Travel, Friends, and Kids — Proceed With Caution!

“Pack your bags, kiddos! We’re going on vacation with the Smiths (or the Romanos, or the Bernsteins)!”

When mine were small and not-so-small we fell into this trap again and again. It always sounded like a good idea at the time. We were friends, our kids were friends, how could it be bad? Playmates for Mom and Dad, and friends for the smaller set, too. Less sibling bickering and more fun, right?

Maybe, maybe not. I’m here to warn you … travelers beware.

There was the time we headed north to the snow with our good friends, the Rules*, and their three small guys. We thought we knew them pretty well. Not so much. By the time we pulled into town and met up at a ski rental shop, it became clear that their 8 hour drive had been a holy disaster of kid’s fights, screaming and yelling, and unenforceable consequences that were destined to color the week.

And that was before we knew about their strict 8 PM bedtime, even on vacation, and the 24/7 TV blackout they declared for the shared condo. Needless to say, our three were confused and more than slightly annoyed by the new guidelines, even after we secretly let them sneak into our bedroom to watch a favorite show at low volume.

Another cherished holiday memory involved a houseboat trip with our next-door neighbors. Now, we love these folks — truly love them and their two kids. So when they called with a last minute invitation to join them on Lake Powell, arguably one of the most beautiful natural landscapes anywhere, we jumped.

All began pleasantly enough, but by the time the 5 day adventure ended we’d survived AT LEAST 5 harrowing, life threatening, see-your-life-flash-before-your-eyes events. These included, but were not limited to, a gas pedal wedged to the floor on the drive to the boat, the sudden death of an outboard engine on the small motor boat we were using to explore the lake, which left us at the mercy of rough winds set to crash us into the rocky shore at dusk with all 5 kids aboard, and a moment lasting a lifetime when one of the children disappeared while making a game of swimming under the houseboat when the engine was running. Yikes!

So did we learn our lesson the hard way? Not necessarily. We still travel with friends and family now and then, but we’ve learned some rules of the road to make it more fun, less torture.

Make sure you know these folks — really know them. There’s nothing worse than being far from home with a week of shared time ahead of you and suddenly having that overwhelming thought … who ARE these people?? If you’re considering a joint family trip, spend some time together first. Do the parents argue constantly? You won’t know if you’ve only spent time with Mom and the kids. Does their family culture mesh with yours?

Consider the ‘fit’ of family members. Are the kids roughly the same age? How about gender? If your 4 and 6-year-olds have playmates close in age, but your 10 year old is left out in the cold it could be a problem. Don’t ignore adult compatibility, either. Can you and hubby get along with this couple for a solid week and still have the friendship when you get home?

Always book your own living space. While having another family along can add to the vacation experience, being with them in close quarters around the clock rarely works out well. Play during the day, share an evening meal, and then retreat to your own space where your family habits are king. This also gives you an escape hatch in case someone’s not getting along or just doesn’t feel well.

Compare parenting styles. Every family has one. Some work well together and some clash, big time. Avoid a situation where your ‘take it as it comes’ style collides with their ‘this is the plan and we’re sticking to it’ approach, or vice-versa. Consider how you discipline and what your nutritional rules look like. It doesn’t mean you can’t go and have a great time if your styles vary, it just means you’ll need to plan for it ahead of time.

Agree on a set of rules for everyone. Your family has rules, and so does theirs, and chances are they’re not the same. But come up with some bottom line guidelines to be respected by all to give everyone common ground. Then, whatever additional limits are imposed by each family, for each family, are fine and understood.

Have a joint family meeting. Well before departure get everyone together to talk about the trip. Go over the itinerary and make sure you’re all on the same page. Plan some activities that everyone will enjoy and some that might be done separately. Expectations are really important, so be sure they match. This has the added benefit of getting everyone jazzed up and excited about the adventure. You may need another meeting just for the grown-ups, but include the kids in this one.

Now, go. Have fun. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

* Not their real names.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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