What does our vacation budget look like? Who will we invite? When can we travel? How much time do we want to spend on vacation?
Gather back at the table — a table that will now be covered in maps, pictures, brochures, and notes. The goal here is to start drilling down to a realistic short list. Getting a consensus might be easier than you think.
Try to find common themes: Do many of you have tropical places picked out? Mountainous terrain? Safari adventures? Big, bustling cities with lots of history? If you're having a hard time finding common ground, have fun with it by allowing each other to "sell" the others on their pick. Remember that planning is part of the fun and builds anticipation.
While searching for the best vacation location, remember the limits you established when breaking down your travel priorities. When people are available to travel could determine in which season you'll be traveling. A budget can help decide whether you're willing to travel in the U.S. or fly across the globe, and usually how long your vacation could last. You'll also need to be conscious of who all will be traveling with you, as this can narrow down the type of vacation you choose (cruise, outdoor adventure, leisurely, road trip, etc.). You should have a pretty good idea by now of just what sort of adventure you are all up to choosing.
Pick Your Partner
So you've landed on a location, type or style of adventure, timing, and budget. Now it's time to start shopping for a tour operator! Your partner is as important as your traveling companions, if not more so. This is who you are going to trust to execute the dreams you've been brainstorming for so long. I strongly suggest you take this part of the process seriously and diligently. Keep adding to that file. Remember that Google is your friend.
Get a list of 6-10 questions in front of you and call a few tour operators (you can have help from a travel agent here too) or service providers. Pay close attention to the minor details, from responsiveness to your call or email, knowledge of the customer service contact, ability to answer your questions, etc. Take copious notes as it can get confusing.
During this phase its going to be clear who you want to work with, and who is a good fit. Build on that relationship.
Use a Tour Operator's Talents
Once you get to the planning stages with your tour operator of choice, put them to work. A tour operator ensures that you'll have a seamless, stressless vacation by putting together a packaged tour that includes your hotel, transportation, meals, guides, and activities.
Here's a few things a tour operator can thoughtfully do for you:
● Pick the right program for you and yours
● Make the nitty-gritty planning easy
● Put your safety in mind first and foremost
● Make sure you can enjoy stress-free family-focused time with little decision making
● Book the best lodging in advance
● Book memorable meals
● Make sure there's an activity to appeal to everyone in your group
● Arrange knowledgeable guides on every tour (6:1 guest to guide ratio)
● Scope the best attractions and activities ahead of time
When you're attempting to put together a vacation for a group of people, you may just feel like a tour operator is a miracle as they work their magic behind the scenes.
Embrace the Process
You have your type of trip, your destination, and your scheduled dates. Now is the time to continue to build excitement. Researchers remind us that it is this anticipation that can be every bit as important or fulfilling as the actual trip itself.
Consider having a monthly check-in. Start talking about (and adding to the file) facts about the region, what to pack, what you are most looking forward to. Maybe configure a few more homework assignments, like creating a packing list, learning a few local words of a foreign language, or listing local customs of interest.
This may also be your chance to invest in some new clothing or gear. Here again is where a tour operator can come in handy; they'll have some knowledge about what's best to pack.
Go With the Flow
Sometimes the best memories come from just going with wherever the day takes you on vacation, whether you have activities planned or not. Don't be afraid to veer from your original plans. And of course, when you're working with a tour operator, you can literally just go with the flow; leave the details up to us and focus on the discoveries that await you.
Plan a Post-trip Pizza Party
Come full circle to where it all started. Get back together and share pictures, favorite memories, and key learnings. Where to next? It's never too early to start thinking about where to venture next. (We usually start at the last night's dinner while on the trip.)
While he specializes in U.S. national parks, T+L A-List advisor Dan Austin and his team at Austin Adventures can plan trips to destinations around the world.