Soon after my twins were born several years ago, I moved to a new town where I didn't know a soul. After about a year of going it alone, I joined a local mother's center and hooked up with a group of women who remain my best friends to this day. We spend every New Year's Eve and Super Bowl together, barbecue at rotating houses, and watch each other's kids when we're in a bind. And last summer, we decided to take our friendship to a whole new level with a multifamily vacation.
Yes, that's right! We packed up five moms, five dads, and 10 children (all under the age of 9) for one super-size family trip. And apparently, we're not alone. Group travel has become one of the fastest-growing trends in the industry. It even has a name: togethering. According to a survey by Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, a travel-marketing agency in Orlando, 80 percent of vacationers took at least one trip with extended family or friends during the past five years.
Although traveling with 10 kids may sound more like a bad comedy than a holiday, there are lots of advantages to this type of trip. Group discounts is a big one, but vacationing with other adults also means you can take turns watching the children, your kids have built-in playmates, you can split up what you have to pack (toys, gear, food), and you can spend quality time with faraway friends and family you might not see otherwise.
But let's be honest: Planning a vacation for just your family can be hard enough. So the thought of doing it when lots of people are involved may seem impossible. Trust me, it's not. Here's what I learned from the experts and from my own trip.
You and your friends might have a lot in common when you're just hanging out at playdates, but you could have completely different vacation styles. If your friends insist that their children turn in for the night by 8 p.m. while you have an open bedtime policy on the road, you're going to be miserable by Day 2 of the trip.
Before committing to a joint vacation, test the waters and take a mini trip together. Go on a daylong outing to the zoo or the children's museum to see how well your families mesh. If you butt heads on everything from what to do to where to eat, better to find out now than after you've caravanned four hours in a minivan.
You know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen, right? Well, that goes double for planning a vacation. One or two people should be in charge of coordinating the trip, including finding the lodging, booking any tickets you'll need ahead of time (amusement parks, museums, boat rides), and making any other arrangements. "This person sweats the details before the trip and cracks the whip during," says Paul Eisenberg, editorial director of Fodor's Travel. Otherwise, there will be chaos and nothing will get settled. The leader can also appoint others to help out later on: For instance, your cousin Ed will call people each night to gather them for dinner, and Uncle Bill will put together the Thursday-afternoon tennis game.
If you live close enough, have a group powwow to decide on the leader and brainstorm preliminary arrangements. Most of the time the organizer will naturally emerge. In our case, there were two: My friend Stephanie and I did most of the legwork and passed the information along to the rest of the group.
Finding a place that has something for everyone can be the hardest part of group travel. It was surprisingly easy for us. Originally, I had wanted to try one of the indoor waterparks, but my friend Jane thought something outdoorsy would be better for the summer. She suggested Woodloch Pines, a 1,000-acre family resort in the Poconos (woodlochpines.com). I wasn't sure at first, but as soon as the brochure arrived, I knew it would be the perfect place for our long-weekend getaway. The resort has lots of activities for kids -- everything from bumper cars to scavenger hunts to a petting zoo. And there's plenty for grown-ups to do too!
To narrow down your choices, look for places that are a reasonable travel distance for everyone. If you're coming from different ends of the country, for example, it should be somewhere in between. You should also discuss what you want out of a vacation: a destination with culture and the arts (an urban escape), lots of outdoor activities (a national park or a ski resort), or a relaxing retreat (the beach or a lake).
You can get great deals when you're traveling as a herd. We rented two fully equipped guest cabins at Woodloch Springs, a five-minute ride from the main lodge, which saved us a lot of money -- both on accommodations and meals. We still were able to enjoy all the perks the resort had to offer, but we also had lots of space for the kids, a fridge for food, and a barbecue in the backyard.
Most destinations will offer a variety of lodging options. If your group is large enough, you could even have a small bed-and-breakfast all to yourselves, suggests Pamela Lanier, author of Family Travel & Resorts. Wherever you decide to go, start with an Internet search to get ideas. But once you narrow it down, make sure you call the sales manager directly -- you can get the best group rates this way. "Tell him it may be the only time this group will all see each other, and ask what he can do for you," suggests Eisenberg.
Don't forget to find out about group discounts for activities too, including nearby amusement parks, zoos, concerts, and museums. And make the most of having other adults on hand. Trade off on childcare: Each couple gets one night out alone while the others watch the kids, for example.
One place where we went wrong was with money. Some of us paid with cash throughout the trip, and others charged drinks and snacks to the house. In the end, we weren't sure who had bought what. Luckily, the costs weren't exorbitant so we all split everything without any ill will. But little mistakes like this could put a strain on your relationship. Talk over how you want to handle group purchases before you go. Instead of taking turns paying (groups often do this, and things rarely work out evenly), Eisenberg suggests that each family load the same amount of money on one debit card to use for combined expenses.
There's also the issue of lodging. If you're sharing space with another family or two, avoid tension or hurt feelings by deciding in advance who gets the master suite and whether they'll pay a little more for it. And it's a good idea to designate responsibilities before the trip, especially when it comes to cooking and cleaning. We lucked out: My friend Claudia is an amazing cook. She brought everything for Saturday-night dinner, and we all just split the cost. But we blew planning the breakfast and lunch food: We ended up with four boxes of Cocoa Puffs, a couple dozen Pop-Tarts, and way too many chips for a three-day getaway. "To prevent this, you should appoint a food commissioner to coordinate who brings what," says Lanier. You could also assign each family a day to be in charge of the food, or let one handle breakfast, another lunch, and another dinner.
While you should plan on one big group activity or some downtime together each day, don't take it personally if your friends want to do their own things too. "You would never spend every waking moment with friends and family at home, so why would you do it when you're away?" says Eisenberg.
In fact, it's probably good for your friendship -- and your sanity -- to have some time alone with your own family or in smaller groups. For us, it splintered pretty naturally. Some of us wanted to eat in every night, while a few sampled the restaurants. Three families went on a boat ride, while the other two checked out the arts-and-crafts room. And the best part was that we all got to do things we probably wouldn't have done on our own -- and made great memories together in the process!