The surest sign of middle age? Not crow’s feet, graying hair, or a sluggish metabolism. No, it’s when a text thread between your vacationing friends mainly involves tales about errant children, COVID cases, traffic, ungodly gas prices, flight delays, and bad mattresses.
There’s the one who was stranded at the airport after a flight somehow evaporated with no notice; the one who had to cancel a long-postponed tropical trip when her entire family came down with COVID the night before departure; the one who arrived at a long weekend at her in-laws’ house to find an elaborate table set for everyone but her children, who were treated like surprise guests … I could go on. Personally, I just returned from an otherwise pleasant trip to the Berkshires and the Cape, unable to walk due to a week without my ultra-firm orthopedic pillows.
With apologies to my lovely colleague Chris Muther: family travel is a gigantic pain. Show me the parent who doesn’t at least breathe a tiny sigh of relief when arriving home, dumping laundry on the floor, and flopping onto a familiar bed, and I will show you someone who can afford two nannies, a traveling masseur, and a private suite at the Mandarin Oriental.
Family travel was always stressful, but COVID has made everything (everything!) worse. Let’s take flying: In April 2022, the Department of Transportation received 5,079 complaints about airline service from consumers — up 321.5 percent from the 1,205 complaints received in pre-pandemic April 2019.
Now let’s consider COVID itself: Some people are over it, wandering around maskless while coughing juicily at the breakfast buffet. Then there are those of us who waited for approximately 10,938 months for the ability to get our youngest kids vaccinated. What if these people happen to be related? And committed to sharing a tiny beach house together for a week? There are no rules anymore. Nobody is in charge except for you, diligent parent, who has a suitcase dedicated to hoarded COVID tests and random masks, and who has cultivated a finely tuned radar for all sneezes that happen within a 10-mile radius.
This isn’t paranoia: A case of COVID is massively inconvenient at best (nonrefundable camps! daycare! work!) and physically unpleasant regardless. Take Stephanie in Bedford, who requested that only her first name be used to protect her family’s privacy (or misery). She traveled to Disney World with nine family members, a trip she’d been planning for almost a year.
“[My daughter] is my one and only, and I couldn’t wait to see her face while experiencing all things Disney,” Stephanie says.
The family dutifully masked at the airport and on the plane. Then Stephanie began to feel tired and flushed, which she blamed on heat. Nope: It was COVID. She isolated in a hotel room, watching reruns and eating pre-packed breakfast snacks while her family sent videos and enjoyed the parks — until, one by one, they came down with COVID, confirmed by a paramedic visit.
At least Stephanie in Bedford had privacy while at Disney, unlike Malden’s Tasha Baclawski.
“We were sound asleep when we were awoken at 1 a.m. by another family who had keyed into our room and was screaming at us to get out of ‘their’ room. Son was scared, and I was so groggy I didn’t know what was happening. Manager comped us some free breakfast for our trauma,” she says.
Then there’s the parent, anonymous in Westwood, who was stranded at Logan after her airline forgot to issue her toddler a ticket last month. After spending the day at Logan’s tot lot and running out of diapers, the family finally got onto another flight, but their luggage arrived in the wrong city. This was a small indignity compared with what followed.
“[Our] hotel had an ant infestation, and so we had to move rooms. Then we got back to Boston and tested positive [for COVID],” she says, noting that she will overpack diapers on her next trip, if she ever goes on one.
Needham’s Connie Barr enjoyed a multi-generational trip to Maine with a 2½-year-old and an 84-year-old, until: “Refrigerator failed, no hot water, washing machine unavailable, ticks everywhere,” she says.
The family got a case of Lyme disease as a souvenir — “and a new refrigerator two days before we left, which would not fit through the doors.”
Speaking of sprinkler showers: Acton’s Maureen Leo accidentally booked a clothing optional resort on Airbnb, which she luckily realized before embarking on a revealing vacation. “It would have made for an interesting arrival with our four kids in a minivan,” she says.
But truly, nothing compares with the woebegone case of Joslyn McIntyre of Guilford, Vt., who recently ended what she calls the “Oregon Trail” of vacations on Cape Cod.
“It started with one of my daughters coming down with — wait for it — scarlet fever. She had a full-body rash and a sore throat and couldn’t stop crying. We spent our first day on the Cape in urgent care trying to avoid the COVID coughers,” she says. “By the end of the week, both of my daughters had the stomach flu. I spent our last day on the Cape in a porta-potty with a child with diarrhea. In between, my husband tried to do a U-turn at the end of a beach road and tore the bumper off my car,” she recalls.
Next, the McIntyres were slated to attend a long-planned family reunion in the ironically named town of Freedom, N.H. It was not to be.
“Instead we drove home to Vermont with two ill, surly kids,” she says.
As well as a duct-taped bumper.