Let's hear it for a gift that will illicit smiles and heart-felt "thank yous," that no one will want to return and even better, will still be appreciated long after the holidays are over.
No such gift exists? Of course it does. It's the gift of a trip together, but not just any trip, a custom adventure designed for your group, based on their ages and interests. And it doesn't have to be as big a budget-buster as you might think.
You can book inexpensive cabins at the YMCA of the Rockies at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado as my family did last summer with nonstop complimentary activities and stellar views of the Rockies, or take your snow sports-loving crowd to Keystone Resort where kids ski free all season (a significant savings). There are free complimentary Kidtopia off-the-slopes activities and a giant snow fort where kids can slip and slide atop the gondola.
If your family includes Disney fans, for the first time, guests can give a gift of a Disney experience with the special GiveDisneyVacations.com website, with themed gift cards that can be used for anything from dining, tickets, spa treatments and more.
Invite the family on a cruise in 2018. You can usually snare a deal by booking ahead and typically, the more cabins, the better the deal.
You can also save some bucks and maximize family time by sharing a villa, like those from through the Turnstyle Collection in the Caribbean or perhaps Italy where you can take pasta-making lessons in the kitchen, among other special activities -- all for less than it would take to ensconce the family in a comparable hotel, says Kit Burns, founder of VillaVacations.com. "You experience a country in a different way and its people in a more authentic way," she explains, and you have plenty of space -- even to have breakfast in your bathrobe." Holidays, she notes, can even be a bargain and far less crowded. (And you won't be surprised by the bill after a week of kids ordering mocktails when you can whip them up yourself poolside.)
What many families don't realize is the option to tap into experts who can plan a trip of a lifetime just for your family, whether in a national park (no worries figuring out how to get away from the crowds), Europe or places like Costa Rica. "It makes the planning process a lot more fun and gets us more interested in the itinerary, which we own," explained John Caplan, who has done a dozen customized trips -- the first was to Costa Rica -- with his wife and two sons through Wildland Adventures.
"Our goal in taking family vacations is to really connect with each other and enjoy our experiences together, and having Backroads orchestrate the logistics allowed us to do that," said Heather Schlitz, whose family includes three middle- and high-schoolers, who teamed with another family for a custom trip to Yosemite National Park with hikes and bike rides devised for different skill levels and interests. "They even gave us the option to sleep in," said Schlitz, who lives in Ohio. That typically doesn't happen on group trips.
Kurt Kutay, who founded Wildland some 30 years ago to raise awareness about conservation around the world by encouraging travelers to visit, said that in the beginning, the infrastructure was such that small groups made the most economic sense.
Today, according to Kutay, "We can buy a seat on a plane to send one or two people to remote regions and camps on frequent departure schedules, hire a driver/guide in a local vehicle designed for adventure travel over rugged terrain over more and better roads to access places, and of course, there are a myriad of places to rest your head at night."
Now, Kutay's company is devoted 80 percent to custom trips, and companies like Backroads note that groups with as few as eight are opting for individual trips. Luxury tour company Abercrombie & Kent reports their tailor-made trips are showing double-digit increases for 2017 and 2018, though costs can be 30 percent more. "These kinds of trips are half of what we are working on for 2018," said Dan Austin, founder of Austin Adventures, including new itineraries for the women in the family. His advice: Book early.
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"When families take over the entire ship, we can weave in custom, private experiences not available to regularly scheduled cruises," says Todd Smith, whose company AdventureSmith Explorations specializes in small ship charters on ships that can be as small as four cabins. "A charter can result in savings of 10 percent to 30 percent over standard rates."
And it goes without saying that before springing this on the family -- and plunking down a hefty deposit -- make sure everyone is on board with the plan and the dates. Even if you want it to be a surprise, make sure everyone has certain dates free.
Be clear if those on the receiving end are going to be responsible for any expenses (flights, perhaps).
Have one person in the family the "designated trip planner" to coordinate with the company you are working with and funnel everyone's questions and concerns through that one person.
And once you've decided on a destination, make sure everyone has a say in the itinerary. Also make sure there is room to accommodate everyone, whether it's a baby who naps, a millennial determined to cycle 60 miles a day or those who want to browse local markets and sit by the pool afterward. There will be all the more to talk about over the holiday dinner.
As for this year's holiday, give each member of the family something to help them learn about where you will be going -- a gift card to download a movie or book; a children's book about the wildlife they might see in Costa Rica or Africa, a guide to wildflowers in the national park you'll be visiting.
Remember, anticipation is half the fun of travel.