Tour operators can be a big help to families traveling to exotic destinations. // © 2013 Shutterstock
Top Suggestions for Spring
Beach Vacation: Hawaii and Sanibel and Captiva, Fla.
Sports Focus: Arizona and Ski Towns
Planning Ease: Guided Tours
Theme Park Alternative: National Parks
Educational: Washington, D.C., and Crystal Cruises
It’s that time of year when everybody is making a list and checking it twice. In 2014, some families will be inspired to add to their travel wish lists by major events such as the Winter Olympics or by more personal pursuits, such as educational enrichment. No matter the reason, this spring break is shaping up to be one of the busiest on record.
“Spring break is an interesting time for travel,” said Nancy Schretter, founder of Family Travel Network. “The recession definitely changed the way families travel during this time of year, and 2013 was the first year that spring travel increased significantly. I would expect this trend to continue.”
Agents looking to create memorable experiences for families should definitely take note of current trends in family travel.
While many predict that destinations such as Brazil and Thailand are going to top travelers’ bucket lists this year, families generally stay a bit closer to home. A few tried-and-true destinations are always popular, though there are inevitably some surprises, too.
“One of the newest travel trends that we are seeing is the nostalgia trip,” said Schretter. “Parents are taking their kids to the places that they visited when they were young.”
Other top elements of a successful family trip include: avoiding the crowds and college revelers, as well as ease of travel to and from a destination, educational components and a variety of family activities.
“The best vacations don’t have to be big or exotic,” said Jason Holland, owner of Travel Simplicity in Etters, Penn. “They just have to be a good fit for the family.”
According to the people we interviewed for this story, the top travel destinations for the spring will be the Caribbean, Hawaii, Orlando, California, Washington, D.C., Colorado, Utah and national parks. Also popular will be cruises that are near major drive markets.
“Families are definitely looking to book from drive destinations, particularly in combination with cruises,” said Eileen Ogintz, a family travel expert who writes the syndicated column “Taking the Kids” and is the creator of TakingTheKids.com. “It is much easier for them if the ship is relatively near their home.”
Current trends in air travel are weighing heavily on families’ decisions about where to travel this spring as routes become increasingly scarce.
“This spring break is going to be one of the biggest we’ve seen in the last few years,” said Ryan McGredy, owner of Moraga Travel in Moraga, Calif. “But there are a lot of things happening in the airline industry that are taking away air capacity. It’s not going to be fun to fly this spring break, and this is where working with a travel agent is really helpful. It’s good to have someone there to handle any airline problems for you.”
For beach-goers, particularly those on the West Coast, Hawaii is a bright spot in terms of air service.
“Traveling to Hawaii is going to be easier for families,” said McGredy. “There are more flights from airlines such as Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines.”
Schretter suggested Sanibel and Captiva in Florida for East Coasters who want to get to the beach. Families will find 50 miles of white-sand beaches with more than 100 islands and diverse wildlife (dolphins, manatees, birds and more) to view in natural habitats.
Focusing on a family’s interests is sometimes more important than going to an exotic destination.
“Horse-lovers can check out Arizona’s ranches and spring baseball season is up-and-running,” said Schretter.
Ogintz recommended that families who enjoy participating in snow sports head to ski towns in the spring.
“The weather is sunny, there are good deals and there is more to do than just ski or snowboard these days,” she said. “A lot of destinations offer activities such as snowshoeing, tubing, ice skating and even bobsledding.”
All of our experts believe that Orlando’s amusement parks will be packed for spring break, and all agree that U.S. National Parks are a great alternative.
“National Parks are very affordable,” said Ogintz. “I like to think of them as natural theme parks.”
Taking a Tour
One re-emerging trend with families is an interest in guided vacations. Planning a multigenerational tour is a way for travel agents to distinguish themselves in the family market. Finding a travel deal is easy — planning a unique experience is hard.
“We are seeing more interest in guided vacations, particularly as parents start to understand the advantage of tour guides in a destination and also because tour operators are doing a better job of accommodating the whole family,” said Schretter.
Travelers are really understanding that today’s tours are not the guided bus tours of past generations, according to Schretter. As people see their friends and family taking a guided vacation, they understand the value and they want to take one, too.
“It’s the ease of planning,” said Schretter. “Tours take the onus of planning the trip off of mom and dad or grandma and grandpa. Families are looking for experiential travel — knowing that somebody else can bring a destination to life and take the stress out of planning is a huge driver.”
In this respect, one company to watch is Thomson Family Adventures. The tour operator recently launched tours for families with adult children in addition to trips designed for families with teens.
“Family travel has a lot of niches,” said Schretter. “Age range is important, and the new Thomson Family Adventures experiences are doing really well with all ages.”
Families travel in varying age groups, but no matter what the age, an opportunity to learn is a bonus to any vacation.
“Nearly half of all the visitors to Family Travel Network are looking for a learning component in their vacations,” said Schretter. “I think that education is probably even more important for spring break travel because school is still in session.”
For many parents with school-age children, a visit to Washington, D.C., is a no-brainer. It’s compact, navigable and easy to tackle in a week.
“We have seen a lot of parents wanting to do D.C. trips this spring,” said McGredy. “When planning a family trip to Washington, D.C., it’s important to look at what the family wants to do and where they are going to stay from a geographical standpoint.”
McGredy also noted that it is important to have a plan and to schedule activities.
“There’s so much to do and planning it last minute means waiting in long lines or not being able to do a particular activity at all,” said McGredy. “Agents should contact their congressperson to get everything set up. Families can’t just show up at the capitol and go on a tour.”
McGredy also noted that D.C. is a central destination and a good jumping-off point for further exploration.
“It’s not too far to go to Baltimore,” he said. “Families can beat some of the crowds there. Baltimore has a beautiful waterfront area, as well as a large aquarium.”
He also recommended a visit to Fort McHenry, a National Monument and Historic Shrine, where kids can hear the story of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Cruise lines have also added educational components and, for families who like to take to the sea, McGredy recommends seeking out a line such as Crystal Cruises.
“Crystal is taking a more educational approach,” he said. “They have added music teachers, sports instructors and technology teachers. Kids love learning and expanding their brains. They are far more into the experience when they feel like they are learning and not just being placated.”
Exotic Beach Locale
Education and adventure can go hand and hand, and nowhere is that more true than in Nicaragua.
“Adventurous families who want a break from the traditional should head to Nicaragua,” recommended Ogintz. “If they have done Costa Rica before and want to venture farther afield, it’s a great option.”
Ogintz said that a growing number of eco-lodges and family-friendly accommodations, short flight times and a one-hour time difference from the East Coast are making Nicaragua increasingly more attractive. It’s also less expensive than Costa Rica and, during spring break, likely to be less crowded.
Family-friendly Morgan’s Rock is a great starting place. The eco-lodge offers a private beach and more than 4,000 acres of protected, undeveloped forest for families to explore. Activities run the gamut, from fishing, snorkeling, kayaking and surfing to hiking, cultural excursions, ziplining and volcano visits. There is even a sustainable farm where children can lend a hand collecting eggs and milking cows.
Regardless of what type of trip appeals to a particular family, agents should remember to be sure to focus on unique, one-of-a-kind experiences.
“Experiential travel is really huge. It’s more desirable than material things,” said Schretter. “Families prefer unique, meaningful and authentic experiences.”
The providers of these experiences stand to boost their businesses.
“People are settling for things that they aren’t really that excited about,” said Holland. “But they could be working with a travel professional to find something better.”