Tuesday, October 07, 2014

How We Plan Our Travel: The Gory Details

Now that I've finally finished writing up stories from our summer vacation, I can get back to a topic someone asked me to way back at the start of the stories- namely, how we plan and organize our trips.

Long time readers may remember that I touched on this a little bit several years ago, when I had a toddler and a preschooler instead of a preschooler and an elementary school kid. To be honest, much of that old post is still true. I think the biggest change is that we no longer try to schedule our driving for afternoon nap time, and we can get away with a few longer travel days now, particularly if we break them up with a visit to something fun after lunch, before the second leg of the drive.

Our most difficult travel struggle now is around food. Pumpkin is not the easiest child to feed even at home, and travel seems to make her even less willing to try new foods. We generally deal with this by buying portable foods that we deem acceptable meal substitutes (e.g., Go-Go Squeeze applesauces, granola bars, peanuts). We also try to have a lot of potential restaurants researched ahead of time (more on that below), and prioritize getting a good solid breakfast, since that is Pumpkin's best meal.

I think the request was primarily for me to write about how we accomplish item #1 on that old list of advice: planning like crazy. Before I launch into what we do, a few caveats:

  1. Eating issues aside, we have the extremely good fortune to have two very enthusiastic travelers for children. They don't mind sleeping in new hotels, and are generally up for exploring new places. They even like airplane rides. Believe me, I know how lucky we are in this regard, and we are grateful. 
  2. We are also lucky in that we can for the most part avoid the type of trip that my kids don't enjoy so much: the extremely long drive through not-so-interesting locales to get to a destination. The most difficult vacations we do in terms of travel are the ones in which we drive from our home in San Diego to my parents' home outside Phoenix. We generally split that into two 3 hour drives, and stay overnight in Yuma. 
  3. We have a lot of money, relatively speaking, and this definitely makes travel easier, in so many ways. We are very grateful for that, too.

So, to our method. Most of this is done by me, because I enjoy it. Mr. Snarky helps out on some parts, and also recognizes that even if it is a chore I mostly enjoy, it is still a chore, since it is a lot of work, benefits the entire family, and has a deadline.

Step 1: Defining the Framework for the Trip

The first thing we do is agree on an itinerary. We get a guidebook, do some internet reading, look at a map of the general locale we're thinking of visiting, and pick out some potential stops. When the kids get older, I hope to involve them in this. In fact, Pumpkin could probably be involved now, if I could find books written at the appropriate reading level.

Once we have a list of possible stops, I sit down with Google Maps and measure driving times between stops. This can sometimes go a bit combinatorial on me, as I consider various possible permutations of stops. At one point during the planning of the recent Colorado vacation, I just measured the driving time between every possible combination of a set of three or four destinations, wrote that down, and kept it on hand.

I kept it on hand because the next step is to book hotel rooms. Sometimes, lodging considerations force me to change the itinerary. Sometimes we have a fixed date mid itinerary, too- for instance, we decided early on that we wanted to spend the 4th of July in Aspen this year. Therefore, we booked that room first, and then I shuffled other options around until I had an itinerary that made sense with lodging we liked.

When I'm booking hotel rooms, I look for a hotel in which we can get a suite and that has some restaurants within walking distance. It works best if we can have breakfast at our hotel, too, either provided by the hotel or cold cereal made possible by a refrigerator in the room. We can't always get everything we want, of course, and then Mr. Snarky and I discuss and decide on the best compromise. This will get easier when our kids are old enough to allow us to relax our preference for a suite into a preference for a suite OR adjoining rooms.

Step 2: Filling in Detailed Options

Next, we list various things we might see and do at each stop, and also a range of restaurant options, with some near the hotel, some near the sights we might want to see, and sometimes some that are destinations in their own right. When I research restaurants, I still love to find brewpubs- both because they tend to be family friendly and because Mr. Snarky and I like to try local beers. I also find that Mexican restaurants are good options to include, as most are family friendly. Beyond that, I Google for family friendly restaurants in X, and see what I find. I also enter a location (our hotel or a point of interest) in Google Maps and then search for restaurants nearby, and check out their websites to see if I think there is food on the menu my kids will eat. It makes me very sad when restaurants don't include kids menus in their websites, but a lot don't. I just note that and include the restaurant anyway if I think it sounds interesting.

I also search for playgrounds close to our hotel and/or various points of interest. This is usually the hardest search I do. I will probably rant more about that in a later post.

The next step is to sketch out 1-3 potential plans for each stop. We are flexible and change plans on the fly, but it is nice to have a starting point. Mr. Snarky and I frequently revisit and revise these during the trip, over beers after the kids are in bed (one of many reasons we prefer to get a suite when we can).

I also sketch out potential plans for our travel days. I include potential lunch and snack stops, as well as the location of playgrounds at likely stopping points. If we're planning to stop for lunch mid-drive, I usually have a preferred destination and a destination roughly an hour earlier to fall back to if we hit traffic or anything else delays us. This is less essential now that Mr. Snarky and I both have smartphones and can do some last minute searching, but cell coverage is not always great, and I prefer to be prepared ahead of time if I can.

All of this information goes into a travel plan document, which lives in Google Docs (accessible anywhere!) but is also printed out and stored in our travel folder. Here is an excerpt of the travel document from the Colorado trip:

Colorado Summer Vacation

Arrive: [redacted]
SW flight 4782, transfer in Las Vegas to SW flight 1848

Leave: [redacted]
SW flight 2868

Car rental: Alamo reservation number [redacted]

.... (entries for each stop, and for any significant travel days between stops) ....

Colorado Springs

Arrive 7/7, stay 7/ 8, leave 7/9. Drive time from Alamosa: 2 hr 40 min

Weather: Highs in the mid 80s, Lows in the mid 50s; weather at top of Pikes Peak can be much cooler.

7290 Commerce Center Drive 1-719-599-9100


14k feet. Cog railway to the top. Railway leaves from Manitou Springs, which is a historic town w/mineral spring water fountains. Trips every 80 mins. Have reservations at 1:20 on 7/8

Cool rock formations. Several short hiking trails available.

The Broadmoor: http://www.broadmoor.com/
Fancy resort. Good restaurants. Paddleboating on Lake Cheyenne

Anaszi cliff dwellings, outside of Manitou Springs
Tours available 9-6
10 Cliff Rd.

Other Options:

Old Colorado City: historic district, now a shopping area: http://shopoldcoloradocity.com/

Restaurant Ideas:

Summit House at the top of Pikes’ Peak.
Run by Aramark, so probably nothing special.. but the only option at the top.

Crystal Park Cantina in Manitou: http://crystalparkcantina.com/
Mexican food, not clear if there is a kids’ menu
178 Crystal Park Rd, Manitou Springs

Colorado Mountain Brewing at Roundhouse (Manitou Springs): http://www.cmbrew.com/
Unclear if there is a kids’ menu, but they have woodfired pizzas and mac and cheese
Not far from Manitou Springs
600 S 21st St #180, Colorado Springs

The Margarita at Pine Creek: http://www.margaritaatpinecreek.com/
Near hotel. Closed Mondays. May not be a good choice w/kids, but looks interesting

Old Chicago: http://www.oldchicago.com/
Chain, with kids’ menu and a big beer list, walking distance from hotel

The Airplane Restaurant: http://www.theairplanerestaurant.com/
Restaurant is actually an old airplane, plus an adjacent room
1665 N Newport Rd, Colorado Springs

Trinity Brewing: http://trinitybrew.com/
Small kids’ menu, might be tough to find [Pumpkin] something, but food looks good.
1466 Garden of the Gods Rd W #184, Colorado Springs

Phantom Canyon Brewing: http://www.phantomcanyon.com/
Reviews say it is family friendly. Unclear on kids’ menu, but they have pretzels. Smoked Gouda soup gets rave reviews.
2 E Pikes Peak Ave, Colorado Springs

La Carreta
Well reviewed Mexican food, no online menu
35 Iowa Ave, Colorado Springs

Possible Plans:

Arrive early afternoon, and spend it in the Garden of the Gods. Visit the Manitou Cliff Dwellings Tuesday morning, have lunch in Manitou Springs, and then take the train up Pikes Peak at 1:20. If there is extra time one afternoon or evening, spend it exploring downtown or paddleboating at the Broadmoor.


Step 3: Write it All Down and Keep the Documents Organized

The travel folder is a green folder (not sure why I picked green, but it is always green) that has our travel plan, print outs of our airline ticket receipts, our rental car confirmation, our hotel booking confirmations, and any other receipts or confirmations for prebookings. I label everything at the top and keep them papers in the order in which we'll need them. This makes it easy to find your confirmation number if a hotel clerk can't find you. I shuffle the pages to the back as we go past those stops. Over the course of the vacation, the folder picks up random other pieces of paper that we want to save, too, things like brochures and maps that will help Mr. Snarky remember the details when he is writing captions for our pictures.

The final piece of our method is the packing list. It is a list of things to pack for the kids and a few very important things for us (like my asthma inhaler and glasses). We assume that the grown ups can manage to pack their own clothes without a list, although sometimes I suspect that is a risky assumption, as packing can happen much later and in a more rushed fashion than we would like. Be that as it may, the list focuses on the clothes and other odds and ends the kids need. I look up the weather ahead of time, and then we decide how many short sleeve shirts, how many long sleeve shirts, etc., etc., each kid needs. We include toiletries, and when the kids were younger, the number of diapers we wanted to bring. Basically, this is the list to make sure we don't forget anything that would be overly annoying to replace. (We used to buy more diapers on site, but always wanted to make sure we had a healthy number for the trip and first night.)

The packing list came into being because we made our first major trip with Pumpkin back during the days when we weren't getting anywhere near enough sleep to be able to count on our mental abilities, and I was writing lists for everything.  It has been so helpful that it lives on even though everyone (usually) sleeps through the night now. Each new trip, we copy the list from the previous one, rename it and modify it. We print it out and check things off as we pack. Then, as we're on the trip and discover things we wish we'd brought, we write them on the list, with the intention of transferring them back to the electronic document when we get home, so that we won't forget the next time.

Step 4: Go on Vacation and Have A Lot of Fun!

And we do. Our trip plan document is helpful in averting meltdowns and coping with surprise changes. Not all meltdowns can be averted, of course, but I still think I at least have more fun on the trip having done the preparation ahead of time.


At this point you are either sitting at your computer staring at your screen in horror at our over the top organization, or thinking which bits to steal for your own over the top organization. Either way, I feel it is only fair to confess that despite all of this organization, the odds are still only 50-50 that we will remember a bottle opener for the beers we drink in our hotel rooms after the kids are in bed. We've developed a rather impressive collection of souvenir bottle openers as a result.

Feel free to point and laugh in the comments, or to tell us about how you plan and organize your trips.


  1. I should also say (sorry for hijacking) that now that our kids are a bit older than yours, we have found huge rewards from researching the stories about a place ahead of time. Even little places have great stories that the kids really enjoy which come to life when you are in the place that it actually happened. The story of this lighthouse really worked well last week:



    1. You're not even hijacking! You're completely on topic. I look forward to reading your posts on one of my breaks today. And yes, we use the satellite view to figure out if that green space has playground equipment. That, and the parks and rec sites of the cities in question.

  2. I love it! I wish I could do something similar - sadly our vacation time is picked by the daycare, and she's taking ten days around Easter, and I have no idea what we could do not too far from home, with snow everywhere and a three year-old who doesn't ski or skate. Would you research it for us? ;)

    1. If I thought I could make a living doing this, I might just try! I really do enjoy it. Is there a city you'd like to visit nearby or within an easy flight? We've stayed in some unlikely sounding cities, and always found some good things, for us and the kids.

  3. Once I took my very - ahem! - selective eater on a long trip involving a hotel room without a fridge. He is not only a selective eater but a child who finds it nearly impossible to eat in public - I think he finds it overstimulating, and the overstimulation of the busy loud new environment + unfamiliar food is just too much for him. We eat a lot at Panera while traveling, honestly, because it is weirdly the only place he will happily eat. But anyway, on this trip, I found a grocery store, bought bread, PB, fruit, milk, and cereal, and kept them in the room. He ate every meal in the hotel room (we put the milk on ice since they didn't have a fridge) and when we went out to eat, we let him watch a little video with headphones. We have a wonderful super fun trip, because I understood and sympathized with his limitations. I also tend to buy one new toy (usually a lego) when we travel so the boys have something new to be excited about. (We usually go on trips that are at least 2 weeks and involve a lot of downtime in houses or hotels, like visiting family far away.)

    1. Yes, this is exactly true. Traveling with kids is so much fun when you can figure out how to accommodate their quirks instead of fighting them.

  4. Here I was feeling generous that we're considering breaking up our 16-hour drive to western Colorado into 2 days of driving this Christmas. Maybe. With kids who didn't sleep well in hotels for years, if often seemed better to just power through . Your level of planning reminded me of the time I flew to Paris in college. I arrived at the airport without either my friend's address or phone number. Thankfully, she managed to pick me up, and my fly by the seat of my pants approach to traveling has never been a problem.

    1. To each her own! I can see the appeal of just pushing through with a long drive. I didn't like doing that even without the kids, though, so as long as I'm the one planning it is unlikely to happen often for us!

      We were MUCH less organized and more seat of our pants when traveling w/o kids. On our big 4 month trip, we mostly either rolled into a town and found a place to stay, or called ahead from the road (i.e., the long, bouncy bus ride...)

  5. Anonymous10:06 AM

    So wonderful to see that someone else is so organized when it comes to making travel plans! I also find that this is a useful skill to have as an academic. I've made many friends by knowing how to get from the airport to the city centre using public transit or being aware of where the closest grocery store was to the conference centre or hotel.

  6. Hooray for the travel folder! We also keep an ongoing packing list for all 4 of us, that we revise as needed for weather and other circumstances. You should make one and add "bottle opener" to it! :)
    But we haven't traveled much except to visit family with the kids yet. I like the specifics of how you plan what to do and where to eat. That is the stuff you really don't want to be scrambling for when someone is hangry or the weather takes an unexpected turn and you have no indoor plans, etc...
    Please do write about how you find playgrounds. I always thought that was an awesome idea, but we can't seem to find anything just using google maps.

  7. Alexicographer12:30 PM

    Ha! We are more by-the-seats-of-our-pants travelers, but usually with just one kid (who, as it happens, eats 'most anything. We are lucky). We mostly stay in out-of-the-way places and wander around in the woods if we need to get out, as playgrounds are sparse where we go. But I've learned it's best if we can be near a water feature (i.e. pond or stream, nothing fancy required) as this provides hours of fun. If we are staying in a hotel, I do try to pick one with a pool.

    This summer our vacation included a few nights in the Badlands; I
    initially thought I'd allowed for 1 too many (nights) but then realized that DS is perfectly content if he is allowed to (a) climb things and (b) throw rocks [into a void, not AT anyone, obviously!!!], and, well, one can do those things forever in the Badlands. So, no worries!

    I got a big kick actually out of a planned trip to visit family in a city where they kept rattling off things we could do to keep DS entertained. And I was all, "Don't worry! We can always go out and take a ride on one of the public bus routes and be perfectly entertained." Which was true.

    I do sometimes worry that we are missing out on/have missed good local spots (and no doubt we sometimes do. But others we make discoveries that we might have missed were we more into planning ahead). This year, I learned that it is good to go find an age-appropriate kids book in the local gift store for whatever topic we're near (this summer: Native American history, Mammoths), as this seems to be something he enjoys, and educational but not pedantic.

    And, I do usually try to pack food. While DS will eat most things, most places, he eats more frequently than do we and is crankier when hungry, so having decently healthy snack food on hand is a good thing, wherever we are.

  8. We are just starting to plan a HUGE roadtrip coming up, which is the first real vacation we've taken as a family of four. Larabars and those applesauce pouches are staples for us in general and I love that they travel well too.

    I'm not one for a TON of planning as long as we've got a decent place to stay and transportation worked out. We're really laid back vacationers so having LOTS of plans actually stresses us out more.

  9. I can see why you went into project management :) My husband is totally fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. We went to Africa on our honeymoon, in places with little tourist infrastructure, and had some tense calls in attempting to find places to stay or fuel the car. I think we missed some cool stuff we would have liked to see as a result. I tend to do more of the planning now (he usually does plane tix, because we're often using his frequent flier miles). I like to know where I'm staying at night, but we often don't plan out exact day to day activities, even with the kids. We like to be able to look at the weather, gauge interest, etc. Things generally work out, so we try to strike the right balance between planning and seeing what comes.

  10. We share a Google Doc packing list with tabs/sheets for specialized trips.

    E.g. the front sheet is general packing stuff that we always take.
    Then there are tabs for stuff our annual ski and camping trips.

  11. I look forward to your playground rant! We're just in the middle of a 4 week vacation/living hybrid trip with a 3.5 year old and a 2 month old...and the playground that I was expecting to be around the corner is out of commission due to construction! Luckily we found another park that is just wonderful, further away, and always empty it seems.

    Since we'll be doing 3 more of these 4 week stints, there's a whole lot of playground google hunting in my future!

    I love your planning strategy - ours has become more similar now that we have little ones and want to do more travelling, even at their young ages. We've had such good experiences travelling with kids and we have big plans in the next year and I'm hoping to start a new blog chronicling our adventures, but with two littles, I'm starting with twitter!


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