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New England Regional

A Grand Time

Grandparents and grandkids who travel together learn about the world--and each other.

November-December 2003

Three years ago, Luella Kramer's friends were shaking their heads. "They all thought I'd lost my mind," the retired nurse recalls, laughing. "They said they wouldn't want the responsibility. They wondered how I could risk it."

What Kramer, of Holden, Massachusetts, did was spend 12 days on safari in Kenya—accompanied by her grandson Jeff, then 12. Kramer, who had previously roamed the globe with her husband, Harry, had hoped to visit the Serengeti with him as well, but by 2000, his fragile health prevented him from further travel. Despite her friends' misgivings, she took Jeff instead. "We had a grand time together," Kramer recalls of their adventure, documented in handwritten journals and snapshots of East African wildlife and Masai villages. "Everything went very well."

Generational globetrotting: Grandtripper Luella Kramer took grandson Jeff to Machu Picchu and granddaughter Lauren to Paris.
Photographs courtesy of Luella Kramer

So well, in fact, that the next summer, Kramer took her other grandchild, 16-year-old Lauren, Jeff's sister, to Paris. The following spring, grandmother and grandson spent 17 days exploring Ecuador, Peru, and the Galápagos Islands; later that year, grandmother and granddaughter visited New York. All those excursions went off just as well, prompting none of the potential nightmares friends predicted. Neither grandchild whined nor argued nor broke the rules. Kramer didn't collapse from exhaustion. And nobody got sick or hurt.

Not that Kramer, who sees her grandchildren regularly, was ever seriously worried about taking them on the road. "I have good relationships with the kids," she says. "And I don't frighten too easily. I can't be ruled by what might happen."

Kramer's friends no longer question her sanity: a few have even followed suit. They're among a growing number of older Americans who travel with their grandchildren both domestically and abroad. Twenty percent of grandparents have "grandtripped," according to a 2001 survey in American Demographics. In fact, grandtripping accounts for at least 15 to 17 percent of all travel involving children, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. (Like all other types of travel, grandtripping dropped off sharply following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but has since picked up, according to the industry.)

What's driving the grandparent/grandchild globetrotting? Demographics. Older adults—those in their sixties, seventies, and eighties—are generally healthier, wealthier, and better traveled than their predecessors. Right on their heels are the oldest baby boomers, already in their mid fifties, and, as a group, even more frequent business and pleasure travelers. In addition, today's families are scattered all over the globe. Many retirees—who may well have grown up in the same communities as their own grandparents—now live hundreds or thousands of miles from their offspring. For many, grandtripping offers an ideal way to combine two great passions: traveling and spending private time with their children's children.

"Grandparents are interested in transmitting a cultural inheritance to their grandchildren," says Helena Koenig, founder of Grandtravel, a Chevy Chase, Maryland-based agency specializing in grandparent/grandchild package tours (see "Road Map,"). Koenig, who has traveled extensively with her own nine grandchildren, began by offering a one-day trip to a Baltimore railroad museum in the late 1980s; today, Grandtravel offers intergenerational packages ranging from jeep tours of the American Southwest to fishing off the coast of Ireland.

Jim Kackley, director of Thomson Family Adventures of Watertown, Massachusetts, a tour operator offering international trips from Alaska to New Zealand and intergenerational trips through the Harvard Alumni Association, says most grandparents travel with one youngster at a time. Typically, "they've made a commitment to their grandchildren, and to their own children, that they will take each child on an adventure," he says.

That's just what Martin and Harriet Kleinman of Calabasas, California, have been doing with their eight grandchildren. They're halfway through the list, having taken kids to the Grand Canyon, Tanzania, and Costa Rica. Next on the itinerary: a trip to Belize in June with a 12-year-old granddaughter who lives in Baltimore.

The couple, who are in their late sixties, try to balance entertainment and adventure on each excursion. "We want each trip to be something that the children are interested in—but that will also stretch their horizons," Harriet Kleinman says.

Nonprofit groups are also tailoring travel programs to accommodate grandtrippers. Elderhostel, the education and travel program for older adults, has long offered a few intergenerational activities—weekend outings to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts are perennial favorites. But in response to demand, the Boston-based group has recently added a smorgasbord of more exotic grandtripping options, including a winter recreation trip in northern Minnesota, a whale-watching program off the coast of Quebec, and a "sail training" voyage by schooner through Washington's San Juan Islands.

The Sierra Club also offers programs tailored to groups of grandparents and grandkids. Most popular is the annual five-day trip to a club-owned lodge located in California's Tahoe National Forest. Designed for kids between 7 and 13 years old, the trip's activities range from a beach picnic at a mountain lake to conservation work, such as clearing local hiking trails.

Many organized grandtripping programs strictly ban the in-between generation—the child's parents—from participating, pointing out that they have plenty of other opportunities for family travel. "We take no parents, period," says Helena Koenig, of Grandtravel. "A number of times, they have asked to come along and we just plain refuse them," says Jim Maas, a Sierra Club volunteer who has led several lodge retreats, including one attended by his own 8-year-old granddaughter. "Having the parents there negates the bond between kids and grandparents."

Group programs offer another bonding opportunity as well. "Some grandparents say, 'I want my grandkid to travel with other kids,'" says Kackley. "That's partly to give themselves a break—grandparents are realistic about how much they can do to entertain kids—and partly to make it a better experience for the kids." In fact, some grandparents choose a destination based not on the place, but on who else has registered, he says: "If someone's got an 11-year-old kid and there's a trip with a bunch of 10- to 13-year-olds already signed up, the grandparent may go for that trip even if there's someplace else they'd really rather go." And with tour operators handling all the logistics, grandparents have time to socialize with other participants their own age.

Although many grandtrippers love the camaraderie and convenience of group travel, others prefer to travel on their own. Betty Vorenberg of Cambridge, who has taken separate trips with six of her 10 grandchildren, arranged all but one excursion herself. The exception: A June 2002 tour of Harry Potter-related sites in England and Wales. In that case, Vorenberg and 13-year-old Kate joined a group of other Potter pilgrims for a 1,000-mile bus ride to sites featured in the popular books and movies. "I wouldn't take the responsibility for driving on the wrong side of the road with a grandchild," says Vorenberg.

Like many other grandtrippers, Vorenberg lets her grandchildren pick their own trips. Some have chosen traditional locations: 15-year-old Sam selected Rome because he was studying Latin in school; A.J. at 15 opted for London, to see the city's palaces; 14-year-old Linzee wanted to go sightseeing and shopping in Greece. Last year, Vorenberg returned to Italy because Linzee's brother Peter, then 13, asked to visit Bologna, which he'd read about in a favorite children's book. They also toured Venice, Rome, and Pisa. When they returned home, Peter wrote his grandmother to say, "I was surprised by how much you know about Italy."

Betty Vorenberg's grandchildren have toured England and Italy with her. From left: with A.J. at Hampton Court Palace, with Kate at Kings Cross Station, and with Peter on the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Photographs courtesy of Betty Vorenberg

This past spring, Vorenberg and grandson Benjy, then 11, went on a driving tour of the Deep South so he could see civil-rights landmarks in Atlanta, Memphis, Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery that he had studied. "On the way home, Benjy told me, 'I learned a lot,'" Vorenberg says. "How can you have a better ending than that?"

If there's one key to successful grandtripping, it's matching the child and the destination correctly. First, make sure youngsters are mature enough to travel without their parents. "That happens at different ages for different children," says Virginia Smith Spurlock of Nashville, Tennessee, author of Traveling with Your Grandkids. She suggests starting with a test run: a 24-hour visit to someplace near home. "If a child isn't ready, you'll know it then," she says.

What if it's the parents who are reluctant to let their kids travel? "Back off," advises Spurlock, 77, who has traveled regularly with each of her 10 grandchildren since her husband's death a decade ago. "Then take the parent and the child on a day trip and make sure they have a really good time—especially the parent." Later, raise the grandtripping question again.

Next, plan a trip tailored to the child's age and interests. The best way to accomplish that: Involve young travelers from the start, letting them pick the destinations, if possible. (For more grandtripping guidelines, see "Travel Tips," page 28B.) Last year, Spurlock took that advice one step further: she assigned her 10-year-old granddaughter to do nearly all the planning for a four-day trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania. The girl took the assignment seriously: "On the way there, she told me the whole history of the chocolate business—in detail," Spurlock recalls. "She had planned it almost down to the minute, and we had a marvelous time. She's still talking about it."

In the end, that's the real reason many grandparents take trip after trip, even when headed someplace that isn't exactly their own dream destination. "This was the thrill of her life," Vorenberg says of granddaughter Kate's Harry Potter sojourn. "Because she was in heaven, I was in heaven. Really, that's what it's all about." 

Anne Stuart is assistant editor of this magazine.

 

Travel Tips

Talk to the parents first. By clearing your plans with them up front, you avoid disappointing your grandchild if, for any reason, Mom and Dad feel they must veto, curtail, or postpone the trip.

Plan early. A year in advance isn't unreasonable, considering kids' school, camp, and activities schedules.

Pick age-appropriate trips. Younger children are more likely to enjoy the beach or the mountains than art museums and cathedrals. Teenagers may dismiss theme parks as juvenile.

Consider the child's interests and school studies. A student learning French might say "oui" to Paris; an ardent Little Leaguer would probably prefer a pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame in upstate New York.

Involve the child in trip planning. Watch videos together, mark up guidebooks, or ask the child to research the destination on-line.

Maintain a 1:1 ratio. That means one adult to one child—the best choice both for safety and for bonding. If a child insists on bringing a sibling or friend, bring another adult as well.

Pack together. That way, you won't discover your traveling companion forgot to bring sneakers or a swimsuit. Remember to bring books and games to keep kids occupied on long drives or flights.

Be prepared for emergencies. Bring the child's medical history and a letter from the parents authorizing you to act on their behalf. (Most package tours supply their own consent forms.) Carry a cell phone that works in whatever region or country you're visiting.

Know your limits—physically and financially. When you run out of steam or out of money, slow down.

Document the trip. Later, you can compile your photographs, postcards, journal entries, and other keepsakes into a scrapbook for your grandchild.





Road Map

These resources can provide additional information about grandtripping.

Traveling with Your Grandkids, by Virginia Smith Spurlock (AAA Publishing, 2001). Purchase this 150-page guide through on-line bookstores or call the distributor, Simon & Schuster, at 800-223-2336.

AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), Washington, D.C., 800-424-3410, www.aarp.org.

Elderhostel Inc., Boston, 877-426-8056, www.elderhostel.com.

Grandparents' and Grandchildren's Camp, Raquette Lake, N.Y., 315-354-5311.

Grandkidsandme Camp, Amery, Wisc., 615-695-1988, www.grandkidsandme.com/campinfo.htm.

Grandtravel, Chevy Chase, Md., 800-247-7651, www.grandtrvl.com.

Harvard Alumni Association, Travel Study Programs, Cambridge, 800-422-1636, www.haa.harvard.edu.

Sierra Club, San Francisco, 415-977-5500, www.sierraclub.org.

Thomson Family Adventures, Watertown, Mass., 800-262-6255, www.familyadventures.com.

University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H., Continuing Education Family Hostel, 800-733-9753, www.learn.unh.edu/familyhostel.