Are You Vacationing Wrong? 3 Tips for A Real Vacation

a group of people running on a beach with a kite.

It’s summer in the northern hemisphere. During this time, so many of us take vacation. But why take a vacation? And what is a vacation anyway?

Apparently, we’re vacationing all wrong. Upon returning from vacation, I hear many *many* clients say, “Well that wasn’t really a vacation”, or “I need a vacation after my vacation” or “Well, it was visiting family so…you know….”. This is especially true if you have children.

Here are my 3 tips for real vacationing. Let’s get this right because we all could use some serious downtime now, yes?

Definition of Vacation

Merriam Websters says that a vacation is: time spent away. a period of recreation, a period during which activity is suspended, a time of respite.

We are vacating. We are creating an absence, a suspension of activity. HOWEVER, if you create an absence from work, and then fill that absence with childcare responsibilities, I assure you my friend, that is no vacation. If the children you care for have time off from school, thus creating a vacancy for their time, you’ll need to figure out how to plug that hole before you are able to have a vacation of your own. Which returns us to, why take a vacation?

Why Take A Vacation?

If you choose fill the absence of work and school with the obligation of visiting with your family, super duper. But be clear: a family trip is not a vacation.

Why are you taking a vacation? “It’s summer” is not an answer, it’s the observation of seasonal change. What do you need this year, and what are you looking to get out of it? If your vision is sitting at a lake with a book, what’s the vision of your fellow travelers?

If you WANT to have a family visit, fabulous. But that’s not a vacation (a void, an absence), that’s a choice of spending time with people. Hopefully, people you love. And if you’re feeling obliged or triggered when you spend time with these folks, this is doing all kinds of things to your biochemistry that is the opposite of relaxing. If your retired father-in-law loves his Fox news 8 hours a day while you prefer NPR and the constant stimulation of the ER you run, and you’re going to a cabin in Maine with no TV, well, how are you filling these very different habits that you are used to? Fail to plan and plan to fail as they say.

Perhaps the plan is to go camping. Or build a canoe. Or both. Do you have the supplies you need and are you headed to a campground? Or are you planning to figure it out when you get there? Know the people you’re traveling with, and what their needs are.

Here are three tips for coordinating a successful vacation this summer.

1. Set Goals for Your Vacation

To have a great vacation, first think about what YOU want to do. Do you need to rest? Are you hungry to explore? Do you want to find new things? Do you want to be near people or away? Identify what you’re looking for.

If your goal is to have a family reunion, don’t expect it to be restful. And if your goal is rest, don’t be surprised if you don’t get a lot done. And if your goal is travel and tourism, don’t bring four novels. Build the vacation that is aligned with your stated goal.

After you set up your goal, have a real conversation with your travel partners, and help them think through their goals. Remember, the purpose of a vacation is to vacate, spend time away. Figure out what each of you are trying to get out of this experience.

Finally, identify what you can align to as a group. What’s your vacation goal as a family? This is the big kahuna. When everyone buys into a cohesive group goal for this time, you can be aligned, purposeful and intentional about how you spend your time.

2. Structure Your Unstructured Time

Are you and your travel partners on the same page with your plan? Maybe now you’ve realized that your husband has a list of home chores he wants to tackle while you want to sit and read. Can you figure out how to take this time without driving each other crazy? I bet you can if you both honor your and each other’s goals.

If you want to get away, and you and your family are used to being on the go, simply moving to a place of no activity can be stressful for one and all. I know it seems crazy, but if you give yourself a week to diffuse from a year of activity, you’ll need structure for that unstructured down time. Chunk up your days into food prep, activities, and down time. Plan the day as a group (ideally the day before, at least) and have something to look forward to.

As many travelers note, they need a week or two just to get into vacation mode. Without that buffer time, you’re going to need to structure your vacation, and communicate it with your travel parters so that you can enjoy it as you like.

3. Have A Media Agreement

I’m a big fan of letting kids get bored, but these days bored kids often turn to digital media. Don’t we all? C’mon, you’ve mindlessly scrolled when you want and need to sleep. These tools are bred for addiction. What’s your social media agreement while on vacation?

Are you checking in to work daily, spend at least an hour returning emails or not be contactable? Have you communicated this with your coworkers and travel partners? My recommendation is to draw a clear boundary and not check in at all. You need the time; take it.

What about your kids? Do they have a big TikTok following they need to nurture? Are you OK with that? How much screen time works for your individual and family goals this vacation? How do you want to handle no screen time?

As parents, we know our kids need to rest then find out their up all hours on screens, and sleeping in until noon. There goes the morning canoe ride. Have a media agreement that works for one and all.

Before You Book A Vacation, Remember

Avoid falling into the routinized trap of taking a vacation because “everyone does”. Don’t visit family because “everyone does”. And if you chose to visit family, recognize that a family visit is different from a vacation — “the absence of”. If you move to fill the absence of work and school with the presence of something else, be intentional about what that something else is and confirm that that is something that you and your travel partners want.

Figure out what YOU want out of your vacation. Then structure it, organize it, coordinate with your travel partners about their goals, and most importantly your communal goal. Focus on what you were hoping to experience on this break from your norm, and enjoy it.

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