You’re forgetting something

You know you packed extra underwear. You’re congratulating yourself for remembering your cell phone charger. You double-checked that your hotel room was nonsmoking and you pre-printed your boarding pass. But something’s missing. What is it?

Well, did you remember to get excited about your trip?

If your goal is to retreat into the deep recesses of a rickety beach chair, you probably don’t need too much help here. But if you’re responsible for making sure that anyone traveling with you is having a good time, or you want to better understand what you’re seeing and doing, read on.

Dig through the tourism stuff

We’re all skeptical of sexy magazine ads, commercials, and Web sites designed to excite us about the almost unimaginable pleasures of vacation destinations. But look past the flash and dig. Tons of raw material is available from those very same Web sites - photos, videos, and free CDs that, while still carefully selected, may give you a less filtered view of what your destination looks and feels like.

Take your research further and call people in your intended destination’s convention and visitor’s bureau and chamber of commerce. Specify what your interests are and you might be pleasantly surprised at how personal a consultation you get.

On-the-ground tourism professionals “know the ‘must see’ spots and where to find the good happy hours and best brunch,” says Traveling Mamas blogger and former flight attendant Beth Blair.

Once armed with these details, see if they appeal to you and anyone in your party. If they don’t, keep calling or consider picking a different vacation spot.

Get a book or two

Buying a travel guide is an obvious way to get pumped about a trip, but when six seemingly worthy books cover precisely the same things to see and do, which do you pick?

“Go to the library or bookstore and select a guidebook or two that you feel ‘fits’ you, says travel writer Barrie Kerper. “Not all guidebooks are the same, so take some time to read portions of each and decide which ones you prefer,” she says.

If you live to eat, especially on vacation, “find cookbooks dedicated to the cuisine of your destination,” Kerper says, which as a plus “sometimes include recommendations of the authors’ favorite places to eat and shop.” Biographies, illustrated books, and novels are also useful supplements, she says, that will give you a clearer picture of the place you’re planning to visit.

Reading as vacation “homework” also enables you to connect more closely with your family, author and mother of three Melissa Stoller says. If you’re beach bound, for instance, she suggests “reading a book together about ocean life, or a fictional book set at the beach, and discussing the book together.” This shared experience “serves as a reference point when we’re on our vacation,” she says. “We can talk about the book’s characters and their adventures in the location, and then compare our adventures as we travel to those very same locations.”

Play “travel bingo”

If your destination doesn’t have obvious enticements like water slides and roller coasters, those photos and brochures you found have some unrealized potential in preparing your kids for a trip, suggests Stoller. “Cut out family-friendly pictures of interesting locations and create your own family bingo game to play as you investigate your location,” she says. Once you reach your destination, “kids will enjoy finding the sights.”

Live the movie

Particularly scenic movies set in your destination will also ramp up your excitement level, Stoller says, recounting that prior to a Rome trip she and her family watched such flicks as ”Three Coins in a Fountain,” “Roman Holiday,” and “The Lizzie McGuire Movie.” As with the books, her family immediately felt a sense of place. “As we were walking around the city, we thought about our favorite movie scenes and purposely visited many of the famous landmarks we had seen on the screen,” she says. Invite friends to watch the movies, too, especially if they’ve been where you’re about to go, and take it a step further, Kerper says, by “cooking a meal of your destination's culinary specialties.”

Listen to friends, and a few strangers

While your friends are probably eager to tell you what they enjoyed doing in your intended vacation spot, see if they’ll also hand over any maps and books they used. One of the most useful books my wife and I ever had on a trip was a guidebook used by another couple filled with their scribbled margin notes and post-its, indicating what they liked and disliked as well as info on places not covered in the book. And assuming you’re prepared to trust a few like-minded strangers, consider immersing yourself in an online travel forum, brimming with travelers eager to share details and recommendations about where you may be going. Fodors.com has vibrant user forums and WeJustGotBack.com and familytravelforum.com are good sources of comments from family travelers.

Make the journey as important as the destination

If you’re driving to your destination, build some fun into the act of getting there. For her family trips, Blair says, she and her husband “love to pull out the map to let the kids see how far we’re traveling. Last summer we took a road trip from Tucson all the way up the California coast to the Mendocino Coast. The kids were enthralled by how far we were going to travel, plus it was a great geography lesson.”

You might also find that leaving some extra time for spontaneous stops like family-run restaurants, quirky-looking shops, and offbeat roadside attractions can yield the fondest moments of your trip.

“You only get out of a trip what you put into it,” notes Kerper. “Completely immersing yourself in your destination will not only pay you back in spades, but is really fun. Don't just show up!”