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Successful Vacation or Nightmare from Hell...

I love to travel. For the past eight years, we’ve had the fortune of living an ex-pat lifestyle, including the chance to travel several times a year. With three kids and a range of eight years between the youngest and the oldest, travelling can be a challenge. I’m the one responsible for the travel planning, so I take the credit when things go well and the blame when they don’t. And I’ve learned from my mistakes!

Here are the top five things I’ve learned from our travel experiences:

  1. Get a spacious rental car – there’s lots of way to save money along the way, but scrimping on the size of the car has never paid off for us. If you’re planning on seeing the sites, you don’t want your kids cramped together, getting on each other’s nerves. With three kids, we always go for a mini-van. In Europe, we’ve also rented a station wagon or full-size sedan. To keep the costs as low as possible, we use an all-inclusive rental site (cost includes insurance, fees, and taxes) and have always gotten fantastic rates:

  2. Consider a vacation rental – we tend to do site-seeing trips (two or three weeks exploring a country or state). I pick a single location where we can spend at least 3 or 4 nights and make day trips. This makes vacation rentals a great economical choice. My favorite sites are VRBO and HomeAway. A vacation rental has several advantages over a hotel. The first is space. After a busy day, the kids can relax and unwind in their own space. The second is the amenities: laundry facilities and a kitchen for cooking your own meals. Lots of rentals have extra entertainment: bikes, kayaks, golf carts, ping-pong tables, video consoles, board games, extra TVs. A few tips if you’ve never booked a vacation rental: read the reviews for the property. Most normally charge a cleaning fee, possibly a damage deposit (I avoid rentals if the deposit is too high), and most require some prepayment. Before sending money upfront, I always e-mail or call the owner to get a sense of how easy they are to work with. This might sound a little scary, but I’ve rented many times and never had any issues. Just do your research.

  3. Pack a lunch – if you’re travelling on a budget, you know that eating out three times a day can make a serious dent in your cash flow. If you stay at a vacation rental, you can make your own breakfast and pack your own lunch! I always travel with a collapsible cooler bag. We pick up some bread, deli meat, fruits, drinks and cookies at the closest grocery store and voila! A nice lunch for the family. In Ireland four years ago, we have pictures of every place we sat and ate our picnic lunch. It’s the best series of pics. Two years ago in France, I bought brioche for our sandwiches for two weeks straight, thinking it was regular bread. My kids all said they were the best sandwiches ever!

  4. Give them pre-planned choices – With five people in my family and lots of different interests, it can be hard to keep everyone happy. If we are in a location for three days, I will research the top four or five things we can do (keeping in mind costs, logistics, etc.) I then present the options and let each person pick their top priority. This lets the kids feel involved, but also keeps the list of activities manageable. If you have young kids, outdoor activities are best, along with self-guided tours. Group tours can be a nightmare, especially when there is no way out once the tour starts!

  5. Plan for down time – I should have made this point #1, as it’s the one I always forget! My husband and I always joke that we don’t go on vacations. We go on travel adventures. If you’re seeing a part of the world where you’ve never been and may never return, the temptation is high to pack a lot of things in. But the constant activity is tiring on everyone. So plan a down day. If you have a vacation rental with great amenities, plan your down day for this location. We rented a gorgeous farmhouse in Normandy. The kids loved it – ping pong table, dart board, badminton in the yard, a huge cupboard of board games. They were so relaxed in that setting, and I regretted that we didn’t have more time to just hang out there.

So I meant this as a Top Five list, but in writing it, I came up with one final tip:

Give the kids a souvenir budget – on our first trip, my kids drove me crazy. Everywhere we stopped inevitably had a gift shop, and they wanted to buy everything. It got a little out of hand. On our second trip, I gave them each a souvenir budget at the beginning. I told them that they had X dollars to spend, and once it was gone, it was gone. What a difference it made! All of a sudden, they were calculating their funds and making very careful decisions.

I hope that some of you find this helpful. Travelling has been a chance to expose my kids to new cultures and perspectives. It’s made the world a much smaller place for them and created amazing memories for us as a family!

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