Plan Now, Play Later

This past March, we loaded up our three sons, grabbed our passports, and flew 5,022 miles to Rome, Italy, for spring break. With the oldest kid in the bunch just shy of turning 12, many folks thought we were crazy. This wasn’t the first international trip we’ve taken with our family, but it was our best adventure to date for several reasons, which can all be lumped under one key element of traveling well:  due diligence.

Doing your homework before taking a trip should be a no-brainer. Of course, you actually do some of this without even thinking; you know the sundresses should stay in the closet if you’re taking a ski trip to Vail. But the difference between flying by the seat of your pants and putting in a bit of prep work will make all the difference in the world once you arrive at your destination.

• Learn it. Strive to know your destination like a native. While your first inclination in trip preparation may lead you to the book store to pick up a copy of a Fodor’s or a Let’s Go, these travel guide books, updated only annually, are archaic the moment they are published. Instead, seek out real live sources on the ground. I read several contemporary books on Rome in the months preceding our trip, yet none were shelved in the travel section. Furthermore, let the internet work its magic. Search for bloggers and Instagrammers living smack dab in the middle of your destination; you can count on them to feature up-to-the-minute reviews, advice and suggestions. Likewise, query friends who’ve been to your destination before. We were able to ferret out a terrific apartment in Rome via VRBO and, by cross-referencing reviews of it on TripAdvisor, we were able to confirm it was the place for us. A quick viewing of Gladiator School on You-Tube had my boys champing at the bit to get there.

• Plot it. Begin making a list of the traditional must-sees on your trip. For us in Rome, this included obvious chestnuts like St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, and the Pantheon. Then spice up your list by tossing in the off-the-beaten path sights unearthed by your research. We’d have never set foot in Eataly without Elizabeth Minchilli’s glowing review of the modernistic gourmet food warehouse. We’d have never played football under the shadow of the leaning Tower of Pisa without a friend’s brilliant suggestion to travel with a ball. This is where your research really starts to pay off; flip-flopping between traditional and unique sights keeps the element of the unexpected alive and kicking during your trip.

• Map it. This critical step is easily overlooked. Get your hands on a map of the city, spread it out on your dining room table, and plot your course. Without becoming an amateur cartographer, you might unknowingly waste half of your day criss-crossing the city—imagine spending a morning at the High Museum followed up by an afternoon visit to the Tellus Science Museum. That ain’t happening smoothly, especially with little ones in tow. Even in a city as labyrinthine as Rome, studying a street map ahead of time will help you get your bearings faster. An added bonus is that you might discover something really cool—like the fact that the basilicas housing the four Holy Doors of Rome, when marked on a Roman map, make the sign of a Cross.

• Plan it. No one likes standing in line, particularly when battling jet lag. Purchase as many tickets online as possible. Book restaurant reservations but have a list of back-ups, too. Develop a loose itinerary. Here’s where knowing it like a native informs you that the Galleria Borghese isn’t open on Mondays and that St. Peter’s is all but empty in the late afternoons. I drew out a grid-like calendar and, after grouping sights together geographically, worked on dropping in all of the activities I’d discovered. While it took the precision of a transplant surgeon, in the end, we had a 6-day plan for touring Rome, uniquely created with our family’s likes and dislikes in mind.

    To get the most bang for your buck on your next vacation, use the weeks leading up to your departure wisely. Be confident, embrace the challenge, and view it as part of your holiday. With just a little bit of forethought and planning, your next adventure will begin the second you go wheels up. Bon voyage!