Travel with the in-laws: a survival guide

A beach in Tamil Nadu by Tracy Hunter. Creative Commons Attribution licence

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Travelling with your own parents can be tricky, but taking a journey with the in-laws (or out-laws, if you’re unhitched) can be an etiquette minefield. Now, being fond of my own beloved’s parents (and knowing full well they read my articles), there’ll be no cheap mother-in-law jokes here. After all, your in-laws shaped your significant other into the charming individual they are today (even if they didn’t quite school him fully in the art of picking up the dirty socks and loose change he leaves strewn across the floor).

Whether you and the in-laws share belly laughs or strained conversation, there are challenges to travelling together. Back under the watchful eye of parents, your sophisticated partner might metamorphose into their surly teenage self. And you might feel under the spotlight too, particularly if you don’t know them well. But you can survive awkward small-talk on long-haul flights, navigate tensions, and emerge looking even more saintly than before (or realistically: not tarnish their woeful impression of you further). These survival tips are easier said than done, but it’s time to put on a clean shirt and a winning smile, and breeze your way through a family trip.

1. Suss out their travel style

Do your partner’s parents lounge in five-star resorts, or will they bolt up a mountain before you’ve even reached for your breakfast Nutella? Find out early so you can pack appropriately and mentally prepare. Getting insider info isn’t limited to the in-laws’ travel style – your other half needs to prep you about any touchy subjects. A five-hour drive through Bulgaria is not the moment for one of your ‘jokes’ to fall flat.

Related article: How to travel with friends (and not want to kill them)

2. Make sure the in-laws are fully briefed

Urge your lover to flag up anything the in-laws need to know about you, too. You don’t want to be explaining your passionate vegetarianism at the very moment die-hard carnivore dad-in-law is eyeing up an Argentine steak house menu.

3. Ask everyone to submit a trip wishlist

If you leave it until the trip to plan what to do, you risk strained conversations over breakfast and one party holding the guidebook hostage. But if you start the trip with everyone’s ideas collected together, you can make sure everyone’s preferences get some love. Plus you all share responsibility for how the trip plays out, rather than one organiser becoming the punching bag if you end up sleeping in the airport.

4. Talk money early

Never make assumptions about who will pay for what. The in-laws might own an island, but that doesn’t mean they want to pick up your cocktail tab. And if you and your partner have the heavier wallets, your generosity with money could make the in-laws feel awkward. Putting money in a collective pool at the beginning of the holiday, and then drawing from that to pick up museum tickets and meals, is one way to stop every transaction provoking a debate over the bill. You don’t want to reach the point of wrestling the bill out of each other’s hands, but if they insist, accept graciously.

5. Let the group breathe

If you’ve spent a week as a quartet, tensions can become frayed. Make plans to spend a romantic day or half-day with your partner (if the in-laws are clingy, cry food poisoning). See if you can get a tête-à-tête with whichever in-law you share the best rapport – it helps to mix the generations up a little. If you’re travelling with just one in-law, bow out for an afternoon to give parent and offspring some time to bond (and talk about you, of course). Insisting on seeing an avant-garde play or obscure exhibition (Museum of Antique Glass, anyone?) is a good ruse; you can always sit in the park eating ice cream.

6. Redress the power balance gently

Parents never stop being protective, so you might find yourself having hotels paid for, decisions made, and activities vetoed by in-laws who assume they know best. Go with the flow but gently take a bit of control back by offering to drive or booking tickets for an event. Being behind the wheel or doing some planning reminds them of your competence without an intergenerational scrum breaking out.

7. Learn from each other

So you’re an adrenaline junkie/museum-hopper/linguaphile and they barely move from their sunny spot on the beach – don’t dismiss the in-laws’ travel preferences outright. Maybe you and your beloved did a day’s hiking while they lingered in local cafes; try sharing your experiences over dinner and jumping in each other’s shoes the next day. Coax them out for a ramble or join them for a low-key day of people-watching and coffees; you might see a side of the destination that you’d otherwise have missed.

8. Keep it light-hearted

Travelling together levels the playing field, as you are all out of your comfort zone. But it also increases the likelihood of tensions arising. As the (relative) outsider, you’re in the best position to smooth over dramas that well up between your partner and their parents. If squabbles erupt, don’t get into the thick of it, but cultivate the subtle art of deflection. (‘Oh look, a wallaby!’)

9. If things turn sour, don’t blame your partner

Backseat driving, calling you by the ex’s name, the whole group being forcibly removed from the Sistine Chapel because of mum-in-law’s flash photography… whatever it is that winds you up about travelling with in-laws, don’t lash out. Your partner is twice as embarrassed as you are, so try to laugh together once you’re back in your own space.

10. Don’t lose sight of the joy of travel

If family feuds spew forth or you find yourself under fire with prying questions ('when can we expect those grandkids to appear?'), it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re actually here. For the love of travel, don’t let in-law awkwardness mar your enjoyment of exploring somewhere new.

Anita Isalska is a writer and editor based in Lonely Planet’s London office. Follow her on Twitter @lunarsynthesis.