Tips for Planning a Family Vacation with a Tour Operator

family trip to china

Family trip to China with a tour operator

I have a routine when I plan a family adventure. It starts with a notebook that holds hours of research and eventually a flexible itinerary. Getting the trip together requires a lot of work, but the payoff of a great trip is worth it. My family all agreed for spring break this year, we wanted to escape to Costa Rica. A year ago, when we took off for Spain with the kids, we rented a car and went exploring on our own. But this year the rules are different.

A middle school calendar and a daughter whose blood pressure skyrockets at the mere thought of missing school, meant our time was limited. (My youngest daughter suggested we just leave her sister at home, but that is another story).  My mother, who is fun and helpful to travel with, is also coming. Bottom line, things that I might have been tempted to “wing” on location, had to be somewhat set in stone, or at least down on paper.

All of the above lead me to the decision a trip with a tour operator was the best way to go. And I have to say, I think looking at the endless options, was in many ways harder than planning the trip on my own. When I googled “kids and Costa Rica” the first time, I was floored by the 91,600,000 results.  So obviously, Costa Rica’s a popular family vacation choice, but there is something to the phrase “too much information”  especially when it’s not all good information. All tours are not created equally, and there a many factors you should consider before laying down your credit card.

Tips for Planning a Family Tour

What do you want to do?

Everyone should have a say in what they’d like to do while on vacation. Granted, my girls are older, and at 10 and 12, they definitely have strong opinions. But even younger kids like to have a say in planning a trip. It helps them get excited about the adventure, and you just might be surprised by what they want to do. With five of us headed to Costa Rica, we all picked the top two things we’d like to visit or do.  That gave me a checklist of sorts to use as a guide when looking at tour options. Zip-lining through the rainforest was by far the top choice in my family, so I knew that had to be a part of the tour we choose. For my family, there was no perfect tour, but we were able to get pretty close. Tour or no tour, you can’t see an entire country in one trip. Don’t try, it will be miserable for all involved. The plan should always be have a good time, and come back again to catch everything you missed and revisit some favorites on the list.

Is the tour family-friendly?

This is huge, and can make or break the whole trip. Some tours don’t allow children, others are thrilled to have them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get a feel for the family friendliness of a tour company. When we took a family trip to China, we traveled with a tour. The tour company welcomed the kids, but told us when we booked that our kids would most likely be the only kids on the tour. They were, and it didn’t phase them in the slightest.   I think they actually enjoyed the extra attention they often received. But a week of just grown-ups can be hard for some kids. That said, a week of entertaining kids, because there aren’t any other kids around, can be hard for many grown-ups. Remember, it is vacation.

When are you going?

Before you fall in love with a particular tour, check to make sure it’s even available when you want to travel. I thought I had found “the one”, then was disappointed when I discovered there was not a trip offered on the dates I needed. (Apparently, my kids’ spring break does not match up with the majority of the rest of the world). We didn’t have much flexibility when it came to dates, but the tour we selected leaves everyday in the month of March. Wow! That’s a lot of tours. And it did give us enough wiggle room to snag cheaper plane tickets and squeeze the girls’ championship swim meet into the schedule before we race to the airport. I’m still kind of amazed by how it fell into place.

How much do you want to spend?

And more importantly, what do you want to spend your money on? Are you looking to stay at some incredible upscale resorts with a kids’ club and pamper yourself at the spa? Or will you spend most of the days zip-ling through the rain forests and hiking to the craters of volcanoes? This is an important decision to make, and you may need to hold another family meeting to do it. Nicer hotels and resorts add to the price of tours. Clean, comfortable hotels with basic family friendly amenities like a pool and restaurants on location are a must, but if you’re never going to be at the plush resort to enjoy the perks, do you want to pay for them?

The size of the tour group also plays a role in the tour price. You pay less for a seat on a big bus, more to strap your kids in the backseat of a private car.  Both have their own advantages and disadvantages. You have to choose what works best for your family.

What do other travelers think?

Tour operator websites are designed to make you fall in love with their trips. Find out what other people thought of the trip before you sign on the dotted line. In some cases, you can simply ask tour operators and they’ll put you in touch with past customers. Now, keep in mind, it’s unlikely they’re going to introduce you to someone who had an awful time. Websites like Tripadvisor often provide opinions on every last detail of a trip. Read through the reviews. Sure, there will always be the extremes; someone who hated everything, and someone who loved every minute. But after you read through a number of comments you’ll get an idea if the trip is for you.

The beauty of a tour, is once you make a decision, for the most part, your work is done. Pack your bags, get on the plane, and then someone else will take care of the rest. Whether it’s figuring out where to eat lunch, or lugging your bags from one hotel to the next, you don’t need to think about it. It’s someone’s job to make it all happen. No carrying luggage, mine or my kids. That’s what I call a vacation.

We take off in March. I’ll let you know if I made a good choice.

Relevant Links:

Why families should consider a family tour operator?

Adventure travel with kids, planning a family safari to Africa

Guided family vacations in Costa Rica and Panama

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