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Multigenerational Family Travel: Vacations for the Entire Family

Published on: February 01, 2012

The benefits of multigenerational family vacationsAre we there yet?” takes on a whole new meaning when “family trip” means traveling with your kids and your parents.

Sure, you figure that catering to the kids’ requests and, let’s face it, their demands, would be enough of a challenge. But how do you deal with your dad’s habits (vanilla extra-foam latte, extra hot, by 9 a.m.) and your mom’s wishes (French Bordeaux at sunset) while keeping everyone enthused, energized and enjoying the vacation?

The fact is, more and more families are traveling ensemble these days. According to the U.S. Travel Industry Association, at least 5 million family vacations a year in the United States span three generations. And often, it’s grandma and grandpa who are footing the bill.

Just when you thought your folks had moved beyond playground stops, snack stops and potty stops, there they are, right back in the saddle, or rather, alongside the stroller.

Last year, 32 percent of American grandparents who took vacations took a trip with their grandchildren, reports the Chicago Tribune. And the number is expected to grow as the population ages.

Seems like only yesterday that young families were trekking to grandmother’s house over the river and through the woods. Today’s fit, active grannies relish trains, planes and automobiles, not to mention cruises, ski slopes and hikes. Chances are, these nannas and pappas are sprinting over that river right alongside you and your kids.

Family fun, photos and more

With a little planning and a lot of patience, multigenerational travel can work. And at the end of the trip — besides miniature models of the Eiffel Tower and “I ‘heart’ New York” T-shirts — you’ll have infinite memories, digital photo albums and, best of all, a bonding experience that will take each family member a long and unforgettable way.

We come from a strong culture of interactive, intersecting family travelers. My own grandparents often accompanied us on trips — OK, excursions — to Lake Sammamish Park; Seaside, Oregon; and Soap Lake. My parents often included the kids and grandkids on visits to Waikiki and California.

My husband and I stepped things up a notch when we planned a trip to Europe with our then-12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, and asked my parents and mother-in-law to come along.

We rented a big van, powered through France and Switzerland, and did our best to accommodate everyone’s travel wish list. This included museums and churches (our son); boat rides and pain au chocolat (our daughter); and a side trip to Vevey, Switzerland, because that’s where Charlie Chaplin once lived with Oona O’Neill (my star-struck mother).

The trip went remarkably well and set the stage for many more. Best of all, these extended outings normalized intergenerational travel for my family. My children (and now my grandchildren) think three-generation vacations are pretty cool — and not all that unusual.

I call that a win-win-win.

We’ve taken terrific Northwest excursions with our kids and grandkids to Victoria, Vancouver and Whistler in British Columbia; Portland, Oregon; and coastal jaunts to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Disneyland. Last year, we spent Thanksgiving in New York, where I introduced my granddaughters to Times Square and sang an unfortunate rendition of “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

Together, we’ve haggled for bracelets in the Arab souk; marveled at glass blowing in Murano; sailed toy boats in the Tuileries Garden; and most recently, watched the kids hula in Hawaii.

The learning, growing and bonding cut across each generation on these trips — well worth the (sometimes Herculean) efforts to make it all happen.

Prudent planning

How can you engineer an intergenerational vacation that goes off without a hitch? You can’t. Someone is bound to have a sore throat, a lost blankie or a crying spell upon realizing the Mona Lisa is a painting, not a person (my 6-year-old granddaughter).

What you can do is plan smart and be realistic: This is not the dreamy getaway you’ve long yearned for, rife with soft music and umbrella drinks. It’s much more than that. And, some would argue, so much better.

Linda Morgan is ParentMap’s managing editor, and author of the book, Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Potential.

7 Tips for Planning a Multigenerational Family Vacation

1. Location, location, location. Yes, you’ve always wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and hike through the Cinque Terre. Now get real. When your travelers include the young and the not so young, you need to think flat surfaces, stroller-friendly roads and walking-distance attractions.

2. Dining. Food is important, but let’s be clear: You won’t be dining. Everyone should be prepared to rush though meals, snack often, ask for kids’ menus and, in hunger emergencies, resort to fast-food joints. The kids gotta eat.

3. Don’t overplan. Leave time for spontaneous exploring and sheer silly stuff that every generation will enjoy. Some of our faves: the banyan tree in Waikiki, the monster slide in Jerusalem, the toy trains in Nashville, and the pumpkin patch at Half Moon Bay. 

4. Find your inner child. Get young and get down. That regression to the mean works well for everyone; the little ones learn to explore grown-up museums and you get to visit cool parks, playgrounds and merry-go-rounds. Last summer, my husband and I escorted the grandkids up the steps of the Arc de Triomphe — all 234 of them.

5. Alone time. Let the grandparents have some special solo time with the kids, while you do something quiet and romantic that involves wine or roses or heck, a nice nap. On a lengthy trip filled with tenacious togetherness, some separation can be a Very Good Thing.

6. Chill. You’re on vacation. Enjoy your kids, your parents and your kids enjoying your parents. That may mean relaxing the rules — just a bit — and letting the grandparents sneak in that extra story or boat ride or éclair au chocolat. You can revert to tiger mom mode when you return.

7. Start small. If you're a family-travel rookie, take a ferry ride with the kids and grandfolks to Whidbey Island, Bainbridge Island or Vashon Island. Spend the day discovering the markets, beaches and parks, and get the feel of exploring the terrain while you’re sandwiched between generations. You just might get hooked.

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