The American family vacation needs an overhaul.

Once the best opportunity for enrichment and education as well as much needed R&R, today it’s often a dysfunctional, unhealthy, sense-dulling waste of time and money, typically enabled and abetted by an unimaginative travel industry.

Don’t believe me? Then head to some of America’s vacation hot spots this summer, such as Orlando, Gatlinburg, Grand Canyon National Park, or Honolulu, and watch the families.

Thoughtlessly, parents herd their kids into fast-food restaurants, novelty museums, and theme parks. At night, they deposit their offspring in the hotel’s kids center, where Junior and his siblings huddle around their electronic overlords, ignoring all external stimuli. Really, why even bother leaving home?

What’s driving the dumbing down of the American family vacation? We parents are, to some extent.

We’re too tired to prepare real meals for the kids, and we’re too busy to plan enriching travel experiences, so we buy what’s easy—processed junk food and off-the-shelf, highly marketed package vacations that are overly focused on amusement.

Consider this telling number: About 50 million visitors go to Florida’s Disney World complex every year to go on thrill rides and have tea with cartoon characters. Meanwhile, just 63 miles away, the Kennedy Space Center, where you can touch an actual moon rock and shake hands with a real live astronaut, draws a little over 1 million people a year. And did I mention that the $50 adult admission costs about half that of a Disney daily ticket?

Just as the food industry can produce healthier fare, the travel business can do better.

The idea came to me at the end of an otherwise spectacular guided group tour to Italy last year. We’d done it all — explored the Colosseum in Rome, visited the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, and seen Michelangelo’s “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Then we sat down to dinner and the kids were served pizza, chicken tenders, and burgers. We flew more than 5,000 miles, to a country known for its cuisine, and they’re eating fries? Mamma mia!

Hotels have been phoning it in for years. When our kids were younger, we stayed at a swanky resort in St. Petersburg, Florida, that offered a kids program with activities around an ocean theme. We dropped them off before dinner. When we returned, we found our kids reclining on beanbags, staring catatonically at a video. Turns out all those educational programs were only offered during the day in the high season.

I admit, it’s difficult to say “no” to our sons and daughters. But just as we don’t allow them to eat junk food all the time, we shouldn’t take them on junk vacations all the time. In fact, when it comes to peeling them away from their tech devices, a vacation is perhaps your golden opportunity.

“A change of venue allows a change of perspective,” says Ann Meier, a University of Minnesota sociologist who studies family relationships. “Vacations are good bonding and enriching moments.”

Research suggests that spending time learning together as a family helps develop reading and writing skills in kids. That means a well-planned vacation could even help your kids get into the Ivy League.

The trick isn’t to take all the fun away but to plan a vacation so that learning is inevitable. For example, a visit to Boston can include an afternoon on the Freedom Trail, a slice of Boston cream pie, and a visit to Harvard (never too early to think college!).

On Oahu? The North Shore gets all of the attention for its surfing, but take your kids to the Waimea Arboretum and Botanical Garden, and they’ll learn about ancient Polynesian cultures, too.

The country is in the middle of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War: Many states in the East and some in the West have war sites, so work in a battlefield on your way to the water park; admission is often free.

OK, that’s easier said than done. I know because since 2011, I’ve been on the road almost nonstop with my own family, blogging on National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel blog.

I’ll never forget my 10-year-old son sleeping through a narrated tour of Canada’s Jasper National Park. He missed a three-hour lesson in geography, history, and zoology. Yet we’ve also had many “high five” moments, like the time we visited Put-in-Bay, an island in Lake Erie, and our fifth grader stood at the top of the International Peace Memorial and something clicked about the War of 1812.

We know because weeks later, at another museum, he correctly identified a portrait of Captain Oliver Perry and informed the curator about the techniques used to win the Battle of Lake Erie. Wow.

A few travel companies get it, offering tours that expand horizons and combine adventure with education in just the right proportions. (See Traveler‘s “Tours of a Lifetime“ feature for examples.) I’m calling on the others — the vast majority of travel agents, tour operators, and cruise lines that create America’s family getaways — to help parents give their families better vacations.

Christopher Elliott serves as resident consumer advocate and ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler, and writes the “Insider” column for the magazine. Follow his story on Twitter @elliottdotorg.

Comments

  1. Mary Panitch
    Philadelphia, PA
    July 3, 2013, 1:40 pm

    If you took your family all the way to Hawaii and did not visit Pearl Harbor or the Polynesian Cultural Center then you really missed out, indeed!

  2. Diane Emineth
    Oregon Coast
    July 3, 2013, 2:23 pm

    I think you have it backwards this time Chris. It’s the people who dictate what the travel industry offers, not the other way around. The travel industry goes where the money is. The public is demanding the fast paced, can’t concentrate on anything more than a few minutes vacation style. I see it all the time.

    I own a small b&b on the Oregon coast, surrounded by beauty and nature, in a non-commercialized area. What do travelers ask? Where’s the (fill in the blank of a big chain store or restaurant)? Where’s the fast food? Who delivers here? What do you mean I don’t get cell coverage every second of the day and night during my travels? What, no 4G? Wi-fi isn’t very fast.

    They want to see pretty things, but don’t want to get out of their car and waste time hiking, walking, lazing on the beach or enjoying historic areas without there being an amusement park nearby. They want to see the entire state in 3 days. Go to any campground and you’ll see everyone on their electronic devices, barely looking and interacting with each other.

    It’s a shame, but it seems that it’s the rare few that want to travel and vacation like we did 20 years ago. It’s the public that shapes what the travel industry offers, not the other way around.

  3. Andy
    July 3, 2013, 10:32 pm

    Chris, we are kindred spirits. Our family of seven gravitates toward natural beauty and opportunities to explore. Fondest memories revolve around tidal pools at Acadia National Park or gorgeous hikes at Sleeping Bear Dunes, picking wild blueberries, or buying a pie from a country merchant who sold them from her home. Great stuff, and we’ve never needed a moment of a travel agent’s services–just the internet for intel and a sense of wonder.

  4. Tom Measday
    Cape May, NJ
    July 5, 2013, 10:36 am

    A lot of the responsibility is on the parents . When we took our kids we tried to mix the kid activities with real one. We also stayed away from the packages. Led to one memory of a lifetime a walk by moonlight into the badlands with the head ranger. Discovered by a small note on a bulletin board. As the parent you can look for the local and te interesting. E.g visiting Florida one day at Disney te next at the Kennedy Space center.

  5. Phil Carta
    July 5, 2013, 10:37 am

    Generally speaking, the travel industry’s top requirement is to return a profit to the owners. This is done primarily through some form of entertainment and by what their customers want. Even consumer advocates often admit that a business which ignores its customers is not long for the world.

    Thus, it is the responsibility of the market as a whole to demand the historical, cultural and educational experiences you are seeking. In the capitalistic US the market will always fill gaps in their products to meet consumer demand.

    Thus, the onus is fully on consumers (read parents) to feed their kids at restaurants other than fast food joints and to instill in them curiosity and interest in history, opera, and other unpopular subjects.

  6. CJ
    United States
    July 5, 2013, 10:46 am

    Chris, the point is for the family to get away from the trappings of everyday life – together. The tone of this article just rubs me the wrong way with your snobbish attitude. Our family has been traveling to Disney World every year for at least the past 25 years and the memories we have of our shared experiences are priceless. And the inspiration we have taken away from even the most mundane aspects has fueled our creativity in the arts, cooking, research, education and much more. The point is to get away, even for a day trip, and make memories together as a family.

  7. AK
    Atlanta
    July 5, 2013, 10:46 am

    Wrongheaded assumptions. Vacations are like reading, even what you’d call “bad ones” are good for families. And the “Ivy League” is really not every parent’s (or kid’s) dream. Nor should a vacation be planned as resume material.

  8. Judy
    Madison, WI
    July 5, 2013, 11:11 am

    Keep it simple. Even a short trip, spending time in-state, but exploring things you haven’t visited before can be wonderful. When my sons were young (and I a single parent), we traveled around SW Wisconsin. For every museum and park we visited, the tradeoff was that I would let them stop and fool around in every roadside quarry, prospecting for “fossils” and discarded shotgun shells. And it was required that we got “lost” at least once each day. Stayed at low cost places and ate at local diners (not fast food). And there is tent camping, although now you have to sign up at the crack of January if you want a spot in most of our state parks. Sons now focus their family vacation efforts on shorter trips to fish, hike and do other fun things in the great state of WI. Not every vacation need include one of the seven wonders of the world or the inevitable, corporate worlds of Disney, et al.

  9. Jim Zakany
    Cleveland
    July 5, 2013, 11:13 am

    I disagree that it’s easier said than done. Mixing in something truly educational in a family trip is pretty easy.

    Last year was Yellowstone and Tetons – can’t help but learn some geology. The year before was Boston and Acadia – from Paul Revere’s house to Clara Burton’s birthplace to Lulu the lobster boat not a day went by without a learning experience.

    This year, we’re taking a caribbean cruise. You think my kids aren’t going to learn how the ship produces power for propulsion and air conditioning?

    Even the much-maligned Disney World – you can’t walk ten feet in Epcot without seeing something educational.

  10. Tammy
    Lindstrom
    July 5, 2013, 11:16 am

    I’m with CJ and AK. This article didn’t seem well thought out, but I feel Chris had a bad moment and was blowing off steam. I don’t believe he would dictate that if a parent doesn’t take their kids to a science museum then they are junk parents. A lot of commenters seem to feel that way though. We also visit Disney very often, being DVC Members, and yes, with the energy Disney puts into knowledge and the environment it did seem quite the slam. They offer great fresh prepared gourmet food to boot. Nowhere does it talk about the 90-lb backpacks our kids are forced to drag to and from school and the hours of homework they have to complete each night and the never-ending strings of tests administered. If they need their education from a family vacation, which should be a break for their bodies and minds, then maybe school is missing the point.

  11. Edson Graham
    Ponce Inlet, FL
    July 5, 2013, 12:57 pm

    Tammy seems to feel that Chris is blowing off a little steam. Nothing wrong with that Chris, plus you got us all thinking. Wasn’t that the object?

    Here’s my gripe. In Florida, and much the rest of the country schools go back anywhere from the first to the middle of August. Why? To get a jump on the aptitude tests. Because of this August has disappeared off the face of the calendar as the family vacation month.

    Remember in the old days. School was out about the 20th of June, depending on snow days, and went back the Tuesday after Labor Day. We do our Little League or hometown part of Summer vacation through July. About the 1st of August the family would pile into family sedan and head out to see the USA. It usually didn’t matter where you went. There was always a lot of water and woods and fun. You would even learn something despite yourself.

    I say we demand August back. If these educators are so dam smart let them figure out a way. Maybe move the test back a month. Maybe the tourist industry could help them figure it out since they are losing out on about 8.3333% of their revenues.

  12. Christopher Elliott
    July 5, 2013, 1:08 pm

    Blowing off a little steam is a good thing, and a completely accurate description of what I do. I’m not at all offended by it.

  13. Mike Giosa
    Levittown PA
    July 5, 2013, 7:27 pm

    Chis I wanted to share last years vacation adventure with you. We live in PA. not far from the Pocono Mountains so decided no amusement parks we were going to go and enjoy nature. Rented a beautiful house in the woods for my wife ,daughter her friend and myself. 1st outing white water rafting 1st of rapids hit a rock wife’s bounces out of the raft can’t stop the raft guide has to pick her up and bring her to us. For the next three hours listen to my 11 year old tell how traumatized she was and how I almost killed her mother. 2nd outing to the lake to go swimming the look that I actually expected them to go in water that you could not see their feet and did not smell of chlorine not happening back to the house. 3rd outing off to boulder field a natural wonder walked across the field when time to go back . I hear it is too hot bolder shard to walk on almost twisted my foot. At this point I was ready to smash my head in to one of the boulders. Whiners you bet. Well it shames me to say I was beaten one male three females they win. Remainder of vacation water park and shopping.

  14. MeanMeosh
    July 6, 2013, 12:38 am

    I don’t know that I’d include Grand Canyon on your list above, but I get your point. I would ask that you consider this, however. On the one hand, you are arguing for people to disconnect while on vacation, and actually enjoy all that the location you’re going to has to offer, which often includes the history, culture, geology, etc. of the place. I actually agree with you on that point, and when I vacation, that’s what I try to do as much as possible. But on your website, you’ve also written several articles arguing that hotels should be required to provided “free” WiFi so that you CAN stay connected. Many of your readers consider WiFi access a “basic right” like hot water or electricity, and in fact, bashed my comment suggesting that you (collectively) have it all wrong if you think that being able to post to Twitter or Facebook while at the Grand Canyon is a life-sustaining necessity.

    We as a society have to move away from that if we are to, as you say, reboot the family vacation. Otherwise, we can have people taking their kids to the science museum, eating in the local joints instead of McDonalds, hitting the hiking trails in Yellowstone, and such – but the kids, along with the parents, will just be stuck on the iPhone the whole time, posting on Twitter how great the bathroom is at the Grand Canyon visitor center.

  15. Casa Mariposa Santa Fe Panama
    Santa Fe Panama
    July 6, 2013, 7:49 am

    LOL. Diane from Oregon said it perfectly. We are surrounded by natural and cultural beauty, and we resisted getting Wifi because we tried to “encourage” guests to disconnect, relax and enjoy their beautiful surroundings. Alas, many of our guests kept complaining that the world would “fall apart” if they could not connect. (sigh). So we ended up getting Wifi (and now they complain its too slow).
    In addition, we had a guest complain that there was no “Taco Bell” in little old Santa Fe, Panama. Hmmmm, well, there isn’t anything I can do (or want to do) about that.

  16. Nancy M Dickinson
    United States
    July 6, 2013, 12:50 pm

    Well said, Chris. This is something I’ve been advocating for years, now. Colonial Williamsburg- wonderful AND educational. Monticello – amazing and a great introduction to the importance of agriculture. Took my youngest to Ireland and he came away from it with a real interest in British literature.

    Educational CAN mean fun, if it’s planned right.

  17. The Family International
    United States
    July 7, 2013, 3:24 pm

    I love being on a vacation. I’ve been able to come to some places but I have so many places I didn’t able to come yet.

    By the help the family international flirty fishing I can reach this ambition of mine :).

  18. Madeline
    California, USA
    July 8, 2013, 1:59 pm

    Well said, Chris. There are a lot of people who agree with you, and that is why I always have a lot of clients. Travelers want – need! – someone to steer them in the right direction.

  19. rickeytard
    Brazil
    July 9, 2013, 6:11 am

    Preparing a family holidays are not that very tough to manage, you just have to know where you would like to go, what your families favorite places and what are the limitations as well. If anyone here want to visit the best place in the world, then I will recommend Brazil, just go to http://www.hotelurbano.com.br and make your vacation memorable.

  20. eileen at FamiliesGo!
    brooklyn, ny
    July 10, 2013, 1:02 pm

    I think parents often underestimate their kids and what they can handle and what they will be interested in. On a recent trip to Washington, DC. we went to see how money is printed. My 5YO was interested for 10 minutes and bored for the next 30, but I think she learned something and she can stand being a little bored. we went to the modern art museum and she gleefully ran through the galleries pointing out things she liked and things she thought were ridiculous or odd. we went to the american history museum and at an interactive screen she watched a video showing the landing at Normandy 3 times (which I wasn’t sure I wanted to show her at all). Then asked a lot of questions about WWII, trying to distinguish it in her mind from the war that the big flag in the other room was from (1812).

    These are things many people wouldn’t do with a 5YO, but we did those things because her parents were interested in them and we figured we had nothing to lose by trying them with her. if any of them were really a disaster we could just leave. we also ate chicken and waffles from a food truck twice and logged time at the hotel pool and a great playground.

    The problem is that the easy trips are what the parents themselves want. if parents want to eat fast food and go to water parks, that’s what the family will do. For a lot of families this is the case and I don’t know that this is anything new. The Griswolds drove to California to go to Wally World, not the art museums of San Francisco.

    eileen @ http://www.familiesgo.com

  21. Mary Huff
    United States
    July 31, 2013, 7:52 pm

    Great thought-provoking article, and I don’t even have children. I’ll NEVER forget, though, the vacations with my 4 siblings where we saw: a monastery (free) Rock City and Ruby Falls (low-cost then), panning for gold in Dahlonega, GA and learning about the gold rush. On a more expensive trip to a SC beach, all I remember was falling out of bed and cutting my head on the glass bedside table, and the waves trying to knock me over.