Planning a Family Vacation Abroad: How to Pull Off Large Group Trips

What It’s Like Planning & Executing a Mega Family Vacation Without Going Crazy

A Filipina traveller shares her secrets to successful group travel after a 38-day Europe trip.

We’re all thriving in this era of revenge travel. Not all of us are taking our entire brood along for the ride, though! Planning a family vacation is a challenge not everyone is up for. In a recent Europe trip that she calls a “mega vacation,” avid Filipina traveller Xenia took a party of eight on a whirlwind vacation across the continent. (At one point, there were 10 of them!) Spanning four countries, eight cities, and a wedding, this epic holiday is definitely one for the books.

If you’re dreaming of taking your crew on a similarly major vacation, chances are, you’ll want to pull out your hair at one point. But it’s definitely doable. Follow Xenia’s lead, and become a whiz at planning, coordination, and Google Sheets as you pull off the ultimate juggling act of travelling in a group — and a big group at that! 

Also read: 10 Best European Countries That Won’t Break the Bank

Travelling with family and friends

family vacation at lucerne switzerland

A party of 10 in Lucerne, Switzerland.

While she’s no stranger to travelling in a group with family or friends, Xenia describes herself as a completely different traveller depending on who she’s with.  

Travelling with pals tends to be more laidback, with the group picking destinations, accommodations, and activities together before flying off with little fanfare. “Trips with [my] friends are less of a tour and more like hangouts that just happen to be outside of Manila,” she describes.

On the other hand, Xenia serves as the unofficial travel agent for family tours. Families tend to be more particular about the experience, so she has to make lists, calendars, and itineraries when travelling with the clan. Much of the planning and coordination falls on her shoulders, including ushering everyone from one tourist spot to the next during the entire vacation.  

“While it is admittedly more tiring compared to a friends’ trip, I always make sure to keep the trip’s pace as comfortable as possible so that I can still enjoy, even if I’m ‘working’ the whole time,” she adds.

The itinerary: exploring the best of Europe

civil wedding in paris

The main highlight of the trip: Xenia’s sister tied the knot in a beautiful civil wedding in Paris!

For her recent family holiday, Xenia had to wrangle eight people across the European continent, with two more joining the last leg of the trip. And adding an extra layer of bustle and excitement is a momentous family occasion: her sister’s wedding in beautiful Paris.

Flying the entire family halfway across the world to attend the nuptials was such a major undertaking that the group decided to make the most of the trip by exploring more of Europe after the wedding.

summer toboggan alps switzerland

A bucket list achievement: the Frakigaudi Toboggan in Lucerne. Xenia says, “The experience of sliding down the Alps in a simple sled and a stunning view unlocked a core memory for me.”

After kicking off their Euro trip in France to watch her sister tie the knot, Xenia and her brood flew to Athens, Greece for the city’s ancient culture and history. Italy came next. It was a thorough exploration that included all the major cities: Rome, Venice, Florence, and Milan, with a quick stopover at the famous Lake Como. Finally, the last leg of their great European adventure was in Lucerne, Switzerland — a long-time dream of Xenia for the country’s incredible alpine coasters.

Xenia’s essential tips for group travel

Planning a family vacation is never easy, much less when you’re with a super-sized group. And the farther you go, the tougher it gets! Xenia’s been through it all; keep her family trip planning tips in mind so you can make it happen for your family or friend group, too.

1. Google Sheets or Excel is your BFF

colosseum rome interior

Inside the Colosseum in Rome, the largest ancient amphitheatre ever built.

The ultimate partner for planning a family vacation isn’t a co-planner, but Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel. Putting all the details of your trip on a single document is a no-brainer for Xenia. With the endless information you need to keep track of in group tours abroad, it’s convenient to have everything in a single file, like calendars, checklists, tables, and budgets. If you use Google Sheets, it’s easy to access and edit on the go.

“I recommend putting in every little detail about everything you’re planning or booking, even when it feels obvious,” she says. “Or even if you feel like there’s no way you’d forget something as important as that — put it down. When you’re tired and stressed, having all that information already laid out is essential in keeping you from a breakdown.”

2. Share important files on Google Drive

Planning a family vacation in Milan Italy

Sightseeing in Milan with the family.

Even if you’re the main travel planner, it’s not a good idea to be the only person with all the important documents. Make copies of everything — transit tickets, bookings, certificates, passport photocopies, etc. — and drop them all on Google Drive. That way, everyone has copies of everything.

“This has the added bonus that if for some reason, someone couldn’t access their own files, someone else could easily just get a copy for them,” Xenia explains.

3. Organise sit-down meetings with the whole group before leaving

canals in Venice, Italy

Cruising the picturesque Venetian canals.

Part of organising successful vacations for big families is ensuring everyone is on the same page. No one wants any family drama on foreign soil, right? It’s practically impossible for everyone to agree on everything, but conversations should happen before the trip.

“These meetings make sure that no one goes in blind to the trip and that they’re not 100% dependent on me about the whole thing,” Xenia says.

To ensure everyone is up to date, Xenia gathered her family for at least three family meetings before leaving for Europe. She shares, “The first was to gather everyone’s wish lists so I can plot it all out, the second to present the itinerary, and a final one to go through last minute adjustments and final reminders.”

Also read: From a Millennial’s POV: The Pros & Cons of Travelling With Your Parents

4. Consider renting apartments instead of hotels

athens apartment for large family vacations

The family’s Athens apartment, where everyone has space to rest, relax, and work.

Here’s another travel secret Xenia is willing to share for a large group vacation: Look into apartments instead of hotels. This one’s especially true in Europe, where so many apartment rental options are available. She explains, “Apartments often have very pricey nightly rates, but I compared them to the total I would spend for all the rooms in a hotel and found that they’re either the same or even come out cheaper.”

Additionally, apartments usually enjoy more space than affordable but cramped hotel rooms. Thus, the family got to spend more time together at the end of the day, instead of retreating to their individual rooms.

Also read: Travelling to Europe in 2022: What It’s Like and What to Expect

DIY vs. tours

tour guide D-Day beaches France

(L-R): A guide at the D-Day Beaches; Omaha Beach

Whether you’re on your own or travelling in a group, one of the major decisions you have to make is deciding whether to go on a fixed tour with an operator or a do-it-yourself tour. It ultimately depends on your personal travel style and personality. Every globetrotter has a preference. As a frequent traveller, Xenia knows from experience that her family isn’t compatible with fixed tour groups.

“Our family tends to spend a lot of time doing pretty much everything. Mornings are very sluggish for us; waking up is a task and getting us to move at a non-glacial pace takes some time,” Xenia says with a laugh. “And when we’re finally out and about, we like exploring sights at our own pace to really take it in and take as many pictures as we want.”

Florence views

A blissful Italian city for art lovers, Florence was an essential stop on the family’s itinerary.

That said, Xenia didn’t completely rebuff guided tours on their European trip. Although the longer fixed tours may not be suited for her family, they did come in handy for a few legs of their vacation. According to Xenia, guided tours remain the best choice in ultra-popular spots like the Colosseum, where the lines are extra crazy. 

Paid guides are also ideal for travellers who want to learn more about the attraction, like Xenia and her family did at the D-Day Beaches in Normandy, France.

Group travel challenges in pandemic times — visas and vaccines

group travel to Athens

As a family of history nerds and food lovers, Athens was a must-visit for Xenia’s clan.

According to Xenia, some of the biggest challenges of planning a family vacation in Europe involved visa requirements and COVID-19 protocols. 

If you’re looking to travel to another country, get all your requirements ready ahead of time. The bigger the group, the more difficult it gets to collect all the necessary documents! To illustrate this point, it took Xenia more than two months to gather everything they needed for their visa application.

The pandemic added an extra level of difficulty to international travel. To make sure the family won’t run into any trouble, Xenia secured vaccine certificates for everyone at the party. This isn’t always an easy task in the Philippines; missing data meant there were multiple back-and-forth calls with the local government before Xenia procured everyone’s certificates.

“It was a bit bittersweet that for all my efforts, we were only asked to show our vaccination cards once throughout the whole trip,” Xenia says good-naturedly.

Also read: Our Post-Pandemic Wish List: What We Want Travel to Look Like in the Next Few Years

Keeping everyone happy in a large group vacation

Fiorentina steak in Florence

Fiorentina steak in Florence that was recommended by a sales attendant in Rome — perhaps the best steak of Xenia’s entire life!

Ultimately, the goal of group travel is for everyone to enjoy the experience. Travelling in a group means juggling everyone’s moods, habits, goals, pet peeves, and preferences — it’s not easy! To ensure a good vacation for everyone, Xenia focuses on two things:

  • Give everyone the freedom to do what they want.
  • Stay attuned to everyone’s moods and emotions.

Although an itinerary is a must when planning a family vacation, flexibility is just as essential to prevent the activities from feeling like too much of an obligation. As Xenia points out, it’s a vacation! In each city of their European tour, she made sure that there was at least one day with no pre-planned activities to give everyone free time for personal activities and goals.

Staying in tune with every person’s ever-changing mood is also important. “You’re in Europe, you have so much you want to see and do, but there are only so many hours in a day, and everyone has different ‘battery levels,’” Xenia explains. “Being considerate and respectful of each other’s moods and wishes made sure we didn’t have a major argument throughout the trip.”

Also read: Group Tour Etiquette: 5 Things You Must Never Do on a Group Tour

Even through the challenges and stress of planning a family vacation, seeing the world with the people you love the most is an experience you’ll treasure all your life. If you have special group travel tips or experiences you’d love to share, we’d love to hear your story! Be our next Featured Traveller here.

All images credited to Xenia.

About Author

Celia Grace Nachura
Celia Grace Nachura

There are very few things Celia won’t do for a good story, but her favourite ones always involve the beach, animals, or any type of outdoor activity. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember, and can usually be found typing away at home with her cute dogs at her feet. Away from work, she spends most of her time trying out every hobby she can get her hands on, from running to crocheting to baking (she’s pretty okay at most things that don't involve cooking).