An insider’s secrets to more fun, less stress
I don’t know if I’ve ever dreaded a vacation as much as I did the trip that was planned to celebrate my father’s 75th birthday. It’s not that I was against a Mediterranean cruise (who would be?) or spending time with my father. But having 14 family members in one place for 10 unbroken days seemed like an exercise in masochism. Our histories were too tangled…our tastes too different.
I needn’t have worried. With nearly 3,000 other passengers, I could melt into the crowd when needed. I could put the kids in the kids’ club and go to a lecture or the gym. On days in port, we split up into small family groups and followed our own interests. And at night, and sometimes at lunch, we all would meet to share stories of the day’s adventures. Instead of pushing us apart, the trip brought us closer together.
That balance of togetherness and independence is the key to enjoying a multigenerational vacation. It’s also important to find a vacation that fits everyone’s needs and budget. Here are some great vacation venues for family fun…
ALL-INCLUSIVE BEACH RESORTS
For many families, vacation means time at the beach, and you’ll get that—but also much more—at the best-run all-inclusive beach resorts. All-inclusives typically offer specialized programs for youngsters (arts and crafts, pool games, teen clubs), spas, gyms, tennis courts, water sports and evening entertainment. Some even throw in golf…trapeze lessons (a specialty of some Club Meds)…rock-climbing walls…and classes in cooking, yoga, dance or foreign languages. With this level of activity, there usually is something to interest everyone, no matter what age.
Another advantage of the all-inclusive is that once the room is paid for, guests typically don’t have to open their wallets for food, alcoholic drinks and activities. So there are few, if any, ugly surprises in terms of budget.
Which all-inclusive to pick? If everyone in the group is over age 18, you can choose adults-only resorts such as Sandals and SuperClubs. If you have younger kids, Club Med is a good choice because it offers baby care at many of its resorts, as well as kids’ clubs. It periodically offers “kids stay free” deals. A “kids stay free” promotion also is available this summer from Palace Resorts, a small chain on the Mexican Riviera that’s great for families.
If you’re going to be a big group, free rooms are important. Rooms at all-inclusive resorts can range from $300 to $500 a night. Most hotels give one freebie for every 10 booked, but AMResorts (which encompasses Dreams, Zoëtry, Secrets, Sunscape and Now Resorts) offers one free room for every five rooms purchased, a bonanza for those planning large family reunions.
A final suggestion, for families seeking luxury—Azul Resorts of Mexico. Though pricey, this is one of the few all-inclusive chains that has multibedroom villas appropriate for large groups (up to 14 people in some). At Azul, there often are discounts for children, and kids under age three are free.
To get the best rates at any of the above places, either bargain directly with the group manager at the resort…or use a site that bundles hotel and airfare together such as VacMart.com, VacationKids.com and BookIt.com.
Another all-inclusive option is the dude ranch, which typically focuses on horseback riding but offers a variety of other outdoor activities such as hiking and fishing. Dude ranches can range from very simple places to glamorous resorts with full spas and gourmet meals. They generally require participants to be fit and so may not be the best choice for families with elderly or very young members. For the rest, though, they represent an iconic American adventure.
The best source for information on dude ranches is RanchWeb.com. Along with reviews, the site regularly posts discounts, often up to 25% off the usual cost. Sometimes these savings are offered to large family groups willing to rent out the entire ranch, so do ask the manager about the benefits of bringing lots of “cowhands,” and don’t be shy about bargaining.
For the family that enjoys traveling from place to place, tours specially geared for a wide range of ages can be the right choice. Just this past January, Adventures By Disney announced it would be offering its first “multigenerational” tours (in Europe). Like Disney’s regular family tours, they will be led by two leaders, but in this case, the leaders are specially trained to create additional activities should one-half of the group move more quickly than the other. The other difference? A photographer goes along on each tour to make sure that the memories are picture-perfect.
Though Disney grabbed the headlines for adding multigenerational tours, Road Scholar (formerly known as Elderhostel) is the company that pioneered this type of vacation. It offers a good mix of activities each day that grandparents and grandchildren can do together, along with programs just for kids. Educational and interactive in nature, Road Scholar’s programs tend to concentrate on nature destinations (taking place in locales ranging from Kenya to Yellowstone National Park), though one-quarter are cultural programs (you might learn to paint at the Chicago Art Institute or make Carnevale masks in Venice). Because Road Scholar often bases its groups at universities, with stays in their dorms, costs can be lower than usual for these tours (though they’re not always). The other two big names in intergenerational touring are Collette Tours and Tauck Bridges.
All major cruise lines offer kids’ clubs, though many experts think that Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Disney are the best for young children. That being said, many seniors prefer a less frenetic atmosphere than what’s usually found aboard Royal Caribbean or Carnival (think loud pop music playing in the common areas). Ships that give a good balance of amenities for both young and old? Try Celebrity, Princess or Disney (yes, Disney, which has a number of areas on its ships just for adults).
Travel agents compete fiercely for group business (they get a higher commission for group bookings) and usually can get discounts and special amenities for your group. Try such cruise specialists as CruiseBrothers.com, CruisesOnly.com and VacationsToGo.com—go with whichever gets you the best rates. On most cruise lines, travelers who book eight to 10 cabins are offered one cabin free (the number will vary by length of itinerary). Groups often are treated to cocktail parties, free photos, free uses of meeting rooms and other niceties, so be sure that your agent is pushing for your family’s freebies—and choose a new agent if he/she isn’t.