How I’m Planning My Family Vacation Post-COVID

For my family, the summer vacation is an annual tradition.

We usually select a destination in the fall of the previous year, spend a lot of time researching the specifics of the trip and how to minimize costs while still doing the things we want to do, and then set off for about 10 days in the summer.

Our goal while our kids are younger has been to explore the United States and, to an extent, Canada, but as they grow into their teen years, we have been thinking of overseas options as well.

Our main considerations for family travel in ordinary years are whether our family vacation has some aspect that everyone in the family will enjoy and whether we can make it affordable.

In 2020, that changed. We had a trip to Florida planned for summer 2020, but with the arrival of COVID, we had to cancel those plans. Instead, our summer vacation became a camping trip to a very remote spot that gave us lots of opportunity for canoeing and hiking and almost no one around us.

What about 2021? With mass vaccinations on the horizon and restrictions related to COVID slowly going away, our family is making some later-than-usual plans for a summer vacation this year. We want to do something together, as our kids (and us) are a bit stir-crazy, but what works in this situation? Here are some of the aspects we’re considering for family travel after coronavirus.

In this article

    The impact of COVID on our travel plans

    Our summer travel plans are highly dependent on the availability of vaccines, the lessening of COVID restrictions, and the relative safety of the things we’re considering. What will family travel after COVID look like? Here are some of our considerations.

    COVID itself. While the case numbers as I write this appear to be in good shape, it is hard to forecast how they will be in the summer. We’re relying on forecasts that we trust for what the summer will look like, such as this summary of what public health figures are projecting for COVID in the late spring and summer in The Atlantic. As mass vaccinations roll out, the question becomes whether there are any vaccine-resistant strains out there. Thus, we’re leaning more toward vacation plans that make it easier for us to be outdoors.

    Vaccinations. Sarah and I will be vaccinated by the time we would travel. Our children will also be vaccinated as soon as it’s available if vaccines are FDA-approved for their age group, which sounds like it may happen in early summer.

    Remaining restrictions. We are operating under the assumption that most domestic restrictions will be lifted by mid-summer, but that large-scale events still won’t be happening yet due to planning needs and remaining COVID concerns. We won’t be including any large events in our summer plans.

    Let’s look at how these considerations, along with our family’s considerations of appeal to everyone and frugality, led us in our planning for a 2021 family vacation.

    Paying for the trip

    Since our 2020 vacation’s expense was a fraction of what we had planned, plus we’re expecting to receive stimulus money sometime in the next few months, we actually have money set aside for summer travel. In fact, as we’ll discuss, we’ll likely have some money remaining for summer travel in 2022 and beyond, during which we are tentatively planning an international trip once COVID is a thing of the past and travel restrictions are gone.

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    Choosing the location

    We decided early on that our family vacation needed to lean in on outdoor activities. We wanted to be doing things outdoors as much as possible, which provides natural air circulation and seems to minimize any remaining COVID risk. This isn’t abnormal for us — many of our family vacations have been outdoor-oriented.

    We also did not want to bank on any large-scale events where lots of people would gather, not just as a safety concern, but out of doubt that such events will yet happen in the summer.

    In the end, we selected a trip to two national parks. We’ll travel by car with our camping equipment to two national parks in the eastern United States. This satisfies the goal of a very outdoor-focused summer vacation at a very reasonable cost. Camping is actually a great inexpensive family vacation.

    Planning the details

    How will we travel there and back? We’ll do this by car. We already have a vehicle that can hold our whole family and the necessary camping equipment, so this will be our mode of transportation for this trip.

    Where will we stay? Since we’re camping, this is solved by finding a campground on or near the national park we wish to visit. Most national parks have many campgrounds within their borders and several more nearby. Our goal is to stay within the national parks, but see below for more details on that.

    What will we do? This boils down to identifying interesting aspects of each park and the nearby areas. For example, one park that we’re intending to stay at is Shenandoah. We’ve identified a couple of day hikes there, as most of our family enjoy hiking. One reason we chose Shenandoah is that some members of our family have taken an interest in bird watching, and Shenandoah has many opportunities for great birding, so we’re taking that into account by filling at least one day with a few very easy birdwatching-oriented hikes. Our family is avid about geocaching, too, and national parks always have an abundance of geocaches — Shenandoah is no different.

    What will we eat? Most meals will be eaten at the campsite or out of backpacks. We’ll eat at a few restaurants, likely by takeout or with outdoor dining.

    Any roadblocks?

    One potential roadblock for our plans is the availability of campsites. National parks often have availability concerns for camping, particularly on weekends. Our approach for this is to simply watch carefully for campsites at the parks we are interested in and jump on campsites as soon as they’re made available, usually about six months in advance.

    With a trip like this, vehicle breakdown is always a risk, as are other small emergencies we may need to handle ourselves without hotel or resort staff to help. Because of that, we will have a well-stocked emergency fund accessible by debit card and no balance on our credit cards before we leave, so that almost any emergency can be easily handled.

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    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.