Tips for Planning a Group Vacation to Disney (Or anywhere really)

Like I’ve mentioned a few times now on the blog, Ken and I are planning a trip to Disney in the fall.  In addition to me and Ken, Ken’s sister, her husband, and their 7-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son will be coming too.  (And maybe Ken’s dad too).  We offered to pay for their airfare and hotel, and everyone will be responsible for getting their own Disney tickets. This will be mine and Ken’s first trip to Disney in SEVEN YEARS. My sister-in-law and her husband went to Disney for their honeymoon back in 2003, but haven’t been there since, meaning neither of their kids have been to Disney either.  

Planning a big group family vacation to Disney (or a vacation anywhere really!) Helpful spreadsheets to organize planning with the group.

We’re trying to keep things relatively flexible for that trip. We probably won’t all go to the same parks every single day, and we’ll probably have different eating and dining preferences too.  

I’m a bit compulsive when it comes to planning vacations, and I didn’t want to seem dictatorial to my sister-in-law’s family when making any decisions for the trip. (Ken, on the other hand, is used to my dictator-like style).  

I also didn’t want to overwhelm her with decisions to make in some marathon conversation.  

So, I did what I do best.

I created a spreadsheet.  

 

Using a Spreadsheet to Plan Family Vacations as a Group

I knew that my sister-in-law was confident using spreadsheets, so I figured this would be a good approach.  

I thought I’d share the spreadsheet with you all in case you’re looking for a decent method of planning a vacation with a group.  

In the first table, I put the dates of our trip, along with mine and Ken’s plans for where we wanted to go each day. Then, I highlighted the adjacent cells in pink, with a note to ask my sister-in-law where they wanted to go for that day, making clear that they shouldn’t feel obligated to go to the same parks we do each day.  

 

group vacation planning spreadsheet

To make things easier for my sister-in-law and her family, I entered in the hours, special events and crowd predictions for each of the parks to help guide their decisions. 

planning spreadsheet for disney vacation

 

On a separate tab in the spreadsheet (not pictured), I entered in specific questions I had or “things to consider.”  That way, she could take a look at the questions I have that I’ll eventually need to know for finalizing plans (like does she want to take her kids to the Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party?  And did she want to do any “character meals?”  And that she should create a “My Disney Experience” account and let me know her email address used to register for it so I can link our trips together. And whether she wants to take afternoon breaks back to the hotel for her baby’s naps and stuff.)  

I figured by having a centralized place to list all the questions would avoid back-and-forth text message responses and FB messenger chats that would be impossible to search for later when I needed to take the responses into account for planning.  

To help centralize planning resources, I created a “resources” tab with links to helpful sites, like reviews for our Disney hotel, links to things like all the restaurants on Walt Disney World property to help us figure out where we’d need to make dining reservations, Disney “hacking” links, like buying discounted gift cards to use for Disney purchases, and links to events I had found that I thought her kids might be interested in.  For instance, her daughter loves to draw, and I thought she’d like to know about the daily drawing lessons offered at the Art of Animation resort.  

disney planning links

Finally, I added a “to pack and other ideas” tab.  This is just a list of random things I had come across and wanted to make sure I remembered for our trip.  Like making sure we pack (or buy at a store once we get to Orlando) ingredients for s’mores.  The resort we’re staying at offers evening marshmallow campfire roasts, but only includes the marshmallows and charges an arm and a leg for chocolate and graham crackers. Since this is an unusual packing item, I wanted to make sure I noted it somewhere!  

I also had another tab to help us decide what meals to eat in the different parks, but that’s a topic for a whole different post!

I think that this shared spreadsheet approach could be valuable to any sort of group vacation planning effort.

How have you planned group / family vacations in the past?  What methods do you recommend?

My Disappointing Experience (x3) Trying to Use VRBO.

Ken and I are planning a trip to San Francisco in the summer. One of Ken’s friends is getting married in the Bay Area, and we decided to make a vacation out of it. The original plan was to do four nights in San Francisco, as well as four nights in the Monterey Bay or Big Sur area.

Hotel options in the Monterey and Big Sur area seem fall into three categories: 1) Lower end chain hotels far from the beach and other scenery, 2) Uber budget motels that would have been fine for my taste 8+ years ago, but no longer, and 3) Ultra high-end expensive beach front hotels for $300+/night. Many $600+ per night. Yikes.

So, I decided to look for vacation rentals on VRBO.  After a bit more itinerary finagling, we decided on two nights in Santa Cruz and two nights in Big Sur.  We limited our search to properties that allowed a minimum of two night stays (since many properties have minimums of 4+ nights). We found a few properties that looked fantastic, weighed the pros and cons, made our choice, and reserved it.  Done and done.  

Except, not.

First message we got was from our reservation in Big Sur.

VRBO rental 1

Then why don’t you change your minimum stay requirements?  I saw plenty of properties on VRBO that specified different minimum stays for different times of the year.  Instead, we had fallen in love with the idea of this vacation property only for our reservation to be rejected.  🙁

Second, we got a message (err, a lack of a message) for our reservation in Santa Cruz.

VRBO rental 2

 

The property owner never responded within 24 hours, so our reservation was automatically cancelled.  I sent the owner a separate follow-up message, and he just responded vaguely saying that the property wasn’t available those days.  I continue to re-check, and it’s still available according to the calendar for that property on VRBO!  
So, we decided to readjust our strategy. I booked two nights at a chain hotel, the Highlands Inn Carmel, which is a Hyatt property. So I was able to use Hyatt Gold Passport points for a hotel near Big Sur.  Score!  Saving money, saving money! We just had to find another Santa Cruz property. We decided to submit another VRBO reservation for another lovely looking home close to the beach in Santa Cruz.  This one also had two night minimum stays.  

And another one, now our third, rejected. She responded saying she has strict three-night minimum stay requirements during the summer.  Again, nowhere on the property page was that indicated.  Just the two night minimum stays.  

VRBO rental 3

 

We were beyond frustrated. And frankly, it makes me hesitant to try VRBO again in the future.  I spent a decent chunk of time researching and comparing properties before submitting reservations on VRBO. But it was all a total waste of time. So, why would I spend time in the future searching for properties that fit my criteria, only to have them rejected?  I hate to be whiny over such #FirstWorldProblems and all, but seriously, this is a vacation rental business.  I expect to be able to RENT VACATION HOMES! 

I’m not sure who is at fault – the property owners or VRBO? Maybe VRBO makes it difficult to alter minimum stay requirements on their website? Maybe there are additional charges that VRBO imposes if you have longer stay requirments?  Or maybe it’s just flaky owners. Hoping a “better” guest will come around and stay longer at their property?

Have you used VRBO?  What were your thoughts?

How we Picked Shore Excursions for our Alaska Cruise

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Alaska Cruise 2015

After Ken and I booked our Alaskan cruise, we started researching the cruise excursion options.  As you can probably tell from our Caribbean Cruise in 2007 and our Mediterranean Cruise in 2010, we generally do a mix of independent travel and cruise-organized shore excursions.  We had read before that Alaskan Cruise shore excursions can be VERY pricey, so we wanted to make sure we budgeted appropriately, both for time and expense, and determine if independent options were more cost effective than the options offered by the cruise line.

Selecting Shore Excursions for a Cruise

To keep things organized, we developed a spreadsheet.  (Say Wha? Totally unlike us, right?  End sarcasm).  The goal was to help us identify the shore excursions that sounded appealing to us, and then to compare prices, departure times, and reviews of the shore excursions.  The spreadsheet contained 8 columns:

  1. Tour (shore excursion) Name
  2. Port of Call
  3. Code (this was the code designated by the cruise line.  It helped us differentiate between similar sounding tour options)
  4. Duration
  5. Cost Per Person
  6. Times
  7. Link to description of shore excursion on Princess’s website
  8. Link to online reviews we found of the excursion (mainly from Cruise Critic)

When we had time, we each went through the shore excursions being offered for our cruise, and added ones that sounded interesting to the spreadsheet.  This was great because we could each do it on our own time, and then take a look at each other’s additions, and see if we had any overlap (and sure enough, we did!)

This is what our spreadsheet looked like (well, for the first two ports-of-call anyway):

alaska cruise shore excursion options

 

We also had some general information at the bottom, such as the cruise itinerary and some links to third-party (independent) tour operators.

alaska cruise itinerary times

 

This was great for reference.  For instance, we could see at quick glance that if we did the “Misty Fjords Seaplane Expedition from 7:30-9:30,” then we’d still have time for another cruise excursion after that, such as the “Lighthouse, Totems, and Eagles Excursion” that would leave at 11:30AM.  (We didn’t end up doing that combination, but you get the idea!).  By having the duration and price listed, we could also get a quick idea of an “entertainment price per hour” to try and determine if something was worth the cost.  For instance, does a $99 excursion that lasts 6 hours offer a better value than a $250 excursion that only lasts two hours?  Of course, that’s something we looked into further as we narrowed down our options.

I’ve included a link to our spreadsheet, which you can then save as your own document in Google Docs if you’re looking for a template:

Spreadsheet to Figure out Cruise Shore Excursion Options

Although we didn’t do it in our spreadsheet, I can foresee other options that might be useful for this spreadsheet, such as color coding which entries were entered by which person (probably great for a larger group trying to organize cruise excursions), as well as coming up with a scheme, like maybe an additional column, indicating priority of which excursions sound REALLY REALLY great, and which ones might just be fun to consider if your schedule or budget allows.

Anyway, I’ll discuss which shore excursions we did for each port-of-call as my trip report progresses here on the blog.

 

How do you figure out what to do when you’re in a port-of-call on a cruise?

Why I’ve Given up on Carry-On Only Packing

For the first 16 years of my life, traveling with my family, I thought checking luggage was something you always had to do.  We always checked bags.

 

The Two Checked Bags, Two Carry-On’s (Plus one purse) Nightmare Trip

Well, when I was 16, I went on my first international trip without my family, with a group from high school.  Although I probably didn’t quite appreciate it at the time, my mom was a nervous wreck.  She ended up having me pack things for every possible contingency.  Full size bottles of shampoo and soap, a full box of band-aids, a portable alarm clock (hey, this was 1997, we didn’t have cell phones to use as alarms!), a box of cold medicine, a full bottle of Tylenol, a full tube of Neosporin … You get the idea.  I just kind of mindlessly followed her lead.

I should also point out that my family has a quirk, which I never realized was a quirk until I like went to college.  (Isn’t it kinda crazy how you never question things as unusual until you start to observe other people).  So, my family, for instance, only wears a pair of jeans once and then washes them.  Really, any clothing.  We’d only wear it once, then it had to be washed.  Jeans, skirts, even things like bath towels.**   We ALWAYS did laundry.  And now I understand why I was never allowed to buy anything that was dry-clean only!  Because my mom probably thought I’d have to take it to the dry cleaners any time I wore it!

Anyway, I’m describing this quirk to also illustrate the sheer QUANTITY of clothes I had to pack for a two week trip to Europe.  Pretty much wearing every item only once (because the HORROR of wearing something more than once without washing it.  Imagine!)  But for things I didn’t have enough of, of course I also had to pack Woolite in order to wash things in the sink.

My goodness, this all sounds so ridiculous as I type it.  But I just never even thought there was anything unusual about it!

Needless to say, I had to check my bag.  Two bags, in fact.  Plus the bag I carried on.  Ah, 1997.  Prior to outrageous checked bag fees and overweight charges.

I feel pretty stupid for saying this, because it seems so obvious, but perhaps I can blame it on being 16 and naive, but I hadn’t really thought ahead to the fact that I was going to be responsible for lugging these bags among eight cities in two countries.  From hotels to buses back to hotels to a ferry from Italy to Greece to another bus, to another hotel, to a tiny cruise ship cabin, to the bus and to the Athens airport.

I was one MISERABLE 16 year old girl.  Especially because several of the hotels didn’t even have elevators.  I was literally ready to throw away the two suitcases I had checked after the second city of the trip.

Why I've Given up on Carry-On Only Packing

 

The Carry-On Only Obsession Begins

Two years later, when I was 18, I was going on another international trip right after I graduated high school.  To my mother’s dismay, I was only bringing carry-on bags.  “But the band-aids! But the full bottles of shampoo!  What would I do if I ran of of shampoo!?” “What do you mean you’re going to wear pants more than once! You’ll be walking around in filth!  I was firm in my decision.  No checked bags.  Granted, my carry on’s were pretty loaded up, but everything fit! And in 1999, airlines didn’t seem to have such strict weight restrictions for carry-on luggage.

And guess what?  That habit stuck for years.  There were very few trips in the next 15 years that I had to check suitcases. 1) When I lived abroad for nearly a year, 2) When I spent three weeks in Oregon for a work trip, and 3) For cruises, because I’d usually require a multitude of different clothes for cruises (dressy for dinner, casual for touring, swimsuits, etc.).

But then something unfortunate started happening.  Between 2003 and 2007, my checked bags (the grand total of about five times I had to check them), started getting lost.  Er, “mishandled” in airline speak.  On my Cairo>Paris>Philadelphia>Pittsburgh trip, I had to pick up my checked bags in Philly for customs and then recheck them to Pittsburgh.  Lo and behold, my bags were somehow lost on that 35 minute flight.  Then in 2007, we went on our Caribbean cruise, so I checked a bag.  On our way back from Puerto Rico, my checked bag was, once again, mishandled.  Then again in 2007, I was traveling to Portland, Oregon for three weeks for work, so I checked a bag.  I was on a nonstop from Washington Dulles to Portland.  When I arrived in Portland and my bag never arrived at baggage claim, I went to the luggage office.  They said, “Oh, your bag is still in Denver.”  I’m like, “Umm, But I was never in Denver!”  I have no idea how my bag made it to Denver.  But, United delivered it to my hotel the next day.

There were a few more lost bag incidents.  Although I always got them back unscathed, it was enough for the paranoia to set in.  What if one gets REALLY lost next time?  I know this sounds vain, but I think it would really put a damper on my trip!

So, I became obsessed.  OBSESSED with carry-on only packing.  Didn’t matter how long the trip. I was shoving everything in a carry on come hell or high water!

 

Oh International Airlines and their Stingy Carry-On Limits

But then came some issues.

1) Non U.S.-based airlines are EXTREMELY strict with the weight limits of carry on bags.  It’s usually limited to just about 14 pounds, and you can only carry on that one bag (plus a small item). Keep in mind that an average carry-on with wheels weighs around 7 pounds just empty.  So that really only leaves you able to pack about 7 pounds worth of items in your bag.  That is NOT a lot.  A few articles of clothing, a pair of shoes, and some toiletries always put me over the limit.  And that didn’t include things like camera equipment, electronics, etc.

Although I was able to FIT everything in a carry on bag, the suitcase itself usually weighed closer to 30 pounds.  So this was always a problem when traveling overseas and trying to limit myself to carry ons only.

So, I started tinkering with non-wheeled based bags so that I wouldn’t be “wasting” any weight on the bag itself.  Granted, this was only necessary or trips abroad, but I was still so worried about losing my luggage again!

That brings me to the next issue.

2) I hate (HATE!) carrying a bag on my shoulder.  There is nothing quite like lugging a bag on your shoulder to the ends of the earth (er, ends of the airport terminal) and starting your trip with a sore shoulder.  I tried a few times.  I was miserable each and every time.

Finally, I reached the “F*CK IT!” phase.  I am back to being okay with checking bags for long trips.  I came to this realization just prior to our trip to Russia.

Remember what I said earlier about not having any trouble FITTING items into a carry on bag?  That it was usually just the weight that was a concern?  Well, packing heavy winter clothes for a two week trip became next to impossible.  Even though we were traveling Turkish Airlines Business Class, which had a higher checked baggage weight allowance than coach, there was still no way for me to both fit and come in under the weight allowance for my bags to Russia.

 

Tired of the Obsession.  Back to Checking Bags!

I finally had a realization.  I am spending WAY TOO MUCH TIME worrying about packing things so precisely in order to fit in a carry on bag and have everything weigh exactly what it needs to weight.  Seriously, it was a ridiculous amount of time.  Watching YouTube videos on the most efficient way to fold shirts, researching compression bags, researching ultra-light baggage.  It was terrible, and a complete waste of time.

Plus, it’s not like I’m just packing clothes and toiletries when I travel.  Photography is a big hobby of mine, so I always travel with my SLR plus two or three additional lenses when I go on a big trip.  That’s one carry-on bag alone right there!  Add in chargers for cameras, chargers for laptops (which yes, we need to pack so that we can backup our photos during a trip), and chargers for all our other electronics, that takes up a lot of weight and volume right there too.

So, I finally determined that it wasn’t worth my time anymore to shove every item in a carry on.  Sure, I still get nervous checking bags.  I’ve had them lost enough times for that to still weigh heavily on my mind!  But now, in the weeks leading up to each trip, I’m not researching (again, because I do it before EVERY big trip) better bags, lighter bags, ways to fold my clothes to save space.  Now, I just check a bag.  Easy peasy.  And I’m definitely not packing like my 1997 trip to Italy and Greece!  It’s just one checked bag.  And I should point out, that if I’m going away on a quick trip, I can still fit everything in carry-on bags just fine.

However, when I do check bags, I am still very cognizant about how my bags, a  mix of checked and carry on, “fit together” so that I can easily maneuver them and carry them.  For instance, no more than one wheeled bag per person, since it is next to impossible to wheel two suitcases at once.  Plus maybe a duffel bag that can rest on the luggage handle.

 

What about you?  Can you fit everything in carry-on bags?  Does it still come in under the weight restrictions for a lot of international airlines?

**I broke this laundry habit in like record time when I started college. I only had room for like three bath towels, and I found that I was having to do a load of laundry every three days at like four bucks a load (wash and dry).  Within like two weeks, I was using my towels for multiple days!

Planning a Daily Vacation Travel Itinerary (Flexible and Customizable)

A few weeks ago, I gave an overview of how I plan a vacation and I promised a subsequent series of the more nitty gritty details of my vacation planning process.  Today’s post covers how I plan a day-to-day itinerary of a trip.

Creating a Daily Travel Itinerary for your Vacation. Use your vacation time efficiently! Plan a customizable (and flexible) daily itinerary for your trip!

Now, there’s a few assumptions going into this post:

  1. This is an “active” vacation.  And by that I mean it’s not like an all-inclusive resort where you’re staying on the beach all day every day.  (Certainly not that there’s anything wrong with that! It’s just that you don’t quite need to plan out a detailed itinerary for that type of trip).
  2. You actually like to plan things in advance and don’t just like to trip upon things serendipitously.  I figure, vacation time is precious.  I don’t like sitting in the hotel in the morning trying to figure out what to do for the day! Or walking around just hoping to trip upon something amazing.
  3. With #2 out of the way, as always, you need to build in some flexibility.  I don’t think there’s EVER been a trip I’ve been on that I’ve gotten to see everything I plan to see.  There’s always something that changes.  Like really enjoying one site and spending more time there than originally planned (like what happened when we were at the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York City and decided to spend more time there and go to the World Trade Center Memorial the next night, instead of rushing to finish at the Intrepid.)  Or sometimes you’re just plain old tired and need to relax instead of hitting up yet another vacation attraction. I’m not one to “force” myself to see sites when I’m exhausted, because then I just don’t find it enjoyable.

By the way, in this post, I use the word “attractions” to mean anything to see at a particular destination.  Museums, botanical gardens, National Parks, State Parks, scenic vistas, etc.  You get the idea.  

Figuring out what to do and see in a vacation destination

So, I mentioned a few of these things in the previous post, but let’s cover it (in a condensed format) again.  After I pick a vacation destination(s), here’s how I figure out what to do in each destination:

  1. Consult TripAdvisor.  Of course, I almost always check out the top sites.  But remember to navigate several pages in to see some of the lesser-known sites.
  2. Consult Yelp.  Since Yelp reviews tend to be written by locals and not tourists (although not always!) it’s a good way to find other sites and attractions that might be lesser known.
  3. Consult travel books.  That’s right, I admit it.  I still like travel books!  Like Lonely Planet, Frommer’s Fodors, etc.  I almost always buy at least one travel book for any big trip.  They’re great for giving consolidated details about sites and attractions in your destination.  Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the abundance of online tips and reviews, that it’s nice to just read one consolidated and concise overview.
  4. Ask for recommendations from friends and family that may have already visited.  I can’t think of a single trip where I haven’t posted online to Facebook or Twitter saying, “Planning a trip to XYZ.  Any tips or recommendations?”  Boom, automatic recommendations from people you trust.  People always love talking about their previous travels.

For each site or attraction I find on each of the above-mentioned resources that sounds interesting like I might want to visit, I bookmark it, usually using Evernote (of course, any sort of bookmarking will work).  I usually bookmark like the website for the actual attraction instead of the TripAdvisor or Yelp page, but sometimes for something that doesn’t have its own website, I’ll bookmark the TripAdvisor or Yelp review page instead.

So now I have an entire list (err, bookmarks) of potential sites to visit.  Next up, it’s time to create maps to figure out the most efficient way of planning the daily itinerary.

 

Creating a custom Google Map to efficiently plan a daily itinerary

I’ll develop a map for EACH trip city.  For instance, if we’re visiting four major cities, like our 2008 Road Trip to Atlanta, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Memphis, I’ll create a Google Map for each city.  If it’s a trip to just one city, I’ll just have one map.

For this example, we’ll just go on the assumption that we’re visiting one city.

So, I create a custom Google Map with the city name.  You can do this by going to maps.google.com and entering your cursor into the search box.  A link with “My Maps” will appear.  After you click on “My Maps,” there will be an option to “Make a Map.”  If you have existing custom maps, they’ll also appear here.

Creating a Custom Google Map to Plan a Daily Travel Itinerary

 

My google maps and creating a custom google map for a daily travel itinerary

I visit the website of each attraction I bookmarked for that city, and copy the address of the attraction.  Then I copy it into Google Maps and add details to the description as necessary.  Sometimes, when you search for an attraction on Google, it will automatically appear in Google Maps.  Then you can just click on the map on the search results screen and save it to your custom map.  However, sometimes I like to double check that the address is correct by verifying it on the  attraction’s actual website.  Sometimes things move or close, so I always like to verify!  In the description or notes, for the map pin, I usually will also try to add the hours of operation so that I can keep that in mind when developing the daily itinerary.

After a while, I end up with a map that looks like this one did (for our 2013 New York City trip.

 

New York Travel Map for planning a daily itinerary

 

As you can see in the above map, there are some definite “clusters” of attractions, with a few outliers.  So I know that I’ll probably plan each day around a particular location cluster.  Sometimes the maps aren’t as clear cut, and things are really spread apart.  No big deal.  Then it usually doesn’t matter how we plan our visits to the different attractions.

If I know the hotel where we’re staying already, I’ll also add that to the map.  Sometimes I know what hotel we’re staying at before this process, sometimes not. It depends if I’m jonesing to try a particular hotel (like the Park Hyatt Moscow or Andaz 5th Avenue).  If I don’t have an immediate hotel preference, I might try to find a  hotel around a cluster of some of the attractions we might want to visit.

So, let’s take the New York trip as an example.  Using the custom Google Map, I identified what attractions to see on which day of our trip. Usually there’s not much preference in the order of which attractions we see on which days.  Obviously if there’s something that’s really top on our list to see, then we’ll probably include that on our first day.  Or, if one attraction in a particular cluster is closed on a certain day of the week, that might affect that day we visit those attractions.

 

Adding dining options to the itinerary

Next up is identifying restaurants.  I didn’t always identify restaurants as part of the trip planning process.  I was always like, “Oh, we’ll find something nearby.”  And, who knows where we’ll be exactly when we get hungry!  I would say like 80% of the time, that method was a catastrophe.  We’d end up starving at some point, desperate to eat, frantically trying to check apps like Urbanspoon or Yelp on our phones to see what was good nearby, only to find that there was a two hour wait or that the restaurant prices were way more than we wanted to spend.  So, although the whole concept of kind of finding some random hole-in-the-wall restaurant that ended up being fantastic, just by chance, never really happened.  In fact, I can’t think of one restaurant that we’ve ever found randomly that was terribly memorable.  So now, we try to build in dining options into our itinerary.  However, keep in mind, flexibility is key!  If you do find some random hole-in-the-wall restaurant, by all means, go for it!

I follow much of the same process.  I use Yelp, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon, and recommendations from friends and family for restaurants.  Although I love to cook, we’re not “foodies” by any stretch of the imagination, and the thought of spending more than $25 on an entree (really more than $15) makes me cringe.  So, right off the bat we can usually limit our searches to less expensive restaurants.

 Then, I create a different “layer” on my Google Map.  I then enter in the addresses for each yummy-sounding restaurant option on the Google Map.   I always identify WAY more restaurants than we could ever eat at during our trip, mostly because we want options in case if some of them don’t work out when we’re nearby.  Like if we identified an Italian restaurant but are more in the mood for Mexican.  We like to have options!

Here is the map I created for our Las Vegas trip back in February.  The attractions have green pins, and the restaurants have red pins (the airport and our hotel have blue pins).

Sample travel map for Las Vegas vacation

Voila.  Pre-identified, well-rated, reasonably priced dining options all populated on our map.  And wouldn’t you know it, many of them fall within our “clusters” of attractions. So when we’re out and about, we know exactly what’s nearby, well-rated, and reasonably priced when we start to get hungry!

 

Organizing the Final Itinerary

To do a final organization of all the information I’ve collected and to create a detailed daily itinerary for each day of the trip, I enter the information into TripIt.  I’ll cover TripIt more in a future post, but just to summarize it here, it is a FANTASTIC app that organizes all your travel plans.  You can just forward your plane, rental car, hotel, etc. reservation emails, and it automatically enters it into a wonderfully organized format.

But, using the daily itinerary options I developed based on my Google Map, I enter the desired attractions and restaurants for each day into TripIt.  This is a manual process (although you can forward some dining reservations, like from OpenTable, to TripIt.  Or even some tour reservations, although I’ve found that it varies wildly whether TripIt recognizes the format for random tour reservations.

 

Although entering this information makes it seem like we’re tying ourselves to a very rigid itinerary, it’s really not.  Remember what I said at the beginning of this post.  There is almost RARELY a travel day that our itinerary goes precisely as planned.  So, when you see that I have it entered into TripIt that we’ll arrive at Springs Preserve at 11:30AM following our breakfast that started at 10:00AM, it’s really not that precise.  Entering the times serves primarily one purpose: to ensure that we haven’t ridiculously over scheduled our day.  So if we have five attractions on the daily itinerary and as I’m entering them in, at particular times I realize that we’d have just like 90 minutes to spend at each, that’s a helpful signal that we’ve scheduled too much for that day and it’s time to rearrange things or cut back.

I also enter in one restaurant each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on our TripIt itinerary.  Based on reviews and locations nearest the “cluster,” I’ll identify where to eat for each meal, and enter the restaurant details into TripIt for a particular time.  Again, this is not as rigid as it seems.  Sometimes we’ll eat all three meals, sometimes we won’t.  And if we get hungry for something extra, or if the restaurant we planned to eat at is outrageously crowded, we can refer to our Google Map for other restaurants we previously identified.

 

Whew, that was a long post!  It seriously took me longer to write and describe WHAT I do than it actually execute these plans!   What do you do to plan daily itineraries for your trips?