How to Use the Internet to Plan Family Vacations

Cool websites and apps can help you have a great vacation anywhere.

By Jacqueline Emigh

Looking ahead to a family vacation but already dreading the packing? Well, you won't need to bring along paper maps, dog-eared packing lists, or old-fashioned Scrabble sets. These days, the web can streamline everything from paying for the trip to deciding where to stay to finding something to do on a rainy day. And any family member old enough to use a smartphone, tablet, or laptop can get in on at least some of the action.

Here are ten pieces of the vacationing puzzle that the internet can help you solve.

1. Exploring Where to Go

Kids and adults alike can browse travel destination sites like National Geographic Travel to explore where in the world they'd like to spend their next family vacation. Videos of travel destinations are widely available on YouTube. These exploratory activities are educational, too, introducing kids to some fun lessons in geography, social studies, and history.

Plan a couple of hours each week when everyone in the family can view and share. Kids can research travel destinations independently in their free time, reporting back to the family about the vacation spots that interest them the most. But make clear to children that any actual trips must fit into the family budget. Most kids can learn to understand words like, "Not this year for that particular trip, but I do hope we can go there sometime."

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2. Making Reservations

Adults and older kids can use travel planning sites such as Expedia and Travelocity—or the sites' mobile apps for Android or iOS—to research prices and settle on a vacation destination. What'll it be? London? Cape Cod? Aspen? Tokyo? Those are some places that Expedia has recommended through its mobile app.

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Later, grown-ups can use the same tools to book hotel and airline reservations quickly.

3. Financing the Trip

A personal finance app like Intuit’s Mint (available for Android or iOS) or SmartyPig (also available in Android and iOS versions) can assist you in saving money far in advance for goals such as family vacations. By looking at what you spend each day, you can see where to reduce nonessential expenses.

Can you grab a cup of coffee at home each morning instead of stopping at the coffee shop for latte? Or lower your electric bills by unplugging chargers when they're not in use? Small expenses do add up!

4, Figuring Out What to Pack

What to pack depends on where you're going, of course. Specialized travel sites give some terrific tips on what you should pack if you're headed for a cruise, for example, or a beach vacation.

Whatever your vacation destination, you can use the interactive travel list at Independent Traveler to generate personalized, printable lists for everyone in the family. Prefer to use a mobile app? Try Packing List (for Android) or Packing Pro (for iOS).

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5. Finding Nearby Attractions

What will you do once you get there? Take roller coaster rides at an amusement park? Raft down a river? Hit the ski slopes? Meander through intriguing museums and historical sites?

Apps like TouristEye (for Android or iOS) and Field Trip (likewise for Android or iOS) can help you to figure this stuff out long before you leave—or if you prefer, when you're already on the road.

6. Deciding Where to Eat

There are tons of resources online for finding good restaurants anywhere. To get reviews by real restaurant customers, go to Yelp, for example.

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Expert opinions can be found on LocalEats. And you can book reservations quickly and easily on OpenTable.

7. Figuring Out How to Get Around by Bus, Subway, or Train

On your way to a major U.S. city? If so, Apple's Citymapper apps for Android and iOS can help you pinpoint the best ways of navigating the local terrain by bus, subway, or train.

8. Getting Good Driving Directions

On the other hand, if you'll be bringing your car along, or renting a car once you get there, Google Maps can provide the best route for driving from any point A to any point B. It's handier than the hotel concierge, and probably a lot more accurate than some random guy you'd ask on the street.

9. Grabbing Weather Forecasts

Checking out the local weather at your vacation destination can be fun (and practical) even while you're still at home. You can obtain both long- and short-range weather forecasts from The Weather Channel (available as an app in Android and iOS flavors) or from Accuweather (similarly available for Android or iOS).

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Once you've arrived, you can check the hour-by-hour forecasts to keep ahead of any impending weather fronts, so you’ll know whether to bring jackets or rain gear with you the next time you venture outdoors.

10. Playing Online Games on Rainy Days

Bad weather can disrupt a vacation by making some planned activities impossible. Of course, your kids probably have favorite games that they can play on their phones instead; and grownups might want to read e-books on their Kindles, Nooks, or tablets. For enhanced family togetherness, though, why not try some online versions of traditional board and card games?

Pogo.com offers such popular traditional multiplayer games as Scrabble, Risk, Monopoly, and Hearts. (The site also includes some casino games that you might want to steer your youngsters away from.)

Photo credits: Pixabay.com, Pexels.com, Apple.