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Plan The Perfect Trip In 8 Steps (With Free Vacation Planning Spreadsheet)

Trying to plan the perfect trip can be fun, but also stressful. There’s a LOT to keep track of for any family trip planning, and I quickly learned that a vacation planning spreadsheet kept things simple and organized. (I know, spreadsheets, ugh!)

First, I want to share the 8 simple steps I use for my family trip planning so that YOU can plan the BEST vacation ever, plus snag my FREE (and super amazing) Google Sheets travel planner to make planning super easy! If you don't love the 'vacation planning spreadsheet' idea, no worries- these steps can be used no matter how you choose to plan your perfect trip! 😅

Plan The Perfect Trip In 8 Steps With This Free Vacation Planning Spreadsheet | Lathrops Gone AWOL Family Travel Blog

Step 1 To Plan The Perfect Trip:

Decide where and when to go on your next vacation.

This is by far the funnest and easiest step of planning for any family vacation.

You probably already have an idea of where you want to go, but BEFORE you get too deep into the vacation planning process, it can be SUPER helpful to make sure that you're going at a good time.

Some seasons are more expensive to travel, especially spring break and summer.

I go into more detail about this in my post about our Family Travel Budget, so I don't want to repeat too much here, but definitely make sure you check with sites like,, and Google Flights, to find a good combination of prices for transportation and accommodations. This will really help you when doing your family trip planning and budgeting.

For example this summer I've been trying to plan a European family vacation, so I've been balancing stays at both AirBnBs and hotel rooms to save money (and gain much needed space!) while traveling.

Side note: I try to use for hotel stays whenever possible because they have great customer service and have always been easy to work with whenever we've had a problem with our stay. I have found their customer service to be better than Booking or AirBnb, plus their free night rewards program is awesome when you're trying to plan family travel on a budget!

To save money while trip planning, I found that I could adjust our trip dates by just a few days and get lower prices! 😎 Always check the calendar for vacation planning that targets the most affordable dates.

Once you know WHERE and WHEN you want to go, we can start locking in our reservations!

Step 2 For The Perfect Family Trip Planning:

Book the travel accommodations (i.e. how you're getting there).

Kids Watching Airplanes At Airport | Plan The Perfect Trip In 8 Steps With This Free Vacation Planning Spreadsheet | Lathrops Gone AWOL Family Travel Blog

The next step of planning the perfect trip is reserve your travel tickets.

If you are planning on driving your car (woohoo- family road trip!) then you can budget for gas (and gas station snacks) costs.

If you are going to be traveling by plane, train, bus or some other transportation method that requires tickets, it is best to buy those as soon as possible.

Since there are often only a certain number of planes/busses/etc going to a specific destination, and each has limited tickets available, time is more critical here.

You definitely don't want to wait too long and get stuck without a way to get to your dream vacation destination.

Also, travel is something that DOES tend to get more expensive as the trip dates get closer.

Family Road Trip Tip: Whenever traveling by car, it's helpful to get an idea of your gasoline/fuel costs ahead of time so you can budget and prepare accordingly. (Snag our free Super Simple Vacation Planner- there's gas calculator resources inside!)

Another thing to keep in mind is the rise of gas costs. If you're planning a summer vacation, don't forget that gas usually costs more in the summer.

When I planned our family's European road trip this past summer, I added about 25% to my gas budget, that way I wasn't stressed about rising gas costs. (And we actually had extra money left in the budget at the end of the trip.)

So as one of my bonus family travel hacks- adding that extra 25% to your travel budget can go a LONG way to relieve pressure on your overall vacation budget.

Don't forget to plan for activities during travel as well. This is something that lots of us forget about when first planning our family trips, and then we get stuck with bored kiddos asking us 5,000 times how much longer it will be.

Make sure to take a few minutes to plan a few little activities to keep kids busy during your travel time. You can also check out our '5 Must Have Travel Essentials For Toddlers' post for some great travel activity ideas!

Now that you've booked your travel tickets, the next step is to actually lock in your accommodation reservations.

Have you tried our FREE Super Simple Vacation Planner | Lathrops Gone AWOL Family Travel Blog

Step 3 For Planning The Perfect Trip:

Book the sleeping accommodations (i.e. where you are staying).

The next time-sensitive part of family trip planning is to figure out where you're going to be staying on your vacation.

You probably discovered a few good options while you were checking your travel dates (in step 1), but if you haven't already reserved a place to stay for your family trip, this is the perfect time!

I always suggest looking at a few different sites to see a good variety of what's available in your price range.

Sites like,, and usually have a pretty wide selection of places to stay- and good customer service should anything go wrong with your stay or the actual room/flat.

Family Trip Planning Tip: We only book places with free cancellation, because I like to keep checking prices up until the cancellation date! There's been many times I find a nicer hotel or flat available for cheaper as the dates get closer! (Often someone has cancelled a booking and I get to snag that new opening!)

If you are wanting to plan a European vacation, AirBnB and Booking seem to have the most variety internationally (but is catching up!).

When we were vacationing in the United States, VRBO and were my favorites in terms of variety, pricing, and customer service.

Once you have your hotel or AirBnB booked, things get a little bit more fun!

Grab a cup of coffee, channel your inner personal travel planner vibes, and let's get started planning activities and meals! (Yay!)

Step 4 For Epic Family Vacation Planning:

Start planning your trip activities (+ use the free vacation planner spreadsheet to keep things organized!)

Kids exploring the cork trees in Lisbon | Plan The Perfect Trip Vacation Planning Spreadsheet Post | Lathrops Gone AWOL Family Travel Blog
Kids exploring the cork trees in Lisbon (for free!)

This is probably the FAVORITE part for any personal trip planner, and it's definitely MY fave!

I could spend hours upon hours looking at the fun things to do in pretty much any destination! 😜

But, if you're like me, you might be prone to adding in too many activities! (They just all look so awesome!)

When trying to plan the perfect trip, you want to find a good balance of activities.

This is especially true for family vacation planners, as we usually have little legs that get tired quickly coming along!

I've learned to include a variety of activities that include:

  • sightseeing (monuments, museums, etc)

  • fun experiences (food tours, local cooking or crafting classes, etc)

  • things that let our legs rest (boat tours, bus tours, dinner shows, etc)

  • things that let little ones be wild (and get tired) for slow days (playgrounds, hiking, swimming, etc)

Your activity budget is VERY important when trying to plan the perfect trip because fun activities can get expensive quickly! I always suggest looking for free activities that you can add to your vacation itinerary BEFORE adding in the more expensive activities.

Most museums and monuments have free (or super affordable) audio guides you can get to make the most of your visit as well!

Activity Budget Tip: Whenever you are looking at an activity that requires entry tickets, always be sure to check their DIRECT (official) website first. They often have tickets for way cheaper than any other site! (Sorry, TripAdvisor, I love your affiliate payouts but saving money is crucial for us family vacation planners!)

(And you can get discounts on activities (and help support our blog) by using our Groupon affiliate link- just click this image below to see what's on sale atm! 😉)

One of my go-to family vacation tips is to add in playgrounds, parks or 'gardens' into our activities list. Not only are these free to do, but it makes our little ones happy to get some play time in, they usually play with local kids (which is super fun for them), AND we adults get to rest our legs for a bit while they play!

Whenever I'm looking for fun activities, it helps me to use my Google Sheets travel planner spreadsheet. I can add the date and costs right there on the page to get a good idea of what we're going to be doing (and spending!) each day.

I may be a spreadsheet nerd, I know, but it has saved me SO MUCH time, energy and MONEY to take an extra few minutes to better organize our trips and balance out the costs if the activities start to get expensive.

Organizing the activities on my personal travel planner has been a lifesaver whenever I've had to plan a European vacation, too, because there's so much to keep track of in the different countries and I like to keep each location separate!

Step 5 Of Planning The Perfect Trip:

Figure out the meal planning for your vacation (and food costs!)

Our first restaurant experience in Lisbon | Plan The Perfect Trip Vacation Planning Spreadsheet Post | Lathrops Gone AWOL Family Travel Blog
Our first restaurant experience in Lisbon!

I'm going to get real with you for a second- vacation meal planning is NOT fun for me. I could easily skip this step forever.

I have the absolute worst luck in choosing restaurants or places to eat ahead of time. My family teases me about it all the time! 😂

One time, I chose a cute little cafe for lunch, and it turned out to be vegan food, which would have been fine, except that they were out of most things on the menu and we ended up stuck with vegan hot dogs. Of all the odd foods I've eaten in my life, there is nothing comparable to the weird texture and aftertaste of those hot dogs.

It took a long time (and a lot of convincing) to get my kids to try any other type of vegan food after that. (Luckily, they've now totally fallen in love with vegan nuggets and can't even tell the difference from chicken nuggets! Score!!)

Anyhoo, back to the point. LOL!!

I've learned that even if I'm not going to be planning ahead of time which restaurants to go to (much to the relief of my kids), at the very LEAST, I have to figure out some sort of budgeted meal planning for our vacation.

This means I figure out what the typical meal(s) will cost in our destination and then set up a budget for each day so I know roughly what we will spend on food.

My Best Tip For Meal Planning For Vacation: Check out the 'Resources' section of our Google Sheets travel planner to quickly look up food costs (restaurant meals and groceries) for your destination city, then jot down the prices in the vacation meal planning template area to budget for each meal, including snacks.

If you DO want to plan specific restaurants or cafes in advance (especially for trendy areas or busy cities where reservations might be helpful to avoid long wait times) when meal planning for your vacation, Google Maps is a great resource!

Not only is it helpful to use Google to plan a trip, but Google Maps trip planning tools help you find great local restaurants (or even local activities!) that might get overlooked on big sites like TripAdvisor.

I usually type in our hotel address into Google Maps, then look around to see what is around. I've found TONS of great options when planning this way! (Plus, restaurants on TripAdvisor tend to become expensive since they get more publicity and ratings from the site.)

When it comes to vacation food, one of my favorite travel with kids tips is to plan grocery store meals into any trip.

Whether it's a picnic lunch or yogurts & fruit for breakfast, it helps to keep our budget on track AND makes sure we get some healthier meals added into our trip!

Once you have all of your restaurants and/or budget done for your vacation meal planning, most of the hard work is finished!

But before you can really be done planning the perfect trip, there's just a couple more things to consider. Which brings us to the next step...

Step 6 For Epic Family Vacation Planning

Determine any extra trip expenses you might have during your vacation.

map with glasses, hat and coffee | Plan The Perfect Trip Vacation Planning Spreadsheet Post | Lathrops Gone AWOL Family Travel Blog

An important part of planning a vacation that OFTEN gets overlooked is the miscellaneous costs of vacations that add up at the end.

This would include things like hiring pet sitting (or house sitting) services, if you need to purchase a new suitcase (p.s.- see our post about the best family travel suitcases here!), any new clothes or gear you might need to buy, and so forth.

These seemingly minor costs can really take a bite out of your travel budget if you don't plan ahead!

I've included a spot on the Google Sheets travel planner to list these out so you don't get caught off guard and go over budget. (Just list them in the travel planning spreadsheet, and they will be automatically added to the trip's budget.)

We've had a few family vacations where our budget was really tight, and any little unforseen purchase was stressful. I'd find myself mentally calculating where else in the budget I can adjust things to make up for the extra spending.

I quickly learned that adding extra money into our budget for those unexpected things relieved that pressure so I could enjoy our family trips with less stress, and often end up with money left over from our vacation, which was always welcome! 😅

Step 7 To Plan Your Perfect Trip:

Make any necessary adjustments to fit your vacation budget.

By now, you've done all of the hard parts of trip planning- and you've probably gotten a good idea of your estimated vacation costs.

This is the perfect time to make adjustments to your calendar for vacation planning that ACTUALLY fits into your budget.

When I first tested my skills as a European travel planner (we flew from NYC to Lisbon!), I found out the hard way that my planning was sub par.

I had just guessed how much we would spend on food based on our US restaurant experiences- and to keep things cost effective, we stayed somewhere a little less nice than we would have liked.

Kids enjoying a playground visit on vacation | Plan The Perfect Trip Vacation Planning Spreadsheet Post _ Lathrops Gone AWOL Family Travel Blog
Our kids love an impromptu playground visit on vacation!

The AirBnb we booked ended up having gnats AND ants- even though it was December- and virtually NO heating.

We wound up checking into a hotel after the first night because it was so cold for the little ones.

It actually ended up being a GREAT trip and our 3 Day Lisbon Itinerary for Families was fantastic, despite our initial airbnb snafu!

Once I'd gotten a little more experience at planning a European vacation, I learned to look up the LOCAL prices so my budget was more accurate and I wasn't trying to cut costs somewhere I'd later regret. 🤣

The good news is that it only takes a few minutes to go over your plan and budget one last time for any potential opportunities to save some money.

If you've found that the costs of your activities is higher than you'd like, for example, you can replace some of them with free (or cheaper) activities instead.

Again, using Google to plan a trip and find local activities can be REALLY helpful! Not everything is shown on TripAdvisor!

For example, I had to use Google Maps when trip planning for Switzerland, as there were nearly ZERO activities listed for our destination city. The map showed me TONS of options, from tourist attractions to kids activity centers.

I now use Google Maps (and Google Reviews!) any time I'm traveling Europe with kids, because there's so many more options.

Travel ​Budget Tip: Using Google to plan a trip gives you more options than you might think. You can see the reviews on Google Maps, see pictures others have taken of the area or attraction (no surprises!), and even get a cost estimate of prices. One $ means cheap or affordable, $$ means middle-range, and $$$ is expensive.

Once you have double checked your activities, food costs, and other plans, there's only one thing left to do...

Step 8 - Enjoy your wonderful trip!

Relax and enjoy the amazing adventure you've planned out for your family vacation!

You've done ALL the hard work, and there's literally nothing left to do but to GO ON YOUR VACATION and love every minute!

Whether you are planning a local vacation, a weekend getaway, or even family world travel, you will be SO glad that you took the time to plan the details beforehand- because now you can just reap the benefits of your amazing planning and soak up the experiences!

I hope you enjoy your next vacation! 🥰

And don't forget to snag the free Super Simple Vacation Planner! 👇

Super Simple Vacation Planner FREE Download | Family Travel World Wide | Lathrops Gone AWOL Family Travel Blog

Liked this post? Check out more of our similar tips, tricks & info! 👇👇👇

Plan The Perfect Trip in 8 Simple Steps With this FREE Vacation Planning Spreadsheet Pinterest | Lathrops Gone AWOL Family Travel Blog

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Jun 26, 2022

These are all great tips! We use Google Maps almost exclusively to map out road trips as well. Sometimes the planning of trips is (almost) as fun as the trip itself!

Jessica Lathrop
Jessica Lathrop
Jun 27, 2022
Replying to

Yes I definitely enjoy the planning part, it's so much fun, I feel like a kid getting excited ahead of time! 🥰


Jun 24, 2022

I love these steps that you've broken trip planning down to! I am sure I will need to be much more organized when I have a family and kids traveling along with me!

Jessica Lathrop
Jessica Lathrop
Jun 27, 2022
Replying to

Thank you! I'm so glad you found it helpful. ☺️ Having kids has definitely changed our travel style for sure! I used to be so unorganized and just go with the flow. 🥰


Jun 24, 2022

You’ve made planning a perfect trip really easy in these 8 steps. And greatly appreciate the free vacation planning spreadsheet - great resource!

Jessica Lathrop
Jessica Lathrop
Jun 27, 2022
Replying to

Aww thank you so much! I really appreciate your kind words 🥰


Jun 24, 2022

When we drive to our vacation site, we often "wing it." We sometimes don't have any rooms reserved en route. The rest of our vacation we typically plan similar to your plan above.

Jessica Lathrop
Jessica Lathrop
Jun 27, 2022
Replying to

I used to be much more spontaneous with travel, but with kids (especially as a family of 7) it just became too stressful, especially during peak seasons, to hope there was rooms available in a good area. 😅


Jun 23, 2022

I love planning trips but I've never considered pre planning meals but actually thats not a bad idea. Would definitely help with budgeting and it would be amazing to have a reservation at a great restaurant in advance - missed out on that on too many occasions. Thanks for that tip.

Jessica Lathrop
Jessica Lathrop
Jun 27, 2022
Replying to

So glad you found it helpful! I used to just 'wing it' for restaurants but when I realized that I was missing out on amazing food I decided to put a few minutes into choosing ahead of time and it has made such a difference! ☺️

Our Family In Rome Italy _ Must Have Tra

Welcome to Lathrops Gone AWOL! We're a family of 7, and we started traveling the world when our youngest was just a little over a year old. Life has shown us that every day is a gift and our time is limited- so we're on a mission to see the world and make as many wonderful memories as we can together!


Traveling with babies, toddlers, and angsty teens has taught us a LOT about ourselves as a family. We've seen some amazing places and learned a few travel hacks along the way! 😉


I hope you enjoy reading our blog and sharing our travel adventures with us!

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