Summer is a great time for making memories. Family vacations are a big part of this and can have a lasting impact on happiness, according to experts. After years of family summer vacations (my oldest child is now a teenager), I’ve learned one surprising thing about making these trips most successful. It’s not a secret summer destination, perfect packing list, or travel hack.
In fact, it may seem counterintuitive. It’s downtime.
Keep reading to grab your free printable vacation journal for kids.This post contains some affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission if you use them (at no cost to you). Full disclosure.
When whirlwind family vacations are the norm
I know, when you’re planning an awesome summer vacation, all the planning goes into the things you can do. At least that’s how we typically planned vacations. When you’re going someplace new or away from home, it’s natural to want to fill your days to the brim with exciting sights and activities. I get it!
For years, I approached vacations the same way. My husband and I took a European tour with just the two of us before we had our second child, and he’d wake us up at 7 am every day without fail so we could pack the most sightseeing into each day. I might have been a little grumpy about it, but I too wanted to devote every minute to absorbing as much as we could from our experience.
It was a two-week whirlwind. We had so many amazing experiences, but we also had some arguments, and I experienced my first ever migraine on our trip. Coincidence? Maybe.
In the years since, I started to realize something, and I thank my kids for helping me get there. When we traveled as a family, I began to learn that downtime is so important to having the best time during our vacation.
A realization at Disney
When we saved up to make a family trip to Disney World, my husband and I defaulted to planning out each day so we could hit all the parks and check each “must see” off the list with the kids. We were engineering their maximum Disney World experience. After all, we might not make it back. The kids were so busy each day they didn’t even have time to fill in the trip journals we had brought for them before they conked out each night.
Then a funny thing happened. I noticed the kids loved swimming in the hotel pool one evening. I could tell they were getting tired out being hauled around the parks all day. They enjoyed the rides, but the pace of it all was exhausting to them and me. So the next day, I gave them a choice: we could continue doing rides for the afternoon or go back to the hotel and spend time at the pool. It was a no-brainer for them. Swimming in the hotel pool is still one of their best memories from the trip, and mine too!
Capture your family summer vacation memories with the free printable journal for kids:
On our next trip, we deliberately built in slower time. I put the pool on our itinerary. Our days were still busy, but I made an effort to give the kids the option for downtime. For example, one evening, feeling pretty beat myself, I offered that we could either go out to a restaurant for dinner or stay in and watch a movie from our hotel room and order room service. It’s an easy guess what they chose!
Likewise, when I felt a migraine coming on one day, I made the call that I needed to go back to the hotel room and rest. I was able to get control of it early with this decision. It was hard to pull myself out for the day, but had I tried to push through, I expect I would have felt worse and lost more time out of our vacation. I needed to give myself permission to take time to care for me.
Kids don’t always have this option, or even the knowledge or voice to express when they need a break. So it’s on us parents to look for clues. The amount of epic meltdowns that occur at the “happiest place on earth” goes to show the particular importance of downtime during busy, stimulating family vacations.
Of course not every vacation meltdown is preventable (even adults have them!). But by recognizing in advance that we all benefit from both pre-planned and as-needed downtime during a vacation, you can be more mindful and help avoid burnout.
Signs of the need for more downtime
Do you find you are completely exhausted by the end of the day (or before)?
Are you and your partner arguing? Your kids melting down?
Are you ready to go home before vacation is over? Feeling like you need a vacation from your vacation?
Not looking forward to your next vacation?
All of these are signs that you may need more downtime in your next family summer vacation. No vacation will be perfect. There will always be challenges when you’re throwing in new situations and experiences. But you can set your family up for success by allowing time for breaks.
Seeking balance on family summer vacations
When you spend so much money on a vacation and only have a limited number of them per year, I think it’s natural to want to get everything out of the experience. Of course you want your children to have wonderful memories of their family summer vacations. What I’ve learned is that some of the best memories come from the times when you’re just hanging out together, not rushing around to the next adventure.
Now we try to find a balance. I don’t have a perfect equation for amount of downtime. This may look different for each family, and it may change over time.
Kids have different temperaments as they age and may express different preferences. Certainly for young ones, building in their usual times for naps or quiet time is a must. Beyond that, I find even older kids really appreciate downtime. Teens may want to have some alone time or text their friends for a while. Parents also benefit from a mental break from directing activities and getting kids from here to there.
More recently, we took a two-week family camping trip halfway across the US, with stops along the way for 2 to 3 days in each area. It was a lot of fun. We tried to plan one major activity per day, thinking this would be a nice pace for the family. We saw museums, zoos, caves, landmarks, and more. When I asked the kids what they liked about our trip and what they wanted to do more of, surprisingly, they said spend more time at the campsite!
They just wanted to hang out by the campfire, play in the dirt, and run around through the trees. Who knew?!
We planned a subsequent “do nothing” mountain trip. We rented a small cozy Airbnb with an adjoining community center that had a pool, hot tub, and ping pong table. We brought some board games and spent a long weekend chilling out. The kids loved it and ask to do it again all the time.
I share this as an example of how you might alternate busy vacations with more relaxing ones.
The perfect family summer vacation
With the average American only using only half their allotted vacation each year, despite the benefits of taking time off, it’s easy to see how hard it is for busy parents to unwind.
My husband and I still love adventure and exploring new places, but I’ve learned that more activities isn’t always better for family vacations.
We haven’t completely changed. We’ve never booked a cruise, because we can’t imagine being trapped on a boat when there is a whole world out there to see 😊 But we have made great progress!
I’m learning from my kids, focusing on quality of family time and experiences rather than number of outings or sights seen. I’m watching for signs that we’re doing too much and adapting as we go.
We’ll still have tiring days, but I aim for happy tired.
I hope these experiences might help you have a more successful family summer vacation.
Check out my sanity-saving summer tips for moms to help you avoid summer mom burnout.