Top Family Travel Planning Tip: Focus on the Experience, Not the Destination

May 28, 2019

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Some deal-seeking travel junkies play a fun game called “chase the fare.” When some crazy low airfare comes up, you don’t think, you just book — and then figure out what you will do when you get there. It’s why you’ll see bunches of travel folks on Instagram posting from far-flung places like Bahrain within a short period of time. A low fare happened, they booked and didn’t look back.

The problem with most of those fares is that they come with limited availability, limited time to make decisions and may have limited travel dates — which are challenges to be sure. To those who take a more traditional approach to vacation planning, letting available deals dictate your destinations may sound like a weird way to spend your precious two or three weeks of vacation a year. I get that.

Most international travelers probably have a “top five” dream destinations list. Places like: Paris, London, Rome, Hawaii and Australia. Am I close? Now let me ask you a question: Why Paris, London, Rome, Hawaii or Australia? (Or swap these cities to whatever is on your list and the question remains.)

Here’s where I ask you to take a page from the low-fare chasers: They use flexibility to their advantage. Which leads me to my top tip for family travel planning.

Think About the Experience, Not the Destination

Three years ago my family of four spent spring break visiting a volcano, soaking in local culture, savoring tropical fruits, spotting whales and enjoying black sand beaches.

Hawaii? No. The Canary Islands. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Fuerteventura Canary Islands, Spain
Beach at Fuerteventura, the second-largest in the Canary Islands. (Photo by @dominiks. via Twenty20)

Make a Checklist

When planning a trip, to help me focus on the experience instead of the destination, I use a checklist of what we are after:

  • Do I want an active trip or a restful one?
  • Urban, rural, beach or a mix?
  • One destination or moving around?
  • Luxury or simplicity?
  • Travel date restrictions (hello, school calendar my old friend …)?
  • Climate or season?
  • Are there any sweet spots in my miles/points programs that fit the above criteria?
  • What about other promotions? (Vacation Rentals, Amex Offers, etc.)

Experience vs. Destination in Action

Using the spring break beach trip we took three years ago as an example, my checklist looked like this:

  • Do I want an active trip or a restful one? Mostly active, but with nature-based activities.
  • Urban, rural, beach or a mix? Beach all the way.
  • Luxury or simplicity? Hotel doesn’t need to be five-star, but the room has to be big enough for four people.
  • Am I limited by the calendar? Yes. Firm limit of the week before Easter. This eliminates places like Asia where a week, including transit time, just isn’t sufficient for my family.
  • Climate or the seasons? Yes. Early spring break week means Florida may be too cold. Offseason in continental Europe, but too cold as well. Peak season in Southern California, the Caribbean and Hawaii. South America an option? Africa?
  • Where do you have the most miles/points? I had just opened two Citi American Airlines cobranded credit cards (I ended up with about 150k miles between the welcome bonuses and spend.)
  • Are there any sweet spots in my miles/points programs that fit the above criteria? AA off-peak awards to Europe.
  • Any way to use that to get a warmer island? Is there availability for any of the options on your dates? Yes!
  • What about other promotions? (Vacation Rentals, Amex Offers, new sign-ups etc.) $700 in travel from Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard welcome bonus after meeting minimum spend requirements.

By focusing on the what first, I was able to find a where that created a jam-packed trip that fit my family’s travel wants for a lot less money, miles and points than if we had just picked an obvious, popular travel destination first.

Completing my list, I realized that an American Airlines off-peak awards could get us from New York to Gran Canaria for just 45,000 miles round-trip per ticket. For our family of four, that amount of AAdvantage miles happened to equal my two recent sign-up bonuses, plus a bit of spend. I used the Barclaycard bonus to offset the cost of my $602 vacation rental. Three sign-ups bonuses covered the entire spring break week’s worth of lodging and flights.

I teased above a comparison between Hawaii and the Canary Islands. I’m not going to tell you that going to the Canaries is exactly like going to Hawaii. For one thing, there aren’t any sand dunes in Hawaii like the ones we traversed on Gran Canaria.

gran canaria sand dunes
(Photo by roba66/Flikr)

The Canary Islands can cost less than Hawaii once you’re on the ground, especially when you consider your lodging options. (There’s a reason it’s on the TPG budget island destinations list.)

As one small example, the Ritz-Carlton on Tenerife is a Category 6 property, while the Ritz-Carlton on Maui is a Category 7. That puts The Ritz-Carlton, Abama on Tenerife within reach of a Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card free night certificate (up to 50,000 points). If you want to go a bit more budget, you’ll even find a Category 5 Sheraton in the Canary Islands bookable for 35,000 Marriott points per night (or an annual award night up to 35,000 points available with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card). For comparison, the Sheraton on Waikiki in Hawaii goes for 60,000 points per night.

Sheraton La Caleta Resort & Spa, Costa Adeje, Tenerife (Photo courtesy of Marriott)
Sheraton La Caleta Resort & Spa, Costa Adeje, Tenerife (Photo courtesy of Marriott)

While the Ritz-Carlton on Tenerife is lovely, the Canary Islands’ true value proposition comes in the volume and variety of vacation rentals. On our last visit to Gran Canaria, we had a two-bedroom oceanfront condo with a private Jacuzzi on our balcony for $86/night during an East Coast spring break week. I’ve rented one-bedroom ocean-view apartments for a little as $350/week on Tenerife via Skyauction. You’re not going to find a lean-to for $50/night on Hawaii, much less an entire apartment during peak season.

Both the Canaries and Hawaii can be very special destinations worthy of a visit, but by focusing on our experiences checklist, we had the travel experience we  wanted for the price we were willing to pay.

Another Example of Experience vs. Destination

Let’s say your dream is a classic Roman holiday. What are the experiences that define Rome for you?

  • Roman Colosseum
  • Amazing food
  • Renaissance icons
  • La Dolce Vita

You know where else you find all of these things, with fewer crowds and a reduced cost? Verona.

  • Verona not only has a first-century amphitheater, you can attend an opera in it.
  • You’ll find excellent food in pretty much any Italian city, and Verona is the birthplace of gnocchi.
  • Romeo and Juliet — that’s enough reason right there.
  • Rent a car and you’re surrounded by vineyards, walled villages and some of the most stunning countryside I’ve ever seen.
Arena in Verona, Italy. (Photo by druvo/Getty Images)
Arena in Verona, Italy. (Photo by druvo/Getty Images)

I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to Rome (though it’s not my personal favorite), but you may find crowds, high prices and homogenized tourist fare in some restaurants created for visitors, not locals. Even in the height of tourist season, Verona wasn’t crowded, the food was both affordable and amazing everywhere and I left with better memories than I did when in the marquee city of Rome.

Bottom Line

Instead of clinging to the list of places you think your family should visit, consider what you actually want to do when you get there. By focusing on the experience, not the destination, you’ll not only have better trips but you’ll also have enough funds left over to start planning your next adventure.

For more inspiration:

Featured Image by Getty Images

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