How to Save Your Family Vacation When Everything Goes Wrong

by | Sep 4, 2020 | Family Adventures, Travel Tips

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When I first heard rumors about the French transit strikes, I didn’t think much about them. After all, our vacation was weeks away. Surely I could keep those reservations for our dream trip to Paris. And THAT was the beginning of everything on our vacation going wrong.



How to Save Your Family Vacation When Everything Goes Wrong


Our Dilemma(s)

Our first stop was in Germany to see the Christmas markets and enjoy a peaceful holiday. Our plan was to depart Leipzig the next week and spend a few days at a vacation rental in a quiet Parisian suburb, complete with a kitchenette and a washing machine. We would be near museums but far from New Year’s festivities. However, as the strike continued, it disrupted public transportation throughout Paris. Watching from Germany, we realized that if we wanted to visit the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, or any of the other places we had planned, we would be dependent on long taxi rides and substantial walks across town with four kids in tow. 


mug - How to Save Your Family Vacation When Everything Goes Wrong

You know how everyone says to visit Germany at Christmastime because it’s magical? Yep, it’s amazing. Photo © Christy Nicholson.


A few days before our train from Leipzig to Paris, we started looking up other lodgings, hoping we could find a last-minute place to stay within easy walking distance of things to do. And then, breaking news hit — every train from Germany to France got canceled. After much discussion with a harried-looking ticket officer, we finally accepted the truth. We were stuck in Germany. There was no way to get to France.


Be Flexible

I’m a perfectionist, but the more I travel, the more I have to put those stringent expectations aside. It’s taken me a long time to learn this. It didn’t sink in when my parents’ car transmission went out at Disney World, or when we got stuck in a spring break snowstorm on our way to the beach and had to walk through a foot of snow to find food. 

But over the years, I’ve pieced together enough wisdom to know that staying flexible is the best way to keep unexpected events from ruining a great time.

While we were stuck in Germany, we turned to the whiteboard (a.k.a. glossy kitchen cabinets from IKEA) and brainstormed family ideas. We couldn’t get to France, but what else could we do? We talked about all the things we could see with extra time in Germany. We brainstormed other countries to see as a family. And you know what? It worked. Every person set aside their dreams of Paris and got to planning something new. 


Involve Everyone

The cooperative spirit was so contagious that even the youngest travelers let go of their Eiffel Tower heartbreak and looked forward to a different adventure. We made long lists of possibilities and listened to every idea. Would we shop flea markets in Leipzig?  Go to Spain? Tour the medieval town of Rothenburg? The little ones chimed in with opinions on visiting castles and touring the Lego factory in Denmark. 

Practical concerns were a big part of our decision-making process. We looked at which places were both affordable and easily accessible. (The Lego factory was closed to the public, and Spain was just too far.) We looked at everyone’s ideas and figured out which ones were possible AND most popular with our entire group. Adapting quickly meant we could face our new plan with hope rather than panic.


See Changes As Opportunities

We had spent months planning an amazing trip to Paris that would hit everyone’s sightseeing priorities. When that was canceled, we had an important choice: we could see the cancellation as a curse or a gift. As we changed our plans, we decided to focus on what experiences we could gain, not on what we had lost. Thanks to the transit strikes, we now had the chance to dream up other options.

Ultimately, we decided on a family trip to England. The quick change in plans allowed our kids to make memories of watching the changing of the guard and crowding our family into the tiny upstairs room of a pub. I had always dreamed of seeing more of England, and our extended trip gave us time to travel to Dover and explore the coast. We didn’t stand in Trafalgar Square and complain that it wasn’t the Arc de Triomphe; instead, we celebrated all the bonuses of our new itinerary.


View of Windsor Castle - How to Save Your Family Vacation When Everything Goes Wrong

As our family sat in the pub, all ten of us gazing at Windsor Castle across the street, I realized that in losing our Paris vacation we found many other magical moments. Photo © Christy Nicholson.


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Take Action

When we saw our vacation plans falling apart, we knew bold decisions would be key. I have to give a shoutout to my family members, who spent several late nights looking at our travel plans and figuring out how to make them work. They spent countless hours on the phone, on travel sites, and down at the train station to find answers and options.

Meanwhile, I got to work contacting our vacation rental in Versailles. With our trip to Paris due to begin in two days, I had less than 24 hours to cancel our reservation before we would be charged the entire fee for a week’s stay. I canceled on the booking site and then e-mailed the rental directly to apologize, explain, and beg for mercy with the 50% cancellation fee. 


Online reservations are easy, but reaching out to an actual person is the best way to get help and learn more about your reservations. In our case, it saved us hundreds of dollars.


Plane - How to Save Your Family Vacation When Everything Goes Wrong

Our planned train to Paris became a train to Frankfurt plus a plane to London. Bonus: With our last-minute booking, we somehow scored free business class upgrades and gourmet meals on the plane. Photo © Paul Nicholson.


Accept the Unavoidable

We were lucky with our Europe trip — we had the options and resources to figure out a new plan. First, though, we had to let go of our efforts to change reality. As the obstacles piled up, we had to accept that this particular trip to France wasn’t meant to be. 

Of course, sometimes frustrating circumstances can’t be changed or reinvented. When my oldest son was a baby, we visited family in Austria and Italy. An overnight train ride between Venice and Vienna seemed like a good use of time until I faced the reality of 12 hours on a train with a one-year-old. We didn’t have beds, and my son didn’t sleep. Plus, thanks to a volcanic eruption that grounded every plane fight, the train was teeming with people. The six adults in our compartment had to lock the door to keep more people from pouring into our seats. We were tired, hot, and cranky. And there was no way to escape. 


Venice - How to Save Your Family Vacation When Everything Goes Wrong

My husband tells me this is Venice. I don’t remember, because I stayed awake all night on a train with my one-year-old. Photo © Paul Nicholson.


Sometimes all we can do is accept the situation and attempt to move on, whether we’re facing sickness, canceled flights, or natural disasters. (And let’s be honest — I was in Europe. With a baby. I was exhausted, but I wasn’t suffering.)


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How to Prepare In Advance

While attitude plays a role in rescuing a trip gone sideways, preparing ahead of time also makes a huge difference. We keep our family ready for anything with these travel tips:


Flexible Arrangements

Look for hotels and airlines with reputations for stellar customer service. One hotel chain earned our family’s loyalty when they gave us a free hotel room after a rescheduled flight. We continue to use them due to their generous cancellation policy.


Back-up Plans

Keep a list of those long-shot sightseeing wishes. When plans change, the new itinerary may have room for that awesome museum that was closed or the town that was too far away.


Savvy Packing

Plan for delays, stains, accidents, and fevers with a packing list. Adding a few small emergency items to the family suitcase will smooth out a host of difficulties.


A Sense of Humor

Bring a willingness to find laughter in any situation. Staying lighthearted can make almost anything better — even washing clothes in the hotel bathtub. (Remember that Parisian rental with a washing machine? That got canceled, too.) 



French coast - How to Save Your Family Vacation When Everything Goes Wrong

We never made it to France, but we could see the French coast from the top of a hill in Dover, England. Photo © Paul Nicholson.


With travel comes misadventure, but that doesn’t have to take away the fun. With humor and grace, the experience can be enjoyable — or at least bearable. And remember, it will probably make a fantastic travel story someday. 



How to Save Your Family Vacation When Everything Goes Wrong


Christy Nicholson is a writer, editor, and recovering perfectionist from Nashville, Tennessee. Despite being an introvert, she has traveled extensively with her extended family, including a memorable overnight train ride with an infant. When at home, she spends her days reading, writing at, and wrangling two boys.