If there’s one thing everyone in our family of four likes to do, thankfully, it’s travel. I remember vividly the delight and sense of freedom I felt when both our children were old enough, curious enough and flexible enough to be packed into the minivan for a road trip. As my daughters grew into teenagers, unsurprisingly, the joy of venturing off together was tested and tempered. But, to my great relief, they emerged from the thorny thicket of adolescence again willing to go places with their father and me. Sharing a mutual appreciation of a glorious sunrise, a spectacular landscape or an unexpectedly charming air-field restaurant with my college-age kids was sweetly gratifying. And watching them enthusiastically set off on their own adventures made me stupidly happy, even though I occasionally worried.
Now we’re entering a new stage. And though it gets less attention than travelling with young children, there are as many joys and as many complications in travelling with your adult offspring.
I learned this when the four of us - my daughters were then 21 and 23 - took an 18-day trip to China together last summer, spending much of it touring the county’s beautiful, remote Yunnan Province, where our younger daughter had been studying. Over the trip, we had to catch seven flights, spend a night together in a tiny sleeper train compartment, find restaurants to please every palate, and survive two illnesses, a mountainside van breakdown, altitude sickness, a shakedown and a couple of questionable hotels. Amazingly, we returned still speaking to one another.
But, much more important, we bonded over experiences - including the terrifying, the humorous and the sublime - that have been knit into the tapestry of our family’s collective memory. And my husband and I got to see China through the eyes of 20-somethings.
Here are some guidelines for parents travelling with grown-up children:
- Consult everyone about the itinerary: My husband and daughters fine-tuned my initially far too ambitious plan for China, cutting some destinations and swapping others. We wound up with a manageable itinerary we all could live with. Did every person want to go to every site? No. But every person had a destination they were excited about. And the city my younger daughter insisted we visit - which I had wanted to skip because it had been opportunistically renamed Shangri-La - turned out to be one of my favourites.
- Stay calm: Things are going to go wrong. If you get upset, or if you turn stubborn and rigid about the itinerary or schedule, it will justifiably annoy your kids who, let’s face it, are less invested emotionally and financially in the trip.
- Don’t overbook yourselves: Allow flexibility not just for scheduling mishaps but for serendipity. Your children can come up with a plan that could be more fun than you thought.
- Create a shared document: I put our itinerary online in Airtable, along with names, addresses, phone and confirmation numbers of hotels; the departure and arrival cities, times, airline names and flight numbers for our travel segments; names and contact information of the guides we had hired; and a to-do list (such as shots, passport copies, getting a VPN). This kept everyone in the loop, and we could access the information even if we weren’t together.
- Hire a guide for the tricky stuff: This way you can enjoy sight-seeing much more. It also reduces the tension that comes from doing everything yourselves and trying to figure out how to get somewhere in a foreign country where only one of you, or maybe no one, speaks the language. It keeps everyone on their better behaviour.
- Get separate rooms: Yes, it costs more, but time apart on a trip together is perhaps the most important way to help maintain everyone’s serenity - and sanity. If you think you’ll want to spend more time together after an exhausting day of touring, an arrangement with a common area is nice. Otherwise, a separate hotel room not right next to your own can allow everyone to feel like they’re really getting away from one another.
- Choose a hotel near activities everyone will enjoy: That nice quiet hotel at the edge of town is going to make things inconvenient for anyone who wants to stay out later to shop or find music or other things you haven’t thought of and might not want to know about.
- Compromise on dining locations: It’s important to respect everyone’s dietary choices. And it’s also not the end of the world if everyone doesn’t eat every single meal together. If it’s going to annoy you that your offspring sleep through the free breakfast, make it clear that they’re on their own, time-wise and financially, if they miss the free grub. Which brings me to . . .
- Don’t get upset if not everyone wants to visit every site: One of my daughters wasn’t feeling well and begged off from a visit to the rice terraces near Guilin (in China), which I had anticipated would be the highlight of our trip. (Should have built in that down time.) Instead of fretting over the experience she was missing, I reminded myself that she knows what she can handle - as it turned out to be a relentlessly rainy day, it was the right call - and that she is young. She has plenty of years to get back to Guilin, if she chooses.
- Let them pitch in: In addition to sharing an adventure and making memories together, perhaps the most delightful part of travelling with adult children is that you don’t have to handle everything. Someone else can read the map, call the taxi, interpret the dinner menu, carry the heavy suitcase and, if you’re lucky, argue in Mandarin with the people who are trying to shake you down for $100 for taking photos of their yaks. Your younger companions will spot things that you miss, such as all the humorously translated signs - we think “Ban Retrograde” near an escalator meant “Don’t go down backward.” And being 20-something, they’ll push you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise consider, such as walking down part of the mountain instead of taking the cable car.
- Have them organise and lead some of the trip: When everyone is an adult, everyone has a different opinion about what to do, how to do it and which resources to rely on. Take advantage. I realized this on a more recent trip to New York City, when my usually chill husband complained about the noise and crowded seating at the restaurant I’d chosen. Because I’d been making all the arrangements and trying - too hard, my daughters would say - to please everyone, I bristled. The next day, one daughter planned the schedule, plotted our travels and picked a restaurant. We had the best bahn-mi sandwiches ever, which we would have missed otherwise.
- Consider scheduling some relaxing travel: As one of my daughters later pointed out, our family tends not to take “sit-on-the-beach-and-relax vacations.” Instead, she texted me, “we are always moving and there’s always logistics to work out, which is stressful.” A lazy vacation where we can just enjoy one another’s company is definitely in order.
- Discuss money beforehand: We generally pay for the transportation and hotels, and the activities and meals our kids share with us. Any clothing, souvenirs, extra food and drink or other activities are their responsibility. We’re now entering the phase in which their significant others might accompany us on trips. Things will change as the younger folks move beyond internships, fellowships and entry-level teaching jobs.
- Finally, wait a few months before trying to plan the next big trip: Your kids now have their own separate existences. Give them time to look back fondly on your adventure, in between all the chaos and curveballs life is throwing at them. Trust that they’ll eventually miss you and, once again, feel the appetite for travel that you’re so happy to share with them.