A stress-less guide for long-distance families. 

By Jane Borden
Updated November 01, 2017
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Federica Bordoni

Getting together over the holidays can be rough when relatives are in a different city…or state…or country. Plane tickets cost a fortune. You need a small cargo ship to transport your kids’ gear. And emotional expectations are high on all sides. But you can make it work—or find ways to feel connected without ever leaving home.

If You Want to Go But Money Is Tight

Traveling is expensive. Traveling during peak holiday season? Even worse. Add in the costs of buying gifts and sparkly reindeer sweaters for the traditional family sing-along, and your holiday debt can last well into the new year. Use these strategies to cut down on expenses without cutting out the family fun.

Make Your Presence the Present
Last year, Americans said they planned to spend more than $900 on holiday gifts. Think about it: You can buy two round-trip tickets to many U.S. cities for that amount. Tell your family you’d love to join them, but since you’ll be spending on airfare, it would be great if you could stick with homemade gifts or do a Secret Santa. Or offer to organize a fun event as your gift, suggests Joanne Koegl, a marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, California: “Take them on a tour of the holiday lights or plan a gingerbread-house-decorating contest.” If your family goes all out on gifts anyway, hand over your homemade goodies without guilt, says Catherine Pearlman, PhD, a family therapist and the author of Ignore It! “Let others gift as they wish,” she says. “Just be a grateful recipient.”

Do a Family-Themed Road Trip
If your family lives within reasonable driving distance—even if the drive requires an overnight stop—the journey can be part of the adventure, and a tank of gas will cost a lot less than an airline ticket. “We always plan the route to include a visit with a family member or friend who lives halfway,” says Jennifer Ritter, a lawyer and mom of two who has driven from New York to Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Florida to visit loved ones. “We visit during the day and then drive through the night. My husband and I take turns driving while listening to podcasts so the other one can snooze. We’ve saved thousands by taking the car instead of flying.”

Go Rogue With the Calendar
Are we any less thankful at Thanksgiving if it’s celebrated on the third Thursday of November instead of the fourth? Consider visiting your family the week before or after the actual holiday—you can save a bundle on airfare off-peak. “Most towns have holiday activities from Thanksgiving all the way through the end of December,” points out Keryn Means, founder of Walking on Travels, a family-travel blog. Childhood friends and neighbors are more likely to be free on an off-week, so you can invite all of them over for a potluck. “Call your family with a specific plan,” suggests Koegl. “Explain that you found affordable flights at a different time, that you would be happy to cook, and that they can still celebrate at the regular time without you. Most of the time, people will meet you halfway.”

Share the Costs, Family-Style
If you’re feeling bold, ask your family to pitch in. “My brother lives farthest away, so he proposed a cost-sharing approach,” says Lauren Curry, a lawyer and mother of two in Nolensville, Tennessee. “We add up his airfare, my parents’ gas money, and my hosting costs, and then we split the total cost by three.”

If You Want to Go But Your Family Stresses You Out

Have an overbearing father-in-law, feuding parents, or a moody sister? While we’d love everyone to be on their best behavior during the season of peace and joy, all that togetherness can bring out their worst. Here’s how to deal.

Plan to Protect Yourself
While you can’t necessarily stop your dad from pointing out that you’ve gained weight or your sister from acting like a martyr, you can decide how you’ll react when you’re provoked, says Marie Hartwell-Walker, EdD, author of Tending the Family Heart Through the Holidays. “You’re not going to change your relatives, but you can figure out how to minimize their impact on you,” she says. Koegl suggests making a list of all the annoying things you fear will happen: “Say to yourself, ‘If I expect things, they won’t surprise me, and I’ll go with the flow.’”

Limit Your Time Together
“Tell your family you’re looking forward to spending the holiday dinner with them, but you’re also looking forward to seeing some nearby sights on this trip,” suggests Means. Hopefully, everyone can play nice for one meal—if not, you’re out quickly anyway.

Spread the Love
Some divorced parents get along fine; others, not so much. If yours can’t be in the same room together, plan your time carefully in advance so both sides feel they received enough attention, says Pearlman. “Let them know exactly when you’ll see them and stick with it,” she says. If it’s not practical to divvy up your time 50-50, give the parent who gets less time something special in return, suggests Pearlman: “Ask them to bring the kids to a movie they’re really excited about so it’s about quality, not quantity.”

Meet in the Middle
Instead of gathering at the family homestead, suggest celebrating on neutral ground, such as a resort halfway between your homes. “That way everyone is out of their comfort zone,” explains Kristi Marcelle, an independent travel adviser at Ciao Bambino!, a travel agency specializing in families. No one is the host, so your mom can’t stress over the table settings and your brother might not regress to his teenage surliness. Her biggest tip for family travel: “If you rent a house, decide in advance who will get—and pay extra for—the master bedroom.”

If You Want to Go But Traveling With Kids Is a Pain

Children bring joy, love, and a deep sense of purpose to your life. They also make traveling a thousand times more difficult. Take these steps so that holiday travel will look more like an adventure story and less like the first chapter in a murder mystery.

Decide If They’re Truly Ready
“Some children will be fine wherever you take them, but some are sensitive from the day they’re born, and changes in environment or routine are really hard,” says Hartwell-Walker. “If you know that no matter how much you prep, your kid isn’t ready for such a big disruption in his or her schedule, don’t travel this year.” Means suggests you do a trial run by taking a local overnight trip first. “Keep as many things about their routine as consistent as possible, like bringing a sound machine you use at home on the road with you.”

Get Them Involved in the Plan
Once you determine your kids are ready for the trip, get them invested by coming up with some ideas about what would make it special for them. “Tell younger kids fun stories about relatives they may not be familiar with,” says Hartwell-Walker. Let older kids Google local restaurants to check out or fun events to attend. “Give them a voice, and they’ll feel like they’re part of it,” says Koegl.

Build in Breathing Space
If you can swing it financially, consider staying in a hotel or Airbnb rather than bunking with family, suggests Pearlman. That way you can all be together without being on top of one another, and you can have more control over your kids’ schedule, which can stave off crankiness. Pearlman adds that there are ways to present the idea without hurting your parents’ feelings: “Say, ‘I know that having everyone in the house is hard, so we could stay at a hotel but come over for dinner every night.’” Or if your parents are mostly interested in quality time with the grandchildren anyway, you can get a date night out of it. “The kids can stay with their grandparents one night while the parents get the hotel room all to themselves,” she says.

Bend the Rules—a Bit
If Grandma wants to feed your son ice cream for breakfast or your daughter refuses to wear a party dress, let it go, advises Pearlman. “Otherwise it just creates bad feelings,” she says. “Your kids won’t be destroyed because they’re watching more TV or eating nonorganic food for a few days.” But no matter where they sleep or what they eat, Pearlman suggests making sure it all happens at the regularly scheduled time: “Getting hungry or overtired can lead to a lot of stress.”

If You Really, Honestly Just Don’t Want to Go

Sometimes you need to take a break from the family and create your own traditions in your own little corner of the world. If you’ve decided to stay home this year, these tips can help you send your regrets in the most heartfelt and gracious way.

Break the News Gently
Give as much notice as you can so your family can get used to the idea, says Hartwell-Walker. “Don’t blindside them,” she says. “Say, ‘Holiday travel is going to be very difficult this year. I’m going to think it through—can we talk next week?’” Then offer a plan B. “What makes the older folks nervous is the feeling that if you’re not coming now, when will they see you?” says Hartwell-Walker. Make a suggestion for another family gathering (“Remember, we’ll all see one another at Katie’s graduation in June”) and remind them that the decision isn’t permanent. You’ll revisit it next year when money isn’t as tight, the kids are out of diapers, or your work schedule changes.

Have a Virtual Visit
Skype and Facetime are game changers for far-flung families. “On Easter, my kids take my parents on the egg hunt with them through Facetime, and on Christmas morning they open presents with them,” says Mary Beth Canty, a management consultant and mother of two in Chicago. Pearlman says one sure way to keep kids engaged over video chats is to schedule the calls after something exciting. “Kids will have more to say when they have specific news to share or an event to discuss,” she says.

Contribute From Afar
Just because you’re not there in person doesn’t mean you can’t still be part of the celebration. Send a special dessert so they know you’re thinking of them, or buy everyone matching pj’s and Facetime in the morning while you’re all wearing them. Pearlman suggests sending everyone the same ornaments or Hanukkah candles so you’re having a connected experience no matter where you are. Courtney Gatewood, a mother of two in Los Angeles, keeps up one shared tradition to feel close to her family, even though she stopped flying home several years ago. “Every Christmas Eve, my family listens to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” she says. “I do that in my home now. It’s nice to know that we’re all listening to the same thing on the same night.”

Don’t Rub It In
If you don’t go home but do wind up going for a weekend away with friends or throwing a dinner party, don’t make your family feel bad by posting all about it on Facebook or Instagram, suggests Koegl. “The only thing I’d post is, ‘To my family on the holidays, I’m missing you.’”