These tips will help you survive your vacation countdown

These are Christopher Elliott's vacation countdown tips.

It’s T-minus 12 hours before we leave. In some ways, it’s the worst part of the vacation countdown. Everything’s half-done.

Millions of other travelers will experience the same thing this summer in the agonizing hours and minutes before their departure.

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T-minus 24 hours: No sleep the night before so everyone is grumpy — and excited. T-minus 18 hours: The packing lists come out. The house is a mess. T-minus 12 hours: Panic starts to set in.
Do you know what I’m talking about? Of course there’s an app for that, fittingly called Vacation Countdown, or, if you’re a Disney fan, a Countdown For Disney app. You can’t make this stuff up.

But as far as I can tell, none of these programs helps you with the real problem: the nerve-wracking, patience-testing hours before you and your family depart. Your smartphone can’t help with that. But I can.

I experience the 24-hour countdown regularly since I’m on the road with my kids more than 300 days a year. I’ve felt the ups and downs, and I can tell you from personal experience how draining they are. But I’ve also developed a few workarounds for this circus that you might find useful.

Getting ready to leave on a family vacation can be stressful!
What goes into the back of our car? Luggage, the laundry bag — and a unicycle. Told you this was a circus!

There’s no one right way to do it

There is no one right way to make it through a 24-hour vacation countdown. Some people pour themselves an adult beverage and pretend their vacation isn’t about to start. It’s not that they dread traveling — it’s that they hate the preparation and all that goes with it. They want to avoid ending an argument with their better half with, “Maybe we should just stay home!” That’s not me — I don’t drink and I don’t have a better half to argue with — but I’ve definitely been there.

Others are meticulous planners, and they look forward to packing and organizing. I am not one of those people either. As I write this, half our clothes are in the laundry. And check out the photo of our unpacked car. That was only a minute before our departure. We are definitely not organized, and that’s OK. You don’t have to be.

Surviving the 24-hour countdown means being flexible. My 16-year-old son likes to have everything packed the night before. My 12-year-old daughter doesn’t like to pack at all. Sometimes, you just have to find the middle ground, but be prepared to lose your footing every now and then.

I don’t think we’re going to leave on time tomorrow morning. So what? We’ll just arrive in Santa Fe after dark, and we might have to eat cereal for dinner. It won’t be the first time we’ve done that. I’ll make it up to the kids the next day.

Here's how to survive your family's vacation countdown.
My daughter in a Hertz rental in Salt Lake City. She doesn’t pack the car but she likes to tell me how to drive.

Strategies for staying sane during your vacation countdown

You can break the 24 hours before you leave on vacation into phases. We’ve developed strategies for coping with each of them.

  • Phase 1: Anticipation (12-24 hours before departure) Something is in the air. The adults are on edge. The kids are starting to become unhinged. In fact, as I’m writing this, my 14-year-old son is chasing his sister around the house with a large pool noodle. We don’t have a pool. I don’t have any idea where the noodle came from. The strategy: distraction. Find them a good book, a movie — anything to defuse this drama. Also, cut back on sugar.
  • Phase 2: Chaos (6-12 hours before departure) You know the beginning is near, but your home doesn’t look like it. Clothes are strewn across the floor. The cat is freaking out. But it’s coming together. There’s a bag, half-packed — a sign of progress. Your itinerary is downloaded on the phone. Oh, and you forgot to make dinner for the family. Hey kids, it’s pizza night! The strategy: take deep breaths and order the pizza.
  • Phase 3: Action! (0-6 hours before departure) Did anyone sleep last night? Neither did I. I kept waking up, thinking: “Is it time to leave yet?” It was not, but I couldn’t get back to sleep. The kids were tossing and turning all night, which is good because they’ll sleep in the car. But you can’t do that. You have to drive. Strategy: Caffeine is your friend.
Family vacation preparation tips from Christopher Elliott.
Erysse enjoys a leisurely lunch of fresh-picked strawberries in Temecula, Calif.

Take it easy

At the end of the countdown, at the moment your car pulls out of your driveway, you feel relief. Finally, you’ve packed your bags, corralled the kids into the car, and are on your way. I’d love to say, “Now comes the easy part,” but it’s your vacation, and I know from personal experience that “easy” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. But fun? Yes, fun. I can agree with that.

I hear everyone in the back seat taking a deep breath, almost in unison, when we’re on our way. Then they settle into a routine of reading or arguing about what’s on the radio (Aren prefers NPR, Erysse insists on the Grateful Dead, and I’m just glad we don’t have to listen to Death Metal).

But maybe the Eagles offer the best advice for T minus zero: take it easy. You’ve survived the worst of it. The road lies ahead. Enjoy your trip.

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