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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 27 · Number 3 · Spring 2010


Are we having fun yet?

Whatever happened to the simple family vacations when you ordered your kids into the car and they fought over territory in the backseat?

Illustration: Cartoon of family in London. Parents trying to get photo with son, who is texting

(Jan Conroy ’77/UC Davis)

Vacationing together offers families a chance to reconnect with college students who live away from home. The only problem with family vacations is that you have to take them with people who are related to you. While these people may share your surname, your curly hair or your big feet, they don’t necessarily share your idea of a good time.

When college students want to get away from it all, they tend to crowd together like passengers on a Tokyo subway, except collegians prefer bathing suits to business suits, and usually they’re playing chicken fight. Young adults on break are looking to vacation someplace warm and inexpensive, preferably an exotic locale where the State Department has recently issued a travel alert due to civil unrest. Or it could be something closer to home, as long as the conditions are still crowded and hazardous. A weekend bacchanalia on rented houseboats, perhaps. An all-night rock concert. Student discount day at Disneyland. If riot police and medevacs are standing by, it’s guaranteed to be fun.

Vacationing parents, on the other hand, are simply yearning to spend some time with their college student. Parents aren’t looking for bedlam or mayhem or anything riskier than the possibility of running out of sunblock. They’re longing for an old-fashioned family vacation, possibly because, due to advancing age, they’ve forgotten exactly what an ordeal that can be. (“I’m sick of Kennebunkport. We always go to Kennebunkport. It’s boring at Kennebunkport.”)

Maybe parents are remembering the old days, when all youngsters expected from family trips was an opportunity to settle territorial disputes with siblings in the backseat. Attendance was required. Fun was optional. And planning was so simple! Parents just ordered children into the car, and the family was halfway to grandma’s house before the kids began to suspect they might be on vacation.

Mandatory excursions work pretty well until children grow up, and then vacations require consensus. College students who are struggling to establish their independence from family might be more interested in traveling with friends — taking trips that reflect their budding ability to navigate by a GPS app on their iPhone. That doesn’t mean they’ve outgrown being a member of the clan. It just means they view parents and siblings as vestigial appendages, impeding their efforts to soar. Temporarily! Before you know it, your kid will embrace family again in what psychologists call the borrow-a-down-payment phase.

Even if everyone agrees to take a family vacation and to leave the emotional baggage at home, college students are busy people. During academic breaks, they’re occupied with work, internships, summer school, athletics and macramé. Competition for their time is fierce. If you want your college student to join the family on a trip, it had better be good. Make that great.

How great? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. We’re talking Great Britain, Great Barrier Reef, Great Wall of China. Ziplines are great. Billy T’s Four-Wheel Drive Safari would be great. A trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro is always great, although family members may suffer considerable discomfort from headaches, shortness of breath and hypothermia — the same symptoms everyone gets during holiday gatherings.

Illustration: Sailboat U.S.S. Great-Grandma/


(Jan Conroy ’77/UC Davis)

Just to clarify, a trip to great-grandma’s house would not technically qualify as “great.” Unless of course, granny lives on a schooner. Sailing the high seas is just the kind of adventure that appeals to college students and, for parents, international waters offer a unique opportunity for meaningful interaction with adult children. With costly cell phone roaming charges and unreliable Internet access, kids can’t hide behind electronic distractions. Toss those iPods overboard, and the kids are yours! Away from onshore distractions, parents can reconnect with their maturing college student and discover the adult their child has become. Or parents can goad everyone into singing “I Am a Pizza” in rounds, just for the sake of old times. Your choice — that’s the beauty of vacationing someplace with lousy reception.

Of course, trips with college students typically are much messier than a simple reunion of the extended family in shark-infested waters. When kids leave home, they often return with an entourage. The new boyfriend, the former roommate, the foreign exchange student, half the lacrosse team, the entire sorority. It’s a challenge to figure out how these roadies fit into the family vacation. Are we paying for him? Where are they sleeping? Who invited her? Have you lost your mind?

One defense against groupies is to bring your own. Traveling with other people — a family whose kids have grown up with yours, or strangers on a group expedition — gives family members a chance to reconfigure according to age and interests, making everyone a happier camper. Our family decided long ago that it takes a village to take a vacation. When our three sons were younger, we made a trip to Catalina Island with five families. Every afternoon, the parents would gather on an outdoor patio and quaff refreshments while the kids played Capture the Flag around the grounds of our small hotel. We wanted to build vacation memories, and we did, at least for the other visitors at the hotel, who are probably still trying to forget us.

We haven’t taken a traditional family vacation since our oldest son, now a junior, entered college. We’re paying college expenses for one kid now, a second starting next year and, eventually, a third. The cost of massive vet bills for our dog over the past year would probably have covered college tuition for her as well, if only she hadn’t flunked puppy kindergarten.

So we really can’t afford a great family vacation. We can’t even afford a lousy family vacation. That means for the next few years, our college student won’t be able to fight with his brothers over who gets to push the “down” button on the hotel elevator. He’ll just have to settle for the occasional afternoon of surfing with friends at the beach that happens to be located right next to his university. I sense that’s a sacrifice he’s prepared to make.


Robin DeRieux can be reached at