Finding Your Vacation Rental

You’ve picked your group. You’ve found the perfect destination. Now you just need to find an amazing vacation house to complete your get-away with the gang!

These days finding a vacation rental is pretty much as simple as finding a hotel room. But how do you know that house you Googled is a good deal, or even the real deal?

This summer we will head out on our 18th trip and we’ve had a vacation house for all but the first two years. These days, there are tons of websites listing houses all over the world, but finding our first house wasn’t so easy. There weren’t a lot of options for finding a vacation house to rent.

It seems that every travel site is starting to offer a vacation rental search option. Trip Advisor, Travelocity, and Expedia all have tabs to click for vacation rentals. Recently I searched for the same destination and dates on all three sites and Trip Advisor seemed to work the best for me (goingdutchtravel is not sponsored by any of the sites listed in this post so I’m just giving my opinion—you may have better luck with a different site). Sometimes lots of hotel rooms pop up. Since I generally know if I want a hotel room or a vacation rental, it was annoying to scroll past lots of hotels when I know that’s not what I’m looking for.

Airbnb is another option that I haven’t personally used, but I’ve spent some time searching. It includes some pretty interesting vacation rentals and experiences you can try (like a bike and tasting tour through Paris). You can even rent a bedroom in someone’s home instead of renting the whole house—usually less expensive but also less private.

Over the years, our group has consistently used vacation rental by owner (vrbo.com) and more recently, homeaway.com. Both sites are remarkably similar. In fact, I’m not sure why there are still two sites since vrbo is apparently part of homeway. If you find a house on one site, you can find the same listing on the other by entering the rental number. I personally like homeaway’s mobile app for searching and saving rentals.

Whatever site you use, the best advice we can give you is to use the filters. If you have definite dates, be sure and enter them. Why fall in love with a mountain cabin that is booked for the next 6 months if your vacation is in 3?

Most importantly, filter by number of bedrooms or by the number of people. Depending on your location, your search can return a long list of houses from one-bedroom studios to ten-bedroom mansions. Limiting your choices to those that you might actually be interested in renting will make the process shorter and much less frustrating.

Finally, read those reviews! While you can always expect to have some great ones and some terrible ones, look for rentals that have lots of feedback. It doesn’t guarantee a good rental, but the more people who have posted, the less likely that you are only seeing reviews from the owner’s best buddies who got to stay for free if they gave a good report on-line.

There are also other options for locating rental properties without using the sites listed above. Sometimes visitor’s bureaus will list vacation rentals on their sites. Destinations with large numbers of vacation rentals will often have realty companies that own lots of houses. You can contact them directly to ask about properties they have available. This is a great option if you know you want to rent two or three houses close together for large, multi-family groups. You can also ask family and friends for recommendations.

If you have a site you like for finding that best spot, send us a comment!

Best of luck sorting through all those condos, bungalows and cabins! With a little practice and a lot of savvy searching, you too can soon be relaxing with your favorite friends and family.

The Art of Vehicle Maintenance (or…Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff)

I think the others will likely agree, that I have always been the most high-maintenance of the group.  I tend to want everything to go perfectly, and everything to be just exactly the way I think it “should” be.  The only great vacation is the one where everything goes according to plan, right?  Well…not exactly.  In every vacation some rain must fall, and it’s in those things that some of our best memories have been created.  

Any time you have four families driving hundreds of miles to a vacation destination, a mechanical vehicle failure is a possibility.  Do it often enough, and it’s a certainty.  We encountered this certainty on our most recent trip.  And “replacing a U-joint” was definitely not on our vacation to-do list.  But things happen, and cars that are not in working order need to be restored to that in order to proceed with the aforementioned vacation.  

A broken car is certainly a curveball.  But is it a vacation-wrecker?  Sure, it could be.  The hassle of all those phone calls and time spent waiting….ugh!  It’s enough to raise stress levels just thinking about it.  But the answer to whether it will wreck your vacation or not lies in how your group handles it.  

Our group is fortunate to have some mechanically-inclined folks in it.  And our rental house had a garage that we were able to use.  And so…voila! Instant auto repair shop.  We also have some teenagers and future drivers in our group, so instant auto shop became instant auto classroom.  

A good chunk of an afternoon was spent on what might be considered a bad thing, and we could certainly have allowed it to ruin our vacation, or part of it.   But instead it became a fun activity for the dads in the group and varying numbers of kids (the little ones weren’t in it for the long haul :).  Two teenage girls crawled under the car and helped out with the repair.  A valuable life lesson for two girls who will themselves be car owners someday, and something they still talk about.  It raised their confidence in their ability to fix things, and gave them a chance to further develop their relationship with some great dads in their lives who didn’t happen to be their own.  The moms got some downtime with a glass of wine and some great conversation.  In all, a pretty great afternoon.  

Every vacation will have a curveball or two.  Perhaps your own car will break down, or that of someone else in your group.  Or it may be something else…a mouse in your rental house or an arrival prior to the opening of most tourist attractions at your destination.  Whatever it is, I encourage you to be careful of how you think about it.  If you allow it to wreck your trip, I assure you it will.  But if you employ some humor and creativity, it might just become one of your best memories.  

What vacation curveballs have you dealt with?  Were you able to make some fun memories?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.  

When do 12 children count as 9.5 people?

Among the most important topics when it comes to group travel is finances. Clear communication is essential around shared expenses. This may seem obvious to some, but to others, like me, this may strike horror! In fact, I dislike talking about money so much that I usually ask my husband to balance the checkbook when I am not home. Even if–make that, ESPECIALLY if–you have this level of aversion to discussing money, put it at the top of your priorities in trip planning. Not only will this get it out of the way to move onto more fun aspects of trip planning, it will also reduce the chance of misunderstandings down the road!

 

Think about types of expenses that you will incur and decide how you will handle them up front. There are many ways to split up expenses. We do not claim our way is best, but it works for us. I will touch briefly on how our group has agreed to share the major categories to help you consider options.

Lodging: Our lodging choice is typically renting a large home. In this scenario, it will likely be necessary for one person to pay the rental costs, including taxes and fees. The others should reimburse this person as promptly as practical. Our group has always split lodging costs evenly among the families. If this does not work you, consider lodging types that would allow each person to pay for their own accommodations. Examples of this may be hotel rooms or individual condo units in a resort community.

 

Groceries: Unlike lodging, we do not split food expenses by family, but by person. This is actually an area where we have tried different things. In our early years, we would split up meals and each couple would provide the menu and supplies needed for that meal. While this approach worked well initially, a different approach was more practical as our group size grew. Years ago, we agreed that we would meal plan for our entire stay and prorate the grocery bill based on family size.

We decided that kids over 10 and all adults, counted as “full” people, but adjusted the cost of younger kids based on their age. For instance, like good family restaurants, kids under three eat free; kids age 5 to 10 count as 50% of an adult. This year, our formula has the 12 kids counting for 9.5 people!

Because we cook the vast majority of our meals, we purchase many groceries. And because even good planning is rarely perfect, we often have several (many!) receipts for this. Everyone holds their receipts and then shares them with the group when we are figuring costs.

 

Activities: Where a group rate needs to be paid in full or if we are reserving over the phone/online as a group, one person typically pays for the group and saves their receipt. If we are doing a group activity and paying as we go (visiting a museum, going to a movie, etc.), each family typically pays for their own.

 

Typically on the last night we are together, we settle up for our shared expenses. Everyone throws in the receipts for shared expenses they have incurred. Then, we calculate what each family has paid and what each family owes in shared expenses. Over the years, we have built a simple spreadsheet that makes this process easier.

If you take only one thing away from this post, please let it be the importance of clarity around how expenses will be shared!

Think Pink!

One of the big challenges of a group vacation is managing everyone’s expectations for a vacation home.  To add to the fun, you really don’t know what you are going to get until you plop your suitcase down on the front step.  Vacation rental listings generally have lots of photos but a tiny digital image doesn’t always tell the whole story.

Individual people have different ideas of what they want their vacation to look like.  Included in that package is usually a nice place to stay.  But my Taj Mahal may look like a trailer park to my fellow traveler.  

This became apparent to me about a month ago.  It has become a tradition for my husband’s parents to organize a family vacation to celebrate their milestone anniversaries.  This includes the families of Greg and his two brothers.  This year we are marking my in-law’s 50th Anniversary.  

At Christmas, the adults gathered and tossed around proposed locations for a couple hours.  Dates were discussed but no decisions were really made at that time. Several weeks and quite a few emails later, the choice was narrowed to a beach house on the coast between Washington, D.C. and Florida.  

Two things I then learned:  there are a TON of vacation rentals along the Atlantic coast and if you want one, do not dally.  More than once we settled on a house only to find that it had already been booked by the time everyone had a chance to weigh in on the decision.

My father-in-law eventually found the perfect house and immediately put a two-day hold on it so we could confer.  It has the exact number of bedrooms we need.  They are configured so that the two families with kids have a kid room with the exact number of beds set up as a suite with the adult rooms.  There are four bathrooms, one for each family.  It has a pool.  And a hot tub.  And a boardwalk out to our own stretch of ocean-lapped sand.  The only way this house could get more perfect for us is if they renamed it with our family name.

Ah, but there was a problem: it’s pink.

When my father-in-law called to tell me he had found this house, he said he thought it could work, but it was kind of ugly.  When I asked for details, he told me the color.  I thought it must be some garish fushia.  As I scrolled through the photos, I saw the bedrooms, the bathrooms, the amenities and a pastel shade of coastal pink.  

I called Greg and had him look at the pictures to see if he thought the color was too much.  He is a man who is not a fan of pink, but he didn’t mind the house looking like an Easter egg.  He said, “We’re not buying the house.  Tell Dad to book it.”

So I did.

The next afternoon, Greg called to tell me that his mom had called and she was concerned about the vacation rental.  She didn’t know if he would mind spending a week in a pink house.

So I called my mother-in-law to find out what she was thinking.  She had spent all morning searching through dozens more homes without finding one that seemed to fit our group as well as the rose-colored beauty.  

In, probably not the most diplomatic tone, I reminded her that we were not purchasing this home.  It is a rental and after we have rented it, we can come home to our regular color houses.  Why was it such a big deal that the house was pink?

Her response to me that day was that we had such a nice house on our last trip five years ago.  She just wanted this house to be as nice.

Long story short, we booked the house.  I think it helped that my daughters Anna and Kay were super excited about the hue and the fact that the house is named after one of their favorite mythical sea creatures.  

Recently I called my mother-in-law back and chatted with her about why they had been so concerned about the color.  She mentioned something that we have often discussed over the many years I have been in the family.  She is concerned with form over function while I am the total opposite.  Where I saw perfection in the number of beds, she saw imperfection in the aesthetics.  

She mentioned how our last rental had an amazing backyard with a 15-foot waterfall.  It was a pretty cool 1920s California bungalow.  But it also had that weird cork wall and had been added on to a time or two, resulting in a broken layout.  There was a fabulous bedroom reached by a spiral staircase, but the nearest bathroom was a floor below and down the hall.

No vacation rental is going to be perfect for all people.  There will always be something broken or perplexing.  The furnishings or appliances will not be to everyone’s taste.  But try to remember (and remind your fellow travelers) that you are renting this house.  No thirty- year mortgages will be signed.  This isn’t a love affair for the ages.  It’s a casual fling.    

Now that the house is booked, we are planning to spend our vacation looking for rentals uglier than ours (with the exception of Kay and Anna who will be looking for prettier houses).  And if we don’t find one, at least we will always remember the vacation where we stayed in that pink house.

Laura

Getting Started: Choosing Your Group

The first thing you need to travel with a group is, well, a group!  Who are the folks you want to spend time with?  These could be people you see all the time or perhaps people you don’t get to see frequently at all.  If you want to spend time with them, they’re candidates for your travel group.  Our trips rose out of a desire to spend some time with people we weren’t getting to see  often enough.  And a desire to vacation! 

Some things you will want to consider when forming your travel group:

What is the purpose of your group and your trip?  Our group has always been very clear…the purpose of our trips is to have fun and spend time together.  We will compromise on just about everything else.  We adjust our budget, timing, or location in order to make sure our full group can join us.  In our early years, we camped because it was budget friendly, and we tried to give one couple a break on travel expenses each year by vacationing near where they lived.  Although this once led us to camping in the insane Kansas heat in July, we’ve always had fun everywhere we’ve been.  Our shared purpose helps ensure that. 

If you are very committed to seeing the Grand Canyon or hiking every national park in the US, you’ll want to choose a group that shares that goal with you so that you can all have the best experience.  Otherwise, the folks who want to relax with a book and a chair at the nearby beach will be sorely unhappy with your destination activities.  So getting clear on where you can and cannot compromise is important. 

Once your purpose is clear, everything else can and should be negotiable and flexible.  There are some things to consider and potentially plan for when forming your group, but with a shared goal and a cooperative spirit, most of the other things can be adjusted or overcome.  Differing budgets?  Find a destination with costs that make everyone comfortable.  Some travelers have kids, some don’t?  That can work; just ensure those traveling enjoy kids and some activities that are kid-friendly.  And build in some adults-only time in your schedule, whether it’s with a babysitter or a partial group outing.  

Your group may also have multiple generations, or some couples and singles…those groups can also be accommodated with some planning and flexibility.  Although it’s impossible to cover anything your group might run across in one blog post, the key is to remember that you care about these people and it IS possible to travel together successfully.  Talk these things through beforehand if they are big concerns for one or more group members.  

Staying focused on your goal and staying flexible will ensure maximum enjoyment and memory-making. 

Who’s in your travel group?  How did you choose the group you travel with and what is your shared purpose?  Where have you had to compromise to ensure a successful travel experience?  If you don’t have a group, what’s holding you back?  We want to hear from you in the comments below!  

 

Our First (and Most Important) Advice!

Our aim with this blog is to provide encouragement and advice on planning your group travel. Here is our first and most important advice: get planning…now!

 

Right after the question of “you are going on vacation with HOW many people?”, the question that I am asked most frequently when discussing our trips starts with “did you ever imagine…?” The ending has several variations:

  • Did you ever imagine you would do this for so many years?
  • Did you ever imagine the group would get so big?
  • Did you ever imagine all the places you would go?

If I am really being honest, the answer to each of those “did you evers” is no! As you know, us four women were close friends in college. Speaking for myself, I left college just expecting to keep in touch with my friends, but I didn’t have a real concept of making that happen.

I didn’t know that the other three women would be there for me through the daily joys and quirks, a myriad of parenting situations, and everything else that has come with the years and decades of my adult life! My mom (who remains happily married to my dad) often tells me, “I am not sure I knew what love was when I got married.” To paraphrase her, I am not sure that I knew what friendship was when I left college. I did not have enough life experiences to know how friendships that lasted a lifetime could carry you through hard times and make good times sweeter! 

When we agreed to that first trip, it was a chance to see friends and get away from the real world. It would be revisionist history to say that I had any idea the impact that trip would have! Have we grown our friendships because of these trips? Or have we continued the trips because we have deepened our friendship? Honestly, I am not sure which caused the other…or if they both came into play. I do know my life would be very different without these friends and without the memories of our trips.

 

The advice to start planning a group trip is not necessarily a commitment to changing your life, to deepening existing relationships with friends or family members, or to starting a tradition, but our group is proof that all of those (and many other rewards) are possible if you do embark on a trip. There is always an excuse not to plan or not to plan now–time, money, and effort are three of the most common. As we continue this blog, we will touch on each of these. For now, take it on faith that none of these excuses are insurmountable if you are committed and creative!

 

Please become a part of the conversation! I would appreciate your thoughts and comments:

  • As you plan a group trip, what are your hopes?
  • What holds you back from starting planning?

To help you get to know us better, we will start signing our posts when we write as individuals!

–Ann

Who We Are

Collectively we are the eight vacay moms and dads of twelve rambunctious teenagers, tweens and kiddos. Fifty-one weeks out of the year, we are four families living busy lives across a couple hundred miles in the Midwest. For about a week each year, though, we do something pretty incredible—all 20 of us vacation together…and we have each year for almost 20 years!

We hope you will get to know us a little better through each blog entry, but here are a few quick details. As you may remember from our first post, all four of us women met in our freshman year in college. Only one of our husbands attended college with us; since all the men met through us, it is even more impressive that they get along so well. In real life, our careers span from engineer to educator, IT expert to investment advisor and media manager.

Our 12 kids range in age from 5 to 17 currently. It hardly seems possible that we are staring down annual high school graduation parties when one of our first trip traditions was guessing who would announce their pregnancy each year. The largest gap between kids actually occurs between the last two—just over two years.

Jen and John are parents of four kids—Libby, Michael, James and Marie—and showed us how to do the parenting thing since they had the first two kids within the group; they also claim the most (but not only) vehicle repairs completed during trips. Jaime and Victor are parents of Grace and Andrew; they hold the dubious claim to fame of being the only family to make an Urgent Care visit on the trip (knock on whatever wooden surface is near)…and the most victories at the annual poker tournament. Ann and Eric have three girls—Liz, Mae, and Noelle; Eric’s trip claim to fame is being the house hunter and also preserving memories with an annual video compilation. Anna and Kay are twins and older sisters to Matt; the three of them keep the last couple Laura and Greg busy. Laura was the first one of us to consider capturing the stories of our trip in written form.

As a group, we have vacationed in eleven different states, rented sixteen different accommodations (excluding some repeats), and eaten probably a hundred dozen ears of sweet corn! If you happened to be a fly on the wall observing one of our vacations, you would see a wide range of activities, traditions, and adventures…and we always leave already planning for the next year! We have enjoyed our trips so much that we have all also traveled with other family groups. It is our hope that we can share our enthusiasm and expertise with you and encourage you to find a group and get started on making your own memories.

Joie de Vivre

Our intent for this blog is to share some useful tips and practical ideas for planning and executing group trips.  But events of the past week have brought home some things that I wanted to share.

I am a substitute aide at my children’s school.  Last week, a sixth grader passed away after a sudden and very short illness.  Prior to this, he had been the picture of health and vitality.  Full of sunshine and joie de vivre, his passing touched all those who knew him, no matter how slight. 

As can be expected when a community loses a child, the next few days were full of difficult moments.  But one thing that was brought home to me was how fleeting life can be.  We can plan for an event five years in the future but there is no guarantee that tomorrow an oncoming car won’t cross the centerline into our lane or a routine doctor’s visit won’t end with x-rays and a terminal diagnosis.

Thinking about this young man’s untimely passing, made me not only hold my own children tight, but also think about the other kids in my life, especially the ones who are a part of our yearly group trip.  I have watched these babies grow into young men and women getting ready to spread their wings.  I’ve bandaged their boo boos.  I’ve cheered their successes.  I’ve even threatened them within an inch of their life when their behavior warranted it. 

My memories of them are wrapped up in weeks spent searching for geocaches in Colorado, splashing through waterparks in Wisconsin, hiking around Mt. Rushmore and schlepping carseats through a cave in Missouri.  I hope and pray that I get a lot of years being one of their “Vacay Moms.”

It seems so easy these days to stay in touch by text message and Face Book posts.  But life is so short.  We never know when our time is going to be up.  Wouldn’t it be better to have memories of things done with people you love?  Let’s all put down our smart phones and make the effort to spend time with friends and family.

I’m not saying that you should break the bank to go on that dream vacation.  Maybe the Alaskan cruise or the African safari will have to wait until the mortgage is paid off.  But isn’t a long weekend spent exploring a location you’ve never visited with friends who will (hopefully) become even closer in the glow of shared experiences and discoveries worth the effort?

Life really is short, even if you are lucky enough to make 90 trips around the sun.  Make the most of the time you get to spend with those you love.

Welcome to Going Dutch!

More years ago than I’d care to admit in a public forum, I stepped onto the campus of a small midwestern liberal arts college.  Over my next 4 years there I came to meet and get to know 3 other amazing women.  We had a great college career, and then it was time to head off into the real world to pursue our lives.  Each of us got married and the other three of us came and did what friends do at weddings.  As so often happens, this could have been the end of our story.  We were scattered into different states and different careers, and well, sometimes that means you lose touch with awesome people.

Then one of us had the idea to get together for a weekend.  Four couples at a Minnesota campground.  Low key, inexpensive for recent college grads, and lots of fun.  And a tradition was born.

Eighteen years and 12 kids later, we get together for up to a week every year.  So far we’ve been to eight different states.  We’ve stayed in hotels, vacation homes and campgrounds.  We’ve been on trains, planes, horses, jeeps and rafts.  We’ve battled raccoons, suffered through heat-waves, shivered through rainstorms and drank hot-chocolate while watching 4th of July fireworks.  Our kids enjoy these trips so much we are convinced they believe college is where you go to find the people you will vacation with every year!

Over all these trips, we’ve developed a system of traveling with a group of people.  Every year we tweak it depending on the location.  We make mistakes and promise not to do it that way next year.  We’ve all followed roughly the same format with family groups.  It works for us.  It works so well we end up planning the next year’s trip almost as soon as we show up for this years’ trip.

Through our trips we’ve learned that traveling with friends has a LOT of benefits.  These are some of the best experiences and memories of our lives.  Our kids have built-in friends. If we plan things right, we can build in kid-free time for all of the adults on the trip. But when we tell others we’re going to vacation for a week with 3 other families, the reaction is generally curiousity mixed with a diagnosis of insanity…”you’re going to go on vacation with HOW many people? Wow…”

Yes, group trips definitely have some pitfalls.  But here’s the thing.  Yes, our group is special, but all groups are!  Traveling together is something that we think lots of groups can do successfully.  With busy lives being what they are, time to connect with friends is limited.  Making time for a shared vacation every year helps keep everyone in touch and is a great way to spend some of your 365 allotted days every year.  Our blog is here to help you travel with your friends AND keep them in the end!