With a yawning two-week gap between the end of my kids' summer camp and their first day of school, the time was right for a family trip.
This wasn't our first vacation rodeo, so I knew to keep a few things in mind when scouting for a getaway for me, my husband and our two boys.
Here are five things to consider when planning your own family vacation:
1. Pick a place that fits everyone's needs
We wanted to keep our summer trip simple. No long, drawn-out car rides and no shelling out for airfare on top of lodging.
We like to be moderately active on vacation, and our kids are always up for an adventure. Unlike our kids, my husband and I don't think amusement parks are the best vacation ever. After a trip two years ago to Universal Studios, my husband and I were wiped out for days from all the running around. But our boys, ages 8 and 10, also need more stimulation than just lounging by the water.
We decided on Hammock Beach Resort, a sprawling vacation and golf resort in Palm Coast, Florida, a manageable three-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in South Florida. It fit our wish list of not too far and enough to do without running ourselves ragged. It's right on the ocean and has a pool, a big waterslide, a lazy river and a nine-hole putting green. It also has several restaurants, so we didn't have to leave the property for meals if we didn't want to.
2. Get a mini-fridge wherever possible
Another huge perk of our hotel was that every room comes with a seating area and kitchenette. Having a place to stash snacks eliminates the possibility of a "hangry" child meltdown.
On that same Universal trip, every morning felt rushed as we had to get out the door just to buy an overpriced hotel breakfast. Because of that kitchenette, this time we could start our day at a leisurely pace, without spending a bundle to get fueled up.
As a toddler, my younger son would have marathon crying sessions when he was hungry, the sort that has everyone looking at you with a mixture of pity and relief that it isn't them. We quickly learned that the only way to stave off these attacks when traveling was to be ready with an arsenal of snacks wherever we were.
If your room doesn't come with a mini-fridge, see if you can request one ahead of time. Even if you arrive without food, you can usually find a market somewhere to stock up on fruit, cereal, milk or cheese — all great to have on hand for a smooth start to your day or combat your child's need-for-a-snack attack.
3. Use rewards for a free or cheap stay
We had enough Chase Ultimate Rewards® points from our three Chase credit cards, aka the "Chase trifecta," to redeem for two free nights at the hotel.
My husband owns the Chase Freedom®, which offers quarterly rotating bonus rewards categories, and the Chase Freedom Unlimited®, which earns 5% on travel purchased through Chase, 3% on dining at restaurants and drugstores and 1.5% on all other purchases. I own the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, which means points in my account take on 50% more value when booking travel through the Chase portal.
So we transferred his points into my account, and the combined stash was enough to cover the cost. Score!
Even if you don't have enough points to make your family fun free, you can at least reduce the overall cost of a vacation by using your credit card rewards to pay for part of your stay or by opting for cash back into your account to help ease vacation budget pressures.
4. Don't overdo it
On the second day, we drove to St. Augustine, which proclaims to be the oldest town in America. My older son had done a school project on some of the historic buildings there, so we thought it would be cool to see them in person.
It was a beautiful scenic drive along the coast, making the 30-minute trip fly by. My kids oohed and aahed at the beach houses on stilts, which we never see in our part of Florida.
We first visited the old fort of Castillo de San Marcos, which my older boy got a big kick out of since that was part of his school project. Then we visited the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, which is dedicated to pirate artifacts and is tailor-made for younger kids, with a treasure hunt and all kinds of pirate weaponry on display. We followed that with a chocolate tasting tour of a local chocolatier, which, unsurprisingly, was the kids' favorite part of the day.
You could likely spend several days exploring all of the sights in St. Augustine, but at that point, I could tell they were nearing the edge of overstimulation. Instead of pushing their limits, we headed back to the hotel for some downtime at the pool. It doesn't matter how much cool stuff we skipped; it was more important that we remembered it as a fun day trip, not being dragged to different attractions.
5. Make the unfamiliar a positive experience
The first few times we took our kids away, they were still toddlers, and we spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to make sure they had all the comforts of home.
At a certain point, we realized that a big part of traveling is experiencing things outside of your everyday life, even if that means not having your favorite food or outfit available. It's important to us when we travel to frame new experiences in a positive light. It may not always work that way, but if we try to bring every favorite book, toy and food with us everywhere we go, we'll be overloaded and less available to trying something new.
If your kid sees you tensing up when you find out the restaurant doesn't have chicken nuggets, or you forgot to pack a favorite stuffed animal, they'll feed off your energy and start to freak out. Do your best to make everything an adventure or a game. One time we left my younger son's former must-have sleep companion Mickey Mouse at home, and we joked that Mickey was having a vacation, too. It wasn't perfect, but it helped.
How to get your own free family vacation
Anyone who travels regularly with their family or aspires to do so can benefit from owning a travel rewards card. By spending the way you normally would (and paying your bill in full and on time), you'll accrue rewards that you can apply toward your family vacation. Here are a couple of our favorite cards:
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is a great choice for someone interested in exploring the benefits of a travel rewards card. Its annual fee is $95. It pays rewards of 2 points per dollar spent on travel and at dining at restaurants worldwide, and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases. It also comes with a rich sign-up bonus: Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Plus earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery store purchases within your first year of account opening. Since Chase Ultimate Rewards® points are worth 25% more with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card when redeemed through the Chase travel portal, owning this card could have you well on your way to that first free vacation.
Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
If you can't stomach the idea of paying an annual fee, the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card might be more up your alley. With an annual fee of $0, you'll earn triple points on a wide swath of categories like dining out and ordering in, gas stations, rideshares, transit and travel including flights, hotels and homestays. All other spending earns 1 point per dollar. The card also comes with a sweet sign-up bonus that can help shave down the overall cost of your trip: Earn 20,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months - that's a $200 cash redemption value. Terms apply.