We have just returned from a two week vacation in California.
I should begin by apologizing to all the people we did not manage to see while there. The trip was a family reunion and we simply could not fit in activities beyond that scope. We hope to see many of you on future travels, either us to you or you to us (Did I mention we live on the beach?).
Now then -- regarding the family vacation with the intention of visiting family -- here is a short list of helpful hints.
1. With gas prices as they are, be sure to verify that driving is actually the cheaper option. We checked at the AAA site that allows you to customize your trip according to your car. This road trip site allows you to add in the cost of hotels, food, and other expenses. About four weeks before our trip, I went to this wonderful drive vs. fly site to determine whether or not we should look into flights. It turned out that flying was the cheaper option. It also gave us more time in California. For our purposes, flying won.
2. With that, I highly recommend the insurance option offered by many online booking sites. Last summer, my mother had to cancel her initial trip due to illness. This insurance, which cost less than $20.00, proved invaluable then. Though we did not need it this time, it was comforting to know that we had it. The total cost of insurance for the five of us, through Orbitz, was less than $80.00.
3. If you fly, consider buying toiletries at your destination. As a family, we needed lots of toiletries and ended up checking both our bags, instead of just one, due to the weight they added. On the way home, we ditched the toiletries and saved a lot of money.
4. Whether you fly or drive, save meals out for local specialty foods. Drivers can bring along a cooler to pack daily meals and most hotels now have refrigerators in the rooms. A few grocery trips can save a budget. Since we were in San Diego, we saved our meals for Mexican. It would have been silly for us Chicagoans to go get pizza in San Diego, but Mexican was worth it. When we ventured up to Bakersfield for a weekend to visit more family and so that I could preach, we went to Rosemary's, an old fashioned ice cream shop, for dessert. We also stopped by Dewar's, also an old fashioned ice cream shop, for their remarkable taffy chews. Otherwise, we made our own food.
5. Budget money for small souvenirs for the kids. I tend to be a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to souvenirs, preaching that pictures and memories are the best souvenirs. What I did not consider was just how helpful those souvenirs might be upon departure. All three children clung to their relatively inexpensive souvenirs after we said our good-byes. They provided comfort. Forty-five dollars well-spent.
6. This probably goes without saying, but bring a smart phone and learn to enjoy texting. I texted more during the two weeks of our vacation than I have ever texted before. As we were attempting to coordinate plans with our relatives, it proved indispensable. Rather than trying to call several people each time we made, changed, or cancelled plans (which we did a lot), we group texted. We also used the phone to find instant discounts on activities and food, for directions, to check the weather (which DID change, despite us being in San Diego), and for helpful hints (like when all the local spring breaks would end, making local tourist attractions less busy).
7. Make sure to plan plenty of time with just your immediate family. You want to leave your vacation still enjoying the family you visited. Everyone needs some recuperation time. Plan for it.
8. If you have family members who are not used to children, prepare them for the instability of traveling with little ones. Both you and your family members should be flexible, taking into account over-tired children, potential illnesses, and changed minds (maybe that tourist attraction you'd all planned doesn't sound so appealing after a few days in town).
9. Understand that not everyone will be as excited to see you as you are to see them and visa versa. It's just how family works.
10. If your stay is long, like ours was, spread out who you see so as not to overwhelm family members who are not used to being around kids or groups of people.
11. Stay in a place where children can be themselves. It is not fun for the kids if they are constantly having to be quiet on their vacation.