For the past six years, we have taken an extended family vacation during the summer. Over those six years, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to create a successful family vacation. A lot of this success has come at the expense of trial and error, but we’ve also learned that common sense is usually the best decision-making guide.
Who are we?
The family for our family vacation is really two families combined. In addition to my wife and two sons, we also have our old college roommates and their two sons. This mixing of family and friends is really important for us. Our kids look forward not just to spending time at the vacation destination, but to spending time with the people they consider as close as aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Taking another family on your family vacation is not something to be considered lightly. We’re fortunate to have another family that we are very compatible with. Not everyone is so fortunate. The thing to remember is that you are going to be spending a lot of time with this other family on your vacation. If you’ve only spent a few hours together at a time, perhaps at dinner or kids’ events, you might find that sharing a sink in the bathroom is not quite what you expected. Consider a weekend trial vacation before going on a week long excursion!
Where are we going?
Over the last six years, we’ve been to Colorado twice, Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah. Our first trip was to Destin, Florida. This was a huge learning experience for us. Destin is a popular tourist destination. A lot of our activities turned out to be either tourist traps or things we could do at home. Going to a water park 14 hours from home is pretty disappointing when you live near one of the best water parks in the United States. Although we had a lot of fun in the sun together, we learned a few key tips that would guide our decision-making process for future vacations.
- The more tourists are in an area, the more likely you are to find activities with a high cost and low return. In other words, tourist traps are a waste of money and should be avoided.
- Activities that are unique or not common in your area are the most fun for kids and adults. When you go to a great water park every summer, it’s hard to get excited about a mediocre water park on the other side of the country.
- Free or low-cost activities can be the most rewarding. The most fun we had on that vacation was at the free, public beach right down the road from where we stayed.
- Kids love learning, but enjoy it the most when it isn’t happening intentionally. Kids tend to get bored quickly at museums. A cave tour, on the other hand, includes a lot of learning mixed in with a sense of adventure.
After that first vacation, we decided that spending time together outdoors was really important to us. Summers in Texas can be brutal, and just being outside is a bit of a luxury. We started choosing scenic locations with lots of outdoor activities, like hiking, biking, and ATVing. Our desire for cooler weather tends to send us to the mountains which provide both excellent scenery and cool weather due to elevation.
Where will we stay?
When we started planning our first vacation, we were not sure where we would stay. Most vacationers are used to staying in hotels, but a single room for a family of four for seven to ten days is both uncomfortable and cost prohibitive. Hotel rooms frequently do not include a kitchen. That means you have to eat three meals a day in restaurants. Not only is that really expensive, it’s unhealthy and younger children tend to make restaurant visits as painful as possible. Finally, how would two families of four spend time together if they had separate hotel rooms?
The solution we hit upon was to rent a house large enough for our family of eight. One big house solves nearly all of our housing problems. It’s more cost effective than two hotel rooms. With everyone in the same house, people can spend time relaxing in the way they like. Playing outside, reading a book, or watching TV are all options. Finally, eating at home is both less expensive and more enjoyable than a restaurant. If your family has good cooks, everybody wins.
It’s important not to underestimate the value of the kitchen when it comes to spending time together on vacation. Just like events you have at home, the vacation home kitchen tends to be the central point for spending time together. When we choose a vacation home, we care about the amenities. A flat-screen TV and hot tub are nice, but a big kitchen and outdoor grill are absolutely vital. If we’re awake and at the house, we’re likely to either be standing around the island in the kitchen or poking the coals in the grill.
Most of our vacation house hunting happens on Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO). We’ve used other websites in the past, but VRBO has been the best. House hunting can be a fairly extensive process. In addition to finding listings that meet the qualifications, there is usually a fair bit of interaction with the home owner to hammer out availability and rates. This planning takes a detail-oriented person who doesn’t mind doing a lot of leg work. Fortunately for us, we have just the right person for the job.
How will we get there?
As I mentioned above, cost is an important part of the family vacation decision-making process. Although flying to your destination may be the fastest way to travel, it is anything but the cheapest. Additionally, flying requires a rental car which means even more expense. We decided early on that driving was really the only viable alternative. Unfortunately, driving has its own drawbacks. It takes much longer than flying. It puts wear and tear on your vehicle. And unless you own a really large vehicle, it’s hard to fit more than a family of four in one car.
Although there is little that can be done about the amount of driving time between locations, we decided that a 12 passenger van solved most of our other issues. It’s much cheaper than flying, and can be used while we’re at the vacation location. Since everyone is in one car, we can take advantage of the larger driver pool to drive farther in a single day. We also get to spend more time together.
What are we going to do?
This is what the vacation is all about! We work hard to fill our days with family-friendly activities that are either unique to the area or that can not be easily reproduced at home. At night, we cook together, play boardgames, and generally just goof off. We want our vacation to be as full as possible, but relaxing together in the evenings can be more rewarding than anything else. Most importantly, remember to have fun!
This is your vacation and you should spend it the way you want.