I power point my vacations. No, really. I am a prolific professional vacation planner. When we made our first family trek to Italy five years ago, I spent months exploring and charting our options to visit the land of my husband’s birth. Armed with google maps and every review site imaginable, I scoured the possibilities to link our drives between towns. Restrained by miles-per-hour, budget, and family visits, I fashioned multiple opportunities to squeeze the ultimate Italian experience into our 18 days on the boot. From emails to child-friendly tour guides in Rome to in-depth analysis of hotel vs bed and breakfast, I crafted our own personal guide map for our young family.
Modern, clean, strategically positioned yet economical hotel choice in Rome with great reviews and a breakfast buffet featuring nut allergy friendly options near train station: check. Convenient car rental solution (automatic of course) appropriate for multiple trips between multiple towns yet large enough to accommodate friends and family and our squirmy children (as well as our luggage): check. Easy to carry Christmas presents for dozens of family members compact enough to keep luggage weight at a minimum: check. Iconic landmarks, churches, restaurants, cafes, drives: I filled my slides with details and photographs of the most sensible options for a five and twelve-year-old to digest. From careful research on the challenges for allergy Moms traveling overseas, to the cost of a train ticket, I covered all the bases I could for a safe trip — while preserving our budget.
Presenting to the board
Every trip I formally plan is presented to our family “board of directors” for review: the great unveil. “Here are our options, what do you think? Do you want to see churches or ruins? Swim or sleep? Amusements or hiking?” Based on the “board” review, I refine the deck and save the file as a PDF perfect for travel (digital and print copies please). Let the anticipation begin! (Apparently my enjoyment for planning is supported by research: a 2010 study published in the journal of Applied Research in Quality of Life pointed to planning a trip as one of the happiest elements of vacationing. While some people have reported no additional happiness AFTER they got home, many pointed to the anticipation bred in the planning as the best part.)
Let’s Go Europe
I’ve been basking in the joy of planning vacations my entire adult life. Nearly 30 years ago my future husband and I dreamed of traveling to Europe. Our college education in humanities opened up a new world of history and art that we longed to see. And it was some time since he had visited his family back home. In 1989 a trip this long required maps and travel books and library research. No google or apps were available to chart a plan. Armed with months of conversation and exploration of train stations, youth hostel locations and airline prices (no websites to check), we put our plan to paper. We shopped for back packs and appropriate walking shoes and kept track of our exchange rates (before the Euro). In the months leading to college graduation we laminated and pinned our European map then worked a sixty hour summer work weeks while waiting for our tickets and passes to arrive.
Our goal to visit six countries in three months was downgraded to four as the first eye-opening days of travel in the UK unfolded. When we fell in love with France, our plans for more time in Switzerland were adjusted further. Our well documented outline of youth hostels was sometimes replaced by better bed and breakfast options driven by savings from eating more cheaply or by drying our clothes on a line. By the time we arrived home, the carefully crafted European plan looked nothing like the exciting jaunt we experienced. Illness, exhaution, transportation challenges, friendships and an ever changing perspective influenced our adventure in ways we could have never imagined.
Our planning, however, saved us from theft (money belt), homelessness (tent), and exorbitant travel costs (Eurorail pass). Our unwillingness to pay London prices over the long term drove us to explore more rural towns in the United Kingdom. Our willingness to stay in diverse sections of Paris meant more days at the Louvre and D’Orsay. That valuable lesson in traveling on $30 a day taught me that preparedness births opportunity. The joy I feel learning the land before the exploration opens thoughtful consideration, allowing for informed decisions that reap even more ideas.
More than vacation
My painstakingly researched and documented vacation decks are stylized and colorful documents, visually pleasing and painstakingly detailed, sometimes with pricing and URL’s for reference. Whether it be four days in NYC or eighteen in Italy, the perfect family vacation get-away always begins for me with the doc. My kids have gotten used to the laptop presentations where they choose between where to picnic after the solar eclipse in the mountains or where to stop on the long drive home (with google map snap shots for guidance).
Crazy obsessive controlling Mom? Maybe. But my goal with the “plan” has always been to explore the options, not dictate the fun. And it’s worked over the years. I’ve found that the research and preplanning has helped my family participate and imagine vacation in ways that they never could before. Often the sites we choose give me opportunities to research a book that can make the experience more meaningful or some insights I can share during the drive. When we planned a short trip to DC during the 150thanniversary of the assassination of Lincoln, I was able to tie together a Lincoln-themed musical at the Ford Theatre with a youth version of a popular book (Chasing Lincoln’s Killer) and walks along the Mall to his monument and a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of memorabilia from around the country in his honor.
For Rome it was a kid friendly book in cartoon style that taught all the cool history around the ancient city (including where the water goes) that sparked my youngest’s interest in aqueducts –and led him to search and find them during our long drives. A tour guide who specialized in teaching children introduced them to the wonders of ancient room, complete with before and after imagery on an iPad. Many of my “suggestions” remain just that. But they spark additional ideas and conversation around the possibilities and force more thought and research for something that everyone can agree on. Vacations not only become adventures, but opportunities to learn and grow.
While my vacation planning technique may bring joy for me and spike excitement for my family – I am well aware of the importance of a relaxed, organic approach. While our amazing trip to Italy followed some of the ideas I unearthed, the most memorable experiences were those that were not planned. The welcome signs, champagne, and cake waiting for us when we arrived, the afternoon spent in my husband’s birth town shopping for holiday presents, the discovery of Santa preparing in a little shop in Rome, the impromptu visit to a local beach in unseasonably warm holiday weather, the tiny coffee shops, the last-minute meal decisions, the choices driven by a five-year old’s whim, the farmer and his sheep blocking roads: these were the memories made off the beaten path.
As I write this blog, we sit in a wonderful rental house 3203 feet above sea level in Madison County, North Carolina during a nasty, gusty thunder storm. One of our most favorite regions to visit in the last 20 years, I still “do the doc” to list things we’d like to experience again, while sharing some new possibilities to explore. Since my eldest elected to prepare for his leaving for college, this trip was for a family of three plus another couple with similarly aged children. I shared the deck with our friends (they had never traveled here) and then sat back and enjoyed the additional ideas the group shared.
But a curious thing happened on the way to the perfectly planned vacation. My now eleven-year-old balked. He balked at the driving. He balked at the visiting. He balked at the doing new things. While he was happy to revisit the lake and even put up with the second tour of the Biltmore in as many years, he was fully content with enjoying the unique log cabin house tucked on 80+ acres in the mountains.
When our friends were ready to go on another adventure, my son once again reminded us he wanted to relax and forgo driving for a second day. We had two more days to go before heading home. Something about this vacation home appealed to him and was calling him to simply be. We heard him.
Rods and thunderstorms
This morning was spent by the cabin at the pond chasing a huge fish that jumped teasingly between our casts. My husband dozed in a small metal chair while I relished in the opportunity to watch my son demonstrate the fishing skills his grandfather taught him. After three hours, thunder rumbled and we scrambled up the hill in anticipation of a short storm. The interruption came and went, but another more violent line of storms later slammed the area, treating us to a powerful mountain deluge complete with raging winds and cabin-shaking thunder.
My son was energized and excited, marveling at the dramatic scene overlooking the pond and meadow. Our peaceful morning filled with horseflies, flying fish, and curious deer was followed by the rush of dark clouds and threatening booms that brought bending trees and the beat of the rain on wooden roof. He was content to be in that place at that moment. So were we. Later, our friends returned with wonderful stories of their adventures and the adjustments they had to make in navigating poor directions and bad weather. Over our homemade dinner we shared our stories, played some games, and looked forward to the unknown joys tomorrow might bring.
My travel planning won’t end. I believe the time spent serves as an excellent guide post in the discovery of even more fun. But my son reminded me that the real secret to reaping the rewards of meticulous travel preparation is the flexibility to welcome the inevitable detours that often make the most lasting and meaningful memories.