How to avoid a bad vacation start

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By Christopher Elliott

Of all the bad vacation starts, it’s almost impossible to pick the worst. But here’s a contender.

It’s late spring, and we have a two-day drive from Arizona to Northern California.

My oldest son has a pile of unfinished homework and is fighting a case of motion sickness. He’s miserable. His brother and sister? They’re fighting in the back of the SUV. Fists are flying like in a 70s Kung-Fu movie. (“She hit me first!” “No, he did!)

And then, of course, the chorus of, “I’m huuungry. What’s for lunch?”

Late spring may sound pleasant to you, but by the time we crossed into Nevada for our first stop, the temperatures had spiked into the triple digits. At Hoover Dam, we could hardly stay outside for a few minutes because of the dangerous heat. That ratcheted up tensions.

Then they couldn’t find our reservation at the Holiday Inn Club Vacations Las Vegas. And that was my breaking point. At that moment, I thought: “I should have just stayed home.”

You know what that feels like? There are no statistics on the number of Americans who abandon their vacations. But we know that airlines canceled 82,693 flights last year, or about 1.46 percent of total flights. I’m sure some of the passengers simply said, “That’s it. We’re canceling our trip!”

How to avoid a bad vacation -- Christopher Elliott, author
A view from one of our many road trips. This is what you miss when you make a U-turn.

Bad vacation start? Don’t give up

Making a U-turn is almost always a mistake. A bad vacation start doesn’t automatically mean you’ll have a bad vacation. I know because the disastrous trip through Nevada turned into one of our most memorable adventures. I called my travel agent. She found our reservation, and we cooled off at the Holiday Inn’s pool later that day. My son finished his homework. I found snacks for the younger kids, and after a while, they calmed down, too.

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We spent a few weeks in California, making stops in Temecula, Buellton and San Jose. If I’d turned around and gone home, none of that would have happened.

Even when the trip is going smoothly, I always encounter a moment when I ask: “Should I even be going on this trip?” The answer isn’t always “yes.” It’s a struggle between doing the safe thing — staying at home — and traveling somewhere you’ve never been and embracing a new experience.

Trust me, you don’t really want to miss the adventure, no matter how badly your vacation starts. You will almost certainly regret a trip not taken.

How to avoid a bad vacation. Christopher Elliott, author.
The author with his children, Iden, Aren and Erysse in Mendocino in 2013. The trip got off to a bad start but turned into one of their favorite adventures.

Everything doesn’t always go smoothly

Here’s what you have to understand about travel. Wires are crossed almost constantly. That rule doesn’t just apply to the journey but to the destination. Consider one of our earliest family trips, also to California. We were supposed to drive to Mendocino, Calif., and stay in a vacation rental for a week.

Mendocino is easily one of my favorite places, but it didn’t start that way. There’s this point, just past Navarro, Calif., when you’re driving along Highway 128, where the temperature suddenly shifts from hot to cold, I’m talking Mendocino-cold 55 degrees, which is the temperature pretty much year round on the Northern California coast. At that very moment, I received a call from our host with a problem about our rental. Just then, I was also pondering an email from one of my editors about a chapter in my latest book. She was obnoxious. Whenever she found something she didn’t like, she wrote: “FIX!”

And suddenly, too, everything went from summer to winter. I wanted to pull over and go home, but I pressed on.

I’m glad I did. Mendocino is an incredible, out-of-the-way destination on Northern California’s coast. We spent a week strolling along the beach, watching whales, picking berries and hiking among California’s towering redwoods. (Related: For an unforgettable vacation, try something new.)

Oh, and the rest of our problems? All resolved. I answered all of my editor’s questions, and the book eventually saw the light of print. We found the key to our rental, too — and our warm clothes.

How to avoid a bad vacation. Christopher Elliott, author
Aren Elliott in Monterey, Calif. Even the worst vacations are salvageable — if you know how to do it.

How to avoid a bad vacation start

My advice? Just go, anyway. If you’ve experienced a bad vacation start, shake it off. But a little preparation can take you a long way. I could have prevented most of the bad-vacation-start problems with careful planning. That includes:

✓ Calling your hotel or vacation rental before you leave to make sure it knows you’re coming.

✓ Stopping by a grocery store and buying enough food and drinks to keep the kids from trying to eat each other. Seriously, you can’t buy too much food! (Pro tip: Avoid junk food, no matter how much they beg for it.)

✓ Resisting the urge to check your work email while you’re on the road, especially when you’re driving. Believe me, the work will still be there when you get back to the office. (Here’s what you need to know before renting your next vacation home.)

✓ Making sure your kids don’t pack each other into the trunk.

Above all, be adaptable. Travel can throw you a series of curveballs, but if you expect them, you can manage. Whatever you do, don’t turn around.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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