If you are trying to measure the success and benefits of a family vacation by more than just the quality of photos you take during your time away from home, this story is for you.

Also, for the sometimes cynical who do not believe that a vacation can dramatically change your life – and the life of your family – read on!

About six months ago, I began researching and planning a vacation for me and my sister, who is a sophomore in college. In the childhood we had done the obligatory Florida theme park vacations too many times to count – you name it – we had done it. These trips had created great memories, but there was no longer any desire to fight the throngs of people, the lines and the heat – slugging it through Orlando one more time was not in the cards.

The idea of a beach vacation in the Caribbean or Mexico was a possibility, but did we really want a flop and drop vacation? I was hoping for a vacation that would expand my sister’s views of the world while giving me time to reconnect with her. The idea of soaking up rays on a beach somewhere didn’t appear to help me achieve either of my vacation goals.

I thought back to dude ranch vacations that we had taken together in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana – they were fantastic but I needed something different.

I then zeroed in on reconnecting with her as my primary goal for the vacation, understanding that the winds of change were picking up speed, and that I was unsure how many more opportunities that I would have to spend one-on-one quality time with her on a lengthy vacation.

Please don’t misunderstand, we weren’t estranged and we didn’t have any issues – we have a fantastic sister-sister relationship, it was just that we were both so very busy in our daily routines back home.

As everyone knows who has a college or even high school-aged sibling or even a child, uninterrupted time with her or him is scarce – a sibling has to battle for time versus friends, school, work and the dreaded cell phone – which is always on and attached at her or his hip.

For this vacation, I decided to investigate a guided vacation of Europe, specifically, Trafalgar’s 12-night Iberian Explorer through Spain and Portugal. It would put my sister and I, along with 48 other people, in a luxury coach as we crossed over 2,000 miles while learning, laughing and talking late into each night about the sights and sounds we had seen each day. Planning, driving and worrying, well excluding travel insurance, would be someone else’s problem – freeing up my time to enjoy with my sister.

My sister would be the youngest on the trip, but as the outgoing one in the family, I was confident she would have no problem fitting in and meeting the other couples and families. I was not mistaken – she met couple after couple with whom she immediately hit it off with – remaining friends with them even after the trip was over. (She even earned invitations to visit trip participants in Bogota, Colombia and in Maryland.)

During the trip, she would often confess at the end of each day in our hotel room or over dinner, how seeing some of the elderly couples had brought back fond memories of her grandparents, both of whom are now deceased.

The trip also educated her about the world and its people. There weren’t just Americans on the trip, so she had the opportunity to meet couples and families from all over the world. There was a family of four with college students from India; a man and woman from the Philippines and a couple from Australia – to name a few. The Australian couple, over breakfast, explained to my sis the complete overview of the plight of the Aboriginal Australians – better than any book or college class could have explained it.

Finally, near the top of my sister’s favorites on the trip was a couple from Florida – a physician and his wife. The doctor kept it close to his vest, but he had served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq working at US Military field hospitals closest to the front lines.

For me, these were the types of people that I wanted myself and my frivolous sister to be exposed to – people who are serving our nation, lifelong learners and others whose actions show that if you work hard and excel – life has a lot to offer. They were all incredibly fun as well – great traveling partners.

Please don’t misunderstand, the togetherness on the trip is not forced or pressured upon trip guests – as some cruise ships attempt to do. There were times when just my sister and I ate alone, and caught up with each other, but the option was always there to join another group or allow another group to join you.

The time riding in the coach from destination to destination allowed us to hold great discussions on subjects where we needed additional time. Instead of a rushed two-minute conversation, as we are often forced to have at home because of time constraints, we now had the time to delve into issues, ideas, suggestions and problems. It was funny, we had an incredibly busy trip schedule but because of the design of a guided vacation – we had more time to talk than ever before.

Upon our return into the United States at JFK airport, waiting for our connection to Tampa, my sister made a mad dash to find a Chipotle restaurant – these kids can’t live without Chipotle today. I thought that we were reverting back to the way things were before the trip, but I could detect a difference in her.

Without being prodded, she expressed to me more than once how happy she was to live in Bradenton and in the United States – saying how fortunate she was – all the opportunities that she has received over the course of her life.

Then, the incredibly busy college student, who also works two jobs, kicked it up a notch – she called me at work and informed me that she had met with the national Big Brothers & Big Sisters organization to sign up to be a Big Sister to an underprivileged child. She was going to be assigned as a Big Sister to a young girl whose parents are incarcerated.

When I asked her why now was doing this, she said the trip across Europe made her feel that she had so much to be thankful for, that she felt compelled to do her part to help make someone else’s life a little better.

I am not sure how the last chapter in this book ends, but for a big sis whose vacation goals were to reconnect with her little sister while attempting to open her eyes to what the world has to offer, the guided vacation sure did the trick!