Balancing Work and Family Travel on the Road

Yours truly, working the cameras from HI.

Yours truly, working the cameras from HI.

As many of you know, Wandering Pod is only one of the things I do professionally; I actually earn a living writing about family travel (and business, technology, education, science, gambling, and other stuff) as a full-time freelance journalist.

This means that many of my family’s trips are work trips for moi. It also means that a big challenge on every trip for me is figuring out a delicate balance between time for work and time for family fun.

On some trips, finding that balance is easy—if we’re doing an overnight on which I’ve got only one assignment to report—I can scribble notes here and there but otherwise can relax. On other trips—those during which I’m juggling multiple assignments for various clients in different industries—equalizing the work/life equation is a constant struggle.

No matter how crazy a trip gets, I do have a few rules.

First, I always try to involve the girls in reporting. When we’re out and about, I explain to them what I’m writing about, and ask them to give me feedback on what they experience. I do this because I think it helps foster a sense of curiosity. I also want them to understand the effort that goes into creating original work (in case they ever weigh the potential benefits of cutting corners).

Second, even if I’m working my tail off, I try to log my screen time away from the girls. At night. In the early morning. In an independent coffee shop around the corner from the hotel. My thinking here is simple: They see plenty of me standing here in front of the computer at home, and I don’t want their lasting memories of me on the road to be me in front of my netbook or Galaxy tablet.

Finally, I make it a priority never to stress about work on the road. For my kids (and, really, the four of us as a unit), travel is an adventure; I don’t ever want it to feel like a chore.

I rarely am shy about sharing these rules with others; during lectures and other speaking engagements, these form the bulk of my presentations. In recent weeks, however, a few friends have asked me to supplement these strategies with everyday “secrets” to successfully managing work and family travel. Here, then, in no particular order, are my top five tips for juggling a little better.

  1. Spread out. One way to keep work and family interactions separate when traveling is to keep them physically separate. For me, this means spending extra money for additional space. Sometimes I’ll book a suite with a separate room in which to work. Other times I’ll opt for accommodations with a large balcony. When options are limited, I’ll go for a standard room and improvise in other ways. I’ve been known to turn the bathroom into an office for the night. (As an aside, from a tax POV, if you’re spending more on a room for space to work, you can deduct more of your hotel expense.)
  2. Communicate with your partner. Especially when you’re traveling with the whole family, it’s important to give your partner an honest AND REAL-TIME sense of what your daily workload is going to be. In our family, this means a daily debriefing on a) what assignments I need to tackle b) how much time each will require and c) when it would be most convenient for everyone for me to work. These chats help keep Powerwoman and I working as a team. They also enable her to figure out how and when she can plan solo time at the gym or spa.
  3. Focus. With distractions such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we modern humans have plenty of outlets to procrastinate and waste time online. When you’re trying to balance work and family travel, however, you can’t afford to be so profligate. To minimize distractions when we travel, I force myself to spotlight one task at a time, avoiding diversions such as email or social networking until I’ve met my deadline for the day. If I’m having particular trouble concentrating in the room, I’ll change the scenery, spending a few hours in the hotel lobby or the business center.
  4. Flex your schedule. Just because you’re grappling with work on a family trip doesn’t mean you’ve got to do so during normal business hours. My solution: I write at night, after Powerwoman and the girls have gone to bed. This works for two reasons: a) It helps me keep writing time and family time separate and b) Life is a lot quieter when everyone else is snoozing. Of course this strategy isn’t applicable when the “work” involves conference calls. Also, if I wasn’t a night owl, I probably wouldn’t be able to roll after midnight. Nevertheless, the point here is that schedule flexibility is your friend.
  5. Say, ‘No.’ Perhaps the best way to balance work and family travel is to minimize the balancing you have to do in the first place. This means thinking carefully about every assignment you allow to creep into your time on the road. In some cases, it also might mean rejecting certain opportunities, or requesting to push deadlines far enough away from your trip so the work won’t conflict.

Look, I don’t for a moment pretend to have all the answers. And, to be frank, after four full years of experience juggling work and family life away from home, sometimes I still really screw things up (let’s just say this month’s Hawaii trip was *not* a paradigm of balance).

At the end of the day, your top priority when engaging in family travel should be just that: family travel. For everything else, hopefully some of these insights can help.

What are your secrets to balancing work and family travel on the road?

10 replies
  1. Kara Williams
    Kara Williams says:

    I can so relate to this post. Since becoming a travel writer 6 years ago, it’s rare for me NOT to be taking notes, taking photos, asking for feedback from the kids, and/or writing at my laptop while on vacation. My children are now old enough to understand that some of the perks we enjoy (comped admission to attractions, room service) are courtesy of my job. They get it. I’m thankful I have a spouse who is willing to take them to the pool or otherwise entertain them when I have a hotel tour or a breakfast meeting or a conference call (though, often, I’d rather be at the pool with them). It’s a constant struggle for balance.

    One way I assuage the guilt of working on vacation — or just making the family vacation more pleasurable for ME — is to *not* pitch the trip before the trip. That is, *not* to have a major assignment, say, for my upcoming visit to Nantucket. I have barely written about camping trip to Yellowstone two years ago. Houseboating on Lake Powell later this summer… sure, I’ll take some photos I might be able to use in future stories, but thank goodness, there’s no internet service there. I will be totally unplugged.

    Thanks for sharing! Now, off to finish up a story on this beautiful Saturday in Colorado… gotta do what you gotta do.

  2. Shelly Rivoli
    Shelly Rivoli says:

    Good tips, Matt! I’m definitely taking these to heart. I’ve been writing exclusively family travel and it gets trickier now with 5 of us in a hotel room (or tent cabin, etc.), but the balcony has definitely become my favorite place to step out to and work when possible. Through the past few years I’ve had a couple of light bulbs come on for me re: not making my kids suffer through EVERY detail I need to attend to while we are exploring or experiencing something together. 1) I use my camera to take all kinds of notes quickly as we go – of menus, entrance fee info, street signs, even diaper changing tables(!), etc., whereas I used to waste time actually scribbling down notes–or trying to remember the inconvenient details later on. 2) I put in at least 30 minutes of “just get it down” writing before bedtime, while the thoughts and experiences are still fresh. 3) I get up earlier than everyone and take my coffee and laptop outside because it’s quiet, I have the best clarity for writing and polishing what I put down the night before, and nobody gets annoyed that Mom’s in front of the computer again. 😉 Like you suggest, I find it helpful to include the kids in the reporting. When they start to think about what they’d want other kids or families to know before they come to the same place, they start to see that there might really be some value in what I do!

    • Kara Williams
      Kara Williams says:

      Yes! I, too, do a LOT of snapping photos as “note taking” – signs, menus, hotel lobbies… anything I think will jog my memory later when I’m writing about the hotel/attraction/restaurant.

    • Matt Villano
      Matt Villano says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Shelly. Love the suggestion of utilizing the camera as a note-taking tool. I also think the “just get it down” writing is a good practice for me to adopt. Let’s stay in touch!

  3. Terri @ Travel 50 States with Kids
    Terri @ Travel 50 States with Kids says:

    Great article and very timely and relevant for me. I have a busier-than-ever travel schedule this summer and my husband isn’t able to accompany my kids and me on many of the trips, so I’m a solo working parent on the road with kids. I’m hoping to keep it all balanced. One thing I’ve found very helpful is using the voice recorder on my phone to take notes. After I’m done with my own notes, I pass it around to my kids so they can add their own perspective. It’s much quicker than writing and everyone is involved.

  4. Michele Bigley
    Michele Bigley says:

    I totally agree with much of these insights, Matt. Thanks for these ideas. I too am a travel writer with kids. I have taken my little ones around the world with me. Luckily I have a helpful and supportive husband. But it all feels like a balance I don’t quite strike with finesse. Best of luck.

  5. Kyle McCarthy
    Kyle McCarthy says:

    Thanks Matt,
    A lot of great ideas here but most of all, a real sense of you as a dad and how much that means to you. Very refreshing! My grown son and husband are very supportive of my work/travels too but they’re old enough to go off on their own and have guy-fun and, of course, I’m always jealous! Now, when I want a ‘real’ vacation with them, we pay our own way and I save the travel tales to share with friends. Hope to cross paths one day…


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *