Far more than previous generations, current parents — largely millennials but also some Gen X- and Z-ers creeping in there too — are taking multigenerational vacations, complete with kids and grandparents along for the ride. On the surface, it looks like a win-win, with parents (hopefully) getting some vacation child care out of Grandma, while grandparents supposedly soak up more quality time with grandkids. But how helpful is it to have such an unwieldy travel group — and is everyone just overwhelmed? Here’s what travelers of any generation should know about planning a big family vacation — and pulling it off with fewer risks, more rewards and everyone’s mental health intact.
The multigenerational travel trend
For plenty of families, like Dr. Sherry Katz-Bearnot’s, multigenerational travel had been a tradition for decades. “Even when our kids were little, we traveled with my parents,” Katz-Bearnot, a psychiatrist, mother of three and grandmother of two tells Yahoo Life of her vacations in the 1980s and ’90s. “We went to Colonial Williamsburg with the kids and my parents, and they loved it.” Thirtysomething years later, she’s recently returned from a successful trip to Europe with her grown kids and her grandchildren. And these days, more families than ever are hopping on the bandwagon.
Jared Benoff, owner of the travel agency Vacationeeze, says his business has seen a steady uptick in multigenerational travel in recent years. And while these trips used to be anchored to a milestone — say, a 60th birthday or a 50th wedding anniversary — they’re no longer for special occasions only, Benoff tells Yahoo Life. “Especially since COVID, we're seeing even more ‘just because’ trips,” complete with kids and parents and grandparents alike, he adds. “More people are realizing you don't need a reason to take an incredible trip together as a big family, and there's no better way to experience a place than together.”
The most popular multi-gen destinations? “Easy” bucket-list trips like Hawaii (a long haul to another world without the hassle of a passport) and backroads adventures with different levels of activity available. “Grandma and grandpa can do a walk with the little ones, and the parents can go out and do an arduous hike,” says Benoff. “Or they can decide to all do something together.”
Travel pro Ivan Saprov of the travel tech company Voyagu adds a third theme to these top multi-gen trip picks: “We have observed a notable trend among our clients where grandparents and grandchildren are increasingly traveling together for cultural and ancestry trips, particularly when they have family connections,” he tells Yahoo Life. Like Benoff, Saprov has seen a rise in multi-gen bookings, and is confident that the trend will continue into 2024.
The benefits of multigenerational travel
For Washington, D.C., mom Laura Hinson, multigenerational vacations carry the promise of built-in child care. A year ago, she went on vacation to Australia with her 10-month-old daughter, her husband, his mother, his brother and sister-in-law and their children, plus an aunt and uncle and cousins.
“There were 17 of us total for three weeks,” Hinson tells Yahoo Life, noting that the critical mass of helpful adults was the best part. “There were just hands everywhere, for any kids. Wherever you went, there was a grandparent or aunt or uncle taking care of a child, giving the parents a break.”
Hinson was surprised how much she enjoyed the default communal living aspect in one giant Airbnb. “It’s the ideal way I imagine long-term living with extended family would go,” she says. “The older generation tended to stay put more. They would start the cooking, which allowed us to explore with our kids, and it was great to come together for a huge meal at the end of the day.”
Plenty of parents, of course, may be hesitant to combine generations — couldn’t that be a recipe for disaster? Clinical psychologist Melinda Blitzer reminds millennial parents that “even if you didn’t have the best relationship with your parents growing up, there can be some healing in your relationship by observing your parents with your children [and] being loving towards them." Blitzer adds, "There’s research about this actually, that grandparents tend to have a more positive relationship with their grandkids than their own children, because their feelings of responsibility and the tensions are diluted.” That said, this does not apply for individuals and families with a history of abuse or trauma.
The potential pitfalls
Despite the joys of free child care and cross-generational bonding, a family vacation with so many people is bound to have its problems. Blitzer says there's a "certain kind of regression that happens" when some people spend time with their family of origin, particularly for adult children in close quarters with their parents. She explains, “Old ways of being that are no longer adaptive might surface. It can make negotiating tension or conflict or advocating for your needs a little more complicated.”
Blitzer worked with a young mother who planned a trip to Italy with her husband, their 2-year-old and her own parents. She was completely overwhelmed with anxiety before the trip, plagued with worries about how her child would behave on the plane and whether her parents would help. Those worries proved to be unfounded, and instead the mother was surprised to find herself feeling envious when her parents did indeed help out — and that her toddler kept gravitating toward grandpa instead of her.
“Some jealousies surfaced in her,” Blitzer notes, “and she was trying to manage feelings of resentment about that. Just observing new dynamics can be surprising at times, or just remind you of old ways you might have felt aggravated with your parents.”
But remember: You don’t have to do this. It doesn’t matter if it truly is your parents’ 50th anniversary wish; if simply planning the trip is causing you anxiety, or putting pressures on your partnership, you can skip the trip entirely. Plan a vacation with a smaller group, or just stay home this round.
“I have a patient who had planned to go on vacation with their husband, child and parents,” Blitzer shares. “And the millennials in this case were in conflict about going on this vacation and how to negotiate space. So they decided not to go with the parents at all, which sometimes might be the better option, if the conflict feels too overwhelming. There are options.”
How to make a multigenerational vacation work
Multi-gen travel can benefit all involved, and the intrepid travelers and professionals who spoke to Yahoo Life had helpful tips for setting your Gen-A-to-Boomer trip up for success. The through lines of everyone’s experiences were: Set realistic expectations ahead of time, slow down, build in alone time, advocate for your needs and keep communicating — and maybe try to keep a sense of humor.
Set realistic expectations, and do it ahead of time
“Setting expectations in advance of how much time everybody expects people are going to be welded together is a really good idea,” Katz-Bearnot says. “My son and daughter-in-law were very good about telling us, ‘Wednesday night we want to go out to dinner on our own.’ So we took the kids out to a theater evening … which was fantastic.”
She also urges all three generations — mostly the two adult ones, but it can help to involve the kids in planning, too — to discuss all those expectations well ahead of time. “Don’t wait until you’re on the plane!” Katz-Bearnot laughs. “Have some conversations that might be uncomfortable beforehand. Everyone can express what they’d like to get out of the trip. And acknowledge that space is something that’s important to give people.”
Blitzer agrees, and adds that “it’s important for the middle-gen couple (the parents of the younger children) to have honest conversations between themselves about what they’re willing to tolerate. Then, after that’s in place, negotiate with the grandparents. Otherwise it could get sticky; one partner might feel disrespected if they’re not made a priority [or] if one partner sets expectations with their parents before consulting their partner.”
Don’t overextend. Do build in alone time.
For grandparents many years out from their own little-kid parenting phase, returning to constant contact with small and antsy humans may come as a bit of a shock to the system. Katz-Bearnot advises them to mentally prepare and remind themselves what kid days are like.
“Children have to be refueled and need down time,” she says. “Grown-ups have to be prepared — and flexible. They have to realize that, for a kid, what’s the most fun at that museum in Paris might just be the escalators. You could see the Eiffel Tower from those escalators! Kids can put a damper on speed or cultural experience, and that has to be OK. If you don’t want that, you have to tell your own kids that you want an afternoon to go off by yourself. And the biggest, most important thing is not to be in a rush.”
And know when to just laugh
Travel in general, explains Katz-Bearnot, “requires flexibility, openness, a sense of humor and a willingness to have adventures and to look upon things that are complete f***-ups as adventures.”
That holds true whether you’re traveling solo, with a partner or with 16 of your closest family members on the multigenerational trip of a lifetime. For all of these scenarios, Katz-Bearnot’s best piece of advice — and that of many seasoned travelers — is to shrug off what doesn’t really matter.
“[When it comes to] things that cause consternation,” she says, “you just have to think, what a great story this is going to make.”