5 Ways To Avoid Family Vacations From Hell

Not every family vacation has to devolve into insanity. It's not repeatedly traveling that yields trauma; it's repeating the same bad habits while ignoring their outcomes.
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Last summer, three short days on the Maine coast with my family proved long enough to allow for copious tears, universal sleep deprivation, heated arguments and at least one meltdown (not, mind you, of a child) in a pancake restaurant. Scarred as we were from the experience, what have we done to ensure that this never happens again? Booked ourselves a trip twice that long to Saugatuck, Michigan. Will it be different beach, same fools?

One definition of crazy is to repeat your behaviors over and over while expecting different results. But not every family vacation has to devolve into insanity. It's not repeatedly traveling that yields trauma; it's repeating the same bad habits while ignoring their outcomes. I'm sure there will be blood-pressure-raising moments in this year's trip as well, but our past fiascos have yielded lessons that I'm going to try to take to heart this time. And I think these five strategies could be useful for all parents who have ever wished their vacation would end a few (or many) days early.

1. No Jumping Out of a Cake
Aside from the hallowed All-American tradition of springing Disney World trips on unsuspecting children, most surprise vacation announcements are fraught with peril. Unveiling a vacation at the last minute is like having someone jump out of a fake cake at a party: a cheesy, dramatic reveal that indulges your love for drama but doesn't improve the events to follow. Worse, it puts a burden on the recipient to react positively, knowing that you need them to be excited about all your hard (and secret) work. You might as well say, "Here's the elaborate present you never asked for and for which I have already paid. Now, enjoy it, dammit!"

I learned that the hard way when my husband and I announced our surprise Maine getaway to our 6-year-old. We thought it was a treat, but she saw her calendar of playdates with friends at home evaporating, even as she got hustled into a car for a two-hour drive to a beach she couldn't picture. And guess what? She didn't love it. The takeaway was clear: Unless you know every member of your party to be a Zen master and thus supremely unflappable, clue everyone into your travel plans in advance, giving them time to catch up with you and to build genuine enthusiasm.

2. Count the Kids Before You Leave
Will you lose you cool if your connecting flight is delayed? Would you be heartbroken if you don't get to do the family horse ride that looks so awesome in the brochure because everyone else wants to go rafting? Do you find the same old argument about who got sand all over the hotel room escalating into an epic tirade? If you answered yes to any of the above questions, let me ask one more: What are you, 4?

Trouble with transitions and not getting your way, petty arguments that turn into irrational meltdowns -- these are hallmarks of immaturity, no matter your age. And guess what? Vacations increase the likelihood of your inner child rearing its ugliest head. If you include yourself and your partner in the kid count before you leave the house, you'll be able to watch out for -- and, hopefully, better manage -- your own behaviors in vacationland. I know my "kids" (that would be my husband and daughter) will bicker uselessly and they know that an unexpected schedule change will transform me into a toddler denied his nap. Admitting that sometimes it's you, not your kids, acting like a baby is the first step to acting more like a grown up.

3. Pretend it's a 12-Step Program
If you're addicted to family vacations but want to minimize harm to all involved, consider this wisdom from recovery programs: People function less well if they are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired -- what 12-steppers call HALT. Sometimes, in an attempt to squeeze the most fun out of a day, families shoot right past the H and bring on the T, leading to a perpetual A loop, while missing that even in a crowd, you can feel L. Whenever anyone is acting irrationally, it's worth pausing to see if one or more of these needs is in play. I know for a fact that my daughter will go all Diva Miss Banshee if she hasn't eaten, but sometimes I ignore the fact that the same is true of me -- and end up becoming Diva Mister Banshee, which isn't a bit more pleasant.

The other 12-step mantra worth repeating is One Day at a Time. Just because yesterday was full of holiday-card-worthy images doesn't mean that you'll be guaranteed harmony today, just as yesterday's awfulness doesn't preclude today from being excellent. Make the most of the good days and let each lousy one be just that: a bad day, not a crime to be recounted every day thereafter as proof of failure. Never ruin a new day by harping on an old one.

4. Don't Breed Contempt
My husband and I learned the 4th Day Rule of vacation long ago: If you are together every minute of every day, by day four you won't be able to stand each other. Or, to put it another way, the family that stays together frays together. This is not to say that a family vacation should operate like a subway line with everyone getting off at different stops all day, but that there is no need to cling together like atoms, either. Little breeds contempt faster than taking all your familiarity and shoehorning into a hotel room with one bath.

You do group morale a favor by occasionally splitting into smaller units: pairing members who like the same activity; allowing downtime for some while others are still in overdrive; or simply letting someone pursue a special interest that he would enjoy less if you dogged his steps making him defend, for instance, why some weird shop full of cookware is just thrilling. And when you do reunite, you have fresh stories to tell and new subjects of conversation.

5. Take the Vacation, Not Just Pictures
Ever wonder why children in so many vacation snapshots wear the kind of twisted half-smile usually caused by rigor mortis? Because they are dead sick of us adults making them pause for photos in the middle of whatever they're doing. I'm as guilty as the next dad in this regard, but I'm working on consciously putting down the camera or smartphone once in a while, so that I can be more fully present in our activities, not distanced by a tiny glass window. It's easy to so assiduously document a moment on film that the experience of that moment itself is lost.

The same logic applies to tweets, status updates, online check-ins and emails. When, in the midst of a waterslide, you find yourself thinking of how to word it as a status update before you even achieve splash down, you've been socially networked for too long. Unplug your brain from the idea of reporting each experience while living it so that you can fully enjoy the moment you're in and wait to share the tale later.

Hopefully, if you've followed my other suggestions, the memories you'll be sharing, tweeting and posting to Flickr will be good ones.