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Instagram travel bragging is killing the family vacation

The social pressure to take big trips — with their big budgets — can add stress and expectations to something that’s supposed to be relaxing and fun.
Image: postage stamps
Social media posts of glamorous vacations can pressure families to take trips to exotic destinations even if they can't afford them.etraveler / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Recently, while comparing notes on busy summer schedules with an acquaintance, she sighed. “I’m really hoping to get away this summer, but I don’t know if we can pull it off,” she said. Then, wistfully: “I get so jealous seeing everyone’s travel photos. It’s been so long since our family has been on vacation.”

I was puzzled. The previous month I’d seen photos on this same acquaintance’s Instagram feed of a road trip to visit family in a neighboring state, and just days earlier a weekend excursion to tour museums and a zoo a few hours away.

This focus on “big” experiences (with the big budgets they often require) can add stress, expectations and a sense of dissatisfaction.

Then I realized that road trips and weekend outings were not what she meant by “getting away” on a “vacation.” No, she meant Vacation with a capital V — somewhere exotic or tropical or at least too far to drive to.

But is a passport required to have an enriching experience? Don’t long weekends, road trips and simple getaways to the beach still count as vacation? I’d argue that they do — and that this focus on “big” experiences (with the big budgets they often require) can add stress, expectations and a sense of dissatisfaction to something that’s supposed to be a relaxing, enjoyable way to decompress.

There’s no doubt that travel trends have changed since I was a kid in the 1980s. While renting a cabin at the lake for a week was considered the height of recreation for most middle-class families back then, a report from the data and analytics company GlobalData states that the international market for foreign family travel will grow from 300 million trips in 2017 to 376 million in 2022. It finds that the family travel market is “characterized by increasingly sophisticated and disparate traveller demands,” with the industry having to cater to “consumers who are more than ever used to having tailored products and services available to them.”

Sophisticated, disparate and demanding; not exactly the kind of family vacation I’m used to. I’m looking for what I remember: a little unscripted, a little bit messy, and focused much more on enjoying our time as a unit rather than anything external. Now families expect to take more complex vacations, created with each person’s wants in mind and defined by buzzwords: Adventure travel! Multigenerational travel! Educational travel! Heritage travel! And because of social media, it’s easy to start getting the idea that everyone except us is taking those trips, and that we — and our kids — are somehow deprived if we don’t.

And if all that keeping-up-with-the-vacationing-Joneses wasn’t exhausting enough, it’s made worse by the fact that we don’t necessarily have the means to actually TAKE the trips we covet — unless we put them on credit, of course.

The personal finance website NerdWallet released a report on summer travel plans last year. Of the nearly 1,200 parents surveyed, 71 percent of the parents of children under 18 who planned to take a summer vacation anticipated putting at least part of their vacation expenses — about half, or an average of $1,019 — on a credit card. What, I wonder, does the financial strain of planning a trip you can’t really afford do to your expectation level — and how much can you enjoy your vacation once there? When the bill arrives, do most find that the experience was worth the stress after all?

I spent my childhood in Michigan traveling the old-fashioned middle-class way: road trips to see family, scenic drives around the Great Lakes, camping in the woods or staying in rustic cabins and cottages — and, when I was a teenager, one memorable un-air-conditioned 22-hour drive to Disney World.

My three siblings and I learned plenty on those trips: how to solve problems and resolve conflicts, i.e., how to wedge several humans into the back of a car while also remembering that it’s just good manners to change your socks daily; how to relax and deal with boredom (nothing a rousing game of highway Bingo or a Beatles sing-a-long wouldn’t fix). We learned about cultural differences, too. (Trust me, there are many ways to live in the United States, and traveling through a location of a different size and geography than yours will teach you all about them.)

And we were more or less satisfied with our lot. Sure, I saw families flying to more glamorous locales on the movies and sometimes even TV, like the time “The Brady Bunch” went to Hawaii. But it would never have occurred to me to be jealous of them. Much like perfectly straight blonde hair, a housekeeper named Alice and a backyard made of AstroTurf, vacations like those just weren’t something families like mine had. We accepted that fact, and went about the business of relaxing in a way that suited our parents’ ability to pay for the trip and, often, the family car’s ability to handle the drive.

Nowadays, it’s harder to tell what’s “normal” for any particular economic class. Social media has a way of equalizing the families who share photos of their lives, raising the bar for everyone and giving us the idea that going into debt in order to provide our kids with a world-class experience is just “what’s done.” The end result is a skewed idea of what kids — and we adults! — deserve and need.

There have always been families with the means to take their kids skiing in the Alps, on safari, to the rain forests of South America. These days, Instagram makes it easy for us to forget that we don’t all have to be those families — and our kids will just be fine. Speaking of kids, they may be a little easier to please than we think. Mine, at least, have always seemed happy to go on a vacation if it’s offered, but they’re not the ones pushing for an adventure experience in the Galapagos.

Sometimes the least sophisticated trip yields the most fun: Nobody’s expecting to “get” anything out of it but a good time.

Exotic opportunities aren’t all bad, and the ones my kids have had have enriched their lives. But sometimes the least sophisticated trip yields the most fun: Nobody’s expecting to “get” anything out of it but a good time, and there’s no pressure to achieve a measurable return on investment.

After all, what is the point of a family vacation? It’s to enjoy one another’s company, right? To get away from the typical routine, to share some experiences, maybe work through some tensions and face a challenge or two. It’s about adding another chapter to your family story, one that we can point back to later and say, “Remember that time we … ?”

The beauty is that those chapters can be written just about anywhere — and can be enjoyed more when we focus on spending time together right now, not what we think those photos will say about us when we post them later on Facebook.