A Grandparent’s Guide to Safe Travel with Kids

Happy grandfather giving a piggyback ride to his grandchild
Photo: LightField Studios/Shutterstock

My six grandchildren range in age from seven to 25. Some of my happiest memories are of the times when my husband and I took one or two of them with us on vacation. Our family vacation ideas ranged from hikes and beach time near home to farther-afield trips to some of the best family vacation spots in the U.S., like Seattle, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

We were lucky to be able to take the older four individually (or, in the case of the twins, together) on two one-week trips each—first when they were about nine years old, and again at 14 or so. These skip-gen trips, also called grandparent-grandchild vacations, are ideal when the grandchildren are old enough to be knowledgeable and curious about what they are experiencing (with a minimum of homesickness), and young enough not to have summer jobs or feel like they’re wasting their vacation with their elders instead of hanging out with friends. 

The skip-gen travel years are a short and precious time span, and we grandparents are getting older, too. With more than a year lost to lockdowns and other COVID restrictions, it’s no wonder that many fully vaccinated grandparents are not taking a “wait and see” attitude to travel. Rather, we want to take to the road (or the skies) with our grandchildren sooner rather than later.

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At the same time, we don’t want to be foolish: Our grandchildren under age 12 have no vaccine yet available to them, and the older children may not be fully vaccinated until midsummer. While most children are not at risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID, they are not risk-free.

Besides, we don’t want our grandkids to get sick at all! So, while the CDC guidelines for masking, social distancing, and travel have loosened considerably in past weeks, we grandparents need to remain watchful and cautious. Our travels will necessarily be less spur-of-the-moment and more carefully researched and planned this year.

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The CDC Weighs In

In the past year and a half, the CDC has issued many warnings and guidelines, and states and local communities have also weighed in with rules and recommendations that occasionally cause confusion. For vaccinated grandparents traveling with unvaccinated children, all this verbiage can, in my opinion, be boiled down to a few consistent guidelines. At any rate, these are the ones I follow:

  • If in doubt, put on your mask, which you should always have with you. Outdoor activities in uncrowded places do not require a mask. In other situations, even where masking is not required (or even where it is discouraged), we adults should mask in solidarity with our unvaccinated grandchildren. 
  • Keep your distance. Social distancing guidelines (six feet between individuals not of the same household) are clear and consistent, although some venues no longer enforce them. Most children have been carefully and repeatedly instructed in both masking and social distancing, so even in new situations, a gentle reminder should be sufficient.

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  • It is the adult’s responsibility to choose destinations and activities that make distancing possible. An outdoor concert with socially distanced “pods” for the audience: yes. A crowded street fair or musical event (indoor or outdoor) with the audience standing shoulder-to-shoulder: no.
  • Research safe practices. When planning both your summer vacation ideas and your activities, research the safety protocols of each community and business you’re thinking of visiting. Some have relaxed or even eliminated their COVID safety procedures. This means that we grandparents must use the internet or phone to determine what sanitizing procedures a hotel or vacation rental currently has in place, what distancing and masking policies a restaurant or other business is enforcing, and so on.

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  • Continue our own best COVID-prevention practices. Once I was fully vaccinated and out of the house again, I occasionally forgot that, yes, the virus is still out there. This temptation to relax and be “normal” is stronger, I think, when traveling and visiting a new place. With the grandchildren along, though, we need to bring our supply of hand sanitizer, wipes, and tissues, and to insist (without fussing) on frequent hand washing and the other good health practices we have learned.

Maybe Not this Year

While I believe that a savvy, well-prepared grandparent can pull off a safe, healthy, successful skip-gen vacation anywhere, I personally would postpone these kinds of trips:

  • Vacations that require a lot of public transport, or any extensive travel in crowded, uncertain conditions. Air travel may be necessary for grandparents and grandchildren even to get together. Masks, plenty of sanitizer, and the use of airlines and airports with clear, consistent safety protocols can minimize the risk to the unvaccinated. But, as much fun as trains, taxis, cruise ships, ferries, subways, and ride shares can be for children, I would try to avoid them this year for the sake of social distancing.
  • Vacations in places where masking is discouraged. In many states and communities, businesses and other venues are now able to choose whether to require masks. This practice allows you to decide which ones to patronize. However, in some communities it is now illegal to require masks. I would try to avoid places likely to be frequented by unmasked, unvaccinated people. 

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  • Vacations in places where the crowds are part of the fun: think super-popular or trendy destinations, festivals, once-a-year gatherings that draw large crowds. At the same time, I see no reason to avoid outdoor concerts and other performances with safety protocols such as limited admission and socially distanced “pods” for audiences.
  • International travel. Again, this may be necessary for grandparents and grandchildren to even get together. But I would not want to be responsible for taking an unvaccinated grandchild abroad in times that are still uncertain, as infection rates rise and fall in various countries.

But Let’s Go for it …  

  • Road trips are still popular this year—no public transportation required! If possible, I would choose an interesting nearby destination over a distant, more exotic one. Most kids I know don’t enjoy sitting hours in the car, and they don’t care much for the passing scenery. The national parks have been featured this year as wonderfully safe, memorable outdoor destinations, and of course we want the grandchildren to experience them. But national parks are crowded every year, and likely to be more so this year. Less prominent state parks and recreation areas, though also popular, are worth considering.

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  • Resorts often have outdoor activities, equipment, and amenities (like amazing swimming pools) for children that grandparents would be hard-pressed to provide on their own. I would look for a kid-friendly hotel or all-inclusive resort in the U.S. that also advertises some “cross-generational” activities that both children and grandchildren can enjoy together. If possible, I would choose a resort located near some other attractions so that we could make short trips together to experience them. A guest ranch would also fulfill this purpose as it would provide rides, hikes, and pack trips to take both grandparents and grandchildren out beyond the boundaries of the resort.
  • Outdoor Tourist Attractions need not be rural, and they are not limited to theme parks with rides. Try outdoor zoos, historical sites, refurbished “ghost towns,” and “living history” parks like Colonial Williamsburg.

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  • City visits. While “big city” and “social distancing” seem mismatched, I would at least consider a vacation with children in a city I knew well. We could use our ingenuity to avoid crowds and overcrowding: sidestep the big U.S. tourist attractions that are usually worth seeing (like Times Square), frequent the “insider” places that most tourists don’t know, visit a museum at off-hours (usually early weekday mornings), and enjoy outdoor attractions (like Central Park or perhaps a summer outdoor performance). A drawback to a city visit, however, is that public transportation is required—unless, of course, you drive straight to your hotel and then walk everywhere. Such a “walking tour” is possible in a surprising number of cities, but not likely to be welcomed by most children.
  • Organized tours. Some reputable companies now have tours especially designed for grandparents and grandchildren. After researching both the company’s reputation and its COVID protocols, I would consider signing up for such a skip-gen trip.
  • Granny-camp. Don’t forget the enormous appeal of one more exotic location: your place. Especially for young children who live at a distance, grandma/grandpa’s house, backyard movie nights under the stars, and surrounding areas are full of new things to see and experience. In addition to the local activities and treats you provide on a local staycation, you will probably take the grandchildren on one or two day trips to nearby sites. When you do, many of the travel tips above will apply. 

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I would also research and reserve all lodging ahead of time. An impromptu stay at a funky motel that was the last available room in town might usually make for a good story or fun memory … but not this year. I would take a cooler, plan for picnics, look for places to eat outdoors. When I choose to eat indoors, especially with children as my guests, I try to make it at a place that is unusual, important, fun, and memorable.

A Final Tip for First-Timers

Plan for “down time.” The kids aren’t always going to be enthusiastic about the thing you really wanted them to be excited about. They would rather swim in an ordinary motel pool rather than do something you think is really important and interesting; they may get tired or cranky or hot or cold or whiny (so may you). Expecting and allowing for these things—being flexible—is also a good health habit, as useful as hand sanitizer for a healthy and happy multigenerational vacation.

Approach this skip-gen vacation experience not only with caution and planning, but also with enthusiasm and joy. Travel is a wonderful opportunity to share new experiences with your grandchild.

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Kathy Boardman
Kathy Boardman recently retired after nearly 50 years in the teaching profession. She was a member of the Department of English Faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno, and also served for a time as associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts. She loves to visit interesting places and is currently trying to improve her skills as a plein air artist and travel journal illustrator.