We all do it. We all want it to go smoothly and be fun. We all take summer vacations. I’ve done lots of them — often several in one summer (yep, glutton for punishment, table for one!). Are they always perfect? No. Are they always memorable? You betcha! And part of the reason for that is I have learned to thoroughly prepare, then let go of any angst, and trust that we’ll have fun no matter what happens. Here are some of things my family and I have discovered are tried and true over the years.
1 Portable potty – Confession. My parents had one when I was little and it went on vacations with us. Now, I’m 56 so this idea isn’t new. I don’t remember ever using it. However, one trip up Pikes Peak in Colorado they pulled the car over and hauled out the portable potty for my brother. How do I know? My parents had a movie camera and they filmed him using it! Complete with him complaining about it and asking for a blanket to hide behind which my mother provided. The upshot is that the film is etched into everyone’s memories (yes, even my aunts, uncles, and cousins) and my brother has never lived it down. This is what family vacations, memories, and stories are created for — shared event which everyone relates to. Fortunately, my brother outgrew his embarrassment about the film and joined in the laughter by the time he was a teen.
2 Blanket that folds into a pillow — Before you say that you don’t have room, these aren’t big or exceedingly costly. I got mine on sale at Target for under $10. They are about the size of an airplane pillow, but flatter. They zip closed to keep a folded blanket inside and unzip to allow for an almost twin-sized blanket to cover you. When zipped into a pillow they also make a nice little back support addition for the drive. The thing is, lots of us get colder when we sleep. Or the driver takes advantage of our nap and turns the A/C temp to “polar zone.” So a thin blanket is perfect in this situation. And a small pillow is great for napping with your head cradled in the seatbelt or against the headrest.
3 Stop to look at the stars if you have an opportunity – I got lost once. Well, not exactly lost. I missed a turn on the highway when driving from New Hampshire to Maryland. It was after dark so, before I realized my error, I ended up out in Way Past Where Jesus Lost His Sandals, Pennsylvania. This was many years ago, but I did have a rudimentary cell phone. After calling my new husband to get directions I took a breath and looked up. Stars were spread across the vista of skyline. It dawned on me that I was in Amish country – no electric lights blanketing the land to dim the glory of the heavens. And it was definitely glorious. Amazing. Inspirational. I sat on the trunk of my car for about 15 minutes just drinking in the beauty I knew I wouldn’t see again any time soon.
4 Take pictures of the information signs – our family enjoys museums and historical sites. We actually paid to have a tour at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home) because it would take us into the rotunda. Cool! We also took a private tour of Gettysburg. And we took every free tour we could get when we went to Ireland and Northern Ireland. My husband is a photographer. I don’t mean a hobbyist. His first college degree was in photography. He’s worked professionally in the field. He’s had photographs published in numerous books and even in news stories as far away as Australia. So we always have nice pictures of where we have been. I do the candids and selfies. But we don’t always agree on the who, what, when, where of all the pics. So I started taking pictures of the informative signs at the sites we visit. We don’t put them on Facebook or Flickr. We just use them for our own info when we post something from that location, but they really help.
5 Share a blog with family and friends while you’re away – You don’t need to sign up with a fancy service to do this. The first time we did this we simply set up a Tumblr account which my daughter and I posted to regularly during a trip. We tried to post a selfie of us every day and we sprinkled in shots of our locations and points of interest. We gave the blog address to friends and family to follow along. We got a few strangers who peeked in on us, but we ignored them because we weren’t interested in interacting with them. We had a great time choosing our favorite pics to post and seeing the comments our loved ones left for us – or even answering questions. I would definitely do this again on a big trip.
6 Take a picture at every state line you cross – On one summer trip heading south when our daughter was about 10 we decided to stop and take pics at the state line signs. We had a blast coming up with poses and laughing at them later. In one spot we could stand in the road (side road, not major highway) with one foot in each state so none of us could let that opportunity pass. We bring that trip up every time we head south along that route to see family.
7 Keep an album of those states – Have you ever seen one of those Facebook posts that asks you to list every state you’ve ever been to? Or has you child asked you this question for a school project? As I said, my family camped in the summer so we drove around a LOT. I actually kept a running list while I had a child in school because you never knew when this topic was going to rear its ugly head. Of course, we didn’t have cool digital camera phones when I grew up (anyone remember carrying a quarter in your shoe?), but we do now. So take all your state line pics and pop them into an album on your phone because even if you don’t stay overnight or even make a stop there, as long as you walk on that state’s land, you have officially visited. It counts. This is according to my husband’s Aunt Sue, of course, who visited us in Massachusetts. When we got to our chosen New Hampshire tourist attraction it was closed. Undeterred, Aunt Sue hopped out of the car, ran a circle around it in the parking lot, hopped back in, and happily announced that she had walked on NH soil so it counted. We went with that and a family tradition was born.
8 Start a collection- Don’t you just love those souvenir shops that are absolutely everywhere you visit? They have candy, t-shirts, drinks, and reusable mugs that you will never use in the first place just waiting to snap up your money. And you are looking at all of that and are desperately calculating the amount each child can spend on something so they don’t have a temper tantrum before you leave. My husband and I decided when our daughter was super small that we wanted her to enjoy the experience of souvenir shopping so we decided to set her expectations from the get-go. We told her where we were going, what we would see, that we would go to the souvenir shop for her to choose a magnet, and then go home. Fortunately for us, that worked. She’s in her twenties now and she still chooses a magnet everywhere she goes. Maybe a postcard, too. It’s an inexpensive way to have an actual souvenir that doesn’t break your bank. Postcards, bookmarks, worry stones, and a slew of other commonly appearing items in souvenir shops make great takeaways for kids (and adults if you’re watching your bank account). If this style of souvenir shopping is new to you, start with something small and local and work up from there. Hopefully, you’ll be on the magnet/postcard train soon!
9 Share family stories – We all have them. Those quirky little snippets about how Mom’s older brother Bernie went to pick up his blind date and picked up the wrong girl and they ended up married (that would be cool if Bernie was real or it actually happened). Or how Grandmom liked to move the furniture and Grandpop came home late from work one night, didn’t turn the light on so he wouldn’t wake Grandmom, went to lie down in bed, and fell flat on the bedroom floor, after which chaos ensued (that actually happened). In the car, you have a captive audience. Neither your children or your spouse can escape. Be kind to them, but give them a chance to hear about how their great-uncle worked at the only movie theater in town so their grandmother got to sit in the balcony on Saturdays and watch movies all afternoon long with her little dog Bucky (also happened). Or tell them about the time that your uncle took all the cousins to the golf club, you stole his golf cart, and got caught (yep, that happened, too).
10 Take the dog with you – Do you have a dog? I grew up with one. Some of my best summer vacation memories include our family boxer, Max. Max liked the window seats. Left or right, didn’t matter. My brother and I learned very quickly not to lean forward to politely ask my parents a question because if we did, Max would hop up from the middle position and walk behind us with his face pointed toward the window so we couldn’t lean back. Then he refused to move. Ever. Not for anything – even ice cream. We had to give up our seat. The only way to get him to move was to stop the car and get him out. He also loved camping – especially after my dad once took him off lead and let him run full speed into a lake full of birds who immediately scattered to the skies. Taking your pet with you can be a lot of fun, especially if he’s well-behaved.
11 Ask a friend to house sit – The smartest move we made when we spent 2 weeks in Ireland, and went on other extended trips, was to ask a friend to house sit for us. On these trips taking our dog was impossible and boarding him would be expensive. We have been fortunate enough to have really responsible and trustworthy single friends who could house sit for us while we were away. Our dog was safe and cared for, mail was picked up, lights were on and off at different times, and a car was in the driveway. Plus, we were only a phone call away if anything happened.
12 Relax – it always takes about 3 days for my husband to release his work tension, followed by his home responsibilities tension, and lastly his “everything else under the sun” tension. That’s 3 days days of constant alertness to not starting an argument on my part. When he finally relaxes the whole family has a great time. If I could flip a switch to hurry through those first 3 days I’d pay big bucks to get it. Relax and let go of your tension as soon as you can. Once you do, everyone will enjoy the vacation much more – including you!
Want to make your own fold out blanket? Click here for instructions.