Family Vacation Togetherness: How to set generational boundaries



Travel is supposed to be relaxing, a time to get away from home. Peaceful. No pressure. A change of environment and a chance to escape the humdrum routines of daily living-work, exercise, doctor's appointments, cooking, cleaning, volunteering and other obligations.

Most of us haven't been away for months or even years because of the pandemic. We desperately need some R & R. And yet...many of us opt to vacation with family which can mean multigenerational togetherness.

Is this relaxing? Restful? Traveling en famille is a challenge when there are so many ages, different restrictions in food preferences, activity preferences, energy levels, interests and more.

We both chose to be with family members of different generations recently rather than escape on our own. And in doing so, life almost seemed normal for several days as we hugged and kissed again, always without masks.

In the process, we mastered lessons about multigenerational vacationing and what works and doesn't. Planning in advance and listening to everyone's needs is key to having those kumbaya experiences. Following are both our experiences and advice, which was different because of the number of generations and the occasions.

For Barbara, family travel has been the rule for almost 35 years. When her late father turned 75, he announced he would only take vacations if his grandchildren would come. And so, the trips began to Southern California, Georgia's coastal region, Washington, D.C. and a classic iconic resort nearby.

The trips continued with her mother after her dad died. New places were explored. A dude ranch in Montana, reached by driving across part of the country. Cruises taken. Barbara and her mother tested their twosome in the Berkshires, then went to London at least four times together and once to Paris and Prague. Her mother, who loved London most and knew it well, enjoyed seeing it spark enthusiasm in Barbara. They ran around together in the morning visiting art museums, famous public gardens and delightful shopping areas, had lovely lunches to catch their breath, and then her mother went back to the hotel exhausted. Barbara ran around more until they met up again for a light dinner and theater or concert. It was the perfect combo and a recipe that worked and accommodated their different life stages.

Years later her mom also took Barbara and her daughters annually to a spa and the togetherness worked with a decision that daytime activities would be each person's choice, but lunch and dinner would be together. Nobody wanted to feel they were at army boot camp.

Now as the older generation is in charge, Barbara has decided traveling with the multigenerations is an important goal for everyone's precious time, and so she can be with grandchildren who don't live nearby, as well as see her daughters in a relaxed setting away from their homes. The big plus is that everybody gets to focus on togetherness rather than their usual routines and make sure there's something for everyone at some point during the day.

For the second time that she's gone with her younger daughter and family for several days, they chose a destination that would appeal to all three age ranges and include enough activities for the older grandkids, 5 and 8 1/2. Recently, they did so in Maine where Barbara and her daughters had all gone to camp for years. They chose a resort with a kids' camp for the two older grandsons. They shared a cabin, and her daughter and son-in-law decided when the group would eat, which activities they would pursue and how much they would interact with other guests.

Here is what they learned worked well. Best conclusion was that if everybody stays well, they will return to the same resort and for an extra day since it exceeded their expectations.

  *   Have accommodations that make sleeping comfortable, which in her family's case meant three rooms with beds--not sofa beds, and three full bathrooms. The rooms were in individual "rustic" cabins with stone fireplaces, a living room, screened porch with refrigerator and sink. Everybody had privacy and also privacy from other families and couples, a nice bonus in the post-Covid-19 world.

  *   The special "camp" program for kids gave the parents time to vacation, too. The adults knew it was available but didn't know how excellent the activities and counselors would be and if the grandchildren would want to participate. They did, from morning to evening, including lunches and dinners, boating, beach play, arts and crafts, a talent show and choice of playgrounds, one with a zip line.

  *   The option to eat outdoors rather than in the dining room made everyone feel comfortable given that Covid is still infecting many. Our family rule was that everyone ate breakfast together before going to individual activities, from tennis to ping pong, shooting basketball hoops, sitting and reading, waterskiing, boating, painting. They also gathered after dinner for s'mores by a fire pit. And another rule was that nobody commented on what anybody ate, especially given the huge buffet choices and twice-a-day-offerings of ice cream with topping choices.

  *   They tried not to overpack their days and enjoy some downtime together, though they had so much fun trying most offerings that that rule proved tough to observe.

  *   Barbara also had the joy of spending time with her grandchildren without their parents, trying canoeing together or reading in adjacent Adirondack chairs. An extra day on a return trip, she hopes, will make choices easier and allow them to try pickleball, a fitness boot camp, the resort's yoga instruction outdoors and fishing. Running out of time was a good thing in this case.

  *   Barbara and her daughter also chose to have some time alone before the trip, with her daughter and family visiting another Maine destination and Barbara staying over a night at a camp friend's home in New Hampshire.

Margaret went to a family wedding in Los Angeles, which required a plane flight and overnight stays at her daughter's home. Much of the weekend was planned around wedding activities, which were designed to appeal to all generations with good food-buffets and family style meals; great music (not too loud) and a vast selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

She was with all three siblings, their offspring and her children, including her youngest son's partner. Her sons, both of whom rented cars, stayed in different places. Her siblings stayed at a hotel near the winery where the wedding took place. She only saw them at the wedding activities because the hotel was so far away. This was the first time the entire family had been together in eight years, so it proved to be extra special togetherness.

To meet everyone's needs, Margaret and her children hatched a plan, including sleeping hours, exercise time, which meals would be together and so on and time apart. They worked out when to visit friends and whether to do so as a group or alone, as well as plans to visit cultural venues and when, shopping time and just how packed they wanted their days to be. Her daughter likes to go, go go and is a planner of activities from morning to night. Her sons prefer to have some down time. It was up to all of them to decide how much they wanted to participate in each other's plans.

Because there was a wedding and three evenings of activities, there was less planning than there would have been otherwise. Among the biggest decision was figuring out how each would get to the wedding since it was an hour car ride away and what to do together or alone during the non-wedding free time.

Here are a few of Margaret's tips and take aways for others. 

  1. Talk before you book. Make a list of everyone's needs and then prioritize. Respect each other's choices. Do you like to sit on a beach and soak up the sun? Hike or bike? Carve out time to run or exercise?
  2. Allow each person to have one request. Margaret wanted to visit a bookstore to peruse the children's section, so her daughter went along for the ride (actually she drove), but Margaret agreed to let her get a run in before they went. Since it was far, she filled her daughter's tank with gas, which was quite expensive in LA, then than $7 a gallon.
  3. Go your separate ways, too. We have found that when interests are diverse, we split up and come back together again for mealtime. It was too hot for Margaret to hike up a hilly canyon, so her daughter went alone. Margaret took a short walk. They met up for some shopping to cool off. Her youngest son and his girlfriend wanted to go to a museum but not at the same time as Margaret and her daughter. They went separately and then met up later for dinner with good friends.
  4. Try something new. Margaret learned that she can often learn to love a new activity or one she rarely pursues such as going to a spa or getting a massage. It's really about being with her kids, not the activity per se.
  5. Schedule free time. Swim. Nap. Read. Set aside an hour or more to recharge, especially as we age and tire a bit more.
  6. Decide in advance who pays for what. Each of Margaret's kids bought their own plane tickets. But Margaret insisted on paying for meals and gas when her daughter or sons drove her around. On the other hand, her daughter bought her an expensive lipstick and lunch one afternoon. But the rule of thumb is if mom is on the trip, she pays because she wants to do so. 

And know that at different stages our grown children may not want to be with us or their siblings. Their lives are so full with work, friends and family. We never want to make this concept a command performance and yearly event unless everyone genuinely wants to. But we feel fortunate to have reached the stage where we sometimes choose a multigenerational gathering.

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