• Budget realistically. Vacations need not be expensive. Budget an amount and stick to it. If you're driving, set a fixed spending amount ($200 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 ate only one meal in a restaurant per day. For the other two, we prepared our own food and either ate in the hotel room or had 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.
• Set your itinerary. Agreeing on an itinerary is important because adults and children have different ideas of "fun." I wanted to do things that I couldn't do at home: drive through the mountains, visit historical sights, go horseback riding, etc. Our children basically wanted to do what they could 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 gave me my day in the mountains where we did nothing but drive through the Rockies. They even tried to look semi-interested. As a compromise, I did things that I thought were a total waste of money. After all, vacations are for the whole family.
Be flexible. Not every one of our days was 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.
• 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 aiming toward a scheduled departure time begins to take on aspects of a cattle drive. Staying in one place allows you to relax for awhile.
• 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 joy away from the day. For example, take children's spending. To them, nothing in a souvenir shop is too tacky or overpriced. How did we solve this dilemma? Simple. They could buy what they wanted with their own money but they couldn't ask me for more. A few months prior to our vacation, I began reminding them that they should be saving their funds. Some did, some didn't. On the eve of our departure, I gave them each $20 to supplement their savings. After that, they were on their own. If they spent it the first day, they were 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.
• The best things in life can be free. Prior to leaving, we checked the websites of where we would be visiting. The information we gleaned was 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.
• 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 was minor league baseball—if that isn't Americana, I don't know what is. Later, we became 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.
• 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 several years, we 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 would come back the same week each year, and we made friends all across the country. Our family benefited from the spiritual truth of family camps.
When I say purpose, I'm thinking 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.
• Publish it. Regardless of what you've done or where you've gone, it's always fun to remember it. My wife began taking a large scrapbook with us on our family vacations. As we were driving, we dictated what happened that day and left 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 is having your pediatrician phone in an anti-diarrhea prescription"). No event is too small to document. It all looks humorous in hindsight.
We took the same basic two week vacation for 20+ years. Having a purpose in mind and rules to live by made it fun. Having the whole family together made it great. These days the kids are gone, but my wife and I are still dedicated to our two week vacation. And because we built such great memories, we can count on every new vacation day offering up a sight or event that reminds us of the fun times we shared with our kids.
By the way, we thought the family vacation would become a thing of the past, but we are discovering that it might be even a better time than the holidays to gather the kids, spouses, and grandkids. It can be hard to get everyone home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but rent a beach house for a week and they flock to you!
Please, budget for a family vacation, especially before your family disperses. It could be one of the best investments you'll ever make.
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