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Take a One-Big-Happy-Family Vacation!

Traveling together is a chance for far-flung relatives to reconnect—and for siblings to decide they really like each other. Here are some tips for planning your own family getaway.

BOB CARSWELL'S FAVORITE MEMORY of his mom, Lois, is the sight of her wading into a river in Belize so she could visit a burial ground on the other side. "The river kept getting deeper," Carswell says, "and my mother was five foot one, in heels." When the water was over her head, the undaunted Lois simply wrapped her arms around the neck of the tour guide, who ferried her the rest of the way.

Lois Carswell passed away in 2014, but the story of her traversing that river in Belize is one her children and grandchildren will tell for decades to come—just as they will carry on Lois's tradition of keeping their bicoastal family connected through travel.

In a tradition she had started with her husband, Donald, over the years, Lois had taken her extended family—her three adult children, their spouses, and her four grandchildren (then ages 10 to 21)—to such diverse locales as Tanzania, the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica and Tuscany. Her adventurous spirit always made their vacations memorable. But, above all, it was the quality time this far-flung family spent together each year that they came to value most.

"Everybody has their own lives, and we're all so busy. That's why spending time together on a trip is great. In a way, it doesn't really matter where you're going."
—Bob Carswell

"Family was so important to my mom," says Carswell. "Everybody has their own lives, and we're all so busy. That's why spending time together on a trip is great. In a way, it doesn't really matter where you're going."

The Carswells' vacation of choice is one that many families everywhere are discovering. According to the travel-marketing firm MMGY Global, 38% of travelers have taken a multi-generation vacation in the past year, with destinations running the gamut from a camping trip in a national park to a tour of China. In fact, on a quarter of vacations taken by American travelers, all three generations—grandparents, parents and kids—were together.

Planes, Trains, Automobiles and Family

The logistics of planning a trip for so many people can seem daunting. "It's important to be honest with yourself," says Eileen Ogintz, creator of the website Taking the Kids (takingthekids.com) and author of The Kid's Guide series that includes guidebooks for New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago. "After all, you can't return a vacation." Here are three key questions you'll want to ask yourself—and the whole gang—as you make your travel plans.

Where are we going and what will we do?

"Be sure your plans are appropriate for everyone who's coming along," advises Kyle McCarthy, editor of Family Travel Forum (myfamilytravels.com). She recalls a friend with young children whose in-laws invited her family on an Alaskan cruise. The ship was small and had few activities for kids. But the big concern for the young mother was the deck, where the railings were widely spaced. "The whole time, she felt like she had to watch over her kids so that they didn't fall into the water." Needless to say, the trip was hardly restful or pleasant.

As you work with your family to outline your trip, respect everyone's needs and tastes, and in cases where there are differing opinions, try to reach compromises. Consider coming up with several trip options. Then solicit input from everyone coming along—including the kids, suggests McCarthy.

The Carswell family cooks up trip plans at their annual summer get-together. "Everybody throws an idea into the hopper, the family discusses it, and then we decide where we want to go. My mom would start planning trips two years in advance to accommodate school and work schedules," recalls Bob Carswell—a practice he plans to continue with his siblings.

To find destinations that might appeal to family members of all ages, consider all-inclusive resorts and cruises. These options offer a variety of activities and dining choices—and often child care—at a fixed price. And if you prefer a less structured vacation, look for ways to incorporate activities for all ages. Ask friends for suggestions, or consult a travel agent who specializes in multigenerational family vacations.

Who's paying for what?

Are you paying for travel and lodging? Should each invited family be responsible for its own airfare? Who pays for meals? Lift tickets? Theme park passes? "A lack of clarity about these details can undermine the sense of family unity a multigenerational trip is intended to create," says Stacy Allred, managing director, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, Center for Family Wealth Dynamics and Governance™. "If your entourage is sizable, it's essential to budget carefully in advance, and to determine financial responsibilities up front."

Allred recommends sending each adult a detailed email spelling out the costs each family member will cover. "If your son assumes from your invitation that you'll pay for everything, and he ends up picking up the tab for half the meals, that could quickly become a source of tension."

How will we all get along?

Every family has its own set of dynamics. If there are tensions between family members, they won't necessarily go away just because you're in a relaxing location. To prevent—or at least minimize—friction, you should all agree to certain ground rules in advance, says Ogintz. One cardinal rule: "Don't discipline another person's child. Leave that to the parents." And don't feel the need to spend every minute together as a group. "Everybody doesn't have to be in lockstep all the time."

If you plan your multigenerational trip carefully, you may see it work a kind of magic on your family. In 1984, the Carswells took their first overseas family vacation, to Scotland. Lois's two sons and daughter were then in their college years and shared uneasy, competitive relationships. But after two weeks of golf, exploring castles and getting lost in the Highlands, "we suddenly decided we liked each other," recalls Bob Carswell.

"We told our mom, 'We'd rather have the trips than have you save the money and give it to us later.' Now more than ever, we treasure the memories we made together."

If you plan your multigenerational trip thoughtfully, you may just see the birth of a similar kind of new tradition in your family.

4 Tips for Keeping Everyone Happy

  • Be sure you've got activities planned for all ages.
  • If the kids get unruly, leave the disciplining to the parents.
  • Plan some time apart—don't feel the need to spend every minute together.
  • Budget carefully, and spell out in advance who's going to pay for what.

3 Questions to Ask Your Advisor

  1. What’s the best way for me to finance a major trip?
  2. Can I afford to make a big family trip and still keep my investments on track?
  3. How could Merrill Lynch’s partnership with the Virtuoso travel network help me plan my next trip?

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The views and opinions expressed are those of the speaker, are subject to change without notice at any time, and may differ from views expressed by Merrill Lynch or other divisions of Bank of America. These materials are provided for informational purposes only and should not be used or construed as a recommendation of any service, security or sector.

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