Updated June 19, 2012
by Lisa Oppenheimer
Nothing entertains a child like another child. This I know from experience.
On one memorable last vacation, despite being surrounded by all the spoils of Disney World, my daughter still managed to find a way to be bored, pining for the one thing she didn’t have with her, her BFF—“best friend forever.”
Families who’ve brought a child’s pal on vacation say he or she was the best vacation accessory ever—such a boon, in fact, that my friend Debbie refers to such arrangements as “borrowing” a child for the trip.
Still, bringing a non-family member requires more than just buying an extra ticket. Said child is your responsibility, not to mention another mouth to feed. Having a guest probably also necessitates a change in accommodations since it would be impractical to pack a stranger in the same room with mom, dad, and the siblings.
So what to think about? For starters, there’s the little matter of chemistry. Bringing an extra person changes the balance of your brood, and how well you all get along will make or break the whole trip. A kid who grates on your nerves at home is going to be equally—if not more—irritating on vacation, especially when you’re paying big bucks to get away from it all, and staying in a hotel where there’s little room to take refuge. It’s your vacation, too, so don’t feel compelled to bring along Eddie Haskell, even if he is junior’s best bud.
And, make sure he fits well with other siblings. The two pals may be in heaven, but the arrangement may make a third wheel out of little sis. Not that they need to spend all of their time as a trio. But, an exclusive twosome might actually add to your travel woes by leaving one child who is now without even a sibling to play with.
How you vacation is important, too. Are you beachcombers? Night owls? A late-sleeping kid is going to be miserable with a group that needs to be on line for Space Mountain the moment the park opens. A family that likes to go-go-go should bring someone who is similarly inclined, so be clear about your itinerary from the outset.
A few other things to remember:
Homesickness: One friend of mine found her trip infinitely more complicated after her daughter’s friend came down with an acute case of homesickness. Ask if the child has been away before. Even then, there’s no guarantee that she won’t miss mom, but it’s less likely to be calamitous for a veteran traveler.
Parenting Styles: To some parents, keeping an eye on the kids means “know where they are.” To others, it’s a “stay together 24/7” proposition. I’d once planned to set my kids free at the mall to do some errands, but had to change gears when I learned the young teen with us was not yet allowed to shop alone. Be specific about your expectations regarding supervision, and ask the other mom to do the same.
Destination: Supervision is easier when there are some well-organized teen activities in place. Cruise ships and hotels such as the Hawk’s Cay resort in the Florida Keys make good bets because they have supervised activities for all ages of kids. They also offer a bit of freedom. In general, destinations with distinct boundaries, such as an all-inclusive resort or a theme park, will be easier to manage than, say, a busy tourist area in Mexico.
Financing: If you’re planning on treating, great. If not, lay out finances beforehand. Our plans for Disney World always include a few special and pricey perks like the Segway tours at EPCOT. Be prepared to drop some experiences if they’re not in the other family’s budget.
House Rules: A traveling teen needs to respect your rules of the house. Lay them down at the outset. In my family, I expect my children to help out, even on vacation. So, a teen who expects me to do absolutely everything is not going to be a welcome addition.
Medical Issues: Be sure to bring insurance cards, and ask upfront how to handle the unlikely event of a medical emergency.
Documentation: Confirm well in advance that your guest has the proper ID (passport or proof of citizenship, e.g.). Bring a notarized letter from mom and dad giving you proof of permission to travel and another giving you permission to seek medical treatment in an emergency.
One final but crucial note: Do yourself a favor and make the invitation to the parents before the child. There’s no quicker way to make an enemy than to dangle a lure to somebody else’s child before you’ve gotten parental approval. How popular will you be when the answer comes back, “No, I’m sorry, you can’t go to Grand Cayman because we’ll be going to Aunt Mildred’s 87th birthday party in Pawtucket.”