Family Secrets to a Fabulous Vacation

Jun 5, 2012

In the 80’s, it was a cabin on a remote lake in Minnesota, with a fishing boat and swim beach, books and board games.

Last week, it was the grandparents’ house in sunny Nevada, with a swimming pool and lounge chairs, coloring books and Disney movies.

Family vacation. I’ve always believed a family vacation to be a non-negotiable. Regardless of finances or finagling, every family needs time away to play together. My parents made this commitment when I was a child, and my husband and I continued it while raising our own kids.

But blocking the time and booking the trip isn’t enough. We’ve had some great trips, ones my kids still talk about. But we’ve had some not-so-great ones as well. After a lifetime of vacating, here are the Cushatt family secrets to a fabulous family vacation:

1. Clock Out. Vacation doesn’t start until you go off the clock. That means leave work at the office or at home, set up an email auto-responder, change your cell phone voice mail message, let your Twitter and Facebook friends know you won’t be posting much. For the most part, I did this last week, and it was fabulous. But I wish I would’ve clocked out even more. I didn’t need to post on my blog, Twitter, or Facebook at all. Nothing would have been enough. A family vacation can not be multitasked.

2. Keep it Simple. A vacation shouldn’t be complicated. Don’t over think. Don’t over plan. Make reservations when you need to, but allow plenty of wiggle room. Try to keep to the 20-80 rule: Schedule 20% of your time, but leave 80% open. Pick two or three activities everyone wants to do. Plan it, and make arrangements. But leave the other 80% of your vacation time open for an unexpected ice cream run or a last minute drive to the water park. Busyness makes for tired children and grumpy adults. Don’t wear each other out.

3. Stay Flexible. Breathe. Enjoy the spontaneity of vacation. Treat it like an adventure. Let go. Before you step one foot out your front door, make up your mind that you are going to be a go-with-the-flow person for one week. Vacation (and the people who take them) shouldn’t be micromanaged. Allow space. You don’t have to be together all the time. Last week, we maintained our nap time routine the entire time, AND the adults participated. It was heavenly.

4. Minimize Expectations. A vacation doesn’t have to be elaborate, nor does it need to be expensive. Some of our family’s best trips involved a $15 per night campsite fee, a tent, and a ridiculous number of marshmallows. When I was a single mom, it was a weekend trip to the mountains or a visit at the grandparents house, costing little more than the gas to get there. Twice we’ve taken a family mission trip as our “vacation.” We went into it with an entirely different expectation—to serve. Those were some of the best trips we’ve ever taken.

5. Establish a motto. Go into the week with a theme or motto that everyone can get behind. For example, “This week, we have only two goals: (1) Be nice to each other, and (2) Laugh as much as possible.” Repeat this motto again and again throughout the time together. And act on it! During one trip with highschool students, we adopted Ephesians 4:29 as our theme. Every time someone was tempted to gossip or criticize, one of us would say, “429! 429!”

What is your favorite vacation memory, and what do you think made it great?


  1. Copley Roth & Wilson Law

    Thanks for the great post. Making sure you take a break as a family is very important and really helps keep everyone together and grow in their relationships with each other. I think it is a great idea to leave a lot of time open in a vacation, I tend to plan everything out. Thanks for the tips.

    • Michele

      Me, too. I’m typically schedule-driven. Everything needs to be planned, organized. But I’ve learned to love a wide open, fluid vacation. Thanks for sharing your insight here!

  2. Pete Wilson

    Perfect timing. We’re going on vacation next week. Thanks for the tips.

    • Michele

      Soak up every minute with your family, Pete. Nothing better.

  3. Chris Harrison

    That was awesome! Adjusting GPS toward our vacation next month.

    • Michele

      Thanks, Chris. Glad it was helpful. Enjoy your vacation!

  4. Amy

    All your suggestions resonated, Michele. We just got home from a week in Colorado and unwittingly followed several of your points. Our mantra was ‘we’re going to be kind to each other.’ And we were…mostly;) We planned next to nothing, ate at ‘home,’ hiked when we felt like it, sat around when we didn’t. No agendas except bonding, relaxing, and having a great time together. The family vacay gives life punctuation, and we tend to remember the punctuation points in the long sentences of daily living. Thanks for reminding me!

    • Michele

      Colorado?! Where? That’s where I live! “Be kind” is a great motto, and a vacation without an agenda is perfect. Glad you had a great trip, Amy!

  5. Steve Brock

    These are great. Your point on establishing a motto reminded me of another tip for family travel: let everyone make a decision. Not all decisions! But each day everyone in the family gets to select one thing they want to do that day (or on that trip if it is a big thing). It makes the kids far more engaged in the planning and they too learn the art of anticipation and sharing. Thanks for the good reminders.

    • Michele

      Great suggestion, Steve! We’ve done that, as well. We do something called “Celebrate YOU” nights. The point is to celebrate/honor a member of the family on a day that’s not their birthday, when it’s unexpected. Whoever we’re celebrating gets to choose what we eat for dinner and what we do for a family activity. The boys always loved being “in charge” for the night. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. Bernard Haynes

    Great post. I am getting ready to plan a family vacation when my Son gets back in town. Your points were right on time. Thanks.

    • Michele

      Glad to hear it, Bernard. Have a great trip!

  7. Wendy Brooks

    My favorite memory of family vacations were the “spur-of-the-moment” mini-trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains. On a Saturday morning my parents would wake me up and say, “Let’s pack a few things and go drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway!” I remember the instant excitement and stirring inside of me. I can remember how we would stop at the lookout points take a picture or two. Then we would jump back in the hatchback and cruise down to the valley to get a bite to eat at the local country restaurant. Those were great times, simple yet fun! The joy of an impromptu adventure of being in different surroundings and around new scenery is something I still like to do now. It fuels my creativity, and helps me keep my life well-balanced.

    • Michele

      I love this, Wendy! Simple, and impromptu. What a great memory. Thanks for sharing it!

  8. donnao

    AH! Keep it simple! We learned that only after years of trying to fit too much into our trips. The best vacations we have are the ones where we just sort of made a reservation and let it all fall into place. BEST family spot we have been to is Chincoteague Island,VA on the Delmarva Peninsula. Cost effective for larger families-we have 4 kids now 14,15,18,20-and we did not often go away as a family as we needed 2 rooms. that was mucho denaro :0)! Here we can rent a condo for less than half hotel fees for a week. And the island is SO simple which leaves us in a situation to not have too many choices! GREAT ideas here. Love you blog :0). Oh, and reading The Mitford books is a fine summer choice. They are light, inviting, and so encouraging. I LOVE how the main characters life does not really “begin” until the age of 60! God bless and have a fantastic weekend!

    • Michele

      Thanks for the recommend, Donna. I’ll have to check out Chincoteague Island. Sounds amazing! We’ve run into the same problem–too many kids for one hotel room. 🙂



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