Thanks to our fondness for vacationing with other families, my husband, Michael, and I have enjoyed Cape Cod sunsets and peaceful conversation over a glass of wine while a happy throng of kids played capture the flag nearby. We have eaten stuffed clams -- the best ever -- from a plastic lunch tray in a nameless underground Jersey Shore restaurant we never would have braved on our own. We have had the pleasure of our children's best behavior ("All the other kids are excited about the art museum, so let's go!") and our own ("All the other grown-ups are right here listening, so who cares which one of us forgot the sleeping bags!"). I've looked in on a roomful of kids asleep in a heap after playing together like puppies all day and sighed with contentedness. To say nothing of the fact that we've stayed in nicer places, eaten better meals, done more interesting things, played more games, and spent less money (thanks to sharing expenses) than we would have on our own. And that's all while enjoying the fantastic company (and excellent cooking) of our nearest and dearest friends.
We've taken trips with the same one or two families since our kids were little, and it is always a highlight of our year. We've been to big cities and little beach towns. We've stayed in tents, seaside rentals, and family homes. And we've saved money the same way one does shopping at Costco: getting more house -- and amenities -- is cheaper per person the more of you there are. One time we scored an urban loft apartment that housed all 13 of us and offered foosball, pinball, bubble hockey, and pool. The appeal of that location actually presented a problem, since it became nearly impossible to extricate the kids from the great indoors.
Which brings me to one of the (few) cons of vacationing en masse: the inertia of a large group can be somewhat frustrating, as can the complexity of decision-making. (We once spent almost an hour debating the merits of various beaches we could visit.) The flip side is that there are enough people to break into smaller groups. On one beach trip, half of us drove to the shore to check out dozens of sea stars washed up by the tide while the rest of us, including a couple of middle school cross-country runners, jogged there. On a city trip, the adults stepped out, a few at a time, to visit an art deco bar down the street while their counterparts minded the kids at home. (Shared babysitting can be as casual or as organized as suits the group.) Dining out can be challenging, but we've loved taking turns cooking and splurging on local treats like fresh seafood or French pastries from a nearby bakery (still much cheaper than eating at restaurants, after all).
Like most things, vacationing together has only gotten better as the kids have grown older (the group currently ranges in age from 7 to 13). So I may not recall the years of watching kids toddle perilously close to the campfire, the conflicting nap schedules, or the tugs-of-war over prized dolls and seashells. I just remember the sunsets and the slow, golden time together: the kind of time that's so hard to come by -- and so completely magical.
Get a house or an apartment with a large hangout area, since you're all going to want to be in the same place and you're likely to spend a fair amount of time there.
Make sure there's available outdoor space -- beachfront, a backyard, or a nearby park -- where the kids can run around when they need to.
Seek out fun amenities, if they fit your budget: a swimming pool or pool table can make a trip really special for the kids.
Cook at home (going out with big groups is unwieldy and expensive) but treat yourselves to fun local ingredients (seafood at the beach or market finds in a city) since you'll be saving overall. Also, consider feeding the kids dinner first, then setting them up with a movie so that the grown-ups can enjoy a more leisurely meal together.
Take along air mattresses and sleeping bags and let the kids all crash in one room.
Bring games, puzzles, and art supplies for when the kids need some quiet time alone or with their friends.
Put all the early risers in one sleeping area and/or set wake-up rules; that way, the kids who are up at 5 a.m. don't rouse everyone else.
Be flexible. With a big group, chances are good that not every decision -- about what to eat, where to go, how to organize things -- will reflect your own ideal. Roll with it.
Bend the rules. We let the kids watch TV, stay up late, and drink soda, especially if that's what their friends are doing. We figure we can get back to routines when we're home again.
Let people do their own thing. If half the group is dying to hit the art museum and the other half would be happier at a park, split up for part of the day and reconvene later.
Get a sense of each family's budget ahead of time. Before renting a house, we find out how much everyone can spend, then we revisit the money question before we leave, to figure out what people can swing in terms of food and activities.
Decide how to handle expenses while vacationing. We have everyone keep receipts, then we tally them at the end and figure out who is owed what. Or you can each put a designated amount of cash in an envelope and use it for all the trip's expenses.
Contributor Catherine Newman, husband Michael, and kids Ben, age 13, and Birdy, 10, shown here with the whole crazy crew, vacation wherever their friends are willing to drive.
Originally published in the June/July 2013 issue of FamilyFun.