My eldest son, who's heading off to college in the fall, recently informed me that he plans to spend just a few days with us this year on our annual summer vacation.
"But it's our last vacation ever as a family!" I pouted.
He reminded me that I've been guilt-tripping him with that line since 2008.
All too true, I'm afraid. But that's because, as in many families, our travels have been so much fun that I hate the thought of taking a trip without him. And I'm sure my younger son is not looking forward to traveling with two boring old people (also known as his parents) once his big brother leaves home. Sure, we've had our share of meltdowns on the road after too many days away, but some of our best times ever as a family were spent on vacation.
Eileen Ogintz, who writes a syndicated column and blog at TakingtheKids.com, says a child going off to college "does change the vacation dynamic — a lot. Right now it is all about them and they couldn't care less about family time."
Sensing my disappointment at the thought of a treasured family ritual so easily discarded, she added: "Don't sweat it! When they are homesick at school, they will probably think fondly on those happy times."
This was probably a dangerous thing to tell me, because it immediately got me fantasizing about collecting photos of our trip to the Grand Canyon, taken when my son was 12, to put up in his dorm room. Or maybe sending pictures to his cell phone from our legendary 15-hour drive to Florida.
But Ogintz added that college doesn't necessarily mean the end of the family travels.
"When they realize how much traveling costs, they will rethink traveling with you," she said, as long as the trip is "something they think is fun and exciting." And eventually, even college-age kids "realize what a good deal it is to have mom and dad pay the freight," especially because they get to stay in nicer places with their parents than they could ever afford on their own.
She also pointed out an aspect I hadn't considered. "Suddenly, you will be following them!" Ogintz said. "As they study abroad or spend a summer abroad, you will think, 'What a perfect time to visit Costa Rica, Thailand, Madrid, Paris, etc.,' and they will lead you in directions you never anticipated."
Holly Hughes, author of Frommer's "500 Places To Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up," was in my situation last year, the summer before her eldest went off to college. With her husband and two younger kids, the family of five did a road trip.
"We rented a minivan and we did the drive across country for two and a-half weeks," she said. But "it did not feel like a last hurrah," she said, and in fact, it wasn't. After finishing his freshman year, her son got a week off from his summer job this year and joined the rest of the family for a week on Martha's Vineyard. One way she made the vacation enjoyable for all of them was to let the teenagers — 19, 17 and 15 — "make decisions about what they wanted to see and do," whether it was picking the restaurants or the activities.
"There was less pushback against it that way," she said.
I remember looking through Hughes' book when it first came out in 2006, making my own list of places I wanted to take my kids. It was fun to dream: "500 Places To Take Your Kids" is both inspirational and aspirational. But it was also fun to prioritize and plan. There were places my husband and I had been that we wanted to take the boys while they were young, but there were also places we'd never seen, that we hoped to experience together.
The short list of destinations we managed to get to includes places that have been classic family vacation spots for generations of Americans, like Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and Yosemite. Some of our expeditions were a little closer to the East Coast, where we live: We escaped the cold weather one winter by driving to Myrtle Beach, S.C., spent a memorable Christmas vacation exploring Mammoth Cave, Ky., and had a magical spring break visiting wild ponies at the Chincoteague wildlife refuge in Virginia. But we also managed a few once-in-a-lifetime splurges for big adventures in Alaska and Hawaii.
Looking back, I can't say there's any place I feel sorry we didn't get to, but I do hope we'll be able to travel together again as a foursome in the future.
As for my son's reluctance to join us this summer, Ogintz advised, "I would just smile and say, 'Whatever you want to do, honey!' and know that he will be back."
As proof that family vacations don't end with college, Ogintz, whose daughters and son are now 26, 24 and 19, offered this: "The girls are very happy to be going to Hawaii with me later this summer, and my husband and son are going on a fishing trip they've been discussing for years."