On the surface, it's a relatively simple question for Daniel, 42, of Alameda, when considering travel plans during the holidays: Do they bunk down at the in-laws' in L.A. or opt for a hotel?
Ah, but wait. A deeper look peels back more layers of the Christmas conundrum.
“It gets complicated,” says the husband and father of two, who prefers to remain anonymous for the sake of family harmony. “We've always stayed at my in-laws' (house) for the last 10 years or so on holidays, but that started before my sister-in-law and her two kids moved back into the (father-in-law's) house, and before my wife and I had kids.
“Add into the mix my father-in-law, my sister-in-law's ex — who she's still on good enough terms with for him to stay there sometimes — my brother-in-law and his two kids, and there can be up to 12 people in a house with two bathrooms. And really, it's more like one bathroom for my father-in-law and another bathroom for up to the other 11 of us.
“So yes,” Daniel says, “the thought of staying at a motel has crossed my mind.”
He is not alone in this traditional holiday debate. Many people cherish spending close quarters time with family. For others, whether guest or host, the issue can be an enigma flying in from Albuquerque, wrapped inside family dynamics and stuck on an air mattress in the living room.
Even if you can afford a hotel, which offers convenience and private time, you might risk permanently insulting Aunt Edna if you don't stay at her home. Conversely, out-of-town relatives sometimes assume they have an open invitation any time they swing by. Edna may acquiesce out of obligation, but she may be secretly plotting your timely departure.
More than half of nearly 2,000 people surveyed in a 2010 poll said their relatives regularly overstay their welcome during the holidays. The survey, commissioned by HomeAway Inc., found that 29 percent of participants could only endure houseguests for a few days, and another 22 percent were fed up after less than 24 hours.
And in a 2007 survey from Hotels.com, 87 percent of more than 1,000 participants said they would prefer that out-of-town relatives (at least certain ones) make arrangements for other accommodations. Basically, “Get a room!”
“My boyfriend's older brother came here last year, and we have just a really small one-bedroom apartment,” says Anne, 32, an East Bay artist who also wanted to keep her last name out of print. “My boyfriend told him he could stay on the couch, but it was a challenge. He was up a lot in the night watching TV. It was kind of awkward running into him in my bathrobe.
“It's hard to have people in your private space. But it was only a week. There are bigger problems in the world,” she says. “We just couldn't be rude or hurt his feelings.”
It doesn't have to be this way. Etiquette and relationship experts suggest clarifying arrangements up front.
“If your family balks at the idea of you booking a hotel room instead of bedding down at their place, stick to the old breakup line: 'It's me, not you,' ” says Colleen Lanin, author of “The Travel Mamas' Guide” and founder of TravelMamas.com. “Blame it on your insomnia, tell them you're worried that your spouse's snoring will keep them up, or say that your kids have been begging you for a hotel break. This will help avoid any hurt feelings.
“Whatever you do, make sure your loved ones know that you will be staying elsewhere before your arrival to avoid any unpleasant surprises and ensure your holiday is free of guilt-trips.”
Indeed, upfront communication about individual space is the key, agrees Elisabeth Seaman, a Peninsula-based mediator and co-author of “Conflict — The Unexpected Gift: Making the Most of Disputes in Life and Work.”
“My daughter just left for home in Staten Island this morning, after a delightful 10-day visit,” Seaman says. “Part of what made it delightful is the space we allowed each other and the way we respected each other's time and needs.”
People need to be very clear — in advance — as to everyone's personal limits, she says. “You can say, 'I would love to have you stay with me up to so many days, and each day I will need some time for myself to read, to do some work,' or whatever it may be,” she says.
“Make this a positive thing for the visitor, too. Such as, 'This will allow you to have some time for yourself, too, and when we all are together, we will really be able to have the best time.”
It's also acceptable to offer help with hotel plans if you really don't want to have houseguests at all. “You can say something like, 'I'm so eager to see you, but at the moment the way things are in my home, it won't be feasible. I'm glad to make arrangements for you,' ” Seaman adds.
“Whatever you do, clear this up ahead of time to make this a happy experience for everyone.”
There are many good things about visiting family. “Settling in at a loved one's home can be a restful retreat, especially if your hosts chip in with child-care duties,” Lanin says. “You will have access to a kitchen for storing snacks, and your hosts may even treat you to a couple of home-cooked meals, which can ease your vacation budget.”
The main bonus of staying with someone is of course extra quality time with your hosts for chatting, watching movies or playing board games. “All without the worry of designating a driver if you want to have a cocktail or two,” Lanin says.
Daniel appreciates the close family time and says, for now, they'll keep “toughing it out” at the in-laws for the holidays, so as not to offend his sister-in-law.
“But it's getting so crowded every time now,” he says. “I think, if we picked a motel, even she would understand.”