Sunday, October 18, 2009

Top Ten: On Our Finding of Great Destinations

The beach on our Chesapeake Bay Trip, October 2009

Since the Chesapeake Bay post I've received a whole slew of questions about how, exactly, we go about finding the destinations to which we travel. Here's my Top Ten List:
  1. Love it. Embrace it. Travel is a passion of ours. We place huge value on traveling with our kids. We are grateful everyday for the travel we are able to do in our family life. If we could afford it we'd travel a ton more than we already do. Although we had traveled a bit before we met (huge influence on both of us were our Study Abroad experiences in college --Braydon in Russia, Heather in Chile), Braydon and I fell in love with travel together. For us it is all about the experiential aspects of it; experiencing something new together. We, and now our kids, love every single aspect of it (planning it; getting there; being there; getting home; remembering it). For real. We also tend to like experiences that push our limits just an itty bitty bit... and we don't like commercialist materialist tourist traps... and we like some level of privacy... thus, our desire for slightly 'off the beaten path' destinations. We prioritize travel and dedicate a lot to it in terms of money, time, and energy. So we are willing to do a lot of research to make sure that we're going to the right places. We (especially me, Heather) have learned to embrace the planning of it almost as much as the actual doing of it. We (especially I) spend a lot of time on the planning, researching, preparing. We are not afraid to spend hours and hours and hours figuring out where to go, where to stay, and what to do. If I had to give one tip, based on what we have learned over time, it would be this: invest, heavily, in the planning -- love it, embrace it -- it will pay off in exceptional experiences!!!
  2. I've been relying on this site for years and it has never done me wrong. If I was limited to one -- and only one -- resource for travel planning, this would be it. Specifically, I use the reviews. Reviews of destinations and reviews of hotels/resorts. I also use the Travel Forums on this site. I read the info on TripAdvisor in detail, look closely at every single photo posted, and I also will very often email/message the posters/reviewers. This is serious research people! I'll stay up into the wee wee hours for days on end doing this until I think I've absorbed everything I can to make informed decisions. For our Mexico trip this past spring, for example, I relied heavily on this site. I was in email correspondence (asking millions of questions, from the most simple to the most profound -- no joke) with numerous people whose reviews/forum posts I found there. I've been using tripadvisor extensively for the past five years or so. Amongst all the travel sites out there, I seriously think this one is the best.
  3. Suites and Kitchenettes. Way back in the beginning, when we first got Kyle and Owen home, we figured out pretty quickly that the way to go, where travel was concerned, was to --whenever humanly possible-- get some sort of suite-like accommodations. Because of early bedtimes and napping, it is very very very very good to be able to have some sort of separate sleeping area and 'living' area. A suite is great, but in warm climates just a porch/balcony/patio is enough. Someplace for Braydon and I to 'be' while the bambinos sleep. Also, we ensure some sort of kitchen/kitchenette whenever possible. Our routine is always the same: out and about for the day, feed dinner to the kiddos early (think easy breezy: mac n cheese, pasta and a jar of sauce, grilled cheese), kids to bed, then dinner and drinks for the happy parents. Braydon gets take-out for us, or we cook something simple for us, and we enjoy the peace and quiet without the strains of home. The kitchenette is invaluable-- it makes baby feeding (think freezer for storing breast milk; mixing formula; microwave for warming bottle in the mid-of-the-nite) easier, and basically all feeding easier (think a gallon of your favorite organic whole milk in the fridge; a big bowl of fresh fruit on the table so they're getting at least some kind of nutrition amidst the hot dogs and mac n cheese and ice cream; a jug of margarita mix at the ready for the kids-in-bed-Happy-Hour).
  4. Sweet Suite Hotel Chains. Suites with kitchenettes are not always as expensive as you might think. If you haven't caught onto it yet, the suite-hotel-chains are a bargain. (Homewood Suites, Residence Inn, etc.) We use these a lot. We might pay a little bit more for the hotel, but we save in food. We will almost always eat breakfast in the room. Sometimes lunch too. And we always give the kids dinner at the room. This helps in the mental-health arena too; there is no way on earth we could expect our rambunctious boys to eat out three meals a day---- no matter how much they love to eat out! So, we arrive at the destination and make a grocery-store-run ASAP. Its all good.
  5. (Vacation Rental By Owner) This is where we have found all of the house rentals, condo rentals, and timeshares that we've rented over the past few years. Seriously, folks, if you can find the right place this is often cheaper than a hotel. We contact the owners and ask about a hundred questions before we decide.
  6. Bartering. We always try to get the VRBO owners to come down on their rental prices. And they almost always do. Sometimes they come down significantly.
  7. Surfing. (the web.) We do a lot of internet research. I google google google and read up (extensively) on any websites we can find. I'm not afraid to ask questions. And I always ask about the racial dynamic of the area, and try to gauge if it will be a destination that is friendly to our particular family.
  8. We buy the book. The old fashioned, good as gold, travel book. Nothing on the web can compare. Our favorites are the Moon Travel Guides. We buy real maps of the areas too, whenever possible, in advance.
  9. Visionaries. Based on all this research we almost always have a solid idea of what we're going to want to do, and often even where we're going to want to eat. So we can prepare the bambinos for what is in store. And so that we can all be on the same page re: what the expectations are. It helps if everyone has the same vision in mind. And that can only happen if there is a vision to be shared.
  10. Wish List. We keep a running wish list of places we want to go. We often stray from that list. But we always have our dreams in place. And no dream is ever too big. Or too small.

So... what are your tips and tricks for great family travel????


Mark and Sarah said...

Funny--I thought about this question, but never posted it! Thanks for sharing your secrets. We love tripadvisor and vrbo too. I agree, separate sleeping quarters for the kids and some kind of kitchen are a must. Great tips!

Mom 4 Kids said...

This photo is beautiful! Is this the Ches. Bay? My husband and I are from Chesapeake VA. We live in FL now and really miss it this time of year.


M and M said...

Heather, I travel and plan for travel in much the same way. And, I've planned some doozies. I took 2kids to Ireland, solo - and I rented the most amazing home there for one of those 2 weeks. The same for Hungary as well. I have not, however, used VRBO - and now I will!
Quite honestly, I hand't ever considered Chesapeake until your post - and now it is on MY list. And my list, like yours, is long. I almost NEVER return to the same place twice. I don't - I can't - there is too much to do in one lifetime! Ireland might be my exception because I'd like to do a walking tour. And, Ethiopia will be a place we return to again and again for obvious reasons (and now we have students who will graduate and I'd like to attend their college ceremonies!).
Thanks for sharing - your travels are always inspiring. Plus, the window into your method helps me refine mine just a bit - so thanks for that! (Plus, it's a good reminder to get my comments on tripadvisor too!)

Have a great week!

jen.rios said...

Thanks for mentioning Moon Travel Guides - we really appreciate it! Your children are adorable, and your family is inspiring. I'd like to send you a book of your choice for being a loyal Moon fan. Please email me at if you're interested.

All the best,
Jen Rios-Burns
Online Marketing Manager
Avalon Travel Publishing

Alexandra said...

Hi Heather,
I don't post comments often, but since you are writing about a major passion of mine, here I go. I spend countless hours researching destinations, places to stay, things to do, what to eat, where to eat, reading travel reports and looking at pictures. My travel wish list is LOOOOONG, so long that our family could spend the next 10 years going on the trips I have already meticulously planned;), ranging from doing pottery in Malawi to canoeing in Sweden. The last 2 years were tough for me, as we didn't yet have German passports for the children and therefore stuck to Europe for our travels. Not that there aren't wonderful destinations in Europe - to the contrary - but I miss flying!! My first job was working for an airline and flying just became part of my life. SInce coming back from Haiti over 2 years ago I haven't stepped on a plane and I can't tell you how much I miss the excitement of being in the airport, stepping on the plane, smelling that particular plane smell and the feelings that rush through me at take-off. Now that we have the children's passports in hand, we are planning a trip to the US next to visit our best friends, wohoo!
Oh, and I plan very much the same way that you do. Lots & lots of research, slightly off the beaten track destinations, appartments or 2 adjoining hotel rooms, kitchen essential and especially GOOD FOOD!
So, thanks for the post, I really enjoyed reading it and am glad that there are other people out there who are just as crazy when it comes to planning & travelling as I am;).

All the best from Germany,
Alexandra, Ralf, LĂ©ane and Davidson

TGR101 said...

We do lots of car trips (drove from Pennsy to Florida last year, stopping to see friends along the way, for instance) and we play all those typical car games of my youth like I Spy and we also try to spot funny things on billboards or road signs. I give them an assignment (find a baby, find a cow, etc.) and they have to keep an eye out for it. Once you've got five or 10 or whatever, I toss a pack of Smarties into the backseat. We tried videos, but my daughters (now almost 7) just aren't that into them.
We also do VRBO and (so far) have never been disappointed.We almost always check out the local libraries along the way, usually around the time someone needs to use a restroom. We've stumbled upon storytimes, craft times and there's nearly always a computer to play on for a few minutes so we can rest from the road, use the bathrooms (much nicer than typical roadside facilities)then get back on the road.