How to survive the first day of your vacation

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By Christopher Elliott

If you can answer “yes” to the eternal question, “Are we there yet?” then you probably need a survival manual for the first day of vacation. The 24 hours after you arrive are among the busiest and most stressful — the unpacking and settling in, the arguing, and the inevitable chaos.

It doesn’t have to be. But it took me many, many trips to discover how to make the first day of your vacation as smooth as possible.

I’m not on vacation 300 days a year. But I’m on the road with three teenagers for that amount of time, and we go through many of the same steps that the average family does when they’re away. Arriving at a hotel or vacation rental. Foraging for food. Fighting over what to do with the rest of the first day.

The general problem is nervous energy: Everything’s moving at twice the pace. You’re in unfamiliar surroundings, which heightens your senses. No wonder some people want to turn around and go back home. Hey, it’s stressful.

How to survive the first day of vacation.
Iden and Aren Elliott in a very small vacation rental in Buellton, Calif.

Surviving the check-in process on your first day of vacation

The check in process can be stressful enough to make you want to abandon the trip. You stand in a long line with the kids, maybe worrying, “Will they have my room?” Then the front-desk employee pushes a contract in front of you that you know you don’t have time to read because there are people in line behind you. Then you find your way to your room. The kids are arguing about who gets to open the door. You walk in and immediately begin to issue stern warnings. “Don’t touch that bottle of water or they’ll charge us $10,” and “Stay away from that remote unless you want to get the flu!”

You know what that’s like, don’t you?

The solution: Plan your arrival time carefully. Hotels, like highways, have rush hours — times of the day when check-in traffic is high. Hint: it’s usually after 3 p.m. I try to aim for the early afternoon, so that even if the room isn’t ready, I can get the hard stuff behind me. Then have the hotel store your luggage, find a good coffee shop, and relax. Let everyone else stand in line. (Here’s what you need to know before planning your next trip in the fall.)

How about the rest of the chaos? Well, that’s easily dealt with before you arrive. Explain to your kids that hotels like to make extra money by offering overpriced bottled water and other minibar treats. Tell them that the TV remote is coated with germs and that you’d rather sanitize it before use — or better yet, avoid the TV altogether and spend time with your family. After all, isn’t that why you’re on vacation? (Related: The family vacation planning guide for families who hate to plan.)

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What to do on the first day of vacation.
Aren Elliott tidies up a vacation rental in Oregon in 2013.

Avoiding a food argument on the first day of vacation

You know what comes next? Food, of course. By now, one of your kids has found the room service menu. Another one is online and looking up pizzerias. The third is checking for grocery stores because we are all eating healthy tonight.


Ah, food and travel. I could write an entire book on the subject. Restaurants and hotels want you to eat nothing but comfort food while you’re away. But if you do that, you’ll end your vacation overweight and bankrupt.

You will probably have a food argument shortly after arriving at your destination. To avoid it, plan family meals ahead of time. It’s as easy as saying, “We are having sandwiches for lunch.” My middle son, Iden, is always hopeful that we’ll find our way to that overpriced French restaurant for a five-course meal. Declaring your intentions is a clever way to avoid that predictable argument.

What should you do on the first day of vacation?
Erysse in Panama City, Fla., in 2014.

Now what?

If all goes according to plan, part of the first 24 hours of your vacation will be spent, you know, on vacation. That means you and your family can hit the beach, go hiking, or hang out in town — whatever you’re there to do.

Deciding what to do can be a source of conflict.

We do a lot of skiing in my family, but if you arrive at a resort in the early afternoon, do you still hit the slopes? My 14-year-old would always say “yes,” but my other two would prefer to do something else. And they have a valid point. By the time you rent gear, the lifts are about to close.

What is a good idea is renting your gear in the midafternoon, when no one else is at the ski shop, so it’s ready for the next morning.

For beach vacations, the compromise is usually a nice walk along the shoreline after dinner. That assumes, of course, that Dad can finish answering all of the emails that have piled up while we were on the plane.

Again, surviving the first day of vacation means careful planning and then sharing that plan with your party. If you don’t, they’ll all go their separate ways — one will head to the slopes, the other to the pizza joint, and the other to the pool. You’ll wish you’d booked a cruise instead.

The first 24 hours of your vacation doesn’t have to fray your nerves to the point where you need a vacation from your vacation. A little planning and careful communication can avoid the worst of it. For the rest of us travelers, there’s always the spa.

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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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