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."