Assuming you have settled on a location, let’s talk a little more about flight and hotel accommodations.
I have found that it’s cheaper to fly to London from Chicago, and cheaper to fly to Mexico from St. Louis. If there is more than one airport within a couple of hours from your home, check flights (and play with dates when possible) from all of the airports closest to you. Some smaller airports offer amazing deals to high traffic places. For example, Peoria, Illinois offers direct (and inexpensive) flights to Las Vegas; Bloomington, Illinois offers low-cost flights direct to destinations in Florida. Some of these airports offer special travel days (like Thursday and Sunday), so you can travel a combination of these days; Sunday to Sunday, Sunday to Thursday, Thursday to Sunday or Thursday to Thursday, etc. Smaller airports can be a plus because they rarely charge for parking. For the bigger airports, we use the app “Spot Hero” to find cheaper parking around the airport. Travel to and from the airport can also be an extra cost or an extra headache so be sure to consider a quick train ride or an overnight hotel stay (sometimes you can park in their parking lot for the entire duration of your trip) with free airport shuttle (these are both fun additions to a trip with littles). Amtrak currently offers a 35% off summer special when purchasing tickets for a group of four.
I would also recommend overnight flights when flying internationally with children. This minimizes the need for keeping them busy, and with a significant time change, you want them to be able to be recharged once you land. Just make sure you, too, are able to sleep on the plane. Bonus: these flights are typically less expensive, and more often direct versus a layover.
Hotels are a big deal so I will focus on them in detail. A bad hotel (or a hotel in a bad area) can literally ruin your trip. Do not skimp on the hotel. Don’t. Again, I use Expedia (no, I’m not being compensated), so my examples will be from their app. I check the Expedia star rating first, and keep my search to hotels with a 3 or 3 1/2 star rating at an absolute minimum. I generally book with a 4+ star rating when available (some of the domestic trips we have taken have not had an option above a 3 star). Then, I look at the rating provided by guest reviews. A 4 1/2 star hotel may have a 3 star guest rating, while a 3 star hotel may have a 5 star guest rating. I read the reviews. I read the good and then make sure to find and read the bad reviews, too.
When I narrow down my choices to a couple of hotels, I look at amenities and additional charges/taxes. Some areas (especially internationally) have a per person guest tax. If you’re driving or renting a car, parking is also an additional cost to consider. Again, it is more efficient (and cost effective) to book a hotel close to where you’ll benefit most. Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach are two entirely different areas, for example. I use Expedia to book hotels, but before I do, I directly check out the website for the hotel. Sometimes, they offer packages and deals and can end up being cheaper than what Expedia offers. Calling the hotel to book directly can also save money versus what even their website offers. Ask them if they have any deals, specials or upgrades available.
Check the location of your hotel on the map and make sure it’s in an area that would benefit your trip. How will you get around, will you be walking? If it’s next to a major highway, will you have to cross the highway? Pick a spot that makes sense for what you’ll be doing. If you’re traveling with littles, don’t forget a stroller if you’ll be walking. An umbrella stroller folds up nicely for traveling and some backpacks offer straps to carry one hands-free.
Specific to amenities, I always pick the hotel with a pool versus one without (think fun for the kiddos). If there are restaurants or food available in the hotel, that can often be a lifesaver after a long day or even at the beginning of what will be a long day. Personally, I get excited when they have a coffee shop but that doesn’t make or break my decision. Does the hotel have a concierge? They can really help when you’re your own travel agent. They can tell you how to get places, line up your transportation, recommend something new/different, and sometimes they can offer special deals to their guests.
When using the Expedia app, make sure you check the “Things to do” option. They often offer specials for a variety of activities in the area. Again, I also check these activities online directly to make sure the prices are indeed at a discount. Sometimes, they’re the same (or similar) prices, the advantage though is that Expedia offers pricing in USD, so you do not have to mentally convert € to $, etc. I would not suggest booking “Things to do” ahead of time. Browse your options and narrow down a list of activities you might like to do, but because these activities are only good for the date of purchase, you may find yourself getting to your location and wanting to do something else on that day instead. Not committing ahead of time leaves you wiggle room to decide what you want to do once you get there. I had purchased tickets for the London Eye ahead of time (trying to save time by not waiting in line), but traffic was unpredictably crazy and we didn’t make it in time before it closed. Money wasted (AND the girls didn’t get to do the ONE thing they had requested – shoutout to Paris for also having a gigantic Ferris Wheel and minimizing the letdown).
Traveling tip: make sure you download all of the apps for all of your hotels/flights. You may book through Expedia, but are flying American Airlines – download the American Airlines app. Check into your flights and hotels from your apps (this also gets you travel points from those that offer them). You can keep up-to-date gate changes, pick your seats, choose your room, etc.