Our family returned not long ago from a month-long trip to Europe. Here are some key relational lessons we learned.
First — A Brief Background
Six people make up my family: my husband and me, our three emerging-adult kids and our new daughter-in-law. I’d prefer to call her our daughter-in-love; we adore her.
My husband, Dale, and I are both Americans and we’ve raised our kids mostly in the U.S. But we’ve done so exposing them to people from cultures all over the world. We’ve been able to do this through an organization we’ve been involved with over 25 years — International Students, Inc. We’ve also lived and traveled abroad with our kids prior to this experience.
Even though we have a good deal of experience living and traveling in Asia, this summer we headed to Europe. I know, so did everyone else. But here’s why we went:
- Our daughter, Erika, was spending a term abroad at Oxford. She is an English major in college in the U.S.
- Our youngest, Luke, just graduated high school. This was a bit of a graduation present.
- Our oldest son, Justin, is now married to Jacqueline. She is applying to graduate schools in the UK and Ireland. They wanted to go visit some of the schools.
One interesting twist to this travel experience was the involvement of three of my husband’s brothers and, in one case, his wife and high-school-aged daughter. And, on top of that, our daughter’s college roommate joined us for a stretch. So, at our peak, we had nine people in our group.
All with different ideas of what the time might be.
So, what really did we learn?
Approaching this as a family of traveling adults was a new experience for us. Every other time we had traveled overseas, it had either been just my husband and me, or we were leading our (much younger) kids.
Now, as adults, we needed to take into account people had clearer plans — and competencies — to be exploring on their own. So we aimed to make space for this.
A key in doing this, we found, was to not feel compelled to stick together all the time. It can be exasperating to try to always stay together as a group. Right?
Instead, we would separate into pairs or small groups for parts of the day, or even for a full day. Some — like me — enjoyed some alone time as well. We’d then determine a meet-up location for dinner and share our adventures. That worked out well.
Doing this brought variety to our travels. It also helped us keep our sanity and value the experiences we did share together even more – like visiting The Making of Harry Potter Warner Brother’s Studio Tour in London. (Awesome!)
Of course, if you have young children, you cannot always manage to do this. But you and your spouse/partner can find ways to give the other parent a break. Doing so allows for refinement and refreshment along the journey.
Also, kids as young as five can be brought into the travel planning process in age-appropriate ways. You need to make the call on this because you know your own kids. I would suggest, however, to give the kids ownership of the trip as much as you can. If you do, you will likely face less whining and complaining along the way, and the end result is likely to be more satisfactory for all.
But if, like us, your children are young adults, you may find our insights particularly helpful for your next family adventure.
Here are my key takeaways on the relational side from our experience:
1 | Discuss expectations for the trip with all members in advance.
This is a key part of the process people often miss. We often get excited about the prospect of traveling and planning, but we fail to think and discuss more deeply about what we really want to get from the experience.
One way to do this is to suggest everyone take time to consider how they want to have seen, accomplished or experienced — and what they want to feel — after the trip is done.
By taking this “reverse engineering” approach, each member can share their thoughts.
Some in the group may have difficulty articulating their expectations. But take some time exploring these questions to help get you started:
- How important is seeing local sites to you?
- What would be your ideal day in ___?
- What are your thoughts on time? (Are you okay with the occasional rush to get somewhere?)
- Are you okay if we visit (person, place, thing)?
- How do you want to feel after this trip is over?
Along these lines, it will be natural for specific people to take the “lead” more than others for certain parts of the trip.
For example, my daughter was the lead in Oxford; after all, she had just spent the last three months living and studying there. She took us to some cool places, several off-the-beaten (tourist) path.
But Ireland? That was in my older son and his wife’s court, since we were going there for the express purpose of giving them the opportunity to explore graduate schools.
Having a basic understanding of one another’s expectations will go a long way to ensuring an enjoyable and fulfilling trip.
And you will have tales to share when you come back together!
2 | Sketch out a basic plan for the trip well in advance through a “family meet-up”
Based upon the discussion over expectations, it’s now time to sketch out your plans and, as possible, get more concrete in your choices. This usually happens three — six months out, but can happen closer to the take-off date as well.
I suggest a family (or group) meet-up — whether face-to-face or virtual — at least three months in advance of the trip, usually before purchasing your plane tickets.
If you are planning a summer trip, six months is better since rates go up during peak travel season. Make it your goal through this meeting to clarify three things:
- The overall framework for the trip — travel locations and dates — so people can purchase their tickets;
- Expectations for the trip (as discussed in #1 above);
- A plan for moving forward — checklist and timeline
Then set up a Google doc and start to fill in your timeline with everything you can — transportation and lodging details, ideas for outings, people to meet, restaurants to try, etc.
A revisit meet-up a month out from the trip will help solidify the plan.
3 | Leverage technology tools and online resources to your financial and relational advantage.
Using Google docs is a great way for all members involved to tweak and weigh in on the plan. If you do not know how to use Google docs, here is a terrific six-minute YouTube tutorial. Set some deadlines during your first meet-up so all involved understand the timeframe.
Finding the best prices for plane fares is a bit of an art. In fact, it may be possible for you to hack some of your airfare, if you’re game.
Here is a good article to help you learn how to get the most affordable flights to where you want to go, if that’s important to you.
4 | Spend time discussing two hot-button issues: Time and Money
TIME can be a sticky thing. Perception is what rules because really, time never stands still nor changes its pace.
How the members of your group perceive time — and act on it — matters. And there will be variety, for sure.
In our group, we had people with a wide variety of understandings of how time would work on this trip. We knew, in advance, my husband and daughter are the most time-conscientious. They are also the ones best able to determine whether or not we’re being realistic in our planning. So we would defer to them often.
But they can also be the most uptight with adjustments or changes. They need to sometimes learn to relax, take a deep breath, and become more flexible.
Those of us who are less time conscientious need to be aware of what our more casual attitude towards time communicates to others. And also how it can upset those who are more time-observant. We can also learn to watch our time, especially when it comes to rigid transportation schedules. After all, the train will not wait.
Of course, as a family, we knew about this in advance. Still, a frank, open discussion in advance can produce fewer struggles during the actual trip.
MONEY as a resource resembles time: It is limited (usually) and people have varying perspectives on how to use it. Some are more budget-conscious, others more freewheeling with their expenditures.
When you are traveling with a group of adults — especially family members — it’s a good idea to discuss in advance who will cover what.
Our son and his new wife were recording every pound or Euro spent. As a new, but separate, family unit (both working), they carried the costs of much of their own travel.
On some occasions, as the parents, we’d cover a meal for all. We remember the early years of getting started all too well.
In contrast, Dale and I had rough ideas in mind of how much we could afford for the whole experience. We tried to steer our expenses in the right direction, course-correcting when we could. We covered the costs for our daughter (and her roommate, Kati) and younger son because they are not yet out in the workforce full time. This was our expectation from the start.
When we can, we want to be generous. And, much to our surprise, it came back to bless us. When we parted ways with Kati as she headed back to the U.S. while we went on to Ireland and Italy, she passed along almost $200 in Euros to us, telling us “I don’t have any use for it…but you will.”
5 | Above all else, choose to think highly of one another.
When you’re tired, weary from the rigors of travel, it’s easy to get ornery. We’ve all been that person, and we’ve all been the victim of that person.
But, you know, when you travel with family, there are two ways you can go. You can choose to take the others you’re with for granted. (After all, you’ve spent a lifetime with them, right? And they have to continue to love you because they’re family –– right?!?)
Or, you can choose to treat them with dignity and respect, valuing the moments, recognizing the unique opportunity before you. This trip will never happen again with the same people in the same way.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions. We all do. But the challenge — and, I’d argue, the better way — is to think highly of the others in your group.
Assigning motives from your own imagination to the attitudes and behavior of another clouds the relationship — and often proves dead wrong.
My daughter and I had a real head-butting moment at one point while in England. Even though we had an early morning flight to Ireland to catch the next morning, we found ourselves confronting deep, emotionally charged and yet important issues for an hour beginning at 10 pm the night before.
I never would have chosen things to go that way; I value my sleep, as does she. But dealing with the tough stuff led to some breakthroughs. We spent an afternoon together later in the trip, and were able to talk about what had happened in an open, honest and redeeming way.
The key here is to always consider where you want to end up. Do you want to look back on your trip and lament the in-fighting? Do you want to return with relationships in a worse place than where you began? Do you want to have missed the treasure?
My guess is your answer is no. So do what you can to not let that happen. Pull your weight. Choose to take the high road — be honest, loving, tactful and understanding. Think of the other as well as you can.
You will discover in the end, this will not only improve your family travel experience, it’ll improve your life.