Betty Lawton, 76, has ziplined down a mountain, explored caves, and soared high over Utah in a hot-air balloon. Still, barreling down level-4 rapids on the Colorado River with her 12-year-old grandson was a stretch, even for her.
“Daniel was in the very front of the boat, with that cold, brown water splashing all over him, and I was as far back as I could get, with my hood pulled over my face,” she recalls.
Lawton’s 2012 trip with educational-travel company Road Scholar may sound like an offbeat cross-generational family bonding experience, but this kind of all-age adventure travel is a growing trend.
Last year, a AAA report showed that more than 25 percent of American families were planning to take a vacation in a group of three generations or more. And the travel industry is responding by offering getaways that cater to every age and activity level.
Major hotel chains like Marriott’s Residence Inn now advertise family-friendly suites to accommodate multigenerational travel groups. At Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa in St. Lucia, the entire crew can partake in a rainforest hike or a beginner scuba dive; afterward, older travelers can retire to the adults-only wing for an evening away from the brood. Outfitters in Costa Rica and Hawaii that have traditionally offered a plethora of outdoor adventures for adults are now serving up more active options for mixed-age groups.
Even mountaineering clubs and state and national parks are joining in the multigen action. The Appalachian Mountain Club, which manages lodges, huts, and trails along the famed trail, has expanded its slate of guided trips for families, including adventure camps, hut-to-hut hiking, and outings that feature rafting, hiking, and rock climbing adapted for various ages and ability levels.
Lawton experienced this first-hand with her young travel buddy, exploring the great outdoors and careening through the frigid waters of the Grand Canyon. After that first trip with Daniel, she was hooked — on both the thrill of active vacations as well as the relationship she forged with her grandson. Lawton has since taken her two other grandchildren on their own special birthday trips.
“I figured I was getting older, and there were a lot of things I hadn’t experienced,” she says. “If I was going to take my grandkids some-where, I would take them to do things that I would have loved to do when I was 12.”
Trail riding isn’t typically on Miana Hoyt Dawson’s travel itinerary, but back in 2007, that’s what she found herself doing — on a dude ranch in Montana with her mom, Mary Ann.
Miana, then 26, and Mary Ann, in her early 50s, lived 3,000 miles apart at the time. They decided to meet in the middle, with the help of a women’s active travel outfit, Adventures in Good Company (AGC). The “Living the Cowgirl Life” trip found them among a group of 12 women ranging in age from their late 20s to early 60s, riding horseback, fly-fishing, and taking hikes under that amazing big sky.
“It was a great experience to have that time with my mother,” says Miana, who is now 35 and lives close to her mom in Williamsburg, Mass. “We’ve always been pretty close as a family, but traveling together has definitely helped us learn about each other in different ways.”
Since that first trip, Miana and Mary Ann have taken two more trips with AGC, inviting Miana’s sister, Laurel, 39, along for the adventure. The level of exertion required for these vacations ranges from mild to vigorous, striking a balance between activity and fun. Between hiking wild glens in Scotland, for example, Miana and Laurel sampled scotches recommended by the local barkeeps, taking and comparing notes.
“There’s something about designating this time with family while having time to do something active and stretch ourselves a bit,” Miana says. “It brings a totally different level of bonding and creates these amazing memories.”
Not Just for Families
Karen Kefauver, 46, a social-media coach and travel writer in Santa Cruz, Calif., is an avid mountain biker and road cyclist. Her far-flung bicycling adventures in recent years include a 20-day, 700-mile tour through China, trips along Peru’s Inca Trail and in Mexico’s famed Copper Canyon, and a slew of getaways to domestic destinations with cyclists of similar passion for the sport.
One of her most memorable vacations was rafting with a group of strangers, including two sets of grandparents, four grandkids, an entire family, and a couple her age.
On the heels of a difficult breakup, Kefauver needed a vacation but wanted to do something different. “At first I thought I might want a singles trip, but then I was like, No, it’s way too soon. And then I found this one that said ‘multi-age.’ Normally I would have shied away from that, but because of where I was in my life, I signed up,” she says.
Traveling with eco-outfitter ROW Adventures, the group spent five days rafting the Snake River in Idaho, making camp each afternoon to dry off and relax. “Most of the adults would sit on the beach with their cocktails, and I would run off with the kids, climbing cliffs, climbing rocks, and jumping in the water,” Kefauver recalls. “I didn’t want to sit around and talk about normal adult things, like my work — or my breakup.”
At the time, Kefauver didn’t have many children in her life, but she found that their energy and sense of play was just what she needed. “It was healing and it was joyful,” she recalls. “And it was unexpected.”
“I think the benefit of traveling with people of different ages is in the unexpected things,” says Lydia Hess, a tours specialist with Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), a nonprofit that provides road-cycling routes, maps, a magazine, and up to 20 group-touring trips each year.
Many ACA tours are “self-contained,” says Hess, meaning that riders carry their own gear and a map of the route, but can ride at their own pace. This is a boon to riders of different ability levels — and creates fresh opportunities for interacting.
“Everyone has the same route or activity, but has different strengths or comfort levels,” she says. When they rejoin at day’s end for dinner, they have conversations and share different perspectives. “You never think you’re going to bond with people who are much older, or younger, than you, but it happens.”
Organizing a “multigen” vacation requires more thoughtful planning than other getaways. Here are some ways to make it a fun experience for all.
Get everyone involved. When traveling with a group, everyone needs to have input on the itinerary. Let each person pick one activity, or vote on a list of options. While not everyone will love everything, each participant will get a say in the experience —even the kids!
Be realistic. Know the ability of your group so everyone has a fun experience, says Nicky Pizzo, program manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club at Pinkham Notch in New Hampshire. Your trip should include activities that everyone can do together, and maybe a few options for others to either take it up a notch or go a bit slower.
Ask for help. Planning your own vacation gives you the freedom to create a trip that includes exactly what your group wants. And there are plenty of resources, especially online, to turn to for help. Cycling clubs, for example, often have route maps for popular tours. The Appalachian Mountain Club (www.outdoors.org) has a handy trip-planning section on its website to help you design your hiking adventure. But don’t underestimate the value of having someone else take care of the logistics. There are plenty of outfitters, resorts, and tour operators happy to carry your load (figuratively or literally) and wrangle all the details so you can just have fun.
Pay attention to trip ratings. Active-vacation outfitters rate their trips by difficulty level and usually provide guidelines about what kind of shape you need to be in to enjoy the trip to its fullest. Rating scales describe the level of exertion necessary to participate in each activity. Make sure everyone in your group can meet the basic requirements indicated by the rating. And if you have any questions, ask.
Consider pretrip conditioning. Some outfitters provide suggested conditioning guidelines prior to departure. Adventure Cycling Association, for example, suggests a four-month training plan prior to its guided bicycling tours: www.adventurecycling.org/guided-tours/tours-faqs.
Get clear on finances. Make sure that you talk money before you arrive. Everyone should know upfront how much he or she is expected to contribute. That includes the additional expenses that inevitably arise.
Don’t underestimate anyone. While it’s smart to plan a range of activities, don’t assume the older travelers in your posse can’t keep up. That, after all, is one of the benefits of multigenerational travel. “Some things may be billed as activities for kids, but I think a lot of grandparents are just big kids, because they enjoy it, too!” says Betty Lawton, who, at 73, took her grandson on a whitewater-rafting adventure.|
Know Before You Go
Use this list of questions to plan your multigenerational adventure.
Activity: What kinds of activities do the members of your group enjoy?
Difficulty: What level of activity is desired (or possible) on this vacation?
Planning: Does the group prefer a DIY trip or one where someone else handles logistics?
Comfort: Do you want to rough it, go for luxury, or enjoy some combination of both?
Meals: What are people’s desires or needs when it comes to food?
Cost: What’s the maximum each person can spend?
Time: How long of a trip is desired?