Why is planning something that is supposed to be relaxing so stressful? The thought of trying to plan and book a National Park vacation can be so off-putting that you procrastinate for weeks. Sometimes, the thought of the work gets the best of you, and you end up deciding to just go to the same place you did last year. Or worse, you put off any vacation for another year.
Don’t let this happen to you! If there is one thing that I’ve learned now that I am a “middle-aged” parent, it’s this: Time is precious. It is crucial to spend time as a family and seize every opportunity to travel while you can. You can’t let the fear of planning get in the way.
We’ve put together a few tips and even a tool to help minimize the stress of planning a trip to the National Parks!
START EARLY AND BOOK IN ADVANCE
Not many people start to book or even think about their next vacation a year in advance, but it’s very helpful to do so. If you’ve ever tried to stay inside a National Park before, you’ve probably found that you must reserve your room nearly 13 months in advance of your stay to have a chance at getting a room during peak summer travel. The good thing is that most hotels offer very lenient cancellation policies, with many not penalizing you for date changes or cancellations, even up to 72 hours in advance of your stay.
Entrance lines at Jewel Cave National Park before opening...get reservations whenever you can!
PLAN YOUR NIGHTS FIRST
Once you decide on your main destination(s), decide where you’ll be staying each night. By deciding where you’ll sleep, it allows you to anchor your plans and book your stays. Getting your lodging or camping booked is one of the biggest steps you can take to remove stress from your planning. After your nights are decided on and booked, the rest of the planning is comprised of small (though numerous) details that can be figured out later.
The El Tovar at Grand Canyon National Park is great, but make booking early is required
KEEP GREAT NOTES
If you’re like us, once you start making reservations, keeping track of the flood of confirmation emails becomes overwhelming. There are many apps out there that claim to make this process easier. However, even though some apps can help, we’ve found they don’t have everything we need. They also tend to change frequently, and keeping current with the updates can get frustrating especially after you put in a lot of work to entering your schedule. Finally, these apps frequently require cell phone service, which is not always reliable in National Parks. This is a lesson we learned very early on!
Instead, we recommend doing two things:
- Create a separate email folder for each trip you are planning. This allows quick reference for any emails that you’ve received. We end up referring to this folder in a pinch, though the raw emails can be a bit difficult to sort through quickly.
- Take detailed notes. As each reservation is made, take the time to write down at least where you are staying, the confirmation number, the nightly rate and any deposit you’ve made, the cancellation policy and any contact information. This takes about three minutes per reservation. However, when you are without speedy internet service, this information comes in handy when you are traveling.
We’ve developed our own trip planning template to help with this process. If you sign up for our email list, you’ll be provided with a link to it as well as detailed information on how to use the template.
LEAVE THE DAY-TO-DAY DETAILS TO OTHERS
Planning guides can be invaluable when determining what to do in each of your destinations. Before your trip, spend some time finding one or two good references to bring on your trip. Don’t feel like you need to have each day planned out exactly. Instead, make sure to have something to help you decide what to do as you go.
Our National Park Itineraries are a good resource.
There are also many other options for details outside of the National Parks that you may want to consider. Fodor’s guides are some of our favorites.
In addition, you may just want to leave all the trip planning to someone else. Tour companies like Fitpacking have trips throughout the year, and while they make you do the literal legwork while you are on the trip, they'll take care of making sure you have a great time and an amazing adventure!
TRAVELING WITH FRIENDS - DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO DO FIRST!
Traveling with friends and other families can be a blast, but it can also exponentially increase the planning stress. Every family is different, and it is very challenging (if not impossible!) to find something that multiple families want to do. You shouldn’t put that stress on your shoulders as it leads to indecision and wasting time.
Instead of playing the role of travel coordinator, decide what you want to do first, then communicate that to your traveling partners. Let them know they are welcome to join you and when you are open for meeting up. While this may seem selfish, it will ensure that you have a great time. Your travel companions will likely appreciate being given the option to plan their own activities, too.
Make sure you don't over schedule yourselves with friends, or you may not have time to sit and enjoy the view!
ASK OTHERS FOR HELP
How many times have you returned from a trip only to find out that four other coworkers and three friends went to the same place last year? Let others around you know where you are going ahead of your trip and you’re likely to be flooded with advice to assist you in sorting out what to do and where to stay.
What’s the best way to do this? Take a photo of a map with your highlighted route and post it on Facebook and Instagram and ask for advice. Mention your trip to friends at works. These are great ways get comments from your friends and followers.
Once you get the input, concentrate on the items that you need to act on early. For instance, if there are reservations that you need to make in advance, concentrate on those rather than on where you might want to eat or stop for photos.
A photo of a map really draws in the comments!
BUDGET YOUR MONEY
Ahead of your vacation, you’ll want to plan out your budget carefully. We found it easier to plan on a set budget per day, taking our best guess at what it will cost for each day rather than trying to plan out each and every detail. You’ll also want to make sure you plan for contingencies.
After you come home, be sure to check your credit card statements to ensure you weren’t over charged for anything. If you see anything suspicious or are worried about your status when you get home, you should consider checking your credit.
Above all, just BOOK IT! Trip planning won’t happen with you just sitting around. Once you get started, you’ll find that you’ll make rapid progress. You can then move on to one of the best parts of the vacation process--the anticipation of the great trip that’s ahead!
NATIONAL PARK ITINERARIES
We offer downloadable National Park itineraries with great hints and tips for over 25 National Parks. Check out our downloadable itineraries here.
OTHER USEFUL LINKS