A Stress-Free Family Vacation? It's Possible

OK, it might not be completely stress-free, but a little advance planning can help make everything go a lot smoother than you might expect.

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OK, maybe that title overpromises just a bit! After all, when a group with a wide range of ages and personalities goes on vacation together, some stress is almost inevitable. But a little advance planning can help make everything go a lot smoother than you might expect. Here's what you should keep in mind before you go on a trip.
1. Cater to everyone's interests.

This may fall into the category of "obvious," but believe it or not, there are those who think, "Well, if I like deep-sea fishing off the coast of Maine in November, everybody must!" Beaches, theme parks, cities and national parks all have a wide variety of activities that the whole family can enjoy.

But here's how to have a foolproof vacation: Once you've decided on a destination, have every member of the family write down what he or she wants to do there, whether it's learning to paddleboard, going on a long hike or seeing the world's largest ball of twine.

Armed with that information, you can then create an itinerary by doing exactly what members want, merging certain activities that are similar or trying some things that are completely new to everyone. This wish list will let everyone feel as though their desires have been heard, and they'll be more likely to enjoy others' recommendations.

2. Take weather into account.

As an experienced traveler, I prefer offseason travel for its lack of crowds and better pricing. I think it's a fine trade-off, even if it means the likelihood of colder, hotter or rainy days.

But for children and even teenagers who aren't paying the bills, this might cause more moodiness and meltdowns. So for multigenerational trips, I recommend sticking to the high season — or close to it.

3. Schedule alone time.

For me, travelers fall into 2 groups: those who nap and those who don't. No matter what group you fall into, remember that everyone needs a break. I just can't stress it enough: Every day, you need to build in a nice respite, preferably around 3 or 4 p.m. If you don't, your trip will deteriorate fast, and you know as well as I do that the older generation can give toddlers a run for their money in the moody category. Those who do not nap still love that time on their own to read a book or magazine. Kids can spend it drawing, coloring or writing in a journal.

Note: At the beginning of the trip, there's always that period when everyone is trying to be polite and won't break away. Be the first to say, "Well, I'm taking a snooze." Everyone will appreciate you taking the lead.

4. Steal away with the youngsters.

You love your grown children, but you also want some alone time with your grandkids — ice cream sundaes perhaps, or even a private dinner so you can tell them stories about how rotten their parents were when they were 10 years old. Maybe you want just the girls with you 1 day and the boys the next. Don't think you're being selfish or unfair. You simply want time to bond with the best little things that ever happened to you.

5. Decide who's paying.

Money is notorious for being a sticky family issue, so figuring out who pays for what must be done in advance. Otherwise, expect hurt feelings that will harden like a rock. Remember, some of your children might not earn what the others can afford. And even if you're footing the bill for rooms at an expensive resort, remember that the price of a cheeseburger there is still $25. That's why cruises and all-inclusive resorts are a good idea: They create equality among all family members. And if you want to spring for that extra-special bottle of wine, no one will complain.

Condominiums are also a cost-saving way to create some budget wiggle room. You might even consider getting 2 condos so you can separate the reserved from the rambunctious. There are a number of rental websites to help you choose the perfect house, condo or apartment, including Vacation Rentals by Owner, HomeAway and Airbnb.

6. Get a group photo with everyone in it.

When was the last time you all got together? If you can afford it, hire a professional photographer; otherwise, enlist a new friend you've met on your trip to snap a picture of you all together, using a really good camera. But don't fret about the group pose. Let everyone else argue about who stands where and how little Jimmy already got chocolate on his nice shirt.

As for you, you'll look across those faces and remember the colicky all-nighters, the new-school struggles, the first time you gave them the car keys (and didn't breathe until they made it back home safely), the financial worries, the trips to the emergency room.

"Say cheese!" someone will say, and the smile will come easily as a wave of memories washes over you with 1 clear message: This is what life is all about.


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