The Ultimate Vacation Planning Guide – My Vacation Shorts

As we are about to embark on one of the biggest family vacations of our lives, I have been reflecting on vacation planning practices that we do before we go on a trip.  We are about to travel to Europe for a month, which obviously requires some major planning, and I am trying to find a balance between getting things done in my day-to-day life and getting ready for my upcoming trip.  It’s tough, but I have some tried and true methods that make sure the planning goes, well…according to plan.  Here are a few of them, so you too can have peace of mind before you head out on your epic vacation adventure.

Google Map It

My husband is our mapper.  Even before we buy plane tickets he’s on the computer plotting out our destinations using Google Maps.  He will click on interesting looking locations and scenery around where we are going and make the most of our traveling times.  He will try different routes and change them if there is something really cool, not too far out of the way.  You can than save the itinerary to your phone or just make sure you have the addresses of the places you are going so you can map it on the road.

Book Your Lodging

After you have mapped out where you are traveling to, you need to figure out where you are going to stay at the places you are visiting.  Gone are the days that you can drive up to a hotel and get a good rate.  You have to plan that stuff ahead now.  I like to use Tripadvisor to read hotel reviews and book hotels.  If I really want to find a killer deal, I book it blind with Hotwire.  Click on the highlighted links to get my tips on using these websites.  You don’t always have to pay ahead of time, but you should still secure that reservation.  If you are camping in the United States, I recommend reserving ahead of time on  You do have to pay a small processing fee for booking ahead of time, but it is worth it to not have to worry about arriving at a full campsite.  There is also the vacation rental route as well, but often times if you are just staying for a night or two they charge a cleaning fee and large deposit.  So make sure it is worth it.  Of course, if you have family or friends where your traveling to you can arrange to stay with them.  We like to have our own space, but we have definitely stayed with family and friends when we are in a real pinch.  Just make sure you tell them ahead of time, so they have time to clean their house.  😉

Plan your hotels in advance like we did for this one in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Plan Your Activities

I have already talked about on previous posts how you should plan one big activity a day at the very most.  You won’t be able to relax if you have a jammed pack schedule.  For example, we are traveling to Italy this summer and there is so much to see and do, but we are only there for a couple weeks, so we booked some things in advance, but not more than one big thing a day, like the Coliseum or the leaning tower of Pisa.  Some things you have to reserve ahead of time, while other things you can just wait and see what happens.  I always make a board for my trip on Pinterest so I can  look at it while we are on the trip and see what we have time to do.  Another really cool feature of Tripadvisor is the save feature.  If you download the app and make an account you can download destination guides and save places you want to go.


Plan Your Eats

Eating is just a big part of my life.  I think it is a great way to experience the place you are visiting.  I love to look up what regions are famous for what kind of food.  When we visited 7 different states in one trip on the East Coast in the United States, I researched what type of food we should get in each region, and let’s just say the food on that trip did NOT disappoint.  We had barbecue in North Carolina, Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches in Philly, fresh Crab in Maryland, and pretty much the best bakery delights we have ever had in West Virginia.  After I find out what type of cuisine is famous in each area, I start using Tripadvisor and Pinterest again to save what restaurants I might want to hit up in the cities we are visiting.  We never have time to go to all of them, but it is definitely fun to try.  Also, don’t underestimate the power of the fridge and microwave in a hotel room.  Sometimes grocery stores in different destinations have new, interesting tastes and local brands not available in your home town.

Philly Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia. Yum.

Plan Your Trip Budget

I know the last thing you want to do is be on a budget when you are on vacation, but think of it this way:  If you don’t go crazy, you can afford to take more vacations.  I always estimate how much the trip is going to cost by figuring out these categories.

  • Rental Car (or other transportation costs) – We like the freedom of driving around on our own, so we often rent a car when we travel.  Of course it depends on where you are going.  Always reserve the car on a credit card that offers extra insurance coverage, and don’t forget the rental car company often puts a hold on your card for not only the cost of the car, but an additional hold to cover loss and damages to the vehicle.  I always plan for that money not to be available on my credit card.
  • Gasoline – Make sure you have an idea of how much gas will cost in the area you are traveling.  There are many gas calculators on the internet, but I prefer using It always gives me a pretty accurate estimate for my trip budget.
  • Public Transportation – Sometimes it’s just easier, especially in big cities, to take public transportation around.  We have used public buses, chartered buses, ferry boats, taxis, water taxis, trains, limos, hotel shuttles, subways, gondola rides, etc.  Make sure you estimate how much these things will cost ahead of time.
  • Food – I don’t really count food against the cost of a trip since you have to eat whether you are vacationing or not, but I do like to have an idea of how much I can spend on food a day, since we’ll probably be eating out more than usual.  One day we may just eat in our hotel room and do microwave meals, another day we may eat out all day, so I average out how much I can spend on food per day of my vacation.  That way you can save up for that special meal or treat.
  • Lodging – I like to prepay for my lodging if at all possible.  Sometimes it is cheaper to wait, so I always leave room on my credit card for a hold from the hotel for the cost of hotel and incidentals.  Make sure you read hotel policies ahead of time.  They all differ depending on where you go.  Sometimes even if you prepay they still make you hold a certain amount on your card and it may not be available for a couple of days.
  • Activities – Make sure you save money in your trip budget for sightseeing and shopping.  We aren’t big shoppers when we travel, so we don’t save money for that, but we do like to do museums, aquariums, and other interesting local attractions, so figure out how much you can spend on the fun.

Before You Leave the Nest

Before you leave your home base it always a good idea to set up some things ahead of time, so you don’t have to worry about them on vacation.  Just take a look at this handy dandy checklist and you will be home free for your vacay!

  • Pay your bills that may be due while you are gone ahead of time, or schedule the bills to be paid while you are gone.
  • Get a house sitter for animals or plants if needed.  It doesn’t have to be someone who stays the night, but you may need someone to check in on your place while you are gone.  We like to let our neighbors know when we are gone for a long time too.
  • Put your mail on hold or arrange to have it picked up.
  • Check the weather for your destination(s).
  • Pack light!  This one is super hard for me to do, but I never regret carrying around less luggage.
  • Tell a friend or relative where you will be going and when you will be gone.  You want someone you trust to know your itinerary in case of an emergency.
  • Have access to your itinerary and reservations.  You don’t have to print up anything if you have it digitally, but sometimes certain reservations have to be printed up.  Just make sure you can get to the information if needed.
  • Put a travel alert in to credit cards and debit cards you are going to use.  I often forget to do this and inevitably my card gets declined.  I then have to call while I am sightseeing and get it turned back on.  Also, if there is a time change, it may be after banking hours and you may be stuck without your card(s) for sometime.
  • Batten down the hatches.  Make sure doors are locked, cars you aren’t using are locked, water is turned off (we may have accidentally left a hose on once), turn your A/C or heater off, and unplug big appliances.  We like to take the opportunity during our long vacations to defrost the fridge.  This will also cut down on next month’s utility bills, and you can put the savings into your next trip.

Okay, now you are ready to walk out the door and get your travel on.  Stay tuned for more travel tips and advice.  Are there any other planning tips that you rely on to make a great vacation a reality?  Let me know in the comments below.

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