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ARE WE THERE YET? by Tamara Steckler

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. What are you waiting for?

Martha Vineyards
Summer is a lovely time to travel to Martha's Vineyard – no plane ride required.

As our daily routines become rote and our minds wander to something more exciting than the monotony of day-to-day living, it’s inevitable that getting away from it all enters our consciousness. Sometimes it’s a spa afternoon or just a staycation for a day or two (warning: not possible with children afoot) but sometimes you need more: Sometimes, you need a real vacation.

So you clear the kitchen table, pull out all your underutilized, yet dog-eared, travel guides, make a cup of coffee, and begin the wondrous journey of planning the perfect escape. Excitement ripples through your body as you fire up the travel websites; your brain buzzes like a thousand bees, imagining all the wondrous places you have always wanted to go. Your fingers bring you to the search bar over and over again, as you begin the pre-vacation journey of formulating the ultimate getaway. 

Then panic sets in as the specifics of what, where, and when take turns battering your already exhausted mind. You slowly back away from the laptop, thinking you’ve only wasted three hours, and remembering that the South Mountain Reservation is just a walk away and, after all, Costa Rica is just trees too, right? Your dream begins to cloud over and fade away as quickly as it came. Maybe another day.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Planning a vacation should be fun and exciting, and for some organized people with excellent executive functioning, it is. But for most people organizing and executing a vacation may cause you to need another vacation and that’s not exactly the point, is it?

Everything from deciding the best time to travel, considering work and school schedules, navigating ticket and hotel sites, and figuring out what you want to do once you arrive, can make planning a trip akin to visiting the dentist for a root canal.

To help, seasoned travelers suggest beginning your planning at least eight weeks in advance, to ensure cost savings and allow for sufficient time to research. Maplewood resident Judy Rubashkin, a travel advisor with Alice Travel and an ardent vacationer, who has been to more than 25 countries, often with her three children in tow, plans her “next” trip as soon as the last one is completed (and sometimes before!). According to Rubashkin, “The first two decisions to be made are location and budget. All else stems from those determinations.” So, will you opt for a quiet villa in Belize, an all-inclusive resort with activities for the little ones, or a sightseeing excursion to a faraway city? Do you want an international experience, or would you prefer the beauty that lies outside your front door (I mean really outside, like Montana)?

Rubashkin suggests, “Once you determine your location, set a realistic budget that allows for the essentials (travel costs, hotels, and food) but also for the additional costs (excursion and entry fees, transportation, souvenirs, etc.). The budget should be somewhat flexible to allow for some spontaneity.” Many travel websites and articles offer free checklists for planning a trip to help remind you what costs to consider.

And while a vacation is often a group experience, it is useful if one person takes the lead; decision by consensus takes longer to reach and could increase stress. Have your planner do the legwork and present it to the group before hitting the enter button. And most importantly, let your children do some of the choosing. It’s harder to complain when it was your suggestion.

Once you have your location and budget set, onto the fun part. As with most things, better planning equals less stress. And while every minute does not have to be accounted for (some of the most vivid travel memories may be surprises), Rubashkin warns, “Approximating how each day will play out helps with managing expectations and stress – two of the biggest vacation killers. But it’s also important to be flexible and to think about setting aside rigid schedules that may be important at home.”

Travel Advisor
Judy Rubashkin, a travel advisor with Alice Travel and an ardent vacationer, has been to more than 25 countries. She's pictured here in Greece.

To assist with making better, faster decisions some people use travel advisors to take them through the process. Such specialists often have access to discounts and inside information. Others join a tour group to help make the unfamiliar familiar or use a shared guide for certain excursions (or all of them!). A good guide helps you get the lay of the land, especially initially, while giving you an out when your annoyed offspring insists you just ruined their life. (“It wasn’t me, honey, the guide made us do it.”) Using a private guide ensures your family’s needs will be of prime consideration, but it also is more expensive.

And why reinvent the vacation wheel? Why do the work if someone else has already done it for you, complete with a “big mistakes” section? If you are not a planner but your friend has successfully navigated both Disney World and Italy, go ahead and cheat – it may be the one place that looking at someone else’s answers will be celebrated.

But even if working with an expert, you need to know the answer to some basic questions: What are the main sights you want to see? Do you want to go off the beaten path? How much can your family tolerate in one day? Do you want some down time? How often do you like to eat a meal?

Remember, with kids you may have to do the more touristy things like the Eiffel Tower. Big cities often offer packages that include the hottest tourist sites. Rubashkin suggests, “Buy tickets ahead of time, consider paying the fee for skipping the line, and go early or late in the day to avoid long waits. Consider going off-season, although the weather may not be ideal, for lower prices. And, of course, prices are usually hiked up during school breaks.”

One of the most important decisions is where to stay, in terms of price point and location. While a prime location will be pricier, you may save on transportation costs and time. Also, more expensive hotels have concierge services that could be helpful. And while some of the travel sites appear to offer less costly hotel bills, often the hotel websites offer the same prices with the benefit of better room assignments.

Be sure to check in directly with the hotel as soon as you make the reservation if you need a cot or an “attached” room, and while you’re on the phone check on free breakfasts and early check-in too. Rubashkin warns, “Make sure there are not two hotels with the same name in the same city if you don’t want your family waiting in two different places!”

Lake Placid
Maplewood resident Chris Coreschi enjoys some solitary time on Lake Placid.

And while family trips are supposed to be “an experience,” no experience is without its challenges. There will be lots of travel time and waiting in lines, so be sure to bring a deck of cards, magnetic travel games, a family book, and a mental roster of fun games like I Spy. Bringing a child-friendly guidebook and/or maps may help your children feel more a part of the trip. And don’t underestimate the value of an audio tour, especially for those young non-readers.

While the trip may not be a constant roller coaster of fun and action, allowing boredom to rear its ugly head does not benefit anyone. Video games and iPads can provide a good distraction, but a family vacation also means putting away the electronics and enjoying time interacting with one another. Whether it’s Cancun for some surf and sun, or the top of the Eiffel Tower, making lifelong family memories might just be worth the pain of planning the perfect vacation.

So go ahead and buy a world map for your wall and put a pin in all the places you’ll visit because, as Ferris Bueller so wisely reminds us, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around for a while, you could miss it.” Don’t miss it.

Tamara Steckler is an enthusiastic planner with high executive functioning and a super low tolerance for being 30,000 feet in the air. 

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