I'll be honest: My husband and I have only had one child-free vacation in our six and a half years of parenting. The "vacation" was one night in a midlevel hotel on the Baltimore Harbor (it rained the whole time).
Is this because we're huge fans of family vacations and refuse to leave our kids behind? Not really. Young children, distant relatives and a limited budget have kept our travel to a basic level.
Should you take your kids on vacation? Turns out the answer is yes and no. Family travel is a great chance to bond and explore the world as a unit, but travel with your spouse (or solo) can do wonders for the body and soul.
The tough part is deciding which is right for you. We'll take a look at the latest research — as well as five families who've found strategies that work for them — to help you plan your next vacation.
To bring the kids… or not?
A recent Harris Interactive poll found that 64 percent of kids surveyed strongly agreed that they get to see and do things on vacation that they'll remember for a long time, and 53 percent said vacations bring their family closer together. Meanwhile, 62 percent of adults surveyed said their earliest memories were of family vacations taken between the ages of 5 and 10, and they remember those trips more clearly than school events or birthdays.
But that doesn't mean every vacation needs to include the whole family. "Going away without the kids, even for a night, is soul salvation," says Katrin Schumann, co-author of Mothers Need Time-Outs, Too. "It's a reminder that we're not automatons. We have needs, and that's all right."
According to a 2012 U.S. Travel Association survey, "couples in a romantic relationship report traveling together makes them significantly more likely to be satisfied in their relationships, communicate well with their partners, enjoy more romance, have a better sex life, spend quality time together and share common goals and desires."
"There's no need to feel guilty about it," says Schumann. "Parenting and birth order research shows that a little benign neglect turns children into independent, out-of-the box thinkers," she says. "When they're too coddled and controlled, they risk becoming adults who lack resilience, humility and flexibility. Kids need space too."
Whether or not you're planning to bring the kids on your next getaway, pick up some money-saving tricks from these five families who vacation with (and without!) their kids.
What works for us: Home exchange
For the past three summers, Mike Atkinson, an attorney in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and his wife have taken their 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son to Europe.
Home exchange has allowed the Atkinsons to travel to Spain, France, and Sweden. This summer they're heading to Amsterdam. "It's been an amazing experience each time," says Atkinson.
The two-and-a-half- to three-and-a-half-week trips allow Atkinson and his family to "live like the locals," he says. "It's a way to have a long, exotic — or at least interesting and different — vacation without having to pay for lodging."
The kids enjoy picking up a few foreign words and customs and still remember highlights from these trips years later despite the fact they're still young, he adds.
"Sometimes we'll take advantage of having a full kitchen and save some money by eating at 'home,' but that's still an experience, because we're eating local specialties and fresh food from markets," Atkinson says. Other than transportation costs, the family can decide how to spend their vacation dollars. "On many days, we spend no more than we would if we were at our real home."
On their own: Atkinson also has taken quick trips to Florida, the Caribbean, and New York with just his wife. "While Saturday nights out alone are nice, being without kids for a few days is a different ballgame than being without them for a few hours," he says.
Like their style? To rent from an owner or conduct a home exchange for a longer stay, check out sites like HomeExchange.com, Intervac International Home Exchange, International Home Exchange Network, and HomeLink.
What works for us: Timeshare
Kim Lau, a homemaker in Novi, Michigan, her husband and two youngest kids, a 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son, take family vacations at least twice a year.
Last summer the entire family flew to Florida and spent a week together at the Laus' timeshare in Orlando. "We love to go to Florida," says Lau. "The beach is fun for everyone. Adults can relax and enjoy the sun while the kids swim or build sandcastles."
Lau regularly buys points for her timeshare, which allows her family to stay for one week in a two-bedroom condo with a full kitchen. They pay an annual maintenance fee of about $800. The family can also use the points for weekend getaways, last-minute vacations, cruises, car rentals, and some hotel rooms through their timeshare company.
"As the kids get older, we spend less on theme parks, choosing to do just one on each trip, rather than one every day," Lau says. The family tries to use coupons and take advantage of discounted sightseeing.
On their own: Lau and her husband have been on getaways to Vegas, and recently took a three-week Asian vacation on their own. "Traveling together can be very rewarding and enjoyable," says Lau. "It gives us a chance to reconnect. Without the duties of daily life, we are able to relax."
Like their style? Even if you don't have a timeshare, you may still be able to benefit from memberships you do have. Frequent-flyer and hotel loyalty programs can cut costs, and you can find travel discounts through memberships to AAA, AARP, and Costco, as well as through many credit card rewards programs. Even some professions (teachers, for example) offer built-in savings on things like rental cars, theme-park tickets, and hotels.
What works for us: All-inclusive resorts
Rachel Richardson, a stay-at-home mom in Springfield, Tennessee, takes her two girls, ages 5 and 8, on three family vacations a year. "I look at it more as 'family time' together, since my husband has a time-demanding job," says Richardson. "It's a week together to have fun — and hopefully relax some too."
She and her husband rely on the all-inclusive nature of the clubs to get time together — and time off. "Some cruises and resorts have kids clubs we use occasionally for 'adult time,'" she says. "My husband and I also trade off a couple times, so I might get a massage, then he goes fishing."
How do they cover the bill? "To make sure vacations are a financial priority, we have a vacation fund — basically a bank savings account that we put money in each week," says Richardson. "We also use some of the bonus money we get each year."
On their own: Richardson enjoys an annual couples vacation and several solo weekend trips. "The couples trips give us time to relax and do 'adult' activities like scuba diving, going to concerts and shopping," she says.
The couple has splurged on a variety of trips together, including to Chicago, Key West, and a few music festivals. "We tend to stay in nicer hotels when we travel as a couple," says Richardson. "We also fly more often when it's just the two of us because it's much more affordable."
Like their style? To find an all-inclusive package to enjoy with your kids, check out sites like Funjet Vacations, Cheap Caribbean, Go-Today, Vacation Outlet, Apple Vacations, Vacation Express, and Fare Deals. "All-inclusive packages are usually a better deal for families if you're traveling with kids, and you generally use all of the services, food/drinks, amenities that they provide," says travel expert Nancy Schretter, managing editor of the Family Travel Network.
What works for us: Visiting with family
"We like to vacation with our extended family — specifically, grandparents who don't live in the same town," says Valerie Bartlett, a university administrator in Kingston, Ontario.
Bartlett and her husband bring their two girls, ages 5 and 7, to visit her parents at their lakeside cottage in the summer and their Florida condo in the winter. "It helps to stay in a house where we can cook and put the kids to bed at their normal time and still have somewhere to sit and be social," says Bartlett.
Does she get a break? "Vacationing with kids is a different type of vacation," she says. "It's about hanging out together as a family and making memories. It's not about relaxing and rejuvenating."
The family might be on to something: The Harris Interactive poll also found that 78 percent of children who travel with extended family reported that they get to spend quality time with their grandparents, and over half of those surveyed both feel closer to them and like to remember stories from their trips.
On their own: Bartlett and her husband also take an annual vacation together. She says the trips allow them to focus on their marriage and remember what it's like to be a couple versus parents.
"I find that traveling with kids generally costs more … more people equals more money!" says Bartlett. She's willing to splurge on direct flights when traveling with her kids, but if it's just her and her husband, they'll entertain a layover. "It's amazing how much cheaper flights with one stop can be," says Bartlett. "It's a balancing act of time versus money."
Like their style? Of course, not everyone has out-of-state relatives with the room for visiting family — but if you don't own a lake house, you can rent one with room for everybody, and save by sharing the cost. Check out sites like VRBO and HomeAway, where homeowners in desirable locales put their properties up for rent.
What works for us: Camping
Catherine Ryan, a former New Yorker who is now based outside Sydney, Australia, hasn't done any big trips with her family. Instead, she and her husband take three to four camping trips a year with their girls ages 3, 7, and 9.
Ryan says the cost savings are great (only $25 to $50 a night versus at least $150 for a hotel room). "We used to do hotels because they are nicer when you're an adult," she says. "Then we discovered that kids are hopeless in hotels. When you're camping, they expect to have to entertain themselves and they get out there and play," says Ryan. "Cooking onsite is also a huge savings."
In fact, the family enjoys camping so much, they're considering investing in a camper trailer so they'll always be ready to hit the road.
On their own: Ryan and her husband recently got back from a three-night cruise. "It's important to touch base, grow to miss the kids, and recharge the batteries," she says. When traveling alone, "we allow ourselves some indulgences that we don't with the kids," she says. "We can sleep in and then go out for breakfast." Since they're "paying for two, not five!" they also enjoy naps, fancy drinks and expensive dinners.
Like their style? America's national and state parks are an excellent choice for budget-oriented family vacations. Popular favorites are West Virginia's state parks, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. Other great camping options include the Florida Keys, North Carolina's Outer Banks, Virginia Beach, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
If you want to go a little farther away, you could consider the Concordia Eco-Resort in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, where you can get a five-person Eco-Tent in the off-season (May through mid-November) for $110 versus a four-star hotel that can easily run you closer to $300 a night (for two adults and three kids). And if you're sticking closer to home and taking a road trip, use the AAA Fuel Price Finder to locate the lowest gas prices.
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