May 18, 2010 -- There's nothing more frustrating than returning from a family vacation, and declaring, "I need a vacation from my vacation."
When you're going to fun destinations with the family, how do you keep the logistics from overwhelming you?
Especially when traveling when kids, you have to expect the unexpected, be prepared for mood swings as daily routines get thrown to the vacation winds, and find oases of downtime for yourself amid the activity whirlwind.
This became readily apparent as I recall my own family's vacation nightmares, from my daughter having a raging week-long flu last year in Puerto Rico; our first big European trip to France and the e-reservation for our hotel room had not gone through despite confirmation and we found ourselves room-less in Paris; my son, despite layers of high level sunscreen, getting such bad sunburn on Day One of a beach trip that we had to get him a surfing outfit ... we all have these types of stories to recount of our own vacation nightmares.
It got to a point when my son and daughter were ages 9 and 10 that my husband turned to me and said, "That's it! It's time to give up! We are done with week-long vacations for at least two years!"
With my kids now happily vacationing alongside us each year, some key takeaways stand out of how you can both recognize and plan for the predictable causes of stressors that can turn a family vacation into a family disaster and rescue a nightmare vacation before it veers off course even further.
Of course, it's worth noting that as your kids are older, you can schedule more "independent" events -- if there's a lifeguard on duty, you don't have to watch every two seconds for that bobbing head in the water and you get a more peace of mind, not to mention time to read a book or magazine.
It's important to maintain a sense of humor, because you never know what's going to happen as your family sails forth to vacation world. A vacation itself dramatically changes the family dynamics, as you're suddenly spending all your time together. It's 24/7 and there's no break in the action: no one's at work, no one's at school, regular activities are off, and you're always together.
Relationship dynamics get shifted around. So while everyone longs for relaxing and fun vacations, as a parent you often take the brunt of the stress and the change in routine. It's moments of fun, but overall not relaxing or a wind-down for you. There's all too often a mismatch between expectations and what really happens: and the minute you become super-stressed, each small thing diminishes your enjoyment of the trip.
Add to this the inherent stress of mobilizing your family -- with all the gear, clothes, toys, and stuff needed for the road -- along with the endless series of negotiations of how time is spent at your vacation destination, trying to accommodate between what the adults and kids want to do, or different opinions of what counts as "fun" between siblings.
Fortunately, you can set offset these stressors by anticipating them, and heading them off at the pass!
Defusing Vacation Stressors
It's really important to understand what typical vacation stressors are and why they take place. Kids of all ages rely on daily routines much more than you might realize, as they help lend soothing structure to your child's day.
Stick to key routines: Tension surrounds a complete routine change-up, which often proves the case on vacation, as bedtime stretches much later than normal, nap or quiet time gets overrun with activities, and your typical evening ritual leading up to bed erodes completely.
As kids lose structure they get exhausted and have accompanying erratic emotional swings or tantrums in young children. So keep some quiet time in the early afternoons: go back to the house from the beach for an hour in the middle of the day and then go on and continue with adventures.
For bedtime routines, I would assign my daughter packing up a "Bedtime Bag" replete with her pink heart-shaped pillow, her favorite stuffed animal of the moment, two bath toys, her favorite Sonicare for Kids toothbrush with a two-minute musical brushing timer to which she danced while brushing, and four books she want us to read together.
We stuck to bedtime routines just as we would at home, and as she drifted off to sleep by 8:30, my evening of relaxing could begin in earnest. Plus despite initial protests, kids so appreciate a continuing sense of structure in a new environment.
Watch the sugar: Most kids eat way more sugar on vacation than they typically should, such as having sweet snacks, cotton candy, and treats on the go, you find them at times over the top -- or like my kids, bouncing happily and unendingly (and irritatingly) on the bed at 11 at night.
Call ahead instead of "mobilizing a small army": Be creative about finding stuff at your vacation spot so you can leave stuff home. In our family, this meant buying beach and pool toys and boogie boards at the vacation spot and made it a family tradition to pass the toys on to another family right before we leave. For hotels, call ahead to guest services to see if they offer kid gear such as a high chair, bed rails or a crib.
Negotiate ahead for time tradeoffs: To head off complaints about having to do something "boring" and "not fun" along the way, ask each child to pick one or two things he or she wants to do: For instance, your daughter wants to stop at a beading store on the boardwalk and your son wants to do the bumper cars.
If you're staying with Grandma & Grandpa to save money, you need to carve out time so you don't feel like you have to spend every second with everyone. Plan ahead of time what you can do without the entire group in tow. Trade off kid favorite meals such as burgers and fries with some meals the grown-ups would enjoy more.
Come up with a plan so that for one hour every afternoon everyone does something they want to do, but the rule is it has to be quiet: read a book or do a puzzle. Set boundaries on electronics ahead of time, but bring a few favorite movies as back-up down time or a rainy day fall-back.
Look into whether there are kids' camps or activities where you're going where you can be off-duty for a couple hours of the day, or is there an inexpensive way to engage babysitting at your destination so you can feel a little bit of breathing room.
Lastly, give your kids a vacation allowance as they often want you to buy them things on trips. Let them know ahead of time that they get X amount to spend, so they have to spend wisely. That way they know they can't just get everything they want and won't ask you every two seconds.