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How to Involve Your Kids in Family Vacation Planning

family at the beach
Allianz - parents and young child on family vacation at the beach

After a spring-break family vacation to North Carolina and Tennessee, I asked my 6-year-old daughter what her favorite part of the trip was. Soaking in hot springs? Hiking in the Great Smokies? Riding the train at Dollywood?

“The baked-bean place,” she said.

Yep — after spending hundreds of dollars to visit various attractions, the highlight of the trip was an unplanned stop at the Bush’s Visitor Center in Chestnut Hill, Tenn., where the famous beans are made. Go figure.

This got me thinking about how kids’ experiences don’t always match parents’ expectations. How can you make sure your kids will love the family vacation? The answer is giving them some say in the vacation-planning process — without busting your travel budget. Here’s a five-step strategy you can try.

Step 1: Parents set the trip parameters.

If you begin the trip-planning process by asking your kids, “Where should we go?”, heartbreak is all but assured. One, they’ll argue. Two, their idea of a dream vacation might be something utterly extravagant or totally impractical. It’s best if the grown-ups, after setting a travel budget, choose a destination or narrow it down to a few options. You can discuss those possibilities as a family, but do let your kids know that you retain veto power.

For us, the choice for spring break was either flying to Florida or driving to the mountains. Florida sounded the most appealing, but after looking at the flight and hotel prices (which were extra-high for spring-break season) we decided to drive to Tennessee instead. Plus, that allowed us to bring our dog.

Step 2: Kids help choose where to stay.

My daughter and I had a lot of fun looking at Airbnb listings together. “This one has bunk beds!,” she’d say. “This one has a pool table!” Choosing our lodging was a great exercise in comparison-shopping and compromise. For instance, she’d hoped for a hotel with an indoor pool, but because we were traveling with the dog, our options were limited. She settled, happily, for a room with an oversized whirlpool tub.

Older kids can do the research themselves and propose the hotel or resort where they’d like to stay. If you’re going to Disney World, your kids could weigh the pros and cons of staying at a value hotel vs. a deluxe hotel. Disney’s deluxe resort properties have better views and more luxurious amenities, but the money you save with a value hotel could pay for an extra day of park-hopping.1

Step 3: Get travel insurance!

Once you’ve booked your airline tickets, cruise fares, hotel reservations, etc., you should buy travel insurance. The sooner you purchase insurance, the longer your coverage window for trip cancellation. Also, in order for pre-existing medical conditions to be covered, you must insure your trip within 14 days of the date of the first trip payment or deposit. (Other terms, conditions and exclusions apply. See your travel insurance plan documents for details.)

If you’re traveling overseas with your family, we recommend buying the OneTrip Prime or OneTrip Premier plan, because both cover children 17 and under for free when they’re traveling with a parent or grandparent (not available on policies issued to Pennsylvania residents).

Personally, I love the AllTrips Prime plan for protecting domestic family vacations. For one super-affordable price, all of my trips are protected in a 365-day span. I chose to insure only myself (as opposed to buying travel insurance for the entire family) because I’m frugal and I’m always the one who books and pays for family trips. So if I have to cancel a trip for a covered reason — such as the serious, covered illness of a traveling companion or family member — I can file a claim to get reimbursed for my nonrefundable, prepaid trip costs. AllTrips Prime includes a ton of other benefits, too: the Rental Car Damage Protector, emergency medical transportation, emergency medical benefits, baggage loss/damage, travel delay and more. (The Rental Car Damage Protector is not available in all states.)

Read more: When You’re Paying, What’s Covered?

Step 4: Assign each kid a vacation day to plan.

Now that you have your destination and lodging lined up, it’s time to focus on the details. Consider letting each child in the family take responsibility for planning a single day of the trip. If you’re taking a cruise, you can ask each kid to select one shore excursion. If you’re staying at an all-inclusive family resort or beach house, the kids can find fun day trips they’d like to take. Ask them to make alternate plans, too, in case the weather doesn’t cooperate.   This you-plan-it approach is an invaluable opportunity to let your kids experiment with budgeting, logistics and decision-making.

Nervous about letting your kids take the reins? Just remember that you’re teaching them to be independent and resilient travelers. Amber Johnson, editor of Mile High Mamas, told her two children to choose a hotel for a summer road trip. When they saw one with a big pool, they booked it immediately — and then, upon arrival, discovered the pool was closed for renovation. Johnson considered this minor failure to be an important learning experience, she told The Wall Street Journal.2 Next time, her kids will call ahead to confirm.

Read more: How to Survive — and Enjoy — Vacations with Teens

Step 5: Reflect on your family vacation.

After you unpack your suitcases, unpack your vacation, too. Have a family conversation about what went right and what went wrong. What was your kids’ favorite part of the vacation? What would they change next time? 

While you can’t force your children to feel deep gratitude, involving them in the planning helps them understand the true value of a vacation. Family travel requires a lot of money, time, flexibility and patience… but the memories made will last a lifetime. We’ll always cherish the photos we took with the world’s largest can of baked beans.

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