The 4 Secrets of a Happy Family Vacation with Grandparents

Multigenerational family vacations aren't about doing everything together, they're about coming together for the moments that matter most.
Grandparents at the beach (Photo: @doutorfotografo via Twenty20)
Grandparents at the beach (Photo: @doutorfotografo via Twenty20)

There’s so much to love about multigenerational travel with your extended family. It’s a time when grandparents and grandkids can bond, parents can get the occasional break, and everyone can explore the world together on a family vacation they’ll never forget.

There are also some specific challenges that come from family trips that include older and younger family members in the same group. And sandwich-generation parents would do well to adjust expectations when it comes to traveling with older relatives and children. Here are four key secrets for traveling with grandparents. Ignore them at your peril.

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1. Different Ages, Different Interests

Kids drying off with beach towels after swimming (Photo: Sergey Novikov / Shutterstock)
Kids drying off with beach towels after swimming (Photo: Sergey Novikov / Shutterstock)

It’s okay that your kids’ and your parents’ interests don’t align perfectly. On a well-balanced family vacation, there’s room for smaller groups of people to break off and do the things that interest them.

That’s a long way of saying: Don’t make your toddler sit through the three-hour meal your parents have booked at a nice restaurant (it’s going to disappoint everyone), and don’t force your parents to spend the day horseback riding at a dude ranch (unless they want to, in which case, they are heroes).

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The point isn’t to do everything together, it’s to be able to come back together as a whole family for quality time and fun activities that suit the whole crowd, from young children to teens to adults. Set expectations ahead of time, and this truth doesn’t need to feel like a showstopper, but rather the permission everyone needs to take the trip that works for them and have a great time together.

2. Respect Individual Needs

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

Some people need naps (both young and old). Some simply can’t walk for miles (again, both young and old). Others just need a little down time now and then to recharge and read a good book. There are all sorts of physical limitations that kids, especially young kids, and grandparents, particularly older grandparents, bring with them on a multigenerational trip or skip-gen vacation.

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To expect everyone to keep up with the fittest members of the family is unrealistic. Instead, cut everyone some slack when it’s time for group activities and aim for the achievable. Also, be comfortable with the idea that not everyone will want to participate in every activity, and that’s OK. Your entire family will be happier.

3. Embrace a Slower Pace

Young girl excited to find starfish in shallow ocean (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock)
Young girl excited to find starfish in shallow ocean (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock)

The little ones and oldest members of your extended family tend to need a little more time to recharge than the rest of us. Rather than seeing that as a burden, think about it as a lesson for us all to slow down and enjoy a little more unstructured, unscheduled vacation time.

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Not only will you make room for everyone to be on their best behavior the rest of the time, you also create opportunities for spontaneous connection that come out of being relaxed, on vacation, and with the people you love. So go ahead, grab a book, kick back by the pool, and let the magic of an unhurried vacation wash over you.

4. Choose a Trip the Entire Family Will Love

Lazy river at the Typhoon Lagoon water park (Photo: Walt Disney World)
Lazy river at the Typhoon Lagoon water park (Photo: Walt Disney World)

Some family-friendly destinations are custom-made for multigenerational travel. We’re looking at you, national parks and national park lodges. You too, Walt Disney World. And don’t forget a family-friendly cruise ship or all-inclusive family resorts (especially family resorts, resorts with kids club, or resorts that cater to large families).

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What sets places like these apart isn’t that they cater to families with little ones, it’s that they offer something for the entire family from young children and teenagers to parents and grandparents (not to mention aunts and uncles on an extended family vacation). There’s nothing quite like everyone in your group getting to do the activities they’re most excited about (whether that’s zip lining or sitting on the beach) and then meeting back to share stories over dinner, a campfire, or a picnic.

In other words, think of it this way. A multigenerational family vacation is a lot like real estate: location matters. A lot.

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Christine Sarkis
A traveling parent and longtime travel writer and editor, Christine Sarkis is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of FamilyVacationist. She is the former Executive Editor for TripAdvisor travel magazine, she has spent nearly two decades finding and sharing the best places to go with an audience of enthusiastic travelers. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, Here & Now, Life Kit, and California Now. Her stories have been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, and she is working on a travel memoir. Christine and her husband first met in Paris, and travel remains a big part of their shared experience. With their two kids in tow, they have piloted a barge down canals in France, befriended llamas in Peru, tended olive trees in Italy, and gone snorkeling with sea turtles in Hawaii. The family lives in California and loves traveling around the state. Their California favorites include Yosemite National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and the West Shore of Lake Tahoe.