step by step guide to family vacation planner tools for planning travel - family enjoying trip planned with the family vacation planner printable template

Family Vacation Planner (+Free Printable Template)

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Even though I was a seasoned traveler before having children, planning family travel is a whole different game.  I had to learn to become an expert family vacation planner for a large family.  That’s why we created this ultimate family vacation planner with a free printable planning template – to help you plan the perfect family vacation.

Just the logistics of moving a large family from one destination to the next is complicated – add flights and car rental and accommodation or RV road trip, campgrounds.  Yikes! I needed an itinerary that I could print and fill in the blanks every time – and so do you.

But the process can be smooth and you can have fantastic family vacations with this ultimate family vacation planner template! This article is meant to be used with the free printable template. Each step can be recorded on the template once you download it.

In addition, I have added a Google Doc planning template for cooperatively planning your vacation or sharing your itinerary with others.

How to plan the perfect family vacation - step by step family vacation planner with a free printable template

Gone were the days of pick a location, buy a ticket, reserve a hotel and throw some stuff in a backpack.   Family travel requires more planning, taking others into account.

Seriously when I was in college, my Dad worked for the airlines and I didn’t even buy a ticket.  My brother and I just showed up and the airport, list ourselves on the standby list, and off we went.  Sometimes calling home from a totally different location than we were supposed to be. 

Like when we got bumped off a flight to Tokyo and opted for Manila Philippines instead.  Yeah, probably not going to do that with my baby and toddler in tow.  

1. Keep a Family Vacation Bucket List

As the lead family vacation planner, you should always be looking to the future.  Creating a family travel bucket list will help keep the whole family inspired and looking forward to traveling together.   

Did you know – looking forward to fun times together as well as remember the good times is actually good for your health?  We wrote about why family vacations are important and the science to prove it. 

The actual planning process can be very stressful though. So keeping a list of destinations everyone dreams of will give you the motivation to power through and even enjoy the vacation planning process.

Look on Pinterest, YouTube, google search, and magazines for inspiration.  We keep Pinterest boards for vacation destination ideas in addition to tips and tricks.

Or pull out the globe for a fun lesson in geography.  Keep your ideas organized in a folder, on the computer, in a notebook or on an Ap.  Just don’t bury it. 

Ready to go? Don’t forget to download our free printable to keep your ideas organized. 

2. Travel Companions – Decide Who is Traveling 

Once you are ready to start planning the next vacation.  The first thing to decide is who will be going on this family vacation together.  Will it be just an immediate family?  We travel with extended family so much that sometimes Charles and I just have to close the doors on certain trips and just bend together as a family. 

  • Immediate family only
  • Should you invite extended family
  • Will friends be joining the fun?

If you do decide to invite extended family or friends go ahead and ask them along.  You can do this now and include them in the destination and travel dates decision.  Or wait until you have dates and a destination to invite them to come along.

Either way, you will want to have an idea of the headcount before moving forward with plans.  

3. How to Choose a Vacation Destination

Its time to pull out the family travel bucket list or start a lively group discussion around a map about where to go.  You will need a destination, which might be a country or a general route to follow through states if you are doing a road trip.  

This is the time to start filling in your family vacation printable in a notebook or use the vacation planning template in Google Docs that we created. We have been using Google Docs templates to collaboratively plan travel with extended family.

To use the free copy of the Google Doc template – use this link to access the Google Doc.

Then save it to your own drive. From there, share it with others. If you want them involved in the planning process – share it with the rights to edit. If you want to simply give them a copy of your itinerary – share as a read only file.

When I plan a travel itinerary I pick a county – say Japan- or general area for a road trip – say Oregon/Washinton Coast

.  If I know I just want to go to one place and stay put on a beach – the Florida Keys for example- thats OK too. 

If you are looking for international family destinations we have an article with 22 amazing places to travel in the world.   We asked expert travel bloggers to reccomend places to travel that they had been to with toddlers.

Once I have a destination established, I wait for the more detailed itinerary till I decide on the specific locations and activities. 

4. Choose Your Travel Dates

Once you have decided on a location the next step is travel dates.  The more people in the traveling group the more difficult this step will become.  

The destination may have an impact on this decision.  Or you may have chosen the destination based on the time of year you plan to travel.  Like the family beach vacation in the middle winter. 

First decide the length of the trip – days, weeks, months, forever?

Get out the calendar and everyone’s schedule and try to layout a couple of dates that meet the requirements.  This might not be possible but it will help with getting the best deals. 

I suggest using an interactive way to do this.  Get everyone in the room together, to meet their requirements. 

Of course, if you are planning with immediate family only, this meeting will likely be you and your spouse comparing schedules.

5. Do it Yourself vs Travel Agency vs Vacation Package

You might be an avid Do It Yourself family like we are.  For just about, everything including travel and this will be a given.   (Although, Charles and I have gone on a last-minute all-inclusive Hawaii vacation package when it popped up in my email.

I know some busy families like to contact a tour company or find and vacation package.  You will still need to provide information to work with them to build an itinerary and outings.

If you do everything yourself you can customize your vacation exactly the way you want it and possibly save money. We have many travel resources available for the Do It Yourself style travel:

6. Plan Your Travel Budget

You may already have money saved and a budget set or just starting to create a budget and savings plan. 

You need to know “How much will it cost for the trip?” There are books and a quick internet search for cost $ per day per person will be helpful to you.  

 Make sure to include the cost of flights, transportation, cost per day for accommodation, cost per day food and activities and special experiences.  Google Flights and other search engines are a good way to get a quick estimate.

Our budget is generally tight on family vacations so we plan on just one or two special experiences or outings.  Things we have splurged on are whale watching, the bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico, a Hawk Walk in Ireland. 

7. Save Money for the Travel Fund

This amazing trip will need to be funded and likely from savings – money you already saved or money that you will be saving for travel. 

So you will need to start saving money, earning more money, collecting points and miles or a combination of all everything to get to your goal.

We have many resources to help you save money. Some of our articles that I think will be helpful to you are:

8. Things to Do – How to Choose Vacation Activities

Get the whole family involved and discuss the important experiences with your travel companions.  The kids love dreaming about all the fun they will have on vacation.

This is a collaborative effort and can be done around the kitchen table, over the phone, on FaceTime or Skype, or with collaborative software.   Google Docs or Mac file sharing are my go-to file-sharing tools for collaborating on an itinerary with my husband or extended family.

Let each family member choose destinations and things to see that are important to them. 

Of course, the whole trip can’t revolve around one kid’s dreams so let each person choose one or two ideas.  At this point, you might not actually know the available activities so I have everyone choose a category.  

For example, on our multigenerational trip to Costa Rica, everyone chose an animal they wanted to see. 

Charles was the sloth, mine was the cayman, my Dad the toucan, the 2-year-old wanted to see a monkey, and so on.  

Later, in the planning phase, we choose activities and accommodations based on the most likely place to see each animal. 

Other categories can be location or geography – beach, sand dunes, mountains.  Activities – horseback riding, museums, art gallery, zip line.

9. Outline the Itinerary for your Family Vacation

Start to build an itinerary based on the locations that each family member chose and a wish list of activities. 

At this point, your itinerary will look like a rough outline of travel dates, destinations, and some notes about transportation, accommodations, and activities.  

You can use paper and pencil, a word processor, cooperative that looks like Google docs or Mac share, or an app like trip it.   

Get out a map and other resources and research things to do and see in the area.   Here are some ideas of places to look for activities for your family.

  1. Blogs, Google
  2. Pinterest
  3. Trip Advisor
  4. Tourism boards
  5. Family and friend
  6. Social media
  7. Guide books

Compare to the list of ideas for the trip to everyone’s must-have experience. 

notes on a map family vacation planner
use notes on a map to plan family vacations

At this point, I use sticky notes on the map with the location and to do. With a physical map and notes right on it, I can see the lay of the land.

You can now decide the best route to take for the vacation.  This might include one or more locations on your itinerary. 

Armed with your travel dates, accommodations, and vacation activities you can create an outline of an itinerary based on a number of days and locations.

10. Book your Travel 

Now gets the fun part. Actually booking and reserving travel for your family trip.

Knowing the traveling group, destination, travel dates will help you know which mode of transportation will be the right choice.   You probably will need a combination of driving, flying, riding the train, or taking a boat to arrive at your final destination.  

To research and book flights good tools include google flights, Skyscanner, Travelocity, kayak,  and the airline’s website. Kiwi is another great site to search on that I have found good deals.

If you are using miles and points you will be looking at the airline’s website or researching partner airlines. 

I search for all the above sites and if I have time, I wait for a good deal and book when the time is right.  You can enter alerts on various sites to let you know of a price drop. 

Then it’s time to book your travel!  This for me is one of the most stressful parts of the family travel planning process! 

Hitting the buy button is really unnerving for me when I am looking at thousands of dollars in airline tickets and bring to get just the right itinerary to suit my family.  

The travel to your destination will anchor the family vacation so it’s time to start filling in a finalized itinerary.  The destination, travel mode, and dates will be the first things to fill in.  

Don’t forget to record the tickets information on the itinerary: flight number, company, depart, arrive, points FF numbers, and login information.  

11. Book Accommodations with Best Value

Armed with the outline of your itinerary in hand and notes on your map, it’s time to book accommodation.  This might be one place to stay the whole time or many locations as your move around.  

You will face some challenges like the number of people in the group, your budget, and the needs of each group member.  

There are 6 or more of us that travel together so one hotel room is often too small and against the rules.   We have stayed in hotel suites, rented houses, rented an RV, stayed in hostels, tent camped, drove our own RV, and more.   On a trip to Canada, CanaDream was having a special on RV rental that ended up being the same cost as a van rental and hotels.  

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Cabin in the Colorado Mountains perfect for a family gathering

We wrote this article on finding the best kid-friendly accommodations for your vacation. and this one on 9 Frugal Ways to Rent an RV for Cheap

So be creative for the best value and fits everyone and their needs. My favorite site to find a variety of options for accommodation is The search function is easy to use, there are no booking fees and free cancellation on most rooms.

Some ideas for accommodations include:

  1. Hotels 
  2. Hostels
  3. Rental Property
  4. AirBnB, VRBO or Apartment
  5. RV rentals, RVShare, Outdoorsy
  6. Campgrounds- check at the national (forest service), state, city and county levels.
  7. Cruise lines
  8. Overnight parking for RV trips

And I always check reviews of the location on internet search, TripAdvisor, and more. 

I look at some good reviews and then head to the bad ones and see if any of them matters to me.  Someone complaining about kids having fun – that’s not negative – that’s my kind of place! 

I have canceled more than one place where the reviews were of unsanitary or unsafe conditions. 

Once the accommodations are booked make sure to record the details in your itinerary.

Dates, contact information, confirmation #, price, check-in and out times.  Print and save a copy of your confirmation and directions to the location.  You will want a hard copy when your phone dies or something happens to the cell service and you’re trying to check in or verify the price. 

12. Getting Around – Book Local Transportation

If you are on an amazing road trip your local transportation will have your own car for local transportation.  Otherwise, you will need a way to get around and see this on your amazing adventure.  

In the US, cars are the standard mode of transportation but there are more ways to get around.   Think about the location, culture, and options available. 

We traveled around Ireland with 6 of us and reserved a car with enough seats.  Cars in Europe are small, so they really meant seats 6 people or 4 and luggage but not both. Here are some ideas:

  1. Walking, biking if you are in a city center
  2. Rental Car
  3. RV rental
  4. Train, Subway or light rail
  5. Bus tickets
  6. Boat or Ferry

Check the cancelation policies.  Car rentals in the US tend to be very flexible and do not even gather credit card information.  It’s worth booking right away and canceling later if you find a better deal. 

And don’t forget to write it all down in your itinerary and print hard copies.

13. Plan Your Family Vacation Activities

For me, this is where the fun starts.  Charles loves flying and looking through pictures of really cool places to stay.  It’s actually stressful for me and I am relieved to start moving on planning things to do and see on vacation. 

Look back at the list of what everyone wants to see and do and the map of all the locations.  Research fun activities within these parameters that you have.  

Consider your family travel rhythm.  We move slowly in the morning – leaving before 9 Am is difficult.  We like to alternate days between big adventures and staying close to our temporary “home.”

Of course, traveling on a budget you must take cost into consideration.  We generally have one day or activity we splurge on that is more expensive and be really frugal on the other activities.  That’s why we love playgrounds – free fun!  If you can afford a formal tour, it’s a great way to fit the things in you want to see and get a local’s expertise on the area. 

Make sure to schedule a recovery day after a long travel day or a big adventure.  Something a little more low-key and relaxing.

Book any tours or plan activities and record important information on the itinerary. 

Have a backup plan and extra activities on the list too.

On my itinerary, I have information about the planned activity for the day and a list of backup activities.  My backups are other things that seem interesting and options for inclement weather.  

Add your ideas and any reservations to your itinerary for the day that it is planned.  Don’t forget to bring out hard copies of the ideas. 

14. Places to Eat and Drink

When traveling with kids, meals, snacks, and rest stops have to be planned.  Leaving a plan for dinner until everyone is hungry is a recipe for disaster.  

Take into account will you will be traveling.   If you will be in the car you can take more supplies than if you are traveling by subway or foot.   

In general, we like to plan breakfast at the hotel, rental, or in our RV and lunch is a packed picnic.

Grammy and I made sandwiches on the tailgate of our rental car almost every day on our Ireland trip. 

Dinner is where we are more creative and might be dinner at a restaurant, home-cooked at the RV, take out on the beach, or with friends, we are visiting.  That’s our rhythm but of course, we are flexible too. 

And I always have snacks on hand to head off meltdowns.  If we are out sightseeing I carry a backpack or a bag on the stroller with food and drink. 

Think about your rhythm and budget.  Cooking at your temporary home (even in a hotel room) and on lunch on the road is cheaper and sometimes quicker than taking a crew of 4, 5, 6, or more in a restaurant.  Don’t forget with a big group you may need reservations.

Write notes on your itinerary about restaurants, picnics, street vendors, and even 7-11 in Japan.   

If you get caught off guard and need to find a restaurant fast, TripAdvisor has a cool feature that will let you know the “highest rated restaurants near me.”

Tools to use when looking for local places to eat include: 

  • Trip advisor, blogs, google, Pinterest
  • family and fiends, social media
  • Hotel receptionist, other accommodation contact, tour guides

At this point, most of the itinerary should be filled in.  You can keep the file and add more details.  Make sure to have all the details in a location easy to access on your family vacation.  You will need the details to plan each day and you can add notes about each location.  Your notes will already be organized for your arrival home. 

Since your travel is coming soon you need to start preparing all of your plans and documents. 

15. Check passport and visa requirements 

  • Get one now – processing times and wait time can be longer than expected

If you are traveling internationally and need a passport you need to start the process right away.   Wait time for the US can be 2 to 3 months.  Follow this process for US passports. 

  • Check that your passport will be valid for 6 months on return

Each country has its own entry requirements for the validity of passports. Some countries require that a passport be valid for at least six months from the date of entry others in Europe require 3 months. 

  • Check the Visa requirements 

Some countries require visas for people to enter the country.  And the requirements for each country are different so make sure to check visa requirements and get one if necessary.

  • Know the rules for flying with a baby and toddlers

The rules for flying with a baby can vary based on the country you are in, the airline you are flying, and other factors. We have a comprehensive guide to the rules and policies you need to know when flying with a baby.

16. Health and immunization  requirements

Travel vaccines or immunizations are shots that travelers travel to areas of the world to protect them from illness.

Travel vaccines fall into two categories, recommended and required. 

For example, some countries in Africa and South America require proof of the yellow fever vaccine before entering the country. 

The vaccines you need to get before traveling will depend on where you plan to travel and your own health.  Check the  World Health Organization or the CDC in the US for more information. 

Read more in our article about Travel Fever and How to Stay Healthy on Vacation

17. Arrange for Travel Insurance

Insurance coverage changes when you are traveling. Your family may need some additional coverage for travel-related emergencies and expenses. Double-check with your health and car insurance companies what will be covered during your trip.  

Then decide what additional covers you need and arrange for travel insurance.   Roadside services such as AAA or RV insurance are useful when traveling by car or RV for your family vacation.  

Buy family travel insurance that will cover any travel-related emergencies that could arise.  Short-term travel insurance is available to purchase and covers expenses of family travel such as sick kids, trip interruption or cancellation, evacuation, car rental. 

Here is a good review of family travel insurance

18. Make Copies of Important Travel Documents

In this digital age, you still need to have hard copies of important documents while traveling.  Even when on a family vacation close to home or a road trip you should have hard copies of important travel documents. 

The US state department recommends making 2 copies of each in case of emergency.  Hopefully will never need to visit an embassy to replace a passport but activities with kids might require a birth certificate. 

Even something as simple as taking our 8-year-old to get her ears pierced in our home state required a birth certificate that we didn’t have. The experience ended in tears. 

Here is a list of important travel documents that you should have copies of on a family vacation. 

  • Passport and Visa
  • An extra passport picture to expedite replacement
  • Consent for Travel with Minors
  • Travel insurance 
  • Driver’s license or international driving permit
  • Health information including insurance, doctors contact, prescriptions, allergies, 
  • Credit cards
  • Travel itinerary
  • Airline tickets
  • Rail passes and transportation documents 
  • Hotel or lodging reservation confirmations
  • Car rental reservation confirmation
  • Cruise tickets
  • Vaccination certificates

You may not need all the above important travel documents.  If you are on a road trip close to home you won’t need a visa but you will need birth certificates and driver’s licenses. 

19. Phone and Internet Access

Before you leave home make sure you think about and have a plan for phone and internet access. 

Depending on where you travel cell service coverage and the internet will vary in availability and reliability.  

Hotels frequently have internet access as well as internet cafes and libraries.  In an RV, camping or boat internet access may not be available but you can arrange for mobile options before leaving home. 

20. How to Access Money while Traveling

A family vacation will require money and sometimes reloading the funds.  Although you have saved money for travel you should not travel with all that cash in hand. 

Take a small amount of cash that you might need and some for emergencies and figure out how to access money while traveling on your adventure. 

As far as I know, you can still get traveler’s cheques but with so many other modern options, I don’t know anyone who uses these anymore.  Credit cards, debit cards, and prepaid currency cards are much better options. 

ATMs are everywhere and a much better way to access funds on your vacation. Prepaid currency cards are another option.   

One more note – make sure you have enough money in the correct bank account.  You don’t want to be stuck on a family vacation trying to access money and no money in the bank!

21. Preparing to Leave Home

Preparing your home life for your departure is important too!  So don’t forget to prepare your home and regular life.

Make arrangements for any home maintenance such as lawn and garden care.  Let your neighbors know of your family travel plans and any people that might be coming by the house to help.

Make sure bills are up to date and automate anything that needs to be paid while away. Turn on auto-response on emails.

22. Finalize House and Pet Sitting Arrangements

I am actually terrible at this step and put it off way too long.  Good house sitters or pet sitters are hard to come by and their schedule can be really full. 

Try out a pet sitter before you leave on an extended vacation.  A couple of days or walks to see how they interact with the pets. 

On a 3 week vacation to Costa Rica, we were scrambling to figure out if the dogs were being taken care of.  Not something you want to worry about on a fun family vacation. 

23. Packing for Your Trip with Kids

I have been traveling forever and I can tell you a little preparation goes a long way in packing for a family vacation with kids. Read our packing checklist here

Back in the day, I stayed up late the night before travel, threw some clothes in a bag, and headed off the airport the next day.  When I transitioned to mom/family travel coordinator that method didn’t work anymore.  

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System for packing clothes for a large family

Instead of waiting till the last minute, I started to ask, when should I start to pack for a family vacation?  It seems that 2 weeks before the family trip is a good timeframe to start planning what to pack.  Although longer trips might require purchasing more supplies and you should get to work much sooner. 

Start by thinking of the number of days, the weather, the activities, and the dress code for each activity.  Will you do laundry along the way? Will stores be available or do you plan to buy new clothes while on vacation?  You should plan on doing laundry based on your accommodations. 

After some experience in large family travel, I started following a standard packing checklist.  I fill in the number and type of outfits and check them off as they get packed.  As I get the packing finalized, I use sticky notes on top of each pile with notes about missing items. 

The optimal situation is If you have a dedicated space to start packing.  I start laying things out in the guest room on the bed.  When this room is not available I have set up a long table in a space that is off-limits to kids.  The key here is a separate space and off-limits to the kids. 

It’s madding to lay something out and turn around and the piles are mixed up or a favorite shirt is now being worn and sticky. 

My luggage system includes 

  1. check through luggage that goes under the plane or in the trunk of the car
  2. Bags for en route travel.  Each kid has a carry on bag or backpack with extra clothes,  jammies.  For road trips, I might separate the jammies into a bag that I have easy access to.   
  3. A cooler with snacks and food for travel.  Depending on the amount of time we travel this generally includes lunch or other meals too. 
  4. A larger cooler with more food for road trips if we are stopping at hotels or food in the RV fridge
  5. Separate electronics bags and camera equipment
Travel packing checklist for family travel

Start with packing the luggage that will hold the majority of your clothes and the necessities.  I love cubes and ziplock bags for separating clothes into kids, outfits, or days depending on the plans. 

After that, I move to the en-route travel bags. Everything gets laid out and packed into the bags.

24. Prep for Your Return Home

In the excitement of planning for your upcoming family vacation don’t forget to plan for your return.  When you arrive home exhausted from your adventure, having things in order at home will make your transition back to normal life much easier.  

Here are some of my best tips to make life easier when you return home:

  1. Do laundry
  2. Clean the house or my favorite – arrange for a cleaner to come while you are gone
  3. Put baking soda or vinegar in the toilets 
  4. Clean out the fridge and wash the shelves
  5. Leave a meal or two in the freezer/fridge ready for your return home
  6. Stock non-perishable items 
  7. Leave notes of what to do when you get home – like turn up the water heater and adjust the heat
  8. Turn down the heat, down the water heater, check appliances
  9. check in with neighbors, leave a key
  10. Close up windows and lights off – one time my neighbor came to turn off the 6 lights!

25. Confirm Flights and Check in Online

Once I failed to check-in online and rather show up at the airport with 3 kids and 6 months pregnant.  Which led to 2 days on airport floors – you can read about it in our bio.

The night before travel double check your flights, check-in online, check the first night accommodations, gas, and fluids in the car, check the weather. 

More than once, I failed to check the weather when a big winter storm was slamming right in my travel path.  

Most of all get everyone to bed early and have a good night’s rest before heading out on your family travel adventure!  Racing around the night before traveling just stresses the whole family out and makes it hard to rest – I know.  The kids are already excited and maybe a little nervous so slow down and set a relaxed rhythm for the night. 

Final Thoughts on this detailed step-by-step family vacation planning guide.

After reading through this whole comprehensive guide to planning family travel, I hope you are ready to get going on your next trip!

Don’t forget all the resources we have created for you:

Let me know if you can think of anything I missed in this detailed family vacation planner. What are your favorite tips for planning family travel?

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  1. Thanks for the tip of creating an itinerary of all the locations for planning a family vacation. I agree that having savings specifically for the travel fund and earning more money is crucial to have the best vacation experience. My youngest sister just graduated high school, so the whole family is taking a dream vacation around the country and I decided to go to Pittsburgh because I am a huge Steelers fan. We want to make the trip amazing and hopefully, we can find some good car rental companies that accommodate our whole family.

    1. Wow sounds like a fun adventure with the whole family. We travel with extended family all the time – which makes us quite a large group of 6 kids plus grandparents.

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