More Smiles per Gallon: Ten Ways to Make Family Vacations More Fun


I was too old and too cool for family vacations, but my parents talked me into one last trip. It was a gas! Somewhere down the road we learned how to make traveling together more fun.

One summer I reached the conclusion I was too old and too cool for family vacations. “No way,” I said when my parents suggested we begin planning our annual outing. “I have to work.” Like the local burger place couldn’t function without my eight hours a week.

For 16 years my family had taken summer vacations together. Even when money was tight we hitched up the tent trailer and rambled somewhere. I think Mom and Dad knew that if they got me in the station wagon, and out onto the highway, I’d soften and remember the good times. They suggested I give the family vacation one last try, and after much complaining I finally consented and got the time off work. A few days later we pulled into the freeway traffic and in a moment all that was good about our trips came back to me. Somewhere down the road, through many years of trips, we had learned how to make a vacation fun.

Here are some of the things we learned:

1. Get involved in the planning.

Be open-minded and try to understand financial or time limitations your parents may face, and their desire to choose a destination that will make everyone happy. And remember, despite what the TV ads tell us, there are other “fun” destinations than theme parks and resort towns. In fact, you may discover most of your family’s memorable trips come from just exploring or from heading to some off-beat locale like a ghost town; a small, seaside village; or even the desert. Also, you may find short, local trips can be as interesting as long ones—the goal is to spend time together, not to spend money.

2. Include the Church in your plans.

Consider visiting historic church sites on your route. Make plans to attend church services on Sunday. Pray as a family before you travel each day, and at night thank Heavenly Father for all you’ve seen and done.

3. Remember patience and a sense of humor.

Your patience may be the key to the success of a trip. Whenever people are placed in close quarters for any length of time there are bound to be some personality conflicts.

In our family the first “fight” usually began in the driveway. My sister and I would quarrel over the place behind Mom like it was the only window seat on a trip to Mars. We both learned, through time, to share. We also learned to take turns in the seat behind Dad—you know, the one that has no leg room.

As for a sense of humor, you don’t need to be a comedian to lighten the mood of a hot, tired family. Just try pointing out something unusual or unique about the area you are traveling through. Saying something like, “That big cactus looks like our home teacher!” will get everyone’s imagination moving much quicker than asking, “When are we going to get there?” or whining, “Sally won’t turn down her stereo.”

4. Keep a trip journal.

A journal can be a great thing to look back on in later years. It doesn’t matter how good your memory is; everyone forgets some experiences if they don’t write them down. Take photographs to include in the journal. Make them more than just scenery shots; make your pictures fun. Have your family imitate a scene from history, have them act silly, or just take pictures when family members aren’t posing.

5. Make car travel fun.

Nothing can numb the bold spirit of exploration like sitting in a car for several days. During a few vacations our family spent so much time inside the car that Dad developed amazingly sharp reflex skills—he could actually time when a rock was going to hit our windshield and deflect it using the wiper blade.

If a good portion of your trip is going to be spent traveling, be prepared. Pack games that everyone would want to participate in, or music they all would enjoy listening to. Try dictating some of your favorite stories onto tape and playing them for everyone in the car. Listen to scripture tapes or general conference tapes; then discuss what you heard. When you’re on the road, open the map up and follow where you are going. If possible, learn a little about the areas you are in or heading to.

6. Be flexible.

If you are all having fun at a place that isn’t your final destination, you might consider staying there a little longer. If your parents want to move on, don’t argue; just suggest that you all return to that place again one day.

Be flexible at meal times. It may often seem like every member of your family wants to eat something different, and everyone is sick of what you want. Remember that a vacation can be a great time to try new foods. At least be willing to take turns choosing places to eat. Most importantly, don’t forget to give thanks for your food and ask the Lord to bless it.

7. Learn about your family.

During some of our trips my parents shared marvelous experiences from their childhoods. I wondered why they had never told me these things before and realized I had never asked. While you’re on the road you have plenty of time to talk. Ask each member of your family about their earliest childhood memory, their feelings on the gospel, dreams for the future, and so on.

8. Do things together.

Often, when a family reaches their destination, all the members seem to go their own way. Pull your headphones off every now and then and get everyone talking or singing. Try to involve your whole family in things like swimming, boating, or hiking (choose something everyone likes to do, or take turns so everyone gets to do something he or she enjoys). Bring board games and play word association games that will include everyone.

Building campfires was a favorite “togetherness” activity with my family. Of course my parents would wait until my sister and I had burned every scrap of paper in camp before stepping in to help. But it seemed when everyone lent a hand we could start a fire with two tin cans and a rusty wrench.

9. Start your own traditions.

Think of what your family likes to do most. If they have a creative side, utilize it. For example, you could make up legends about wherever you are staying. Instead of turning on the TV in the motel, or just staring into the fire at the campsite, take turns inventing stories about the things you’ve seen that day and the people who once lived there.

10. Pitch in and help.

Parents appreciate help with things like setting up camp, cleaning up, or even looking through the motel room before you check out to make sure you didn’t leave a little brother or a sock. Also, if you do what is asked of you, your parents are probably going to be more willing to listen to your suggestions on where to go and what to do.

Though I can’t even remember where we went during our 16th summer vacation, I can vividly recall the feeling of closeness we all shared. That trip actually helped me overcome the irrational fear of being seen with my family. Once the station wagon started rolling, the people I sat with and the things we did together made me forget about appearances. And after a while I realized my family were all pretty cool themselves.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Rob Westerberg