Costa Rica offers a wealth of activities for families. // © 2015 Roberto A Sanchez
Feature image (above): Tour operators such as G Adventures have programs designed specifically for families. // © 2015 Imgorthand
Brian Smith stared wide-eyed as his 11-year-old son Jonah took a running Tarzan-style leap from the zipline platform with arms outstretched, zoomed through the dense Costa Rican jungle and faded into the distance.
Earlier that day, Smith had also been harnessed to a zipline through that same forest. Although, he admits, his approach was much different than that of his seemingly fearless son.
Pushing to the front of the 30-person tour group, Smith had asked his guide if he could be the first one to go. Otherwise, Smith — who has a fear of heights — knew there was a strong possibility he would change his mind and then watch his family fly by without him.
Smith’s wife, Leora Fromm, and their daughter Kahlo also took a turn at the zipline that day. They were following a guided itinerary booked through G Adventures, a tour operator that specializes in adventure tours and expeditions for groups and families.
When Fromm’s travel agent, Mimi Cassidy of Moraga, Calif.-based Moraga Travel, revealed that their trip fell under the umbrella of “adventure travel,” Fromm admits she had her doubts.
“We are not a super adventurous family,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘We are going to get there and be surrounded by really young, super-fit families. And I’m not someone who would just say, ‘Let’s go whitewater rafting today.’”
However, Fromm found herself pleasantly surprised with the experience. The G Adventures guides made her feel confident that everything — from the snorkeling to the ziplining — was carefully planned out and executed safely.
“It really changed my opinion about tours,” she said. “When we went, everything seemed well-organized, and the people who planned it seemed trustworthy.”
While the Fromm-Smith family explored the tropics, visiting places such as the Arenal Volcano and the coffee plantations of Monteverde, another California-based family had an adventure of their own, thousands of miles from the canopies of Costa Rica.
Mike O’Donnell recently returned from a three-week family trip through Spain. During the trip, O’Donnell enrolled his two children, both avid soccer players, in an international children’s soccer camp. Each day, he and his wife, Cory, would drop off 13-year-old Frances and 15-year-old Henry, and then pick them up after six hours of competitive play with international and local children. Other highlights included touring Barcelona, Madrid and the Costa Brava, along with canyoning in Alquezar and hiking through Ordesa National Park.
O’Donnell considers himself to be an experienced traveler. As a child, he had a parent who took him on active, unique vacations, and he now tries to do the same for his own kids.
Instead of booking through a tour group like G Adventures, O’Donnell planned the trip on his own, using resources such as Airbnb and Booking.com. It was a follow-up to a similar trip he took two years ago, where he and his family surfed and hiked their way through Costa Rica.
Adventure travel has become increasingly attractive to families, according to Danielle Stephens, an agent specializing in adventure travel for Harmon Travel in Boise, Idaho. She said that the number of families who ask for adventure-related trips is on the rise — and shows no signs of stopping.
“Probably 50 percent of our clients are families,” she said. “Adventure travel is in the news, and people want to do it. It has become really popular these last couple of years.”
This could be, in part, due to the evolving nature of this travel niche. A family who partakes in adventure travel is as varied as any other family. Its members might encompass the bold, the timid and everything in between.
Families, such as the two mentioned above, make up 17 percent of today’s adventure travelers, according to a 2014 industry snapshot from the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). This number could continue to rise: ATTA reports that adventure companies are projecting an increase in revenues for 2015, as new customers continue to try the travel category out.
ATTA groups adventure travelers into three distinct categories: “adventure grazers,” “adventurers” and “adventure enthusiasts.” The Fromm-Smith family consists of grazers — novice or first-time adventure travel participants, eager to sample moderate-risk activities in order to check them off their bucket lists. Twenty-eight percent of these grazers are made up of families.
The next level, deemed adventurers, are where the O’Donnells fall. Adventurers, 28 percent of whom are families, are the intermediate level on this scale. These travelers tend to repeat moderate-risk activities they have previously enjoyed.
And then, on the extreme end of the spectrum, are the enthusiasts, one-fourth of whom are traveling families. Enthusiasts are traveling for the heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping activities and “laugh in the face of danger” type of experience.
“There are different degrees of adventure,” said Rainer Jenss, founder of the Family Travel Association. “Just because something is labeled as an ‘adventure,’ doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible.”
In fact, there may be no better time than to experience an adventure than when your children are with you.
“I think that parents frequently box their kids in by thinking that just because you don’t try something at home, the kids won’t like it,” Jenss said. “It doesn’t mean that’s going to be the case while they’re traveling.”
He also stresses that parents may under-estimate how open kids are to new places and unique experiences.
“It’s important to know that children, particularly between the ages of 6 and 12, are really curious,” Jenss said. “This is the height of when kids are into everything and curious about the world, and that’s a great time to expose them to new things.”
O’Donnell agrees. He likes to go on adventure travel trips with his family so that he can give them an opportunity to experience a destination in the most authentic way possible.
“I think the word ‘adventure’ can be interpreted in an extreme sports kind of way, or also something that really shows the breadth of experience of somewhere,” he said. “My kids are a little older now and they are active kids … so, this is exactly how they like to spend every day. It fits into their lifestyle very well.”
And even if you don’t consider yourself the adventurous type, O’Donnell says there’s always a way to scale it back.
For example, Fromm says that as she toured with G Adventures, she noticed there were always options of activities to choose from, with varied experience- and skill-level requirements. If there was a need to scale back on intensity, the guides were able to accommodate.
Allie Almario, vice president of Incline Village, Nev.-based adventure tour operator Myths and Mountains, says that tourists too often spend their time in a bus or in a car, passively viewing a destination behind a physical barrier.
“Adventure means something different to each person,” she said. “To me, it means you’re actually doing things and stretching out of your comfort zone. Everyone can have an adventure.”
Doing the Legwork, So Your Clients Don’t Have To
As a first-time adventure traveler, another aspect of the planning process that calmed Fromm’s fears was the help provided by her agent. The trip to Costa Rica was the first time she had ever sought the help of a travel agent, and she explains that Moraga Travel’s Cassidy quickly eliminated any potential headaches.
“I always say, ‘That’s why you use an agent!’” Stephens adds. “Travel agents make sure clients are prepared before they go, mapping out everything line by line. I always give clients my cellphone number so they can text or call me anytime. It’s giving the assurance that they have someone on the ground.”
Going with a reputable company is also important, according to Cassidy, who strongly recommends Adventures by Disney, G Adventures and Tauck Bridges. Many tour companies will organize every last detail of the trip and ensure each member of the family has their needs met, based on their individual skills and abilities.
“Kids like to be with other kids, which is why those group tours and escorted tours are really great,” she said.
Can Grandma Come, Too?
Multigenerational travelers travel more than traditional leisure travelers by an average of eight nights, according to data presented by Jenss and Kyle McCarthy, co-founder and editor of the Family Travel Forum, at the 2014 Travel Media Showcase. These travelers are also reported to “participate in a higher share of active activities in almost all categories” when compared to the average U.S. leisure traveler.
However, multigenerational travel is not limited to bringing grams and gramps along. In fact, it should be more broadly defined to traveling with extended family, according to Jenss and McCarthy.
Almario says she has seen an increase in multigenerational travel bookings — citing one trip that included a family of more than 30 people.
Private, customizable adventure trips are attractive for this type of travel, and an increasing number of families are demanding adventures that suit their own needs, says Jennine Cohen, managing director of tour operator Geographic Expeditions.
“We customize the trip based on the abilities and interests of the families,” she said. “We do have a lot of multigenerational families that will come to us. Grandma and grandpa, the parents and the kids will have really varied interests and abilities, and we are able to craft something for all of them.”
According to Cohen, this sometimes means placing multiple guides on site or just having the right connections and logistics in place to appease everyone in the group. Getting to know the travelers before they depart is also essential, and conversations are had about a traveler’sfitness level, abilities and interests.
“We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and they know what to expect,” she said. “We try to strike the balance of finding an activity that’s suitable for the kids so they can get their energy out, but also appropriately pacing the trip.”