5 Tips for Planning Great Family Trips

Aug 14, 2015

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Despite harrowing tales of screaming babies and spilled airplane drinks, traveling with children doesn’t have to be painful. Having lived and traveled abroad with her family of four, new TPG Contributor Jessica Lawler offers her insights into planning more organized, efficient and affordable trips that will create lasting memories for your own family. 

In the last four years, my husband and I have visited 20 countries with our two daughters. We love seeing the world through their eyes, even if it means slowing down our pace. We travel for a variety of reasons — to relax, to explore, to find the best beaches, to taste the best food and, honestly, to check countries off our list — and have learned that our approach to family travel motivates our trip-planning strategy. Over the last few years, these are the planning tips I’ve found most useful — and I hope you will, too.

My husband and older daughter enjoying the sunflowers in Lourmarin, France.

1. Having a goal or specific reason to travel in mind helps you avoid accruing points aimlessly. For instance, we celebrated Thanksgiving in Istanbul, Turkey with our daughters last year — while my husband was a graduate student — solely because we made a goal and worked to earn points for this specific trip. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card has been our go-to travel card for its maximal earning potential and transferable points. Since we usually purchase a flight for my husband to maintain his airline status, our initial plan was to earn 120,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points from our separate accounts and transfer them to United for two economy saver awards for me and for my oldest daughter. However, we were surprised to see fares for only $760. Purchasing flights (plus an infant lap ticket) was a better value than using points in this scenario, especially when TPG has valued Ultimate Rewards points at 2.1 cents per point and we would’ve been getting only 1.2 cents per point.

With more than 120,000 points still in hand, we targeted the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. Even though hotels are typically priced much higher here, we found a deal for the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, where rooms start at $584 per night. Through the portal, the hotel was priced at $405 per night, which included breakfast, Wi-Fi and taxes. For 129,000 Ultimate Rewards points, we splurged on a luxury hotel and still felt like it was a good value for such a fantastic experience. Our children were treated like royalty and we still reminisce about our stay there.

A rare empty beach in Rio de Janeiro.
A rare empty beach in Rio de Janeiro.

2. Leverage your strengths as a family when planning your trips. Rather than one of us getting stuck with the giant task of planning a trip for four, my husband and I work together to create the best possible travel experience. My husband usually takes care of booking our flights and hotels (which can be especially time-consuming when using miles and points), while I research and plan our itinerary. Prior to traveling, we both invest some time in teaching our four year-old about the countries we plan to visit, and she in turn feels more invested in the journey.

If you have older children, consider getting them even more involved in the planning process. One family I know assigns reports to their children on destinations and their major attractions; the kids then present their findings during down time at the airport or when they’re in transit on a plane, train, bus or on a long car ride, and everyone benefits!

Learning to walk in the Hagia Sophia.
Learning to walk in the Hagia Sophia.

3. Plan your travel well ahead of time. Whether it’s booking flights months in advance or carving out time to go to any destination, leaving yourself plenty of time is key to a smooth family-trip-planning process. With children, we’ve found that planning ahead goes a long way. Traveling in the off-season can equal less crowds, better deals and more availability in all aspects — award travel, hotel rooms, tours and restaurant reservations.

While planning the details of a trip in advance is ideal, just setting aside travel time in your schedule allows you to gear up your family for a trip, but also to take advantage of last-minute deals. Last spring, we left a week in March open for travel, but we weren’t sure where to go. A month before our scheduled vacation, we decided to fly to Brazil with friends, and surprisingly, we found award tickets easily. While this may not have been the least stressful approach, the time off had been on our calendar for months, and tapping into our arsenal of Chase Ultimate Rewards points (accrued with the intention of taking an international trip) allowed for some spontaneity.

My oldest daughter spent many hours in our Ergobaby carrier – she loved it!
My oldest daughter appreciates a little downtime while traveling, and trust me — you will, too.

4. If possible, add one flex day on the front and one flex day on the back end of your itinerary. While this may sound unrealistic with time constraints, a flex day simply means that your itinerary plans are not set in stone that day. If something goes wrong on the flight to your destination (sickness, lost luggage, etc.) or your children are suffering from extreme jet lag the first day, you can easily move that day’s activities to a different day or the last (flexible) day of your trip. I try to plan activities that require a reservation after the first day of our trip just in case.

Iguaçu Falls, our girls' favorite place we visited in Brazil.
Iguaçu Falls, our girls’ favorite place we visited in Brazil.

5. Manage your expectations. This is the most important aspect of family travel. Simply put, lower expectations lead to happier vacations. Something is bound to go awry with children in tow, so choose to be militantly optimistic. I had a hard time remembering this sentiment while my daughter and I were violently ill on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Washington, DC … but we survived. Thankfully, lying on the lavatory floor in the fetal position is now just one of our travel stories.

Figuring out your own approach to family travel can make showing your children the world more meaningful — and a little less stressful!

Be sure to see these related posts:

Transferring Points and Awards to Maximize Family Travel
Long Term Family Travel and the Perks of Extended Vacations
What’s the Best Strategy For Redeeming Family Award Tickets?
Making Family Vacations Affordable: TPG Reader Success Story
One Father’s Comprehensive Guide for Flying with an Infant
My Thoughts on Children in First Class

What are your own tips for planning family travel? Please share them in the comments below. 

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