The first summer we were blessedly diaper-free, I convinced my husband to splurge on a family vacation to Spain. Having spent a year studying in Madrid in college, I imagined us lounging in sunny plazas with glasses of sangria, soaking up sun and culture with our children. We did some of that. But with five kids ages 2 to 12, our blended family also suffered through sunstroke, bumpy burro rides, flat tires, and a lot of bickering. It was definitely a trip worthy of the Vacation Nightmares Hall of Fame. In fact, we've had a lot of those. There was that train trip to Florida, for instance, where our kids played tag for hours instead of sleeping. And jolly old England, where we rented a house in the country and it rained for a week. But here's the thing about bad vacations: They're often the ones that create lasting memories. Although blue skies and white beaches are wonderful, as these stories from Parents readers remind us, trips gone wrong can teach us what's really important.
LESSON 1: Bargains aren't always best
When Jill Henrichsen and her husband were calculating the cheapest way to travel with their two kids from their home outside Phoenix to her mother's house in Idaho Falls for Christmas a few years ago, the most affordable solution was driving five hours to Las Vegas and then flying to Idaho from there. Says Henrichsen, "I was against the idea of driving to Vegas, but he did a whole spreadsheet to convince me that the cost was right." The car was so packed with stuff that he got creative and tied two suitcases to the trunk of their Saturn: an empty one to bring things home in and another filled with gifts including a jar of "reindeer food" that their then 6-year-old son, Christian, had made for Santa's hardworking sleigh team. Things went fine until they hit I-40 and both suitcases flew off the back of the car. The family pulled off the highway and Jill's husband managed to retrieve one of the suitcases, but he had to run for his life when a truck came barreling toward him. "The suitcase that was still lying on the road was the one with Christmas presents, and we watched that huge truck plow right over it," Henrichsen recalls. Christian was devastated to see his reindeer food smashed, along with the paint set he'd bought for his sister, Mikelle, which turned the road spectacular colors. Then there were all the Christmas-movie DVDs--cases flattened and scattered everywhere. "It was like watching a National Lampoon movie, where you say, 'Oh, yeah, right, like that would ever happen,'" Henrichsen says. They recovered what they could from the road, and she held the suitcase on her lap the rest of the way, refusing to let her husband tie it back onto the car. Then he lost his phone in the airport. After they finally arrived, the family was hit by a stomach virus. Everyone loves a good deal, but spending fewer hours in transit can be worth more than saving money. Says Henrichsen, "I stand firm now whenever my husband tries to get me to travel on the super-cheap."
LESSON 2: Think like a child
When Tracy Houston, of Naples, Florida, headed to Aruba with her husband, 18-month-old son, and extended family for her brother's wedding, a volcanic eruption in nearby Montserrat left them stranded in Puerto Rico for two days. "Until it happens to you, you can't believe it," she says. "A volcano? Really?" There was an upside: Houston discovered that her son is an adaptable traveler--especially when she relented and used the leash her mother gave her when they explored the airport and the streets of Old San Juan. "I never thought that I'd use one of those leashes, but Owen loves being able to wander, and that thing saved my life," she admits. For Houston, the stopover meant extra bonding time with family, as she piled into a rented van with Owen, her husband, her parents, and her brother and his fiancee to see the historic highlights of the island. "Our delay actually made us appreciate our vacation even more," she says. "And we made it to Aruba in time for the rehearsal dinner." They realized that any journey can be an adventure for kids if the adults aren't stressed. Approached the right way, a delay in an airport or even a trip in a tow truck is the next best thing to an amusement park. If you can choose to live in the moment, you can have the kind of spontaneous fun that kids are always ready for.
LESSON 3: Embrace your family's phase
Shortly after her daughter Stella celebrated her first birthday, Naomi Shulman, of Northampton, Massachusetts, booked their first family vacation without grandparents around as backup. "We chose an inn in Vermont that I knew had great child care," she says, adding that their 4-year-old, Lila, was excited about checking out the exciting list of kids' activities. Meanwhile, Shulman and her husband relished the idea of spending precious hours alone. There was just one little problem: "We neglected to take into account that I'd been at home with Stella all her life, and the only babysitter she'd ever had was my mom," says Shulman. Stella had such terrible separation anxiety that the inn assigned one caregiver just to look after her. "The kids were in a giant barn converted into an activities center that was a few hundred feet from the pool," Shulman says. "You could hear if some kid was screaming, and it was always Stella." For four days, Shulman and her husband dropped the girls off every morning and then made sure to stay out of sight. "I kept thinking Stella would get used to it," she says. She never did. Finally, they caved and left only Lila at day care, where she was having a wonderful time, and kept Stella with them. On a vacation, you have to try to appreciate--and even celebrate--each child's unique personality and abilities, they realized. "Sunbathing by a pool isn't the same with a child on your chest," Shulman says, "but it was so sweet to see how happy Stella was to be with us. That's where she was developmentally, and so that's where we had to be as a family."
LESSON 4: Learning to pay it forward
Every summer, Kate Kelly, of Pittsburgh, and her family drive to Prince Edward Island. The summer when her three sons were ages 5, 7, and 10, the trip got off to a good start, with the family making great time on the first leg of their 15-hour drive to the Canadian Maritimes. An hour after crossing the border between Maine and New Brunswick, however, Kelly noticed that the car's temperature gauge read hot. Soon smoke started pouring out of the engine and she had to pull over. The engine had died. To make matters worse, they had no cell-phone signal. "We were sitting on the side of a remote road," says Kelly, "and my oldest son, Jack, who's a worrier, started voicing everything I was thinking: 'Our vacation is ruined now. Why did this have to happen to us?'" She did her best to cheer the boys up, assuring them that they would soon be on their way. Miraculously, that's exactly what happened. "A driver passing by stopped for us," says Kelly. "He knew the area and said we'd have to get the car towed back to Bangor, Maine, because there weren't any mechanics closer than that." The Samaritan had other things to offer as well: a phone that worked, a laptop they used to book a rental car, and a roadside-assistance card valid for free towing up to 100 miles. "That man sat with us and waited for two hours until the tow truck came, and then he gave the driver his card so we wouldn't have to pay. I couldn't believe it," Kelly marvels.
The family made it to Bangor, where they spent the night and picked up the rental car the next morning so they could continue on their way. Their summer vacation proved to be just as wonderfully relaxing as always. "The kids were fascinated by that guy and we talked about him for a long time after that," Kelly says. "We learned two things from that vacation: There are some things you have to just let go of--like a broken-down car--so you can move on, and you should always stop to help someone in need, because the effect lasts longer than the moment."
LESSON 5: Togetherness can't be rained out
Lauren Selsor, of Oronogo, Missouri, and her husband love camping so much that they even camped on their honeymoon. When their daughter, Olivia, turned 2, they drove to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado for a week of relaxation and fun. They'd heard a weather report predicting rain but chose to ignore it. "The sky looked kind of ominous," Selsor admits, "but it was 60F and partly sunny, so we set up our tent." They went for a walk and by the time they returned a storm had blown in. With no way to cook outdoors in the rain, they made do with deli ham and Twinkies. Water was seeping into the tent, the wind was howling, and the temperature plummeted. "Can this possibly get any worse?" her husband asked. At that moment, Olivia sat up and vomited. They washed her off in the campground bathroom using single-ply toilet paper. "We were determined to stick it out because we'd driven 700 miles to get there," says Selsor. Even though Olivia was young, they hoped that showing her how to cope with unexpected weather might teach her important life skills--and demonstrate that persistence in the face of obstacles has its own rewards. The gamble paid off: The next morning was bright and sunny, and Olivia felt better. Selsor says, "What a bad vacation teaches you more than anything is that a family is all about being a team."
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Parents magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.