How long does it take before you run out of things to do on vacation?

Will you run out of things to do on vacation.

Oahu is a one-week destination. As in, it takes one week before my kids and I run out of things to do and fall into a predictable cycle of visiting the beach, driving to Foodland for groceries, and coming home to make dinner and watch whatever’s on Netflix.

It took us one month to discover that Hawaii’s most populous island is a one-week destination. But for other places, it doesn’t take that long. Hawaii’s Big Island is a three-day destination. Ditto for Santa Barbara, Calif. (I prefer a long weekend.) Manhattan is a two-week destination, except for my oldest son, Aren, who doesn’t like big cities. He’s done with the Big Apple in less than a week.

How long before you and your family have done it all? There are no studies, no surveys on this topic because no one dares to ask that question until it’s too late. To answer it would be to admit that any place is finite when it comes to activities.

In fact, it’s an impossible question to answer with any certainty. After all, isn’t everyone different? Take a place like Santa Barbara. If you’re into wine, you could move there and never really run out of things to do. But three kids and a dad who doesn’t drink will run out of things to do pretty quickly.

How not to run out of things to do on vacation.
Erysse Elliott at the Orlando Convention Center in 2013. Boring — if you’re six years old

If you don’t want to run out of things to do on vacation, assume nothing

Think your chosen vacation destination offers a limitless supply of fun? Think again. For example, you might think you’ll never run out of things to do in a place like Orlando, Fla. True — maybe. But if theme parks are not your thing, you will get bored quickly. There are a handful of great museums in Central Florida and, of course, beaches nearby to visit. But if you skip Disney, Universal, and Sea World, you might as well go someplace else. (Oh, and your kids will be mad — very mad — if you don’t do the theme parks.)

Point is, don’t assume that you’ll have a week’s worth of things to do just because a place has a certain reputation. If you’ve already done all of the big attractions, there might not be much of interest left to do. And suddenly your one-week destination becomes a three-day destination. Or worse, you find yourself with nothing to do.

I think some folks like to do the same thing every year on vacation, and that’s OK. But if you happen to be on the road with Gen Z-ers who feel entitled to something new wherever they go, you shouldn’t assume anything about a place you’ve been told is worth the visit.

Ask around, conduct your own research, work with a trusted travel advisor, or, ahem, read this column. As I’ve said many times before, ignore the tourism propaganda and the superlatives all the “influencers” get paid to say, and focus on the cold facts. Ask yourself: Is there enough to fill my itinerary?

Attractions vs diversions on vacation
Aren Elliott at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 2018. UCLA is an attraction if you’re 16 and looking at colleges.

Attractions versus diversions

Another way to determine how long it will take for you to run out of stuff is to know the difference between attractions and diversions. An attraction is something special that people travel long distances to see. In Los Angeles, for example, attractions include Hollywood, Universal Studios, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. There’s nothing else like them on Earth. A diversion is something that fills the time between visiting attractions. So, for example, the beaches would be a diversion in L.A. Not unimportant, but hardly unique.

Most good vacations feature at least one or two attractions. On your other days, you find a diversion to keep you happy. If you fill your vacation with diversions, you will probably quickly run out of things to do. I speak from personal experience. On our last visit to California, after we’d done all the must-see stuff, we headed to the beach. After a few days, we were all beached out.

Knowing the difference between an attraction and a diversion is important, as is recognizing it quickly when planning your visit. If you just fill your trip with meaningless and easily forgettable activities, you’ll probably remember nothing. It will be a wasted week. Shopping is another diversion — you’ve seen one outlet mall, you’ve seen ’em all.

Don't run out of things to do on vacation
Iden Elliott poses for a selfie with his dad, Christopher Elliott in a mirror in Baraboo, Wis., in 2012.

Know yourself or you’ll run out of things to do on vacation

Truth is, you could have a running checklist of attractions versus diversions, have all of your research lined up — and still fail. Why? You need to know what you want. And that’s easier said than done.

If your family is like mine, they don’t always know what they want. They do, however, know what they don’t want. But sometimes they wait until you’re at the door of the museum before they announce their opposition to the visit.

That can make things really difficult.

Effective vacation planning means that you have to guess what your family will want. It also helps to ask them, although you can’t be 100 percent certain that you’ll get an accurate answer. (Watch out for nonresponses like, “Yeah, sounds fine, Dad.”)

OK, I admit — sometimes I don’t know until I know. Will I want to spend three days admiring the architecture in Chicago, or will I see it all in one day? Is a long weekend enough to dive the coral reefs of the Florida Keys? To visit all the chocolatiers in Paris?

Can we get a mind reader in here, please?

Every destination has a time limit for you: a long weekend, a week, two weeks. After that, you’re ready to come home. Make sure you choose a destination, with attractions and diversions, that conforms to your time frame. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting on your hands, waiting for your trip to end.

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