Ever really lost it on a family getaway? Us too. This Real Simple editor has some post-mortem advice.

By Sarah Collins
Updated September 18, 2015
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The schedule was obscene and I knew it from the start. Over the course of my family’s seven-day vacation, we managed to plan 6.5 days and nights of activity: an overnight hike, a field day extravaganza, time with two sets of grandparents, a birthday party, a cookout for 40+, breakfast for 20, 16 overall overnight guests, and a boat ride. On the .5 day, when we “rested,” I dropped our tin of takeout dinner on the grass in my haste to remove it from the car. The adrenaline didn’t stop, nor did the washing machine. Until the 6th day, that is, when I found myself on my bed, in the fetal position, crying and reading Little House in the Big Woods. It was completely, utterly, un-relaxing. After some time to recover and reflect, what did I learn? That people, no matter how lovely or low-maintenance or related to you they are, can start to grate when they’re always around. That I am truly an introvert. And that if I’m ever to do a family vacation again (ha, like it’s an option), I need to remember these Five Lessons. Perhaps they can help you, too?

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When we planned our trip, I had every intention of taking some time for myself at least a couple times during the week—going for a run, escaping somewhere to read for a few hours. But I felt such pressure/guilt to be present during all the activity, not to mention be available to find the missing flip-flop, teach visitors how to use the Nespresso machine, and provide the WiFi password, that I never begged off. And so: I look back on my time at the Big Y grocery store that week with real affection. Empty cart, wide aisles, contemplating lemon vs. tart cherry Noosa yogurt all alone. Those trips became my escape, and I will be sure to layer in more workaday solo errands (bikini wax!) next time. Take it, if that’s all you can realistically get.


A few nights over vacation, my squirmy 6-year-old banished me to sofa city. Then I spent a nightmare of a night in a rustic (unwashed-ish) bed on the top of a mountain, too grossed out to doze off. I was positively dragging by Day 3. I think a simple sleeping bag (cocoon?) can head this off next year. Presumably, if I feel more clean, happy, and comfortable, it will make the most essential element of a good vacation—sleep—less elusive.


All those polite little tasks a host tends to suggest—bring a dip, fill the water glasses, strip the bed—do close to nothing in terms of lowering the host’s stress level. You’re still ultimately in charge. Guests want to be helpful: Why not let them be truly, meaningfully helpful? Perhaps it was because exhaustion had caused my filter to come off, but near the end of the week, when we hosted two families for a camp-out, I got bold and asked one of the families to make crepes for breakfast. A big job, but they were happy to take it on. If I did it again, I’d go even bolder: I’d ask them to OWN breakfast. I’d step out it completely. No setting the table, making a fruit salad, refilling milk glasses. For one sacred, soothing hour, I’d be a visitor in my own home.


For the field day extravaganza, our most ambitious event of the week, my husband decided to double down and rent a bouncy castle. 20+ over-juiced kids were coming, age three to 11. What could possibly go wrong? We picked up, then wrestled, with the ginormous contraption that morning. And then the kids showed up. At first, I feared injury (as one of the parents predicted, “20 go in, 1 comes out.”). But even more shocking: They weren’t that into it. After about 10 minutes, most of them started migrating to a 15-year-old Slip n’ Slide we’d dug out from the garage. A hose and a glorified long yellow trash bag: That’s all you really need. You can apply this base-level thinking to all facets of a get-together—hot dogs only rather than a grilling smorgasborg, Klondike bars in a cooler for dessert. No one is going to miss the bouncy castle next year, least of all my husband and the small cadre of us it took to jam it back into its storage bag the next day.


After the bouncy castle had been packed up and I’d lugged the trashcans to the garage, emptied the coolers, and picked dirty forks off the lawn, I hit the wall. I had no more to give. As my husband (correctly) read the scene and shuttled the kids out of the house, I stomped back to the bedroom and shut the door on the dishes, the laundry, the soggy abandoned Slip n’ Slide, the people. Spent and, yes, sobbing, I turned to the only thing I knew would give me comfort: a copy of my stepson’s Little House in the Big Woods. I took a few deep, ragged breaths and started reading about maple sugar candy and Pa mistaking a tree stump for a bear. Maybe it was the escapist tale of olden-days hardship, or maybe it was regressive childhood behavior (probably), but something helped me start to feel better. Next vacation, if lessons 1-4 fail me, it’s on to Farmer Boy.