Note: This story was written about a trip that took place before the COVID-19 pandemic. If you do plan to travel during the pandemic, here are tips for how to stay safe.
There’s a picture of me and my eight-year-old that a friend says is “the best mother-daughter photo ever”. It’s not me post-birth gazing down at her adorable face, blowing out birthday candles together, or holding hands as her name is read out at school assembly…
In fact, it’s patently ridiculous. We are dressed up as 18th-century Austrian aristocracy, me with a sheep-sized mound of white curls piled on my head, in an ornate, hooped gown; her in elbow-length gloves and a ringleted wig, peeking out from behind an open fan. Behind us is a painted scene of dancing, laughing nobility dressed to the nines.
My mum, 75, took the photo while laughing at/with us, hence the slight blur.
It’s not something I could imagine the three of us doing at home (we live in two different countries for a start). But, we’re together in what is a first for us, an intergenerational trip overseas. In this case, one that starts in Prague, before sailing the Danube through Germany and ending here, playing dress-ups at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.
Meanwhile, my 10-year-old son, his father and my father, are across the other side of the world, in India, on a similar – yet wildly different – trip. They are returning to my husband’s former home to meet the friends he grew up with, and from here they’ll all embark on a trip to Goa. We check in constantly, our two divergent experiences providing endless amusement.
We don’t know it, but we are part of a travel zeitgeist. Traveling with extended family is proving to be a popular way to connect and enjoy one another in greater depth than at annual holiday get togethers.
Dyan Mckie, Family Product Manager at Intrepid Travel says intergenerational customers traveling together grew by 18 per cent globally in 2019 compared wiith 2018. This growth continued until COVID-19 hit. “In the first two months of 2020, we saw a 29 per cent increase in intergenerational bookings compared to the same period last year,” she says.
Bringing everyone together for an extended period of time, while discovering new experiences, is a rewarding investment in the family dynamic, particularly if differing ages, travel styles, and predilections are catered for and everyone leaves happy.
Of course, the downside of extended time together is that it can expose fault lines far more readily than a three-hour Christmas lunch. And, we all know the consequences of family dynamics gone wrong.
So, in the spirit of making life easier, here’s what I learned from 10 days across three countries in close quarters with two people I love, while we are at utterly different stages of life.
Look, a family can go to a resort and spend all its time lounging and swimming and everybody will emerge tanned and relaxed. But, if your loved ones are a little more adventurous, look for a culturally immersive trip that caters to intergenerational travel. Then choose one that offers a daily smorgasbord of excursions to choose from... or choose a destination yourself, then put in the effort to build an itinerary and pre-planned excursions. This is what the male side of my family did and it paid off enormously.
Either way, before you leave, enjoy some pre-trip time discussing what each person would like to do, ensuring there is a balance between individual activities and spending time as a group doing something new.
There has to be equal parts fun and cushioning; young children need stimulation then quiet time, older people might enjoy a gentle, informative tour then need some afternoon peace, and parents will most certainly enjoy some adult downtime. Book accordingly.
It’s important not to get too ambitious. This is not a time to take on a big destination, plan energetic all-day adventures, have everyone schlepp five suitcases through multiple airports, or stay at a backpacker’s praying there are no parties planned.
Over the course of our trip, my daughter and I explore the beer tunnels beneath Nuremberg while my mother opts for a tour of the Nuremberg Trials Courthouse and Memorial. Together, we ride a horse and carriage through the forest to a Bohemian crystal factory to watch the master glassblower at work. We pair off for a mother-daughter bike ride around Passau while Mum strolls around the village enjoying the living history. An itinerary that gives family members the chance to opt in or out without judgment is one I would recommend, and Intrepid’s Mckie agrees.
“For multigenerational families, I would suggest trips that don’t move around too much...The beauty of our trips is that all activities can be opted out of, so if an older member of the group didn’t feel like an included bike ride or hike, they could choose not to do it, without compromising their experience.
“Many of our included activities can be enjoyed together, such as hands-on cooking classes, walking historical sites and visiting local markets.”
I couldn’t believe how, despite our differences, we all had something to contribute to the enjoyment of the trip. Sitting at dinner one night, my mother explained the reason for the (largely obsolete in our lives) order of cutlery. Later that evening, when my mother offers to take a photo of us, my daughter teaches her to touch the phone screen to focus the shot. My mother has the knowledge of her generation, my daughter the burgeoning knowledge of hers; it was great to share resources.
The truth is we also have to tackle a few generational differences. I cringe sometimes at the way my daughter acts – she’s a ‘free spirit’ – and my mother does the same. We acknowledge it, talk about it and move on. We’re on vacation and my daughter’s enjoyment is just as important as my mother’s. This works for us. All I can say is, don’t be the family that bottles things up.
The key is to sort out as much as you can pre-departure. Different income levels, divergent traveling styles, unaligned expectations, old wounds…. Try to deal/heal with these at the planning stage, not while on the road.
Most of all, take loads of photos. This is a unique and rewarding travel experience and everyone will love to look back on it, especially the oldies. It’s their reward for a lifetime of service.
Travel journalist Ronan O'Connell shares how his father's adventurous nature shaped his own approach to life and travel.
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