Family getaway or get away?

Family on beach

Millions are setting off on their summer breaks, but for many the experience will be anything but relaxing. Why do we persist with the ordeal of family holidays?

The traffic jam stretches for miles and the kids are squabbling on the back seat.

Beside you, your partner is getting increasingly agitated at the prospect you might miss your flight - pushing up your blood pressure even further.

Right on cue, you remember that you left your passport at home.

And that's before you've even had the chance to face sunburn, dodgy accommodation and your luggage ending up in the wrong hemisphere.

The family holiday may be a byword for mishaps, rows and the overwhelming pressure to have a good time.

Yet each year we put ourselves through the ordeal - and pay good money for the privilege.

That we willingly do so is, of course, testament to the lack of quality time the average family gets to spend together in an age of long commutes and work-life imbalance.

Nonetheless, most of us have established from personal experience that neither money nor good intentions can guarantee a harmonious break.

Relaxing break? Forget it

Lucy Cavendish

Lucy Cavendish, author of family holiday novel A Storm In A Teacup

The first thing to accept is that holidays really aren't for mothers. I can't remember the last time I lay on a sunlounger reading while my four children where there.

Going away seems a good idea in January when it's cold and you see all the supplements with pictures of warm, happy people - but weeks before we're due to leave I'm already getting stressed about packing, how much to take, do I have all the right medicines?

As a mum you feel responsible for stopping the kids arguing, making sure they aren't kicking the back of the seat in front of them and so on. My husband is much better at ignoring them, but I'm always amazed when I see dads dozing off at airports.

I did once storm out of a restaurant because the kids were being so annoying. But I think once you acknowledge it's their holiday, not yours, it all becomes much easier.

A survey by Footprint Travel Guides of the factors underlying British tourists' vacation tiffs offers familiar explanations for this discontent.

Some 21% of respondents said the journey to the holiday destination caused the most arguments, while 16% cited running out of funds as their main cause of strife.

Tellingly, some 11% of the 1,000 respondents told the study that spending time together as a family when unused to doing so at home had led to the majority of their fallings out.

The tendency of family holidays to end in disaster has been keenly chronicled by comedian and writer Emma Kennedy, whose book The Tent, The Bucket and Me recalls how her own parents led her on a succession of catastrophic camping trips in the 1970s.

Particularly memorable was one journey to France aged six when a fellow passenger vomited on her leg on the ferry; with her clean clothes buried somewhere deep inside the family Land Rover, the senior Kennedys thought it wisest to clean her up at a public convenience when they reached the continent.

Unfortunately, when they did so the young Emma managed to step into the squat toilet and cover herself in human effluent; she was so traumatised that she fainted and, as she recalls with a shudder, her parents then "had to wrap me in a bin bag, take me to a garage forecourt and hose me down".

The incident was to set the tone for the squabbles and catastrophes which characterised her family's successive summer breaks.

But strangely, she notes, it is these incidents on which she looks back most fondly.

"I've had lots of wonderful holidays where nothing has gone wrong, but I can't remember anything about them," she says. "It's the disasters that make a holiday memorable.

"Very often, it's the pressure to have the best time ever that causes problems in the first place, after all."

Nonetheless, not everyone is so sanguine about the impact of an unsuccessful summer break.

Unhappy holiday Are we nearly there yet?

Dr Lynn Minnaert, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Westminster's Centre for Tourism, believes that successful holidays can contribute to what she calls "family capital" - how your relationship with the rest of your family takes you forward in life.

"Avoiding obstacles on holiday and having a good time together builds up a store of happy memories - this increases the self-esteem of the parents and children alike," she says.

"High levels of family capital have been linked to children's improved performance at school so this is something that can have a big effect."

If a bad holiday can actually damage your children's life prospects, then, how best to avoid them?

David Atkinson, the author of the book Lake District With Kids, believes that it is important that all members of the family - adults and children alike - get to do things they enjoy, and that the needs of one do not crowd out those of the other.

Start Quote

Usually the simplest things are the most enjoyable”

End Quote David Atkinson Travel writer

But most crucially of all, he warns that the more regimented a holiday, the greater the potential for it to go wrong - and that families come to grief when they forget that a break is meant, ultimately, to be relaxing.

He adds: "I spend my working life juggling deadlines - what's the point of giving myself more?

"Very often we have a tendency to over-complicate things, but usually the simplest things are the most enjoyable. When I think about our time in the Lake District, it's not driving up the M6 to some attraction that I remember most fondly - it's skimming stones on Derwentwater."

It may be a novel concept in this age of activity breaks and adventure holidays - but making an effort to rest and loosen up may be the surest guarantee of a good time.

So have a happy - and relaxing - trip. Just don't forget to pack that passport.

Below are a selection of your comments

Families find these days when they go on holiday together that they don't actually know each other very well, because they spend so little time actually talking to each other at home. They're unaware of each other's temperments, wishes, interests, enjoyment, irritations and so forth. And putting three plus people who don't know each other into a hot, crowded, unfamiliar, alien environment, with weird food, strange languages and hundreds of other strangers, is rarely, if ever, going to end well...

Kate Jones, Lancaster

Years later, there's nothing better for raising a chuckle than those holiday disasters. My best one started with breaking a wrist as I tied the last bag onto the roof rack; that was a four-day delay. Then a puncture half-way through France, en route to Spain. That was all of our French cash gone (in the days before ATMs). Once in Spain, we picked up my grandfather from the airport, forgetting about the bike on the roof as we went into a tunnel.. clunk. Later, we were joined by my uncle and aunt - who stayed overnight in Marbella (long enough to be bitten by a monkey); slipped the handbrake on their hire car (oops... that pile of bricks was a garage), and finally dropped their duty free on the way home. Legendary!

David, Oxford, England

You article made me smile and shudder simultaneously. All the memories of being a mum in charge of two squabbling children in a hot car stuck in a traffic jam came flooding back...what a relief to remember then that I have two weeks planned in the wilds of Scotland soon, with just me, myself and I to indulge in whatever activity I fancy, whenever. Bliss!

Emma, Hebden Bridge, West Yorks

Blimey, is there not enough pressure on the parents planning to take their offspring on holiday without researchers telling you that if it isn't a raging success, packed with one joy filled moment after another, your kids are going to end up depressed parent-haters? My brother and I used to fight from one end of a holiday to the other and we don't dislike our parents. Now we're adult we don't even dislike each other any more!

Vicky, Manchester

Family holidays when my siblings and I were growing up had a reputation for drama - sunburn so bad my Dad's legs broke out in blisters, an emergency appendectomy, sitting on the steps of a closed airport in the middle of the night until it reopened, briefly driving on the wrong side of the (thankfully empty) road, chalet ants, and measles, just to name a few examples. I'm amazed my parents didn't just give up!

Elaine, Southampton, UK

You mean there are people out there who can still afford to have holidays away?

Bex, Bristol

Never, NEVER, go on holiday with your in-laws. Contrary to the old adage, they go bad much faster than fish in the sun.

Duane, California, USA

I think there is too much one-upmanship going on with holidays - kids don't really need to go abroad. We always went to campsites and caravan parks in the UK when they were young and I look back fondly on these holidays even if we didn't have brilliant weather or foreign food. We didn't travel more than we could cope with either - about 5 hours by car was the maximum.

Sheila Perry, Edinburgh, UK

Holidays for kids is what the Boy Scouts, Air Training Corps, Girl Guides, etc, are best at. The kids leave home, and their parents for a week or so, enjoy some wonderful experiences, parents have a rest, everyone benefits.

Douglas Hendry, Crowmarsh Gifford, England

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