I had a long listen at a neighborhood party last week…one of my host mom friends had just come back from a family vacation to Disneyworld. Three kids, three adults, two bedrooms, 5 days. And for my friend, not a vacation at all.
What went wrong? I’ll tell you what went wrong. My friend forgot that this was supposed to be HER vacation, not her au pair’s vacation.
The host mom paid for the au pair’s plane ticket, 5 days of park passes, 3 meals a day, and even for the au pair’s (non-alcoholic and still expensive) drinks & snacks at the pool. In total, the family probably spent almost $1,000 bringing the au pair with them– not including the au pair’s pocket money.
The host mom expected that her au pair would come to the park with her and her children, and help the mom manage the kids’ different interests (Space Mountain, yes or no? Roller coaster or parade?) by going with one or two of the kids to different activities. And, she expected that she and her husband could actually have dinner out just the two of them one night, and be able to sleep in a bit. But what happened instead?
The au pair complained about waiting in line for rides she wasn’t interested in (that the kids wanted). The au pair went off by herself to the rides she was interested in, complained about being on duty in the evenings, complained about having to share a room with the three kids (all girls), and said she was too tired to watch the kids at the pool. She needed to nap and get a tan, instead.
Then, two days after they returned home, the au pair told them she was going home– after being with their family a total of 3 months. It seems the au pair had already made plane arrangements and bought her ticket home BEFORE she accompanied the family to Florida! Adding insult to injury, don’t you think?
Clearly, the host mom was taken for a ride. But it was also the host mom’s own assumption — that the au pair should be "on vacation" too — that got the mom, the au pair and ultimately the family into an unhappy situation.
It is not easy to take an au pair on vacation, even when you really need to and/or really want to. Traveling can be hard, it is always expensive, and traveling with kids asks a lot of any adult. We’ve taken au pairs to London, Paris, Chicago, Florida, Ohio, Toronto, Los Angeles, Williamsburg, home to Charlottesville, and regularly to the Jersey shore, and we’ve learned from experience some things that make traveling with an au pair a bit more relaxing for everyone. Here are our…
13 tips to help you get the vacation you need
1. Be clear why you are taking your au pair.
Do you need her to provide childcare during the vacation? Wrangle one kid on the airplane? Speak Spanish to the tour guide? Are you worried that otherwise she’ll be lonely and feel abandoned in an empty house? Are you bringing her because you can afford to give her the treat of travel? Or, is it some combination of all of these?
2. Make sure that you communicate all of your expectations to your au pair.
3. Be clear even before you leave how much the au pair will be expected to work, and when you expect to need her to be on duty. If you and your partner want a nice dinner out– tell your au pair beforehand so that she won’t assume she’ll have every evening free.
4. Give your au pair some specific time to "vacation." Even if your au pair is there to take care of the kids, find a way to let her explore and play without always being with your family. Find ways to give your au pair some "prime time" time for herself. By "prime time", I mean daylight hours when the parks, museums or open air markets are open, or when it’s safe to explore the city, or when the nightclubs open. This doesn’t have to be a lot of time, but it should be enough so that she can see the Eiffel tower and get someone to take her picture in front of it.
5. Pay for every meal and admission ticket that she needs to accompany you or the kids while she is "on duty." Include money for a snack or a latte when you get the same for yourself or your kids. Never take your au pair to a restaurant where you can’t afford to have her buy an adult entree. I have once or twice had to say "let’s choose the less expensive items" when we’ve been at places where all the food is expensive (you know, the parks with the $5 bottles of water?!)… But, do not expect her to hold back if you are being extravagant for yourselves.
6. Let your Au Pair buy her own souvenirs. Don’t feel like you need to pay for the $36 Little Mermaid snow globe that she simply must have. She can pay for her own souvenirs. That said, you might buy her a copy of the photo of her and the kids in the front seat of the roller coaster.
7. Be clear about sleeping arrangements and make sure they are okay with both you and your au pair. I’ve never brought an au pair along when I’ve gotten her a room all to herself — I’ve never been in the situation where I could afford that additional $100-$250/night. Most times, our au pair has shared a room (but not a bed) with our girls, or she has slept on the pull-out couch of a suite shared with the girls. I think that it is unreasonable to ask her to share a bed with your child, but it’s okay for them to share a room. YMMV if you have boys and not girls.
8. Find ways to give your au pair some time more or less alone, even if that is watching movies while the kids sleep. Find ways to give the au pair privacy in the morning in the bathroom (by taking your kids into your room), by giving her some time alone to nap, and by making sure she can stay up and read or watch movies somewhere that she isn’t disturbing the kids.
9. Invoke the "second to last bus" requirement if she ventures off by herself. I learned this one the hard way, when I missed half of the dinner where I was receiving a professional award, the reason for which we had traveled to Toronto. We had given our au pair the day off to go to Niagara Falls, expecting her to return by 5 pm (the dinner began at 7). Well, she missed the bus — the very last bus– and I nearly missed my big professional moment. My husband missed the dinner and stayed at the hotel to watch the baby, and I got to the dinner just before desert. Ever since then, the rule has been to take the second to last bus or train, so that if your au pair misses it she still has a chance to get back without paying $85 for a taxi or ruining her host parent’s big moment.
10. Do not expect your au pair to work more than 10 hrs/day or 45 hrs/week . Just because you’re in a different place doesn’t mean you can or should break the rules. Then how do you handle changes in time zones? As fairly as possible, counting the actual hours worked AND being respectful that her body clock might need adjusting t oo.
11. Figure out how to pay for her hours ‘in transit’ and make sure she agrees. This has always been a tough one for us. If you’re all in the car, with the kids watching a DVD with their headphones on and your Au Pair listening to her iPod, is she on duty? The rules for my agency say yes, these are on duty hours. But if she’s watching the in flight movie or reading Glamour, is that work? When an au pair is neither working nor free to do what she wants, I have treated this as being ‘kind of’ on duty, and counted it has 1/2 or 3/4 time…but only if I found myself needing to skimp b/c I really needed her on duty later that day. This is probably the one place that I personally have ‘bent’ the rules. Okay, that and walking the dog sometimes.
12. Make sure that she has a way to keep in touch with her family (e.g., let her use your computer to do email).
13. Be sure that she has some fun time with the kids . Let her be on duty while you’re all building sand castles and flying kites.
Vacations are one of those times when it is important to be clear about who is working and who is vacationing, and when. Your au pair gets two weeks of paid vacation because she works hard and needs time to relax and just have fun.
So do YOU.