Recently, I asked everyone in my family what they would consider the perfect vacation. Lauren, my wife, favors a no-kids trip to Hawaii for sightseeing and whale-watching. Ben, 12, wants to go to Australia for the 2000 Olympic Games. Zack and Lindsey, 10 and 8, would choose a beach vacation where they can splash in the surf and collect seashells. I like places loaded with history (like Washington, D.C.) or natural beauty (like the Grand Tetons). I'll have to find an exotic locale rich in history, with beaches and mountains and a major international sporting event. There should be someone to watch the kids part of the time. And whales. We need whales. Such places do exist. But unless we win the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, we'll never visit them.
Somewhere between the beaches of southern France and the World's Largest Ball of String lies a good compromise destination for our family. But, while searching for the perfect vacation, we've learned what Clark Griswold and his family discovered in National Lampoon's Vacation: It isn't about reaching Wally World. It's about experiencing life together along the way … provided no elderly relatives die en route. Look elsewhere for advice on how to pack your travel wardrobe into Ziplock bags, or how to fly anywhere in the country for $29.95. We're going to focus on planning the vacation experience: creating memories that will outlive your Visa bill.
We've enlisted the help of four family-vacation veterans: Sandy and Michael Haverstick of Algona, Iowa, (married 25 years), who have four children, and Joyce and Bob Heinrich of Minnetonka, Minnesota, (married 39 years) who have six kids. Name virtually any American vacation spot and one of these couples can answer, "Been there; done that."
No matter how adventuresome your family may be, your trip will require some planning. That might be as simple as buying a road map and deciding you want to head southwest, with an eventual goal of reaching the Grand Canyon. It can be as elaborate as buying trip-planning software, calling tourism bureaus for information, holding family meetings and developing a detailed daily itinerary.
"We always try to get everyone involved in the planning," Michael Haverstick says. Sometimes he and his wife allow a different family member to choose each day's major activity or the restaurant for dinner. They are always careful, though, to leave time for the unexpected. The Haversticks' most memorable vacation, a camping trip to Estes Park, Colorado, was undertaken with only minimal planning.
"Sometimes you'll hit an unplanned stop that becomes significant," Michael says. "We'd wander off the road and find a creek and play in the water or throw rocks. Those were some of our better times."
"If there's one mistake parents make on vacation, it's overscheduling," writes Christine Loomis in Simplify Family Travel (Reader's Digest). "They don't do this to run the family ragged. They do it because there's so little time and so much to fit into it. … When you overschedule vacation activities, you're re-creating the same frenetic atmosphere you went on vacation to get away from."
Uh, that would describe my approach. I'm not crazy about do-nothing beach vacations. In fact, "quest" would be a better word to describe my ideal vacation.
I've spent my adult life trying to re-create a romanticized childhood memory of my favorite vacation—an assault on Virginia and Washington, D.C. In one week, my family drove 1,000 miles there and back and sprinted from one historic sight to the next. It sounds insane, but we had a great time. So my idea of a perfect vacation is to cram in as much as possible. I can relax and read a book at home. Why do it in Florida, when there's so much to see and do?
But many of us are married to people whose vacation dreams run counter to our own. So compromise is key. Three members of my family love do-nothing beach vacations. So we might travel to the Alabama Gulf Coast, but we would also spend a day in Huntsville at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Or we go hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, but we set aside a couple of afternoons for lounging around the hotel pool. I've learned to relax on vacation—a little—and the rest of my family has learned there's a big world out there, waiting to be explored.
Adding Up the Costs
One thing about those beach or camping vacations: they cost less than visiting prepackaged tourist attractions. It's still easy, though, to be scared away from any vacation because you see more urgent uses for your money.
"One decision we made early in our marriage was that we'd rather go on vacation than buy a new couch," Michael Haverstick says. "We'll al ways have the memories."
Creative planning—and a spirit of adventure—can save money and provide side benefits.
"Sometimes, to save money on hotel bills when our kids were young, I'd drive through the night," Bob Heinrich says. "Then I'd sleep and catch up the next day. That's not necessarily recommended, but if you're up to it … "
Bob also remembers great conversations with whichever child stayed awake to keep him company during those overnight drives.
"One of the kids might bring something up," he says. "I'd be relaxed and didn't have the usual distractions, so I'd be more willing to talk about it."
Noticing the Benefits
Vacations, especially those involving natural wonders, can bring a family closer to God as well as to each other.
"We start and end each day with prayer, and we have a devotional each day," says Michael Haverstick. "As the kids got older, the discussions got more intelligent and theological."
The Heinrichs found it hard to do devotions in the car, but still often came away from vacations with a renewed closeness to God.
"The spirit of God can work," Bob says. "There's something about separating oneself from the routine to get to the nub of things."
For the Haversticks, that usually meant camping.
"I was new to camping when I married Michael," Sandy says, "but I grew to love it." On their trip to Estes Park, the family hiked, camped and watched fireworks from a campsite high on a peak. They recall a three-mile hike becoming an 11-mile hike, telling stories around the campfire, tracking a bear into the woods—and enjoying incredible closeness.
"That trip was a gift from God," Sandy says.
Joyce Heinrich admits she hates camping, but she agrees about what makes a trip special. "The spontaneous things—like scaring the kids in the Northwest by being Bigfoot coming out of the woods. And also the cultural things."
For instance, the family visited several historic Catholic missions along the California coast. Anything with historical value proved to be a winner.
"The kids have divergent interests, but enough common interests that we could agree," Joyce says. "We're a big reading family, so we'd go to historical places: authors' homes, former presidents' homes. If we'd pass a big ballpark in a city, Bob would tell about famous players who played there. The kids got a lot of education traveling. You give kids life experience by taking them places."
One thing the Heinrichs always could count on was a new dining experience. "Bob insisted that we get a flavor of the place where we were— and not just eat at McDonald's," Joyce says. "The kids thought it was weird, but it created a lot of memories."
Memories like the hung-over waitress who told the family about her previous night out, or like the four-star restaurant in Georgia that looked like an abandoned gas station, but served some of the best food they'd ever eaten.
Sneaking Off Together
Remember my wife's wish for a no-kids trip to Hawaii? Fat chance, but there's something to be said for taking time out from your family trip for some one-on-one time with your spouse. Here's where the "prepackaged" destinations might offer an advantage: baby-sitting services. These can be pricey, but for one night out in an exotic locale, it might be worth it.
If your kids are old enough and fairly responsible, you could feed them first (have a pizza delivered), then let them stay in the hotel room for a couple of hours while the two of you go to a nearby restaurant. Be sure to have the front desk disable the in-room movies or your kids might have the wrong kind of "adults-only" time.
One solution we found when our kids were young was traveling with grandparents. It was a fun family experience, and it allowed us to alternate childcare at night so both couples could enjoy quiet dinners. We'd buy the kids dinner at McDonald's while my parents went to a restaurant. When they returned, we'd go out.
Don't do this every night, though. The point of a vacation is sharing experiences as a family. Sometimes you're better off planning a separate weekend with your spouse as opposed to being frustrated because you don't have enough couple time on a family trip.
Treasuring the Memories
The best memories don't necessarily come from the trips where everything goes perfectly. "Murphy's Law was created for vacations," writes Scott Ahlsmith in The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Perfect Vacation (Alpha). "Our goal is to plan a vacation so that when things change, they are not considered 'going wrong,' but rather going in an interesting direction. Changed plans often lead to the most memorable and pleasant experiences of a vacation."
The Heinrichs talk about being stranded in a Rawlins, Wyoming, sandstorm when their station wagon's air conditioning gave out. Every piece of clothing in every suitcase was covered in sand. Joyce's lasting mental image of that sweltering day is that of the family dog in the back seat, drooling down the kids' necks.
"We laughed about it … afterward," Bob says to Joyce. "It made a memory, Honey."
After all, that's what vacations are all about.
Jim Killam teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University. He lives with Lauren and their three kids in Rockford, Illinois.
More Fun, Less Expense
- Save some money.When I had to attend a seminar in Washington, D.C., my family took advantage of cheap airfare and accompanied me. The company paid my costs, so we just paid an extra hotel charge, bought meals and enjoyed the capital's numerous free attractions. We all got to go somewhere we otherwise wouldn't have.
- Battle monotony. Break up the boredom of a long car trip by giving your kids a small gift to open each day. Toys, games or other car activities can reduce tension and aggravation.
- Quadruple your photo budget. The Nickelodeon Photo Blaster camera (about $40) lets kids shoot more pictures without spending more on film and processing. The camera divides each frame into four pictures. Have the film developed as 4x6 prints, then let your kids cut them into wallet-sized snapshots. (Clue in your photo processor or he'll be confused by the unusual negatives.)
- Dress for safety. Have all family members wear matching brightly colored hats. I thought this idea was dorky until we lost our son Zack, twice, at Sea World.
- Bring a friend. If you have older children who are less than enthusiastic about whole-family activities, consider allowing them to bring a friend. But make sure the friend knows he or she will have the same responsibilities as family members.
—Jim Killam Vacation Planning Books
If you're having trouble planning your next vacation, check out these books. They walk you through a step-by-step planning process and offer useful suggestions on saving time and money.
Simplify Family Travel, by Christine Loomis (Reader's Digest Simpler Life Books)
The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Perfect Vacation, by Scott Ahismith (Alpha Books)
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.