Complete Vacation Guide

It’s that time of year where I get to count down the days until glorious freedom playing in the sun on sandy beaches with the majestic ocean within reach. Below is my complete guide to planning a vacation.

6-12 months before

Pick dates

Look at your calendar at home, work, school, consider possible extracurricular activities that will be going on at that time of year, etc. Find a week (or more if you are REALLY lucky) to mark yourself as unavailable.

Find the perfect place

Location, location, location

Are you more of a mountains or beach person? Where do you go when you need to heal your mind, your heart, your soul? Water and trees speak to me. Living in Ohio I can trounce around in the friendship of trees anytime the weather is agreeable, so our family heads to the beach. Occasionally I toy with the idea of a trip into the mountains, but the truth is I am afraid I won’t find the same joy I do oceanside.

Once you have a general idea of where you would like to head, you can begin to look at rental properties, hotels, or bed and breakfasts. Booking early provides the most options. We typically book our condo 6 months in advance. Sites like VRBO and Home Away have been helpful for us in the past.


What are the most important amenities on vacation for you? Are you willing to pay more for a few extras or is staying within budget the priority? Is the kitchen stocked with everything you typically use? Choose your price range, number of bedrooms, and all the extras that matter to your family. If you have questions the description does not answer, email the owner or rental company. I have always found them to be friendly and quick to answer.

The single most important part of my vacation experience is the view. I want to have an unobstructed full on view of the ocean. It’s not vacation unless I can wake up and drink my coffee on the balcony/porch listening to the waves crash on the beach while the cool salty air dances through my hair. Outside seating is also a must-have for my husband. The kids need a swimming pool. Yes, they go into the ocean, but they are more comfortable swimming in a pool.

Once you feel that you have found the perfect place show everyone else who is going to see if they are just as excited. They may remember something that you have forgotten. When everyone is certain it’s their dream getaway, Book It! Sign the contract, put the deposit down, then begin the countdown until you arrive.

Insure your trip

Get travel insurance that allows you to cancel your trip and receive a refund. Without insurance you can be stuck paying thousands of dollars for a trip you cannot take due to a health or other personal emergency. When you are planning trips 6-12 months in advance you are really counting on everything working out exactly as you plan. How often does that really happen? Mother nature has lots of surprises (forest fires, hurricanes, landslides, just to name a few).

3 weeks before

Compile a packing checklist and also a checklist of items that will need to be completed before you leave.

Packing Checklist

What you need to pack will depend on where you have chosen to vacation. We head toward the beach every year. The water soothes my weary soul. The age of your children will also determine your packing needs. My packing checklist once included baby baths, playpens, and diapers, where now it encompasses colored pencils (because crayons melt in a hot car), headphones, and iPads.

Traveling with toddlers packing checklist

Traveling with pre-teens packing checklist

Some beach condos come complete with beach equipment (chairs, umbrella with base, boogie/skim boards and sand toys) or included/free beach service. Read the description and clarify before taking up unnecessary space in the trunk. Sadly, our regular condo does not include any of those items. Boogie and skim boards are flat and not needed until you arrive at the beach so they are perfect for putting on the bottom on everything else.

It’s important for perfectionists like me to remember that there are stores everywhere to pick up any items that have been forgotten. Focus on the irreplaceable items like medicines, favorite stuffed animals, or pillows you can’t sleep without.


Will you pack your food and take it with you, will you buy it all when you get there, or are you planning some kind of combination? My husband and I talk about what we would like to do on vacation, do we want to eat out a lot, which meals, which of his favorite dishes would he like me to prepare there. Typically we eat breakfast in our condo. Some mornings it’s just fruit and cereal and others I bust out the griddle for pancakes, sausage, toast, and eggs. Lunch and Dinners are split between being prepared at home and dining out.

When we first started taking vacations I would plan nearly every meal and snack, pack a cooler with ice, and cram everything we would need into the trunk for a thirteen-hour drive. That was crazy! I am a little crazy. Sometimes I can be inflexible, yeah I know, big surprise. Between couponing and purchasing local, hormone free beef, I had a difficult time paying full retail and considering grocery store meat. I have come to the realization that one week of vacation food is just part of the experience, not to mention a lot less to pack, plan, and cram into the car. Did I mention we take a Honda Civic with 4 humans in it for a thirteen-hour drive?

These days I pack a few shelf stable items and my spices. Spices are not cheap and there is no reason to buy a brand new bottle for preparing a few dishes, besides they take up minimal room. Also, COFFEE, check what kind of coffee maker will be available. We have Keurig at home, but most of the condos we have stayed in still use ground coffee brewers. Don’t forget filters! This is an extremely important part of my first morning away. Although, there is always the backup of running to the local coffee shop for your morning joe.

Overnight bag

It takes 13 hours to get to our beach destination and we choose to break that drive up into 2 days.

Some people may have a predetermined stopping point, not us. We don’t like to be too constrained on where we need to stop for the night. Some trips we make it further than others on the first leg of the journey. It depends on how we are feeling. For example, our last trip to the beach we had car trouble and we did not make it very far at all on the first day. Having a reservation somewhere would have compounded to that stress.

Our family’s preference is to stay at a nice hotel with a pool. We stay at hotels several times a year so I have joined the Marriott rewards club and downloaded their ‘Find a Marriott’ app to my phone. When we are thinking about stopping for the night I open the app and look for nearby hotels with a pool. We are prepared to drive for another hour or so because there may not be one super close that stays along your route.

Once we get to the hotel we do not want to lug all of our bags into the hotel when all we need are a few items for a brief overnight stay. We pack an overnight bag complete with toiletries, swim suits, pajamas, and a change of clothes for the next day.

For the Car

Plan your route and share it with someone who will not be going on your trip with you, just in case. I have found google maps to be incredibly accurate.

Schedule needed maintenance for the car. At the very least check all fluids and tire pressure. Be sure you have an emergency kit in the trunk (jumper cables, basic tools, tire pressure gauge, caution cones, road flare, rain poncho etc.).

How will you and everyone else stay entertained without disturbing the driver? For our family that means iPads for the kids with headphones, a book for me, and full radio control for my husband. In the past, I have packed junk food snacks for the kids, but the result was a backseat mess when we arrived. Now I prefer to stop, get out of the car and eat. Most of the time we stop at a restaurant or a nature rich rest stop for homemade sandwiches.

Drinks are tricky too. You want to keep everyone comfortable and hydrated without stopping every hour to use the restroom. This requires patience, experience, and intermittent reminders about liquid intake. Most importantly, when you stop make everyone get out and try even if they don’t feel the need. Because if you don’t someone is going to need to go just a few miles down the road.

Beach bag

When packing for our trip I pack the beach bag full of the things we will be taking to the beach so it’s ready to go. The beach is usually the very first thing we do when we arrive, sometimes even before unloading the car. A spray bottle of vinegar in case of jellyfish stings is a necessity as getting stung seems to be my annual beach trip tradition. I think in all the years we have gone I have missed being stung only once.

1 week before

Solidify plans to have your mail and newspapers brought in. If you have someone caring for your pets, have them over and show them where they can find everything they need. Make sure anyone needing keys to your home has them.

You may also want to have someone walk your trash totes out to the curb on trash day and return them to the house. Trash totes left unmoved can be a signal to thieves that you have an unattended house.

The day before

A little housekeeping

Oh, the wonderful anticipation is at its peak. It’s easy to get carried away with excitement, but there are a few last-minute things to take care of to ensure you return home to a pleasant atmosphere.

My very first vacation as an adult was wonderful until I opened the door to my apartment upon returning. It smelled like something died in there while I was away. Turns out I had forgotten to take out the trash and left dirty dishes in the dishwasher, ew!

First, clean out your refrigerator tossing or giving away foods that will spoil. After you have eaten the last meal at your, run the dishwasher. Clean out the sink and run the disposal.

Be sure you have plenty of pet food on hand if someone will be caring for your pets at home.

Get all the laundry done and start packing.

Clean all the windows in the car and ensure there are no streaks.

VACATION, it’s finally here!

Finish packing

Road trips are more enjoyable if I am comfortable and for me, that includes being freshly showered. This means most of my toiletries cannot be packed until the day we leave for the trip. When I step out of the shower, I towel dry my bottles and toss them into the toiletry bag.

One last check through the bags to make sure we have most everything we will need.

Walk through the house checking all windows and doors, unplugging everything except the refrigerator (just in case).

The trip

Check all fluids and tire pressure one last time. Make sure you have sunglasses, directions, phone, and phone charger.

Let your family know you have left and when they should expect to hear from you again.

When stopping for the night I always send those same people the city, state, hotel, and room number of where we are. I know in an emergency they are too far to help, but in the event something happens, they would have an idea of where to start.

Dress comfortably in loose-fitting, soft clothes.

Take a deep breath, now enjoy the experience!


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