I was wedged between my mother and son in a pedicab, a bicycle-drawn cart hired by thrill-seeking tourists (or folks, like us, who couldn’t nab a real taxi), traveling through Times Square on a brilliant September morning. It was Columbus Day weekend a few years ago, and I’d finally made good on my promise to take then 5-year-old Johnny to New York, my 70-something mom flying up from Texas for a weekend in the city where she was born.
I don’t think of myself as the trendy type: I prefer to zig when others are zagging. But as it turns out, not only was I physically occupying the center seat that morning, I was smack dab in the middle of one of today’s leading travel fads: the multi-generational vacation. Simply put, it’s when the kids, parents and Grands take off to see the sights, and each other, at the same time.
What’s so new about that? As a child, I spent almost all my summer vacations with my parents, siblings and one grandmother or another, traveling to the Jersey Shore and Gulf Coast. And we weren’t the only ones who packed three generations in a cramped station wagon (remember the Griswolds?). But the multi-generational vacation is really taking off now for several reasons, say travel experts. For one thing, families are busier and more spread out than ever, so it’s difficult to gather even at major holidays, says family travel specialist Carolyn LeFleur of Four Seasons Travel. Plus, she says, a family trip can be much less stressful than everyone gathering at Mom and Dad’s house. “It allows everyone to be together with plenty of space — nobody has to take the sofa bed — and no one has to spend half their time in the kitchen being the hostess,” she says.
Beyond the convenience factor, shared experiences between kids, parents and grandparents have less practical benefits. How could my mom forget the sight of my little guy hailing a cab after a Broadway performance of Beauty and the Beast?
“For the older generation, who has been somewhere and done it before, it’s refreshing to experience it through a younger person’s eyes,” says Betsy Patton, senior travel consultant at Betty MacLean Travel.
It’s tricky to put together most trips, even moreso when you’re trying to bridge the generation gap. If you want to get in on the trend yourself, take heed of these lessons drawn from my own experience as well as from interviews with travel experts and other seasoned multi-generational vacationers.
Know your limitations, and theirs. Are the little ones still in strollers? Can Grandpa manage the stairs? Is anyone on a special diet? “The group’s limitations are your starting point — work it from there,” says family travel expert Martha Gaughn of Brownell Travel.
Don’t expect 24-7 togetherness. “Choose a place where everyone can be together at certain times of the day and that offers each person and part of the family a chance to enjoy their own activities and time as well,” Gaughn suggests.
Keep convenience in mind. “Neither kids nor elderly people want to spend all their time ‘getting there’ so it’s usually best to look for a destination with shorter flight times,” LeFleur says. Plus, make sure you have easy access to activities — hotels right on the beach, bike rental on site, etc. On my New York trip, I chose a Midtown hotel within walking distance (for all of us) to Rockefeller Center, Times Square and Central Park.
Do something special. “Look for places and things that are going to enhance your time together — not activities you can do at home — so you come back with memories that are really special,” Gaughn says.
Read up on the place. Invest in books about and maps of the destination ahead of time, Patton suggests. Our visit to the Big Apple just had to include the wedge-shaped Flatiron Building and the Circle Line boat tour around the island — both featured in the appropriately named Lisa in New York, a kids’ book I bought Johnny on a previous business trip.
Don’t be too strict with the schedule. As Margaret Haughey of Madison, New Jersey found out, traveling with the kids and Grands takes time — and patience. The mom of three was road-tripping with her kids, husband and octogenarian parents to the beach, typically an easy two-hour drive that turned into a three-plus-hour tour of public restrooms along the Garden State Parkway. “Mentally add an hour onto any long drive, as that will be the time they need for the multiple stops. And above all, keep a good sense of humor and compassion at all times,” she says.
Buy travel insurance. “With children and with elderly travelers, you never know when someone is going to become ill,” LeFleur says.
Sit back and enjoy the view. Part of the magic of traveling with your children and your parents is watching their relationship grow. “My parents act as if nothing else matters except for what they are doing with my kids at the moment,” says mother of two Vicki Parker of Ipswitch, Mass., whose annual multi-generational trips have fostered a special relationship between her children and parents. “Grandma and Papa can impart knowledge without being seen as nuisances by my children, and they can give constructive criticism and not be shooed away as if they don’t know what they’re talking about.”