The trouble began while we were checking into our hotel, an old-fashioned summer resort in upstate New York. As uniformed teenage valets took our luggage, my socially conscious middle brother muttered that they were "oppressed workers." Then he was given a registration card, and when he saw the price of his room, he nearly passed out.
My parents had specifically chosen this funky, low-key hotel to placate my brother's anti-luxe bent. To celebrate my father's 65th birthday, they were picking up the tab for all of us -- my middle brother, my younger brother and his wife, and my wife, our 2-year-old daughter, and me. To them, this was a small price to pay to get us all in one place for a week.
Like many families separated by geography, schedules, and lifestyles, we hadn't stayed under one roof for years. As it turned out, this trip didn't alter that; after a tension-fraught powwow, my brother checked into a cheap motel down the road. He ended up visiting every day, which made my parents happy; they were used to him asserting his independence. But his withdrawal made the rest of us self-conscious, and I wondered if it was folly to expect a stress-free multigenerational vacation.
In the ensuing years, we have attempted several more family-tree trips, and we're not alone. In this busy, fractured era, these types of vacations have become an increasingly common way for generations to connect between weddings and funerals. A recent survey by Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell found that more than a third of grandparents traveled with their grandchildren. And in these uncertain and stressful times, the urge to reforge family bonds is stronger than ever.
There are many reasons why such trips are thriving. Today's seniors are living longer, heathier, and more mobile lives and are eager to make up for lost time and long distances away from beloved grandchildren. Grown children, strapped for time and money to plan relaxing vacations or trips to see extended family, are combining the two, says Kyle McCarthy, editor of FamilyTravelForum.com. And for divorced parents, traveling with family can ease logistical and economic hardships. Besides, compared to crowding back into the family home, a group trip allows room to roam as well as free (and guilt-free) babysitting.
The potential rewards of multigenerational vacations are many. So are the challenges. The goal is to overcome the obstacles so everyone can enjoy the benefits: Kids get more attention than usual and the chance to enjoy relatives in a less formal setting than a family function. For parents, the trip can provide a respite from 24/7 childrearing, earn them brownie points with their own parents, and maybe even create some husband-wife cuddle time. Grandparents get to enjoy the fruits of their labors in ways that a single holiday meal doesn't really allow.
But with so many agendas, calendars, and pocketbooks -- not to mention embedded modes of behavior -- there's certainly potential for conflict. As Helena Koenig, president of Grandtravel, a Chevy Chase, MD, agency specializing in tours for grandparents and grandkids, puts it, "Any destination will work, but the people need to get along and understand one another."
Easier said than done. Family members often bring more baggage on vacation than a matched set of Samsonite. When planning a group trip to San Diego, for instance, my mother denied my request to stay at the famous El Coronado (where Some Like It Hot was filmed) because she was put off by the fact that getting there required driving over a toll causeway. (The horror!) We wound up at an equally pricey generic chain hotel whose purported beach turned out to be on a man-made canal. (My lefty brother opted out of that one in the planning stages.)
As my family has stumbled doggedly onward in the quest for unity, I've slowly figured out what works and what doesn't. And the experts agree with me. Advises Cynthia Harriman, Portsmouth, NH-based author of Take Your Kids to Europe: "Think of things to do and places to go that meet everyone's needs."
Fun for All
First things first: Don't crowd the guest list. While elders often feel like inviting every aunt, second cousin, and half-sibling, more aren't always merrier. The year we tried including my mother's sister's branch of the family, the simple act of choosing a restaurant for dinner, getting there, and sitting together nearly caused us to implode. If you do have a big reunion, avoid stress by limiting group meals to one per day.
In fact, even though the point is togetherness, it's important to choose a trip that offers family members space and time to be on their own. Instead of renting a large house, says McCarthy, "I'd err on the side of a condo with individual units." This keeps crying babies and late partyers from bothering everyone else, which leads to less friction around mealtime and permits, as she puts it, "less scrutiny of everyone's parenting style." Instead of renting the largest possible vehicle, she votes for auto-autonomy -- each family should have its own car.
And even though this is a vacation, agree from the beginning to limit sightseeing. The point is to relax, and as soon as you start trying to move as a herd, pleasure takes a holiday. So avoid places where you'd feel frustrated missing tourist sites or where you're trapped in one place with nothing else to do (an out-of-the way hotel with no kids' program). A typical compromise often cited by experts is San Diego, which has Sea World, the famed zoo, Legoland, surfing, museums, theaters, and beaches -- but if you ended up just staying at your hotel, you wouldn't feel like you'd gone to Rome and hadn't seen the Sistine Chapel.
Most crucial is having the right mindset. Take a break from lifelong relationship dramas and respect each other's differences instead of trying to get everyone on the same page. As Laura Manske, New York City-based editor of Family Travel: The Farther You Go, the Closer You Get, says, "Leave negative family memories at home. Move into a vacation Zen zone. Let it go. Smile." Fend off digs about your kids' behavior with a cheerful comment such as, "Susie's so busy with school and soccer and piano lessons that we don't mind if she wants to lie around on vacation." Look at the trip as an opportunity for your kids to get to know their grandparents and hear "secrets" about what you were like as a kid.
Spanning the Globe
Okay, so, where to go? Arranging the appropriate convergence of factors -- price, distance, amenities, personal tastes -- can be exhausting. In my family, my parents prefer pre-planned cruises and group bus tours. My middle brother has visited all 48 contiguous states, living out of a beat-up Toyota. My youngest brother and his wife once explored exotic places like Thailand and Africa but now have two kids and are somewhat averse to flying. Now divorced and single again, I like antiquing and noshing in places off the beaten track, as well as any part of Italy. My kids are older now, 9 and 6, and they have completely different needs than they had a few years ago.
In picking a destination, keep the abilities of both the youngest and oldest family members in mind. If elders are entrusted to choose the trip, McCarthy warns, it may suit them but not youngsters: "The one I always hear complaints about is the cruise to Alaska," she says. "The little ones are trapped in the cabins because the parents are afraid they'll fall overboard or catch cold up above. Meanwhile, the elders are enjoying the cuisine and nighttime entertainment." The flip side of this is the kid-oriented place that is not grandparent-friendly, like theme parks with long walks, rough rides, and endless lines.
I actually forged a Disney compromise when my daughters were 5 1/2 and 2 1/2. My parents like cruises but hate amusement parks, so we signed up for the one-week Disney Cruise/Park combo, bringing the girls to the park first and then having my folks join us for the mini-cruise. Everyone was happy. But for most trips, the location is not nearly as important as the setup: Hotels have proved less flexible than houses; having a full fridge and being able to cook is a must with kids. Having a common room to gather in while people are napping is also better than being trapped in isolated bedrooms.
Our most successful family-tree trip to date was the summer when we rented a two-family house in the unassuming Oregon coast town of Manzanita. We saw its cute July 4th parade, watched fireworks over its beautiful beach, ate in uncrowded restaurants, roasted s'mores on the porch. My lefty brother even showed up and made us all vegetarian lasagna for dinner. That said, there are an increasing number of resorts catering to family reunions and multigenerational trips.
My parents are already chomping at the bit to get us all back together again, despite the chaos involved. My mom maintains that the hardest part is calendar coordination -- and that everything else is easy to overlook. "We love to see you and your families," she says. "Even though you boss us around, you make us laugh a lot."
The most important rule: Keep smiling. And don't forget to pack sunblock and comfortable shoes.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 2003 issue of Child magazine.