Between the research, prep, and packing, your family’s dream trip can feel like a second job. Use these tips to get it booked and enjoy.

By Shivani Vora
Updated July 01, 2019
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We’ve all been there: You decide to plan a family vacation and are thrilled about the idea of getting away and enjoying quality time together. Weeks later, it’s midnight, and you’re searching TripAdvisor for the 24th time to find an all-inclusive resort within your budget that has decent food and will entertain everyone in your family, while wondering how all this planning fell solely on your shoulders in the first place. Save time and get your life back with these organizational hacks from our experts, who eat, sleep, and breathe travel—and often vacation with kids.

Narrow down your destination. If you’ve already decided on a beach vacation or a trip to Europe, skip ahead to the next section. But if you’re hemming and hawing about where to go—staring down a bucket list of ideas from magazines, friends and family, social media, and so on—try reflecting on a few prompts to start booking flights and planning activities a little sooner. Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the trade group Family Travel Association and father of two children, suggests writing out a list of everyone’s goals for the family vacation. “Are you looking to relax or are you interested in sightseeing or adventure?” he says. If everyone’s goal is to kick back before school starts, for example, book the beach vacation and save the Disney World and Universal Studios park-hopping trip for next year. Still torn? Let your kids help cull your list. “If your children help choose the destination, they’ll be more engaged on the trip,” says Eric Stoen, founder of the family-travel website Travel Babbo, who has traveled to more than 50 countries, including Japan, England, and Australia, with his three children. Have a child who’s into Greek mythology? A trip to Greece’s ancient sites is a no-brainer. Foodies? Choose a place based on their favorite cuisine. If they’re obsessed with tacos, try San Diego or visit some markets in Mexico City.

Get everyone involved. Family vacations work best—and are easier to plan—when everyone feels like they have a stake in it, according to nearly all our experts. Kids (unless they’re very young, of course) are often great researchers, especially if they have clear parameters and a price limit in mind. “You should definitely outsource part of the planning to them,” says Christine Sarkis, deputy executive editor of the online travel magazine SmarterTravel and mother of two. Give everyone in your family time—say, two weeks—to research your destination online and in guidebooks. Then schedule a family meeting where each person proposes a few activities in order of priority. “Share this list with one another, and the excursions that everyone is most excited about win,” she says. Before you know it, you’ll have a lineup of activities.

Stick to one or two places. Ted Blank, a Stillwater, Minnesota–based travel adviser with Travel Leaders, who frequently takes his four nieces on trips, recommends that families establish one or two “base camps” on their vacation and then take day trips to surrounding areas. Opt not to move each night. “It’s nice not to have to pack and unpack every day, and you’ll appreciate having somewhere to come ‘home’ to every night,” he says. Planning your trip this way also gives you the added advantage of researching fewer hotels and transfers.

Pare down. Yes, you want to maximize every minute at your destination, but nearly all our experts agree that having an itinerary packed with activity is a bad idea—and wastes a lot of research time that might be better spent on other aspects of your vacation, like securing that perfect dinner reservation or thinking through your packing strategy. “It will backfire because everyone will get cranky and exhausted going from one thing to the next,” says Kendra Thornton, president of the travel company Royal Travel & Tours and a mother of three. She recommends having no more than four hours of structured activity, such as a cooking class or sightseeing tour, each day. Have no-reservation-needed options in your back pocket to fill the rest of the day based on how everyone is feeling. “You’ll savor the experience much more by not overscheduling,” says Thornton. “Everything won’t be a blur.”

Schedule nothing. Sarkis also suggests planning to return to your hotel or home rental after lunch and using the afternoon to veg out. That could mean napping, going to the pool, or reading. Your well-rested family can head out again before dinner. “Remember that vacations are supposed to be enjoyable and relaxing,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to simply do nothing.” If you have a few hectic days planned, consider “scheduling” a full day of pool or beach time. It will go a long way toward keeping everyone excited about the rest of the vacation. And end your trip with a down day, suggests Sarkis, so everybody comes home feeling refreshed.

Keep all your trip information in one place. Many of our experts are fans of the trip-organizing service and app TripIt. When you get email confirmations for your flights, hotels, car rentals, tours, and any other reservations (thousands of websites are supported), you simply forward the email to plans@tripit.com. On the back end, TripIt organizes everything into a single, easy-to-read itinerary that you can access anytime on your phone (or print out and keep with any tickets, IDs, passports, and other necessary travel documents you need quick access to). While you travel, you can also edit the itinerary and upload photos and notes. Love the ice cream at that mom-and-pop place you stumbled upon? Don’t bother with a business card to help you remember its name. Pull out your phone and enter it directly in your itinerary. The best part: A basic version of TripIt is free.

Use an agent. A travel agent can be an invaluable resource for the time-crunched—whether you’re struggling to plan a vacation on top of your work duties or booking a trip last-minute. Agents can save you hours of research when it comes to finding the best accommodations, tours, and flights for your family. Considering a cruise, for example, but don’t know the differences between Royal Caribbean and Disney other than the fact that Mickey Mouse is invited on one but not the other? That’s where a travel agent can play matchmaker. Some agents charge planning fees, but many often apply those fees toward the cost of your trip when you book. Ask family and friends to recommend an agent. You can also consult trade associations, like the American Society of Travel Advisors or Cruise Lines International Association, or a membership network, like Virtuoso; many of these organizations have databases that let you search for agents based on the destinations and trip types they specialize in. Sarkis says the agent you end up using should have firsthand knowledge of the places you’re going. “Your agent should be an expert in your needs,” she says. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Consider a group tour. There are tons of organized group tours for families, and they spare you the headache of planning the nitty-gritty details of your trip. For instance, the companies Intrepid, Backroads, and G Adventures offer family trips in which all the aspects, from the choice of the hotels to the pace of the itinerary, are designed to help keep kids and adults happy and relaxed. Everyone gets to learn and discover together under the guidance of a tour leader. Plus, your fellow travelers are built-in company for you and your kids.

Skip the connections. It’s tempting to save money on flights, but when you’re with children, what’s convenient is almost always better than what’s cheaper, if it fits in your budget. Multiple connections may mean lower airfare, but you’re more likely to encounter delays and other hassles. Opt for a flight that leaves before 10 a.m., says Sarkis. Those have less chance of delay, and by arriving earlier, you maximize your time on the ground.

Speed through security. Blank says all families, whether they’re going abroad or not, should consider the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Global Entry program. You apply online, undergo a background check, and go to an in-person interview; if approved, you’ll get five years of expedited processing in the United States when returning from overseas and also reap the benefits of TSA Precheck, which gives you to access to shorter airport security lines every time you travel domestically.

Put it on the list. Packing lists are especially beneficial for families because they force everyone to consider what they really need—and help you avoid unnecessary trips to the store for the socks you swore you packed. And yes, there might be a million and one standard packing lists available online, but only you know that you need to grab your travel humidifier and stock your supply of that nut mix you can’t live without—so start by making a list of all the things you need when you travel. Laminate the list and keep it in your suitcase to make packing for future trips speedier. If they’re old enough, Stoen recommends letting kids pack their own bags. Give them a packing list and double-check that they packed everything on it, but don’t get up in arms if they throw in extra items you think are unnecessary. You may not understand why your child needs a collection of board games for a road trip, but provided you have the room, it’s not a battle worth fighting. After all, this is supposed to be fun.

Cue the cubes. Packing cubes, like the Pack-It Original sets from Eagle Creek (from $28 for 3 cubes; amazon.com), help keep suitcases orderly. Get different colors for each person in your family and you’ll be able to easily share suitcases or closet space. And when you arrive at a destination, you don’t even really need to unpack—just move the cubes to a drawer and you’re done.