Family vacations are an opportunity to spend quality time with the kids and create cherished memories to fill our hearts and scrapbooks—but they can also be stressful, exhausting, and expensive. According to the Family Travel Association's September 2015 U.S. Family Travel Survey, family trips are one of the fastest-growing segments of the tourism industry, and despite the fact that the average vacation in the United States costs $4,580 for a family of four, parents are willing to spend that money on something they feel is important to their family.
"If you look at family spend as a pie chart, we definitely see more people valuing experiences, so travel spend actually is going up," says Caroline Shin, travel expert and CEO/"Chief Vacation Officer" of Vacatia, a booking service touted as the Airbnb for family-oriented resort rentals.
In fact, data from the American Express Spending and Saving Tracker shows that vacation planning is at a high, with 70 percent of Americans expecting to travel for leisure in 2016, which is up from 66 percent in 2015.
So how are today's families planning to maximize their vacation time this year? Check out Shin's top five family travel trends for 2016 to see if one (or more!) of these ideas could work for you and your kids:
1. Families are traveling with their friends.
File this under "the more, the merrier;" parents are connecting with their parent friends to all go on vacation together with their blended gaggle of offspring. "With a growing emphasis on providing our children with experiences versus 'things,' the trend of multiple families vacationing together—blending friend and family travel—is one I expect to only grow with time," Shin says.
She attributes this trend, in part, to the Millennial generation becoming parents. "They grew up in an on-demand world and valuing experiences over owning things," Shin says. "I think that naturally leads them to ask, 'Why do a family vacation and a friend vacation have to be separate? Why can't we all go there together?'"
The increased accessibility to private homes and resort rentals through online booking services, such as Vacatia, HomeAway, and Airbnb, also makes it easier to plan accommodations for larger groups. "More people are aware that there are non-hotel accommodations," Shin says. "It's freeing up the traditional definition of what a 'family' vacation is all about."
Related: Family-Friendly Resort Vacations
2. Vacations aren't just for spring break and summer anymore.
The standard two-week vacation policy just doesn't cut it for families anymore, and more businesses and employees are redefining what's possible in today's world. "I love that companies, like Netflix, LinkedIn, General Electric corporate and Virgin Group, are spearheading new, innovative vacation and time-off policies for employees," Shin says. "This shift, and our ability to connect to WiFi from almost anywhere—even cars!—means working parents have greater flexibility than ever before. So while there's peak seasonality around spring break and summer when school's out, vacation activity is happening all the time as we're no longer tied to our desks and desktop computers to get work done."
Families also can now take longer summer vacations, for example, because parents can work while traveling, Shin adds. Plus, parents with flexible life and work schedules are flexing their kids' school schedules a bit, too, to allow more varied vacation times. "We see more and more kids getting out of school maybe a day or half a day early, and family actually supporting that concept because they want their children to experience new things," she says. "Going on vacation counts for that."
Families are booking more long weekend trips, for example, especially when parents can combine business with pleasure. "Orlando is a really popular destination where Vacatia gets calls from moms or dads trying to move from a hotel into a two-bedroom residence or a bigger unit," Shin says. "We ask, 'Hey, why you traveling?' and they say they were going in originally for work and now they're having their family fly or drive in on Friday to spend the weekend visiting the amusement parks. That's a great way of extending a business trip into a family getaway."
3. Parents and kids are vacationing with grandparents and extended families.
Why go home to visit the grandparents in Ohio in the dead of winter when you could all meet at the warm and sunny beach in Florida? "We're seeing more and more large, family group bookings as vacations allow faraway families, across multiple generations, to reconnect in a shared experience," Shin says. "Vacationing together is a means for extended family and friends to reconnect periodically."
Perhaps surprisingly, these "destination family visits" are happening during holidays as well. "I've been in the travel industry for a long time and what's been surprising is, back in the old days when I did a lot of hotels, it was a ghost town during Thanksgiving," says Shin, a former Starwood Hotels exec. "On the flip side, one of Vacatia's busiest time periods for renting out resort residences is Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's, traditionally time periods where people think of going home."
In many cases, it's the grandparents who are suggesting—and even paying for—their younger generations to meet them at a fun vacation destination instead of coming to visit them at home. "I just had an extended family and friend vacation in Maui, and my mom is the first one that said, 'Instead of coming home guys, why don't we go somewhere?'" Shin says. "So 13 of us went to Maui and rented a resort residence with a kitchen and a family room so that it still felt like home and we could cook in a couple of days instead of eating out."
Plus, with today's multigenerational families being so spread out, grandparents often don't have the space to house all of the out-of-towners—or want the stress of hosting. "You know what my mom enjoys [at a resort]?" Shin jokes. "Hitting the button and getting housekeeping to come."
4. A spontaneous trip is no longer something only possible for the rich and famous.
In today's on-demand world, practically anyone can do anything with just the click of a button, making last-minute travel bookings easily accessible for families. "Vacations can increasingly happen at any time, with any size group, for any number of days, with any amount of notice," Shin says. "There's less and less of a standard when it comes to booking times, and more [vacation planning] options online offer families the chance to experience new places in an affordable and easy way, whenever they feel like it."
While driveable destinations, like Orlando and Myrtle Beach, S.C., are popular destinations for spontaneous trips, finding a good deal is often the location inspiration. "Surprisingly enough, we see people with children trying to go to Hawaii with only a week advance notice," Shin says. "A great airline deal probably triggered the idea, and families feel it's worth their kids skipping two days of school to go experience it."
5. Families have more options than ever for accommodations that fit their needs and budget.
Spending the night in a motel room with two queen beds and an ice machine down the hall is no longer the only option for vacationing families. In addition to traditional hotels and motels, families now have access to private homes, vacation rentals, resort residences and more through online booking services. "It's really about doing the research because there's more options available," Shin says. "There's great values to be found. It's an opportunity for you to think out of the box."
Residence-like accommodations are increasingly popular with families, Shin says, because they offer the bedroom space needed as well as kitchens to prepare affordable meals. Shin sees an increase in families booking resort residence rentals in particular as they became more accessible through online listings. "A resort residence offers families the space and comfort of a private home—the key reason vacationers book vacation rentals vs. a hotel in the first place—as well as services, like check-in, concierge, housekeeping, maintenance, and security—things typically associated with hotels, and the lack of which is the primary reason vacationers choose not to book homes," she says. "Vacatia's analysis is that the rental rate of nearly half of resort residences, especially multi-bedroom, is actually lower than local comparably rated hotel rooms, making them more cost-effective for traveling families on a budget."