spreadsheets and suitcases

organization + travel = family fun

Travel planning for dorks- spreadsheet tutorial part 5

See Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

We’ve reached what I consider the most important tab in our trip planning spreadsheet- the Itinerary.  This is where you can plan, revise the plan, see what a given day might look like, change your mind many times, and generally map out the …

It was super-fun making this graphic!

It was super fun making this graphic!

Why is the Itinerary so important?  We already have all the budget notes, confirmation details, to-do timeline and packing lists, so, we might be able to wing it, right? NO!  You need to organize your day so you can fit in the things that are important to you. The itinerary is not meant to tie you down and restrict your movements.  It’s meant to free you from having to remember all the things that have to happen in a particular order so you don’t miss out on the very things you wanted to see on a trip in the first place.  We’re not talking 15-minute increments of planning, though I’ll admit that Disney World trips require tighter time windows than any other kind.  But for a regular trip, my rule of thumb for any vacation day is to plan an AM activity, a PM activity and at least 1 meal.  The rest can be filled in as you go.

Your spreadsheet can be organized thusly:

  • the first few Header lines indicate the day of the trip (Day 1, etc), the date, and the day of the week (Monday, etc).
  • the cells below contain general information (hotel breakfast, meet Rosie at 10am, sleep in, etc.)
  • any confirmed or reserved activities or meals should be bolded so they jump out at you when you glance at the sheet  
the planned meal for this day was snacking our way through Chelsea Market, right by the High Line

the planned meal for this NYC day was snacking our way through Chelsea Market, right by the High Line

I like to try to fit 6 or 7 days across, in “landscape” view, as least while I plan.  I sometimes have to rearrange the font size or print area if the whole itinerary doesn’t fit on 1 page when I print it.  Here is a sample of one of my Disney itineraries- it’s much more detailed:

warning: staring at this too long may cause seizures

warning: staring at this too long may cause seizures

I realize that this image looks overwhelming.  But it’s simply a more fleshed out version of the simpler itinerary above.  For example, Disney resort guests (staying on-property at a Disney Hotel) have access to Extra Magic Hours in the parks.  Those details should be noted on the itinerary to take advantage of the lower crowds.  Then, you want to specify what headline rides you want to hit at Rope Drop, where and when you have an Advanced Dining Reservation, whether you will and when you take an afternoon break, etc.  Then it’s color-coordinated by Park.  More on Disney planning in a detailed series of posts on Disney trip stuff.

Anyway, I’ve found that Itinerary planning must be contained to certain parameters- it’s very easy to overplan and go off the deep end with details.  There are some guidelines:

  • the more people involved, the laxer the time constraints need to be.  If you’ve ever seen a Real Housewives excursion on reality TV, you know what a pain it is to wait around for the late people and accommodate those with 40 pieces of luggage.  Be flexible with regard to starting times!
  • the younger the people involved, the lower the mileage per day.  We already know how much stuff you need to haul when traveling with little ones- let’s minimize how much hauling is necessary in a given day.  Think day trips to the pumpkin patch that also has a petting zoo and small café vs. stopping at every antiques shop in downtown Nashville.
  • plan at least 1 meal, or better yet, get your foodie friends or family members to help you research!  The whole, “Where should we eat? I don’t know, whatever’s good.  How about Greek? No thanks, I hate olive oil, lamb, rosemary, and mint…..” conversation is so, so tiring.  I’d much rather go back and forth over the course of 12 texts/emails/FB messages before the trip and have a confirmed reservation than have that kind of conversation while I’m hungry.  My brother-in-law is a whiz at social media stuff, and uses apps like OpenTable and Yelp to find yummy food spots.  He directed us to 2 great restaurants in Vancouver, which I never would have found on my own.  By the way, I’m the person who hates all the most common Greek food ingredients.  I’ve decided that the only way I can ever visit Greece is via cruise ship, so I can avoid actually eating on Greek soil and just eat on the boat.  Sad,  but I have to see Olympia before I die, so that’s the way it has to be.
  • depending on the overall pace of the trip, plan restful mornings or evenings at least every 3 days.  Of course, you know what kind of pace your crew can handle best, but I find it essential to sleep in some mornings, even at Disney.  This is a vacation, after all.  Sleeping in allows you to be more alert for late-night activities like theater and fireworks, where having an early night lets you rest up for an early start the next day.  In my experience, most adults can only burn the candle from both ends for 3 days max before burning out.  Vacation burnout = fighting and stress, ew.
  • plot out your transportation between activities ahead of time.  This especially applies to those with a poor sense of direction, like ME.  I print out maps and put them in my binder, and write out what I call “useful directions,” in which I translate something useless like “travel 500 meters north” to something I can actually understand, like “make a left out of the main door and walk 1/3 of mile (<10 min) towards the waterfront area, if you’ve passed the McDonald’s you’ve gone too far.” Also, make it your business to know about the public transportation you will be relying on, including the cost of the fare, what station you want to go to, what forms on payment are accepted on board, and how to get back to your hotel.
  • leave room for magic and/or cartwheeling.  Easy to do at Disney, where magic lives 🙂 But sometimes you can find travel fun in unexpected places.  My daughter told me that one of her favorite moments of our road trip this summer was an unexpected stop at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center, where we cartwheeled across the grass and took a short break before continuing to drive.  Who knew?
  • make all your planning mistakes before the trip.  By going over your itinerary with a fine-toothed comb many times before your trip, you become very familiar with the rhythm of your journey (drink!) before you even pull out your suitcase.  These planning sessions are where you will catch that Tourist Attraction A is very near to Relative T’s house, plus you’ll pass Food Truck Z on the way back to the hotel- and that’s one day planned, yay!  Or you might notice that Park X and Park Y are very similar and you can choose to visit one and drop the other.  And since you’re looking at all the days at once, you’ll be able to schedule those restful times efficiently.  Plus, you can keep things balanced for the kids- if you’re doing a museum morning, plan a playground afternoon.  Personal experience note: unless you have an iron stomach, keep “seafood dinner” and “ice cream stop” far away from each other on the itinerary- that combination of foods has never ended well for me.
  • embrace this concept: not everyone has to be together all the time on vacation.  Sometimes, you need a vacation from each other, too.  This especially applies to those of us not native to Hawaii- our families are on the mainland and so we’re stuck looking at each other’s faces 99% of the time.  I love my husband and kids, but I also love other people and want to spend time with them.  So, split up, pair off, bow out, or whatever, because absence really does make the heart grow fonder. My kids are happy to spend special time their grandparents, and I’m happy enjoying a museum with my equally-dorky husband.  See if you can squeeze in some solo time, too.  It’s very restorative.
  • be on your trip, and enjoy the adventure.  This means to be in the moment, and not micromanaging what is coming up next.  This was Danny Tanner’s fatal mistake on the Hawaiian vacation episode of Full House- he relied solely on this:


Seriously, though, the Itinerary is basically a guideline, wish list, and record of the trip all in one.  It’s the tab I spend the most time on while spreadsheeting.  I print out several copies once it’s finalized, which is usually just a few days before we leave.  The rest is up to the universe.

The final post in the Spreadsheet Tutorial will be about most-used formulas and Excel tips/tricks.  I’ll include any questions if you have them!


Travel planning for dorks- spreadsheet tutorial part 2

Please see Part 1 here.

After all the columns in the Estimated Costs cells in the Budget tab are filled in, we can start to figure out what needs to happen when.  That’s where the To-Do Timeline comes in.  I list the months leading up to the trip, then usually 3 Days, 2 Days, the Day/Night Before and Travel Day as header categories. In my example below, I swapped Last Day at Work for the 2 Days header since it was a weekday.

I generally start planning my trips 12-18 months out.  I’m working around 2 school schedules and a non-negotiable summer activity for my tween, so I’m always trying to maximize time by leaving the moment school ends, or getting back home 12 hours before school begins.  Planning in advance helps a lot with that, especially having a better choice of flight times.

If booking flights with miles, it’s important to know that most airlines begin to release award availability about 330 days out.  In my experience, that’s when you get the best choice of seats at the lowest, or Saver level.  Availability then wanes, or sometimes disappears, until about 30 days before your departure date.  If you don’t find any when you first look, keep checking periodically, as you never know when a few seats might open up.  High-tech folks: there is a paid service called ExpertFlyer that monitors award availability and lets you know when seats are available on your desired flight.  I don’t want to pay, and I can’t live on the edge by waiting until the last minute, but if you must or prefer to book closer to departure, you can get lucky with award seats just before your trip.  Keep in mind that you may need to pay a close-in booking fee if your trip departs less than 21 days after you book it.  I love this handy Date Calculator.  Because who wants to count backwards to 330 days manually?

For me, then, the first block in the To-Do Timeline is about 13 months away from Travel Day/Day of.  I just make a short list under “May 2013,” for example, for a trip in May 2014.  It might contain items like:

  • research flight routes on United Airlines
  • make note of preferred flight times/#s
  • establish estimated monthly savings amount.  I take my total estimated cost and divide by the # of months until the trip, to determine how much we need to save per month to have all the money before we go- I don’t do credit card debt.  Though- we do put every single expense possible on credit cards to reap the miles, points, cash back and other rewards that may be available.  More on that in another post.
  • decide on a savings vehicle.  Currently we use an online account.  Easy to fund, hard to withdraw.  Other options might include bank savings accounts or even checking accounts if they pay decent interest.

As I get closer to the trip, I use the strikethrough option to mark when a task is completed.  I use the strikethrough instead of just deleting it so I can look back and be sure that I did indeed complete it.  It’s absurd how much I love crossing items off a to-do list, you guys.  It’s like a shopper’s high!

A fully completed To-Do-Timeline is a thing of beauty

A fully completed To-Do-Timeline is a thing of beauty

I use the same idea in my paper planner, except that when I complete a task for the day, I highlight it blue instead of striking it out, which would make it look messy to me.  Why blue?  It’s my favorite color for several reasons.  Here’s one.

A list under the “3 Days Before” header might contain:

  • return all library books
  • plan to consume all perishable foods
  • request to stop the mail
  • double-check passports (who am I kidding, it’s really a quadruple-check by this point; I’m kind of obsessive about the passports)
  • general grooming: clipping nails, plucking eyebrows, etc.  I don’t dress up for the plane necessarily, but I do want to be clean and neat.
  • begin cleaning the house
  • purchase airplane candy and snacks.  Somehow we began a tradition of buying multi-packs of gum and a bag of chewable Werther’s for every flight.
  • locate/label all charging cords.  I use a Brother P-Touch.  Labels are my besties.
  • print finalized carry-on packing and regular packing lists
  • print finalized itineraries

I find that the To-Do Timeline really helps me organize my time and spread the work out.  I also have the freedom to move things from one header to another when things change, or when one activity is dependent upon the completion of another.  Things that must happen on a very specific date (like making dining reservations at Disney 180 days out) are bolded and in red so they really stand out.

I’m currently in the “August 2014” block of activities for our winter trip to Ecuador.  Recently, I completed tasks like sending a draft itinerary to my HUGE family to start determining who is interested in doing what activity.  We’re taking a boat trip through a mangrove forest, and will hopefully see some river dolphins!  And, we’re determining the best order of operations for a road trip to Cuenca and ride on the Nariz del Diablo, ay ay ay. The almost 24 straight hours of travel it will take to get there from Honolulu will be worth it.  Especially to watch my son meet his great-grandfather 🙂  As my buddy Stitch says…




Travel planning for dorks- spreadsheet tutorial Part 1

This post (and blog, really) assumes a basic knowledge of Microsoft Excel.  If the terms cell, value, formula, tab, column, and function mean nothing to you, perhaps look into one of those Office tutorials before diving in.  They’re kind of mesmerizing.

Not surprisingly, I am all about spreadsheets when it comes to organizing a trip.  Our June 2014 adventure was a trip to the East Coast, where we visited with various family members, attended an excellent Broadway show, road-tripped from NJ to PA to NY and back to NJ, attended a Yankees Game, and went to the Bronx Zoo.  On our road trip, we visited Hershey Park, went to State College (PA), and saw Niagara Falls from the Canadian side.  So…we were busy.

We stayed on course, on schedule for the most part, and mostly within budget due to diligent spreadsheetingOxford Dictionaries agrees that this is indeed a word.  Love it!  I wish it were an Olympic sport- this would be a collision of various things that I love.  I digress.

For this trip, my spreadsheet included 6 different tabs: Budget, To-Do Timeline, Details, Itinerary, Carry-on Packing List, and Packing List.  This post focuses on the first, and often most important planning tab, Budget.

Column headers include: estimated cost, actual cost, booking date, and confirmation #

Column headers include: estimated cost, actual cost, booking date, and confirmation #

I like to have a kicky font and fun name for the trip.  I can’t say this was my best work on the “trip name” side.  OK, I also need the trip dates to be nice and big at the top for easy reference.

The categories in Column B break down specific kinds of expenses.  This is the Transportation category:

Pro-Tip: I have 2 sections for Transportation, because some are Advance Expenses, and some are Variable expenses

Remembering the column headers I outlined above: in the Advance (incurred before the trip) expenses, I estimated our airfare for 4 from HNL to EWR to be $2500, and wound up paying $2831.34.  Over budget, but this is an amazing RT price for 4 people, and it was all thanks to the Alaska Airlines Visa Companion Fare benefit.  More on that in another post.  Then of course I have the booking date, and the confirmation #s.

In the Variable (incurred while on the trip) expenses, my Actual Cost for luggage fees was $100, which was $50 over my Estimated Cost of $50.  I have the spreadsheet set up to highlight the cell if the value in the Actual Cost cell is higher than in the Estimated Cost cell (via Conditional Formatting).  This helps me see where we need to adjust budget categories for the next trip.  This particular expense was annoying, because all of my other airline cards have free checked luggage as a benefit, but the Alaska card doesn’t.  I knew that going in, but it still bugs.

My other categories included Advance and Variable breakdowns for the  Pennsylvania and New York portions of the trip, with specific attractions and Misc road trip costs.  You’ll notice no other lodging cost beyond our Seattle airport hotel, our Hershey Park Hotel, and our Niagara Falls hotel.  This is because we stayed with my fantastic parents the rest of the time.  They have a great view of the NYC skyline!

Each category has a subtotal in the Estimated Cost column (highlighted a mint green), which feeds into either an Advance expense Grand Total, or a Variable expense Grand Total (highlighted in light blue for Estimated Cost, and pink for Actual Cost).  Finally, those 2 Grand Totals feed into the GRAND TOTAL at the top (highlighted in gray).  Below each GRAND TOTAL is a Variance, or the difference between the Estimated costs and the Actual costs.  Whew!

Close-up of Advance expenses section

Close-up of Advance expenses section

If you’re still reading, congratulations on your excellent attention span!  I arrived at this method of budget planning long ago, and it works for the way my brain processes information.  Feel free to customize to your heart’s content.  If there are requests, I can make a sample spreadsheet on Google Docs with the formulas, etc. all ready to go, and folks can download and enter their own categories/amounts.  Just be sure to pick a better name for a NY trip than “New York, New York.”

The next post in this series will focus on the To-Do Timeline tab.