If there’s one part of a trip that has become my domain in our family over the years, it’s the vacation planning. I love it ! I love poring through numerous guidebooks, checking out travel forums, reading other travelblogs, and especially, looking at other people’s photos and starting to dream. Because that’s what travel is all about isn’t it ? The dreams of faraway, exotic, exciting places, beautiful beaches, distant ruins, local markets, different languages and cultures. Of course planning resources have become ubiquitous over the last 10 years – now there are travel forums for everything, websites galore, far more guidebooks, and more. Once there may not have been enough information; today there’s obviously too much and you can become totally submerged in it, so the secret is to get just enough but not too much. Instead of 5 forums, maybe just read 2 (generally I like tripadvisor and Lonely Planet); instead of asking loads of questions, maybe resist that urge and leave some of your travel experiences to chance.
Now not too long ago, I was far more cavalier about planning trips. I remember my first trip to the USA with Liora, my wife. We used maps – nothing else. We didn’t have kids yet, so we could pull into a town and see what accommodations were available, but even so, it seems incredible to me now that we travelled that way. We continued in that vein until our oldest child Dani was 1 (Amazingly, it was already her third overseas trip). Then, using Lonely Planet, we went to Austria, Czech Republic and Hungary. Not only did we travel without planning, we also were on a strict budget, which tends to compound problems sometime. So at Vienna airport we hired a small car without air-conditioning and used the child car seat provided. This was a huge, clunky contraption, a 2 piece dinosaur which clamped down and trapped our daughter in what looked like a horribly uncomfortable position. Add to that, Europe going through a heat wave – driving into Prague we watched the car thermometer go above 40 degrees – and this was not too comfortable.
Anyway, arriving in Budapest on a Saturday afternoon, we went to the tourist center to find accommodation. Nothing. Some private entrepeneur offered us an apartment somewhere, so we followed him deep into the suburbs until getting to his place which was…horrendous. We knew we had to leave but now had no idea where we were. That’s the day we realized that with kids it helps to have accommodation arranged.
So, in dealing with planning, we start with accommodation. My rule of thumb is even if you don’t want to plan meticulously, at least book the first night every time you get to a new destination. Our experience is that it’s not great fun lugging kids and luggage through big cities looking for a place to stay. Much better to put your gear down and do it at your leisure. These days I usually book all accommodation in advance – although it can restrict you, it’s a huge headache removed.
Next, I make a copy of everyone’s passports, and all other relevant info (car hire, hotels etc. ) and put them together. make sure to scan your passports into our computer and put them in your email. We’ve never had to use this, but it’s worth having.
Then, pack smart. How many times I’ve regretted not putting in an extra layer, or not including gloves, or some other item that seemed so obvious and easy at home, but now in some developing country is not.
Getting back to planning. For this summer, we’ve planned for longer than ever before. We’ve known for 5 years that in summer 2010 we’d be going to the World Cup in south Africa. having grown up in Cape Town, we were always going to go. We started buying tickets for games in February 2009, got our air tickets in November, so it still seems a bit of a dream that we leave in 18 days !
Anyway, back to planning. I think it’s important to put it into perspective – do your homework and be organized (pack well, have directions to hotels, try get direct flights, know the currency exchange rates, have a guidebook) but don’t obsess too much. Ultimately the actual trip is what counts, not all those hours spent (by me) studying the forums. And be flexible – even if you’ve planned something, remember things go wrong, or don’t necessarily work out as you planned, so a very important travel quality is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances around you. and most of all, plan with your whole family in mind – if you think of only adults or kids, it probably won’t work. Think of those things you’ve enjoyed as a family. That should make it all work.