3 Types of Vacations to Keep Family Relationships Strong


As I was working on travel-related pinterest board, I started to get all meta about what vacations are for. What’s the goal? Why do we take them? Well it turns out there are as many reasons for traveling as there are people who travel. : ) But you already know that. So then I narrowed it down to our family, the Ben and Gabrielle Blairs. Why do we travel? Why do we put such an emphasis on it? Why do we make so much time for it?

I discussed it with Ben Blair and we both agreed that our primary motivation is family togetherness. Traveling together, vacationing together, it really, truly, helps us keep our family relationships strong.

And I know it’s not just in my head. We all feel more connected to each other when we spend undistracted time together. I can practically see the bonding happen before my eyes! And the only real way we can get a good chunk of undistracted time, is by leaving our house and normal daily schedule, or in other words, when we take a vacation.

I want to talk about 3 types of vacations that we love, and that are especially good at keeping our family relationships strong.


Vacation Type #1: Family Retreats.
This is a vacation where the main thing on the schedule is to talk about the goals and aims of your family. It’s where you discuss your family culture and what you’d like it to be. Essentially, it’s like a productive business retreat, but for your family.

This idea may not be a common one for family vacations, but they are well worth your time, I promise. They don’t have to take long, and if a “productive retreat” doesn’t sound appealing they can be combined with ideas from category 2 (below),

One of our best family retreats, happened during the 2014 holiday break. We drove 2 hours north to the Russian River area of California, and rented a house. We already knew the area and didn’t feel the need to be tourists; it was off-season there anyway. Instead, we slept in. Hung out and relaxed. Maybe took a walk. Made food together. Then in the afternoons and evenings we had family meetings, and we had a basic itinerary planned out beforehand.

We did role plays of conversations depicting healthy relationships. We talked about goals for the next year, and what we’d like to do together as a family. Stuff like that.

It was fantastic. After just a couple of days we could have gone home, because we all felt rested and connected. But. We happened to have the house for a few more days, so we turned the last half of our stay into a movie marathon. We watched all the Star Wars movies and all the Lord of the Rings movies. Woot!

Ben Blair and I did something similar as a couple for our 20th anniversary. On our trip to Lake Louise, we set aside time each day as our Couples Retreat time, where we pulled out notebooks and made plans together. What would the next 20 years bring? How can we be better parents? What can we do to make our marriage even better? Again, it was only a small part of each day, but it was so good!

Deauville, France | Design Mom

Vacation Type #2: Relax & Re-energize.

Think of this as the classic vacation. It’s meant to be an energizing break from your typical daily schedule, and ideally, the only things on the itinerary are things you really love to do. And maybe, there’s no itinerary at all!

A vacation with the goal to relax and re-energize will look different for every family. For some people it might mean sitting on a warm beach with nothing to do. For another family, it might be the same beach, but with a schedule of surf lessons, hula dancing, and hiking.

Or maybe a relaxing and re-energizing trip for your family would be in the city — taking in museums, or watching a live show, or taking cooking classes. For yet another family, it might be camping. Or remember the movie marathon I mentioned above? That was definitely a relaxing and re-energizing thing for our family.

The nice thing is, vacations with the goal of relaxing and re-energizing don’t have to be expensive, and they don’t have to be long. We’re big on squeezing in Saturday-Sunday mini vacations that are close to home.

For example, our reading weekend took virtually no planning, had very little cost, and we didn’t have to miss work or school to make it happen. Another example is the photo above, featuring the Deauville Beach umbrellas in France. Deauville was about an hour and a half north of our home, and anytime the temperature hit 75 or above, we’d hit the beach for the day. No plans. Just sunning ourselves and playing in the water, with a picnic lunch. No hotel, no dinner reservation. And no cell phone coverage! It was just a day, but the break from our schedule, and from the internet, would do the trick.

ben and ralph filming in haiti

Vacation Type #3: Make the World a Better Place Vacation.

This type of vacations is a family trip focused on service and working together. It might be building a house with Habitat for Humanity, or planting trees at a orphanage, or volunteering at a big event, like a marathon. Depending on the ages of your kids, this might be something you do with one parent and one teen. Or maybe you can take the whole crew!

We’ve had a few different experiences with this type of vacation and we’ve never regretted it. One of the best, was when Ralph and Ben Blair went to Haiti as volunteers to make a movie about a new language exchange program for Haiti Partners. It’s the sort of experience that can really change your perspective and get your family engaged around important work. Not only did they make the video, which was a big help, they also became life-long advocates. Ben Blair and Ralph, and really the whole family are now big supporters of Haiti Partner’s programs. Getting to see and interact with an organization up close makes it so much easier to support a cause with your available resources — both time and money.

There’s another aspect of this type of vacation that I love. It’s the working! In fact, I’m one of 8 brothers and sisters, and we find we relate best to each other when we’re working together on something big. If we all get together and just hang out, there’s a high probability we’ll start teasing and being obnoxious and we’ll hurt someone’s feelings. But if we’re working together — we used to put on Triathlons in Southern Utah, and now we work together on Alt Summit — it’s like it brings out our super-powers. We solve problems right and left, laugh a whole bunch, and feel like we’ve accomplished something worthwhile when we’re done. Working together can bring out the best in people.

Okay. Now it’s your turn. I have lots of questions. What are your thoughts on these 3 types of vacations. Have you tried all three? When it’s time to relax, what sort of vacation do you crave most? Forest, beach, library — or maybe a fancy spa? What about a volunteering vacation? What sort of volunteer opportunity do you think your family would do best?

P.S. — Once our kids hit school age — say ages 5-18 — we only get 13 summer vacations, 13 winter breaks, 13 spring breaks, and maybe thirty 3-day weekends before they’re all grown up. Think of it as max 70 chances to share adventures with our kids. 70 is not that much! So I thought it would be fun to pin every awesome place I want to take my kids. And if we only hit some of them? Well, that’s better than none!

49 thoughts on “3 Types of Vacations to Keep Family Relationships Strong”

  1. I love the idea that family vacations make families stronger, but right now I’m feeling really deflated after our last two family getaways (one with friends, one just our family) resulted in endless bickering between our two kids and stressed-out, disappointed parents. At this point, I’m torn between feeling like I want to travel the world with my kids and not ever wanting to leave our house.

    Tips for handling sibling issues while traveling? I think trip type 3 would help with that but what about for run-of-the-mill trips?

    1. Don’t be discouraged. Most families get some of this. “She touched me!” “Are we there yet?!”

      You’re probably right about #3. Or maybe give each child an age-appropriate task: Plan to tell us about the Gold Rush area we’ll see, or plan a game or treat for us in the car–to give them a way to contribute and get their focus off of themselves.

      This may not apply, but kids sense when parents are trying to please and entertain them and sometimes resent the pressure.

  2. All of these are lovely (especially love #3)! I feel silly asking this, but….#1 is completely foreign to me. Is that a normal thing? I get wanting to get away and have bonding time (no phones), like #2. I’ve never heard of relationship goals, and I thought family meetings were just what people did on tv! :P haha I’d love a post on how to get those started!

  3. I have never thought about vacation-ing like this before, but you are so spot on!!!! The only type we havent done yet is the ‘make the world a better place’ vacation!! But its on my list now!!!!!

  4. We have a saying that it’s a vacation if it’s a couples getaway, and a trip if we bring the kids :-) You could add in a reunion category–travel that’s with extended family or honoring a milestone. (That could fit in the family retreat concept with a bit of stretching, I suppose.) Family travel is important to us too as a bonding time. One thing I like to do is frame photos, make photo books, and so on, so that the memories stay present and are easy to look back on and reminisce about. We have a map on the wall where you mark places been and places to go, and one of our family blogs is simply for travel reports/dreams.

  5. I love how you’ve categorized vacations. Every time we are away just as a little family it is amazing to see the kids reconnect with each other. I’m excited to do a “make the world a better place” vacation with my kids. Great post!

  6. I love this post and look forward to reading more comments. Megan–I’ve been there! Not sure how old your kids are, but we too had a run of really miserable trips. I remember telling my husband I felt like a complete failure and I couldn’t believe we wasted time and money on a vacation when they could have just fought at home! I persevered (because that’s what we Moms do;) and they grew out of it! Hang in there!

    I also wanted to tell you all about my experience doing a #3 vacation. I took my 14 year old daughter on a 2 week volunteer vacation to Guatemala. We volunteered at a school and also had time to do some excursions–visiting Tikal, zip-lining over a coffee plantation, jumping off a waterfall, etc. We went through IVHQ (International Volunteer Headquarters) and they were fabulous to work with! The whole experience was unlike anything we’d ever done. We were both completely out of our element and it was awesome relying on each other so much. It deepened our relationship in such a profound way. We were constantly interacting with other volunteers, our host family and the Guatemalan people and I think we both saw a different side to each other through those interactions. I went into it knowing the work would be meaningful and that we would appreciate what we have so much more, but I didn’t expect the experience to directly impact the relationship I have with my daughter. We’re thinking of doing another 2 weeks there with my daughter and I volunteering at the same school and my husband and son doing a construction project. There’s something about coming together at the end of the day to share our experiences that I think would be amazing. On our days off, we could do excursions together.

    Anyway, I could go on and on, but for those of you interested in this type of vacation, there are tons of options–just google Volunteer Vacations Family. For the animal lovers, check out options through: Oceanic Society, National Geographic, Sierra Club and Earthwatch.

    Happy Travels in 2016 Everyone!!

    1. Thank you, Natalie. That’s really heartening. And also inspiring to hear about your volunteer experience with your daughter.

  7. I love how thoughtful you are about all aspects of your life. I’m going to suggest the “couples retreat” idea to my husband because I love the idea of thinking ahead to what we both want and ways to improve the relationship, all against a relaxing backdrop. Thanks for sharing such great ideas!

    1. I highly, highly recommend a couples retreat if you can make it happen. It’s the best! In an ideal world, we would take at least 2 a year — though that has never happened. : )

  8. Its a vacation if its just us and a family trip if the kids come! I love love love going away for little weekends with my husband, and usually once a year we’ll take the kids camping for 7 or 8 days but thats not a vacation in the sense that we’re relaxing the whole time. My kids are little, 3 and 5, so it still feels like I’m doing all the same things at camp as I would do at home, but for my husband it is incredibly relaxing. And of course I benefit from him kicking back and letting loose, and being out of his work environment, and the kids benefit from spending 24/7 with their dad. So I still love those family trips!

    1. So true! When the kids are little, it definitely just feels like doing-the-same-parenting-in-a-different-place. Hah! But when I look back, I still feel like it was worth it. Getting a change of scenery, or a new view, still helped renew me — even if I didn’t actually get to relax much on the family trip.

  9. SUCH a fantastic post! Thank you for all the thought and work you put into posts like this. They are so practical and fun and solve lots of problems and answer lots of questions I have for our own family. Thanks again!

  10. Gabrielle,
    I really, really love these posts of yours that delve into thoughtful and mindful parenting. I’m not a parent yet, but I’m so interested in learning about how to cultivate a healthy and happy family culture. I’m just in awe of these ideas, cousins week, a reading retreat, and others that you have mentioned. Please keep them coming!

  11. Really enjoyed reading this. I do think that couples getting away for planning and
    goal setting is wonderful and generally very productive. Also, I remember feeling
    totally exhausted from a couple of family trips and wondering if they were worth it. But today our children remember these “exhausting” trips with joy and delight.

    1. I definitely find family vacations exhausting. Even our trip to Utah over Christmas break totally wiped me out. Hah! But you’re right, the kids experience it so differently!

  12. Great post! I would also love more specifics on #1. I think it sounds like a great idea, but I am not sure where I would even begin.

      1. I know you’ve gotten a few requests for more info on #1 — I just wanted to express my interest in that, too. I’m not good at formalized things like that. I rarely talk about how to improve a relationship with someone (even my husband!) – it feels awkward and forced. BUT then I hear about these great things that come of it and wonder if I should brace myself and try it.

        Would love your tips!

  13. My parents favored “Educational Vacations.” Sometimes there would be a theme (Lewis and Clark sites, for example) but most of the time they would plan an itinerary around various historical sites, monuments, museums, and Presidential Libraries. We never once went to a resort while I was growing up, but I had a lot of excellent learning experiences, and now that I’m older I value even more the idea of education as a seamless part of pleasure. As my high school graduation gift, they let me plan a trip, and I picked an Educational Vacation! We road tripped across the country and spent two weeks in Pennsylvania, seeing sites such as Independence Hall, Fallingwater, and Gettysburg. It was wonderful, and I’m so happy I got to see those places with my family.

    1. Yes to the educational vacation! We didn’t go on many vacations growing up, but my parents did make sure we saw the important historical sites– and growing up in Seattle, that mostly meant Native American sites, the Lewis and Clark trail, and the Oregon Trail with lots of genealogical ties. And another category was the nature vacation (otherwise known as the National Parks vacation, usually a road trip): plain and simple, the entire goal is to hike, explore, see a million different landscapes, and wear yourself out before bed. No fancy dinner reservations, but certainly no lounging on the beach, either!

    2. Oh. I like that! I haven’t categorized any of our vacations as “educational”, but of course, so many have been. A trip to DC, a Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock, a visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. All were super educational!

  14. When I was 19 and in college, my dad took me on a #3 type of trip – to Africa! He is a doctor, and we went on a trip that simultaneously provided medical care at a remote clinic in a Masai village in Tanzania, and started building a new clinic building. I can honestly say that that trip changed my life. I became an anthro major in college and developed a love of international travel. We traveled a lot when I was growing up – trips that fell into category #2 but more in the “exploring” theme – lots of hiking and some cities – but Africa was amazingly my first international travel and it was MIND BLOWING. A huge bonding experience and very special to do just with me and my dad.

    I have 9 and 5 year old boys, and I am just starting to see how traveling with them might start to feel like “vacation.” It has definitely felt like parenting in a different location for the most part thus far. We travel a ton within the US, mostly to visit far-flung family and friends. We took them to Costa Rica (awesome family trip location!) when they were 5 years and 18 months, and this summer we are taking them to Peru for a month! I love traveling and am excited to take my kids to Peru (my husband and I lived there for a year before kids)… and I also know there will be at least one time when I wonder why I ever came up with this idea.

    1. “A huge bonding experience and very special to do just with me and my dad.”

      There’s something so wonderful about a trip that’s just one parent and one child. We’ve been able to do a simple version of a trip like that as each of our kids turned 12. Ralph and I went to San Francisco (we didn’t live in the Bay Area yet, so it felt like an adventure); Maude and I went to London (we lived in France at the time); Olive and Ben Blair went to Los Angeles.

  15. It’s been my life goal to go on a make the world a better place vacation. It seems like such a hard thing to do though when you have young kids, especially one who is disabled. Maybe I’ll have to save up my money and ditch the kids with my husband for a week and go on my own ;)


    1. You bring up a good point, Paige. I think ages of kids (and abilities of kids) certainly affect vacation opportunities. We’ve done a ton of travel with kids of all ages, but for a make the world a better place trip, having older kids who can really contribute volunteer work makes sense.

  16. Probably a sign of my current life-stage, but for me vacations fall into one of two categories: “go-see-do” or “go-do-nothing”! Go-see-do involves itineraries, day trips, cultural and educational sightseeing. Go-do-nothing means no itinerary and more likely than not the destination was selected for its restorative ability. And by default it seems that the lack of daily routine means at some point talk turns to life planning, maybe not so structured or purposeful but some of our best conversations happen on vacation.

  17. I love number 1! I love the idea of having important but potentially difficult conversations, about the health of your relationship and planning for the future, away from home. It always feels hard to me to broach those topics, and I bet it really helps to do it in a different physical and mental space than where your daily grind (with its daily annoyances) takes place! I would love more specifics, too, about how you do this – the healthy conversation modeling, talking about family culture, etc. Thank you so, so much for all you do – I adore your blog!

  18. We definitely vacation for family togetherness as well. The kids are still young enough we haven’t included them in a whole lot of family planning/retreats but every time we road trip Dave and I use the driving time to plan the next few months or years talk about our hopes and dreams and check in with each other about how things are going. It feels like a really wonderful way to spend the drive.

    I grew up doing service trips with my family, and can’t wait to take my own young family on some in the future. I trace lots of my perspective and gratitude for basic commodities on time spent in different cultures and with different people.

    Also, last year was the first year in a long time that I haven’t gone on a big international vacation, and instead planned several small day and weekend trips. I was a little worried that we would feel like we had missed out on something, instead I felt like we gained so much togetherness doing frequent less expensive and less stressful getaways!!

  19. loved this post! we’re taking our biggest vacation to date with our entire family (dad+mom+8kiddos) I’m *beyond* excited! our trip will be mostly relaxing, or as relaxing as can be with 8 kids in a van traveling almost 5000miles. love the Pinterest board. I’ll be start one similar!

  20. I am reading from Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala on an extended adventure with my family….. 3 kids, ages 10,13, and 16 and your post rings true on so many levels! We are crammed in a tiny apartment and are furiously studying Spanish for five hours a day and we are loving it, despite the arduous nature of language immersion AND a serious bout with food poisoning. Travel provides a change of perspective that is hard to replicate any other way and the family time is so valuable! Thank you for sharing, Gabrielle! I’m recording our journey, both the good and the bad, here….www.afamilyafar.com

  21. I get awfully nervous when we start talking “voluntourism”. I know that oftentimes intentions are good, but we really need to look at what impact volunteer vacations have on local populations. Are you really making things better, or just using local people to teach your kids a lesson and go home feeling better about yourself? Are your dollars better spent paying a local to do the work that you’ve done? Are you teaching your family about the root causes of inequality and global poverty, and how we in the “1st world” directy benefit from those things? (Great if you can serve a meal in Guatemala, but if you return home to the Gap to buy a closet full of sweatshop tee shirts that are made in Guatemala, you’re probably not really in it for the right reasons.)

    Here’s a good article, though there are tons more out there. My favorite passage:

    “Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.”


    1. I also had concerns about the third category of travel. Although I think most of the people who undertake this type of vacation do so with good intentions, there is a significant probability that voluntourism is detrimental or at the very least exploitative, particularly if it’s done in a developing country. (I do not believe the examples Gabby cites of Habitat for Humanity or organizing a marathon are exploitative though.) I’d encourage people considering this type of vacation to read the following articles and research more perspectives on this.

  22. What about a 4th category – vacation to visit extended family? All of our holiday/vacation time is spent visiting relatives who do not live near. I definitely would put it into a category of its own even though their are parts of #1, 2, 3 mixed in.

  23. I’d also love to know about how media is handled on these vacations. In remote areas like #3, it’s probably less an issue because of lack of service, but this is the elephant in the room on vacations/trips unless we go camping or somewhere remote where I don’t have to be the bad guy restricting their phone use.

  24. Did you ever share some of the goals you and Ben discussed at Lake Louise? My husband and I are on a kid free vacation right now. We have been married about 4.5 years and together just over five so we are trying to talk about dreams for the next 5.

  25. Pingback: How to strengthen your family with a vacation

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