Planning A Family Vacation Checklist: 8 Useful Steps

Being a traveler at heart, I am always yearning for travel and adventures. But much like traveling with kids can sometimes be a challenge, family travel planning can also be challenging. Taking an annual family vacation can be stressful when it comes to planning it. There are so many moving pieces! You really need a planning a family vacation checklist.

Over the years, we've taken our kids to amazing places all over the world. We've visited subterranean caves on the island of Palawan, and thrilled at watching flamenco dancing in Seville. These experiences have encouraged our kids to be travelers, and instilled in them a love for learning about the world.

But behind all these unique experiences is something that most people don't see. The logistics and preparation that goes into family travel planning! And most important, a family vacation planning checklist that helps guide our plans.

This post was updated on May 13, 2022.

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Puerto Princesa, Philippines, a destination that families can do family travel planning
A beach near the island of Palawan in the Philippines (February 2020)

Using a family vacation planning checklist to prepare for travel

Family travel planning for a big vacation can often seem daunting. There is a lot that goes into the process, especially if you are going overseas. Luckily, after four years of traveling full-time with my family (in addition to the countless trips I've taken solo), I have a few tips and suggestions that I can share with all of you.

What's been most helpful for my family is having a family vacation planning checklist. That helps me keep track of all the things we need to figure out and sort through before we go on our trip. Here's a run down of tasks to do and things to keep in mind as you begin your countdown to a family vacation.

Planning a longer trip? Read my tips for planning for an around the world trip with kids.

Passport, sunglasses, and journal for travel (May 2018)

1. Twelve months to go

In a way, this is my favorite part, as there are countless possibilities. The biggest thing to do at this point is to choose your destination. There are a number of travel sites out there to help you choose the right place for your family vacation, but I often just ask my husband and kids where they think they might like to go.

You can also begin to do your preliminary research of a destination. My favorite part of a bookstore is always the travel section. If money were no object, I could easily spend thousands of dollars on guidebooks and travel memoirs. Fortunately, our local library has a pretty good selection of guide books to give ideas for how to plan a vacation.

If you're more of a digital research kind of person, there is a plethora of resources available online to help you learn about your destination during this family travel planning stage. These resources include Lonely Planet, and Trip Advisor. Buy a copy of Lonely Planet's The Travel Book to get ideas of countries to visit around the world.

Family vacation planning checklist summary:

  • Choose your destination
  • Do your preliminary research
Jewel at Changi Airport, a destination for family travel planning
Jewel at Changi Airport in Singapore (January 2020)

2. Six months to go

This is the point in your family travel planning when you can start getting serious. One of the most important tasks to do at this point, when thinking about how to plan a vacation, is to buy airplane tickets. When traveling with kids, there are some considerations to take into account. In addition to cost, the time of departure, length of flight, and length of layovers are all good things to keep in mind when choosing the right ticket.

Also, if you're traveling with a child under two, you may want to consider buying a seat for him or her, even though you don't have to. It may cost more, but buying an extra plane seat and using the car seat for plane travel makes a large difference in creating a relaxing flight.

You can also take this time to start researching lodging options. I am a big proponent of Airbnb. Over the years, I have seen a growth in international properties being offered through Airbnb, even in lesser traveled countries in Africa and Asia. Airbnb is a great platform for families to find family-friendly lodging.

If you still want to go the hotel route, and Agoda are both useful sites to use when researching lodging options at your destination. I also recommend using Trip Advisor for user-generated reviews of hotels and other kinds of lodging.

Family vacation planning checklist summary:

  • Buy airplane tickets
  • Start researching lodging options
A hotsprings resort in Bali, Indonesia (October 2019)

3. Four months to go

With four months to go until your family vacation, now is the time when you can begin to book lodging. For our upcoming trip, we've booked most of our lodging with Airbnb mainly because it's cheaper. But we've also booked lodging with traditional hotels.

When family travel planning, consider the sleeping arrangements for your family. If you're traveling overseas with young kids, it helps to book family rooms so your kids don't end up sleeping in their own separate room in some strange hotel.

If you're traveling overseas, use this time to obtain or renew your passport. Most countries require at least three months left on your passport for entry, so make sure your family and you have up to date passports. You don't want to risk arriving at the airport and not being able to travel because of your passport's expiration date (this actually happened to a friend of mine!).

You can also start to think about what you will pack for your trip. If your little one is still sleeping in a crib, are you planning on bringing a pack and play? Will you need to bring a stroller, or baby carrier? What kinds of toys and activities will you take along to help the kids pass the time? My philosophy is to pack as minimally as possible, given the needs of your family.

Family vacation planning checklist summary:

  • Book lodging
  • Obtain or renew your passport
  • Think about what you will pack

Want to travel more sustainably? Here are the eco-friendly travel products we pack.

An Airbnb in Italy, for family travel planning
An Airbnb in Italy (June 2019)

4. Two months to go

At the two month mark, your date of departure is now just around the corner. Go ahead and book activities that you plan on doing during your family vacation. Staying flexible during travel is helpful, but it doesn't hurt to have some pre-booked activities that you can look forward to doing.

You should probably take this time to apply for a visa if your destination country requires it. Visa processing can sometimes take a long time, so it's good to plan ahead when you're doing family travel planning. Check your destination country's embassy or consular website for information regarding visas.

Also, get vaccinations if the country you're visiting requires it as well. Check the CDC travel website to see what vaccinations are recommended for the country you are visiting. When you travel with your kids, it's important to protect them as much as possible from any diseases that may be common in your destination country. On a similar note, don't forget to buy travel insurance, if you haven't done so already.

Family vacation planning checklist summary:

  • Book your vacation activities
  • Apply for a visa (if neccesary)
  • Get vaccinations (if necessary)
  • Buy travel insurance
An open-top bus tour in Paris, France (July 2019)

Ready for a change? Take the first step to living a life of full time travel.

5. One month to go

At the one month mark, you should start to book your vacation activities, if you haven't done so already. Choose activities that your family will enjoy. But also don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. Also, remember to think about whether the activity you're doing is ethical and sustainable.

This is also a good time to arrange ground transportation both at your destination, and to and from the airport in your hometown. For short trips, we like doing the cheap daily parking options near the airport. But if it's for a longer trip, we'll arrange for a shuttle pickup.

Another family travel planning thing you can do at this point is obtain foreign currency. Since you may not always have access to an ATM right away, it doesn't hurt to have a little bit of cash ahead of time. I buy my foreign currency through Bank of America since I already have an account with them. But you can also do it through Wells Fargo and Travelex.

The final thing I like to do one month before a family vacation is to register with the State Department. For United States citizens, registering with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) can help the US government know where you are in case of natural disasters or civil unrest. Other countries may have similar types of registries for their nationals traveling abroad.

Family vacation planning checklist summary:

  • Book remaining vacation activities
  • Arrange ground transportation
  • Obtain foreign currency (if necessary)
  • Register with the State Department (if necessary and if you are a US citizen)
Money from Paraguay acquired during family vacation planning.
Paraguayan guarani (April 2013)

6. Two weeks to go

At the two week mark, you're starting to go into the home stretch. This is a good time to arrange for hold mail service during your family vacation, especially if you're going to be gone for an extended period of time. You can set up hold mail online. And you can even arrange for your held mail to be delivered to you the day after you return from your trip.

Another family travel planning step you can do at this point is to finalize your packing list. Make sure that you have purchased all the items you need for your trip. To save space in our luggage, we like to buy travel-sized items of toiletries like toothpaste, lotion, shampoo and deodorant. We also go through our clothes and set aside the outfits we will be taking along for our trip.

In terms of the type of luggage, take some time to find the best backpack that fits your family. Some families prefer a hiking style backpack, like the Osprey Farpoint backpack, while other prefer a rolling suitcase, like ones from American Tourister. Backpacks free up our hands, but rolling suitcases are easier on our backs.  It really depends on your preference.

Family vacation planning checklist summary:

  • Arrange hold mail service
  • Finalize your packing list
Kids back packs for travel (June 2018)

7. One week to go

With one week left to go until your family vacation, the only thing you should be focused on is getting mentally prepared for your trip. The major family travel planning task to do at this point is to start packing your bags.

The common packing advice for family travel planning is to pack half of what you need and carry twice as much money as you need. This is sage advice. But sometime it can be hard to follow when you have kids. Try and leave at least a third of your bag empty for souvenirs.

Another important thing to do with one week left to go is to double check all your travel arrangements. Are all the tickets for airfare and regional transportation paid for? Have you booked your lodging (or have plans for lodging)? Do you have all the travel documents you need for travel? Have you received all the appropriate vaccinations? This is more of a piece of mind check than anything else.

Family vacation planning checklist summary:

  • Pack your bags
  • Double check your travel arrangements
Airport terminal, for family travel planning
Flags at Dulles airport terminal (May 2019)

8. Family travel planning for the day before

On the day before the trip, I like to print out copies of all the travel documents and put them together in an envelope. This includes copies of plane ticket reservations, travel itineraries, contact lists, hotel reservations, activity reservations, and anything else related to what we will be doing on our trip.

This is also a good time to make sure your travel budget is up to date. Make sure you have something in place to track your travel expenses. I use the Sheets app on my iPhone to keep track of my travel expenses, but there are plenty of travel budgeting apps out there that you can use. I try not to do too many things the day before, because I want to make sure I'm rested for the trip.

Family vacation planning checklist items:

  • Print out copies of your travel documents
  • Make sure your travel budget is up to date

Need more tips for flying internationally with kids? Read my air travel with kids posts.

Kids playing at the airport in Taiwan (September 2015)

Get a print out of my family vacation planning checklist

If the thought of trying to keep track of all of these steps is stressing you out, don't worry! I actually created a printable of this checklist that you can print out or download on your phone. That way, you don't have to bother with writing anything down. It's already written out for you in the printable.

Listed in the checklist is every task I've described here in this post. And like the post, it's organized depending on the months to go before your trip. So all you need to do is go step by step.

This printable is free to you when you sign up for my mailing list. So go get your family vacation printable here and get started on your travel planning.

A snippet of the family vacation planning checklist

Avoiding stress with a family vacation planning checklist

When getting ready for a family vacation, the best thing to do to keep from getting stressed out is to space out your tasks over a period of time. This countdown to a family vacation can be a great tool for you and your family as you get ready for your own family trip.

If you feel like I may have missed a step, or if there are things that your family does differently when you're prepping for your trips, let me know in the comments below. I always love hearing about how other families do travel.

Countdown to a Family Vacation | The Wandering Daughter | Family travel planning tasks to complete to prepare for a family vacation.

Need help thinking through how to budget for a family trip? My Travel Budget Worksheet is just the tool you need! Click here to receive your free copy by signing up for my newsletter.

Want to connect with me on social media? Find me on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter. And for those of you who are dedicated to traveling more responsibly, sustainably, and ethically, join over 200 like-minded families on my Facebook group, Responsible Family Travel.

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