Thursday, July 21, 2011

Part 2: How to plan a vacation for a large group

This is the last of a two-part series about planning a vacation with a large group of friends (or family I suppose). I recently embarked on a week-long vacation in a beach house in Northern Michigan with 17 people, nine of them children. Through careful planning, we were able to make a week in one house work for everyone. It was one of my favorite vacations ever, and I'm sharing a few pieces of advice that I hope will help someone else out there embark on a similar trip. In the first part of the series, I talked about how to get your vacation off the ground. In this one, I'll share some tips for executing it once you've got it on the schedule.

1.  Food, glorious food!

One of the biggest things you'll need to discuss and plan for as a group is your food. Feeding 17 people for a week is no small undertaking, and if you're traveling with so many kids, you aren't going to want to eat out much. You could take the approach that each family simply bring their own food, but that didn't seem like the best, most efficient option to us.

What we did was have a group meeting a few weeks before we left. We assigned each of the four families two food responsibilities, one dinner and one "category" of food -- breakfast foods, lunch foods, produce or snacks. Each family was responsible for bringing its own drinks and baby food. At our meeting, we discussed what expectations there were for breakfasts, lunches and snacks. And we decided on and assigned four universally pleasing dinners -- grilled chicken, a pasta night, a Mexican night with tacos, and a hamburger/hotdog night. We also planned on a having pizza night, a "wildcard" night and a eat-everything-left night for the final night in the house.

This system worked really well for us. It spread the responsibility around, cut costs as most people bought in bulk) and filled our house with tons of food. We actually never got pizza, because we had so many options and leftovers in the house. My assignments were grilled chicken night and snacks. I went to Costco two nights before the trip and bought yogurt, string cheese, pretzels, chips, salsa, hummus, chocolate covered raisins, trail mix, applesauce pouches, fruit snacks, veggie straws, and maybe more. Plus 24 chicken breasts! And almost all of it was eaten! Meanwhile, all my other meals were prepared for me. Not a bad deal, right?

My last piece of advice? If it's summer, do as we did: hit up the local farmer's market for produce once you've arrived! Ours was full of tasty treats, like these perfectly juicy and sweet Michigan strawberries pictured above! It meant less food we had to pack and also let us experience all the goodness that comes from eating fresh, local produce. Yum.

2. Planning for fun 

Wine sipping out on the town with the girls? FUN.

Northern Michigan, if you're not familiar, is filled with charm. Adorable small towns with cute shops, wineries, great restaurants, touristy places to visit, festivals (including while we were there the huge National Cherry Festival in Traverse City), and above all, picturesque lakes and beaches.

The key for us -- and probably any big group -- was getting everyone on the proverbial same page. Were we a group that wanted to do lots of activities or not? Would we care if families ventured off on their own or were we hoping to stick mostly together? People travel differently. It's good to talk things out first so you don't wind up on your vacation disappointed about the lack of action -- or lack of relaxation.

Our group decided on this plan: we wanted to get out and do a few things, but mostly we wanted to enjoy our house and private beach. We wanted a night out for the moms and a day of golfing for the dads. And we were 90 percent sure we'd want to check out the Cherry Festival. With that framework, I was designated the "researcher." I scoured the internet for information about the things we wanted to check out and a few others to have knowledge about, just in case. I used, what else? Pinterest! It worked great to collect links to pertinent information and serve as a vacation inspiration board. See my Suttons Bay vacation board here!

Before we left, the guys scheduled a tee time. Once there, the girls picked a night to go out. We also determined fairly quickly just how happy we were to relax and play at the house.

 We did do a few things. The Cherry Fest. Got ice cream at Moomer's (the best in the country according to Good Morning America). I went for a run on the Leelenau Trail. My family went out for breakfast one morning, because that's one of my favorite things to do whenever we travel.  The other three families checked out a winery that had a petting zoo.

But mostly, we just relaxed at our house confident that because we'd done our research, we knew what the area offered and that we were making the best decision for us.

So much relaxing to do, so little time!

3. Packing is a beast you can tame

Breakfast before we left -- a birthday cupcake for me, and a final glance at my long packing list.
Packing is not a four letter word. You can do this!

First off, if you're packing for four people for a week, including two kids with all their various gear and crapola, you've got to make a list. GOT TO. It makes life so much easier. I made my list about four days before we left. This helped get some anxiety outta my system. Once the list is made and it is on paper, you don't have to worry about remembering all those little things that you don't want to forget. Put everything on the list, even things you know you'd never forget (like your cherished iPad). Because what if you did forget the iPad? You'd never forgive yourself!

And don't wait until the last moment to start packing, unless you like the feeling of an imminent heart attack. I started the packing process two days before we left, when I packed all the clothes for me, Luke and J.J. It felt so much more manageable to work in chunks. The day before we left, as I sorted through my house, I began gathering all the various items from my list in my dining room. Soon, my table was totally covered in my belongings. Having them all in one place made it easier to figure out how to bag things up. Once that was done, we loaded as much in the car -- really, a minivan we borrowed from my in-laws -- the night before. That left little we had to actually pack in the morning, which was great, because you don't want to deal with all that when you're trying to get two kids and a husband out the door. We were able to be on the road at 9:30 a.m., only a half hour later than we intended. Not bad, right?

Two last things: If you're traveling with a baby and need a crib, you can of course take your pack n' play. But don't forget about asking first whether the place you're traveling has a suitable crib. Ours did. And also take advantage of crib rental companies. We did that, too! It worked great. We split the cost with one other family, who used the crib that was at the house. It wound up being $30 each, and the company came and set up and tore the crib down for us. It allowed J.J. to sleep on a real mattress all week instead of in a flimsy pack n play -- and it was one less thing I had to pack!

And finally, communicate what you're bringing to the group! Maybe not everyone needs to bring a shade tent for the beach. Or if no one else is bringing a bike for their kid, maybe it's better to leave yours home, too. We had emails flying like crazy, so we knew who was bringing sand toys and baby toys and a train set and high chairs and Bumpos and board games and blocks and movies, etc. With so many people in one house, you want to keep the "stuff" to a minimum. If that's possible.

A typical morning in our vacation house.
Our trip was so fantastic, we can't wait to do it again. In fact, we've already booked our house for next summer -- and we added one more family who couldn't make it this year! Next year, there will be 21 of us in one house right on Lake Michigan. Can't wait!

Hope you enjoyed my series -- really, two very long posts. If you have questions, let me know. I'd love to answer them and see other people take a vacation with their friends. It's a lot of planning, but really, so very worth it.


  1. This is a wonderful idea. I wonder if I can get my family interested in it... maybe next summer of course, as this summer is way too busy, and I can't travel as it is. :) But it would be nice, seeing as I only get up to see my family about once a year.

  2. This is great advice... especially for someone who hasn't traveled with kids before... can I ask the youngest age of the children and when you think it's okay to travel with babies?

  3. The youngest child was mine -- Jack! He turned five months old the day before we left. I am liberal when it comes to traveling with babies. With Luke, he traveled to Virginia at seven weeks, to Key West at almost five months, to South Carolina at eight months and to Montreal at just shy of a year. I see no reason not to get out and GO. Babies adapt! And a vacation like this is really great for them. Since we stayed at the house most of the time, it was very easy to get them down for naps and for the moms of slightly older babies to deal with messy feedings.