Last year, with our oldest turning eight and our youngest out of diapers, we realized that we were entering the golden era of family vacations. We had, at most, a ten-year window in which to accomplish whatever travel priorities we had as a family. Of course, that raised the question of what exactly our priorities should be. In typical Clapham fashion, we hauled out a whiteboard, brought the family together, and began sketching out a plan for the coming years.
Sadly, during the past eight pandemic months, this whiteboard has been demoted from its prominent place near the kitchen to the top of a forgotten filing cabinet in the basement. With the end now hopefully in sight, though, the time has come to once again think about how to use the coming years of travel strategically. To that end, I would like to pass along a few guiding principles that have helped us shape our long-range vacation planning.
Educational Trips VS Relaxation Trips
As in most areas of life, a lack of intentionality can lead to a lack of variety, because our natural tendency is to revert to what we’ve always done in the past. When it comes to family travel, different kinds of trips communicate different values. An education-first trip communicates the importance of always learning and growing, even outside of our normal school routine. A relaxation-first trip communicates the need to refresh our minds and our bodies so that we can return to do our best work at school and home. This balance can be sought within individual trips themselves. An education-first trip to Colonial Williamsburg could benefit from a day at a water park, while a sit-on-the-beach trip to Playa del Carmen could benefit from a bus ride to the Mayan ruins in Tulum.
Literature Serves Two Purposes
On the one hand, good books will inspire children to visit certain places. For instance, our 2021 travel plans include a second pilgrimage to sites mentioned in the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series. At the same time, planned vacations can be a useful motivator in picking up new literature. A few years ago, I brought several John Steinbeck novels on a trip to coastal California, and my immersion in the geography mentioned in the books helped to bring the stories to life.
Set Realistic Expectations
If they can’t handle the car ride to church every Sunday morning, a drive to the Rocky Mountains is not likely to be successful simply because it’s classified as a vacation. Starting with a trip closer to home might be wise. Similarly, numerous surveys have shown that hotel swimming pools consistently rank at the top of kids’ enjoyment lists when visiting a theme park. Instead of being outraged at the idea of spending more than a month’s salary on a glorified park district pool, carve out the time needed to maximize family swimming time. Speaking of salaries…
Budget Vacations VS Trip-of-a-Lifetime
Again, different kinds of trips communicate different values. Budget vacations communicate that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to grow closer as a family or to experience amazing things. More expensive vacations communicate that creating family memories is something worth saving and sacrificing for. Yes, from the desk in my office I can see a dozen things around the house that need to be repaired or maintained. But family travel cannot be held captive to the tyranny of the urgent. Last year, we opened a CD for our planned 2025 trip, cognizant of the fact that it will cost more than we will be able to save that year. To compensate, other trips will simply involve throwing a cooler in the back of the minivan and bringing along enough money for gas.
Another strategy we’ve used to get the most bang for our buck is taking advantage of cut-off ages. We’ve taken a travel-by-air trip shortly before each child’s second birthday while they still qualified as a lap-child. Similarly, if Mickey Mouse had any idea how many pancakes my two-and-a-half-year-old son could eat, he probably wouldn’t offer him a free ticket to his character breakfast. But since that’s the policy, we took advantage of it.
Don't Just Visit Family Members
As extended families are increasingly spread around the country, many feel the need to use their precious vacation days on family visits. While this is an understandable and admirable desire, it does come at a cost, namely, lost opportunities to experience new destinations. A better solution might be to incorporate extended family into your own long-range plans. Once you’ve sketched out ten or twelve trips you might take, consider whether one or two might work well with grandparents or with cousins. Or are there trips that dovetail geographically with family visits you feel obligated to make?
Big Picture Memories VS Remembering Details
“But my child won’t even remember the trip.” This kind of thinking lies behind many wasted opportunities. Family time spent together is about more than creating memories that can be vividly recalled later in life. I don’t remember many specific details about my own trip to Florida as a preschooler many years ago, but I do remember that it was a “big deal.” My parents strategized, saved, and vision-casted for many months in advance. In the same way, our younger children will benefit from an investment in shaping their character, values, and perspective, even if they cannot fully appreciate every nuance of the trip.
Famous Destinations VS Fostering New Interests
If all your children can talk about is Star Wars, then yes, a trip to Hollywood Studios may be in order at some point. But so too might a trip to Death Valley to see the stars and meteor showers against the stark desert landscape. Just because we’ve never heard of a destination does not mean it’s not worth visiting. Instead, it may be an opportunity to expand our horizons and to delight in the variety of God’s creation.
Whether you are planning a spring break trip in a few weeks or mapping out your ten-year plan for family vacations, these ideas will help you be intentional about making a lasting impact in the lives of your children.