A few years ago I was in Germany where tour guides in period costumes brought centuries of Heidelberg Castle lore to life. As the tour wrapped up, a preteen with a big grin ran up to me and said, "I looovvve learning about history this way!"
Her parents loved the fact that their dream trip was a huge hit.
Planning the ideal family vacation isn't exactly a tranquil walk in the woods. But if you approach your travel planning as a fun family project, everyone will be invested in creating a trip that yields lifelong memories for all.
1. Plan Your Destination. Begin by narrowing your destination choices to two or three. Now gather the children and get their opinions. Learn what excites them about travel. Is it the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park? Would they rather whitewater raft in the Andean foothills of Peru or explore ruins of ancient Rome? Look at magazines and scout internet travel sites. Let them know that Mom and Dad will make the final call, but their opinions matter.
2. Weigh Travel Options. Next, consider the pros and cons of independent trip planning versus guided group travel. You may prefer to make air, hotel, tour and attraction plans on your own. It will offer a degree of freedom and flexibility that suits a lot of families. The downside is that if it's harder to pin down your travel budget, you'll spend a lot more time researching and planning and you might sacrifice some of the educational value provided by experienced travel planners. If you're seriously considering the group travel route, your budget can be more transparent and you won't spend weeks poring over hotel and attraction reviews. The best group trips offer programs customized just for kids with rich insight into culture and history. Driving hassles are minimized, which can be a big plus in foreign countries or where parking is at a premium. Another bonus: top-rated tours have vetted out dining venues so there's less risk of a bad meal. The flipside, of course, is that if everything is pre-programmed you often can't squeeze in an unplanned excursion.
3. Ask Questions. Before booking any guided group travel package, compile a list of good questions. Are all excursions included, or will you have to pay extra? Which hotel nights, meals and gratuities are included? Are there extra flights or other transportation costs might may not be included in the package price? Once you know all the facts, compare the budget trip offerings and any potential hidden costs to an all-inclusive higher-priced trip before deciding where the greatest value lies for your family.
4. Consider Your Budget. The adage "you get what you pay for" or ("you don't get what you don't pay for") usually rings true when it comes to family travel. Lower-priced experiences aren't always poor choices, but they may not offer all that your family hopes to do on your trip. If your budget is tight, decide what's most important — a three-star hotel or a family zip-line experience through the Costa Rican jungle.
5. Evaluate Group Travel Itineraries. Look for deal breakers when examining the itinerary of any group or guided experience. Some companies load their itineraries with one-night stays at each hotel, which means you'll spend so much time packing and unpacking that the Eiffel Tower and The Louvre will be a vacation blur. eek a tour operator that minimizes the hassle by orchestrating longer stays at each hotel on the itinerary.
6. Start Planning Early. Keeping these tips in mind, you already have a good head start. But don't wait until the last minute to plan your vacation — families with children have far less flexibility than adults who travel sans kids. Start at least six to 12 months ahead of time to book your travel dates. You may get a better deal, and you won't be disappointed to find that the travel experience you had planned during high season has already sold out.
More and more parents tell me that they view the costs of traveling with their children as an investment in their education. Together they explore new cultures with all the history, language, food and scenery included along the way. When their 12-year-old can't stop talking about snorkeling with a sea lion in the Galapagos or marveling at how Egyptians built those huge pyramids over 3,000 years ago, the experience is priceless.
So start planning your dream trip now. Explore the world…discover your family.
Heather Killingbeck is director of trip and program development for Adventures by Disney, a global leader in guided family travel, and has been helping families live their travel dreams for more than 25 years. She has traveled to 53 countries on six continents ( some of her favorite destinations include South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, Italy, Alaska and Greece).