If you have ever returned from a vacation abroad and thought, “I need a vacation!” I have written this for you.
This is part one of a two-part series on Expat Vacation Dos and Don´ts. In this contribution, I´ll share with you the one thing you have likely been doing backwards all these years that needs to be turned on its head. This is especially true if you have children. I´ll also offer a few helpful tips so you can set the stage for a great vacation.
Think about how you plan a vacation. It likely goes something like this:
- Decide where you want to go and when.
- Book your flights / accommodation.
- Pack (more often than not, you are stressed and doing it last-minute).
- Manage to get through the flight and subsequent jet lag without flipping your lid.
- Try to have fun on vacation.
Yes, this is a major feat in and of itself. I know because I have traveled across multiple continents with babies, toddlers and school-aged children (or some combination thereof), crossing time zones and changing climates to the extreme. Take it from me, despite our best efforts I think there is something important that we are not doing right. Something is missing.
The 4Ps of Expat Vacations
Let me explain. We usually think about the 3Ps “plan, prepare, pack”. Logical, isn´t it?
But when we land, we are already exhausted and either totally wing it when we get there or are so over packed with plans that we later realize that something isn´t working.
An important “P” is missing, and it is “people” – and by that I mean YOU.
In order to make sure you can correct an “off” vacation before it goes too far, you have to put people before planning.
The Latin origin of the word “vacation” is to be unoccupied. It´s no coincidence then that since my partner and I have started traveling with kids, we stopped calling our trips “vacations” and started calling them “family time”. Let´s be real, what you do on vacation is so often steered by the needs, interests or practical limitations of the children. If you are travelling abroad to see loved ones, they have needs and interests too. The days of being totally “unoccupied” are over, but that doesn’t mean that all is lost.
Before you go, have a quick conversation with your partner to get clear on what has to happen for you both to enjoy the trip more. It could look something like this:
Hey honey-pie. I am really looking forward to this vacation. But I noticed that when we have gone on vacations in the past, there were times when I was left feeling (add your favorite synonym for exhausted here). I realized that what was missing was (add the thing you need to do on vacation to still feel sane). I would like to brainstorm with you how we can make sure that I get to (add the thing that keeps you sane) at least (insert how often or for how long you have to do it). I also realize that you don’t want to (insert variation of going bonkers) while we are away. What is it that you would really like to fit in to make sure you (have fun, feel relaxed, stay sane, etc.)?
Repeat this conversation in some modified form with your children, if you think they are old enough. If you are traveling on your own, still think through what helps you keep sane and what you´d like to fit in to have fun and really feel relaxed.
This is a critical step in making sure you have a vacation you want to repeat.
Since you are in the mood to optimize your vacation abroad, I´ll share a few more “Dos and Don´ts” to guide you on what you can do before you go that even experienced expats can miss.
Planning – Don´t Pull a Rambo
Don´t pretend that you don´t know what I am talking about. You know you have been there. If not you, then your partner has done it. It all starts out innocently. You want to make sure you don´t have a long layover in the airport. So you agree to a 50-minute transfer time. The denial phase of change here is in full gear. You are imagining yourself walking peacefully with your children hand-in-hand toward Gate 53. In reality, you land and discover that Gate 53 is in another terminal and you have to run full speed to have the slightest chance of making your flight. Of course both of your children are sleeping and you are carrying a laptop and a diaper bag. So either mama or papa straps the lap top across one shoulder and crisscrossed the strap of the diaper bag across the other so you look like Rambo in First Blood when he was strapped down with ammunition. Instead, your only weapon is a blue-colored baby spoon at the bottom of the diaper bag. You give the cue to your partner to “go for it!” and you hustle at top speed (well, the highest speed you can manage carrying two sleeping children, a diaper bag, a laptop, a backpack full of snacks, surprises and extra clothes “just in case”).
You arrive at the gate with your lungs burning, sweat pouring off of your face and looking a lot like Silvester Stalone in this picture. Victorious.
You proceed to hobble down the aisle, hitting people on the head with your sleeping child´s feet as you go, and finally collapse into your row in the economy section. Luckily, you made it.
Preparation – Don´t Rely on Your Brain
If you are like me and live in a place where you can´t get a lot of the things that make life more comfortable or feel more like “home”, it is really nice to be able to buy these things when I am on vacation abroad. You know what I am talking about, the things that feel so important that you “know” you won´t forget them. Yeah, right.
There I am, still jetlagged from flying across three continents and standing in a Super Target so large a small city could fit inside. The shiny colors are bedazzling and suddenly I go into a trance and think that I need to buy a “Hello Kitty” notepad for my friend´s daughter. Never mind the underwear for my son, or the whole coffee beans that I can´t get in Ouagadougou. Noooo, the notepad is on sale for just $2.99.
So I decided to stop the madness after years of similar follies. This go around, I started to make a list 6 weeks ahead of my vacation of all of the things I wanted to get while we are away. I am made a commitment to save my brain cells for more basic functioning – and not for trying to recall what I wanted to get.
Speaking of lists, I know you know what to pack. But, let me be frank, if you haven´t started an excel list of what you need to pack by now, you are wasting your time. We know that it remains relatively stable and consists of general categories like weather-appropriate clothing, electronics, official documentation, airplane survival gear, and basic bribes for the children to stay quiet. Having a list, though, simply removes the pressure to “think of everything” before you go.
Packing – Stop Fooling Yourself
I can safely say that I am not alone on this one. How many of you have closets at home that look like this.
And about 80% of the suitcases you “borrowed” from your parents? Yeah, that.
I have finally decided to stop fooling myself that I will “pack light” and then totally deny that I will actually acquire things on vacation, resulting in me on my last day needing another suitcase or two. Cue, ten years of “Hey, mom – do you have an extra suitcase I could borrow?”
This time I got smart. I accepted that we live in a developing country and do not have access to some of the things that make life easier, home life more cozy, or mealtimes more well-rounded. I broke through denial about the fact that we will actually want to bring some things home and packed four suitcases. And inside were two empty suitcases and two big rice bags to throw our clothes into if we needed it. Good bye denial, hello acceptance. (Sorry, mom, you still can´t have your suitcases back).
Now that you have some ideas on how to improve your vacation before you go, don’t miss my next contribution which will feature the second video in the summer 4-part video series.
You´ll find out what you can optimize on vacation once you are there, and I will also give you an update from my own journey where I will escape the heat of Burkina Faso to spend some vacation time in the cooler woods of Minnesota (USA).
If you are not already subscribed, you can sign up just in time to get in on the video series right here.
See you soon!
Judy Rickatson says
Nodding my head as I read this. The only thing I would add, having lived in less developed places myself, is to have a running list of ‘things to buy’ all year round. I used to keep it in the back of my diary, but nowadays I’d probably keep in on my phone. Jot things down as you think of them … twist ties, shoe polish … Have a great vacation and don’t spend too much time shopping 🙂
Hi Judy – I do keep my list on my iPhone and it is such a HUGE help. Year round is a great idea – but I know myself, I honestly don´t get serious about keeping a list of what we could use till we book our flights. Maybe it is out of self-protection. 😉 Isn´t it funny what is “important” to you depending on where you live? In Switzerland, I was interested in getting things that were not as expensive in the USA (jeans, for example). Now in Burkina Faso, on the very top of my list are whole coffee beans for my coffee maker!
Brenda Lou Meier Kimaro says
I keep a running list for what I want to buy all year round, but I get more focused and serious about populating it starting about 6 weeks prior to travel. Right now I’m five weeks away from heading to the States for a month so I’m really working on the list. (But once I get inside a Super Target my brain gets all loopy anyway and I head straight for the Hello Kitty stuff!)
Brenda – I love this. Embrace the loopy, buy the Hello Kitty and recover quickly! 😉
Hi Brenda – I love this. So embrace the loopy, buy the Hello Kitty and recover quickly! 🙂