Friday, June 03, 2011

Planning an Outer Banks Vacation- A Non-Food (well, almost) Post

Each year, while many of you super-bloggers are planning to hike through the Andes, or go on a tasting cruise in the south of France, mini-bloggers like me are planning the annual family vacation. However, no matter how grandiose or humble your trip is, it takes great planning.  Good planning can save you money, time, frustration, and ensure that your dream vacation does not become a traveler's nightmare.

Planning is especially important if you are traveling on a budget as our family does each year. With gas prices and airfares rising and the economy so uncertain, can you afford to take a vacation? I would say that you cannot afford not to.  The memories that you make with your family are a real investment in your future and are priceless as they move out and start their own families. So how can you give your family a great vacation on a budget?  Here are some tips:

1) Set a budget... and stick with it! Figure out what you can comfortably spend on a vacation.  In our case, I take on freelance work during the year and my earnings guide what we can spend. Set aside a vacation fund, even a few dollars a week set aside can fund a long weekend at the beach or a trip to a theme park that you have been promising the kids.  Another tip- We throw all of our change each day into a big jar and at the end of the year there is usually $200-300 there that we can use for groceries or a dinner out.

Gavin doing food research- homemade breakfast at the Border Station!
2)Find a destination within a day's drive.  We are fortunate to be a couple of hours from both the mountains and the ocean and so those are our go-to vacation destinations.  Proximity will allow you to do some research on places to stay and where to go, and the money saved on traveling can be spent on a longer vacation or special excursion or activity.

3) Do your homework. Check out hotels or rental houses online, check out restaurants or activities on Yelp and other review sites like Trip Advisor.  For us, even though we know the area we are going to, we down-select some rental homes and then make a trip to see first-hand how they stack up.  We have a list of features that we need to have (at least 6 BR, private pool, ocean view, proximity to neighbors,etc.) and we give each home a score to help us make our decision.  Select by what is important to you- do you need a private pool or is a community pool an option for you? How many bedrooms do you need? Are things like a screened porch or gameroom a must for your family? Be careful when you make comparisons by price to include extras like linens and towels if they are not included, taxes, and any administrative fees, they can really add up.

4) Negotiate. Especially in these tough times, you want to get the most for your money and homeowners and rental companies want their houses occupied. Contact rental companies and let them know your budget and what you want.  Watch the calendars of homes your are interested-homes that have large blocks unrented are often open to negotiating. If you can wait until closer to your arrival time, do so since many rental companies will not negotiate reduced rates until within 45 or 30 days of arrival. Develop a relationship with a rental agent- a good one is worth their weight in gold. I have worked with many rental companies in the Outer Banks area, but this year I had two great examples of service.  Brindley Beach, a company that I have rented from before, looked for a house for me, but when there was nothing in their catalog available, she referred me to another rental company- definitely a Miracle on 34th Street moment and a great business strategy, since I definitely would refer someone to a company with that kind of customer focus. I probably contacted 5 rental companies this year, some were responsive, others, not so much. You want the best experience and support and if a rental agent doesn't answer your calls or treat you respectfully before you rent, they are likely to be not that supportive when you do.

After hitting a brick wall trying to find what we wanted for a a price we can afford, we contacted a smaller company, Joe Lamb, which has been operating in the Outer Banks for many years, but is not as big or well known as some of the other larger companies.  They worked with us to find a beautiful home that was even more than what we were looking for and the owner was willing to offer a discount. Our rental agent was responsive and knowledgeable, friendly, and finalizing the lease was all done online, making it super easy. We even negotiated an early check-in (great for people like us who get up and travel early to beat the horrific traffic).  This home is in a different area than we have stayed before and so there will be new restaurants and stores to check out ( and write about).  We are so excited to have decided on a place that is sure to delight all.

I couldn't resist this huge Adirondack chair!
5) Make the search part of the adventure. In the search for the perfect home, we normally make at least 2 road trips to our destination, once to narrow down the field and once to make our final decision.  If you can, this is a good idea- while website pictures are great, there is nothing like going there in person to make sure that your street is not full of new construction, or that you are not right next to a nighttime hotspot that stays open till 2 AM or that the oceanfront view pictured on the website can only be viewed  from the far corner of the rooftop deck with a zoom lens.  It gives you a chance to be familiar with the neighborhood, scope out the nearest grocery store, drugstore, etc.  For Gavin and I we had a great time just the two of us stopping where we wanted to and just focusing on one another, and the promise of our Paradise Found.
After tons of calls, emails and negotiations- Our Paradise Found!!


loestrin said...

Thanks for sharing this information.This is really helpful in planning our vacation safely and nicely.

Traumeel said...

I was searching for such blog to plan my travel.Precise and upto the point information.Well done


Deborah Dowd said...

Loestrin- Even though this is not strictly food related, I like to share what I have learned on how to give your family great times and memories.

Traumeel - Hope you find this helpful. There will be more posts about planning and executing a trip on a budget.