When I was a teenager the mere mention of a family vacation made me groan. Despite the fact that our trips took us to Florida and Greece – destinations many long to visit – our vacations only involved visiting family members. And by only visiting family members I mean sitting with said family members in their homes so the adults could catch up. All. Day. Long.
There were no pools with lazy rivers, no beaches with boogie boards and kayaks, no cooking classes, bike tours, or swimming with dolphins. The only outing I remember was going to see Jaws while in Florida, which I’m pretty sure was meant to put us off the idea of ever going to the beach. I longed for a museum or a park, something - anything - that would take us out of my uncles’ living rooms and into the city.
When I became a parent I swore never to subject my kids to long, boring family vacations devoid of culture, fun, and non-stop action. So now I’m over-compensating because my kids often complain that we never get a break to just sit around and catch-up.
Whatever your style of “family vacation” may look like there is a way to plan a trip that makes everyone happy (or maybe slightly less grumpy). Here are a few tips to help enjoy your family vacation (and plan better next time).
1 – Get your kids involved in the planning.
Kids love to feel like they’ve had a hand in the decision making process. Which is not to necessarily suggest that you let your 6-year-old pick the destination (riding the elevator and running down the hall at a hotel does not make for the best vacation for everyone), but do give your kids some options to choose from. For older kids – especially teenagers – ask them to research a destination and pick a couple activities. You never know what they might find.
Make sure the destination you pick has something that appeals to all types of travelers. This is especially true for multi-generation trips where some family members could happily spend long afternoons in a museum while others may need a few hours on a beach. The first time we took our boys – then 7 and 11 years-old – to London I wasn’t thinking about building in time to let them run around and burn off energy. Several meltdowns ensued especially when I tried to introduce my 7-year-old to Westminster Abbey. Thankfully we found a hotel pool and let the kids swim for a little every day. Know your audience.
3 – Don’t cram in too much.
No one wants to return from vacation needing rest and relaxation. I’m all for packing as many tours and activities as possible into a day – who knows when we will be back! – but, this whirlwind doesn’t leave a lot of time to just explore. Often, when we let go of my schedule we stumble on something that ends up being one of the best parts of our trip. And, even though my kids – now 19 and 23 – have gotten used to our frantic pace, that doesn’t mean they don’t demand some downtime. I’ve even started to enjoy a little break myself…
4 - Toss the plans out the window if something isn’t working.
All vacations – even the best ones – seem to have at least one thing that goes wrong – lost luggage, unexpected illness, flight delays. When the unexpected happens, take a deep breath and reassess your plans. That 12-hour flight delay may have cut into your plans for a city tour but instead of trying to cram that tour into an already packed schedule you might need to write it off or, if it’s a deal breaker, rearrange a few other things to make it happen. With my family, at least one family member gets hurt or sick on every trip. We have learned to adjust – either a couple of us make it to the activity while the others stay at the ER or we scrap it all and end up doing something totally different. Flexibility is key on any vacation and especially important when traveling with multiple age groups.
5 - Don’t do everything together.
This is really important with larger family groups. You don’t have to do every single activity together as long as you have some group activities built into your schedule. Large groups are hard to navigate – someone might need a little more time to sit by the pool while others want to spend the afternoon shopping. It’s everyone’s vacation so let people find their happy place.
6 – Remember the destination is only one part of the trip.
Don’t get so caught up in the perfect destination that you forget how important time together can be. Traveling is good for the soul and according to research, kids’ minds. Setting aside time to be together is important for building family ties and creating life-long memories – whether that time is just a long weekend at a nearby resort or on safari in Johannesburg.
- Connie Lissner is Houlahan Travel’s resident travel and parenting writer. She has been planning multi-generational family vacations ever since she forced her parents to stop in London for a couple days on their way to Greece. Her writing has been featured in Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Grown&Flown and on her blog, www.isuckasaparent.com.