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Goyer: Family Vacation Challenge

Looking forward to a multigenerational family vacation this year, but not sure how you'll pull it off? Is your head spinning while you see your vacation savings account seemingly disappearing before your very eyes while you try to think of some different and affordable travel ideas to entertain your children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews?

I offer you the Great Family Heritage Trail Vacation Challenge: take your family on a trail through history—your family's history. Visit the places of your childhood, which may not be on the National Register of Historic Places, but are, of course, of momentous importance to you and yours because of your family's association with them.

For instance, have your grandchildren ever seen the house where you grew up? Or the burger joint where you had your first job? What about the factory where your parents worked manufacturing cars or building machinery for World War II? And the town where your ancestors first disembarked when they immigrated to America? Maybe now is a good time to put those places on the map.

In the early 1960s, my great-aunt Mildred led my family along the Lincoln Heritage Trail, a route created in 1963 which travels through the places in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, that were significant in the life of former President Abraham Lincoln. Aunt Mildred was a teacher, so she knew how to bring the history to life for us. She combined fun anecdotes, historical facts, games, and quizzes with an actual place we could see and experience. It was a great American-heritage family road trip, and we tailgate-picnicked along the way. It was probably one of the least-expensive vacations our family ever took, but it was also one of the most memorable for us kids.

You may not be an Abraham Lincoln, but your life's trail is just as important and can be just as fun to trace across the generations.

You can make your family excursion a mini-vacation or a full-blown, pack-up-the-gear-and-hit-the road trip. I once took my niece around the college campus I attended, showing her the dorms and houses where I lived, the classrooms and practice rooms, the hot romantic spots, and more, telling her (toned down, of course) stories of my college days. We laughed and bonded that day, because she saw me as someone with whom she could identify. That was a mini-version.  Some other approaches might include:

  • Explore your hometown with the family in tow. See the house where you grew up, your favorite ice cream shop, the ball fields where you learned to play, your schools—the places that were the most important to you and your family.
  • Road trip! Take a road trip through all the states you've ever lived in. You won't have time to go into great depth in each, but you can hit the highlights and get a feel for the variety of experiences you've had in your life.
  • Become a farmer. Spend a week on the family farm—or one like it—experiencing the way of life so many Americans had at one time. There are farm vacations where kids can actually gather eggs, feed the animals and enjoy the outdoors in "the simple life." They'll learn that the simple life wasn't so simple after all!

Now you've chosen your family heritage trail approach, next comes the most important part: Plan to make it fun for the younger generations. They will be enthused to see the house where you grew up…for about 5 minutes. But if you go armed with photos and stories about that corner of the yard where you fell out of the tree and broke your arm, or the kid who lived in the apartment upstairs who ended up being a state senator, or the obnoxious neighbor who chased your dog with a broom, they'll be a whole lot more engaged.

Try these tweaks to make your vacation fun, comfortable, and memorable for the whole family:

  • Map it out—visually. Create a map with the celebrated key points of interest in your family's heritage. It can be a town map, a U.S. map, or a world map, depending on your approach.
  • Talk about then as compared to now. Be prepared with stories about your personal and family history that bring the places you visit to life. Bring photos taken back in the time in which family members lived there. Before the trip, you can also involve the kids in researching the places you'll visit.
  • Make it fun. Create a scavenger hunt in which an item has to be collected from each site you visit. Play family-heritage bingo with cards you make ahead of time that include photos of the places you'll visit. Create a quiz about your personal or family history that includes facts your clan will learn along the trail.
  • Allow for spontaneity. As with all multigenerational travel, don't over-schedule your time. Leave some open time for the interesting side-trip to see the world's largest rubber-band ball or to a playground where little ones can burn off excess energy.
  • Do your due diligence. While your family's historic sites will be the focus of your trip, it's a good idea to intersperse a few new activities that are fun for all ages.
  • Read up on multigenerational travel basics. For example, bring portable games or books as backup entertainment for rainy days, balance physical activity with more low-key activities, plan for varying energy levels, bring the right equipment for grandbabies, and remember the snacks!
  • Document the memories you make. Take photos and video. You may never have this opportunity again, so don't miss it. Make a scrapbook as you go, adding keepsakes every night. Tape a family radio show along the way, describing what the older and younger family members see from their own perspectives.

In my 25 years working with families, the saddest thing to me is when I hear a grandchild say that she never knew an interesting or fun fact about her grandparent because she never thought to ask. Don't wait for the kids to ask about their family heritage! Take them to it, make it real, and bring it to life. Tell us about the creative ways you meet the Great Family Heritage Trail Vacation Challenge!

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