It was supposed to be a relaxing summer getaway to West Virginia. A trio of families from Bethesda rented a cabin together on Mount Storm Lake three years ago. They were all good friends—the children attended the same schools, the families socialized together, and they had taken a couple of group trips on weekends in the past. The parents were hoping to get some sun and take a motorboat out on the lake while their kids went swimming and played hide-and-seek in the surrounding woodlands.
That didn’t happen.
On the first day of the vacation, one of the fathers cursed loudly at his two young kids for running through the cabin in their wet swimsuits. The outburst might not have caused a problem if no one else had been around to witness it. But one of the other mothers, Sarah (not her real name), and her four daughters heard the man shouting expletives at his children. As he continued to swear, Sarah pointedly asked him to stop.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” he shot back.
She responded, “When my children are in the room, yes, I can.”
He stormed off, leaving Sarah and her daughters—ages 4, 8, 11 and 15—standing in the living room dumbstruck. Sarah was forced to explain to her kids why his behavior wasn’t appropriate. She was so upset by the incident, she says, that she almost told her husband they had to leave. Though they ended up staying, Sarah didn’t say a word to the man for the rest of the trip. She made a point of sitting as far away from him as possible at dinner, opted out of group activities, and told her girls not to be around him unless she or her husband was present.
To complicate matters, Sarah was especially close with the man’s wife. She didn’t want to drag her into the situation because she worried it would shatter their relationship. The remainder of the weekend was awkward and emotionally fraught, Sarah says, certainly not the low-key getaway she’d planned for her family.
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Going on a vacation with friends always seems like a good idea. Most of us want to travel with the people we get along with best, whether it’s pals from the neighborhood or friends we’ve known forever. But it’s not always that simple. Sometimes parenting styles don’t mesh: You put your kids to bed at 8 every night and like to have adult dinners; they don’t believe in bedtimes. They only give their toddler organic foods; yours lives on chicken nuggets. You do timeouts; they don’t. Kids who play nicely together all the time at home might start fighting when they’re sharing a bedroom and beach toys for a week.
“Because you’re friends with them and you spend time with them, you think you’ll travel well together,” says Colleen Kelly, host of the PBS program Family Travel with Colleen Kelly. “Unfortunately, you don’t know if you’re compatible until you actually travel with them.”
Travel takes people out of their comfort zone and disrupts their everyday routine, Kelly says. When things don’t go as planned—maybe your family gets stuck with the worst room, or bad weather keeps everyone inside for days—the scene at the beach house could start to resemble an episode of Jersey Shore. You may see a side of a friend’s personality that doesn’t come out in the office or at backyard barbecues.
That’s what Sarah found out the hard way. In the past, she had made a point of overlooking the other dad’s temper in order to preserve her friendship with his wife. Now she wishes she had heeded the warning signs and never traveled with him in the first place. The experience has made her leery of vacationing with people she doesn’t know “extremely well” and trust completely. “I knew he had some anger management issues,” she says. “I just didn’t know how bad they were.”
Conflicting schedules and different traveling styles can also create problems. Kelly remembers one disastrous trip she and her family took with friends they’d never gone away with before. “They were a great family, but they were go, go, go,” she says. “Their kids got up earlier than mine, so we heard them up with their kids at 6:30 a.m. Then they expected us to go with them everywhere. We’re the kind of family that doesn’t like overkill or to overplan. If someone wants to take a nap, they can do it. The whole trip was exhausting.” The two families never traveled together again.
Jim and his wife, Kate (not their real names), who live in Potomac with their teenage son, have traveled with other families for as long as Jim can remember. “It’s self-preservation,” he says. “It allows you to spend time with the children, while also having husband and wife time, which is key to any vacation.”
The first trip they ever took together was with Jim’s sister and her family to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, just over a decade ago. They all shared a house near the beach. At first, everything went smoothly. But a few days into the trip, his sister’s now ex-husband dialed up the partying when the sun went down and became heavily intoxicated. Around 3 in the morning, Jim was awakened by his sister’s banging on his bedroom door because she couldn’t find her husband. (He’d gone out to the bars.) The trip went downhill from there. Now Jim approaches the vacation planning process differently. Every potential traveling companion is carefully vetted.
“You have to know them well,” he says. “You can’t just jump into bed together. It’s serious when you’re far away. You can’t just drive home if you have a conflict you can’t get over.”
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In her 30 years as a travel agent, Carla Koller has seen vacations derailed by everything from arguments about the itinerary to meltdowns over a canceled flight. When groups of friends or extended families contact her to book a joint vacation, the first thing she does is ask about hobbies and goals. Before you make reservations, she says, you need to figure out what you want out of a trip. “One set [of people] might be interested in museums and culture, the other might want to go hiking or just see the sights,” says Koller, a leisure travel adviser at Travel Place in Potomac. “If your expectations don’t match, that’ll be a problem.”
Jennifer Farley of Bethesda went to Germany with her husband, Jeff, in the summer of 2014 to visit one of her best friends, Julie, and Julie’s husband. The couples planned to spend two weeks traveling together throughout Germany and the Czech Republic. “You don’t usually get to go with locals who know where to go,” says Jennifer, a cookbook author and food blogger for Savory Simple. “They were going to drive everywhere. It seemed like the perfect setup to bond with my best friend. What could go wrong?”
Jennifer and her husband envisioned the trip as a leisurely jaunt through Eastern Europe. “We’re laid-back people,” she says. “I don’t want to cram the universe in. I’d rather enjoy a few things than be exhausted.”
After reuniting with Julie, whom she’d known for 10 years, Jennifer immediately realized that wasn’t her friend’s modus operandi. Though the Farleys were coping with jet lag and still trying to acclimate to a foreign culture, the first day’s itinerary was 11 hours long. “We went to this castle and then that castle and then on the way home she said we were stopping at another castle,” Jennifer says. “I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t.”
When Jennifer asked if they could decelerate the next day’s schedule, the trip began to unravel. Their hosts were clearly offended by the request. Over the next several days, whenever the Farleys asked for time off to go back to their room and rest, the other couple seemed irritated. Every time the Farleys suggested altering the itinerary, their hosts would dismiss their ideas as “too touristy.” They accused Jennifer of insulting German cuisine simply because she asked a lot of questions about it. To make matters worse, the husbands weren’t getting along.
By the time the couples boarded the train to Berlin together, they were at a breaking point. “They went to the café car for the trip and didn’t talk to us,” Jennifer says. “When we got off the train, we separated.” Though they were staying at the same hotel, the Farleys didn’t see the other couple for the remainder of the trip—and they haven’t seen them since.
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Even if you’ve been friends with someone for a long time, experts say, it’s important to discuss every facet of a trip before you travel together. That’s the approach Elizabeth and Mark Wittschen of Silver Spring took when they planned a spring trip to Walt Disney World with their daughters, ages 1 and 5, and another couple that has two small children. It helped that the husbands were best friends since childhood. “They are like brothers, so they can be frank with each other,” Elizabeth says.
Still, no one wanted to take any chances. The families got together four times before their vacation to book flights, buy tickets to the park and decide on accommodations. The couples talked about the budget at length so that everyone would feel comfortable with the costs. (They decided to rent a condo together close to the park, rather than staying on Disney property.) They discussed their goals for the trip to ensure that everyone had a good time in the Magic Kingdom. Both mothers had fond memories of their own Disney trips as children, so they wanted to make sure their daughters had plenty of princess time—while still satisfying the interests of the males on the trip.
“Expressing your opinions and desires can be tricky with friends,” Elizabeth says. “You want to be heard, but you don’t want to offend anyone.” The trip went so well that the Wittschens are hoping to travel with the same family again soon.
Aba Kwawu, a publicist who owns TAA PR in Washington, D.C., had always worried about traveling with friends because she didn’t want a bad trip to ruin a good relationship. The mother of two never felt comfortable with the idea until two of her lifelong friends—both also have two young children—invited themselves and their families along on a trip to Toronto that Aba had planned for last August. “I only agreed to it because they’re my friends,” says Aba, who lives in Rockville with her husband, Erwin Yaw, their 8-year-old daughter, Sela, and their 5-year-old son, Eli. “I trust their judgment and I know we have similar parenting styles.”
Though they planned on spending the majority of the trip together, the families drove to Toronto in separate cars and booked their own rooms. To accommodate everyone’s financial situation, the hotels and the restaurants were mutually agreed upon. “The budget is very important,” Koller says. “If the budgets are widely different, that won’t work, because it will put people at odds or make someone uncomfortable.”
The parents planned plenty of daytime activities for the kids, including visits to the aquarium and an amusement park. “If your kids are not happy, it will not be a good trip,” Koller says. “So you have to consider what the kids want to do. You can even include them in the planning so they feel like they have a say, even if they don’t really have a say.”
The trip wasn’t drama-free. “I remember one now-famous screaming match at lunch one day,” Aba says. “All the kids were involved except the baby.” The parents separated the children—the boys were accusing the girls of being bossy and vice versa—and talked to them about their behavior. After time apart, everyone apologized and the trip resumed without any further hitches. The three families are already planning to do an annual trip together. “Now, whenever we go somewhere, the kids ask, ‘Are all the other children coming, too?’ ” Aba says.
Jim and Kate, the Potomac couple, go skiing at Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia every year with a Bethesda family they’ve known since 2003. The families met when their sons went to day care together, and they started out hosting joint birthday parties for the boys, since they were born less than a month apart. They’d spent countless nights and weekends together before Jim and Kate felt they could take their relationship to the next level: out of state.
Jim says the trips are a success in part because the families rent separate condos in the same building. “It’s OK when it’s your kid that’s being annoying, but when it’s someone else’s kid, you want to get away,” he says. “I’m sure both sets of parents feel the same way.” Jim is in charge of cooking most of the meals for the crew in his family’s condo, while the other father handles dishwashing duties. The families keep track of what they spend on everything from groceries to group passes for the ski lift. “This way, you don’t need to worry [about] who picks up which check,” Jim says. “At the end of the trip, we divide it all up and pay each other back any difference.”
If a serious issue comes up, Jim and his friend grab a beer and head out to the patio. “We’re there to have a good time, so it’s always worth figuring out a solution,” he says. “We’re both grown men; we can talk it out.”
Nevin Martell is a D.C.-based food and travel writer, and author of the travelogue-memoir Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram @nevinmartell.
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