Vacationing with Grandkids

America's foremost expert on family vacations explores the (usually) pricey intergenerational trip

By Eileen Ogintz, Wednesday, Apr 13, 2005, 12:00 AM

More vigorous in their 60s and 70s than any generation before them, many of today's American grandparents increasingly want to vacation with their grandchildren. And because vast distances often separate families--the young, child-raising couple sent to corporate outposts hundreds of miles away (which was less often the case in previous generations)--such a vacation is sometimes the grandparents' only chance for a good chunk of quality time with their grandchildren.

And let's face it: grandparents also like it because it gives them a chance to play a role in their grandkids' upbringing, impart values, give them a sense of family and cherished memories of happy family times--all powerful motivators for an intergenerational trip. In 1999, one in ten family vacations--more than six million trips--were taken by grandparents with their grandchildren, according to a recent Better Homes and Gardens look at family vacations.

But--and this is a major condition--many of today's grandparents want to make those trips on a budget. Though a handful of elitist tour operators charge two, three, and even four thousand dollars per person to design an intergenerational trip (and get enormous publicity when they do), the bulk of grandparent-grandchildren holidays are modestly priced and often overlooked. Without further ado, here are ten economical options for "grand-travel."

 Elderhostel

To the surprise of many families, America's great travel institution for seniors provides scores of summer programs that are planned so that the kids have as much fun exploring new subjects and places as grandma and grandpa do. Elderhostel, which sends 200,000 seniors on inexpensive educational travel adventures around the world, now offers nearly 300 learning vacations designed for grandparents and grandkids. They can explore colonial life hands-on in Jamestown and Williamsburg, tour the Grand Canyon, or study the history of painting or sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. Weeklong programs in the U.S. and Canada average $500 for adults, less for children, including room, board, and activities-but not the cost of transportation to the site. Call 877/426-8056 or access elderhostel.org.

Campus vacations

Cornell University's "Adult University" in the pleasant little city of Ithaca, New York, draws a multigenerational mix to its bucolic campus for adult classes and special youth programs in summer for children as young as three. Older kids will be busy learning about animal biology, writing poetry, or horseback riding while grandma is sketching and grandpa is taking a history course. Fees include courses, lodging, most meals, and use of Cornell's facilities. Rates start at $960 per adult per week and $500 for the preschoolers, $760 for older children. If two children are registered, the younger one's fees will be cut in half. Phone 607/255-6260 or click on cau.cornell.edu.

The national parks

Because seniors 62 and older get a lifetime pass to all national parks for $10 (see the National Park Service web site at nps.gov for details), these federal treasures are top inexpensive bets for outdoor-loving grandparents and grandkids, guaranteeing lifelong memories. For both seniors and children, there are easy walks on paved trails, plenty of ranger-led programs, special activities for kids and families (like a "Yellowstone Buddies" environmental program for kids in the summer at Yellowstone National Park), and reasonable room rates at lodges within the park. Thus you can get lodging and breakfast for the whole gang for $73 a night in low season at Zion National Park. For lodges, beautiful-places-on-earth.com.

Fun in the sun

Beach resorts are popular "grand-travel" choices because, like cruise ships, they offer many organized activities for the small ones as well as the grown-ups. And you can save extra by traveling during shoulder seasons.

With rates starting as low as $85 a night, Holiday Inn SunSpree Resorts have kids' activities, meals, and great beaches in 25 Sunbelt and island locales from Clearwater, Florida, to Scottsdale, Arizona. On the Bahamas' Paradise Island, all-inclusive rates (drinks, meals, activities, even airport transfers) start at $269 per person, and ages 12 and under stay and eat free. Find out more at 800/HOLIDAY or holiday-inn.com.

Then there's Club Med (800/WEBCLUB, clubmed.com), the French-flavored resort chain now marketing not just to swinging singles but also heavily to families and seniors. Choose the week but let Club Med pick the family village you'll visit, and an all-inclusive week in the Caribbean or Mexico is yours for $899 per person, including airfare from many U.S. cities. And at certain Club Meds, kids stay for half-off.

MeriStar's all-suite Sundial Beach Resort on laid-back Sanibel Island (just off Florida's west coast near Fort Myers) boasts a mile-long beach, five pools, children's "Fun Factory" program, and an Environmental Coastal Observatory Center with a 450-gallon "touch tank" that lets kids touch starfish and such. Summer rates start at $175 a night. Information: 800/965-7772, sundialresort.com.

Go to camp

A nonprofit organization called the Foundation for Grandparenting sponsors two weeklong "Grands Camps" during the summer at the rambling, historic, Great Camp Sagamore on upstate New York's Raquette Lake; there's even a special program for teens. Except for an adults-only session on more effective grandparenting, grandparents do all activities with the kids, including hiking, swimming, canoeing, tennis, picnics, and performing in a show. All meals are included, and prices start at $363 per person. Elderhostel runs similar summer programs at similar rates during different periods. To book or learn more about any of the above, check with the Sagamore at 877/426-8056 or sagamore.org, or with Elderhostel at elderhostel.org.

The Sierra Club (415/977-5522, sierraclub.org/outings) also runs family camp programs that are ideal for active folks who like to camp and hike. There's even one in Lake Tahoe, California, designed specifically for grandparents and grandkids-you stay in a lodge, not a tent; for five nights, it costs $595 for adults, $495 for kids.

The grand, 130-year-old Chautauqua Institution's sprawling campus in southwestern New York State offers more than 400 classes, plus special activities for ages 3-15 and dozens of intergenerational programs. Learn how to surf the Web, make rockets, or act out Shakespeare; there's also golf, tennis, swimming, and boating, and many concerts and other theatrical performances. Room rates start at $85 a night; ask about room-and-board packages. Details: 800/836-ARTS, ciweb.org.

Go for the snow

Many grandparents still like to ski or ice-skate-or at least simply cuddle with their wee ones in front of a fire while it snows outside. All over America, most ski resorts offer substantial discounts for seniors (inquire), and some, like Steamboat in Colorado and Snowbird in Utah, offer free skiing for kids 12 and under (with purchase of a five-day adult pass at Steamboat and a one-day adult pass at Snowbird). Six-night ski-and-stay packages (lodgings and lift tickets) for a family of four start at just over $1,300 (cheaper early in the season) at Steamboat in Colorado, a considerable savings for that many people. Call 800/922-2722 or log on to steamboat.com.

In the East, an outstanding package at southern Vermont's Mount Snow, "Wicked Wild Weeks" starts at $636 for a family of four and includes five nights' lodging, lifts, adult clinic, and fitness classes (kids' ski school is extra). Information: 800/245-7669, mountsnow.com.

And obviously there are other winter activities at all the resorts-heated spas, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and of course shopping-and the same resorts provide excellent and even lower-cost recreation the rest of the year, including fishing, hiking, and simply enjoying the mountain scenery.

Meeting Mickey, or Men in Black

Obviously, Orlando's Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Escape, and SeaWorld have to be included as a high-priority destination for a grandparents and grandchildren's vacation, and while its educational value might be questionable, certainly no one will get bored! For deals in Orlando, the Orlando Convention and Visitors' Bureau Web site at Go2Orlando.com, includes online coupons.

As for accommodations, two vast  complexes are perfect for the intergenerational trip. The 800-suite Holiday Inn Family Suites (877/387-5437, hifamilysuites.com) features two-bedroom "KidsSuites" with a separate area for the youngsters with its own TV, VCR, and Nintendo 64. There's a 32-foot train that offers free rides around the resort, and a poolside kids' activity center. An ample hot breakfast and shuttles to Disney World are free; kids eat free all the time from the children's menu when with an adult diner; special SeniorSaver programs also apply to kids traveling with oldsters. 

Then there's the Marriott "Village" (the first of its kind) at Lake Buena Vista in Orlando, showcasing a low-cost Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inn, and Spring-Hill Suites all in one campus just a few minutes from Disney World. There's a big water playground, restaurants, shops, and organized kids' activities, and room rates starting under $100 a night. Log on to marriottvillage.com.

Cruises never miss!

Grandparents and grandkids give cruises high marks because there are so many options for every age group. Just as important are the well-organized, supervised children's camps that operate most of the day and evening so granny and gramps can kick back. Even better, because of the number of new and ever-larger ships being launched, there are a lot of excellent deals as cruise companies struggle to fill cabins. Look, in particular, for cruises where the third and fourth passengers in the cabin go for under $200. To save even more, consider a three-or-four-day itinerary. And World Wide Cruises, one of the largest cruise-only discount agencies in the country, is touting some Royal Caribbean sailings this winter. Get details at 800/882-9000 or cruises.com. Even Princess has fares as low as $599. Learn more at 800/PRINCESS or princess.com.

City lights

Take the grandkids out on the town-your own or some other fun, colorful American city. Chicago, for example, has the likes of Sue (the world's most complete Tyrannosaurus rex) and American Girl Place (a shopping entertainment complex designed for little girls). Boston offers whale-watching and American history galore. Head to New York for Times Square and the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History. In San Diego, there's the famous zoo and loads of family-friendly activities amid sun-splashed surroundings.

Most major art and science museums now offer special hands-on family and children's programs. Visit the Web site of the Association of Science Technology Centers at astc.org to link to your science museum of choice; for art museums, try AMN.org.

For the best hotel deals, go over a weekend and don't forget to check your desired city's visitor bureau for special promotions. Web sites such as Expedia.com and Travelocity.com also offer hotel deals, as does quikbook.com, with savings of up to 40 percent in many cities (or call Quikbook at 800/789-9887).

A sweet spot indeed

Home to lots of mouthwatering temptations including a factory turning out some 30 million chocolate kisses a day, Hershey, Pennsylvania, has avenues named Cocoa and Chocolate, and streetlights shaped like Hershey's Kisses. Hershey Park, with 60-plus rides and such, is one amusement park the grandparents will like as much as the kids, and there are plenty of other ways to keep busy: learning how chocolate is made at Hershey's Chocolate World, hands-on activities at the Hershey Museum, a 23-acre garden and Butterfly House, even a zoo. It's also just 45 minutes from Lancaster and the attractions of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Get fully informed at 800/HERSHEY or www.hersheypa.com (for Pennsylvania Dutch country information, contact 800/723-8824 or padutchcountry.com).