How to Plan an International Family Trip

A few weeks ago, a good friend asked me how to plan a trip like the one we took to Thailand or South Africa. I told her that the first step was to pick a date and put it on the calendar, but I've decided that's actually the fourth step. Here's my official list of How to Plan an International Family Trip:

1. Get passports

Get your passports. . . now!

"Regardless of how remote your foreign travel plans seem, with a passport that's valid for ten years for adults and five years for children fifteen and younger, you can be ready to go, without the added delay and expense of having one rushed to you. Your kids will see international travel within their realm of possibility. . . If you can afford a beach vacation, an international trip might actually lie within your reach, too." -Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World by Homa Sabet Travangar.

Adult passports cost $110 and passports for minors cost $80. You can find more information about getting a passport at the U.S. State Department's website, travel.state.gov. If you are local, I recommend applying for your passport through the Weber County Clerk's Office at 2380 Washington Boulevard (not the post office). In our experience, passports arrive much faster than estimated. (One week instead of four to six.) Get passport photos taken at Costco for $4.99 or take your own. (They will turn out a lot better with the use of  a free website like ePassportPhoto.com.) If you're lucky, you'll end up with sweet pictures like these:

2. Buy a travel book. . . or maybe five! 

I love planning trips, so it probably comes as no surprise that I love travel books. Buying a travel book is an extremely effective way to transform your dream into reality. Travel books are an inexpensive investment and potentially life-changing. If you have a list of places you want to travel to, buy travel books for all of them and watch your family's excitement for those destinations grow. We used two travel books for our trip to Thailand: this one that Steve's employees at Sonora Grill gave him for Christmas and this one that Steve bought because of the pictures. Disclosure: We are currently in possession of travel books for Central America, The Katy Trail State Park, and the National Park-to-Park Highway.

3. Start talking about your trip

This is a sneaky little trick that I've learned over the years. Once you've selected your trip, just start talking about it as if it's a done deal. Pretty soon your kids will start talking about it and then your husband will too. Before you know it, you'll be pinching yourself as you board a plane to Africa.

Thailand was more of a last-minute deal, so things worked out a little differently. . . The idea of a Thailand trip had been tossed around, but our new restaurant was set to open in June, so there was no time for a family trip. Steve knew he needed to go to Thailand, but I told him he wasn't allowed to go without me. When the restaurant opening got bumped to August/September, that created a window of opportunity. I saw a Travelzoo Top 20 email with an offer for a 7-Night Escorted Thailand Vacation w/Air for $1549 per person. Of course the dates didn't end up working out for us, but looking into the deal got the wheels rolling for planning a trip. We found decent priced flights that magically worked with our crazy summer schedules. And then, in a moment of weakness, Steve said yes. . . to a family trip. It might not have been the best financial decision, but it wasn't good timing for us to leave our kids. (I actually prefer to travel with kids. . . more on that another day.)

4. Pick a date and put it on the calendar

It's no secret that I like having trips on my calendar. I am much more careful with my time and money when I am preparing for a trip. And I'm absolutely positive that having a trip on my calendar makes me a better mother too. We actually have a few years worth of trips planned out on our calendar. . . we are down to seven or eight years before our kids start leaving the house, and there are still so many trips we want to fit in. Also, it's good to have a few trips in the queue so if one doesn't work out, there is another one ready to go. (There are a number of trips that we have planned and put on the calendar that didn't pan out: the Bahamas, Mexico, Panama, and three different trips to San Francisco.)

5. Set a budget and start saving money (and time) 

You'll need the support of each member in your family for this step, so be sure to involve them in the planning so they'll be more willing to participate. Rachel wrote up the budget for our Alaska trip (which I classify as an international trip because we traveled through Canada. . . and because it was four weeks long.)

South Africa was a much more expensive trip and required some serious sacrifices, but we also had more time. We set our date on the calendar and started saving money two years before our trip. That meant we had two years worth of tax returns to put towards the cost of our trip. We made a list of ways we could cut $5,000 in expenses and another list of ways we could earn $5,000. We got rid of cable tv and DVR. We skipped out on expensive activities. I sold mattresses for my brother. The kids sold produce at the farmers market.

For most people, the idea of saving $5,000 is overwhelming, but it's a lot easier to tackle if you break it down into $50 increments. It's much easier to skip out on going to Cherry Days when you know your money is going towards something bigger. I'm willing to wear the same pair of heels to church week after week knowing that the fifty bucks I would spend on a new pair is going towards a trip. It's easy to give up going to the movies, going out to dinner, getting your hair cut, and all sorts of other activities when you are saving for something that's important (and exciting) to you. That being said, on my list of "How to Have a Successful International Family Trip" would be: Be prepared (and willing) to go over your budget.

When I was petitioning Steve to go to Thailand, he was mostly concerned about time. Our South Africa trip was six weeks long, and he spent the rest of the year trying to catch up on things at work. (Remember that it's not just the days you are actually gone, there are also the days before the trip that you need to pack and get the yard ready, the day after after that you need to catch up on sleep and take care of the yard again. . . . ) We had a big list of must-dos for this summer: Rebecca's wedding, Scout camp, Steve's surgery, my high school reunion, the Ogden Temple open house. So we went through our calendar and eliminated some things that we were going to give up to make the Thailand trip work. . . We canceled a canoe trip that we were really looking forward to. We gave up Ballard Family Lagoon Day. We skipped out on tennis lessons. You can't do it all, but if you plan carefully, you will figure out how to do what is most important to you.

6. Watch for airfare

My go-to website for looking for cheap airfare is kayak.com. Keep in mind that Kayak and other sites like Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz don't search all of the airlines, so you'll always want to check Southwest and Allegiant separately. Subscribe to the Travelzoo Top 20 emails, but beware of the flights offered through Fly.com. . . I suspect they're running a bit of a bait and hook scheme because I've never been able to book one of their killer airfare deals before they've sold out. Before you book your next flight, you should also check out a fairly new website called routehappy.com. Beware that you can spend hours and hours and hours at this stage of the planning process.

7. Buy airline tickets. . . and travel insurance

This is when you just have to take the plunge and commit. But thanks to affordable travel insurance companies like Travel Guard and Allianz, you can purchase a plan that will provide trip cancellation coverage. Travel insurance also provides a myriad of other benefits covering lost or damaged luggage, flight delay, and medical. Don't delay, most companies require you purchase your plan within 15 days of the payment for your airline tickets to get the best coverage.

8. Look at online itineraries, talk to people, and study travel books

The internet makes trip-planning amazingly thorough. You can find hundreds of suggested itineraries, forums with all sorts of information, and blogs full of beautiful pictures. Talk to people who have been to the same country you are traveling to and ask about their favorite experiences. Study travel books and start making notes of what you want to see and do. Look up pictures on Instagram. I started following Richard Barrow on Twitter because he is the travel expert in Thailand and provided the most reliable and up-to-date travel information in regards to the military coup.

9. Make an itinerary and share with recent travelers

For a couple of years, Steve used a trip planner website called TripIt, but I never got on board. I didn't like the automated trip sharing or that it felt like they were trying to create an entire social media site out of it, but it may work out for you. I prefer Google Drive because I am already familiar with it (and generally so are the people I share my proposed itineraries with). When making itineraries, I rely heavily on Google Maps. Please note that you may not be able to access the same map views when you are on the other side of the world as you can from home, so it is helpful to print out hardcopies of maps.

When booking hotels, I scan through all of the reviews on Tripadvisor and Yelp. When we were in Thailand, I ended up setting up an account with Expedia to book hotels because it saved my credit card information, which simplified the process to book a hotel with our limited internet access. When planning your itinerary, remember to consider the daylight hours of your destination. When we planned our trip to South Africa, we knew that we were traveling during their winter. But we forgot that meant that the sun would be setting before 6:00 pm. (It's not generally safe to be outside in South Africa after dark.) This cut a couple hours out of each day that we hadn't properly planned for.

Share your itinerary with recent travelers and ask for feedback. Is there anything big that you are missing? Does the itinerary seem doable? When someone is looking at an actual itinerary with details, it's easier for them to provide feedback and suggestions for your trip. When I showed my sister's wedding planner our Thailand itinerary, she told me we were going to have to be very aggressive and had probably overestimated what we could do. That was good to keep in mind, but it didn't deter us from tackling everything!

10. Get required and recommended travel vaccinations, stock up on medication

Some foreign governments require specific vaccinations before you are allowed to enter their country. You'll need to wait until you have your itinerary planned out because the doses for your vaccines will be timed based on when you will be traveling to specific areas.

Preparing for international travel provides an excellent opportunity to update routine immunizations such as Tdap, Polio, MMR, Rotavirus, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, etc.

There are other vaccinations and medications that the CDC has recommendations for, depending on your health status, age, and destination including Typhoid, Malaria, Rabies, etc. Plan on spending a few hundred bucks at the health department.

If you will be gone on your international trip for an extended amount of time, you will also want to stock up on over-the-counter and prescription medications. If you are traveling to an underdeveloped part of the world, you may be able to get your physician to write you some prescriptions for antibiotics that you can take with you in preparation for illnesses. And as long as we're talking about pills. . .  there is little scientific evidence to back this up, but I can personally vouch that taking niacinamide tablets keeps the mosquitos away.

11. Pack and prepare

There are quite a few steps within this step. . .

Luggage: Steve dedicated a lot of time to researching luggage before our South Africa trip and purchased the Eagle Creek Load Warrior 22-inch Wheeled Duffel for a carryon, the Eagle Creek Gear Warrior 36-inch Wheeled Duffel to check, and the Patagonia Fuego 32L backpack. I was opposed to spending that kind of money on luggage and bought a $100 wheeled duffel from Kohl's that completely fell apart on our trip. Now I am completely sold on the Eagle Creek luggage and would love to purchase a second set for me. (Steve's fifteen-year old Eagle Creek carryon from his mission has now traveled to seven countries and is still going strong.) The kids used their Pottery Barn luggage for Alaska and South Africa, but we had them mostly packed in backpacking packs for Thailand. We also purchased REI Flash Packs for the kids to use as their personal carryon items. They worked out incredibly well and will be coming with us on many future trips.

Steve is in love with all of the Eagle Creek packing accessories including the folders (they sound strange, but are awesome), compression bags, packing cubes, etc. They are all pricey, so whenever we go to REI, we check to see if any of them happen to be on clearance. We have used the Ziploc Space Bags. They are inexpensive, but will not hold up to rigorous use. Steve really is the master packer and the next time we go on a big trip, I need to take more pictures to document his skills.

Clothing: Before you select your outfits, you'll want to have a good idea what the weather will be like. And then, don't be too surprised when you experience unexpected temperatures. Alaska and South Africa were both unseasonably cold; Thailand was nothing but hot. We actually had to go to REI in Alaska and purchase more warm clothing (for me). Halfway through our trip to Thailand, we ended up packing away a suitcase full of all of the jackets and other warm clothes we weren't going to use on the trip. Remember that when you are traveling, you are likely to spend long hours outside in the elements. So if it's hot, you are going to be really hot. If it's cold, you are going to be really cold. And if it rains, you are going to be really, really wet. Remember to pack lots of layers; breathable fabric is best. (And easiest to hand wash in your hotel bathroom.) Choose loose clothing with lots of pockets. And whatever you do, make sure you have good rain jackets.

We packed somewhere around six outfits each for Thailand. I started with four, but then decided it didn't take up that much room to add a few more. . . big mistake. The problem wasn't so much the overall volume that they added, but just having more clothes to deal with during unpacking and repacking each day. We usually don't pack that many clothes for a trip, but I knew we weren't going to have any down days and didn't want laundry to become a burden. I also worried that we would be going through more clothes than normal because we would be hot and sweaty. . . and then I was also concerned that it would be too humid for any handwashed clothes to dry out. If I were to do it over again, I would have only packed three outfits per person. It turns out that if you go to Thailand in June, you are always hot and sweaty, so you're not nearly as concerned about changing into something clean. We stayed at hotels, and it would have been perfectly fine to handwash our clothes in the bathroom sink at night (and then use the hairdryer to help finish drying them). The only time I was ever cold on our entire trip to Thailand was on the airplane.

Speaking of airplanes. . . one difference between a long, international flight and a short, domestic flight is footwear. If you have ever had smelly feet in your life, you do not want to wear sandals or shoes without socks on an international flight. You want to wear comfortable shoes with socks. And cross your fingers that the person sitting next to you wears socks too.

Electronics: You will mostly likely need an adapter or converter to use your electronics abroad. And if you have kids with multiple electronics, you will need more than one. Steve is responsible for charging our electronics when we travel, and this adapter is his favorite. Another one of our favorite travel items is our Mophie external battery. There are all sorts of different external battery chargers these days; since we bought ours, they've come out with some much smaller versions. Before traveling out of the country, call your cell phone provider to purchase international plans. Text messaging plans are affordable, but plan to pay an arm and a leg for minutes and data.

First aid: You can purchase these over-the-counter medications in most parts of the world, but it's good to be prepared because it's not always convenient or practical to find a pharmacy. Steve is also responsible for packing first aid supplies for our family, and this is his suggested list: Benadryl, Sudafed, Claritin, eyedrops, Rolaids, Pepto-Bismol, Ibuprophen, Tylenol, Vicks, chapstick, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, baby wipes, bandaids, rubbing alcohol (in a small spray bottle), tweezers, Neosporin, Hydrocortisone, and lots and lots of hand sanitizer. 

Passports and other important documents: In addition to your passports and immunization cards, I recommend printing out hard copies of maps, itineraries, boarding passes, hotel confirmations, and any other applicable documents. You shouldn't depend on internet access. And your phone might run out of batteries right when you need directions to your hotel.

Currency: There is no need to take cash on an international trip. Once you arrive in the country you are visiting, you can withdraw currency from an ATM. (You will pay a couple bucks in fees, so withdraw as much as you can/feel safe with at a time.) It is much, much easier to use an ATM than go to a bank and transfer USD to another currency. Of all the places we have traveled, Shanghai was the most difficult place to find an ATM. Credit cards are always our preferred method of payment because it makes it easier to track expenses. We continue to be shocked by the remote places that accept credit cards. There are advantages and disadvantages to different cards. Capitol One credit cards have no foreign transaction fees. American Express credit cards are the most reliable. (Our Visas were denied time and time again in South Africa for no apparent reason.)

You will need to prepare your house before you leave. Set your thermostat and water heater to vacation mode. Contact your alarm company. Talk to your postman/postwoman and UPS delivery person to let them know you will be out of town. Eat all of the food in your fridge or give it away. Empty your trash and flush all of your toilets. Start the dishes in the dishwasher and make sure the clothes in the drier are completely clean. Make plans for someone to take care of your mail, newspapers, lawn, and garden. Have multiple people involved in checking in on your house, and don't just ask a family member who might get busy or forget. When we were in Thailand, we hired our neighbors (ages 11 and 13) to take care of our mail and garden. They did a great job, and this system of payment kept them motivated: 

As you can see, packing for a trip is more than just the actual packing. Much like this post, it seems to go on and on and on. . . The last few days before leaving are absolutely crazy. There's always so much to do and not nearly enough time. This list kept growing faster than we could cross things off:

I'm really good at procrastinating things, but I am all sorts of motivated to get things done before going out of town. Sometimes I feel like Steve likes traveling because it gives him an excuse to buy cool gear. Well, then I like traveling because it gives me a deadline. And with that in mind. . . I should probably plan another trip so I have a deadline to catch up on my blog. 


Natalie B. said...

What great information! I love this...despite that it makes me feel like a bit of a slacker in the international travel department. But hey, we are coming to Park City again this weekend. Does Park City count as International Travel? I feel like getting out the door is no less monumental. Ha ha. I will definitely be sharing this post.

Anonymous said...

YOU ARE SO AWESOME! After 20 years, I still love to read your writing! And, I love that you are exposing your kids to the world. You've taught them that there are things worth saving, planning, and sacrificing for... I love your hand-written lists, especially those written in multiple colors. :) And, let me just say, as always, your photography skills are amazing! I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED your photos of South Africa & Thailand!!! We just got back from a SUCCESSFUL trip to DC. I can echo so much of your blog! (Except for the vaccinations...) ;) Of course, we didn't do everything we had hoped to, but it was a wonderful trip! (Now, I just need to make a memory book...). Hope to return someday when Noah is older, so we can bike around DC & do the few things we missed. Noah was already talking about going back today... maybe we won't wait so long. ;) We are hoping to take a Spring Break trip to Florida & your blog gave me so many ideas! Got the hubby on board & agree the more we plan & discuss, the more likely we will make it happen! Can't wait to see where you go next!!! :) Dari

Rebecca said...

Great post! I am overwhelmed even thinking about going on a big trip with 2 kids and 4 step kids so I think for right now I'll just think about where I can go with Jared and I...this is my travel bucket list... Italy, Wimbeldon, US Open, San Francisco, Nashville.

Ok, but really, where would be a good trip for our whole crew?

Danielle Potgieter said...

Just come stay with us next time in SA Cape Town! Much cheaper!

Melissa and Mitch said...

You inspire me! I hope someday soon to be using this post!!

Kathryn said...

Such a wonderful, THOROUGH, post! Sounds like you have a lot of fun on the road together. Bravo! Also, we've used the Eagle Creek folders and cubes for years and they are super helpful. I've decided that packing for the trip is a good exercise in planning ahead.

Gloria said...

Great information. Not sure I can ever talk Richard into an international trip but I would love to see Denmark where my roots are and the surrounding touristy spots! Now we have a way to plan!