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Family Travel Planning
I have a tradition with my kids that goes back eight years: starting at the age of four, each of my kids gets to choose any destination in the world every year for a one-on-one trip with me. It began when my first daughter, at three, said she wanted to visit Antarctica to see penguins. It sounded like a great idea to me! I told her we would go when she was eight – the youngest recommended age – but I asked where she wanted to go in the meantime. She said Australia, we went right after she turned four, and a tradition was born.
Two questions I get frequently are “how do the kids select their destinations?” and “how can you afford to do that?” After all my kids have chosen easy destinations like Orlando and New York, but also more complicated, and expensive, destinations like Croatia and the Maldives. And we always let our kids choose where we go for school breaks, which has led us everywhere from Charleston, South Carolina to the Galapagos. So here you go: five tips to making this work with your own kids, whether you’re looking at a bucket list trip, visiting family, or taking a cross-country vacation.
1. Pick a Destination Where Your Kids Want to Go
Kids have an amazing array of influences: school; friends; television; headlines; and YouTube to name a few. They’re learning about the US and the world far more than you realize. So they likely have places that have captured their imaginations. It could be the Eiffel Tower or Grand Canyon. It could be Africa or Washington, D.C. Talk to your kids and ask where they want to go. Every trip should be based around the kids anyway, so to me this is an obvious first step, but I frequently see parents booking vacations to places they, the parents, want to go, without consulting their kids. Could that still be an amazing trip? Of course. But the odds of having a successful vacation increase when the kids are involved from the start. And you might be surprised at where your kids want to go. I didn’t have Antarctica or Easter Island on my short list, but I went to both because my kids chose them, and they were incredible. My kids have literally broadened my world!
2. Or Plan Based on Interests
Maybe your kids don’t have specific places in mind, but I’ll guarantee that they have things they’re interested in. So suggest destinations that tie into their passions. Two years ago my daughter, at six, said that she wanted her annual trip to be based around animals. So we went online and looked at animals around the world. She immediately became fixated on holding koalas and echidnas. Australia it was! We looked at various places where one can get up close with koalas and echidnas, and see other unique animals, and focused in on Brisbane and the nearby Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and Australia Zoo. Again, I didn’t have Brisbane on my travel wish list, but we went and had a great trip. And yes, my daughter got to hold a koala and feed an echidna – both of which are among her all-time travel highlights.
And this past April for spring break the kids voted to head to New York to see the musical Hamilton. Two of the three had studied the American Revolution in school, and all three loved the Hamilton soundtrack, so we got tickets for the show and flew east. And for spring break next year the kids want to head to the Caribbean island of Nevis where Alexander Hamilton was born. I’ve already started the planning to make it work.
3. Remember that Getting There Can Be Half the Fun
Whether you’re flying halfway around the world or driving across the country, see what else your kids want to add on. I love flight planning when my kids pick crazy international destinations. We sit down at the computer and start looking at routing options. This always leads to a discussion of connecting cities and what’s there that the kids may find interesting. We’ve stopped in Hong Kong, Taipei, Amsterdam, and a lot of other great cities, simply because flights went through there anyway and there was something that captured the kids’ imagination. But it’s not only flights. When we’re planning road trips, we’ll look up all of the possible stops and see what looks fun for the kids. A really cool candy store? That’s a great excuse to stop! Sand dunes to run down? An interesting beach? Absolutely!
4. Don’t Spend More Than You Have To
I love showing my kids the world and planning extraordinary bucket list trips, but I still have the same backpacker mentality that I had in college and I hate spending more than I have to. So how do we plan amazing travel inexpensively? First, wherever we want to go, I figure out when the shoulder-season is: that month or so in the spring and fall typically when tourists are gone and prices are lower, but when the weather is still good. Heading to a theme park? Look at May and September, when schools are in session but the weather (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) is warm. And Europe in April and May is wonderful, before all the summer tourists arrive.
Second, since flights are typically the most expensive part of a trip, I work to get as many flights for free as I can using miles. For 20+ years, I’ve charged everything possible to a mileage-earning credit card, and we’ve flown to a lot of our destinations for free, by using those miles. My favorite card right now? The Venture Card from Capital One. With Venture, I earn 2 miles for every dollar spent on normal purchases, and 10 miles for every dollar spent on hotels at hotels.com/venture, and it’s incredibly easy to redeem them towards any travel purchases – anytime I want, without planning far in advance. I don’t love that other cards restrict us to specific airlines or flights. That inflexibility isn’t consistent with the reality of family travel, where I want the best overall flights on the exact dates we want to travel. And often when I’m putting together a crazy itinerary, I’ll book several one-way flights on airlines that we’ve never flown before, and that usually aren’t even part of a major alliance. Airline miles don’t help to cover those flights, but Capital One miles do. And it’s the same story with hotels. There’s a very good chance the hotel that’s best for us (most unique, perfectly-located, best family setup, etc.) isn’t with a major brand, or if it is, it’s probably not the brand that we happen to have points with. Capital One miles are good for any hotel, anytime.
And a bonus: Hotels.com gives me a free night for every 10 nights I’ve stayed. Right now I have 20 nights booked through hotels.com/venture, which is earning me 46,250 miles towards summer travel, plus two free nights once the trips are complete that I can use in the future – worth $460. Add those miles to the 50,000 I received for signing up for the Venture card (after spending $3,000 in the first three months), and to the miles from normal spending, and I’ve earned well over 100,000 miles just since the Capital One/Hotels.com program launched at the end of January. I’m going to apply that to over $1,000 worth of summer travel charges. If I was trying to save enough miles for specific hotels or airlines, or if I had to deal with blackout periods, it would likely be over a year until I could redeem the same rewards using other cards/programs.
5. Say Yes!
And lastly, when you’re traveling with your kids, get in the habit of saying yes. Be flexible. Ice cream at 10am? Running through a fountain without a change of clothes? Staying up later than normal? Sure! It’s vacation, and you only get a finite number of them with your kids before they head off to college. If the kids are happy, the parents are happy. And if both parents and kids are happy, it’s a successful trip. So relax your rules, say yes a lot, and make sure that everyone is happy.
But also be flexible on drastically mixing up your vacation if things aren’t going well. Last summer we arrived at a house that we had rented a year in advance, and immediately realized that there wasn’t as much to do in the area as we had thought. So we bought train tickets, booked an inexpensive last-minute hotel two hours away for a few nights, and had a great time. And we’ve done the same other summers when bad weather restricted the activities we had planned and put a damper on our vacation. Sometimes your best adventures can come from things not going perfectly – as long as you’re flexible and willing to change everything up when you need to.
Have you let your kids plan your travels? Any tips that I missed?