Debbie and Asher Share Their Best Travel and Vacation Strategies

Following is a conversation I had with my (then) 11-year-old son Asher (ADHD, Asperger’s, giftedness) about our best tips and strategies for making travel and vacations run more smoothly. We talk about what we’ve learned over the years when it comes to making sure everyone’s needs and expectations on any given vacation are met, or at the very least, addressed, and look at the different schedules and planners we’ve incorporated into our vacation prep.

This is an edited transcription of Episode 15 of the TiLT Parenting Podcast. To listen to the full episode, click here: Episode 15: A Conversation with 11-year-old Asher About Travel and Vacation Strategies.

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My husband and I love to travel—it’s one of our favorite things to do. So when my husband’s work asked us to move abroad for an indefinite amount of time, we leapt at the opportunity because we knew it meant we’d get to travel a ton and explore Europe…a place we really hadn’t spent much time in before moving to Amsterdam three years ago.

We did travel a fair bit in the U.S. when Asher was younger, but the majority of these trips were either to Pennsylvania and Maryland to see my family or California and Oregon to visit Derin’s family, scattered with a few family vacations to places like Orlando, Phoenix, New York, and the Jersey Shore.

New routines, busier schedules, strange beds, different foods—it’s a lot of change for a highly inflexible little person with sensory issues. In many ways, vacations are the perfect storm.

We realized pretty early on that travel presented a problem with our differently-wired child, and maybe it’s a problem you’ve experienced, too. While we loved to travel, it didn’t necessarily bring out the best in Asher. In fact, it often ratcheted up the intensity level from highly discombobulating to flat out catastrophic. New routines, busier schedules, strange beds, different foods—it’s a lot of change for a highly inflexible little person with sensory issues. In many ways, vacations are the perfect storm. It was the fall before we moved abroad that I had my first aha moment about the Asher vacation conundrum.

Debbie: So I actually wanted to start by talking about what has historically gone wrong on our vacations. And the vacation I wanted to bring up is when we went to Victoria, Canada with you dad’s parents. It was probably four years ago when you were about seven years old. We were living in Seattle at the time, and we took them to Victoria for their fiftieth wedding anniversary for a short weekend and they had a lot of things they wanted to see and do. But you wanted a lot of time to chill out in the hotel. And I remember we went out to a really nice restaurant for dinner and you had a bit of a meltdown because you were kind of just done with the whole weekend. It was just too much. And so I took you out of the restaurant one night and we found a bench outside. You were still small enough that you sat on my lap, so we sat there and had a long talk and we realized that there’s something you really need when you’re on holiday. Do you remember what it was we discovered?

Asher: That we need at least one day of just chilling out wherever we are. I can’t just go everywhere, do everything, every single day. We can go everywhere and do everything nearly every single day.

Debbie: Right. But our big aha moment was that on that first day you want to just get to the hotel or whatever and just chill. And that was a good to know. Of course, that’s challenging to do if we’re only going away for a weekend, because if you chill the first day, you’ve only really got one day to explore. But in general, we have tried to incorporate that when we can.

I remember that conversation so clearly, because I think it was the first time Asher and I had a mature conversation where he told me exactly what he needed. I remember thinking, Ah…this is a person who knows what he needs. That’s going to be super helpful. I’m going to need to access that insight more. But despite having this aha moment, we still had a long way to go to get to a point where vacations didn’t involve one or more breakdowns, power struggles, heaps of frustration, and the occasional public blowout (on pretty much all our parts).

Debbie: Our first trip after we’d moved Amsterdam was to a small island off the coast of Holland called Texel where we went for a weekend. I still have nightmares about that trip. So it was a rough one. Do you remember that trip?

Asher: Kind of, yeah.

Debbie: That was a dark time for our family. And then we made a trip to Barcelona, which was pretty eye opening because I think it was the first time we really realized that—

Asher: —I like steak!

Debbie: Yes, we did discover that the meat in Barcelona is quite tasty. But in addition to that, you know, I’m someone who wants to see and do everything when we’re traveling, especially in a city like Barcelona where there are so many great museums and shopping and food. And you really wanted to make sure that we built in time to just chill in the apartment. And we learned that when we pushed you too far and we didn’t give you that kind of time—

Asher: I would get annoyed.

Debbie: Annoyed would be a serious understatement. We had some pretty rough days during that trip.

Asher: Frustrated?

Debbie: Hmmm…I would say more than frustrated. So after that trip, we really started to get our act together. And when we went on our next big vacation, probably a year later, we incorporated some of the things we’d been doing in homeschool in terms of coming up with a plan and talking with you about what your expectations are, and so on. Because, what is one of your biggest triggers that throws you off?

Asher: When my expectations aren’t being met.

Debbie: Right. When you have something in mind and then it doesn’t work out that way.

Asher: It’s like me thinking. Okay, so this is going to happen and that’s going to happen…that’s great! I like that! And then it’s like, wait…what? I thought this was supposed to happen?!

Debbie: Yeah…changing plans like that doesn’t fly with you.

I decided I was going to meltdown-proof our next trip. I figure that if we got clear on our expectations ahead of time and then came up with a plan for how those expectations could be met, then we’d be golden—our first smooth sailing vacation. I started creating printouts.

The first worksheet I came up with was a Family Goals Worksheet. I’m really big into worksheets. But I thought it was important that we filled it out before we went and actually try to set our goals for the trip. So for this particular vacation, I wrote that my goal was to have a peaceful trip where we all work well as a family and see a lot of beautiful architecture. And I also wrote down a goal of spending a little alone time, because I need some of that too when we’re on vacation.

So this was the first thing we did—fill out our family goals. But while this was good information to have, the worksheet I was really excited about was called the Asher Concerns Worksheet. I based it on the collaborative problem-solving model that we use in which we try to identify ahead of time what might be hard in a situation and then brainstorm solutions. That way Asher doesn’t perseverate and get anxious and bring that stressful energy into the situation, which in this case is our holiday.

Debbie: Can you walk us through what some of your concerns were and what our solutions were on that first Asher Concerns Worksheet?

Asher: Well, I was concerned that I would be jetlagged.

Debbie: That’s right. And so, as I explained to you, it was a super short trip and I told you we’d be in the same time zone and staying on our regular time schedule. But I’m glad you told me about that, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known it was an issue for you or that it was something you were concerned about until you said it. And then as soon as I said, “Oh there’s no time difference…we won’t be jet lagged,” you weren’t worried about that anymore. So what’s another one of your concerns that you had for this trip?

Asher: That I would be really cold.

Debbie: Actually, more specifically what you said was “Butt frozen on day trips. Walking around freezing.” And you are someone who really does not like to be cold. I’m with you on that. And I know that for you, walking around for hours is already hard, but if you add that extra piece of discomfort of being too cold, then it can kind of ruin your day. So I explained that it was going to be warmer where we were going so it shouldn’t be a problem. Then I suggested we wear a lot of layers, and that we’d shed them if we get too warm. And that if we’re feeling too cold, we could stop and get some hot chocolate. So we kind of dealt with that concern. Okay. There are two more concerns here on the worksheet.

Asher: One is that I wouldn’t have enough time to chill out in the swimming pool.

Going through all of your concerns was super helpful because I would have had no idea that these were things that could have caused you stress or anxiety on our vacation. And because we came up with solutions ahead of time, they weren’t an issue on the trip.

Debbie: Yes. So we wrote down that you would have a one-hour long swim guaranteed everyday. So, if we were staying in a place with a pool, we would guarantee you an hour of swimming each day. And that totally worked out for that vacation. And then your last concern was that you wouldn’t have enough time to hang out with your dad who, at the time, was working a lot and was super busy. So our solution we talked about is that dad would not be working and that the two of you would be guaranteed some screen time together because that’s how you guys like to bond. So that’s the second piece. And I will say that going through all of your concerns was super helpful because I would have had no idea that these were things that could have caused you stress or anxiety on our vacation. And because we came up with solutions ahead of time, they weren’t an issue on the trip.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that no matter how strange or irrational or unexpected or in our mind nonsensical Asher’s negative reaction or difficult behavior might be, there is always an underlying reason. He’s not just being difficult for the sake of being difficult. There’s always something else going on that’s triggering that response. So the Asher Concerns Worksheet has helped us problem solve around a lot of those underlying reasons and solve them before they even become an issue. (Mostly.)

Debbie: So the last thing we used on that trip every day was a Daily Planner. And so every night, we would fill this out together. The top part has a big section for us to write down our plan for the day. So whether we were doing a tour or we were going to go to a market for lunch or whatever we were doing, that was written down so you knew the night before what we were doing.

Asher: And then we wrote down the time we were going to leave our hotel.

Debbie: Right, so you knew what time we had to be out the door. Sometimes that’s time sensitive, because we have to catch a train or something. And sometimes it’s not.

Asher: Then we also wrote down the time we were going to return.

Debbie: Right, so you knew around what time we’d be back. So how long in total we’d be out for that day.

Asher: And then we wrote down when I would have my screen time with dad.

Debbie: That’s right. We wanted you to know that not only was it definitely going to happen, but here’s around when it’s going to happen.

Asher: And then we also wrote down when we’d swim, and then at the bottom we could write down any special requests or comments.

Debbie: That’s correct. So, we would go through this every night and then we would all actually sign it.

So here is what I will say about this trip. Because we did all this prep work, I was convinced we were going to go on this vacation and it was going to be smooth with not one meltdown or any problems. You know, easy peasy lemon squeezy the whole time. But of course it didn’t work out that way. We did have a few meltdowns although not as many as usual. It definitely was a much smoother trip and I feel it was like the start of a new era of vacations.

So we used those forms for the next year or so, but as time’s gone by and Asher’s matured and we’ve shifted the types of vacations we were doing from city museums and sightseeing to more family nature/adventure kinds of things, we’ve gotten into a new phase of, dare I say, peace and tranquility on our family trips. So we don’t use the same problem solving worksheets anymore, although we still do a lot of work around schedules and planning.

Debbie: I think one of the biggest game changers is our day of departure planner. I mean, the good news now is that you’re excited to travel for the most part. If we have an early flight, you usually get up and ready right away. But there’s always that stress at the last minute because we can’t miss a flight. It’s kind of like that stress we see teams go through on The Amazing Race. When we have the time factor, I get more anxious, and then your dad gets more anxious. And I think you feed off our energy and all of a sudden you decide you need something right when the taxi pulls up and then it just becomes this super stressful situation with some yelling and not great energy going on. So can you explain what we do now?

Asher: We take a whiteboard and we write down our departure schedule. We usually include when we wake up, and when we get ready to go, and when we arrive at the airport, when we have to get on the flight…

Debbie: That’s right. We always start with the time our flight leaves—we write that on the bottom of the white board and then we backtrack. So if our flight leaves at this time, then what time do we need to be at the airport? And if we need to be at the airport by that time, then what time do we have to leave the apartment? And if we have to leave the apartment at that time, what time do we need to be putting shoes on? FYI—we’ve learned to leave fifteen minutes for shoes and coats because that’s where things can get really sluggish. Sometimes it seems like putting on shoes and coats can take like an hour. But generally speaking, having this schedule has helped tremendously when it comes to making our departures smooth, especially building in a lot of extra time.

Another thing we do differently now is, way before we actually leave for our trip, I’ll show you lots of websites or pictures of the kinds of things we’re going to be doing.

Asher: Yeah, like for example the ziplining website. We watched videos of people ziplining and I got really jealous.

Debbie: Yes, but you also got excited, which I knew was going to be motivating for you to have a good trip. Sometimes I even just show you pictures of where we’re staying—

Asher: Like this is the room in the hotel we’re staying in or this is the Airbnb we’re renting.

Debbie: I like to do as much as I can to provide you with information ahead of time so there aren’t a lot of surprises. And that’s another thing that’s really helpful—just kind of walking through the whole trip ahead of time. I also am someone who makes pretty detailed schedules, so I usually make a very detailed schedule of the entire trip before we leave, and I’ll walk through that with you ahead of time, generally more than once so you start getting in your head that this is what we’re going to be doing. Like, we’re going to these places or these are going to be long days in the car, these are going to be really packed days, and these are days we’re going to chill out. That helps you set your expectations, and it really helped us especially on this most recent trip. And what we also do now is, once we’re on the vacation, we usually talk through what we’re going to do the next day over dinner.

I just like knowing what’s going to happen because it means I can prepare for it ahead of time. Like I can set all my expectations and not be wrong.

So I’m curious to know—what do you think has worked best for you in terms of these strategies? I’m sure you’ve noticed that vacations are different for you now, too. What do you think has helped you the most?

Asher: I think all the planning in general. It’s very helpful to know what’s going to happen.

Debbie: But why is that so helpful for you?

Asher: I just like knowing what’s going to happen because it means I can prepare for it ahead of time. Like I can set all my expectations and not be wrong.

Debbie: Do you think about it when you go to bed that night? I mean, do you imagine what’s going to happen?

Asher: Like I said, I kind of think about what it’s going to be like and set my expectations.

Debbie: There was one day on our last trip where I really ran you guys ragged and we walked all over. Remember that day when we did the Wall tour and then I made us take a boat to an island and then we walked all over the island?

Asher: Oh yeah. We had to circumvent the whole planet and then we took a cable car up to the top of a mountain—

Debbie: And I made you guys hike down the mountain.

Asher: But it was so satisfying when we finished it.

Debbie: I’m curious though— how did you get through that day? Because that was definitely not an Asher kind of a day. Was it because you knew it was really important to me or was it because I told you the night before so you just kind of bucked up and did it?

Asher: It was because I knew that was the plan. We just had to get through the climbing and then the next day we would be on a boat tour and not moving a muscle.

Debbie: Well, we moved a few muscles…

Asher: But only a few.

Debbie: I’m thinking of something else we do that helps—a little ice cream treat that we indulge in a lot…

Asher: Gelato!

Debbie: Yes, it’s amazing how a little gelato—

Asher: Yeah, it’s a strong motivator—

Debbie: —at the right time? Definitely.

Asher: It’s like, do you want power over the entire planet or gelato? Gelato!

Debbie: I don’t know that I would call it bribery, but dangling a little gelato as a reward at the end of a long hike or a long walk or something for you is a big motivator. Can you think of any other strategies that have helped, because you’re such a fantastic traveler now. What are some things you do personally that you think make travel fun for you?

Asher: Well, I help decide what we’re going to do.

Debbie: Yes, you’re bringing up a good point. We loop you into the planning.

Asher: Yeah it’s not like, Okay, today we’re do this, and tomorrow we do this, and then the day after that we’ll do that, and if I don’t like it when then too bad…

Debbie: Right. We definitely we loop you in and we try to give you options when we can. Of course, some days are more days where your dad or I get to call the shots. And some days are more focused on your interests. And that has really helped, because when you have those things that really engage you, it makes you more flexible and more easygoing about the things that your dad and I want to do, even if they’re not so very interesting to you, right?

Asher: Right. So everybody gets to do what they want. Partially.

Debbie: Partially. So, what else has really helped you survive or get through vacations with—

Asher: Food

Debbie: Oh yeah? Say more.

Asher: Well, we usually go to new restaurants and eat loads of food. Yummy steaks.

Debbie: So you get excited about the culinary experience.

Asher: Yeah.

Debbie: You know what else we did on this trip was which was new? You and I went for a run every morning.

Asher: Yeah! It was loads of fun.

Debbie: Do you think that that helped the vacation go more smoothly?

Asher: Yeah. It was awesome.

Debbie: And you also got to see things you wouldn’t have normally seen. And what’s the most important thing for you when you’re traveling that you need to have that helps keep you happy?

Asher: Well, rest time. Yeah. We usually just need to chill for a bit.

Debbie: And what do you do for your chill time?

Asher: Um, I don’t know. Play things in the iPad, read for a while. Sometimes I rest with Mickerson.

Debbie: So all those things help the trip go more smoothly.

Asher: Yeah.

So there you have it—a potpourri of travel strategies that have transformed our vacations from stressful to not quite as stressful to mostly awesome and connecting for our family. Hopefully you took away something from our conversation that you can use in your own world to help family holidays go more smoothly.

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Want to get learn more? Here are links to the resources mentioned in the article:


About Debbie and Asher: Debbie Reber is the founder of TiLT and the host of the TiLT Parenting Podcast. 11-year-old Asher is Debbie’s son and is regularly featured on the podcast. Find out more about Debbie and Asher by visiting the About Page.


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