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Ten Tips for Making a Family Vacation Great

Knowing when difficult moments may occur can make all the difference.

Why do so many family vacations fail to live up to our expectations? Family vacations usually seem great when we’re planning them and yet more often than not, we return home feeling … well, that we really need a vacation.

Somehow, despite our best efforts, arguments, stresses, and the inevitable assault of unexpected-things-going-wrong can contribute to making our family vacations experiences we would rather forget than ones we would like to cherish, or even remember.

The trick to making a family vacation great is anticipation and planning. While we cannot predict what might go wrong, we can predict that something probably will. Yes, we might hope we won’t encounter stresses and tensions, but we can make good guesses about where they are likely to occur and take steps to avoid them.

Following these steps can help minimize stresses and tensions and give you tools for getting through such moments with the least disruption to everyone’s mood and good time when they occur.

The Family Vacation Survival Guide

1. Create a family vacation packing list: Which are you more likely to forget to pack: your daughter’s favorite doll, your son’s allergy medication, the new book you were hoping to read by the pool, or everyone’s passport? If you want the answer to be "none of the above," create a packing list well in advance and print it out. The time it takes you to write it will be less than the time you spend worrying if you forgot something essential. You can then update the list before each family trip so you don’t have to create a new one.

2. Have a family packing night: Start the family bonding early by having a family packing night where everyone contributes according to their ability. Put on some music, play a slideshow of previous vacations on the laptop in the background, and discuss which activities or places everyone is most looking forward to experiencing while you fill the suitcases.

3. Leave the house early: Many couples argue about when to leave the house, which could start the family vacation with tension and irritability instead of excitement and anticipation. Instead of starting your family vacation stressed and worried you’ll miss your flight, train, bus, or boat, simply plan activities to pass the time at the airport and leave the house early. It is better to have spare time at a transportation hub than to spend the first day of a family vacation trying to "come down" from the tension of trying to get to your destination on time.

4. Set realistic expectations for your kids: Children are likely to be super excited about going to a theme park and super bummed when they realize it takes hours of travel to get there. They are equally unlikely to focus on the fact that they will be spending far more time in line than on the actual rides. The best way to keep them from having a meltdown is to alert them to the inevitable lines and waiting ahead, and problem-solve with them ways they can keep themselves occupied and distracted when they encounter them.

5. Don’t over-schedule: Yes, there might be lots to see or do, but younger kids can easily get overwhelmed by rushing from one activity to the next and older kids often need their alone time to text complaints to their friends and post snarky comments on social media. Therefore, plan on no more than one or two activities a day and divide the rest of the time between alone time for teens or playtime for younger kids, and family bonding time in which you show all the pictures and videos you took, and discuss everyone’s favorite parts of the day.

6. Prepare kids for different foods and customs: It might not always be possible for younger kids to have the kind of foods they know and like, so make sure to discuss alternatives with them ahead of time so they’re prepared to try something different. Teaching kids how to say "please" and "thank you" in the local language can make them feel more comfortable in a foreign country and make them more open to experiencing the local cuisine.

7. Don’t forget your own needs: It’s your family vacation too, so make sure to schedule time for yourself. Let younger kids know when they will be expected to play by themselves so you can nap, read, or get a massage, and inquire ahead of time about babysitting services so you can have a night out.

8. Inform kids about the next day’s plans each night: Kids do much better when they are prepared for things, so go over the itinerary for the next day before they go to bed and be ready to make adjustments based on the experiences of the current day. If it was a tiring one, consider getting a later start tomorrow and dropping an activity so you don’t have to rush. If teenagers felt bored by sightseeing, offer them a pool or shopping option the next day.

9. Have a backup plan: Hopefully it won’t rain, no one will get sick, and everything will work out exactly as planned. Hopefully. But having a backup plan for such eventualities will not only come in handy if things actually do go wrong, it can also minimize stress if your youngest develops a sniffle and cough, your boss needs you to be on a six-hour conference call in the middle of the night, or the folks in the vacation houses around you begin frantically boarding up their windows while mumbling the word "hurricane."

10. Use humor to deal with setbacks: Your flight got canceled and you have to spend the night at the airport. You can either get bummed and miserable or try to make the best of it. One way to put a spin on things is by playing “it could be much worse,” where everyone has to come up with totally unrealistic and funny ways in which things could get even worse (e.g., “Zombie unicorns from space invade the airport”) or play humorous "complete-the-sentence" games like “I love sleeping on airport floors because___” and “The sound of strangers snoring next to me is better than most songs by__.” Finding the humor in frustrating circumstances can be a great way to model positive and adaptive coping mechanisms to your kids and to minimize the impact of setbacks on the rest of the family vacation.

Copyright 2015 Guy Winch.


For fascinating accounts of real patients and science-based treatments for addressing common psychological challenges we all face in daily life, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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