For the most part, our vacation lived up to the house’s name. But spending seven days in one space with another family can lead to moments that feel less than heavenly. There are secrets to help maximize vacation bliss for two or more families—obvious ones such as only inviting people you really like and less obvious ones such as hashing out roles and responsibilities before you book the trip.
Keys to success
The most important thing to remember when contemplating a joint family vacation is probably the most obvious: find the right partners, says author Stacy DeBroff and many of the mothers she interviewed for The Mom Book: 4,278 Tips from Moms for Moms.
The adults—all of them—must get along. If the moms are close friends but the dads don’t gel, a joint vacation is not likely to work.
"The kids don’t have to be close but they have to be really compatible," DeBroff advises. She has found that it works best when there are even numbers of people and the kids are about the same ages. The match doesn’t have to be boy-boy, girl-girl, but it helps, she says.
Our friends from Heaven, Wheaton parents Dave and Meg Beasley, have a son and a daughter whose ages match those of our two girls, now 6 and 8. That sometimes means the three girls find a common interest, such as American Girl dolls.
In New Buffalo, father and son could frequently be found at the nearby train store. Meg Beasley thinks the "gender thing" will become a bigger issue for her son in the future.
"I see [our joint vacations] as something to enjoy right now, but I don’t see it as something permanent," she says.
Kid alliances on our trip also formed along age lines. On day four, their oldest and mine took it upon themselves to create a "manners school" for their younger siblings. The effort produced one sullen drop-out (their son), one angry graduate (my youngest daughter) and one mother (me) questioning the planned length of our trip.
"The kids aren’t going to get along every second of every vacation," Beasley notes.
New Jersey social psychologist and parenting book author Susan Newman recommends giving the kids a break from each other when conflicts arise. "They need to go off and be with their own family," she says.
DeBroff says the fun lasts "about six days before everyone’s pet peeves start wearing on you, and that’s assuming you’re in a place where there are plenty of activities to be had."
Shorter is better
Annette Moore, Lake Forest mom of two teenagers, estimates her family has vacationed with five or six others over the past eight years, generally for no more than four days.
"I think if I was to do one week with another family, it would be nice to have separate space," she says.
Our family has vacationed with the Beasleys in Sanibel Island, Fla., and Door County, Wis. In both places, we rented separate condos. The advantage was that each family had private morning and evening time, but once the kids were in bed for the night, we adults often wished we could get together for conversation or cards.
Having two families in one place also means couples can trade babysitting duties so that each gets a night out. Another big advantage is the ability to book accommodations that might otherwise be unaffordable.
"Suddenly, you can have the house with the hot tub and the beautiful living space," DeBroff says, "but sometimes you need to have your own space to retreat to."
That makes it doubly important to choose a site with many entertainment options. That way, one family can plan a hike and picnic on the beach one day while the other hangs out by the pool.
DeBroff is a firm believer in incorporating single-family time into joint-family vacations. Moore notes: "When you have families vacationing together, you’re definitely not spending that intimate, one-on-one time with your children."
In other words, more kid-kid interaction means less kid-adult interaction. That can be both an upside and a downside of vacationing with another family.
"The kids are more demanding of your time when it’s just the family," Beasley said.
Set the ground rules
Megan Bock, Glenview mother of four, has found that compromising some of her normal family rules is worth the rewards of a joint-family vacation. She and her husband, John, have a five-year tradition of vacationing in South Haven, Mich., with three other families. The eight adults and nine kids (ages 1 to 10) stay together in one house.
"You kind of throw all your rules out the window, to a degree," she says. For example, Bock lets her kids drink pop, snack and eat things she normally wouldn’t buy, such as Oreos.
Newman stresses the importance of being clear with other parents and your own kids about which rules will and won’t change.
"Make concessions, sure, but there are things that go over the line. If you have a child who doesn’t swim, or you have a child with a serious weight problem, you want to be very clear about boundaries," she says.
Newman also recommends keeping discipline within the family. Bock agrees: "If one kid gets out of hand because they’ve had too much junk or don’t want to leave the beach, you kind of just let that mom or dad deal with it." She notes that their first weeklong joint vacation five years ago represented a big unknown. DeBroff learned from experience to take a "test trip" of one or two days with another family before embarking on a longer adventure.
"One year we went with really, really dear friends, but it turned out our family logistics were so different. They had to have every hour planned. They wanted to be included in every activity. They would say, ‘Our kids get very cranky, they have to have dinner by 6 p.m.’ It created tensions that actually had to be worked out post-vacation," she says.
Beyond comparing family rules, working out logistical details ahead of time can make a joint vacation go more smoothly. How will expenses be shared? A designated treasurer might track receipts and total costs. How will you handle cooking, cleaning and errand-running chores? An equal distribution of work makes things easier. Will the kids ride with friends or siblings on outings? Uneven pairings between the kids can make the "family car" a simpler option.
A clear set of expectations leaves vacationers free to enjoy the little moments that make a vacation memorable. Newman stresses keeping a sense of humor about those other, less heavenly moments.
At Blue Heaven, much of our fun happened around the backyard pool. We shot videos of numerous variations of the cannonball, and my husband made a DVD set to music. Watching it now makes us long for Heaven again, but we’re thinking of a three-day weekend next time. After all, how long can even one family be angels?
The right fit
Finding a family that will be compatible with yours can mean the difference between visiting Heaven or someplace else during the joint vacation.
Stacy DeBroff, author of The Mom Book: 4,278 Tips from Moms for Moms, proffers a list of some questions to consider about potential travel-mates:
• How neat are they?
• How flexible are they about changes in plans?
• Do they allow things for their kids that you have forbidden yours?
• How early do their kids wake up and go to bed?
• Is their budget compatible with yours?
• What are their expectations regarding time spent together?
Linda Downing Miller is a mom and writer living in Oak Park.