How to Have a Successful Family Vacation

When I was pregnant with twins and completely out of my mind with Oh Dear God, I Can’t Do This Five Kids Thing, my friend Christy, a fellow mama of multiples, said, “Don’t worry. Every 3 months, something gets easier.”

Christy was right. Well, except when she was wrong. But mostly she was right. Every 3 months, in general, something did get easier.

Last week, we went on family vacation.


And family vacations can be a mixed bag, right? For us, having a kid with special needs plus 4 other kids who expect unreasonable things like quality time and attention and to eat food, our family vacation bag has been more like a burlap sack full of kittens someone tossed in the river, all noise and mewling and squirming and pushing and THIS IS HORRIBLE, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!

Not to be dramatic or anything.

Honestly, though, this vacation was rad.

photo 4 (2)(Abby and Katee)

Just really, really great.

photo 4 (32)

(my brother and me)

You know, except when it wasn’t.

photo 5 (18)


But the times it wasn’t were fewer and farther between.

photo 1

(Cael, Aden and Cai rafting the Deschutes River, OR)

photo 2 (72)

(Abby, Katee, Aden, me)

And I will tell you what: it’s taken us a long time to get to this place. A long time full of working hard, giving in to exhaustion, falling apart, losing our crap, pledging to Never Go on Vacation Again, sighing, trying again, and making slow, incremental improvements. Traveling with tiny twins and a kid with special needs who relies on stability, structure and strict routine to maintain any amount of composure… well, it sucked. For lots of years and lots of vacations, until we found what works for all of us, it sucked. Like, it didn’t totally suck, but the percentage of suckage was very, very high, is what I’m saying. 

But every year, something got easier.

photo 3 (2)photo 4(Cai, Cael and Ian on the Deschutes River)

Until the last 2 years, when the rad percentage switched places with the suckage percentage.

photo 5

(Ian and Aden the opposite of attacking each other: a vacation MIRACLE)

The truth is, I love vacations. I love to travel.

photo 1 (2)

(Cael, Cai and Papa, canoe bosses)

I love to spend time with my ridiculous, awesome family.

I love that we’re creating weird, wonky, wonderful family memories.

IMAG0668(Papa, the Photo Bomber)


(Greg and me, minus the Bomber)

And I guess I just wanted to let you know that if your family vacation isn’t perfect like the commercials or your friends’ Facebook feeds or even your own childhood memories which are sometimes based on the photos that captured only the good moments and none of drowning kittens, that’s okay. That’s normal. That’s exactly right.

We went on vacation.

And yes, we fought in the car both ways.

And yes, a kid vomited on the first day and in my bed.

And yes, my phone screen shattered into a gazillion pieces.

And yes, we were impatient.

But we were also kind, even more than we thought we could stand to be.

And we laughed hard.

And we watched movies while sitting in a hot tub,
floating bowls of popcorn like tiny ships.

And we ate obnoxiously large bags of M&M’s and way too many ice cream bars.

And we gathered for family dinners.

And we swam the pool.

And we freaked out in the river.

And we rode horses that acted like my kids, which is to say they were majestic and stunning and beautiful and stayed on the path and followed directions, but only when they felt like it. The rest of the time, they were bonking us into tree branches and eating off the ground and farting and peeing in public and falling behind and running to catch up and making us laugh and laugh and laugh and love the ride more for it.

photo 4 (31)

photo 5 (17)

(Aden, Abby and Katee, high in the Ponderosas)

So, yes; our vacation wasn’t perfect. And yes, we have improvements to make. And yes, I came home and went straight to bed.

But our vacation was just what we needed it to be. Incrementally better. Easier than last year. And our own brand of completely awesome.

photo 1 (67)

(Cai and Ian, zonked on the way home)


How do you feel about family vacation? What makes them work for you?
We’re taking more family vacations closer to home these days, and traveling farther with smaller groups of kids. It’s working much better for the man-child who needs a routine, but I did have to mourn the loss of bigger family trips. (Although my bank balance is much happier.)

What about you and yours?


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15 responses to “How to Have a Successful Family Vacation”

  1. You spent quality time with your kids. Fighting does count for that too. You are communicating, right? Ian is smiling in the pictures you posted! Looks like you had a great time. I say, SUCCESS!

    Great job! Hope the transition to reality isn’t too painful 😀

  2. Oh, Beth. How I needed to read this today! Having just done a 2700-mile road trip with 5 kids 9 and under in a minivan, and then turned around two weeks later to drive 1100 miles round trip and that one was a mission trip, I had just decided to Never Go On Vacation Again! You give me hope that it will get better, and better!

  3. We are doing a close to home mini-vacation this year. Just the three of us, and my oldest grandson, who is 2 years older than my son, so that should be fun. We are going camping in Cape May. My biggest concern is getting my stiff 54 year old body down into a sleeping bag, actually sleeping, and then getting up again in the morning. I don’t anticipate a lot of kid-bickering, since the boys like each other and never get to spend much time together. Hope we get to go canoe-ing that looks like it was a lot of fun!

    Last year, we did a big family vacation for a week in a deluxe condo in Myrtle Beach. That one wore me out.

  4. Our family vacations when I was a kid were always planned so Dad could fish, relax and enjoy being away from the office and especially the telephone. But my mom often pointed out to us kids that Dad had purposely planned this or that for our enjoyment: drive to Yellowstone, Glacier, or Banff; take a boat and waterskis along to the fishing lake; see the World’s Fair; choose a motel with a pool and TV. I remember it as always fun, even though we all got food poisoning at Yellowstone and I only remember Old Faithful. There was some kind of connection…

  5. I love this! We have five kids too and vacations are crazy! But I refuse to stop taking them. My expectations have definitely changed. I go into a family vacation expecting it to take a lot of effort on my part. When I get a chance to sit back and relax, it is a bonus that I can thoroughly enjoy! I love travel, and I appreciate the sacrifices my parents made to take me and my siblings on vacation when we were young. Hopefully our kids will have some great vacation memories as well!

  6. Perfect post for me to read first thing this morning, as I was about to have a breakdown over our first camping trip this weekend. But I know it will be fun, right? RIGHT?!

  7. Thanks so much, that not only our holiday is kind of a mess. The first time we went for a short trip nearby (3h by car) it was anything but relaxing. Our son (5 months back then) slept even worse than at home. I really hope, we can enjoy a “real” holiday like a week somewhere in the near future. Maybe when our son only sleeps once a day…

    You give me a lot of hope with your posts!

  8. I don’t know! At this point my vacations with have all included various extra family members who have no children so we have extra adults around! I think I’m really liking the sound of your traveling far with smaller groups thing though! I could dig that in a few more years!
    Here’s hoping that the next 2 weeks in Oregon (with extra family members) will be memorable… in all the good ways! 😉

  9. And then when they really start to like each other and get along beautifully, they all start doing their own thing and you can’t get them all in one place at the same time any more. So we had 3 out of 7 cousins together, (one special needs), no grandparents, but one awesome extra together this weekend and very little suckage.

  10. Beautiful post, Beth. Makes my cry because it reflects so well the complexity of family vacations, and the miracle that they can be; and because my extended family (siblings, parents, all the cousins) went to Sunriver last week, too, and it was awesome all the way around. I wonder if my parents ever imagined when we were kids on vacation and fighting over everything that one day we would all get along so beautifully. So when your kids are in their 40s, it should be really great, is what I’m saying. (And damn does this make me miss my siblings all over again.)

    • Yep – somehow my mom kept the faith during all of Jeff’s and my bickering years that we would turn out to be best friends. We think she brainwashed us. But, truly, a friendship with adult siblings is one of the great blessings of life. I mean, who else will side with you against your parents? Or tell you that you’re right — they ARE completely nuts? This is the gift I hope to give my kids; someone who will know experientially how insane I really am. 🙂

  11. OK, are you near Gresham? Because my son (age 25) had the nerve to move there (he used to live in South Florida – where I live!) 18 months ago, and his fiancé ALWAYS posting pictures on her Facebook of them rafting down the river with a bunch of other people. And then he wanted Megan to come visit this summer so she got there on Sunday and he got her from the airport and took her rafting on the river. Which is a whole other story because Megan doesn’t handle exhaustion well, and she was up at 3 am to catch the plane on Sunday and then travelling until 11 am your time, which is +3 hours from here. Then today she went hiking with his fiancé while he was at work. I asked her if she loved it there yet (because I need to know in advance if she’s going to abandon me too when she turns 18 in 2 years and 2 months (OMG)), but she said no, the water’s too cold. That’s my Florida baby. Anyway… The whole point of this very long ramble was I wonder if you raft where my son does and if you’re even possibly in his rafting group?

    • Oregon is completely addictive, Maira… tell Megan to run! People get used to cold water; it’s terrible and we learn to love it.

      Gresham is east of Portland. We’re southwest of Portland in the Willamette Valley wine country region, an hour or more from Gresham. These rafting and canoeing pictures were taken in Central Oregon on the Deschutes River (a few hours south of Gresham). If your son loves to raft in the area, I’ll bet he’s rafted the Deschutes at some point.

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