Some of my favorite childhood memories were made during family vacations. Even seemingly bad moments on vacation can bring a family closer together. Lisa Heffernan, a mother to three adult children in Bedford Hills, New York and co-founder of the parenting website Grown and Flown, remembers one family trip that didn't go as planned. "We got to Morocco with only my husband's luggage, so for a week our three boys had to share his clothes." After the initial shock, she says, we had a lot of fun with it and it left her children with a lasting life lesson: That we don't need half of what we own or bring with us on vacation. "I never had to tell them to pack light again."
Family vacations have always been important for creating lasting memories and building family bonds -- but they may be even more important today. "We are all are living such disconnected lives that even when family members are together in the same room, they're often on their individual devices connecting with other people," says William Doherty, a family social science professor at the University of Minnesota. The family vacation, he says, is one of the few opportunities where everyone in the family is doing the same thing, at the same time, without the pull of outside commitments.
So how can we make the most of this precious family time? Here are some tips:
•Plan the trip together. Include your children in the process by researching the destination together. For younger children, enlist their help in choosing sight-seeing sites. For teens, ask them to plan a family dinner out at the restaurant of their choosing.
•Go camping. Vacations don't have to cost a lot of money. In fact, no frills camping provides its own unique benefits by bringing families outdoors and requiring each person to pitch in and help.
•Keep it within the family. Tempted to bring a friend for your teen? Think twice if it could interfere with family bonding. Consider bringing the grandparents instead.
•Plan with sleep schedules and activity levels in mind. "The greatest cause of whiny tots or teens is exhaustion," says Lisa Heffernan. "Young kids do well with a morning packed with activities and then quiet or nap time after lunch. Teens are just to opposite and seem to come to life as the day wears on."
•Put kids (and yourself) on a media detox. Try banning all media and electronics while you're away. If a full detox is unrealistic, aim to leave electronics in the hotel room, only to be used when you're there. Try to continue these new habits when you get home.
•Allow for spontaneity. Resist the urge to overschedule your trip. Leave room for spontaneity, says Doherty. Unplanned moments often provide some of the best memories of a trip.
•Linger over meals. During mealtime, reflect not only on the trip but life at home as well, says Heffernan. "Don't rush these moments--they may be some of the best family dinners you have all year."
•Find fun everywhere. "Make picking the right transportation part of the adventure," says Heffernan. "If kids and teens are bored of walking or taking buses, think about taking in the sights on a moped, bicycle or Segway." They allow you to cover a lot more ground, she says, and there will be no complaints about boredom.
•Find teaching moments. Take advantage of the opportunity that travel brings to teach children and teens important life lessons, like learning about different cultures, building patience, more understanding, flexibility, problem solving and time management skills, says Jim Petrick, a tourism professor and research fellow at Texas A&M.
•Make the vacation last. Find small ways to keep the vacation going once you return home. Incorporate a new dish that was a family favorite on vacation. Put together a vacation album together with everyone's favorite photos. Talk about the trip and relive the memories. While vacations don't last forever, the memories can last a lifetime.