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?

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