Besides the sunscreen and swimsuits, Margaret Foerster will pack a cooler with a big frozen turkey when she heads to the Caribbean with her children and grandchildren this week.
``I'm not going to skip cooking Thanksgiving dinner because we're away from home,'' she says, laughing, from her Jacksonville, Fla., home. ``Taking everyone on a trip like this -- 13 are going -- is a way to guarantee we'll all be together for the holidays without telephones ringing and carpools to drive.''
That's exactly why Shirley Stillinger will be filling her grandchildren's Christmas stockings in Italy this year rather than at her home in Urbana, Ill. ``I'm a retired social worker, and this is a big splurge for me,'' acknowledges the 69-year-old Stillinger, who is footing the $15,000 bill for her four children and their families. ``But they didn't want to come to Urbana anymore for Christmas because it's so cold and gray. And this is a Christmas present for me, too. If I just gave everyone money, I wouldn't enjoy it nearly so much.''
A growing number of grandparents around the country clearly agree. They're booking their far-flung extended families into so many beach resorts, dude ranches, ski resorts, on cruise ships and even safaris, that those in the travel industry see multigenerational trips as a major emerging market -- increasingly during the holidays when it's easier for busy adult children to take a few days off.
The robust economy and grandparents' robust health certainly are helping to drive the trend. Thompson Safaris, for one, is fielding more calls from grandparents who want to take their families on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. ``We paid as much to take the family to Africa as we did on our house 35 years ago,'' says Marilyn Larson, chuckling. She has just arrived at the couple's winter home in Arizona and counts their safari as the best trip she's ever done. ``We're just glad we could do it. The kids won't ever forget it.''
While most families aren't going to Africa, last year a third of vacationing families included some sort of reunion in their travel plans, according to the Better Homes and Gardens Family Vacation Report. At the same time, grandparents now are going along on 16 percent of family vacation trips -- some 16 million a year.
``These groups are now 40 percent of our annual business,'' says Matt Ouimet, president of Disney Cruise Lines, who notes he's going off to his own multigenerational Thanksgiving vacation with his in-laws. ``Families are looking for more than a good time together,'' he continued. ``They want the special memory.''
But they want it without all the work of cooking and cleaning and washing in quarters that suddenly become cramped when a slew of children and grandchildren arrive. That may be why 700 children will be sailing on one Carnival ship this Thanksgiving -- a fourth of the passengers. Many will have grandparents and aunts and uncles as well as parents in tow, says Carnival Senior Vice President for Marketing Vicki Fried, who opted to cruise herself last Thanksgiving with 20-plus relatives.
And it's not as expensive as you might think. A family of four, for example, could cruise on Carnival this Thanksgiving for four days for about $1,000 or book a villa somewhere warm for not too much more.
But more important than the price, ``It's so much more relaxing when we go away,'' says 70-year-old Frank Moran, who lives in Maryland and takes his six kids and their families -- 29 strong, including a great-grandchild -- to the Hershey Resort in Pennsylvania every year just before Christmas.
That's certainly true for the adult children in the group who won't have to work so hard to entertain their kids in grandma's house, 1,000 miles from their friends and favorite toys -- or the rest of the family in theirs. ``By being in a different place, it's easier to enjoy ourselves without worrying about the silver being polished and the turkey perfect,'' says Margaret Bratton, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., and is delighted to be heading off to the British Virgin Islands next week.
In a new vacation spot, divorced or remarried parents won't have to relive the ghosts of holidays past, either. The Foersters are a blended family themselves and see their Thanksgiving trips to tropical climes as another way for their adult children to bond.
And for single parents, there's the extra plus: ``I get a break without feeling guilty while my daughter gets to know her aunts and uncles better,'' explains Mary Stillinger, an El Paso, Texas, lawyer who can't wait for her family's Italy trip. Undaunted by Y2K worries, Mary says, ``There are a lot worse places to be stranded than Italy.''
Of course, all of this family togetherness requires that a family likes to be together, psychologists and psychiatrists say. ``It's Christmas in Vermont,'' sighed one Connecticut mother. ``It's not a vacation.''
Elaine Rodino, a newly elected national officer of the American Psychological Association from Santa Monica, Calif., worries that nuclear families might give up much-needed ``alone'' vacation time for a big trip with the grandparents.
If you're going with grandparents and siblings, experts say, be clear up front who is paying for what and don't think a trip like this will solve long-simmering family woes. ``And remember holidays always have extra emotional baggage,'' warns Tufts University's Don Wertlieb, a family psychologist and chief of the university's Center for Child Studies.
Still, neutral turf -- especially a vacation spot where there's a lot more to do than sit around Grandma's living room -- can make holiday gatherings a lot easier to handle. Child psychiatrist David Fassler, University of Vermont professor and chairman of the American Psychiatric Association's Council on Children, is one who applauds the trend. ``Kids who have more meaningful relationships with family are more emotionally resilient,'' he explains. `They're more secure.'' And when busy families live so far apart, Fassler says, vacations may be the only time families get to build those relationships and for kids to understand their unique history.
Happy Thanksgiving. Don't forget the old photo albums.
IF YOU'RE PLANNING A MULTIGENERATIONAL TRIP ...
Ask about discounts for booking large groups. These are good bets:
-- HIDEAWAYS INTERNATIONAL arranges villa rentals all over the world. 800-843-4433 or www.hideaways.com.
-- AMERICAN WILDERNESS EXPERIENCE can book ranches around the country. 800-444-0099 or www.awetrips.com.