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Tips for Family Trips and Reunions


Karen Shanor and her son, now 16, were traveling in Arizona and stopped for the night at a motel near Flagstaff where they thought they had reservations. They did not, according to the desk clerk.

Tired and disappointed, they drove on and soon found cabins by the road. There was a vacancy, for which they were grateful. Then they found out that the cabins also rented horses. They were able to go riding, and their stay was so memorable that her son asked to return the next summer.

Shanor, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., tells the story to illustrate what she often tells clients: that family vacations fraught with expectations never turn out the way you expect, but if you view them as an adventure, expect the unexpected and keep going when disappointment surfaces, you will have a better time.

Wise words, especially as Americans are gearing up for summer vacations, sometimes with young children and, increasingly, with grandparents.

The thought of a family vacation or reunion paralyzes some people with dread, while others, such as Shanor, happily pull it off year after year. Here are a few tips on coping, from psychologists and those other experts--families who travel and arrive home with everyone on speaking terms.

Keep your expectations in line, advises Mathilda B. Canter, a psychologist in Phoenix who often counsels patients on the topic. "When people think about vacations, they think that all their problems will be left behind," she says. They think they will have a great time, but they usually fall down on the planning, she finds. They don't consider that there may be flight delays or other obstacles.

Most people also fall short on researching activities available at the destination. "They think, 'Oh, we'll go to the beach,' but they don't think about what they'll do if it rains," Canter says. She advises travelers, especially families with young children, to check out alternate activities in case of inclement weather and to see whether there will be enough activities to interest everyone. When grandparents or young children are on the vacation, allow for different energy levels, experts also advise.

Families shouldn't expect young children to act much differently on the road than at home, Canter adds. If your child whines in long lines at the supermarket, he or she probably won't find them much more tolerable at Disneyland.

Emily Corey, a Pasadena freelance writer, and her husband, Randy Hale, a songwriter and composer, planned well before they spent six weeks on the road four years ago with their two boys, then 7 and 11. They were on a mission, in search of songs from the 1800s that Hale eventually produced into a CD.

First they bought a used Suburban, reasoning that the bigger the car, the better, for times when the kids were tempted to bicker. They relaxed the rules, letting the kids eat more junk food and watch more TV than they were permitted at home. On the trip, they scoured archives and antiques stores in Kansas and Oklahoma. And the boys got interested, helping them search the archives. The boys recently asked whether they could make the trip again.

Allow each child in a family to pick an activity before departure, suggests Tom Olkowski, a Denver psychologist, and acknowledge that everyone won't be interested in all the activities. "Before the trip, everyone should be in on the planning," he says. "Everyone ought to get to see the one thing they want to see most."

Being open-minded about where you'll go next can pay off too. Shanor, the Washington psychologist, had always resisted the idea of a cruise. Then, several years ago, she took one with her mother and her son. They shared a cabin and got along fine--partly, she says, because they could all pursue their own interests.

Another pitfall is expecting others to enjoy everything you do, Canter says. If you are on vacation and traveling with children, for instance, don't expect them to gasp in amazement at scenery, no matter how beautiful you think it is.

When the vacation is a family reunion, that can bring up other issues, Canter says. Often a significant other won't want to go. Canter tells travelers who want to attend the reunion that they might have a better time going solo.

Vacationing with friends or other families can be tricky too. Canter advises first thinking about how well you get along with these people at home. Some people, she says, make good friends but poor traveling companions.


Healthy Traveler appears on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at

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