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What’s Your Family Vacation Nightmare? A Freakonomics Quorum

Over the past several weeks, we’ve hosted discussions on obesity, street charity, real estate, and environmental conservation. Here now is a quorum that lets people relive the just-about-gone summer. The participants below were asked the following question:

What’s your idea of a nightmare family vacation?

Here are their responses. Feel free to give yours as well.

Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychology professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness, which we’ve blogged about here and here:

To me, “family vacation” means parents and siblings and children and cousins and other assorted relatives. With that in mind, a “nightmare family vacation” is one that lasts more than 24 hours. I have long suspected that human beings are constitutionally incapable of being in the continuous presence of any human being for more than 24 hours without becoming irritated or bored or both.

The one exception to this rule is the person with whom one is having sexual relations. Sex allows us to experience a dopamine surge in the presence of another individual, and this “hit of ecstasy” resets our boredom-and-irritation meters for that individual to zero. I not only tolerate my wife, I positively crave her company and am happy to be in the same small space with her for weeks on end. I don’t feel that way about anyone else, including people I love dearly.

It is possible that I feel this way about my wife because she is so uniquely suited for me, but it seems much more likely that it is the sexual aspect of our relationship that allows us to become re-enamored and re-attached before we grow irritated and bored. So my theory is that, unless you are sleeping with someone, they will get on your nerves in short order, which means that a good family vacation must either be brief or incestuous. I vote for brief.

Kate White prolific author and editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan:

Over the years, my husband and I have traveled a ton with our two kids, though we got a later start than I would have liked. You see, we had to wait until my son could manage not to have a major meltdown just because he was asked to put on a life vest or stop hopping along on the edge of the baggage carousel. I like to think we made up for lost time, and I’m very pleased to say we’ve never had any major family travel disasters. We return tired, even grumpy, but always speaking to each other.

But that’s not to say we’ve gotten off scot-free. On practically every single trip, from Alaska to Peru, we’ve had what I’ve come to think of as a travel stink bomb, something that goes horribly wrong — completely out of the blue. So far none of these stink bombs have ruined the entire trip, but they always take my blood pressure up to near-stroke-inducing levels. I honestly think that, cumulatively, they’ve managed to shave a good year off my life.

Some examples:

Dateline Costa Rica: The airline loses my husband’s bag when we arrive in San Jose for a connection to an eco-cruise along the coast on a very small ship. After hours of looking and hoping, we give up and make our way to a small shopping mall. But Costa Rica is not a nation of tall, large-footed men. My husband is forced to restock his wardrobe from the tiny gift shop on board, so that all his outfits carry the ship’s logo. Several times I mistake him for a crew member, which at least adds spice to our nightlife.

Dateline Ecuador: The travel agent gives us the wrong time for a flight connecting us from Guayaquil to the coast, where we are picking up a ship to explore the Galapagos Islands. “That’s okay,” we say at the airport, trying not to hyperventilate. “We’ll just take the next flight.” “Oh we’re very sorry, señor and señora, there are no more flights today.” The next day involves a harried flight followed by a rough, four-hour motorboat ride on the Pacific to catch up with the cruise ship.

Dateline Kenya: We arrive in Nairobi the day the U.S. invades Iraq. As we head along a dusty road in our Range Rover, the guide picks up a small newspaper. The headline reads: “Kidnapping Threats to American Tourists.” By the end of the trip, during which our children are told that if they absolutely must speak publicly, they have to use fake French accents, I don’t know what has made my heart pound more — getting stuck in a hole in a field of jackals, or that headline.

Dateline Hanoi: We open our bags at the hotel to discover my daughter has been robbed of almost everything of value.

Dateline Argentina: In the Buenos Aires airport, we learn that what we thought were e-tickets to Ushuaia are regular paper tickets — and guess what? We don’t have them. This flight and all other flights are full. Trouble is we are headed on a ship to Antarctica, and in this case they won’t be able to play motorboat catch-up on the terrifyingly stormy Drake Passage. With four minutes to spare, we are allowed to board.

We’ve tried to learn from our mistakes, be as buttoned up as possible – we even bought four matching red duffel bags so they’d tend to stay together like a herd – but it hasn’t done much good.

You might ask why, if I can’t take the heat of the stink bombs, don’t I just forgo third world travel and adventure trips. I mean, the worst thing that ever happened to me in Paris was using my lame French to order two cappuccinos for my husband and me and having a tray of seven arrive.

But I just love the exotic stuff so much better. I guess on some subconscious level I’ve decided that the thrill of camping on the jungle floor of the Amazon or bedding down near a seal colony on the Antarctica peninsula is worth a year of my life.

Robert Stebbins, a professor of sociology with an emphasis in leisure studies at the University of Calgary, and founder of the Serious Leisure Perspective:

For me, the most nightmarish vacation possible with the family is when many or all of the most important activities the vacation is intended to facilitate are impossible to undertake, or are undertaken in a most unsatisfactory way. Getting to and from the site or sites of the vacation may be hellish (debilitating sickness, excessively long travel, missed airline flights, major car trouble, etc.); but if the important activities the vacation is supposed to be composed of can be satisfyingly undertaken once there, then it’s a case of “all’s well that ends well.” But how awful if you spend all kinds of money getting to a faraway ski resort only to have both children laid flat with the flu for the entire vacation, find the weather too cold for anyone to be on the beach, get robbed upon arrival of all your money and passports, wind up in a serious and prolonged spat with spouse or children, and on and on.

Perhaps travel to the site of the family vacation unfolds without a hitch. But if the central goals of the trip cannot be substantially met, this experience is likely to seem minor by comparison. Of course, bad experiences to or from the vacation destination only make the nightmare encountered once there seem even more appalling.

True, what amounts to a nightmare and what escapes that label is, to some extent, a matter of personal interpretation and expectation. Some folks are more resilient than others. Nonetheless, all of us have limits to what we can withstand in the name of a vacation before qualifying it as a miserable waste of precious cash, time, and energy.

Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America and (Not That You Asked):

I just went on a family vacation during which my mother got hit by a pickup truck while talking a walk and wound up in a trauma unit. So I guess that’s Rule No. 1 in the avoidance of nightmare family vacations: avoid the trauma unit. Those people just don’t know how to party.

I’d also steer away from awkward family dynamics. I’m not sure there are really any other kind of family dynamics, but you know what I mean. I’ve gone on several vacations out of a sense of obligation — the word in Jewish is “guilt” — and frankly, they made the trauma unit sound positively tempting.

One other thing: overplanning. This go-go-go mindset, as if vacations were being graded for “points of interest visited.” I’m all for hiking to some beautiful hidden lake, rather than sitting in front of cable TV. But the only thing that should have an itinerary is a business trip.

To summarize, here’s the Nightmare Family Vacation in a nutshell: a breakneck tour of the country’s top trauma units, accompanied by relatives who all hate each other, and you.

Wait a sec: does anyone else smell a totally H-O-T new reality TV series here?

Henry Alford, author of Municipal Bondage and Big Kiss: One Actor’s Desperate Attempt to Claw His Way to the Top:

Any vacation on which the amount of colicky infants in your car rivals the square footage of sticky these fellow travelers create.