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Goodbye Mickey, hello Machu Picchu: Family adventure travel is on the rise

If you think family travel means road trips, beach resorts, and photo-ops with people dressed in oversized mouse costumes, think again. More and more families are turning away from traditional leisure vacations, opting instead for adventure tours that challenge their bodies and minds and strengthen relationships in a way that would be hard to come by on other types of vacations.

According to the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), adventure travel is the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry, and the number of families booking adventure trips is increasing. Chris Doyle, director of the ATTA, estimates that families (including multigenerational groups with grandparents and extended relatives) now make up about 25 to 30 percent of the adventure travel market.

“Family adventure travel is booming,” says Dave Wiggins, general manager of the luxury tour company Austin-Lehman Adventures. “What accounted for just 40 percent of our overall business three years ago has grown to more than 60 percent this year.”

Tim Gordon, founder of Gordon’s Guide, the largest adventure travel marketplace on the Web, also notes that in 2004, 26.8 percent of all trip inquiries coming through his site were from families with kids. This year, that number has jumped to 43 percent. “It’s definitely a growing trend,” says Gordon.

NEXT >> Why family adventure tours?

Why family adventure tours?

Adventure tours, particularly those emphasizing cross-cultural connections, force travelers to become actively engaged with new cultures and environments. “There’s a shift from general leisure travel to education and learning on vacation,” says Doyle.

“Parents would also like to see their children challenged and be more active,” says Gordon. “Adventure travel gets the whole family involved in an activity.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of family adventure tours is not the destination or the physical challenge, but the chance to connect with one another in a meaningful way, far from the distractions of work, school, and technology. “Family adventure trips provide a unique bonding experience,” says Gordon. “Rafting, rock climbing, and other adventure activities involve a lot of teamwork.”

“There is something quite exciting and dynamic that takes place while on an active family adventure vacation,” says Wiggins. “Kids and teens quickly let down their guard, open up, and enjoy being part of the family again.”

It’s also just fun for parents to see kids making new discoveries—and for kids to see their parents try out a daredevil activity. “Parents love seeing the powerful sense of amazement on their kids faces when they experience something for the first time, and kids get a kick out seeing their parents challenged,” says Gordon. “Oftentimes the kids will be the ones encouraging their parents to be brave.”

NEXT >> Making adventure family-friendly

Making adventure family-friendly

Among the thousands of adventure tour companies in the U.S., only a few cater solely to families, but many more are devoting a portion of their business to family trips. The best companies research and design brand-new itineraries specifically tailored to the needs of families.

One vital component of this is the use of guides who enjoy working with kids and are good at engaging them. “We work with local guides who are parents or teachers and who can translate information in a fun way,” says Kurt Kutay, President of Wildland Adventures, which runs about 25 family adventure tours worldwide.

Kutay and representatives from several other tour operators I spoke with also said their companies carefully select accommodations and dining options for tours that are family-friendly. “We use hotels that have amenities like adjoining rooms and pools, and we work with providers who will prepare food that’s kid-friendly,” says Kutay.

Having a variety of activity options and a flexible itinerary is also important to pleasing a group with a wide range of ages and interests. Many family tours balance time together with options for parents to have alone time and for kids to go off on their own with the guides for an activity. “Traveling as a family doesn’t mean you want to spend every waking moment together doing the same things. Neither do you want to wave goodbye and head off in different directions each day,” says Wiggins.

Going along with parents’ desire for their kids to learn something, some companies feature experiences on their tours that allow kids to connect with their destination in a fun way. For example, on Wildland’s Kenya and Tanzania, East Africa: Masai Land Safari teens have the chance to interact with Masai teens and learn about their responsibilities as warriors. Other activities a family tour provider might plan are visits to local schools, meals with local families, or working on a community service project.

In addition, several tour companies have developed itineraries made especially for teens, including Wildland and Thomson Family Adventures, a provider that is entirely devoted to family travel. “By including elements such as community service, ‘geocaching’ (treasure hunting with GPS handheld devices), surfing or drumming lessons, or climbing Kilimanjaro, we keep the older kids engaged and occupied in more sophisticated ways,” says Family Travel Advisor Moo Bishop of Thomson Family Adventures’ teen programs.

Some outfitters that are trying to please family clients offer children’s discounts, especially for kids staying at the same accommodations as their parents. Kids are also sometimes eligible for discounted airfare.

NEXT >> Top providers

Top providers

Here’s a look at some of the companies that are leading the way in the family adventure market. All the companies listed discount rates for kids on most trips, although age rules vary by destination and kids must usually share a room with parents to be eligible for lower prices. In addition, all can arrange custom tours as well as set departures dates.

Wildland Adventures

With a focus on ecotourism and authentic travel experiences, Wildland Adventures’ 25 family programs are a good choice for families who want to have fun and learn. Tours make use of indigenous guides and local providers, and feature numerous opportunities for kids and parents to interact with local communities. “Wildland Adventures added lots of special experiences by hiring a local calypso band one night, inviting a children’s group to perform traditional dances, and arranging a special visit to a local elementary school. As a result, our kids have initiated a pen pal relationship with students from the school and we are sending teaching materials and playground equipment to the school,” says Deborah VanDerhei, who brought her family on the company’s Panama trip.

Wildland’s family-tour destinations include Africa, Latin America, New Zealand, and Alaska. Prices range from $1,695 per adult for the eight-day “Undiscovered Belize Adventure” to $5,595 per adult for the 12-day “Alaska Family Explorer.”

Austin-Lehman Adventures

Upscale outfitter Austin-Lehman Adventures‘ trips feature adventurous activities like white-water rafting and rock-climbing, as well as luxurious accommodations and meals. “A hallmark of our family adventures is our food,” says Dave Wiggins. “For family dinners, we choose casual restaurants with delightful family fare and excellent service. Adults and children also have opportunities to eat apart. Mom and dad can dine on black-pepper gnocchi in the wine cellar while the kids eat pizza by the pool.”

Austin-Lehman has almost 20 family tours, which mostly focus on North American national parks, although the company also has a Costa Rica and a Galapagos tour. Prices range from $850 per adult for the four-day “Canyonlands Rafting Adventure” to $2,848 per adult for the six-day “Kaua’i: The Garden Isle” trip (custom trips only).

Thomson Family Adventures

One of the few providers that focuses solely on family tours, Thomson Family Adventures is a pioneer in family adventure travel. “With years of our own family experiences we know a lot about putting together the right combination of activities, downtime, culture, and adventure to satisfy everyone,” says Moo Bishop.

Thomson runs trips in 10 destinations (Alaska, Belize, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, Panama, Peru, Tanzania, and Turkey), although the 11-day Tanzania family safari ($3,940 per adult) is its signature trip; its parent company Wineland-Thomson Adventures has been running Tanzanian safaris for 25 years. Thomson’s other tours range in price from $2,090 per adult for the nine-day “Costa Rica: Volcanoes, Cloud Forests, & Beaches” tour to $7,090 per adult for the 19-day “Kilimanjaro: Teen Adventure.”


Specializing in rafting trips on North America’s great white-water rivers, O.A.R.S. has been leading family trips since 1969. O.A.R.S. rates its family trips according to age-appropriateness, with gentler options for kids as young as four and more challenging trips for kids ages 12 and up. On family trips, one guide is designated as the “Fun Director” whose focus is keeping the kids happy.

O.A.R.S. has 15 different family trips, including several kayaking and multi-sport adventures. Rates range from $80 per adult for a half-day “Yellowstone Lake Kayak” tour to $4,237 per adult for a full-length “Grand Canyon Rafting” tour.

NEXT >> Where to go for more info

Where to go for more info

To start your search, check out the websites listed above or try browsing the Gordon’s Guide website, which has a database of more than 10,000 trips. You can search by destination and travel category. Within each category you can also do an additional search that allows you to designate variables such as only searching for providers with children’s programs. You may also want to check out the ATTA’s list of member companies. To determine how to select the best provider for your trip, read Erica Silverstein’s feature tips for finding a reputable adventure travel provider.

Once you’ve made a booking, get your family involved in researching and reading about your destination. “Get out the maps and books and plan a family dinner around it so that the kids are a part of the process,” says Doyle. “The more research you do in advance, the richer the experience will be on the ground.”

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