Plan a Summer Vacation

by Jonathan Sweet

The family vacation is a summer tradition. Whether it’s driving cross country or taking a quick weekend trip, here’s a step-by-step guide to making it, if not painless, at least a little easier. Pack your bags, load up the family roadster and hit the trail.

Step 1 What’s your budget?

Before thinking about anything else, figure out how much you can — or want to — spend on a summer vacation. That will help you decide how long you can afford to travel, where you can go and where you can stay. Be sure to include money for lodging, food, transportation, entertainment, activities and plenty of souvenirs.

Step 2 Decide where you want to go

Think about where you went on your last summer vacation, where you want to go this year and what you want to see. If you have children, take into consideration what they want to do as well as the adults; finding a destination that keeps everyone happy is the key to a great vacation.

Theme parks can be fun for everyone, but can also take a big bite out of your budget. Look for deals online. Sea World and many other parks offer a reduced price children’s ticket for every full-price adult ticket you buy. Many parks also offer lodging, food and admission packages that can save you a lot of money. Make sure to check all the package details, though, so you don’t pay for things you won’t use.

Take advantage of your tax dollars for a fun, educational and budget-friendly summer vacation. Hundreds of national, state and local parks, museums and historical sites offer free and discounted admission. Washington, DC, for example, has dozens of free attractions like the Smithsonian, the National Zoo, the new U.S. Capitol Visitor Center and countless memorials.

Step 3 Figure out how to get there

Depending on the destination, driving is usually the least expensive way to travel on a summer vacation — especially if you’re taking three or more people. AAA offers a fuel cost calculator that can help you make the decision.

Piloting the family car on a long trip can be a memorable family experience, but young kids can get antsy sitting for hours in the car. Flying offers its own stresses, too, so weigh all your options before deciding. Don’t rule out traveling by train or bus, which combine scenic benefits with the ease of flying.

Step 4 Pick your lodging

Assuming you can’t — or don’t want to — stay with family, you’ve got a lot of options for where to stay, from campgrounds to hotels to motels and resorts.

Camping certainly has its advantages. It’s less expensive and can be a lot of fun for children. National and state parks sometimes offer free campsites. You can check availability and pricing of all national park campgrounds online.

If the outdoors isn’t for you, the great indoors offers many options. Think carefully about what amenities you want in a hotel, resort or other lodging. Features like a pool or game room can be crucial for keeping kids happy after a long day of sightseeing or driving. Most mid-grade hotels offer free breakfast, which can add up to big savings over the course of a long summer vacation. Consider extended stay hotels with a kitchen if you want to save money by cooking your own meals.

Check discount sites like Priceline and Hotwire for lodging deals, but be aware that while you can save a lot of money, you won’t always get to pick all the amenities you want.

Step 5 Plan your itinerary

Once you’ve decided where you’re going, where you’re staying and how you’re getting there, put together a schedule of planned activities — especially those that require reservations or advance tickets. Get everyone involved and make it a fun part of the planning process. Be realistic, plan something for everyone but leave some time open for unplanned fun, too. Some of the best summer vacation memories can be made doing spur-of-the-moment activities.

Step 6 Make a list and pack your bags

Avoid having to buy essentials such as deodorant or suntan lotion — which can be expensive depending on where you go on summer vacation — by making a list before you pack. The last few days before a vacation can be hectic, so work on the list ahead of time to avoid unnecessary stress. Keep track of everything you use from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed on a typical day. Eliminate anything you can do without while on vacation to lighten your luggage load. Include favorite books, magazines or toys for each family member — and don’t forget the camera. Pack a cooler with drinks, sandwiches and snacks if you’re traveling by car to save time and money stopping for food while on the road.

Step 7 Have fun

No matter how much you plan, things will go wrong. Flights get delayed, construction slows traffic and hotels lose reservations. It’s important to remember a summer vacation is an opportunity to spend some quality family time, so don’t expect everything to go perfectly. When you look back, you’ll want to recall the good parts of your summer vacations — not sibling fights in the back seat or arguments with hotel employees — so just relax and have fun. Remember that sometimes the best choice is to skip visiting the world’s largest ball of twine and just hit the hotel pool.


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