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How to take a vacation

Vacation: It’s another word for fun that can turn into disaster at any moment. It’s thrilling to explore another part of the world, but thrills and discomfort often go hand-in-hand. Fortunately, vacationers have some useful guides at the ready thanks to vacation-themed films, each of them filled with practical advice waiting for those who are paying attention. The A.V. Club surveyed the field of vacation movies and returned with some tips you might find useful on your next trip.

The Ruins
The story: A group of friends on vacation in Mexico spontaneously decide to join a stranger on an excursion deep into the jungle to visit some archeologists excavating an ancient pyramid. When they arrive, gun-toting natives hold them hostage on the pyramid as a mysterious force picks them off over the course of a few torturous, grotesque days.

Practical, universal lessons gleaned: Don’t suddenly change plans without telling anyone where you’re going. Also, trusting a total stranger enough to follow him hours into a jungle is generally unwise. Do check your cell-phone-coverage map before heading way off-road. And be sure to bring necessary supplies for an overnight outing if you aren’t sure how long you’ll be gone.

Narrow, film-specific lessons gleaned: Don’t go climbing into unlit wells when there are murderous mysterious forces about. Do sanitize your knife thoroughly before slashing yourself apart, trying to get at the alien invader inside your body.

Happy Together
The story: Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung play lovers caught in a seemingly endless, worsening cycle of abuse and reconciliation while taking a break from Hong Kong in Argentina.

Practical, universal lessons: Do have an endpoint in mind. There’s nothing better than a vacation to break up the monotony of everyday life, but when a vacation becomes everyday life and you’re left with little to do but soul-searching, problems creep in. Director Wong Kar-wai shows Leung and Cheung arriving in Argentina with no real plan beyond visiting the Iguazu waterfalls. They quickly discover that the problems that dogged their relationship back home have followed them abroad. Trouble is, they have some pretty good reasons not to go back home, leaving them little to do but resume, analyze, repeat, and intensify their destructive habits. It isn’t a getaway if you can’t go home again.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you’re a movie character, try to make sure you aren’t stuck in a movie whose title carries as much ironic weight as this one.

Open Water
The story: A stressed-out, active couple tries to repair their fractured relationship by taking a vacation together. But their scuba-diving lesson ends badly when some unfortunate coincidences and a botched head-count results in the boat leaving them behind, bobbing helplessly in the ocean. Over the next few days, they stave off drowning, heatstroke, and starvation via intensely focused arguing and petty bitching, but eventually, the local sea life gets tired of listening to them, and brings the story to an end.

Practical, universal lessons: Don’t do your vacation on the cheap; spending more on individual diving instruction rather than going out with a group might cost more, but you can’t put a price on survival. Do make sure you go with a reliable tour group that takes their safety policy seriously, unless you want to burden your relatives with having to sue them for the cost of recovering your body.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t get cocky about how the vacation is going to save your relationship, lest dramatic irony get the best of you. Do speak up when some pushy jackass wants to borrow a diving mask.

The story: On a trip to the high-tech vacation theme park Telos, two friends have a grand old time in the “WesternWorld” replica of the Old West, having sex with android prostitutes and shooting down android gunslingers. When a computer virus infects the robots, however, they run amok, murdering the human guests and causing the death of the entire staff. 

Practical, universal lessons: Don’t rely too heavily on technology; it has a habit of malfunctioning at the least appropriate times. Do be respectful of the natives. Whether they’re paid resort employees or carefully programmed robots, they’re eventually going to get tired of waiting on you hand and foot, and they’re likely to remember how you’ve treated them.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t let your worst impulses get the best of you. Sure, we all want to screw and murder indiscriminately, but sometimes a simple picnic or a day at the beach is the way to go. Do be aware in advance of the double-edged nature of theme-park slogans. “Have we got a vacation for you!” has more than one interpretation.

Up In The Air
The story: George Clooney jets around the world, firing people. Anna Kendrick comes up with a more efficient way to fire people that would eliminate his job. Many life lessons are learned and not many actual vacations are taken, but along the way, Clooney schools Kendrick in the finer points of travel.

Practical, universal lessons: Do pack light, splurge on quality luggage, and enjoy the process of the trip; just being outside of the world and on a journey can be more peaceful than actually arriving at your destination. Don’t get too attached to anyone you meet along the way, though. People in transit aren’t the same as they are at home.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t stand behind old people in airport lines. Do stand behind Asian people. Also, don’t let the need for charm and the desire for Oscar nominations get in the way of dispensing broad stereotypes.

Joe Versus The Volcano
The story: Diagnosed with a fatal “brain cloud,” Tom Hanks takes a page from Alec Guinness in Last Holiday and decides to drop everything and go on one last terrific trip. This involves repeatedly getting dumped into the ocean, and eventually into an active volcano. 

Practical, universal lessons: Don’t pay attention to Up In The Air at all; definitely do not pack light. Pack everything you can get your hands on; you might wind up needing it. Do splurge on that quality luggage, though. It might repeatedly save your life.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Before throwing all your money into a life-altering journey of self-discovery, especially one involving quirky Meg Ryan in different roles, do consider getting a second opinion on that whole fatal-disease thing. (Guinness in Last Holiday and Queen Latifah in the 2006 Last Holiday remake might both confirm that last bit.)

Bitter Moon
The story: In Roman Polanski’s darkly comic psychodrama, two couples meet on a cruise ship heading to India by way of Istanbul. One is a pair of uptight British lovebirds (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas), and the other a paraplegic American author (Peter Coyote) and a sultry Frenchwoman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who are considerably more libertine. Via flashback, the author tells Grant the story of his tortured, S&M-heavy relationship. 

Practical, universal lessons: Don’t get trapped in conversation with only one couple on a cruise ship. Try to mingle a bit. Do make certain your relationship is on solid footing before getting on board. Those cruise ships are crawling with swingers. Don’t travel the Black Sea if you’re given to seasickness. The waters are rough, especially when emotions are running hot. 

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t agree to hang out in the cabin of a perverted stranger. It’s hard to make a graceful exit, and you’ll be stuck listening to him wax rhapsodic about his wife’s clitoris. Don’t be tempted to have an affair with a woman described as a “carnivorous flower,” especially if you’re a weak-willed British prude given to excessive blinking. 

The Vanishing
(1988 [Netherlands], 1993 [U.S.])
The story: While on a cycling tour, a couple stops at a gas station for supplies. The wife enters and never comes out; her husband becomes obsessed with her fate, and his life is ruined. Eventually, he comes into contact with a psychopath who claims to be responsible for the wife’s disappearance, and who offers, for the price of a cup of coffee, to show the husband what happened to her. He keeps his promise, but the husband wishes he hadn’t.

Practical, universal lessons: Don’t eat at gas stations, for goodness’ sake. Spring for a decent restaurant. Do stick close to your loved ones; you never know when some insane schoolteacher is lying in wait to plunge you into a downward spiral of madness and despair.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t dwell on the past. Even if you have a bad vacation, get over it, or you’ll find yourself repeating it. Do try and appear in an American remake of your vacation instead of the European original. It’ll have a happier, albeit tacked-on, ending.

(excellent Dutch original)

(crappy U.S. remake)

National Lampoon’s Vacation
(1983) / 
National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985)
The story: Chevy Chase and his model family—wife Beverly D’Angelo and teenage son and daughter—travel from Chicago to California for the great American road trip (Vacation) and across Europe after winning a game show (European Vacation). Hijinks, shenanigans, and mishaps ensue.

Practical, universal lessons: Don’t try to plan your vacation down to the minute, or cram too much into it. (The Louvre in 15 minutes?) Even when you make plans, accept it when they fall through. Make time to relax and enjoy yourself—vacations shouldn’t be punishing gauntlets of sightseeing and cultural-cramming. (Sometimes you should just stay in your hotel and bang, like those PDA-loving newlyweds in Paris.) Don’t get miffed by local customs. Don’t rely on cash or travelers’ checks. (Ah, life in the ’80s.) Also, sex tapes always, always come back to haunt you.

Film-specific lessons: Don’t leave your aunt’s corpse on your cousin’s rainy back patio so you can get to an amusement park—it’s just tasteless. Don’t try to pass off a BB gun as a real gun. And it’s a terrible idea to take hostages. Pissing off German villagers can lead to your hanging.


Summertime (1955)
The story: A retired spinster (played by Katharine Hepburn, whose picture should be in the dictionary next to “retired spinster”) tours Europe and has her heart stirred by Venice, where she has a fling with a married antique dealer, then plans to leave the city early before she gets too involved.

Practical, universal lessons: Don’t let the jaded impressions of other tourists diminish your enthusiasm. Just because some grumbly American dismisses Venice as “just Luna Park on water” or complains that “this wop food has ruined my digestion” shouldn’t stop you from embracing the wonder of an ancient city. Narrow, film-specific lessons: By all means, do shoot home movies of everything you see. If you do, the right kind of man might think you’re adorable, and might eventually come running after your departing train, holding your favorite flower. And if you’re looking for something lasting, feigned aloofness might just be what it takes to kick your mark into action.

The story: A greedy, unfaithful French couple sets out on a road trip through the country in order to collect on the wife’s inheritance from her dying father. The road is endlessly backed up with constant, violent car wrecks, and the entire journey turns into a surreal nightmare. After their inheritance scheme falls apart, the couple gets lost in the forest and winds up at the mercy of a group of bloody revolutionaries.

Practical, universal lessons: Don’t overbook. If you need to cheat on your spouse, murder your parents, steal their money, and betray your family, schedule it over several weekends. Do plan an alternate route for any long road trip, in case the main road becomes littered with the defiled corpses of the bourgeoisie.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t kill your mother at the end of your vacation, no matter how annoying she is; it’ll just put a damper on the trip home. Do run like hell of one of the communist hippie cultists you’ve fallen in with starts talking to the camera. The director is on their side!

Two For The Road
The story: Stanley Donen scrambles his timeline as his story visits a couple (Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney) during different phases of their relationship, from their time as new acquaintances to life as a not always happily married pair.

Practical, universal lessons: Do be open to accidents. Sure, it sucks when your choir group contracts chicken pox… unless you go off hitchhiking with a charming rogue who might be the man of your dreams. Don’t expect places to look the same on second visit, even if it’s just you that’s changed. 

Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you don’t want your life to feel wistfully bittersweet, try to make sure someone other than Henry Mancini provides the score.

Road Trip
The story: When a videotape of a sexual encounter with a woman who isn’t his girlfriend is accidentally mailed to said girlfriend, Breckin Meyer must jump in the car with some friends and drive from upstate New York to Austin in order to intercept the tape. Though time is a huge factor, Meyer—along with Seann William Scott, Paulo Costanzo, and DJ Qualls—manage to have some wacky adventures along the way.

Practical, universal lessons: Don’t mix up your homemade porn movies with your video love letters. (See also: European Vacation, National Lampoon’s.) Do check maps to make sure all roads you intend to use are open and available, and not blocked by broken bridges.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t leave your pet snake in the care of a psychotic like Tom Green. Do cheat on your girlfriend, because it turns out you’ll have a nice breakup and you can stay with the new hottie. 

Home Alone
The story: Hyperactive 8-year-old Macaulay Culkin gets left behind when his family flies to France for Christmas. He promptly spends his unplanned staycation torturing hapless, inept criminals Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

Practical, universal lessons: Keep your tickets in a safe, waterproof place before traveling. Don’t travel in huge, chaotic groups; that way lies disaster, not to mention an unpleasant vacation that adds up to more stress than just staying home. Do count heads carefully and make sure all family members are along for every step of the trip.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Or better yet, don’t. Consider just leaving your most obnoxious child at home to guard the house in your absence. Your vacation will be quieter, he’ll be fine, and while he may make a bit of a mess and get into your aftershave, at least burglars will think twice before coming around to your place again.

A Room With A View
The story: Young Lucy Honeychurch (played by Helena Bonham Carter) visits Florence with her older cousin and is so taken with the progressive attitudes and basic decency of fellow tourist George Emerson (Julian Sands) that she breaks her engagement with a stuffy prig (Daniel Day-Lewis) so she can elope with George and see the world.

Practical, universal lessons: Do drink wine instead of lemonade; lemonade upsets the stomach. Do venture beyond the confines of the city, where you can “meet the Italians unspoiled.” Do be open to others’ unconventional perspectives on art, religion, and romance. And keep your eyes peeled in the woods, where you might see naked men bathing and romping.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: By all means, do insist on a good view from the window of your pension. If you do, someone chivalrous might come into your life and whisk you away on a permanent vacation.

Summer Rental
The story: John Candy plays a stressed-out, salt-of-the-earth air traffic controller whose bosses order him to take a month off; he chooses to spend it in Florida among the moneyed and snooty. When one of those snobs buys Candy’s rental house and tries to kick him out, he decides to compete in the annual regatta to regain a measure of self-respect.

Practical, universal lessons: Do wear sunscreen. (When Candy turns bright red on his first day at the beach, he mutters, “That’s a good base. A good base.”) Do double-check your rental agreement to make sure you’re in the right house; you’d hate to start out in a secluded beachside estate onto to find out that you’re actually supposed to be staying at a noisy, rundown shack right next to the public-access path. Do make sure you get that part from Minneapolis and repair your cooler-spout before the trip, so you don’t dribble melted ice all over the sunbathers.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Do remember your summer-camp sailing lessons (along with the tips you pick up from boozy old sailor Rip Torn) so you can show those stuck-up rich folks what a little working-class pluck can do.

What About Bob?
The story: Renowned psychiatrist Richard Dreyfuss tries to enjoy a long vacation at his family’s summer home, but is hounded by relentless headcase Bill Murray.

Practical, universal lessons: For the love of God, do keep your professional and private lives separate, especially if you’re in the mental-health field—and make sure you don’t accidentally encourage people who cross the line. 

Film-specific lessons: Make sure your family understands what’s appropriate behavior with your patients. Don’t piss off the kindly local townsfolk who had their eyes on the house you stole out from under them. Don’t grow increasingly, insanely agitated when people misunderstand you.

Twentynine Palms
The story: A photographer (David Wissak) takes his moody girlfriend (Katia Golubeva) on a trip to scout locations at Joshua Tree National Park. They fuck and fight, drive around aimlessly, then fuck and fight some more. And then something terrible happens.

Practical, universal lessons: If you’re European, don’t travel inside the United States. We’re rednecks, and we’ll hurt you. Do enjoy the arid, remote beauty of Joshua Tree National Park, which is a great place for hiking in the nude and boning on smooth, flat rocks. Also, we’ll say it again—do bring suntan lotion, for obvious reasons.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t choose a travel companion whose suffocating passive-aggression might lead to bloody, stark-raving aggression-aggression. Do keep your bizarre animal noises down during those vigorous lovemaking sessions. The walls are thin… at the hotel across the street. Don’t screen your vacation footage at a major film festival. You’ll get booed, even by polite Canadians.

The story: The final chapter in John Stockwell’s unofficial string-bikini trilogy—Blue Crush and Into The Blue are the others—Turistas concerns a group of hot American tourists whose bus overturns in a remote seaside region in Brazil. The good news: They find the most awesome beach ever. The bad news: The locals aren’t as friendly as they seem. 

Practical, universal lessons: If you’re American, don’t travel outside the United States. You will be tortured and killed. (See also: Hostel.) Don’t leave all your money and possessions out in the open while you drink yourself into a sleep coma. That’s just common sense. Do wear that skimpy bathing suit. You look amazing in it. 

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Don’t follow the seemingly sympathetic teenager leading you through the narrow path in the woods to town. He will take you to a basement filled with cages, where your pristine First World organs will be harvested for Third World health-care needs. Do enjoy the excellent Brazilian scuba scene, and, if possible, never leave the water. Those coral reefs and sea caves make excellent hiding places. 

Roman Holiday
The story: Overscheduled, overprotected princess Audrey Hepburn sneaks away from her country’s embassy and explores Rome on her own, falling under the protection of conniving newspaperman Gregory Peck, who’s just out for a story until she charms him into cooperating with her mad scheme.

Practical, universal lessons: While on vacation, don’t take your job responsibilities along with you; let everything go for a little while. Do be receptive to new experiences and new companions, and to just wandering and seeing where your city takes you. That said, don’t expect one trip to utterly change your life; you have to come back to the rest of the world eventually, which is much of what makes a vacation special.

Narrow, film-specific lessons: Be open to contrived, gimmicky, out-of-nowhere love; it happens all the time on vacations. (See also: every other vacation-themed romantic comedy ever made.)