My brother and I gripped the sides of the inflatable raft and braced ourselves as the big ocean wave curled up over our boat. We felt like ants compared to the enormous waves. Wet, salty ants, but there was no fear, only eruptions of laughter and joy in the aftermath of the surge. Why? Because my dad was swimming alongside the boat and holding it upright as each wave crashed over us.
Every vacation I took as a child, I felt completely free to soak in every ounce of fun because my parents really prepared for our trips well. Growing up in a home with two working parents, it was a gift to retreat to the beach or the mountains each summer and spend two uninterrupted weeks with my two greatest influencers.
As my husband and I start to plan our family vacations, we've talked back and forth about the kind of preparations we'd like to make before our trips.
After taking a few vacations with an expanding family, and talking with parents, I've put together five tips to make every family vacation feel like a real vacation - in other words . . .
how to take a vacation with kids - whether you have toddlers or teens.
Five Tips to Make Every Family Vacation a Real Vacation
1. Prepare Your Heart
Oh man, typing that made me feel all froofy, but if you are tightly wound, or you have a difficult time resting, take heed. There have been trips my husband and I have taken that don't feel like vacations because he's caught up in stuff that's happening at work, at church, or in our community. I don't feel like he's really able to enjoy our time together because he has one foot back at home. It stresses me out because I feel like I'm the distraction.
Or there are times when I want to be in control of fun and things just are working out. It can really train wreck a time together.
So take time to prepare your heart to rest. Just like we prepare our hearts for the Sabbath - to really rest, physically, mentally, spiritually.
Ideas to prepare hearts for vacation:
- Prayer - bring it all to God; often. Offer thanksgiving, ask for your time to be blessed.
- Search the Scriptures - search keywords in the Bible like "rest" "refuge" "peace" and ask God for wisdom on how to apply truth to your life.
- Be in communication with your spouse - (and/or other adults who are taking the trip); talk about expectations and ask where each person needs help in preparing for the trip; discuss times and ways each parent can lighten the load so the other can take a real breather.
2. Build Anticipation
Getting the family pumped up for spending time together can be simple and fun. It brings vision to the table - that we are a family going on an adventure. It brings a sense of excitement and wonder.
Building anticipation can vary upon the age of your children, but here are a few ways that get hearts on board with family vacation:
- Vacation Money Jar - growing up my brother and I painted old glass spaghetti sauce jars and glued shells and other things on them, punched a hole in the top and started filling it with all the change we could find and money we earned. Decorating the jars gave us a physical reminder that vacation was coming and that we could work hard to earn spending money for souvenirs, ice cream, floaties- you name it!
- Prayer Countdown Chain - make a paper chain with not only a countdown to vacation, but on each paper link, write down something to pray for that day as a family. This is a great way to build anticipation through prayer and go before the Lord with your trip. It teaches us to lay our requests before the Lord and eagerly wait for His answers. Instructions and pictures for Prayer Countdown Chain HERE
- Family Planning Night - dedicate a night (or two) to dream up the adventures everyone wants to have while on vacation. Talk about what you want to bring, where you want to go, and list some activities you can do together. This is a great opportunity for parents to set some expectations for the trip.
- Plan a Surprise - it doesn't have to be anything big, but try and keep something a secret about the trip. For older kids you can have them guess at dinner one night while you give clues. For little ones, get them excited about a surprise activity or tasty treat. I know as a kid Dippin' Dots would have sent me off the thrilled deep-end; or space ice-cream?! So fun!
- Prepare Together - getting reading for a vacation can be a big task for dad and mom. Dividing up responsibilities can encourage the family to work together so they can play together. Preparing might look like a big laundry day, or preparing road trip snacks, or getting the yard ready.
3. Plan but be flexible
I remember my dad would email me itineraries of family trips we were going to take when I was in college. I laughed a bit, but appreciated his thoughtfulness. Now that I'm a parent, I realize it wasn't just thoughtfulness he was after - to make a trip fun there was a lot of work involved on his part.
Creating plans and itineraries are a great way to prepare the family to vacation together. It means taking time to research where you are going and thinking through what your family would enjoy. Having plans also means you are creating an environment to make memories together as a family, rather than everyone just doing their own thing (which can be great, but having a few together activities are important).
Planning also takes financial stress off, when you are able to decide what you can and can't afford to do. Going over the plan with the family reduces heartache and potential tears if going to Big Kahuna just isn't in the cards this year. You'll also know how much you can afford to spend eating out and getting special treats.
Here are some ideas to help you plan:
- Create a calendar of days that you will be gone and where you will be.
- Jot down some ideas of activities you could do for each of those days.
- Think through museums, water parks, zoo's, and other places that may charge admission.
- Research area attractions, restaurants, and activities.
- Plan down time and be sure to think through the personalities of each family member and what they would enjoy doing.
- Going in with a plan is a type of preparedness that can alleviate the stress of planning and deciding while on vacation. But be sure to hold plans with an open hand. If Tuesday is beach day and it's raining outside, it's a great exercise is adjusting expectations for the kids (and ourselves).
4. Capture memories
It's not hard to do these days with phones that can take video and pictures. Capturing memories are a fantastic way to look back and reflect on how God grew your family through fun and enjoyment.
We have dozens of VHS tapes filled with family vacation memories. Even decades later, these videos bring incredible amounts of joy back to my heart and I am able to remember things I probably would haven forgotten by now. When I watch them I am filled with thankfulness and a sense of closeness to my family.
- Take pictures and videos and put together a family slideshow to watch after the trip
- Have older children participate in the making of a digital slideshow
- Print off some pictures and have younger ones make a scrap-book or cards to send to grandparents
- Before you go on vacation, look at past vacation pictures and talk about what you enjoyed that trip
5. Let travel be part of the vacation (no matter how stressful it is)
Sometimes I think of travel (whatever the mode of transportation is) as the necessary evil to get to the real vacation. That sets me (and my family) up for the grumps, yucky attitudes, unthankful hearts. We actual lose out on part of the experience. Travel is usually the bookends, so making travel special, or exciting is really important.
I know lugging car seats and luggage and dealing with airport security or flat tires does not seem like something to get excited about, but if we're not excited, it will most certainly transfer over to our children.
Ideas to make travel special:
- Bring a special snack reserved only for trips (one family would only buy Swedish Fish when it was time to travel - the kids would get so pumped to see those little red fishes appear)
- Make a picture book to take along (for younger children) filled with snapshots of where you're going, who you'll see, to build excitement
- Plan for special treats at the airport or rest stops. Nothing like a starbies and a giant pastry to make me smile while sitting on a tarmac.
- Practice thanksgiving - for parents write down and meditate on things you are thankful for; or make it a tradition, that every time you turn on the car (whether at the beginning of the day, or after a rest stop) have everyone say 3 things they are thankful for (thankfulness changes attitudes)
- Share pictures, videos, memories on the way back. Let each person share their favorite memory or a "rose and a thorn" from vacation (something they loved, something that was difficult).
- Have abig family prayer of thanks when it's time to travel home.
Oh vacation. I love you.
Do you have tips on taking a family vacation? Leave a comment below!
May the Lord bless your family trips together with peace, joy, and adventure.