Families vacationing together

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

The Gomez family may be one of the few in the country who won’t be too disappointed if it rains over the Fourth of July weekend.

“We just play indoor games in the cabins,” says Michele Abril. For the last 20 years, she explains, her extended family — 30 strong and including four generations, have gathered at rustic cabins on Lake Sebago in New York for some old-fashioned fun. They crowd into four cabins (showers are a walk away), tote everything they need (even toilet paper) and divide all the chores. And they wouldn’t have it any other way. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe it’s the need to reconnect with friends and family. At beach houses and on sailboats, city condos and mountain cabins, families and friends are joining forces on vacation.

“We get calls daily from family and friends who want to get together in our cabins,” says Stephanie Seacord from Point Lookout Resort in Maine (www.visitpointlookout.com) where cabins that sleep nine or more start at $195. Cabins can be had for even less in Colorado at the YMCA of the Rockies (www.ymcarockies.com) where my family has also shared quarters — and cooking chores with relatives at a family reunion.

More visitors to Hawaii are opting to split condos rather than get individual hotel rooms, adds Lisa Cripe of Aston Hotels & Resorts (www.astonhotels.com), which has hotels, condo resorts and villas all across Hawaii.

Even Disney is getting into the act, with new Disney Deluxe Villa Resorts Vacation Club options (www.waltdisneyworld.com and www.disneyland.com) that you can turn into your home away form home — Kidani Village at Animal Kingdom Lodge and Treehouse Villas at Saratoga Springs Resort are brand-new with a third villa resort slated to open later this summer and one at Disneyland in the fall.

You do the math. Whether you are at rustic cabins or a luxurious beachfront condo house, you’ll spend less when splitting costs with another family. Especially this year with rental owners — 66 percent — offering special deals to encourage business, according to a survey from www.homeaway.com, the leading online vacation rental website. They’re throwing in everything from a free night to free cleaning service, discounts, even tickets to a local attraction or food.

No wonder families are joining forces on everything from city apartment rentals (lots cheaper than a hotel!) to road trips to tours of Alaska. Elaine Masters and her son joined forced with another family and, says Elaine, “stayed in several suites where we could cook our meals, had cereal breakfasts and packed picnic lunches when we could.” And they spent less than they would have on a cruise. “We saw everything we wanted (except Denali stayed hidden behind clouds).”

When the kids were small, we met up every summer in Minnesota at Ludlow Island Resort (www.ludlowislandresort.com) where we ate the fish we caught for dinner and the kids would chase frogs and ride in the special car that goes in the water.

We’ve shared Cape Cod and Caribbean houses, and every winter, Colorado ski condos with friends and family. This summer may be our farthest afield shared trip — a sailboat in Tahiti with another family and two of my daughter Mel’s oldest camp friends — the girls’ high school graduation present.

But these trips are about much more than saving money. “I love that our group can get together once a year or every other year and feel like we haven’t missed a beat,” says Carin Kromm, a geologist from Kernersville, N.C. Kromm gathers with her college friends and their children at a vacation home owned by one of the group.

Single mom Kelly Ladyga adds that it was much more relaxing to join forces with another single mom than to take her young daughter solo. Besides sharing the cost of rent at a beach house in North Carolina, groceries and rental car, she was able to get a much-needed break — far more relaxing than the solo trip she took to Hawaii. “Plus it was nice to sit with someone on the deck at night, drink wine and laugh about the day’s adventures.”

“It helps with your sanity for sure, kids seem to play better when they have other kids to play with — the more children, the busier they keep each other,” says Michelle Revuelta, the Miami mom of two young daughters who has rented condos in Orlando and elsewhere with other families. “You truly feel you are on vacation,” she says. And that isn’t easy to accomplish with young kids in tow.

There are some rules to be sure. Never discipline anyone else’s child, for one. That’s a parent’s prerogative.

Sophia Blinsky, who rents vacation homes as a business (www.siestahomes.com) and who hosts her college group of seven families, says the hardest part is choosing the date. Make sure there are enough bedrooms, bathrooms and a common space where the kids can hang out in addition to the adults. “A swimming pool is mandatory,” she adds.

“Just remember that where you are isn’t as important as the place you rent.”

Rates for some three-bedroom vacation homes start at just $99 per night, but sleep up to eight travelers, not just one or two, notes Alex Risser, president of the Vacation Rental Managers Association (www.discovervacationhomes.com).

Be clear how you are dividing the costs. In her case, each family takes a day of the week and gets groceries, cooks dinner and cleans up. Other families simply split costs. Some divide the rent based on the number of bedrooms they are using or split the cost straight down the middle. However you do it, suggests Carin Kromm, keep it simple. “There is no need to schedule a lot of activities for the children.”

The beauty of a vacation like this is allowing the kids to entertain themselves. A pool or the beach may be all they need. And once the kids are in bed, says Blinsky, the grown-ups can enjoy some “adult” time. They’re not stuck staring at the wall in a hotel room watching the children sleep.

There’s no corralling kids in restaurants, no getting dressed to feed the hungry preschoolers in an (overpriced) hotel dining room, no worrying about a tired toddler melting down in a hotel lobby.

There’s no worrying about the rain either. “With a 30-person family, we make up our own entertainment,” says Michelle Abril.

That’s the best kind.