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Vacationing with Grandparents

When my husband suggested we join his vacationing parents in Laughlin, Nevada, for Thanksgiving a few years ago, I was wary. It's not that I don't like my in-laws; I was just worried that there wouldn't be enough for our daughters, who were then 3 and 4, to do.

Turns out, we all had a blast -- swimming, boat rides, even feeding burros. My mother-in-law helped with the girls, so my husband and I had some time alone, and my kids had four whole days with their beloved grandparents.

We're not alone: More and more families are trying multigenerational trips. "Today's families are scattered across the country, so if you want your kids to see their grandpar ents, you probably have to travel," says Marion Lindblad-Goldberg, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. And with time off scarce, many couples prefer to go someplace fun with Grandma and Grandpa rather than just visit their parents' homes.

Besides being a bonding experience, multigenerational trips can be just plain fun. Planning the getaway can be tricky, though, since you have to accommodate a variety of ages, energy levels, and interests. To navigate it all:

Start small

Could you stand a week with your overbearing father-in-law? Can your husband cope with your mother's snipes about his long hours at the office? If you're worried, test the waters by going away for a long weekend -- you can always plan a longer trip next time.

If you suspect your in-laws' quirks may be too much to tolerate, talk to your husband beforehand about intervening when you give him the high sign or spending a couple hours a day with them on his own so you get a break. But be prepared to be surprised by what a change in venue can do. "My mother-in-law is domineering, and normally she drives me nuts, but in Florida we got along great," says a mom of two from Shaker Heights, Ohio. "We weren't on her turf or mine, so we didn't get into power struggles over things like what time to eat or how to cook vegetables."

Hit the right spot

You'll need to find a destination that's appropriate for all three generations. A beach resort might not be ideal if your mother has to stay out of the sun, and let's just say that toddlers and jewel-box B&B's aren't a great mix.

You also want to be sure that there's plenty for everyone to do. "That's why places like Sunscape Resorts & Spas or Club Med are the most popular choice for families traveling with grandparents -- they offer their guests everything from kids' camps to fancy restaurants," says Nancy Zimmerman, travel expert for boomertowne.com.

If you're not opting for a package deal, planning the trip will be a little more complicated, but still doable. Jennifer Bagdade of St. Paul, mom of Madeline, 3, took a terrific vacation with her husband, parents, and brother and sister-in-law to Costa Rica. Part of the reason it went so well, she says, is that her father researched the area carefully beforehand. "He found an oceanfront house, so Madeline could spend plenty of time in the water with us or her grandparents. And for the adults, there were museums, hiking trails -- even a zip line," she says.

While the kids' best interests should come first (no one will have fun if the children are cranky or bored), it's a good idea to get input from the adults, as well. If everyone has a say, there's less likely to be grumbling once you get there. "My parents always pay for our extended-family trips, and they have the final say on where we go, but we 'kids' suggest the destinations, and they pick from our list," says Stacie Barnett of Dallas, mom of Hayden, 3, and Jack, 11 months.

Give yourself some space

Should you rent a house? Get hotel rooms? Think about the potential noise level, especially if you have a baby who's teething or a toddler who's raring to go at dawn. When Barnett's parents took the extended family to Kauai, Hawaii, last year, they rented a condo for each nuclear family. "That way, childless couples weren't disturbed by loud kids, and we could each use our kitchens as we pleased. I stocked ours with baby food; others stocked theirs with bottles of wine," she says.

It's also important to consider the bathroom situation. If Grandpa and Grandma don't feel comfortable sharing (ask if you're not sure), choose your lodgings carefully. "My father made sure that our rental house in Costa Rica had four bedrooms and four baths. Everybody had a private place to sleep, and we didn't all end up waiting in line for the shower each morning," says Bagdade.

When it comes to determining who will sleep where, consider putting different families or generations together -- let your son bunk with Grandpa, for instance, or have all the cousins sleep in one room. Mixing things up can help extended family members get to know each other better. Just be sure that everyone is comfortable with the arrangements. If your daughter's bedtime is 8 P.M., your night-owl mom might prefer her own digs.

Figure out finances

It's essential to decide who's going to pay for what before you go. Sometimes grandparents treat the entire family as a way to mark a special event, like a birthday or an anniversary. If so, find out what's included. Are they paying for the airfare or just the hotel? What about meals and amusement-park passes? While Bagdade's parents covered lodgings and airfare for their Costa Rica trip, "we paid for certain things along the way, like museum admissions and some meals," she says.

If your folks or in-laws are footing the bill, you might show your appreciation by treating them to at least one thing, like a family dinner or special souvenir.

Know when to go solo

Too much togetherness can make anyone edgy, so make it clear up front that you're not expecting to do everything as a group. That way, your parents won't feel bad going to the movies while you settle in for an evening watching the Disney Channel in your room.

Keep in mind that it can be fun to match up different generations for a few hours. Grandpa may have a great time taking the kids to hunt for seashells on the beach while the rest of you troll the outlet mall. The key is to be flexible.

It's also important to manage your expectations. You may think you'll hire a hotel babysitter one night and eat out somewhere fancy with your in-laws, only to realize your child isn't ready to be left in an unfamiliar place with a stranger. And speaking of babysitting, it's smart to ask your parents in advance exactly how often they're willing to do it. Some are thrilled to have some alone time with their grandchildren; others may balk at your leaving the kids with them for hours.

Finally, don't worry if you run into a little friction. "My mother wanted to take a family photo, and dictated that we all had to wear white shirts. It caused lots of tension. Some of us thought we should be given a few colors to choose from; others thought we should be able to wear whatever we wanted," Barnett says. "In the end, though, we didn't dwell on it. Mom and Dad wore matching outfits, and the rest of us had every variation, including Hawaiian shirts. And it turned out to be a great photo!"

Mary Garner Ganske now takes a three-generation vacation every year.

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