Get Ready To Book

It's Barely January, But Summer Vacation Planning Should Start Now

A family travel expert shares her four favorite pointers.

SANTA ANA, CA - November 16: A girl rides on a suitcase as the family heads to their gate at John Wa...
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I was once a diehard last-minute planner of summer vacations. But after learning the difficult way, the new me knows better and plans months in advance (as in now) — avoiding all the disappointment that comes with slim pickings, sky-high rates, or getting stuck at home all summer long. Still, I'm just a mom who's adopted a few smart strategies for the sake of my sanity... I'm not privy to all of the insider trends that could make our summer trip even more seamless. So, I decided to do a little digging: I checked in with a family travel expert to bring you the top tips for getting that vacay lined up.

And I'm not just talking about trips to far-off places because, let's face it, not all families (mine included) have the budget to take the whole family to Disneyland Paris. Even reserving a campsite for the peak of summer needs to be done months ahead.

Here are some pro pointers you'll want to know heading into the summer travel season.

Book it yourself… and way in advance.

According to Jurga Rubinovaite, mom of three and founder of family travel blog Full Suitcase, you might actually want to book lodging more like a year in advance, especially if you're heading to one of the more popular national parks or planning a stay during a holiday weekend like the Fourth of July. "When we traveled to Yellowstone National Park in the summer, accommodation options were so limited that we first booked our lodging and then planned the flights and the rest of the trip around it."

No matter your destination, it's never too early to start scoping out the best deals on everything from flights to hotel stays to cars. Getting a head start will allow you the time to find the best fit for your family and your budget before everything fills up and prices soar.

In fact, Rubinovaite recommends booking your accommodation as soon as you know your travel dates, driving home just how important it is to check what's still available before booking your flights — a tip that especially applies to international travel destinations.

"It's already very difficult to find hotel rooms [throughout much of Europe] that can accommodate bigger families, not even to mention the costs. The prices soar in the summer, and availability is very limited, so sometimes you don't even have many options to choose from," says Rubinovaite, adding that "[Some] people traveling to Venice in the summer had to pay $500-700 per night for a two-person room in a mediocre hotel, whereas booking ahead, you could find much nicer places to stay for half that price."

While figuring this out yourself can be daunting, making a travel agency sound like the way to go, the expert says that booking everything yourself is definitely the cheaper route. "These days, there are so many websites that allow you to book accommodations and activities with very flexible cancellation options, so it's very simple to plan your own trips," says Rubinovaite.

A good cancellation policy is worth a small upcharge.

It's not rare that bookings with flexible cancellation policies come at a slightly higher rate, but they really are going to be your best friend when it comes to booking travel plans this far in advance. You never know when something will come up and put a halt to your plans, making that extra few bucks spent upfront pay off in the form of an, often, full refund.

And flexible cancellation policies aren't only beneficial if you have to cancel your trip altogether. Rubinovaite points out that they also give you the option of finding a better deal. "If you find a better deal closer to your travel dates, you can cancel and rebook. But if the prices go up or [there's hardly anything left], you don't have to worry about it anymore."

Don't forget the activities and attractions.

You might think you're all set once the flights and hotel stay are booked, but don't forget about everything you'll want to do and see once you've arrived at your destination. Whether it's climbing the Eiffel Tower in Paris or up to Angels Landing in Zion National Park, booking activities and attractions in advance is essential. Seriously, what would be worse than making it all the way to your destination only to be unable to see or do what you've come for?

"If you want to be sure to visit a specific place or do a certain activity, it's always best to book in advance. This is especially important if you don't have any flexibility in your travel schedule, but it's not just that. Many attractions limit the number of visitors and work with timed entry slots nowadays, and they always sell out. So if you don't think to reserve ahead, you may not be able to visit at all," says Rubinovaite.

Explore the path less traveled.

Travel during summer will almost always come at a premium — although, with a bit of flexibility in your plan, there are still deals to be had. Consider traveling just outside the peak season (pull the kids out of school early if you have to) or visiting places off the beaten track.

"One of the best ways to save money when traveling with a family is to travel a bit outside of the main peak season [when prices are typically lower] and visit less popular destinations," says Rubinovaite, reminding that there are tons of amazing places to visit and hidden gems to explore outside of the touristy areas. "Explore those options, and you are guaranteed to have a much more relaxing and enjoyable time with your family!"