Some grandparents who live further away from their families see traveling with just the youngest generation as a good way to strengthen relationships and make memories. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): More tour operators are designing trip itineraries that suit both older and younger travelers, moving at a slower pace or bringing an additional guide that helps engage the children. // © 2014 Thinkstock
In recent years, surveys and studies have shown that multigenerational travel is a strong and growing market, one that travel industry professionals continue to watch closely. But within this market is an emerging subset: grandparents traveling with just their grandkids, leaving the middle generation at home.
In “2014 Portrait of American Travelers,” a study conducted by marketing agency MMGY Global earlier this year, 26 percent of participating grandparents reported taking at least one vacation with younger generations, up from 21 percent in 2013. Of those grandparents, 23 percent traveled with their grandchildren alone. This group has caught the attention of travel sellers, tour operators and other players in the industry.
What’s Fueling the Trend
In her frequent discussions with traveling families, family travel expert Eileen Ogintz, creator of the syndicated column “Taking the Kids,” has noticed common reasons for the middle generation to stay behind. The most common reason is that both parents work full time, making aligning vacations with kids’ schedules more challenging. Parents have also shared that staying at home while the kids travel can be a nice break.
“The biggest trend in multigenerational travel is still three generations — especially when the grandkids are really little — but the dynamic is totally different when the parents aren’t there,” Ogintz said. “I think grandparents like that one-on-one time with the children. Also, today’s grandparents are more likely to live far away from their kids and grandkids. Some of them feel that if they really want to see the kids, traveling with them is a good way to do that.”
According to Ogintz and Lee Ann Howe, an independent contractor with Plaza Travel in Encino, Calif., and founder of Dream Travel Gal, grandparent/grandkid trips vary greatly, depending on the age of the traveling children and the comfort and fitness levels of the adults. Howe has seen a number of grandparents begin by taking their grandchildren on a staycation — a smaller trip that’s much closer to home — before venturing out of state or to an international destination. This holds especially true for those traveling with younger children, Howe said.
“My clients [in Southern California] might test the waters in local cities like Laguna Beach, San Diego or Santa Barbara, just to see how the kids do away from mom and dad,” said Howe. “Then, on the next trip, they might try an all-inclusive in Mexico. I also have grandparents interested in taking their grandkids to London for Harry Potter sights, or Costa Rica, if they’re traveling with older grandkids who want a little more adventure.”
While grandparents are certainly apt to plan vacations during usual school breaks, Ogintz has also spoken with grandparents who are taking celebratory trips around life milestones, such as a Bar Mitzvah or a high school graduation. She also noted that the grandchildren are increasingly likely to have some sway in determining the destination, especially those in their teenage years or older.
Cruising and Tours
Cruises are common gateway experiences for grandparents traveling with grandchildren, Ogintz said, in part because of the variety of organized (and supervised) activities available onboard. But for those who want to spend more time on land, there are also tour operators that offer family friendly trips that keep varying ages in mind. Austin Adventures, Tauck, Adventures by Disney, O.A.R.S. and Abercrombie & Kent are among tour operators recommended by Ogintz.
“On a guided family tour you don’t have to worry about navigating unfamiliar turf, and there’s always someone to help you, whether it’s with the bags or with activities,” Ogintz said. “These kinds of trips are great for grandparents. Even if you’re seasoned travelers, you don’t want to be in the position of entertaining a 10 or 12 year old, 24 hours a day.”
Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures, told TravelAge West that grandparents and grandchildren traveling together is a steadily growing segment of his customer base. After decades of working with travelers of all ages, Austin and his team know how to fine-tune itineraries for this family travel subset. The most important step? Getting to know each traveler in a group, a task Austin counts on his sales and marketing team to carry out.
“First, we want to understand the fitness levels of everyone, as well as who wants to get what out of his or her adventure,” Austin said. “Our mission is to hit the mark for all. We have also been known to gather insights from the parents on both the kids and the grandparents. The more we know, the better we can do.”
Austin Adventures’ trips for families always include a third guide, as opposed to two on company trips designed for other groups. This third person is often called “the fun guide,” as he or she is skilled at connecting with and entertaining kids. The length of excursions, meals and the plan for the overall day are also often modified on family trips.
“We want to avoid three-hour, four-course ordeals that go late into the evening, as both the younger and the older set like to get a good night’s sleep,” Austin said. “We’ll also plan for more downtime in our lodges in the afternoons, during which grandparents can relax and catch up on their reading while the kids enjoy a little pool time with their new friends, hosted by the third guide.”
Great Niche for Travel Agents
Kyle McCarthy is a co-founder and editor of Family Travel Forum, a website that helps connect vacationing families with resources on and experts in specific destinations. In her experience, grandparents traveling with grandchildren are a great niche market for travel agents.
“Grandparents will often want help coordinating flights, arrival times, airport transfers, ground transportation and more,” said McCarthy. “The older generation and younger children are apt to tire out quickly, or to want to rest or eat. When you pair those age groups, having more assistance rather than less is beneficial. Working with a travel agent is perfect for that, so long as the agent understands those needs.”