Family travels – or ‘travails’?

The Grand Canyon was tantalisingly close. We’d been driving since early morning in a hot car, cramped with luggage. Back seat space was tight.

My grandfather was driving and talking.

“It’s the best way. Longer but better. The North Rim is higher, prettier views.”

He didn’t mention that it added an extra six hours drive time. When you’re 13-years-old, six hours is like being trapped forever in a time capsule.

My grandmother sighed, passed a jug of iced water to my brother and me, helping to relieve the discomfort of sticky vinyl covered seats and teenage impatience.

Late afternoon we pulled up to the grand old hotel’s carpark. Gramps turned off the engine, yelled to my brother and me, “C’mon, it’s just there through the lobby window, the grandest sight in America!”

Following his lead, we leapt from the car, slamming doors behind us.

How to describe seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time? Stupendous is a start. Mind boggling. Long minutes of awe robbed us of speech until Gramps suddenly interrupted, “Where’s Grandma?”

In our haste to leave the car, we also left our grandmother behind.

Gramps looked worried. “We’d better find her,” he added, stating the obvious in his initial guilt avoidance strategy. When our grandmother turned angry – a rare occurrence – hell would be paid and my grandfather kept a running account.

Back to the carpark, no car, no Grandma.

Knowing my grandmother’s anger management technique, it was entirely possible that she decided to leave her ‘boys’ high and dry without money or transport in an expensive hotel’s parking lot. For all we knew, she’d decided to drive to Scottsdale and a spa she mentioned earlier in the day.

I share this account as an example of the hazards of family travel. Travels with my family have always been unusual.

Losing someone featured often. Losing tempers was a given. Losing minds seemed inevitable.

women getting annoyed at each other in a car

My mother always proved an amiable travelling companion as long as she refrained from flirting with waiters, doormen, flight attendants, fellow travellers, everyone else actually.

Then our wanderings became more unusual than usual.

In Thailand, the ever-polite Thais exclaimed, “She not your mother, she your sister!” My mother’s vanity revelled in shedding 20-plus years at my expense.

When one gushing bartender gleefully told me, “She not your mother, she your wife!” I choked on my lychee Martini and begged my mother never to tell anyone about this.

Within a week I was receiving emails from mutual acquaintances asking me how I liked travelling with my new wife.

Travelling with my father normally involved pub crawls. Everything else was incidental.

During a trip to San Antonio for an uncle’s 100th birthday party (the uncle passed away aged 99, three weeks before his centenary, but the party wasn’t cancelled), he led me on a Best Margarita Bar Bust along the city’s picturesque River Walk.

The San Antonio river is lined with Tex-Mex cantinas. My father was intent on visiting most of them. Alamo Shmalamo. Why waste time at a historic site when a salt-rimmed horizon beckoned.

Lucky the river was shallow otherwise my father would have drowned. Weaving his way across another Venice-like footbridge he lost his footing and tipped in.

When you stagger into a bar and without so much as a “Buenos Dias”, instruct the bartender to “Use that Tequila, that bottle of Cointreau and I want to see you squeeze the limes” a dunking is the price to be paid.

As the emotionally challenging holiday travel season approaches, spare a moment of compassion for those who have faced extended periods of public embarrassment for the sake of family experience.

This would be me.

During another extended family outing, hotel security was called. Apparently, laughing loudly at 2am is unacceptable to other guests. When my eight-year-old niece answered the door, I noticed the burly guard momentarily overlook her short stature, rightly expecting his banging on our suite door to be answered by an adult. His eyes widened.

“We’ve had complaints,” he said. ‘Which room?’ my brother countered.

“Across the hall,” he replied.

“That would be our uncle then,” my brother confirmed.

“Would you all mind keeping your noise levels down please—some of your family apparently want to sleep.”

The following morning the hotel manager greeted us at breakfast with, “What time are you checking out?”

I think other guests applauded but that may have been my headache banging around an empty skull.

Travelling with family is challenging at the best of times. A word from the wise: go with the flow. You choose your friends but don’t choose your family. Accept that as fact.

By the way, my grandmother had moved the car under the shade of a pine tree.

“You should have seen the look on your faces,” she laughed. “Thought you’d been left in the lurch, didn’t you? Well, boys, don’t ever do that to me again and we’ll all just get along fine,” she said as she glared at my grandfather.

The Grand Canyon’s magnificent impression never matched the one she made on me that day.

Keep your travelling companions close and your family travelling companions at safe travelling distance.

Read more of Tom Neal Tacker’s travel insights at

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