Monday, February 3, 2014

Vacation Planning

My travel background:  I have always been a traveler!  My parents separated when I was a child and they both moved a lot!!  It was common for me to travel from one place to another to spend quality time with each of my parents.  When I entered my early 20's my dad wanted to make sure that I had the opportunity to explore other places in the United States as a vacation destination.  By my mid 20's I met my now husband.  He also loves to travel but there is one specific destination that we had in common - Southern California!  I lived in the area with my mom a couple of times in my elementary school years and I had visited there a few times in later years to vacation with my dad.  My husband had a couple of friends that moved there after high school so, when he visited them, he fell in love with the increased exposure to music and movies in So. Cal.

My husband and I started our travel adventures together visiting places that one or both of us had traveled to before.  In later years we started exploring other areas of the United States.  Some of these travels were for work or to visit family but the goal has always been to explore the area as if it were our only chance to visit there (which, aside from Southern California, it probably would be our only visit to the area).

So here are some things that I do to plan every vacation we go on:

Ask friends and family if they have ever been there (Facebook is an awesome starting point).  Do they have travel tips, advice, ....  Out of these responses I hope to find out some of the things that I will regret not doing.  I have always hated getting home from a vacation only to find out about a popular place or activity that I did not know about until after my return home!!!  For example:  if you visit Boston you HAVE to go on a duck boat tour; you can't go to Maui and not check out the road to Hana; you can't go to Hawaii and not participate in a luau.

Get online to check out travel and tourism sites for each state you are visiting.  I request that they send me information about the state.  I LOVE to get the paper maps and all the things that the state feels promotes tourism in their area.  When I go on a road trip - I have a packet of brochures for each state I am traveling through.  Much of the information is useless advertisement!  But, I always find at least one hidden treasure that peaks my interest.

Google Searches and Pinterest:  I do a lot of searches to find blogs, business, travel reviews, ...  for the area I am going to.  Make a list:  What do you imagine when you think of this place?  Wyoming - rodeo, cowboy, covered wagon, buffalo/moose, mountains.... California - Hollywood, redwoods, golden gate bridge, gold...  Hawaii - beaches, dolphins, sea turtles, surfing, ...  then start doing online searches  using the area and the activity to see what comes up.

Visitors Centers and/or Airport stands:  There are always a ton of brochures that will help you discover activities.  A lot of times I get them in search for coupons!

Maps of the area too!

So many different coupons to choose from.
I get asked a lot by other tourists where I found specific ones.  

Google Earth/Maps:  I literally map out my trip (especially when going on a road trip) to follow along the path via satellite to see what I will be passing.  When we made a trip from Michigan to Alabama I discovered that we would be really close to the Mammoth Cave National Park.  In that same area there is also Dinosaur World.  It turned out to be a perfect stopping point to get a nights sleep and then start the next day with an adventure before another long day of driving.  I also used Google Earth/Maps for an upcoming trip to visit a place where I lived for a summer when I was in 5th grade.  I was there with my dad but he has since passed away so I can not use advice/memory.  Via satellite (Google Earth), I was able to locate all the areas I remembered so I can revisit them with my kids!

Ask the locals!!!  They are a treasure chest full of great advice on where to eat, what you won't want to miss while in the area, the best beaches, ...  There are so many great places that aren't in the travel brochures!  During a recent trip to Hawaii a local told us about a beach that is very hidden from tourists but it was rated in the top five beaches in the world.  We found it and I am so glad we did.  it was the most beautiful and perfect beach!!!  I always get great restaurant recommendations from local people!

Special Interest Places:  We collect pins from Hard Rock Cafe.  I always check to see of there are any Hard Rock Cafe locations along our route.  During our trip from Michigan to Alabama and back we stopped at 3 or 4 different Hard Rock Cafes and 1 Rainforest Cafe.

Finding a deal:  we put a lot of time into planning a vacation.  Which means that we also put a lot of time into finding a great deal.  We always start with airfare (if flying).  Then we figure out our plans and start booking hotel rooms.  There isn't really a good way that we always use but here are some things we usually do during our search:

  • Check out sites like Orbitz and Travelocity to get an idea of rates for a variety of dates.  This is for hotel and/or air fair.  
  • Airlines:  go directly to their website to check their rates.  Now and then you can get a better rate by going directly through the airline.  This is also important because some airlines do not work with 3rd party travel sites like Orbitz.  For example, in my area, Southwest Airlines and Allegiant offer great rates but I can only find them by going directly to their website or through the airports website.  
  • Hotels:  go directly to their website.  They often offer early booking discounts that can save you more than Orbitz (and other 3rd party travel sites).  I usually use third party sites to identify what hotels are in the area and the price ranges.  But, most of the time I book the hotel directly through their company site.  
  • CityPass and Go Card (Check out this blog post):  I look to see if they have these in the area I plan to travel too.  If so, will I benefit from buying it?  If yes, do they offer a discount though someplace (like Costco)?  If I won' benefit from buying one, can I still get ideas of great places to visit?  
  • Basically - we spend many hours doing research for each trip that we go on!!!!

I would love to hear what you do to plan and budget your vacations!

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