We just returned from our summer vacation (more on that later) and I thought I would share some of what has worked for us as a big family (five kids, two parents) planning and paying for and enjoying out-of-town trips.
Planning ahead is essential.  I can remember going on trips as a child and just deciding to stop when we got tired of driving (which was pretty much never, since my father hated to stop and once drove from Tennessee to Rhode Island with only food and bathroom breaks) and finding a hotel.  Not only would that make me a nervous wreck, it would not be economical.
Anything that can be done online, I do, and that includes vacation planning.  My first stop is always Hotwire, which I discovered many years ago.  You can get crazy deals on hotels, with one catch–you won’t know the exact name and location of your hotel until after you book–and pay–for it.  It’s a little scary the first time, but we’ve never ended up with a bad place.  Still, I’m a little wary of doing it when I don’t know the area I’m traveling to.  I don’t ever do it when going to Mobile to transport our daughter to and from college because I am afraid of landing in a particular motel that we loathed.  However, for our usual summer trip to Baltimore it is great because by paying attention to various clues I am able to land in the same motel year after year at half price.
If I don’t see exceptional deals on Hotwire, I try Kayak, where you can see the hotel names ahead of time and which searches all the major travel sites at once.  I almost always end up booking through Orbitz, usually for a pay-ahead deal.  The great thing about Orbitz is that by looking at Retailmenot.com I can almost always get a coupon code and save even more.
Another crucial money-saving tactic for us is to book a hotel that serves free breakfast.  For our family that amounts to an added value of at least $50 each day.  If you haven’t tried this option lately, you might be surprised.  Our most recent hotel offered eggs and sausage, waffles, french toast, bagels, English muffins, biscuits and gravy, a variety of cereals both hot and cold, milk, juice, coffee, tea, fresh fruit, and yogurt.  And if you wanted to carry some of that up to your room for later, they were okay with that as well.  They also offered round-the-clock coffee and lemonade for free, and late afternoon chips and cookies, although we were never around for that.
Having an in-room refrigerator and microwave is another plus.  We made one trip to the grocery store at the beginning of our most recent vacation and spent $50 to stock up the refrigerators.    We also had a safe place to store leftovers from the early dinner we ate out each evening.  We were able to keep everyone fed while only paying for one big meal out each day (a HUGE savings since only two kids qualify for child meals and a dinner our for all of us at a decent restaurant was never under $100).
While not essential, laundry facilities on site are helpful.  Some of us don’t have enough clothes to last seven days.  And with the ability to do laundry, we can pack less.  We have gotten so good at packing that we did not even need to put anything on the roof of the minivan for this last trip and we could still (mostly) see out the back window!
We tend to spend some time in our hotel rooms (we get two, one for the parents and the two little kids and one for the three big ones), so it’s important that we have wi-fi for the four laptops we brought along, and that there are good television stations (we don’t have t.v. at home so this is actually a big treat for all of us on vacations).  Both of those amenities seem to be pretty standard at this point.  We always bring work with us (although we rarely actually do it) so having a business center with a printer makes us feel reassured.  Finally, and most important of all–a deal-breaker, in fact–is that our lodgings must have a pool!
Having covered hotels and food, let’s talk about the transportation.  We drive.  We cannot afford plane tickets for seven, and even if we did, the one time we did fly to Baltimore was so stressful that I don’t think I would do it again if I could.  Our kids have always been good travelers.  Nowadays we drive straight through if our destination is 500 miles or so away.  When they were little, though, we stopped half way.
When I was a little girl, the drive was strictly a means to an end.  If possible, we started at night and drove through the dark so we would stay asleep and my father could make better time.  We did not stop for meals; we went through the drive-through and ate in the car.  Luckily, John and I both agree that the drive is part of the fun.  We are too old and too tired to drive at night.  So we usually try to start as early in the morning as we can be ready (we are always too ambitious about this part) and we stop for a sit-down meal at least once, even though it takes two hours to do it.  We accept the fact that every bathroom stop will take half an hour and that every gas stop will involve snack purchases.  Like any family, we have various things we do for amusement in the car–the alphabet game, mad libs (we made up some of our own this trip), reading aloud.
This was the first trip we took in which we were fully smart-phone enabled.  No maps were used, only phones.  It was AMAZING how great this worked, even just for walking around the city.  If we got off track all we had to do was ask for new directions from our current location.  I will never be going back to maps, or even to printing out directions from MapQuest!
We have also learned to pace ourselves on vacation.  Everyone needs to rest.  Having spent so much time picking the perfect hotel, we all enjoy spending some time there with the pool, the t.v., the air conditioning, and the maid service.  Needing to make it to the free breakfast gets us out of bed in the morning, but we generally don’t make it out of the hotel until close to noon.  Then we pick an activity or two for the day.  We eat an early dinner before heading back to the hotel for swimming and relaxing.  Technology was helpful with this part of the trip as well.  Friends on Facebook who knew where we were made recommendations for things to do and places to eat.  Our iPhones helped us with location, prices, hours, and menus before we committed ourselves.
Next post I will write more specifically about our recent trip and the city we fell in love with . . .
How about you?  Do you have any traveling tips to share?


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