What is a Vacation For? (Probably not what you wanted most)

boys relaxing in hammock

We all know what a vacation is, right? It’s to relax. Or wait, it’s to have new experiences. Then why are we visiting family? This humorous post explores the simple but vexing question: What is a vacation?

A Vacation’s End

We stayed in our car for the final ferry ride across Puget Sound that would kick off our three day driving marathon back to Chicago. Liuan and I recounted our highs and lows while the boys listened intently and chimed in from time to time.

On the whole, the two weeks we spent road tripping and seeing the sights in Washington State were anything but relaxed. I remarked that it felt like we spent eighty percent of the vacation in the car. Oliver, our seven year old, said he wished we had spent more time just playing on the beaches or in the woods. I agreed. Liuan agreed too, but said she was glad to have spent time with her mom, brother, and sister, who tagged along for this trip, even if they pushed us to go at a more frenetic pace.

We usually prefer to go slow, skip the tourist traps, and focus on bonding with each other over simple activities.

Then Oliver asked a “so simple it’s profound” question that only kids can pull off. “What is a vacation?”

Of course, all of us knew what a vacation was, including Oliver. Didn’t we? I tried to explain and it got complicated fast.

It got me thinking. It led to other questions. What is the purpose of vacationing? Can you do a vacation wrong? Can people define it differently? What is a vacation?

Defined by What It’s Not

You don’t have to be a linguist to discover that the noun, vacation, can be transformed into a verb, to vacate.

So taking a vacation is to vacate something. To vacate is to leave something unoccupied: your home; your office chair; your responsibility to bake cupcakes for the PTO bake sale. You leave a big empty hole for a week or two (or longer if you’re European).

Stressed by work? Someone else’s problem. Bored washing the same dishes over and over? Leave them in the cupboard. Tired of receiving credit card offers? Hold the mail.

A vacation is first and foremost about letting go of responsibilities and leaving your routine. A “staycation”, of course, is leaving everything but your home. It is defined by what it is not: normal life.

But after you back your car out of the driveway, look one last time in the rearview mirror, run back because you forgot your favorite hoodie, then do it all again for good this time, you are still left with this question.

“Can we stop? I gotta pee.”

“What?!? NO! I just asked five minutes ago… and you said… Nevermind.”

As I was going to say, we are still left with this question: What will we do with this brief morsel of freedom?

That’s where things get confusing.

A Vacation’s Many Forms

Most people, when asked, will say that a vacation is for relaxing and doing nothing. That’s because many of us live frenetic lives bouncing between family, career and social responsibilities and have a hard time powering down.

What we actually end up doing is packing our itineraries with must-see sights, long-delayed visits to old friends, constant picture taking, and frequent coffee runs. That’s because we live frenetic lives and have a hard time powering down.

And it doesn’t stop there. A vacation opens up all kinds of possibilities. You can learn a new skill. Climb a mountain. Take selfies Do naughty things. (Sorry, just brainstorming here.) Take selfies while doing naughty things. Bond with family. Scuba dive. Start a blog. Become an enlightened through meditation. Get sun burned. Fantasize about never returning to work. Ride a train, a ferry, a gondola or a rocket if you got the cash.

Everything you wanted to do once you got a little freedom gets packed into two measly weeks. What was that about relaxing? You can relax when you’re dead!

You could be forgiven if on your first day back to work you leaned back into your good old comfy office chair and thought to yourself, “Now I can finally relax.”


A group vacation compounds the issue. Each member brings their own bucket list. Since “doing nothing” is just blank space, it gets filled in with everybody’s must-do’s. Here is an example of my group’s collective must-do’s on our recent trip to Seattle, Washington and the Olympic Peninsula.

Collective Must-Do’s for Trip to Seattle


  • Drink Coffee
  • Purchase golden espresso mug from original Starbucks
  • Bake croissants for breakfast
  • Bond with the boys


  • Visit high school friend
  • Be with mom and siblings
  • Sit in a hot tub

The Boys

  • Climb rocks
  • Collect rocks
  • Watch movies
  • Eat s’mores
  • Ride ferry

Liuan’s Mom

  • See Mount Rainier
  • Look at real estate
  • Go to every beach and hiking trail
  • Stop for every deer
  • Take lots of pictures
  • Do things with family

Liuan’s Sister

  • Eat Dungeness crab
  • Do things with family

Liuan’s Brother

  • Be with family
This is what can happen when people don’t get their way on vacation.

As you can imagine, there was not much time left for relaxation.

Slow Camino or Fast Carrera?

So what is a vacation? A vacation is freedom minus relaxation divided by the number of people in your group. It’s kind of like the rest of life but with less reliable internet.

I’m only half joking of course. We’ve had amazing vacations. Deeply relaxing. Beautiful surroundings. Spontaneous activities and serendipitous joys. We’ve pulled it off once or twice.

The vacation I hold up as the gold standard is our trip to Gili Air in Indonesia several years ago. We stayed at a single bungalow for ten whole days. The island was so small we could walk across it in twenty minutes. No car rides. No itinerary. Plenty of things to do whenever we decided we were up for it. I spent whole mornings by the pool reading a novel while my little boy floated around on an inflatable duck.

Relaxing vacations are possible. But doing nothing, by definition, means rejecting something.

It means booking a long stay even if you might get bored. It means leaving your itinerary empty even if you risk missing out on the best experiences by not booking ahead. It means foregoing the two hour line that grants you a selfie looking down from the Eiffel Tower that your friends back home will surely envy. Instead you spend a lazy morning at a viennoiserie communing with loved ones over coffee and croissants.

It’s trusting that spontaneity will bring good times. And it’s trusting your capacity to make up good times as you go.

Then again, no one says you have to relax. It’s your morsel of freedom.

  • Matt

    Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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