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Why Your Family Needs a Travel Tradition

Vacation rituals, from silly to sublime, can deepen the experience of travel with kids

Published on: May 01, 2017

road trip car on map

Travel is usually equated with exploring the unknown, but an underrated pleasure is incorporating a ritual into a vacation. Routines are the staple of family life, after all, and traditions such as finding a used bookstore, trying a local specialty or making a pressed-penny souvenir can add a sweet bit of familiarity that gives kids something to look forward to and builds a bank of vacation memories.

Interested in establishing a vacation ritual of your own? We asked our resident experts — our readers — to share their favorites; here are some to consider adopting on your next getaway.

Road trip games

Everyone knows “I Spy” or “Slug Bug,” but what about creating a distinctive car-trip game that reflects your family’s interests? Seattleite Laura Todd’s musical family created a game called “Analog Jukebox” for road trips: One person names a song, and then everyone sings together — a fun way to memorize new tunes and practice skills such as taking turns and conflict resolution. In my family, “The Superhero Game” — a version of “20 Questions” that my sister made up in a desperate attempt to quell a tantrum — has reigned supreme for two years.

Read more Family Adventure Guide stories! Find your summer bucket list, a gold-rush vacation, best summer splurges and more 

Double-duty souvenirs

Bringing home souvenirs is an age-old tradition, but focusing on a certain type of memento can help your family build a collection that keeps vacation memories alive. Many families collect Christmas ornaments and reminisce about their travels as they hang them on the tree every year. “My mom did this, too,” says Seattle mom Tracy Cutchlow, “so I have ornaments of all kinds going back nearly 40 years.”

Some families collect pressed pennies, which can be turned into charm bracelets or other trinkets. Seashells and rocks can be added to jars or turned into crafts such as vases; one family collects a bit of sand from each beach they visit.

Kristen Dorwin, a mother of two who lives in Kirkland, gives her kids a small budget to pick out their own souvenirs. “It helps them learn about financial choices and budgeting, and prevents us from being pestered about things they want throughout the trip.”

ice cream

Ice cream and other sweet traditions

What is it about ice cream? “We have ice cream every day,” Dorwin says about one of her family’s favorite vacation habits. Another reader says they “always say yes to ice cream requests” on vacation; another notes they “always find the local ice cream parlor, whether we’re on a quick camping getaway or in Europe.”

Some families always try a local bakery or coffee house. A friend of mine always buys “vacation cereal” for her son (cold cereal of the sugary variety).

Food, glorious food

A vacation ritual that can help develop your child’s palate and knowledge of local food traditions? Yes, please. Renton resident Jessica Perry says that her family makes it a rule not to eat at chain restaurants while on vacation (unless it’s a local chain). “It forces you to live the local experience through the cuisine and to support the local economy and small businesses.”

One food-loving family eats at a fancy restaurant at least once on vacation but chooses lunch as a cost-saving strategy: “We each order different things to sample as a family.”

Fast food does have its place. My family has started eating at In-N-Out Burger every time we go to California (my favorite thing about it is the lack of choice on the menu); similarly, some families eat at sustainable burger chain Burgerville whenever they’re in Oregon.

Books and nooks

Book-loving Puget Sound families love exporting their cozy tradition to other locales. Long before my son was born, my husband and I made a beeline for Powell’s Books every time we went to Portland, bringing along books to sell so we could get enough credit to at least break even. Now my son is fully on board with the wonders of the “City of Books.”

Another reader always finds an independent bookstore and buys each kid one book, “both supporting the independent store and encouraging a love of reading.”

You don’t have to be highbrow about it. Reader Z. Johnson says that her family loves looking for a great used bookstore when they travel and “finding what looks like a terrible fantasy or science fiction book to read!”

ghost stories around the campfire

Ghost stories and junior rangers

Many families prioritize an annual camping trip, an ideal time for layering on low-tech fun such as storytelling. “When camping, we always tell ‘ghost stories’ (nothing too scary with the little ones) and the kids and Mom and Dad all take turns,” shares Seattle mother Sarah Kenworthy, who has five children.

When camping or exploring state or national parks, kids can earn Junior Ranger badges by decoding signs, learning about critters, picking up trash or other projects. Buy the kids ranger vests for their next birthday and watch the badges — and their pride — accumulate over time.

When camping, we always tell ‘ghost stories’ (nothing too scary with the little ones) and the kids and Mom and Dad all take turns

The trip is the ritual

While discovering new destinations can be exciting, an annual trip to the same place — a certain state park, city or town — also has its rewards. You can enjoy visiting old favorites while trying new adventures.

“We go on the same local trips every year,” notes Angela Finney, a Seattle mother of two boys. “Lake Wenatchee to camp, Cannon Beach, Decatur Island, Pasco for the Columbia Cup [hydroplane races]. Now my kids look forward to each trip and enjoying the activities in each place. They are never bored because they are experiencing them differently as they grow and mature.”

Remembering and reliving

Once you return home, taking time to record memories can help the joy of time away last a little longer. One family displays a special map where they mark all of the states they’ve visited. Another chooses a vacation theme song, which sparks memories whenever they hear it.

As for us, we keep a series of simple family journals in which we record quotes, stories and adventures with pictures and drawing. They’re not pretty — full of my scrawl and my first-grade son’s doodles — but a random entry instantly calls up a time, place — and spelling level. “It was osum,” my 7-year-old recently wrote of a recent trip to an amusement park. “Lets go bak now!”

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