Family travel conflicts are a stark reality of traveling as a family. They're unavoidable, but it's important to own them in order to try to prevent them.
Family Travel Thoughts

Real Life Family Travel: Conflicts

I’ve learned a lot over the past eight years, first through traveling with my wife, then with my daughter, and now as a family of four. It’s easy to blog about the great experiences and make everything sound hunky dory, but I’ve long wanted to write a series talking about the real experience of traveling together as a family. Part I: The Glue turned out to be a bit nicer than I was expecting, but that was important to start the series off. Things got a little hairier in Part II: Family Travel Compromises. And Part III: Family Travel Conflicts discusses how ugly things can get – but also how the conflicts help us grow as a family.

One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve started writing more about family travel – people show no hesitation writing about the good stuff. I redeemed this suite! Business class with toddlers – amazing! But I don’t see a lot of writing about the darker side of real life family travel: those family travel conflicts that inevitably arise.

It’s easy to create an image that family travel is easy. Or that the only issues that we deal with are puke. So, for part three of my Real Life Family Travel series, I’m going to highlight some of the uglier situations we’ve experienced, self-inflicted ones. I’ll also share a bit about how we as the adults in the family try to work through the issues and why I believe the experiences, no matter how ugly, are valuable. This is a topic we also touched on a little bit on Episode 49 of the Saverocity Observation Deck with Shawn Coomer if you’re more of an audio person.

Ultimately, I still believe family travel is totally worth it (and will end this series with the reasons why). Those of you who already told me I’m stupid for traveling with my kids when I discussed the compromises we need to make will probably flip out even more after this post. But hey, I like to keep it real, and family travel conflicts are as real as it gets. Note: none of these moments bring us pride and I cleared this post topic with my wife before posting. 

The storm off

The first time this ever happened, we were on our honeymoon. Seville, to be exact. Running low on sleep, we explored the city at night. Eight years later, I don’t remember what sparked things, but we got into a pretty big argument. Fed up, one of us walked away into the Spanish night. We didn’t meet up again until later that night.

Jess and I have strong personalities. Sometimes we just need space from each other. Before kids, we realized that splitting up and spending an afternoon off really lowered the chance of storm offs. Practically, we achieved the same result (time off from each other), but relationally, it’s much more healthy when we agree to just create that space. 

Family travel conflicts are a stark reality of traveling as a family. They're unavoidable, but it's important to own them in order to try to prevent them.
The storm off was right below this tower – on the night this was taken!

We still do this now that we have kids, though of course usually we each take one. The funny thing is, when we travel just the two of us now, there is the inherent pressure to spend all that time together (sunk cost fallacy strikes again). But we still realize we may need some healthy space and that’s okay. I’d love to say storm offs never happen anymore, but I don’t love lying. But taking planned time off and doing our own thing (plus 8 years of getting to know each other better!) has made them much rarer.

Directionless direction debates

One thing I don’t find unique to our family: debates over directions. Back in the old days, you’d argue with your spouse (or teenage kids) over an honest to goodness AAA map. GPS hasn’t improved things since it’s often easy to miss turns (though it’s better when walking).

Trying to figure out where to go leads to very stressful situations, especially if you’re meeting someone or trying to make a dinner reservation. You can often find the Cheung family (including extended) buried in our phones and physical maps on street corners debating which direction to turn. Add foreign countries into the mix and it gets pretty confusing!

Family travel conflicts are a stark reality of traveling as a family. They're unavoidable, but it's important to own them in order to try to prevent them.
Try to keep up, DAD!

We honestly haven’t come up with a good solution for this. One thing we believe would work in theory is for one person to be in charge of directions. I say in theory because every time we try this, person two never seems to be able to keep their mouth shut! Jess and I mostly accept that this is a gridlocked issue (aka we’re probably stuck in it), but since it’s not a huge source of conflict it’s mostly okay. Unless it leads to…

The public disagreement

Try as we might, it’s pretty difficult to avoid the public disagreement. We have mastered the “quiet whisper hiss” at each other at dinner. Or maybe we haven’t! Tough to tell when you’re arguing!

Of course, kids take public disagreements to another level. The most common one we face (I’m guessing it’s the same for most families?) is “I don’t want to leave yet!”. Usually we can quiet that down but sometimes these kids can get really loud. I have a bunch of tactics I try to use, including but not limited to:

  • Setting timers to indicate time to leave
  • Making sure the kids are well rested and fed as much as possible
  • The “fake walk-away” – usually this at least succeeds in changing the location of the tantrum
  • The drag out kicking and screaming way – when you have to

Obviously these situations aren’t only limited to travel, but travel exacerbates them. Shortened sleep schedules lead to extra stress and shortened tempers.

Family travel conflicts are a stark reality of traveling as a family. They're unavoidable, but it's important to own them in order to try to prevent them.
Image is too good not to use multiple times

The spaz out

I totally lost it. I’m not proud of the moment, but in Charleston last month, one morning my daughter had finally gotten on my last nerve and I carried her kicking and screaming to a timeout. There, I not so delicately stated my case about how she had been doing a terrible job listening to me (essentially a solo parent for that portion of the trip). 

Sometimes, when traveling, someone totally loses it. While I’d love to say this is limited to the children, it happens to the adults more often than we care to admit. To me, the spaz out presents the biggest danger because it contains the highest probability of someone saying something they can’t take back. And that has the highest potential for long term negative effects on family relationships. 

But when reconciliation happens, even spaz outs can be beneficial in the long run (though that’s not an excuse to have them). What I’ve found to be important is modeling sincere apologies and forgiveness to my kids. We’re doing our best to avoid the classic, stereotypical Chinese “pretend like nothing happened” tactic.

Surviving family travel conflicts strengthens us

I think a fair question would be this: If travel causes huge conflicts in the family, is it even worth it? This differs for every family, but I can say honestly for us that our family travel conflicts strengthen our family. Obviously not quantifiable, but if I thought traveling caused irreparable harm to our family dynamics I wouldn’t do it.

For starters, family travel conflicts basically mirror our home conflicts but in a different setting. So Jess, myself, and eventually my kids just continue to work on our same issues whether at home or abroad. But the same problems in different contexts actually lead to more growth for me, because the problems aren’t framed in the same rut of my everyday life.

Secondly, we have to deal with issues on the road that we’d never deal with at home and that makes us stronger. I’ve always been of the belief that overcoming challenges outside of my comfort zone stretches me in ways that wouldn’t otherwise. I apply the same beliefs to my family – I think all four of us learn to grow and adapt on the road in ways we don’t get to at home.

Finally, at the risk of sounding corny, forgiving each other after family travel conflicts does wonders for our familial relationships. Family is a commitment (one that your kids didn’t choose) and every time we survive one of these conflicts it strengthens our commitment to each other. It gives us confidence in the middle of conflicts that we will get through it.

Final Thoughts

This post didn’t really turn out the way I intentioned. Basically, I just wanted to highlight that family travel can get ugly sometimes and that’s okay. Hopefully I achieved that in some form or fashion.

Obviously most of this applies directly to how my family operates, maybe it’s different for yours. But I do want young families thinking about traveling to understand that family travel does lead to family travel conflicts; that doesn’t make family travel any less worth it. But it’s important to be realistic about the fact that it will happen. But in the end, I’d argue it helps our family grow stronger in ways we wouldn’t otherwise. <ducks> 

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Family travel conflicts are a stark reality of traveling as a family. They're unavoidable, but it's important to own them in order to try to prevent them.

Just an average joe trying to fly his family for less

18 thoughts on “Real Life Family Travel: Conflicts

  1. Joe,

    Despite my own opinion on travel with kids below 5ish, I really enjoy your attempts at honest review of all aspects of family travel. Kudos on this personal strength. I hope Jess appreciates it, as much as you appreciate her Glue-iness.

  2. As someone who has put a child in time-out on both an airplane and at Disney World, I can relate. Our family has found that most of our travel challenges occur when we try to squeeze too much into to little time (which was mostly driven by me). So now we tend to intentionally block off time for just relaxing, with nothing specific planned. This resulted in us spending hours exploring tide pools, chasing iguanas, lounging in a hammock, watching street performers, etc. Great memories…

    1. It’s legal to lock your kid in the airplane lav…right? 😛 Yeah we’ve definitely learned that too, to take things slow. It used to bum me out, but I’ve learned to really appreciate the quiet moments together. It’s easy to say you’d get those at home too…but I don’t know if I could honestly say I’d make the time as much as I’d want at home. Though that’d be a lot cheaper…

  3. To avoid more conflict I would encourage you to stop at two children :). You’re not quite there yet, but right now my three girls are 6,8, and 11 and sometimes I feel like our entire vacation is at least two of the three of them bickering. It makes me question if it is even worth going anywhere!! I mean arguing at home is one thing but arguing while in a place many people never get the opportunity to visit (Hawaii, Europe, DisneyWorld) just strikes a whole other nerve! Thanks for writing such an honest post!

    1. lol! But will I limit my personal growth? 🙂 One of my biggest blowouts ever was with my sister when we were basically adults on a tour bus, but I didn’t clear it with her so I didn’t want to go into details. Though we became much closer after that, to be fair. My parents weren’t too thrilled though.

  4. Not long before we were married my husband and I had some kind of argument in London (probably over US visa renewal procedures!! Grr.). We were staying with his brother and sister in law in Essex. And I realized that I’d have had no idea how to get back to their house, and therefore we’d have had no way to find each other if we had just stormed off, which we were a whisper away from doing. On the train back from the city that day, and throughout the rest of our trip, I memorized my BIL/SIL’s home number in case we got separated. They no longer live in that house, but 12 years later I still remember that phone number.
    Oh I’ve got a Paris argument story too. I’ll save that for another day. (There’s also that time at home when one of us threw our dinner at the other, I can’t actually remember which one of us it was. Wow, I could go on all day like this. Haha. We don’t have those kinds of arguments anymore though. I guess marriage does get boring after 10 years! )

  5. So funny and true. The first trip to Disney World when our children were 6 and 4 had many of the things you talk about…..a major kicking and screaming meltdown from a 4 year old boy over fake gold coins and numerous bathroom visits to every bathroom in Disney with my daughter the entire trip. (but we had that expensive meal plan to use!!!) Aaahhhh the memories!!!! We took a break from traveling with them after that and have never been back to Disney since. I can say now that travel with them at 15 and 14 is so much fun.(except when they are fighting) I love the screaming picture…..that would have sent me over the edge!!

    1. omg you just reminded me my daughter almost flipped out waiting in line to see Olaf because some girl in line was holding a streamer and she wanted one. AKA GARBAGE! She pulled it together and we got that darned picture with the snowman, haha!

  6. I didn’t have the finances to travel when my kids were little. Luckily, they have all become travelers as first my finances, and then theirs, improved. One of my sons saw the most beautiful sunset on his honeymoon, as he was walking on the beach at a resort in the Bahamas. He was alone, because he and his wife had just had a “disagreement”.

    Husband and I have learned that we WILL fight in the car. We just will. But we’ll also fight less if we realize that it’s going to happen, and not treat the fight as a failure in our relationship. I think that’s really important to remember. People who NEVER fight with their spouses or families are liars. Because no two people can agree on everything. If you make it OK, then the fights will (hopefully) be less intense.

    We’ve not yet traveled with Grandson. Our first time will be a shortish flight from ATH to VCE, when we go back with them from visiting Husband’s sister in ATH this summer. He’s a veteran of trans-Atlantic flights, though, so hoping that the hop over the Adriatic will just be a time for him to enjoy some non-stop games on his kids’ Kindle.

  7. Man, your stuff has been pure gold lately! I’m posting this to my wife’s family travel facebook group when I get home.

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