24+ Ways to Ensure a Stress-Free Family Vacation

Spend your next trip relaxing, exploring, and bonding—not quarreling and hassling.

Many families like to go on annual vacations, whether it's jetting overseas or road-tripping. But family trips don't always play out exactly as envisioned, especially when the whole family is in close quarters—constantly, 24/7, for a week. Gulp.

If you’re afraid of taking getaways with your gaggle of kiddos and partner, you’re not alone. But there are major benefits to traveling with those you love most. Not only will you bond through mutually shared experiences in new, unfamiliar places, but getting out of your typical routine fosters deeper, more meaningful conversations and helps everyone to reap a little (much-needed) R&R.

The key, of course, is using strategies from seasoned travel wizards who have mastered the fine balance of happy vacations and happy interpersonal relationships. Here's how to enjoy a vacation and some tips for a less stressful travel experience for all.

Plan Together

You may be the one choosing the destination and booking the hotels and activities, but the entire family will be experiencing this trip. Set yourself up for success by making sure everyone gets an opportunity to voice their opinion during the planning stage. If two members of your family would rather not go skiing, it's best to learn this before you've booked seven nights at a ski resort!

Decide on a Mutual Trip Goal

Whether it’s relaxing on the beach, exploring a new destination, or learning a new skill, the purpose of a vacation can take many different forms. Agreeing on a mutual trip goal before leaving will ensure everybody’s on the same page, according to travel expert Wendy Perrin. Having aspirations for adventures will have everyone working together, and will cut back on the arguments you have while on the go. Here are some possible goals:

  • Going to an exotic place? Try one new food every day of the trip.
  • Traveling through Italy? Everyone learns 10 Italian phrases.
  • Going to an aquarium? Learn five facts about whales.
  • Going to the beach? Learn to paraglide.

Be Ready for Boring Moments

There's quite a lot of waiting involved in travel—waiting for the car, train, or plane to get there; waiting for your room to be ready; waiting while yet another family member has to stop and use the restroom; and so on. And let's face it: Patience is a virtue you can't always count on everyone to possess.

So plan ahead for the inevitable boring moments. Ask yourself, who's the least patient person in our family, and what sort of activity would make waiting times easier for them? Here are some options:

  • Play road trip games in the car.
  • Choose a "family read"—a poem, short story, or book that everyone reads during slow moments on this trip and that you can discuss during other downtimes. (You'll have to pick one on your youngest child's reading level, but there are lots of children's books that adults love, too.)
  • Have "vacation tasks" in mind for boring moments. For example, ask them to use the waiting time to choose the next museum, or figure out which paintings they want to see first when they arrive.

Allow for Everybody's Temperaments

Think beforehand about what it is that throws individuals in your crew off. You know your family, so you know which triggers will inevitably cause crankiness or discomfort. Do what you can to prevent it from the start, as much as possible, Perrin recommends. Planning the trip with everybody’s dispositions and skill sets in mind can prevent bad behavior and grumpiness from both the kids and adults.

  • If you're taking a long, grueling flight, don't jump right into an activity—allow for some adjustment time upon arrival.
  • If your kids tend to get hangry—especially after spending a few hours in a museum—make sure to pack snacks and plan meals ahead so the group never gets too hungry.
  • If someone in your family doesn't deal well with long lines, plan to get to the theme park early (or consider paying extra for passes that let you jump the line).

Always Carve Out Meaningful Time With Your Spouse

Indulging in one-on-one time with your partner or spouse while away can help the trip feel more therapeutic. Choosing a family-friendly resort or a cruise with a kids club is one way to work in couple’s time, and tiring the kids out during the day can mean alone time—or even a date night—later in the evening, Perrin advises.

If you’re comfortable leaving the kids on their own in a hotel room, find a night to rent them a movie and order room service, then sneak out for a bite just the two of you. (It'll feel like a treat for the kids too! #freedom).

Limit Screen Time

Deciding as a family to limit screen time on vacation will ensure everyone is present and engaged during the trip. (We understand that this might not work for older teens!) And Perrin means everyone in the family: Mom and dad, it’s time to let go of that mighty attachment to your iPhone.

Adults should tell their Facebook friends they'll share photos when they return, and kids' electronics should be limited to long flights or car rides. If the kids are antsy during downtime on vacation, encourage them to write or draw in a travel journal.

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

There will pretty much always be hiccups you can’t plan ahead for, but acting out and dramatizing it will only add to the disappointment. "You want to be the kind of person who can turn lemons into lemonade, but we all get handed lemons when we travel. Figure out how to make the best of it, and turn it into something good," Perrin explains.

Not only will this help you have a less stressful time, but it'll also show your kids a great example of how to handle disappointments, snafus, and changes of plan—something they’ll carry with them (and that’ll make them awesome travelers) for life. If your plans are thwarted, or you have a bad day on vacation, keep these tips in mind:

  • Have realistic expectations. Don't force your vacation to live up to your "pie in the sky" ideas about it.
  • Avoid using words like "worst," "terrible," or "catastrophe." How you describe your vacation affects how you and your family perceive it. That missed flight didn't "ruin" your trip; it sent your adventure on a slightly different path—one that might lead somewhere great.
  • When things go wrong, give everyone a chance to commiserate. Then ask everyone to name one thing they are loving about this trip.

Come Up With Safety Game Plans Before You Leave

Many parents worry about safety when bringing their most precious cargo with them on a trip overseas, or even stateside. The key to easing your worry and helping to make your vacation feel more secure is active communication—before you take off.

As travel blogger Lisa Niver explains, arm your kids with information on how to find help if they need it and the details of where they’re staying. “If you are traveling in a country where you do not speak the language, take a card from the hotel before you leave that has the address and phone number in the local language,” she suggests. Some other tips:

  • Gather your children and point out people who might help them if they're lost, such as law enforcement officers, museum guides, or uniformed security guards. If none of these are around, tell them they might choose a mother with small children.
  • Teach your children what to say if they are lost and need to approach a stranger for help finding you. (My name is...and I'm looking for my parents, whose names are...We are staying at a hotel named...)
  • Niver also suggests coming up with a meeting place for crowded areas so you never lose one another. This could be a coffee shop in a main square, a police station, and so on.

Maintain Family Traditions Away From Home

Some people are born to live their life on the fly, galavanting from one place to another on a whim. Others prefer the comfort and security of home and enjoy the familiarity of a routine. If you’re more on the second team, you can still experience the magic of traveling within your comfort zone by bringing some “home” with you.

  • Niver says that packing a favorite stuffed animal, journal, book, tea bag, coffee, and other essentials you may not be able to find abroad can ease nerves.
  • Maintain your rituals, whether that’s reading a book with your kids before bed or having family breakfast at a table.
  • Staying at an apartment-style hotel or Airbnb makes it easier to replicate that homey feeling with fully equipped kitchens and home-like amenities. You’ll have more room to spread out, while still being able to take advantage of hotel staff and amenities.

Consider a Travel Agent

Before you start thinking of your grandparents who used travel agents “back in their day,” remember this profession is experiencing a reemergence. Much like you would hire someone to repair your car or file your taxes, agents are experts in wanderlust and have relationships that lead to a better vacation.

As travel agent Janice Strand explains, her job is to share her expertise so you don’t have to worry. “Finding a great agent is like finding that hairdresser you would follow anywhere,” she says. Here are three reasons to hire a travel agent:

  • They will be your go-to person if any hiccups happen. “With unexpected world events from airplane groundings, hurricanes in addition to strikes and weather, your travel agent is your connection to rebook or make changes quickly when things don't go as planned," says Strand.
  • Because they are well-connected and in the know, they can get tickets (and save you money) for events you otherwise wouldn't know about
  • They can help you get the best price or even an upgrade on a flight or hotel.

Share Responsibilities

Life coach and frequent flier Elizabeth Pearson reminds couples that happy duos make for happy families. And if one person feels as if they are tasked with planning every last detail while their partner catches up on Netflix, an argument is bound to happen. Instead, she suggests splitting up vacation duties.

“Maybe one of you oversees packing snacks, electronics, and books to ensure a road trip or flights with plenty of distractions. The other may be in charge of parking the car, checking bags, and ushering kids to the washroom,” she says. “The odds of a fight with your partner will drastically decline if you both have set expectations for one another before you leave the house.”

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