By Kristen Gerencher
Americans are willing to travel over the river and through the woods to visit relatives for the holidays, but most loathe the tension that’s often part of the package.
Despite the desire to be around family and friends at year’s end, many people are ambivalent because of the heightened emotions and high expectations that accompany the holiday season, particularly if they face financial trouble or only have a few days off, experts said.
Almost 60 percent of more than 1,000 Expedia.com users said they feel like they need a vacation after family holiday visits, according to a new survey from the online travel company. More than 64 percent said they feel the need to escape and enjoy some time alone.
“For some people, family is a wonderful refuge and they love it, but for others it’s stress,” said Peter A. Wish, a psychologist in Sarasota, Fla. “It’s not always as easy as they would like it to be and often times they’re put out by it.”
Trouble with the in-laws
The pressure to please a spouse’s family was an especially high-ranking seasonal downer. One in 10 people said they’d rather eat a whole fruitcake in one sitting than spend a week with their in-laws, the survey found.
Even with abundant food, mistletoe and eggnog to take the edge off, accommodating family wishes appears to have its limits. One in three Americans said they’d prefer to stay at a hotel rather than in a relative’s guest room or on a couch during the holidays.
Travel delays and airport crowds only add to the feeling of being out of sorts, and many people may be staying away longer this year because Christmas and New Year’s days fall midweek, Expedia product manager Teri Franklin said. “You go, you have a great time, it’s great to see everyone, but you come back exhausted.”
Many people want to limit their exposure to holiday family festivities because they can reopen painful memories, bring out unresolved conflicts or simply require extravagant gift-giving practices beyond their means, said Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif.
Dealing with holiday family tensions can be particularly unattractive for those whose employers grant them little paid time-off, she said. “There could be some resentment that ‘Here I have a few days off and this is how I have to spend it.'”
Depending on their longevity, American workers generally receive 10 to 20 vacation days a year, far less than the four or more weeks offered in many Western European countries. Employees with at least two years on the job received 10.8 vacation days on average in 2000, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
Controlling holiday blues
Despite the jolly nature of the season, Americans often shy away from family functions this time of year, be they mildly chaotic or deeply dysfunctional, Rodino said. “It seems like a very light topic, but it weighs heavily on so many people for so many reasons.”
Feeling like they’re being put under the microscope when they go home for the holidays, many fear their traditions or lack thereof will meet with disapproval from family elders, she said.
“Typically it’s the younger-generation adult couples who have problems going back to their parents or in-laws where there would be more expectation on the part of the older adult in terms of how they do the holidays, what they’re doing with their life,” she said.
“Sometimes the younger couple wants to please the in-laws and somehow no matter what they do, it doesn’t quite measure up and it’s not the way they would do it.”
What’s more, the sputtering economy is making playing Santa Claus more challenging for many this year, and those tight on cash are wise to renegotiate family traditions early, Wish said. “Maybe the expectation is you have to get large gifts for a lot of people and you just don’t have the money to do it. That puts a lot of pressure on people.”
Overall, travelers are wise to be honest with their families if they plan to reduce the amount of time they spend together, and remember that holiday traditions change over time, Rodino said. Those with serious misgivings may want to consider a different kind of trip.
“When the stress is just too great or issues are too great to visit family for the holidays, it’s a great time to take a winter vacation or go skiing,” she said.
Other findings from Expedia’s survey:
Of the 58 percent who said they’re spending money to travel and visit family over the holidays, seven in 10 don’t consider their visit a real vacation. Another 15 percent said they’re hosting their families this season.
Almost three out of four people said they don’t consider hosting family a real vacation.
More than 40 percent said they didn’t feel rested after having their family visit.
Kristen Gerencher is a reporter for CBS.MarketWatch.com in San Francisco.