Travel and Dining

Vacation? How to Plan the Trip of a Lifetime

Tourists enjoy the world's largest swimming pool at a seaside resort in Algarrobo, Chile, 95 kilometers (58.9 miles) west of Santiago. Acknowledged by the Guinness World Records, the lagoon measures 1,013 meters (3,323 feet) in length, covers an area of eight hectares (20 acres), contains 250,000 cubic meters of water, and is navigable in small boats. (Photo: Martin Bernetti / AFP-Getty Images)

Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part article.

In the 1969 movie If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium, directed by Mel Stuart, a busload of American tourists embark on a crazy tour across Europe, getting into a multitude of problems and sticky situations along the way. This one movie alone perhaps did more to deter people from traveling in organized groups than all the airplane hijackings we have witnessed since then. After this movie was released, it became unfashionable to travel in this manner. Many Americans opted to go it alone with a little bit of help from family, friends, and tips gleaned at the office water cooler.

The Internet is another thing that has changed the way people plan vacations. Years ago, it seemed the only people who had access to this revolutionary new method of communication were banks and airline companies. Nowadays, most people go online when they decide they want or need a vacation.

The types of vacations that people take also have changed. And by vacation, I do not mean staying at home and getting up late until it's time to return to work. If you don't leave your home—indeed, if you don't leave the state where your home is located—then you are not on vacation. Instead, you are merely hanging out at home and wasting these precious days doing something other than enjoying yourself.

Staying at home means those closets that you have been ignoring for the longest time finally get straightened out. Those pictures that you meant to put into albums finally get put in. The attic gets cleaned out, and, if you have a garage, likewise. And if your child has gone off to college, you dig in and clean out that room and hope you don't disown your child by the end of this cleanup due to the many wonderful things you have found under the bed or tucked away in the back of the closet. Trust me, those conversations about what the hell this and that mean are just not worth it. Move on!

Now that we have gotten that straightened out, let's think about going away from home, with or without the children. Let's plan to visit someplace new and enjoy ourselves by doing some of those things we always dreamed about. Things like sunbathing on a black sand beach in Hawaii; climbing the Sun or Moon Pyramids in Teotihuacán, Mexico; exploring the ruins of a lost civilization in Machu Picchu; tasting the famous wines of Chile; dancing with the locals during Carnival in Rio; seeing a bullfight in Madrid; taking a gondola ride in Venice and being serenaded by a gondolier; climbing the Great Wall in China; scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia; and visiting the Louvre and Picasso museums in Paris, then walking up to Montmartre for a spectacular view of the city at night.

Once the decision is made, our next step is securing a flight to our destination of choice. In the past, one merely called or went to the nearest airline office and asked what flights were available. However, when I went to American Airlines to inquire about travel to New York, I was told to go online and check out their latest offers. "But, I'm here now," I said. "Can't you look it up and tell me what is available? Are there any specials? Do I have enough miles to travel free to New York?"

"Well, you wouldn't be here now if you had checked American Airlines online first, now would you?" said the young woman behind the counter.

At LAN Airlines, down the block from American, they have several agents ready and willing to help customers who walk in off the street. Any inquiry will be researched and answered. However, know that there may be a long wait time—which becomes increasingly longer during high season—and that the information that they have readily available is only for their flights and tour packages.

If you plan to visit your family, then your work ends here—for we all know it's tacitly understood that, when family comes to visit, the host does all the work. The family you are visiting will take you to see all the sights and be responsible for ensuring that you get tickets for museums, concerts, plays, amusement parks, etc. And they will do this because, for sure, it will be your turn up at bat at a later time.

Aerial view of the world's largest swimming pool at the seaside resort in Algarrobo. (Photo: Martin Bernetti / AFP-Getty Images)

However, if you're not planning to visit relatives and want to stay at a luxurious hotel with all amenities included, that's a different story. So, the next thing you have to do is decide whether you are going to find this wonderful hotel yourself, within your price range and for the dates you need, or let someone else do this for you. If you opt for the former, and don't mind spending time sitting in front of a computer trying to put together your dream vacation, I would suggest that you do so.

Now you may ask, "Where do I start?" First things first: as mentioned earlier, your first step is securing your flight. You simply cannot book a hotel and then hope you can get a flight that fits into that time frame—unless you are willing to pay whatever it costs to get there.

You start by going to all those Web sites that offer these magical vacations at unheard-of prices. If you enter any of the following words in the search bar, you will be surprised at the number of hits you will get for travel anywhere around the world: "cheap tickets," "cheap flights," "travel deals," "vacation packages," "trips," and "smart travel." Also, ask around at work and among your family and friends. Some people have favorites and are more than willing to share this information.

Next, you need a place to stay. Figure out what type of lodging you are interested in, and then start your search. Are you interested in staying in the city or outside of city limits? Do you want to be near the sights, or do you not care if you have to travel a bit? But be warned: if it looks too good to be true, there probably is a catch. Sometimes hotels require a stay of at least three days or more for a reservation. Ocean views sometimes cost more. You may not want an ocean view (too noisy). Do they have smoking or non-smoking rooms and/or floors? Is this really important to you? Is breakfast included in the price? What type of breakfast? Will you be satisfied with a hard-boiled egg and a cup of tea or coffee, or do you prefer a breakfast buffet with more options? It is up to you to ask as many questions as possible before you book the room. Don't worry: they have heard them all before.

To find accommodations, just type in "lodgings." Here, you will get a listing of hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, apart-hotels, cabins—you name it. Don't limit your search by just typing in the word "hotels." What you are trying to do is find out what is out there.

I told you this would be work, but well worth it in the end.

One caveat: the Internet waits for no one. If you see something you like, book it right away. Special offers do not last very long. If you walk away from your computer to discuss this with your spouse or family, you may come back and find the offer is no longer available—or if it is, not at the cheap price you had seen earlier. So, have these discussions with your spouse, family, or significant other before you begin your search. Also, have two or three alternatives in case you can't finalize your first choice. Then, when you go online, all you have to do is complete the transaction with your credit card, and bingo: you are set to go.

Be sure before you commit that the flight and the tour package are the ones you really want, because there may be hefty fines involved if you change your mind. In some cases, you may lose all of your money or a great part of it. It also does not matter whether the reason you have is valid or not; read the fine print. If it says you have two weeks to cancel your reservation without penalty, understand that they mean business!

Another word of warning: you must have a credit card. No, you cannot write a check or money order. Your credit card must also be valid. It doesn't hurt to have more than one because sometimes, for no explicable reason, they simply will not accept a certain credit card, even if it is current and you have a generous line of credit available in the account.

Make sure you keep a copy of the transaction number and follow up by visiting the site again and again to ensure that everything is O.K. Lots of people do business this way and have been quite successful at securing a good flight, lodgings, vacation package, and great prices—yours truly as well. It can be time consuming, but remember: we are talking about your dream vacation.

Last but not least, check that you have all your paperwork in order. The three most important things are passports, visas, and vaccinations. If you have any questions regarding any of the above, call the embassy and consulate offices of the countries you plan to visit and ask about the latest requirements. Make sure you also inquire about entrance and exit fees, fees many countries are now requiring as a condition of travel to and out of their countries. Once again, most of this information can be found online. You owe it to yourself and your family to be prepared on all fronts if you are to fully enjoy this wonderful vacation that you have worked so hard for.

So, what about traveling with an organized group? I have had the experience of traveling with large organized groups as well as traveling alone with my husband. In 2007, we traveled with a small group of six family members and friends for three months to Eastern Europe, planning our trip along the way. This year, we traveled to the Middle East with a group of 20 where everything was already planned out for us. No, it wasn't If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium, but it remains a vacation to remember for many reasons.

Read about the pros and cons of traveling with an organized group in part two of this article.