July 18, 2024

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Navigating Travel Tales

The New Family Vacation – The Atlantic

5 min read

The next time you’re at the airport or checking into a hotel, you might notice a traveling group that looks, at least at first glance, a little unwieldy: young kids, their parents, and their grandparents, all vacationing together regardless of age or mobility limits.

A scene like this would have been rare a few decades ago, according to Susan Rugh, a history professor at Brigham Young University who wrote about the history of family travel in her book Are We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations. The classic 20th-century family vacation was typically a nuclear one, comprising a mom, a dad, and their young kids. Grandparents and other relatives seldom came along. But more and more, research shows, families tend to bring multiple generations with them. This, in turn, has changed people’s preferred travel destinations, and even the very purpose of travel: Multigenerational groups are much more likely to take simple, relaxed beach vacations than to embark on logistics-heavy city visits or road trips.

The benefits of multigenerational trips are numerous. In larger groups, for example, child-care responsibilities can be shared across family members, allowing parents to take a breather. But the real value of these trips might be how they give relatives an opportunity to freshen their perception of the people they’ve known for perhaps their entire life. Travel can take us out of our familiar contexts, with their routines and set roles, and offer people a chance to see one another differently. A multigenerational vacation can be a welcome reminder that the identities that our parents, children, and other relatives know us by aren’t set in stone.


The modern family vacation traces back to the end of the 1930s, when labor unions began negotiating two paid weeks off a year into employment contracts. But it became a true middle-class institution after World War II, as newly prosperous families hopped into their cars and headed for the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone or Washington, D.C. By 1958, 70 percent of families with a household income above $7,500 (about $80,000 today) were going on vacation together. Family trips were at once a sign of making it in America and an expression of nuclear-family cohesion. “I think it was also bragging rights,” Rugh told me. “It was like a middle-class, consumerist impulse.”

Yet it didn’t take long for the realities of being shoved in an automobile with the members of your household to temper that optimism. Typical family vacations of the time refracted, and in many ways underlined, the unequal divisions of domestic labor: Wives did many of the day-to-day tasks, such as child care and meal prep, and husbands drove the car. The vacations could be stress-inducing for the parents, collapsing any sense of personal space and time. By the end of the ’60s, Ladies’ Home Journal cautioned that “vacations are booby-trapped with marital danger,” the most troubling of which was when couples failed to allocate moments for “vacation-time sex” due to a lack of privacy. The intense togetherness of a family trip was occasionally associated with chaos and conflict, and films such as National Lampoon’s Vacation emphasized this notion in pop culture.

So family travel lost some of its cultural cachet. But, of course, the trips themselves didn’t go away—people still had kids and still wanted to vacation. Instead, family travel quietly got bigger. In a 2023 survey from the Family Travel Association, NYU, and Edinburgh Napier University, 55 percent of respondents reported that they were planning a trip involving several generations traveling together. That seems to be up significantly from even a few years ago. A 2017 Airbnb survey concluded that 34 percent of families with kids younger than 18 also brought grandparents along for their vacations. Hotels are fielding a flurry of requests for connected suites.

The shift toward multigenerational travel has a few explanations. For one, grandparents today stay healthy later in life, allowing them more energy for travel than previous generations had. Long-distance travel among older people grew in the first two decades of this century. Big-group lodging, through platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo, became more affordable, at least for a while. Plus, the traditional nuclear structure is no longer the only way to arrange a family, and the average U.S. household has become more multigenerational. About 18 percent of Americans now live with at least two generations of adult relatives, more than double the same rate in 1971. To some extent, Americans are not just traveling with grandparents in order to spend time with them—they are traveling with them because they are more likely to live with them in the first place.

Another explanation is time pressure. Americans are taking fewer vacation days than they did in 1976, and “you might want to make the most of that time by then including as many people as possible in the two-week holiday that you do have,” Lynn Minnaert, a tourism professor who conducted the Family Travel Association study, told me.

Perhaps, though, our new era of multigenerational vacations also speaks to what modern families value on their precious time off. The potential presence of both elderly relatives and young children means the pace of activities may be slower. Instead of attempting a multi-stop voyage across the country, today’s family travelers are usually staying in one place, together. The focus might not be on ticking off tourist spectacles but on bonding and cooking together and soliciting childhood memories from older generations.

One advantage of this kind of slow travel could be to mend the disconnects brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. For kids whose social skills are still recovering from the lockdowns, according to Minnaert, traveling in large groups of family members has offered a way to rebuild social confidence. Some adults had to go months, if not years, without seeing their elderly parents and might wish to make up for lost time.

But whatever the reason for its popularity, the multigenerational vacation, which predates COVID, offers something deeper than a response to pandemic isolation. A trip can be the rare time when younger and older generations can glimpse, through card-game victories or failed group-dinner attempts, the complex people they have each become. Away from the family home, or the restaurant you’ve been patronizing for decades, older generations get to see their adult children as responsible parents. Kids get to see their grandparents encounter a new locale. Everyone gets to break out of their typical family roles and figure out how to be together—hopefully without driving one another up the wall. Multigenerational trips let you rethink not just what travel is supposed to be but who your family members really are.

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