How To Plan A Year-Long Family Travel Itinerary

After I posted this, I wrote a different — and in some ways, better — version of the story for one of my favorite travel websites, almostfearless.com. That article is called, “The Biggest Mistakes to Avoid While Planning Long-Term Family Travel.” I hope you’ll check it out!

The lookout next to our lodge in the Blue Mountains (click to enlarge).

The lookout next to our lodge in the Blue Mountains (click to enlarge).

The alternative title for this post could be, “How We Ended Up Off A Beaten Path Near The Blue Mountains.”

Our home for the week is at the end of a road in a thick, misty gum tree forest where wild parrots fly overhead and the cliffs of the Blue Mountains plunge into a forested canyon. In the mornings, the parrots flock for a feast of birdseed offered up by Colly and Kyle’s outstretched hands.

"A bird in the hand is worth a loo in the bush" -- the parrots make up for some of the funkier aspects of this eco lodge.

"A bird in the hand is worth a loo in the bush" -- the parrots make up for some of the inconvenient aspects of this eco lodge.

We’re exploring nearby trails, enjoying the offbeat towns of Blackheath and Katoomba, and unplugging at a cabin at the Jemby-Rinjah Eco Lodge, which is deep in the woods with no traffic noise, no Internet access and very few other guests. I love the simple, natural way of life — but I admit I was shocked to discover that the cabin’s toilet lacks what we all take for granted: running water and a flusher. It’s just a seat above a pit, a.k.a. “a roto loo composting system.”  At least I have good reason now to argue that the others should put the lid down when they’re done!

Whenever we find ourselves in a weird and wild place like this, I think to myself, We’re a long way from Piedmont how did we get here? The simple answer is that we reserved this cabin about two months ago. We figured we wanted a rustic setting after two weeks in Sydney, but didn’t want to drive too far or spend money on a flight to elsewhere in Australia. The Blue Mountains National Park seemed like a no-brainer. Our research turned up a New York Times article recommending this affordable eco-lodge, and that was enough to convince us to book it.

As the above example suggests, planning an itinerary is a very unscientific and subjective process that involves looking inward at values and priorities as well as looking outward at the world of possibilities. It’s always a balancing act between dreams and reality — that is, limitless interests versus limited time and resources. Sometimes it’s fascinating, but just as often it’s frustrating.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process not only because we’re in the throes of researching the final leg of our trip, but also because we spent a lovely half-day with a family in Sydney who invited us over to get advice on how they should plan their year-long trip around the world. Our conversation brought back so many memories of how bewildered we felt one year ago when we stared at the map on the One World airline website and tried to figure out which continents — let alone which countries and cities — we should visit, and how to make the route work out.

We’re less methodical and less organized than some traveling families we know who plan and budget every detail far in advance of departure. If Morgan and I were traveling without kids, we’d probably plan even less and be more like the backpackers we were on our college trip overseas. But the reality is that traveling with two kids means we can’t just “wing it”; we have to book places in advance so we’re assured we have a relatively affordable and pleasant place to sleep and to minimize the stress of getting from one point to another. Long-term family travel differs significantly from single or couple’s travel in part because we need apartment-style lodging that can sleep all four of us and has a kitchen for cooking meals, which usually takes more work to find than a standard hotel room.

Our cabin here has the kind of cozy kitchen we seek when researching rentals.

Our cabin here has the kind of cozy kitchen we seek when researching rentals.

The problem with travel planning is it can turn into a giant time suck. We could easily spend eight hours a day on the Internet reading about destinations, debating one over the other, comparing lodging options, and then trading emails with apartment managers and arranging overseas wire transfers to those who won’t take credit cards. We have spent days like that, and it’s no fun. Rather than searching for “the best” deal in “the best” place, we found it’s better to research just enough to feel that a choice seems pretty darn good, and then go for it.

Over the past year, we’ve developed these guiding principles to plan our itinerary, and I hope they might help other families contemplating a far-flung, months-long journey:

Less is more. The biggest mistake any family can make in planning an itinerary is trying to go to too many places and do too much. Packing, checking out of a place, driving or flying, and then checking in and settling into somewhere new is stressful on the kids and kills the better part of a day. We’ve discovered we’re happiest when we go for depth over breadth; this is, we move around less and settle into a community for a couple of weeks. During two months in New Zealand, we experienced both road-tripping — sleeping in a new town almost every night — and two-week stays at a couple of main destinations (Nelson and Queenstown). It was exciting to see so much, but overall we had a more satisfying time at the two-week spots, where we could really get to know the community and establish normal family routines such as planning meals and doing schoolwork.

A year ago, we considered choosing one major destination per month and renting an apartment there for four weeks. That would have been a cheaper way to go — the more you move around, the more money you’re likely to spend on lodging and everything else — but in hindsight I’m glad we didn’t do that; we probably would start to feel restless after a couple of weeks, and we don’t want to sacrifice too many opportunities to explore different places. For whatever reason, one to two weeks feels like the optimal amount of time to spend in any one location.

Accept the fact you can’t see every “must-see.” While we were in Argentina, we agonized over whether we should buy plane tickets and take a few days to see Iguazu Falls. Now we’re in Australia, and people are telling us we’re crazy to miss the Great Barrier Reef. I feel certain, however, that we’ve done the right thing by skipping both those destinations because of the time, money and effort it would take to get there. We’ve got enough “must-sees” on our calendar. Plus, some of the most interesting travel times happen outside of typical tourist destinations, in ordinary towns where real people really live.

Book far in advance for holiday seasons, but otherwise it’s okay to fill in the details as you go. There is no way we could have planned everything before we left home — it would have taken too much time, and we were preoccupied with packing and moving out. All we did was determine the outline of the itinerary so we could purchase the One World tickets (and even then we changed dates and destinations along the way), and we found apartments in our first two major destinations. We also found a special place to stay during the week of Christmas. Otherwise, we’ve been ironing out the details and booking lodging approximately two months in advance of where we’ll be. It has worked out well, although we learned the hard way that we should have booked earlier for the holiday season Down Under (mid-December through January) because some places we wanted to stay were already full. Similarly, if we were going to be in Europe over summer, we would have to book much farther in advance.

One advantage to staggering the process and letting the itinerary evolve more organically (for lack of a better word) is we’re more open to change. For example, we initially planned to go to Athens and a still-to-be-determined Greek Island, with a side trip to Ephesus, Turkey, to see the Roman ruins there. Then, about three months ago, we started hearing a steady drumbeat of Istanbul, Istanbul, Istanbul. An article here, a friend’s recommendation there — it was strange how we seemed to be receiving signals to go there. We resisted because getting there seems expensive, complicated and culturally too confusing. But then a couple of others whose opinions I respect mentioned something out of the blue about how they loved Istanbul. Meanwhile, the more we heard about Athens, the less alluring it seemed. The upshot is we’re going to change things around to go to Istanbul and spend more time in Turkey, less in mainland Greece.

Our front porch this week leads to a dense gum tree forest. Our kids are always happier in settings like this (and by extension, so are we), where they can wander outside and play, than in big cities.

Our front porch this week leads to a dense gum tree forest. Our kids are always happier in settings like this (and by extension, so are we), where they can wander outside and play, than in big cities.

Limit time in big cities, or at least balance it with time in the countryside. If we go to Istanbul, it’ll be for a week at most. We’ve found that big cities have two main drawbacks: they’re expensive, and they’re stressful on the kids. Colly and Kyle enjoy the city sites for a few days, but then the noise, the crowds, and the inability to go outside the front door and play freely starts to wear on them.

Plan around a hobby. For some, this might be art history or regional cuisine or mountain climbing. For Morgan and me, it’s trail running. We picked destinations with scenic trails and are taking detours to trail running events, which is why a campground in Daylesford, outside of Melbourne, is on our itinerary next weekend — it’s the site of a “dirt fest” with trail running, mountain biking and events for kids. I’m sure there are at least a hundred other destinations in Southern Australia that are more attractive and culturally significant than Daylesford, but we figure we’ll have fun connecting with other families and doing something we enjoy there. We never would have discovered the West Coast of New Zealand if not for the trail running event that prompted us to go there.

Morgan during a run/hike on a cliffside trail in the Blue Mountain range.

Morgan during a run/hike on a cliffside trail in the Blue Mountain range.

Don’t be shy — hook up with locals even if you barely know them. Tap into networks such as alumni groups, Facebook and friends-of-friends in order to meet people in your destinations, especially if those locals have kids that your kids can play with. In New Zealand, we met up with a friend-of-a-friend via Facebook and ended up having a magical day touring an area that only a local would know, and through this person we met a wonderful family who gave us the use of their house. Then we connected with really old friends who have kids our kids’ ages and spent a blissful two weeks in their home. I look forward to returning the favor to the family from Sydney when they swing through Northern California. Meeting new people and forming relationships is part of the joy of traveling — of life, really.

Use tried-and-true websites. We cast a wide net on the web when we research but return repeatedly to these sites: Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet and The NY Times Travel section. Morgan also is a master at using Google Earth and Google Maps to “see” a place in advance. We’ve actually decided against certain apartments because the street view on Google reveals they’re in a place that looks particularly shabby or inconvenient. We also rely on other traveling families’ blogs for recommendations (such as those listed on the right hand column of our blog). We don’t carry many guidebooks because we don’t want the weight; we read a few select books mainly to get an overview on a country or region, rather than specific recommendations.

Remember, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I start feeling flutters of anxiety about the big gaps in our itinerary that we still need to fill for April and May, but then the Jon Kabat-Zinn title Wherever You Go, There You Are pops in my head and helps me relax, having faith that we can make the best of wherever we end up if we have the right attitude. Whether we have a positive experience traveling depends less on the destinations themselves and more on what we do as a family — how we interact with each other, and with other people and the surroundings — wherever we go.

You can stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and have a pretty lousy time if you’re annoyed by other tourists, pissed off at your spouse and frustrated that your kids don’t feel like hiking. Or, you can find yourself in a remote corner of Patagonia, smelling of carsickness after a difficult drive, and laugh uncontrollably upon discovering that your lodge lacks a view but has a bizarre collection of gnome figurines. As Morgan put it, “You can end up in some pretty weird places, but they can be a lot of fun.”

This is the iconic Blue Mountain shot: the legendary Three Sisters rock, which all the tour buses stop by to see. It's pretty, but ...

This is the iconic Blue Mountains shot: the legendary Three Sisters rock, which all the tour buses stop by to see. It's pretty, but ...

... we had a better time discovering this out-of-the-way waterfall on the other side of the canyon than staring at the Three Sisters.

... we had a better time discovering this out-of-the-way waterfall on the other side of the canyon than staring at the Three Sisters.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,