Taking a Family Vacation with College Students

Kids who've flown the coop will always be part of the family. Why not take a special trip with them? Here's how to plan a family vacation with college students.

Sports schedules, school projects, jobs and perpetually filled social schedules make family vacations with older kids much harder to plan than when they were in fifth grade and willing to drop everything for a week away. By the time your kids are in high school, consider this truth: Each vacation you take as a complete family could be your last.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A family vacation with college students can be a whole new kind of fun, whether you revisit your regular haunts or try something entirely new. Vacations, unlike homebound holidays like Thanksgiving, can be a time to strengthen your relationship with your kids when you’re not distracted by domestic routines, says Steph Ruopp, a Ferndale-based certified life coach who works with families.

“There is something to be said for having all the responsibilities drop away. You’re not worried about dinner or cleaning the bathroom or running to the grocery,” Ruopp says. “You are out of your routine, and your time is more open and free.”

So while you may revel in a newfound option of going on vacation without kids – especially if you’re now an empty-nester – consider too the perks of trying a new adventure with your rapidly maturing child. We’ve gathered some dos and don’ts to consider as you plan your next everyone-included family vacation.

DO recognize your kid is an adult.

Taking a family vacation with college students can become a platform for unprecedented high-level conversations as your kid’s brain buzzes with deeper intellect after some of that college exposure. Encourage this – and engage. You may also hear a lot more about Psych 101, finals week and the dorm’s lack of gluten-free options than you ever heard about high school. Soak it up! Bonus: If your younger kids who still live at home are traveling with you too, all this talk is a great way for them to learn about life in higher education.

DO get creative with destinations.

Your perennial getaway may be the cottage up north, but maybe now is the time to try something new. “Doing the same thing every year may be your family tradition, but the danger with tradition is it is so wrought with expectation. When it’s not the same, there is a letdown,” Ruopp says.

DON’T be afraid to break up the family.

Each summer, I look forward to camping under the stars at Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario. My husband, not so much. So those few days belong to me and my younger son, Kit (that’s us in the picture above), a college student who recently explored his own adventures while taking a gap year between high school and college. We hike, kayak, eat s’mores, lie in hammocks, read to each other and just talk. Last year, my husband took our older son Cameron to visit family in England. Now that our kids are older, separate vacations seem to work better for us. And that’s OK.

DO get buy-in from everyone involved.

The trip should be optional for everyone involved, rather than forced participation. But some kids will go along because they think they have to. Before you plan anything, be sure to carefully gauge your kid’s interest. “Parents should understand their own motivation for the vacation,” says Ruopp. Have a pressure-free conversation and offer plenty of time before needing an answer. If your kid is on board, seek input on possible destinations – and ask questions about the suggestions. Younger kids at home can join in on Skype for a vacation-focused family meeting (and keep track of the ever-important countdown). Planning is half the fun, so make it a shared task.

DON’T be surprised when family time isn’t first choice.

I admit it: We’re Disney people. But that annual family trip got harder to take once both boys finished high school. Last year, when my husband suggested a return trip, I encouraged him to proceed slowly, knowing that Kit’s passion for his college outdoor program meant any number of unique things to do on spring break. Sure enough, last March we waved Kit off on his backpacking trip to Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Disney World will be there for us another year.

DON’T knee jerk the ‘can I bring my boyfriend/girlfriend?’ request.

This is a tough call, and it could be a deal-breaker for parents or for kids – because a significant other could be all-consuming, attention-wise. “I encourage a parent to sit with it for a while,” says Ruopp. “Your child might hear a negative response as ‘we don’t like him/her,’ and that could create more of a rift that you want. Be careful on this one. It might create more problems than it is worth.”

DO recognize the value of shared experiences, even if the vacation isn’t perfect.

The extra effort required to plan a family vacation with college students is absolutely worth it – because collective experiences strengthen family relationships, notes a study by Purdue University’s Xinran Lehto, Ph.D. Chances are your younger kids will be craving some special time with the sibling that’s not around much anymore, too. Eventually, all your kids will be completely grown. But thanks to those extra-special family vacations, you’ll have plenty to reminisce about for years to come.


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