One of the biggest questions I get from readers and from friends is how I plan our trips: how do I find activities for us to do; how do we find such cool things to do. How do I find things that people would never know about.
Well sit right down and let me tell ya how I do it.
Right now I am in the midst of planning for our next trip so I thought now was a PERFECT time to share with you my method (or my madness?) of planning and creating our itinerary.
I first feel that I should tell you that I am not an expert. I am just a mom, who educates her kids, so I look for ways to take advantage of our travel to be able to teach our kiddos more than I could at home: to immerse them in cultures and history that are rich where we visit. I am also a mom of a one-income family so the word budget is practically tattooed on my forehead. I say that to let you know that most of what we do is either free or pretty darn cheap. All in all, I say that to let you know that if you are here looking for how to plan your next big trip with all of the bells and whistles, then honey, you are lookin’ in the wrong place.
So the first thing I do is to map out our route with google. Is this too hard for you? I realize this is a very complicated step, ha.
Hang in there.
I make a note of obvious places/things we want to experience. In this past year we went to Mississippi (a post is coming about that next week!) and we drove through Memphis, Tennessee to get there. Obviously when I think Memphis things pop into my mind…Elvis, blues, barbeque. So I had a base of what I knew we could do while we there.
Next, I Pinterest the crap out of any cities that we are passing through that look like they may be large-ish (like Mephis). I find that, in most instances, teeny towns with populations of 500 and one gas station usually are not the ideal locations for museum stops and aren’t large pulls for attention. That’s not to say that there isn’t ever anything to do but for things to see when we are traveling through and on a time crunch, I skip small towns..
So like I said, I pin away. This gives me a general feel of what there is to do in that area and how popular the place is. I’m also just casually feeling out what pins are coming up. If I am getting nothing but pins on the best pub crawls and night clubs in a certain city than I start to wonder if there is indeed anything for kids to do. Believe it or not but there are actually quite a few places in the US that do not cater to children. It’s almost like they are not welcome…at all.
I pin all of those things on my pinterest board and then move on to…
I pull the membership cards I have to museums, zoos, gardens, whatever and I look up the reciprocal lists. Almost all memberships offer a reciprocal list of some kind to places that are either free or discounted for you to go to. I pull these lists up and look for places that would be a good fit for us to go. You guys, Emma and Cal are now 10 and 12, so let’s be honest, sadly we are no longer spending every waking moment glued to zoos. It doesn’t make sense for me to plan 4,000 zoos for us to visit. We will sometimes visit one and that is about enough for us at this stage of childhood/awkward tweenishness. Right now my kids are loving anything with more complicated science experiments so I look for science museums, children’s museums, and the like. It’s just up to what your kids are loving. I make sure to also plan according to how we will be spending the day. If we’ve spent 8 hours cramped in the car then making them go somewhere where it’s quiet and we’re just observing will probably not be a good fit. Rather, for that instance I’m going to look for somewhere they can burn off some energy and maybe explore a bit on their own.
Our kids have Junior Ranger vests from the National Parks, and are almost fiendish about earning new badges. Since most National Parks and Monuments are free, I will search for some around our route for us to visit. I REALLY advocate for this program because we have to teach the future generation to protect and preserve our land, and Nick and I learn just as much as, and probably enjoy it more than, the kids.
After going through all of these steps, writing down places I want to go to, see, I then go back to the Pinterest board and actually OPEN the pins I have (how many of you pin the live long day but seldom actually LOOK at the pins? Is that just me?). I look for activities to do that will be memorable for the children. Obviously you know what your kids like and what they don’t. When we went to Memphis I was wanting the kids to experience the whole Elvis craze but let’s be real, they couldn’t care two flips about The King. So spending $40 a pop on tickets was not a reasonable thing for us to do. Plus I know that dragging our autistic son through a place with all kinds of things you shouldn’t touch, is often a bad idea. Equipped with this knowledge I set out for less expensive sights like a restaurant Elvis liked to frequent, statues of The King, etc. This gave them a sense of his purpose in the community, it helped them to see the enormity of him through statues, but also through seeing his favorite diner the fact that he was just a person. They now know about him without us spending a whole ton of time and money on the experience. win-win.
Places to Eat
After I have activities planned out, I go ahead and look for fun places to eat. When we go to regions of the country I search our local food for the children to eat. And for us to eat, who am I kidding here? It’s not all about the kids! I want them to know that not everyone eats like people in Indiana, and that’s okay. I want them to experience foods they might not have tried otherwise and to understand that people have different tastes. My kids are not fond of okra but they’ve at least tried it in many forms. They know okra, they’ve tried okra, they’ve experienced okra. We’re at peace with the Okra.
I would like to take this moment for a brief public service announcement on the importance of planning where you are going to eat. Here is why: 1) then you can plan your budget for your meal 2) you have a game plan BEFORE the family is starving 3) you won’t end up at McDonald’s for every meal because you just had to pick something when everyone was hungry and snarky, ending up spending a small fortune on food that makes you feel horrible afterwards. 4) The really good places are hardly ever out in the open. It’s just a fact of life. The truly great places to eat are hidden in the basements of buildings, the back alleys, the places you wouldn’t notice when you’re just casually driving around looking for a restaurant.
So plan where you want to eat.
Okay, that’s how I plan our trips when we are still at home. When we arrive in an area I will hunt down more information in tourism magazines and rack cards. Search them out in your hotel lobby, in the vestibule at Cracker Barrel, anywhere. These little gems of old school advertising are how you find out about fun things like the world’s largest pistachio! or the largest metal tribute to the Trail of Tears. Whatever it is, it’s likely you can find it on a rack card somewhere.
My last how I plan is one I’ve had to really hone. I almost didn’t write about it because it’s embarrassing, but here it goes…
Don’t be so uptight. If you pull into a city and your kids don’t want to do what you have planned, then don’t. Or if you drive by a sign for something that sounds really fun then go do that and scrap your plans.
For the longest time I was so tightly wound about what we had to do I was like a drill sergeant when it came to vacations. But I found that when I was like that the kids weren’t having any fun. When I would force them to go somewhere they would complain the entire time and then no one would have any fun.
I am not sure if this because I had the world’s whiniest kids (probably not) or what, but I find it’s best to try to do things that most of the family loves. Granted I am not a mother who caters to every single thing my children may or may not want to do.
Like, I love hiking. My kids despise it. Over the years I’ve been able to say, “this is something I really want to do” and they at least tolerate it without complaining. I know that once they are out there hiking they will have fun because they always do. And if you can’t say that to your kids then maybe it’s because mine are almost teenagers, so hang in there!
I hope this helps you guys! I love planning trips. I know some people hate it but I adore it and find it a really fun challenge.
Happy planning, sweet friends!