It's not uncommon for kids to be jet-setters nowadays. Unlike the family vacations their grandparents took, likely by car to the countryside or a national park, today's young travelers tag along with their parents on cross-country or international flights to isolated destinations, metropolitan cities and theme parks. With more flights to more destinations today, family vacations can easily involve globe-trotting.
The summertime vacation, in particular, is when parents can block out two weeks for a trip to Thailand, three months to explore Africa or a maybe a week in Paris with a biking trip in the Loire Valley.
These itineraries are familiar to Samantha McClure, owner of Austin, Texas-based travel agency Small World Travel — she created the packages for clients vacationing this summer with 10-, 12- and 14-year-olds.
McClure, who specializes in custom family vacations, says her clients are looking for quality time with their children instead of a "kid's club" experience where young ones are separated from mom and dad most of the time. "They're looking for memories they're going to take away," McClure says.
Since parents have become more adventurous, aided by the standardization of travel to once-remote locales, destinations that were once off-limits for youngsters are now popular for family travelers. Programs tailored to children, like cooking classes and resort day camps also help assure parents that kids will be both engaged and entertained.
Family travel trends
These perks must seem like wild extravagances to members of the Silent Generation, who came of age between the 1930s and 1950s. A recent poll conducted by Travelocity.com surveyed 853 travelers of varying ages and found that today's grandparents took a plane 4 percent of the time to reach a vacation destination; families now travel by air 63 percent of the time.
This wide gap is unsurprising given the development of air travel in the decades since, but the poll also found that destinations and activities are noticeably different. While more than one-third of families once vacationed at a campground or national park, only one-quarter of families do so now. Instead, they are visiting major cities, theme parks and beaches more often.
"Families are not doing any one thing universally," says Amy Ziff, an editor-at-large at Travelocity.com, who devised the poll. Ziff says that parents are taking advantage of new travel opportunities that arise frequently — from visiting the Galapagos Islands one year to rafting the Rio Grande the next. "There's a desire on behalf of the parents," she says. "They don't want to go to the same beach house year after year."
Peter Yesawich, CEO of the branding and market-research agency Ypartnership, expects summer family travel for 2008 to remain strong, though some households may stay closer to home or downgrade their accommodations as parents deal with the economic downturn. A survey conducted by Ypartnership and the Travel Industry Association, a trade organization, found that consumers were particularly concerned about gas prices and tighter or non-existent lines of credit.
The only income bracket to remain unaffected, Yesawich says, will be those in the top 1 percent of American households with adjusted gross incomes of $364,000 and higher. Even families in the top 8 percent, according to Yesawich, may scale back their plans. (The Internal Revenue Service defines the top 10 percent as having an adjusted gross income of $103,000 or more; the top 5 percent make $145,000 or more.)
What families are doing
Despite the belt-tightening, families are still seeking "really cool and unique vacation spots," says Mary-Jo Lipman, a spokeswoman for Orbitz.com and member of the Web site's advice-giving Parent Panel.
Lipman says that parents should make the distinction between destinations that are kid-friendly and those that are kid-focused. Neither is superior, but services and programs for children will vary. Theme parks, for example, cater to kids non-stop, which Lipman sees as kid-friendly. More hotels and resorts, on the other hand, are offering nanny services and creative, age-appropriate activities, which Lipman considers kid-focused.
PortAventura, a theme park in Salou, Spain, offers younger children manageable rides, a water park, and shows that feature bubbles, tropical birds and the Old West. But parents who crave a break from the chaos should stay at Mas Passamaner, a resort 25 miles away with access to fishing, cycling, hiking and golf. The resort also provides baby-sitting. Admission to PortAventura starts at 33.50 euros ($52) for children, and suites at Mas Passamaner begin at 275 euros ($425) per night.
The Mauna Lani Resort on the Kohala Coast offers plenty to keep kids busy, including a nine-hole golf course for junior players and a day camp for exploring tide pools and caves. A private bungalow with an ocean view at the Mauna Lani Resort starts at $6,050, but the hotel also offers a family package for $315 per night.
Other family-friendly destinations include the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, where kids will enjoy canoeing and hiking; Costa Rica for adrenaline-inducing activities like zip-lining and crossing suspension bridges; and New York, where the variety in museums can satisfy even the pickiest kids.
Regardless of the destination, Lipman says parents should use the valuable vacation time to unwind. "We have such a wired, connected, hectic society and work schedule," she says, "that vacation is all about reconnecting with yourself and your family."