Travelling with one or both parents as an adult is a special experience. I’ve done it a fair bit in the past few years – me living overseas has meant that we’ve had about half a dozen trips together, ranging from one to three weeks. We’ve been everywhere from Japan to Morocco, and they’ve been pretty awesome experiences that I’m incredibly grateful for.
But, like any family, the dynamics can get intense when you’re in each other’s faces and space constantly. Small, unimportant things can suddenly become super annoying, such as the way your mum loves a blindingly bright phone screen when it’s dark, or when your dad insists on seeking out a special kind of Japanese ice cream after every single meal in Tokyo, and it’s mid-winter.
But when you think about the decades of your drama that your folks have dealt with, it’s only fair that you should avoid sweating the small stuff (especially if you came on this trip of your own free will).
Here are my tips on how to have a good time and be the nicest possible human while travelling with your parentals. These rules can apply to travel with any relative (like a sibling or extended family member), colleagues (who are a sort of family given the amount of time you spend with them) or even on a group tour with a variety of ages present.
Do: factor everyone in
It goes without saying that there will be different fitness and energy levels when people travel together. Add to that different personality types (outgoing vs introverted), different priorities (sightseeing vs relaxation) and different budgets (tight vs unlimited) and you’ve got a lovely big melting pot of differences in any given travel party.
Especially when travelling together for the first time, it’s a good idea to try and suss out these things in the early trip-planning stages, so the trip will cater to everyone. You might be happy to brave an overnight train in India because it seems very adventurous, only to realise that your mum would not cope well with the ultra-basic train bed because of her bad back. Or maybe you’ve got your heart set on a tropical island vibe, but you forgot that your dad hates the sun. Get these wants and needs out on the table before you lock anything in.
Being considerate to others also applies to eating while on the road. If you’re like me, good food is important. But getting a seat immediately is also very important for people in their 60s and up. So if you see a cool spot that your friends back home would love – loud music, dim lighting, standing-room only at the bar as you wait for a table for an hour – keep walking!
Do: embrace new friends
It’s perfectly normal for conversation to run out of steam after the first few days of travelling with your folks. This may lead to a blissful silence, or an increase in dad jokes that you haven’t found funny since age 11.
So, when your mum gets chatting about knee surgery with a lady at the breakfast buffet or your dad starts talking about Swiss watchmakers with a guy on the bus, let them. Making friends on trips can help lighten the mood or diffuse any potential tension, and also lead to unexpectedly delightful connections.
Once on a trip to Iceland, my dad and I were on a puffin-spotting boat tour in Reykjavik (as you do) and he struck up a conversation with a guy from London. This not only gave me some contemplative moments admiring the cutest birds on earth, but we also ended up hanging out with this family for the rest of our time in Iceland. After five weeks on the road with just us, it was nice to have some fresh dad jokes brought into the mix.
Do: laugh about it
Yes I know, what a cliche. But short of being physically hurt or in danger, it’s amazing how almost any travel mishap you survived will later become a hilarious story.
Take, for example, the time that I lost my passport in Spain. It happened on a flight from Bilbao to Barcelona, and as they don’t do customs between the two, I was able to get to our hotel before I realised that I’d left my passport on the plane. My mum is an incredibly strong woman, and I’ve only seen her cry twice in my life. One of those times was in the next 24 hours, as she begged an airline staff member to help us track down my passport.
By some miracle I got it back. What helped – once I’d gotten over the initial shock – was stepping back and seeing the humour amidst the drama. It was actually kind of funny how dopey I’d been to leave my passport on a plane, mainly because it was in plain sight in a transparent seat pocket. It was also pretty amusing that my passport was on a little adventure around Europe by itself as we spoke. Although I will say that a local tapas bar with very good wine helped take the edge off.
Do: take a back seat
If you’re a travel nut like me, you might have a research spreadsheet going just 24 hours after someone even mentions the idea of a trip. But something that I’ve only just discovered is the unexpected joy of taking a back seat in travel planning, and trusting pros to do it for me.
The thing that’s well hidden on Instagram is the sheer effort it takes to always be switched on while on the road – planning the next steps, navigating around cities, trying to communicate, staying safe and healthy, and having a good time on top of that. So on a recent trip to Vietnam with Intrepid, I was happy to experience a new kind of pleasure with group travel, where pretty much everything was planned for me.
There are big benefits in choosing group travel for trips with your parents. Being in a group situation takes the pressure off you to always be chatty, because you’ll likely make new friends (for life, in my case). And having a tour leader running the show means you can take a back seat and actually enjoy more of what’s going on around you, rather than being glued to the maps app on your phone trying to navigate a maze of unfamiliar streets. Plus, it’s so nice to have someone on hand who’ll share their local knowledge and answer your questions – things that you can’t always get by Googling it yourself.
Don’t: stinge on comfort
Like me, you may have reached an age in life where a hotel pillow menu is far more exciting than the room service menu. That’s because when you get older, things like neck pain can make you a horrible person to be around.
When travelling with people in the 60+ bracket, you’ll generally need to take that and double it, in terms of comfort needs. What may be ‘super cute’ to you and your mates – aka an AirBnB apartment with all its original, cramped, low-lit charm in Paris – might be a parent’s literal nightmare and a minefield of meltdowns waiting to happen.
Investing that little bit more in accommodation will always pay off, in my experience. Separate hotel rooms are of course the dream, but budget doesn’t always allow it. This is where apartment rental comes in handy, but do try and find a place that’s central, with lift access, proper beds and, if possible, central heating/air conditioning.
If none of these are an option and you find yourself trying to sleep on a single bed ‘cot’ jammed next to your parents in your pokey hotel room as they snore loudly, read on.
Don’t: forget ‘you time’
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about travelling with the fam, it’s that we all need our alone time. I spent years thinking that doing this would offend my travel companions, but nowadays I view it as a necessity. This also applies for when you’re on a group tour and sharing a room with someone.
It may be as simple as going for a walk before breakfast, or tuning to a podcast while on the road to your next destination. Or maybe on a free day you’d like to go and see a sight or visit a museum that no one else is really into. Try and find a little bit of you time every day you’re on the road – it’ll give you space to breathe, switch off, and come back into the group feeling more refreshed and relaxed.
Don’t: plan every single minute
When travelling with family, there are things that you should scope out in advance, like how you’re going to get from the airport to your accommodation. Researching if local taxis are the go, checking if they have Uber in that city, or organising a transfer to your hotel will help those first few moments in a new place feel as calm and composed as possible.
But when it comes to how you spend your spare time, I can personally recommend going with the flow. Perhaps it means exploring two out of the thousand temples at Angkor in Siem Reap, because it’s just too hot for your dad to stay out any longer. Or maybe you’d hoped to conquer at least five wings of the Louvre, but your mum is totally knackered after exploring one. At moments like these, it’s important to step back and remember that quality over quantity should take priority over bucket list-ticking, especially when you’re travelling with other people.
Also, I’m a big believer that that some of the most memorable travel moments happen by chance. Unplanned wandering can lead to unexpectedly beautiful moments, like passing a joyful wedding party in Jodhpur or stumbling upon a busking trio down a laneway in Venice. None of which would have happened if you’d been more set on ‘the plan’ than looking up and taking in what’s around you.
Feature photo by Ben McNamara. All other images by Anne Verhoeven.