Think about the last time your family took a vacation together. What image comes to mind? Natural wonders? Perfect sunsets? Or the frustration of trying to deal with hotels and wrangle the kids and get something—anything—to go as planned?
The family vacation is a rite of passage for many families. It’s inspired countless movies and books (National Lampoon’s Vacation, anyone?). It’s the sort of thing that can strike fear into the hearts of parents—and total boredom into the hearts of their children. But with the right preparation, it is possible for the whole family to have fun, creating wonderful memories that will last a lifetime.
A successful family getaway doesn’t happen by accident, though. It takes a sense of humor, a willingness to be flexible—and a robust family vacation planner. So while “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” putting in the work early means you’ll be prepared and ready to deal with whatever comes your way, should things not go exactly according to plan.
There’s no better time than today
According to research from QuickBooks Time, “The majority (nearly 61%) of those who had available PTO hours said they left some on the table at the end of last year. A plurality of workers with PTO didn’t use 1-5 vacation days and 1-5 sick days. That means the American workforce left nearly a billion days of paid time off on the table.”
Our advice? Take that vacation. Get away and recharge your batteries. As counterintuitive as it may seem, finding a healthy work-life balance can actually increase your productivity by helping you think more clearly and find creative solutions when you return to work. With a little time off, you’ll come back feeling rested and ready to take on the world; and your family will appreciate seeing a happier, more relaxed you.
That doesn’t mean you need to go it alone, though. A family vacation can be one of the most enjoyable experiences of your life. But—and here’s the important part—if you’re traveling with kids, you need a family trip planner that accounts for everyone’s needs and wants.
Backpacking across Asia might be an exciting adventure when it’s just you (and maybe a friend or two), but flying by the seat of your pants simply isn’t practical when you have a family. Your kids’ sleep patterns and energy levels are probably very different from your own, so an itinerary that appeals to you may not be suitable for them. And, as any parent will readily confirm, kiddos (especially the little ones) come with a lot of accessories—bottles, diapers, strollers, toys… the list goes on!
If this all sounds daunting, don’t worry; it is doable. But if you’re still looking for advice on how to plan a family vacation step-by-step, read on. The simple steps in this article will give you all the tools you need to plan a family vacation that everyone will remember for a lifetime—right now.
1. Keep everything in one place
Kids love to know what’s happening next: “What are we having for dinner?” “What are we doing tomorrow?” “Are we there yet?” While that can be frustrating for parents, it’s important to remember that your kiddos are just trying to make sense of their world, and knowing what’s coming up offers them comfort and reassurance.
So, while there’s nothing you can do to stop kids of a certain age from asking question after question, doing your research ahead of time and organizing it all in one place means that at least you don’t have to worry about how to answer them.
Once you’ve decided to take a vacation, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of planning and booking your trip. Laying the groundwork at this point will eliminate a host of problems down the road. A crucial early step is to create an Evernote travel notebook, where you can keep track of all the details that could make or break your trip.
For example, if you want to know how to plan a family vacation to a theme park (and there are a lot to choose from), make sure to keep all your research in the same place. One of the great things about theme park trips is that there are plenty of online resources with strategies for avoiding long wait times for rides and other attractions. There are even online communities of theme park enthusiasts on social media that offer tips for traveling to individual amusement parks. That’s especially true for Disney theme parks—there are many entire sites devoted to that fandom alone.
A family vacation calendar helps you plot your day out, from what to see first and what to leave until the end of the day, to where to eat and where to take breaks. With all that info handy, don’t forget to capture it all and build a schedule for your family in Evernote.
In the months before you travel, your travel notebook will be the hub for all your vacation research. As you come across websites with lists of ‘must-see’ attractions, or advice on local customs, clip them into Evernote and save them all in this notebook. For an extra layer of organization, add tags to your web clips, such as “#hotels” or “#Paris,” to help you nail down your itinerary as you get closer to the day.
Power tip: Getting your inspiration from a physical magazine or flyer? Evernote lets you scan practically anything automatically without needing a dedicated scanning app. Using optical text recognition, you can even convert handwritten papers into notes that you can view on your mobile device. Evernote recognizes any text in your images and makes it searchable, so you can always find what you’re looking for later.
Over time, your vacation notebook will continue to expand as you include confirmations of airline flights, hotel reservations, rental cars, and more. Share the notebook with your partner, and perhaps even your older children, so they can add their own research to yours.
When you’re finally on vacation, knowing where you need to be, and when, can relieve a great deal of the stress that you and your kids may feel from being far from home for an extended period of time. It’s not uncommon to get so exhausted at the end of these days, and yet the question from your kids is still almost certainly going to be “What are we doing tomorrow?” If you already have the research done, you don’t have to worry about what to tell them. That little bit of extra effort goes a long way toward helping your entire family have a little more peace of mind.
2. Explain the trip to your kids
For many children, especially very young ones, the thought of taking a long trip away from home to an entirely new place (or even a new country!) can be stressful. It’s great to expose your kids to new experiences, but a vacation can be overwhelming to kids who are so young that they’re still getting used to their own neighborhood.
Not to mention that a vacation may be the first time they’re exposed to new sights, sounds, cultures, weather patterns, or even foods. All this ‘newness’ can be a lot to take in at once, so it’s up to you to make them feel as though a vacation is something exciting to look forward to, rather than something to be feared.
Of course, none of that is to say the vacation won’t still be a rewarding experience for your little ones. But you increase your chances of the trip going off without a hitch if your plan includes time set aside to educate your kids about where you’re going and what they can expect when they get there. Even explaining basic travel concepts to them can go a long way, regardless of where in particular your family is heading.
For example, if they’re going to be on an airplane for the first time, explaining how safe air travel is can help assuage any fears. Depending on their age, you may want to get into a (brief!) discussion of air pressure, and why their ears may feel funny during takeoff and landing. If you’re traveling to a different time zone, you can talk about the rotation of the Earth to prepare your children for the likelihood of jet-lag. It could even turn into a fun geography lesson!
Power tip: It’s best to have a plan for these conversations, and keeping all that necessary information in one place thanks to Evernote helps ensure you don’t miss any important details. Don’t forget to include plenty of pictures! They live right in your notes alongside your text, and those visual tools can go a long way toward getting your kids excited for all the amazing sights they’ll get to see when the time comes.
3. Have a Plan A (and a Plan B and Plan C)
Let’s be honest: traveling with small children can be challenging. Even the most well-behaved kids will generally run out of patience long before their parents. Add jet lag and sleep deprivation into the mix, and you have a recipe for disaster.
If you’re wondering how to plan a family vacation with young kids, one of the most important variables to keep in mind is how easily exhausted little ones can be from a day of traveling. No matter how well-thought-out your itinerary is, or how excited you may be to visit a particular sight or experience a particular activity, it’s important to be flexible and open to change.
One strategy that might help alleviate the stress of potentially changing or breaking plans is to have a set of “morning” activities and “afternoon” activities, and then mix-and-match depending on whether the kids are sick, jet-lagged, or just plain tired. Perhaps you’ve planned a walk through a gorgeous local park, only to wake up in the morning to pouring rain. Instead of sitting around your hotel room waiting for the weather to clear—while your kids become increasingly restless—be ready to shift gears by having alternate activities that you can enjoy instead.
For example, let’s say you’re traveling to Europe with very young children—aged under five. There’s no reason that you and your family can’t have such a successful trip that you decide to tackle Hawaii the next year. The key lies in being flexible and understanding how little minds work. You may want to plan on staying in each place at least three days so that your kids can get used to ‘their’ hotel room with ‘their’ toys, and not feel so overwhelmed with all the new locations.
Even when the weather behaves, circumstances beyond your control (i.e., kids) can cause you to change plans. Don’t forget to prepare for that distinct possibility too. Even the simple act of bringing along a few of your children’s favorite books, toys, or games can go a long way towards keeping them happy in the entirely likely event that you find yourselves stuck in traffic, the airport, or even your hotel room. Simply mentally preparing yourselves for the possibility that things can go wrong can go a long way towards helping you roll with the punches. And who knows? Your family might end up enjoying Plans B or C more than they would have enjoyed Plan A!
Power tip: Having a family vacation planner with flexibility built in can be a game changer. Your itinerary will quite likely have to evolve in the middle of the trip when you see weather conditions change, your kids get sick, the restaurant you planned on eating at unexpectedly closes, etcetera. But if you decide to move your “indoor day” to that “bad weather day,” you can all still have a great time either way.
4. Get the whole family involved
One of the many reasons why cooking with your kids is such a great family activity is because when they feel like they’re an integral part of the process, they’re far more likely to actually eat (and enjoy!) what you’ve put on the table for dinner. The same principle applies to vacation planning. The more your kids feel like they’ve had some say in what the family does for fun, the more likely they are to actually have fun themselves.
Of course, there are a lot of moving parts to planning a great vacation, but that doesn’t mean your younger family members can’t be involved in their own way.
For example, while you’re planning for your family’s trip, 10-year-olds are probably old enough to review the itinerary and suggest possible destinations. If your kids are old enough to have some participation—whether it’s editing a note or voting on an activity—then they’ll enjoy the day more. It’s almost like they’re sharing this great thing with you that they found.
Even if your kids are too young to take an active role in the trip planning, you can still make them an important part of the action. Each day when it becomes time to decide what to do next, show the kids the notes you made in Evernote about each district, with pictures and not just words, so you can discuss what they are most excited about doing that day.
No matter where you’re going, it can help enormously to create a visual itinerary for your preschool-aged children, using a few pictures to represent each day. Children at that age will want to know what you are doing on which days, but they’re not old enough to read yet. In that way, making a visual calendar together allows your children to be more excited about the trip, while also eliminating a great deal of potential confusion and worry. And it goes a long way towards making great memories that will last your children a lifetime.
Even though you and your partner as the parents or guardians will have final approval over the specifics, be careful to make sure your kids have some ‘skin in the game.’ Even if you’ve already chosen the hotel, for example, it would help to show the kids a picture and say “What do you think of this place? OK, I’ll book that.”
5. Make the most of templates
Once you’ve researched your destination and decided what you want to see and do, the next step is creating a detailed itinerary. This is where you begin to put the pieces in place and see what is actually possible in the time you have available. Just like at home, aim for a mix of activities and down time when planning a vacation with the kids. Too many activities and they’ll become exhausted and cranky; too few and they’ll be bored and… well, cranky. The perfect balance is much easier to achieve, though, when you can see each day laid out clearly in front of you.
Power tip: When it comes time to make your itinerary, templates in Evernote are your best friend. Instead of reinventing the wheel, templates come ready-made for you to fill with information. They’re fully customizable, endlessly reusable, and easily shareable, so you can fill in all the details for your upcoming trip and share it with everyone who needs to stay in the loop.
Putting templates to work in Evernote couldn’t be easier. To get started, simply create a new note and click Open Gallery to browse the entire collection. When you find the one you want, click on it to automatically apply it to your note, and you can hit the ground running.
If you’re an Evernote Professional or Teams customer, you can also save your own notes as templates, so when it’s time for your next vacation, your custom family trip planner will be ready to go! Just open the ‘More options’ menu (three dots) and click Save as template…, to save any note as a custom template. Then, whenever you create a new note, you’ll find it in the “My Templates” section of the template gallery and can apply it just like any other template.
Of course, if you’re still in the ‘dreaming’ stage of planning, using our Travel Inspiration Template as a guide, don’t focus solely on what the kids will enjoy. After all, this is your vacation too. Perhaps that means alternating a day at a theme park with a day at a museum. Either way, the perfect vacation plan has a mix of activities that will appeal to everyone.
Any note that has been shared with you can be used as a template. For example, this Travel Daily Itinerary Template, created by Barbara Fuller from Simplify Days, is an invaluable resource as you navigate the day-to-day details of your vacation. To use it (or any other public note), simply click Save to Evernote, then replace the provided information with your own. You can easily add links to local websites or other notes in your vacation notebook. Save important details like flight numbers and hotel addresses right there in your itinerary so you know exactly where to find them.
Finally, it’s important to be prepared in case of an emergency—especially if you’re traveling to a different country. No matter how carefully you plan, things can still go wrong, so make sure you fill in your travel itinerary template with a full list of phone numbers and addresses; not only hotels and airlines, but local emergency services and consulate offices too. Download your travel notebook for offline access on your mobile device so you can always access it, no matter where you go, and share it with friends and family back home.
Power tip: Evernote has templates for every part of your life, and many of them can also be useful while you’re away. For example, if you’re staying in an Airbnb or other self-contained accommodation, a vacation meal planner template is essential. Evernote’s Menu Planning template will help make sure you have everything you need to keep the family fueled up and ready to have fun.
6. Remember everything
If you’re anything like most people, a vacation never feels long enough. But you can deal with this by developing some ways to combat the post-holiday blues.
For example, you can use Evernote to create a digital scrapbook of your trip. Create a note in Evernote for each stop on your vacation, and fill it with pictures of the location, together with any souvenirs, like ticket stubs, brochures, etc. In each note, record audio of your kids describing what they’re seeing, and their reactions to it. Those delightful childish voices will bring a smile to your face when you listen back to them in the years to come.
Consider arming your kids, especially those who are too young to have a cell phone yet, with a cheap digital camera and letting them take their own pictures. If your kids are old enough to have smartphones, encourage them to take plenty of pictures and share their favorite ones with the rest of the family. Then you can add the photos to your notes for another unique perspective on your vacation. Sure, with young kids you’ll probably get a lot of shots of the ground, or a finger over the lens, but you will also be amazed and surprised by what unique sights your budding shutterbugs consider photo worthy.
Don’t skimp out on taking videos, too. They may seem silly in the moment, but you could be surprised by how often you find yourselves revisiting them in the years to come to relive those special memories.
Finally, when you return home, set aside an evening for a fun family “slideshow.” Cook up a batch of popcorn and look back together on all the pictures from your vacation. Discuss your individual memories of the trip, and each person’s favorite moments.
The question of how to plan a family vacation is a tricky one. While it certainly takes effort, you shouldn’t let that scare you off the idea. When you’ve organized your itinerary and planned for every possible outcome, a great family vacation can be an extremely rewarding experience for everyone involved.
The key, as with most things in life, is to be prepared and have a plan for dealing with the unexpected. Armed with an action packed agenda and a positive attitude, you can plan a family vacation that you and your kids will remember fondly, and that you’ll still be talking about for years to come.
This article was originally published on May 24, 2018. Updated on July 27, 2022.