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Challenge: Traveling with Kids

The Joy and Terror of a Family Vacation

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Vacation. Three syllables that can keep you going through a tough job, whether you put in your time at the office or chasing around toddlers at home. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, and you’d be forgiven — at least a little bit — for daydreaming about the magical healing properties of breaking up your routine and traveling somewhere special with the people you love. What could be better than getting away from it all?

Well, for me, the idea of a vacation is kind of a double-edged sword. Were you imagining a tropical paradise and maybe a couple’s massage? Lucky. My family vacation comes with a heavy emphasis on the family part.

Now, before you decide I’m a selfish, anti-social monster, hear me out. I love my family. They’re great people.

It’s just that’s there’s so many of them.

Vacationing With Extended Family

Every other year, my husband’s very generous grandparents foot the bill for a big family vacation to a different spot for “family fun and togetherness.” Once you add up all of the aunts, uncles, and cousins we make up a group of over 20 people to get through airports and make restaurant reservations for.

Did I mention there are five highly energetic boys between the age of eight and 18? It’s not easy to find something everyone will like to do — or that’s even remotely low profile, no matter where we go.

So yeah, I usually need a vacation from my vacation when it’s all said and done.

Making Travel With a Big Group Doable

Still, I wouldn’t trade this time with everyone for anything — and not just because it inevitably comes with a hilarious story to laugh about when we get back. It really is a great time to reconnect, and if you structure the vacation right, you’ll have some time to yourself or to break out in small groups for activities you like. That way, you’re not feeling like part of a giant — loud — tour group the whole time.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about making big family vacations work for everyone:

1. Get Everyone Involved in the Planning

After a couple trips planned solely by the grandparents of the group, younger generations were ready to stage a coup. Instead of armed rebellion, just make sure everyone gets some input into the vacation planning stages. This includes kids, by the way. You can limit the options, but giving them choices is empowering, and it makes sure everyone has a good time.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be about choosing the destination, either, but it should definitely be about the types of activities available once you get there.

2. Schedule Unscheduled Time

If you have every day on your vacation packed to the gills with planned adventures, you’ll run yourself ragged — and you’ll probably be good and sick of your family instead of feeling reconnected with them by the time you’re done.

To solve this sticky issue, make sure there’s a day or two on your trip that’s wide open for individual choices. Kids can hit the zoo, and grandparents can stroll the horticultural gardens — and you can get that massage you’ve been dreaming about.

3. Rotate Kid Duty

The beauty of a group vacation is that there are more pairs of eyes to watch all the kids, so everyone gets to relax a little more than they would on a daily basis. This only works, however, if everyone pitches in.

I’m a fan of “Parent’s Night Out” during vacation, where one couple can peel off for a special evening while the rest of the group watches all the kids. Just be sure to choose some low-key, kid-friendly activities — pool time, anyone? — to keep things easy.

4. Withhold Judgment

One of the most fascinating/aggravating aspects of traveling with family is getting an up close and personal look at the wide range of parenting styles out there. It can sure be tempting to spend the flight home rehashing your in-laws’ shortcomings in this regard, but cut them some slack.

Just because your five-year-old nephew had a meltdown in the airport doesn’t mean your in-laws are too permissive and need to get him some ADHD meds. In fact, loads of kids are misdiagnosed, so your armchair pediatric training is probably way off-base.

5. Do Group Dinners Right

Though my preference is to rent a house where we can take turns cooking meals for a more low-key dinnertime experience, not everyone shares this vision of vacation bliss. Inevitably, we all try to squeeze into some restaurant at least once or twice.

To make group dinners work, you must have a reservation well in advance. It’s smart to make sure you’ve previewed the menu to accommodate any allergies or distinct preferences, too. Finally, know ahead of time what the protocol is for splitting the bill — from the restaurant’s perspective and from your family’s point of view to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

When you take the time to do some commonsense pre-planning, your big fat family vacation will go much more smoothly. It will never be perfect, but maybe you’ll learn to embrace the happy chaos that comes with being part of a big family.

I know I did.

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