Five Tips For A (Mostly) Stress Free Family Vacation

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Growing up, my family vacationed with my grandparents in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for one week every summer. My memories of these trips include endless days of running between the beach and hotel pool, playing shuffleboard with my grandfather, eating crab legs dipped in so much garlic butter I'm surprised my arteries are still in tact...and side glances exchanged between my parents. These glances--or the occasional eye roll--happened when my grandfather, who was not one to mince words, said something off-putting to my father or when my grandma tried to tell my mom how to do something or when the dinner conversation turned to a taboo subject. 

As an adolescent, I pictured my future family vacationing with MY parents one day...minus the side glances, eye rolling and awkward conversations. As an adult, I'm pleased to say that my vision has (mostly) come true. My husband, children and I vacation with my parents, brother and sister-in-law for a week every summer. And while my dad is not sharp tongued with my husband and my mom is not critical of my parenting, these trips are not without their potential relational pitfalls.

Yet after three years of vacationing together, my family is beginning to master the art of togetherness. Our vacation on Lake Michigan just came to a close. Last night, we sat down for a little post-vacation debrief (see tip #5) and came up with a few reasons why this year was our best family vacation to date. Here are our five tips for a MOSTLY stress-free family vacation: 

Tip #1: Set expectations for your family vacation before you leave

My parents, brother and I lead very different lives. My brother and sister-in-law live a child-free, car-free life in Los Angeles. My parents are empty nesters in Central Wisconsin; and my husband and I are 10 years of marriage and two young kids in to life in a tiny beach town on the California coast. Much like our lives, our ideas about what "vacation" means are different. 

Before we went on our most recent trip, we talked about what each of us wanted our vacation to look like. If you have the luxury of living in the same town as your extended family, this is probably best done in person. For us, this conversation took place through phone and email. 

Here are some questions to ask in order to set vacation expectations appropriately: 

  1. What would make this a great vacation for you? 
  2. What are some things you really want to do/visit/see/experience on this vacation? 
  3. Is there anything you DON'T want to do on this vacation? 
  4. How much do you want to out and do things and how much do you want to rest and relax (on a beach, at a campsite, etc)? 
  5. Do you want to do everything together or will there be time for people to go do things by themselves or with just one or two others? 

Tip #2: Resolve to let it go 

If you're entertaining the idea of vacationing with extended family, your relationship with them is probably decent. But regardless of how well your family gets along, there are always some topics you shouldn't discuss with them; and at some point during your vacation, there may be something said to incite those aforementioned side glances or eye rolls or--even worse--a disagreement. 

Resolve NOW to let it go THEN. 

Change the subject. Ignore the comment. Take a deep breath. Nothing good can come from starting a heated debate or argument with a person you're going to have to spend time with for the next few days. Life is too short to be in conflict with people you love. Repeat after me: I'd rather be in relationship with my family than be right. 

Tip #3: Make a schedule for each day of vacation

In certain vacation scenarios (cruises, guided tours, backpacking, etc) your daily schedule is pre-determined. In many cases, however, you and your family have an endless number of things you could do each day...and just as many opinions about which thing to choose. Talking through the possibilities and creating a schedule in advance gets everyone on the same page--and eliminates (most) conflict. 

Here are a few questions to ask when putting together daily vacation schedules: 

  1. What places/restaurants/activities are in close proximity to each other and make sense to do in the same day? 
  2. Are we allowing a reasonable amount of time for and between each activity? 
  3. Who will be going to and participating in each activity? 
  4. Do we need to make reservations or purchase tickets in advance? 

Pro tip: My family and I found it best to review and firm up the daily schedule for the next day at dinner each night. This puts everyone on the same page for the upcoming day and, again, eliminates (most) potential conflict. 

Tip #4: Make sure everyone has an equal say 

Remember that list of things to do/go/see/visit that you and your family made prior to the vacation? Go back to that list when you make your daily schedule and make sure everyone is checking things off their vacation bucket list. That way, no one gets to the end of the week and feels like they only did things that everyone else wanted to do. 

Tip #5: Do a post-family vacation check-in

If these vacations are going to become an annual tradition, it's good to sit down shortly after the trip has ended and discuss what went well and what you'd like to do differently next year. Because my family is scattered around the US, we don't usually get together in person again until the holidays, so post-vacation debriefing happens on the last day of vacation or via phone or email. 

Pro tip: Make sure someone writes down the takeaways. I have two small children and virtually no memory these days, so it's highly likely that by this time next year, I won't remember what everyone loved--or hated--about our trip. 


Even as I write this, I know that some of you will read this post with incredible sadness. Perhaps one or both of your parents are no longer living or your relationship with them is beyond repair due to circumstances out of your control. My heart aches for you. 

I also realize that some of you are reading this and thinking: "I could NEVER go on vacation with my family. I can barely stand to be in the same room with them for five minutes." I get it. Family relationships can be hard and complicated. Maybe you just need to make it through dinner before you start planning a week of togetherness. 

If you ARE fortunate enough to have a solid relationship with your extended family, but you've never gone on a vacation all together, there's no time like the present to get one on the books. And if you do take regular family vacations, leave YOUR TIPS in the comments section below! 


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