Family Vacation with Teens: it’s All About the Dinners

With summer moving swiftly, and our past family vacation just a file of photos in my camera, I realize that my reason for traveling with my kids has changed. When they were little I wanted to get them out of the house. With three small boys, a cramped space and a cold climate, my idea of vacation was a place where the sun shined and my children could not break anything. In their middle years I wanted to show them things, add culture and breadth to their world. Now, what matters most in our travel with teenagers is sharing family meals together.

Family vacation with teens is all about the dinners

Research has shown that we are happier when we buy experiences than when we buy things. When I buy those five airline tickets or fill the car with gas and pile us all in, I am buying 21 consecutive meals with my family. I am buying hours of conversation at the breakfast, lunch and dinner table with my husband and three sons and it is worth every penny.

The minute we leave for the airport or get into the car we wrap ourselves tightly into a cocoon and are transformed from a family focused outwardly – communicating with friends and colleagues, immersed in work and study – into a family oblivious to others.  At each meal we are a world unto ourselves, as we once were when they were small, and our love was all they knew.

The conversation is the continuation, not literally but in a larger sense, of a dialogue we have had all our of marriage and of all our sons’ lives. My husband tells and retells tales of his childhood, our kids finishing the stories with the endings they know and love so well. One son complains about the food because that is what he has been doing all of his life and similarly the rest of us continue to ignore him.

My other two sons squabble, pushing and shoving and coming perilously close to damaging every hotel room we have ever occupied, until they realize that we are immune to their behavior and they lose interest as well. I worry about the details of our family vacation, about flight connections, luggage, check out times and directions.  The four of them, who know better than to give the appearance of ignoring me, bobble-head along. Patterns are set, we each have roles, and time and venue do not impact this dynamic.

During each meal the conversation drifts, not to homework and our day’s events, but to current events and the culture and history of wherever we are. We traveled through central Europe recently and talked for a week about The War and genocide, about the Iron Curtain and resistance. It was not a conversation that we would have begun sitting comfortably in the suburbs. If we did it would only continue until one of them said, “what time is the game on?” But driving from Munich to Nuremberg and later on to Prague, with long unhurried meals in town squares and beer gardens, allowed a conversation to ebb and flow as if we were in the pre-electronic age.

When we travel with teenagers, I don’t nag. Not hearing the sound of my own voice and the words “SAT prep, homework, class presentation, preseason” is a vacation in and of itself. I don’t realize how much I loath the sound of my own nagging voice until I don’t hear it.

Then it all ends in a blinding flash. Still on the tarmac at JFK my kids switch on their cell phones and, before we are at the gate, one son has made plans for dinner that night asking how fast we think we can clear customs and another wants to know what time his dentist appointment is in the morning. The third plugs in ear phones that have been left untouched in the bottom of his backpack all week.

But it is not gone. We have revisited the well that is our family. We have drunk deeply over 21 different meals of that which connects and binds us.

Family vacations with teenagers



  1. says

    Love this and 110% agree that I’d rather buy experiences than things. I could almost feel the lull and change of pace while you and your family were together and then the FF as you returned. So true. What a lovely post.

    • says

      You are so right about the pacing. Time slows down as you gather around the dinner table on vacation, no place to rush off to, nothing that must get done by the morning. We need to savor these moments and hold them close all year. Thanks so much for commenting.

  2. says

    Barb is so right! It is a beautifully written and discriptive post. I feel like I have gone back in time to our road trips, (Though not as eloquent) spending the time together. Yes, conversations shift, and you are in a family cocoon. Time invested well. My youngest son has just passed a licensing exam for insurance sales. He is business oriented and starting a beautiful family. Here is where I pray that all our family trips, and the time my husband devoted to his family, pays in huge dividends. In a world of chaos, and madness, these are the memories which will bring us closer to peace.
    Thank you for sharing, Lisa

    • says

      I was at a meeting this morning with someone who said, “Grandparenting is the one thing in life that is not overrated.” His words will be with me for a very long time and I hope they will be true for you and me. Enjoy what is to come and thanks for reading.

  3. says

    What a well written post – thank you for sharing it so eloquently. We have done the family holidays and you are right, it is so different to being at home and I love how the dynamics are different. My husband and I recently went on a holiday by ourselves andit was fantastic – while we missed our daughter, we enjoyed just having to worry about what we wanted to do !
    Have a great day !

    • says

      Thank you..very kind. BTW leave your blog info (I think your site is beautiful) for others to find you…

  4. Judy says

    This post really resonates. It always amazes me the transformation that takes place in our family when we are away from home on holiday together. Freed from the day to day “stuff” we focus on each other and getting on with the business of making everlasting memories. I’ll always remember a quote I heard on becoming a new mother “your children won’t remember that they always had crisply ironed shirts”. So true.

    • says

      Love that…ironed shirts. As I mom I know I have focused so many times on the minutiae (after all if I don’t who will) and missed the larger things. On vacation I try to get it right, not always succeeding, but I try. Thanks for your words of wisdom, I will remember that.

  5. DarleneMAM says

    I love family beach vacations with my husband and two young adult kids. We line up on the beach in our chairs, read, talk about what we’re reading, plan dinner and catch up. It’s a relaxed, happy reconnecting time.

    • says

      It really is special, time stolen from the usual, and days I am sure that will never be forgotten. The reconnecting, as you say, is such an all important thing with kids moved away. LOVE your post of your daughter coming home. Remember when they were little and at the park and they would run over and just touch you and run back and play? That is what quick visits from college students feel like. Just checking that we are still here.

  6. says

    I so agree, Lisa. While some people obsess over sights to see and things to do while on a family vacation, my pre-vacation time is spent poring over reviews of restaurants in the various sites we plan on visiting. It’s “my thing.” We are a family that loves to eat together…the entire process of picking a place, choosing from the menu, eating, sharing, laughing…. Some of the best memories I have of family time were made around a table. This past summer my husband and I traveled without our sons and although we had a blast, there was not one place where we ate that we didn’t say, “the boys would love this.”

    • says

      Family meals are such wonderful times, but on vacation they have a dreamy, not-in-a-hurry quality that is hard to match in real life. I for one would love the restaurant suggestions from your family.

  7. says

    I agree with this post – it “speaks” to me – and makes me feel like I’m not this horrible person that likes to have a vacation that is now for “me”. We have done the “family” and “kids oriented” vacations, but now that the kids are no longer kids …… I like the fact that we can do adult things, go to adult places without feeling like I am a horrible mother. (I may have been, if you had asked my kids back then, but I did the best I could)

    • says

      It so nice to be able to take “adult” vacations with the kids. And I LOVE that we don’t have to eat in kids places….

  8. says

    We went to Bald Head Island NC for 5 consecutive years with our children, they are all in college now, but I realize that’s the kind of gifts that we should be buying them. Thanks for the reminder!

    • says

      Going back to the same place year in and year out creates such wonderful lifelong memories. Funny how so many of those are associated with beaches and eating outside.

  9. says

    I love the concept of buying “experiences” instead of “things” although when my daughter was little, she didn’t quite get that :) Although I was divorced during a good portion of my daughter’s childhood, I made it a point to vacation with her–to give her the experience of travel and appreciation of being with mom.

    I believe when we do these things with our children while they are young, instead of constantly trying to please them with material things, they will grow up to understand the true difference between experience and things.

    Great post!

    • says

      I know what you mean, when mine were little a toy store was heaven…now if we are going to “do” something, they are far more excited. Though I have to say I walk by toy stores sometimes with a little tug at my heart.

  10. says

    Love this post. We haven’t been able to afford a holiday for some time and my husband and I both are desperate to take the kids away somewhere just so we can break out of the cycle of nagging, driving to activities, homework, worries about our work. Reading this makes me even more committed to putting the money away so we can take a decent break from the everyday!

    • says

      Wishing you good luck with this, sounds like the whole family would welcome the break. So glad you shared your story.

  11. Grace Hodgin says

    Making memories by spending quality time together are my favorite things to do. Now that my children are grown they often reflect on the vacations we took and the good and funny things that happened.

    • says

      Those vacations are the source of family stories that get told and retold for years…it’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Sometimes I think the mishaps (we had not luggage for a week once…made for some very funny stories) make for the best family lore.

  12. says

    You give me hope for the days when I don’t need to worry/nag about homework and college test prep any more…that just the connectedness will remain in a more relaxed setting! Lovely post.

  13. says

    i love this post and i love this line-a perfect line if ever one was written:
    ” we are a world unto ourselves, as we once were, when they were small and our love was all they knew.” you wrote once about worrying that your boys wouldn’t be as close as you want them to be when they are older. any mother who can write that line has absolutely nothing to worry about. They wouldn’t know any other way.

  14. says

    Lovely unique post about travel. It reminds me of our experiences hiking in the Sawtooth Mountains. Walking for miles and talking about “stuff.” Great memories.

  15. says

    You have given your sons a gift they will cherish forever….time. I cherish our meals with our littles because it is the absolute one time a day we can all settle down, unplug, and connect to each other. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  16. says

    Oh, I tend to err on the side of being contemplative instead of being action oriented. I need to complement our trips to the library with trips to actual places.

  17. Carpool Goddess says

    As you know, meal-time is a big deal in our home. And when we travel it’s even better because it is three meals a day, plus snacks (!) and I’ve got their undivided attention. It’s hard to come home knowing we’re going to lose some of that.

  18. Helene Cohen Bludman says

    I echo what everyone else has said. I enjoy traveling with our adult kids because they have such an appreciation for it. We all love trying different cuisines–no more picky eaters. Also, they have come to love museums. Thought that day would never come. Terrific post as always, Lisa.

  19. says

    I find that family trips like the ones you describe really are such a great way to bond–for everyone. It almost doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you’re going there together!

  20. says

    This post makes me happy for all the experiences I’ve shared with my two teen boys, yet kind of sad, knowing that one is already in college and planning his own, separate vacations. I think your kids will talk with their kids about their family adventures and then follow the tradition you’ve set.

  21. says

    Love this. I feel so much better hearing that my family is so similar to someone else’s. We are the same – so busy and focused most of the time, but on holiday, meals are our favourite moments to spend together. It’s really great. Thanks for sharing!

  22. says

    Thanks so much for reminding me of what I liked so much about traveling with my kids. Those unhurried conversations that occur and seem to string out across many days are some of my most precious moments with them. Now that they’re grown and gone, I remember those minutes so fondly. Thanks for the great post- Virginia- FirstClassWoman

  23. Chloe Jeffreys says

    This post made me cry remembering those last years when my children were home and we tried to pack as much conversation as we could into every minute together. And all the missed moments because I didn’t realize how precious and fleeting they really were.

    Enjoy them when they are young, is what the old ladies in the grocery store tell you. Damn it, but they were right.

  24. says

    And there it is in one post. The bittersweet experience of raising a family up, up and away. For all of the discomfort and fractiousness that must be endured during family travel all of those moments of connection and shared experience are worth it. Thanks for your words.

  25. Pat says

    What wonderful learning experiences you are creating for your boys. Yes, there is no better place for making memories than in the family travel bubble.

  26. says

    Sounds like a great trip.

    I know that some people struggle with their teens, abut I always enjoyed the time with mine, the conversations, the swapping of ideas and seeing this adult person blossom, who was so much like me in some ways, and so different in others.

    You know they’re going to prize that trip for the rest of their lives.

  27. says

    I so related to your post. We only have one son—but how I loved those times when he was in the back seat of my car, my captive, so we could talk all the way to and from wherever we were going. Now I love when he travels with us; it has the feeling of rejoining times past!


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