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Great (and Affordable!) Family Vacations

  • C. Scott Houser for Sound Mind Investing
  • 2004 14 Apr
Great (and Affordable!) Family Vacations

Does it ever make sense to stretch your spending, even if it means temporarily busting your budget or borrowing from your emergency fund? When the cause is as worthy as family vacations, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" For over 20 summers now, our family has taken a two week vacation. I wouldn't trade the fun and value which those vacations have brought our family for "full ride" college scholarships for our five kids. I'd like to encourage you to begin now planning a memorable and affordable family vacation for this summer. From our experiences, here are some tips that can help.

1. Budget realistically. Vacations need not be expensive. Budget an amount and stick to it. If you're driving, set a fixed spending amount ($150 per day, for example). Include all of your expenses, gas, meals, admissions, special activities, etc. Involve your children in the process. Share with them that conserving money on one day allows them to go to a water park on another day. Be creative. To save money, our family typically eats only one meal in a restaurant per day. For the other two, we prepare our own food and either eat in the hotel room or have a picnic. Take turns letting the kids choose the type of food-and, if you are really adventurous, the restaurant-each day. They feel important and it minimizes arguments. Shop around for hotel discounts. Paying the listed rate for a hotel room is like paying full retail for a mattress.

2. Set your itinerary. Agreeing on an itinerary is important because adults and children have different ideas of "fun." I want to do things that I can't do at home: drive through the mountains, visit historical sights, go horseback riding, etc. Children basically want to do what they can do at home: watch TV, visit a man-made attraction like Six Flags, or swim in the hotel pool. You gotta compromise. Every summer, my kids give me my day in the mountains where we do nothing but drive through the Rockies. They even try to look semi-interested. As a compromise, I'll do things that I think are a total waste of money. After all, vacations are for the whole family.

Be flexible. Not every one of our days is planned. This can be risky, but sometimes the memories are worth it. One summer, we just happened to be in the Denver area during a Promise Keepers men's conference. The only accommodations we could find were at "Ace's Motel and Kitchenettes." If you miss pink stucco exteriors and green shag carpeting, I'll give you Ace's number.

3. Stay in one place. Admittedly, this is from Dad's perspective because he is the one who packs the trunk. For at least part of your vacation, pick a place (like a family camp or the beach) where you are not packing and unpacking the car every day. Having five kids and your spouse packing and pointing toward a scheduled departure time begins to take on aspects of a cattle drive. Staying in one place allows you to relax for awhile.

4. Decide on the ground rules. How many times have you been on a family vacation and seen parents and their children arguing? Vacations are supposed to be fun, not a battleground. Parents should establish the rules in advance so that arguments don't take away joy from the day. For example, take children's spending. To them, nothing in a souvenir shop is too tacky or overpriced. How do we solve this dilemma? Simple. They can buy what they want with their own money but they can't ask me for more. A few months prior to our vacation, I begin reminding them that they should be saving their funds. Some do, some don't. On the eve of our departure, I may give them each $20 to supplement their savings. After that, they're on their own. If they spend it the first day, they're out of luck. Knowing in advance the ground rules on spending, fast food restaurants, and sharing the Game Boy saves countless arguments and embarrassing moments.

5. The best things in life can be free. Prior to leaving, we check the websites of where we will be visiting. The information we glean is invaluable. Couple this information with an AAA Tour Book and you can fill many days with no-cost activities. One of our best days was visiting an aircraft museum (free, but donations accepted) which was fully staffed with World War II veterans who were volunteering their time to restore the planes and serve as tour guides. They were glad to have us, and our kids found them fascinating.

6. The second best things in life are almost free. Almost free can be categorized in the $3 to $5 admission category. One of our favorite activities is minor league baseball-if that isn't Americana, I don't know what is. Recently, we have become National Park groupies. Besides being a good way to recoup a good benefit from your tax dollars, National Parks almost always inspire awe at God's creation. Another activity is to visit the small town county fairs, rodeos, and 4-H exhibits. If you're discouraged about the state of affairs in our country, these activities will give you an uplift.

7. Have a purpose. Although we have gone to the mecca of family vacation spots, Disney World (where I felt like a robbery victim), the best vacations are ones where a part of it had a purpose. For the past several years, we have attended a family camp, Bear Trap Ranch, sponsored by InterVarsity in Colorado. The camp is a combination of spiritual input and outdoor activities such as hiking and rappelling. Several families come back the same week each year, and we have made friends all across the country. Our family has benefited from the spiritual truth of family camps.

When I think of purpose, I really think of tradition. It may be that your tradition is getting together with relatives at the beach so that distant cousins can get to know one another. It may be a vacation centered around an activity that the whole family can enjoy, such as skiing. Times are changing and life seems disconnected. Traditional family vacations build a family foundation that hasn't changed since you and your sister fought over your half of the back seat.

8. Publish it. Regardless of what we've done or where we've gone, it's always fun to remember it. My wife began taking a large scrapbook with us on our family vacations. As we are driving, we dictate what happened that day and leave space to paste in photographs, postcards, admission tickets, etc. When we read about vacations past, we relive the memories. Some entries are exciting-such as when we saw a bear. Others are funny ("You know you're in trouble when the highlight of the day was when your pediatrician phoned in an anti-diarrhea prescription"). No event is too small to document. It all looks humorous in hindsight.

We have been taking the same basic two week vacation for the last 20+ years. A purpose and rules make it fun. Having the whole family together makes it great. With three kids in college, our family of seven has shrunk to four and not a vacation day goes by without a bit of regret that someone is missing. Please, budget for a family vacation, especially before your family disperses. It could be one of the best investments you ever make.

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