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Sand, Seas, and Memories: Family Travel with a Twist

Jamie Lawson - January 18, 2010

Tired of the same old theme-park vacation? We’ve got the ticket to variety and excitement. Grab your bags and dive right in as you read about four family vacations that are sure to be talked about for years to come.

Summer vacation looks a lot closer from this side of Christmas. With the New Year here, bringing with it plans and goals for 2010, now is the perfect time to plan your family's next adventure. Check out these ideas for creating incredible memories and taking your family travel to the next level.

Anchors Away Cruises are much more than they used to be. Gone are the days when cruising meant sailing the seas in formal wear with a predominantly older crowd. About one million children now sail the seas each year, and cruise lines have begun to sit up and take notice. Many have gone to great lengths to provide quality entertainment and childcare for younger passengers, making cruising a fantastic vacation option for families.

When it comes to family cruising, Disney cruises reign supreme with their magical atmosphere and "be our guest" philosophy. It seems Disney has anticipated the needs of young families down to the smallest details -- from Diaper Genies to complimentary cribs, strollers, and freshly mashed baby food. There are countless opportunities for character encounters on Disney's cruise line, and its kids clubs are packed with activities to entertain children of all ages. The fact that there are no casinos on board is a definite plus, too. Cruise ships also feature family-sized cabins with two bathrooms -- one with a tub for easily bathing young children.

Disney, however, tends to be more expensive than other cruise lines that also pride themselves on being family oriented. Carnival, Princess, Norwegian, Crystal, Holland America, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean all have similar kids clubs that host a wide variety of age-appropriate activities ranging from pizza parties to arts and crafts. But be sure to check the cruise line's kids club policy regarding children in diapers. Royal Caribbean's and Celebrity's kids clubs will not accept children unless they are completely toilet trained, while Carnival and Norwegian allow children as young as two to participate. Regardless of the cruise line, be aware that children in diapers will not be allowed in the swimming pools. Most ships have a separate wading pool or fountain area for babies and toddlers to enjoy.

All of these cruise lines also offer babysitting -- perfect for when parents want to enjoy a romantic dinner alone or go scuba diving while the little ones remain safely on board. But the form of babysitting varies between cruise lines. Some offer private childcare in your cabin, while others, like Carnival and Princess, provide a slumber-party atmosphere in their child centers. Whichever you prefer, be sure to check the minimum age required to sail before you book a cruise. Disney welcomes babies as young as twelve weeks -- complete with a full-service nursery -- while other cruise lines require infants to be four months or older.

Kids clubs also provide entertainment specifically geared toward teenagers. With choices like Internet cafes, movies, video games, and teen-only pool parties, there are plenty of ways to keep your teen occupied. Or, you may also want to consider a cruise with a more "extreme" feel, like Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas. One of the largest cruise ships to date, Freedom of the Seas has a rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink, and a wave machine so you can learn how to surf right on the ship. In fact, most of the newer cruise ships offer an abundance of activities to please any adventurous teen -- or adult, for that matter -- including basketball courts, golf simulators, or scuba instruction.

Cruising Tips 1. Board Early. Find out the minute you can board the ship and then do it! You'll avoid the crowds, and you'll be the first to the sign-up sheets for shore excursions, babysitting services, and spa appointments. You can also use the time to confirm meal seating assignments and ensure that everything in your cabin is to your liking.

2. Be luggage savvy. If you allow porters to load your luggage onto the ship, it will save you time and spare you from hauling heavy bags around as you try to find your cabin. However, you may not see your luggage for several hours after you board. Pack a small carry-on bag with a bathing suit, toiletries, and a change of clothes, and you can begin to enjoy the pool area after lunch without the stress of anxiously waiting for your luggage to arrive.

3. Minimize risk of seasickness. On today's cruise ships, passengers hardly need to concern themselves with becoming seasick. Newer ships are equipped with state-of-the-art stabilizers that counteract the motion of the water. However, if you are worried about it, there are some precautions you can take:

  • Book a cruise on a larger ship. The larger the ship, the less it will rock.
  • Choose a destination known for calm waters, such as the Caribbean or Alaska's Inside Passage.
  • Reserve a cabin toward the middle of the ship on one of the lower levels.
  • Arrange your beds in alignment with the ship, bow to stern.
  • Get some fresh air. Lie on a deck chair or focus on a fixed point on the horizon to get your body used to the motion of the ship.
  • Take Dramamine or another over-the-counter motion sickness medication that doesn't cause drowsiness. Scopolamine patches, worn behind the ear, are also a great solution. Ask your doctor about a prescription.
4. Budget for tips. Tipping appropriately for cruises can be confusing since policies vary dramatically between cruise lines, although tipping is always done all at once (usually at the beginning or end of the cruise). Carnival, Princess, and Norwegian have automatic gratuity policies, which charge about $10 per passenger per day, but give guests the option to adjust the amount at their discretion. At the other end of the spectrum, Holland America, Radisson Seven Seas, Windstar, Seabourn and Silversea do not expect or require tipping of any kind, but many passengers still tip.

Crystal, Disney, and Royal Caribbean do not have pre-pay gratuity policies, but many passengers still find it more convenient to pre-pay so they don't have to hassle with tipping on their last day of the cruise. If you choose not to pay in advance, cruise lines will often provide envelopes for you to hand out tips in. However you choose to tip, plan on budgeting for the following, although suggested amounts will vary between cruise lines:

  • Cabin stewards: about $3.50 per passenger, per day
  • Waiters: about $3.50 per passenger, per day
  • Assistant waiters: about $2 per passenger, per day
  • Busboys: about $2.50 per passenger, per day
  • Maitre d': about $5 to $10 per passenger for the entire cruise
A standard 15 percent gratuity is often included in bills from the ship's lounges, so be sure to check to see if a tip has already been added. And don't forget those who help you get your luggage from point A to point B. Airport skycaps and porters who load luggage onto the ship look forward to receiving a tip of about $2 per bag.

Cruising can be an ideal way to travel as a family. With all of your meals and lodging provided, and stops at several fascinating locations, a cruise can be relaxing for parents, and now, more than ever, a blast for children of all ages.


Journey to the Past Bring your family's history alive! A great way to get your children excited about it is by traveling to the land of your ancestors -- it makes your ancestors' triumphs and trials seem up close and personal and lets you look at family history in a whole new way.

These trips are popular with genealogy buffs for the precious information they can yield, but even if you aren't ready for genealogical travel, your journey to the past can still be an incredible experience. Just walking through the old village where your ancestor lived and enjoying the culture of his or her homeland can create a stronger connection and greater appreciation for your family.

Church member Jane Turvey of Barrie, Ontario, got to literally walk in her grandparents' footsteps when she traveled to England a couple years ago. By making contacts ahead of time via the Internet, she was able to arrange tours that included visits to the churches where her ancestors worshipped and the cemeteries where they are buried. "One of these wonderful people set up an appointment with a wealthy gentleman who is the great-grandson of someone who my ancestors worked for," says Turvey. "We were able to take a tour of the farm where they worked. It was incredible to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors."

In June of 2008, Utah resident Andrea Rounds traveled to Sweden with her mother and eight cousins on what she calls the "heritage trip of a lifetime." By hiring a genealogist in Sweden to do some research for them before the trip, Rounds and her relatives were able to see where their ancestors worked and lived. "She even took us to the river where my grandmother and two of her siblings were baptized members of the Church in 1905," Rounds recalls.

Make sure you do your research, though. As Cynthia Skousen can attest, the key to a successful genealogy trip is gathering as much information as you can before you leave. "About fifteen years ago, I traveled from Salt Lake to the south of France to find a child’s birth record," she recalls. "She had been born out of wedlock in the early nineteenth century, and I felt compelled to find this child and her mother. For two days I drove from town to town in this area, going to libraries, town clerks, and small graveyards. Nothing. Finally, a clerk indicated that their records were in the central town hall of Agen, France. I drove to Agen, found the town hall, and asked in broken French if I might examine the records for 1804 through 1810. They looked at me and answered in English, 'All of the records have been microfilmed by the Mormons and are in Salt Lake City.' I was speechless! The treasure was in my backyard all the time! Lesson learned: Before you go on a long, circuitous, expensive trip to find your ancestors, check with the Family History Department first!"

Perhaps one of the greatest -- and most surprising -- rewards of researching family history overseas can be the discovery of living relatives you didn't even know you had. For example, Joanna Hamilton or Corvallis, Montana, traveled with her husband to Scotland in 1999. She was greeted by a friend whom she had met via the Internet. That friend, along with some of her family members, escorted the couple to a church where Hamilton's ancestors had attended. Hamilton recalls, "We were able to go through some of the church registry books and write down family information. While browsing through these old books, my friend's sister-in-law asked again what names we were looking for. When I told her, she responded, 'You've got to be kidding! Those are family of mine as well!' It turned out that after all these years of corresponding and then traveling to Scotland, I have found live family!"

Darwin Weeks of Indio, California, did not have any contacts in Ireland when he and his wife traveled there in 1996 to research his maternal grandfather's line. But through a series of coincidences, he met a relative who was a descendant of his great-grandfather's brother. This relative was able to provide valuable information about the family, and even take Weeks to the cemetery where his great-grandfather and great-grandmother were buried. "After having searched for many years for any information about the existence [of them] in Ireland, this was like the dawning of a new day," says Weeks. "What had started as a glimmer of hope was now bursting forth with tangible evidence engraved in stone, confirmed by a living relative who had been part of the history of this place and this people."

If you plan to do genealogy research on your trip, think of ways to involve your children. Have them take pictures. Let them search for headstones by reading the surnames. Teach them how to do headstone rubbings. But keep in mind that the kids will probably grow weary of these activities in a hurry. Be sure to break up your research activities with fun outings. You might consider spending a day doing research while your spouse takes the kids to some of the local attractions.

If traveling abroad isn't in the budget, you can always choose a location closer to home. Did your ancestors immigrate to the U.S. through Ellis Island? Plan a trip to New York City and spend some time at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Do you have pioneer heritage in your blood? A visit to Nauvoo, Kirtland, or even Cardston, Alberta, where many Saints settled in the late 1870s, can give you a glimpse of an important part of your ancestor's life.


Adventure and Thrills Glistening rainforests, mysterious volcanoes, untouched frozen panoramas. Sound intriguing? It's time to make your own family's history with something out of the ordinary. If ditching the summer swimming pool for a kayak and pair of binoculars sounds like it could be a good option for your family, here are some great sites to consider.

Costa Rica Rainforests. Volcanoes. Cloud forests. White-water rafting. Butterfly farms. No, you won't find many roller coasters or spinning teacups in this breathtaking land, but you will find an adventure at every turn and memories so amazing you'll hardly be able to describe them upon returning home.

Start off in the Braulio Carrillo National Park, located just twenty kilometers northeast of the capital city, San Jose. Take a hike on one of the narrow trails and keep your eye out for wildlife like toucans, trogons, eagles, jaguars, and ocelots. The clouds rimming the rainforest canopy make you feel like you're walking through a scene from Gorillas in the Mist.

The next day may include a white-water rafting trip on the Pacuare River, which was recognized by National Geographic as one of the top five most beautiful rafting rivers in the world. And you certainly don't want to miss the Arenal Volcano, considered one of the ten most active volcanoes on earth.

For your next adventure, you could opt for a guided horseback tour to La Fortuna Waterfall, which is two hundred feet high, at the base of which is a pool where you and the family can take a refreshing dip. Finally, no adventure trip to Costa Rica would be complete without a journey into the fascinating Monteverde Cloud Forest. Much of Monteverde's appeal comes from its amazingly diverse ecosystem, boasting 130 species of mammals, 500 species of birds, 120 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 3,000 species of plants. Take a zip line through the tree canopies and later visit the butterfly garden and enjoy the more than 40 species of local butterflies.

Costa Rica is the perfect choice for a first-time international family trip because it is safe, and it has great facilities for tourism and healthcare. It is a doable location for children as young as six, but children a bit older (ten and up) can enjoy more, like river rafting trips and zip-lining.


The Amazon Brazil is the fifth largest nation in the world, so clearly the options for a trip to this sun-streaked country are numerous. If adventure is your aim, what could be better than the enchanting Amazon?

Here's one possible means of exploring the Amazon Rainforest: From a pier at the city of Manaus, you'll take either a two-hour or fifty-minute ride (depending on whether your boat is "regional" or "speed"-style) to the Ariaú Amazon Towers. Remember the Swiss Family Robinson? Their tree house could easily put any backyard fort to shame, but now they're not the only ones able to experience the "high life" when it comes to living in the trees. Ariaú Amazon Towers is the only hotel complex at treetop level in the Amazon Rainforest and includes two swimming pools at the height of the treetops, two observation towers, and a beautiful view of Rio Negro and the Amazon Forest.

Now that you're actually in the forest, you can embark on a variety of excursions like jungle treks, motorized canoe tours to native villages, alligator spotting, piranha fishing, zip lines, and helicopter rides. A tour like this is great for children ages six and up, and the Ariaú Jungle Lodge is known for catering to its younger visitors. Visit panam-tours.com to learn more.

Antarctica Simply saying the word "Antarctica" conjures up feelings of adventure and discovery. The continent's isolation makes it ideal for observing whales, seals, and birds, and the colossal ice formations and extinct volcanic craters make for some fascinating photography.

Getting to Antartica is not cheap, or easy, but it may not be as difficult as you first thought. Most trips for tourists leave via cruises from Chile or Argentina. Visits to the White Continent can include:

  • The Falkland Islands (off the southeastern coast of Argentina)
  • The Antarctic Peninsula
  • The Drake Passage, the passage between Antarctica and South America -- a great spot for viewing whales, dolphins, and seabirds like albatross and penguins
  • Deception Island, an active volcano comprised of steaming beaches and ash-lined glaciers
  • Brown Bluff, a 2,500-foot promontory that towers over tens of thousands of nesting penguins
  • Paradise Bay, a protected harbor surrounded by breathtaking peaks and spectacular glaciers; also a haven for whales
  • Elephant Island, a half-submerged mountain covered in ice, where Ernest Shakelton and his men finally made landfall after surviving in open boats for sixteen months after their ship was crushed Because of the money involved, a trip like this is best for ages sixteen and up. The approximate cost of this or a similar tour is $9,000 per person for a ten-night cruise.

Vacations that Give Back Any family vacation provides opportunities for spending quality time together, but working together to serve others in new surroundings can be especially exciting and rewarding. And there are many worthy causes to choose from.

Do your children love animals? Try a weeklong expedition with Earthwatch Institute tracking gray whales in British Columbia. With half days of age-appropriate activities and plenty of excursions to local attractions, children as young as ten can participate. (Go to earthwatch.org to learn more.)

For families who have older teens and enjoy camping, the American Hiking Society (AHS) offers several volunteer vacations throughout the United States (including Hawaii, Alaska, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) -- all for under $300 a week, per person. On these excursions you'll spend about six hours a day clearing litter and overgrowth, installing rolling grades to prevent erosion, or doing other types of work to help preserve and beautify hiking trails. Just provide your own transportation and camping gear to sleep in, and AHS will take care of the rest. Visit americanhiking.org for a schedule of 2010 vacations.

Ready or Not? The ages and personalities of your children will play a major role when deciding if they are ready to handle a volunteer vacation. Many organizations allow children as young as ten years old if they are accompanied by an adult. However, there are some that will allow children much younger, like Family to Family Humanitarian Expeditions (FFHE), which organizes excursions to various parts of Mexico to build homes or schools in poverty-stricken areas (visit ffhe.org for more information).

"One of the main reasons we started FFHE was for the benefit of our children," says co-founder Shaun Gogarty. "I have personally taken my kids on several trips. Whatever their ages, if you are comfortable traveling to a third-world country with your children, then you should most likely be comfortable taking them on an expedition."

Charity Anywhere Foundation (charityanywhere.org) is another nonprofit organization that allows young children to participate in similar expeditions. "As long as parents come along, we don't have any age restrictions," says Gordon Carter, president. This foundation organizes service expeditions as close to home as Idaho, or as far away as Mexico, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Haiti.

Personal Progress and Duty to God If you have children in the Young Women or Young Men programs, with a little planning, volunteer vacations present unique opportunities to fulfill requirements for the Personal Progress or Duty to God programs. "We've had girls collect and bring clothing. Several Eagle Scout projects have also been completed on trips like these," says Gogarty. "To see an adolescent boy take more than one hundred birthing kits to an undersupplied clinic was worth the entire trip."

Youth can also gain valuable leadership skills on volunteer vacations. Ascend Alliance, for example, offers opportunities for high school and college students to be trained as youth team leaders. They are paired with an adult leader for a unique leadership experience.

One humanitarian program that specializes in providing service opportunities for LDS youth ages sixteen to nineteen is Alliance for Youth Service (AYS). "We want to provide an opportunity where kids can see the world and provide service opportunities while making friends with other LDS youth around the world," says executive director Mike Riding. "This isn't a rehabilitation program. The kids who go on these trips are very mature and have a spirit of service around them. They come back with a stronger testimony of service and are ready to go out and serve the world."

While AYS doesn't offer family expeditions per se, they do offer opportunities for parents to travel as adult coaches on expeditions.

The Best of Both Worlds Depending on which organization you choose to travel with, the amount of tourism varies greatly, but the majority of organizations ensure that participants get some downtime to enjoy their surroundings. For example, tourism and sightseeing is low on the priority list for Family to Family Humanitarian Expeditions (it's one of the ways to keep costs minimal); however, there is still time to do a little shopping and see a few of the local attractions. Charity Anywhere Foundation operates in a similar fashion.

On the other hand, many people who go to the expense of traveling to another country want the opportunity to enjoy the culture and landscape. If this is your preference, check out Ascend Alliance, Eagle-Condor Humanitarian, or Alliance for Youth Service.

For an amazing African expedition, Village of Hope is great choice. Lon and DeAnna Kennard, Village of Hope founders, conduct several expeditions to the Ethiopian village of Kersa Illala, from which they adopted four of their six Ethiopian children. The Kennards were haunted by the horrendous living conditions of the villagers and have since dedicated their lives to bringing clean water and sanitation, health care, orphan care, and education to the area.

On Village of Hope expeditions, participants as young as twelve spend time with orphans, provide health care, or teach nutrition, gardening, or sanitation. When you're not working in the village, you'll also enjoy wildlife safari, five-star hotel accommodations, and plenty of time for shopping. (Go to villageofhope-ethiopia.org for more information.)

The LDS Element Some of the nonprofit organizations mentioned here are completely nondenominational, while others specialize in providing an LDS atmosphere; both options will provide invaluable experiences. An LDS atmosphere helps connect Church members from all over the world, while nondenominational expeditions can provide amazing missionary opportunities.

LDS-run humanitarian organizations, such as Family to Family Humanitarian Expeditions, Alliance for Youth Service, Eagle-Condor Humanitarian, and Village of Hope, often provide activities such as firesides, dances, family home evenings, visits to the local ward or branch, and temple trips.

Wherever your next family vacation takes you, take the time to prepare your children for the adventure. Tell them about the destination ahead of time and what they can expect during the trip, and you can make your next journey together the experience of a lifetime.


Some Tips for Perfect Packing . . . Packing for an entire family can be tricky—especially if you are vacationing for more than a few days. Here are seven tips to help you navigate your way to a more compact suitcase while steering clear of some common packing mistakes:

1. Avoid white or light-colored clothing. Long journeys by car or plane can take their toll on everyone's outfits, especially young children's. Choose dark colors, patterns, and denim to mask spills, smudges, and wrinkles.

2. Dress in layers. Even in 100-degree weather, airplane rides can be freezing with the air conditioning going full blast. Be sure everyone wears a jacket or sweater. And don't forget to bring long-sleeved pajamas for the kids -- even on their lowest settings, some air conditioners in hotel rooms and cruise ship cabins can make the room a bit chilly.

3. Pack less clothing and do laundry while you're there. Many hotels and cruise ships have do-it-yourself laundry facilities. If you can do laundry while on your trip, you can pack fewer outfits for everyone. This is one time you may even want to splurge on a laundry service so you can have more time to enjoy yourself.

4. Forget the beach towels. Cruise ships and hotels almost always have them. Check ahead of time just to be sure.

5. Choose toys wisely. Keeping everyone entertained is vital to a successful vacation. But other airplane passengers may not appreciate your toddler's squeaky toys. The best travel toys are quiet and compact, without a lot of parts to lose. In addition to crayons and coloring books, try reusable sticker books, Wikki Stix (bendable pieces of wax-coated string), or the Aquadoodle Travel N' Doodle (which allows your child to draw on a special mat with a water pen). For older kids, let them bring an iPod or Nintendo DS -- just make sure they use ear buds and keep the volume low so they don't disturb the people around them. (You may also want to pack a power strip so everyone can charge their personal devices, cell phones, and cameras without fighting over outlets once you arrive at your destination.)

6. Plan for luggage mishaps. Pack a carry-on for each family member containing a change of clothing, a favorite toy, and any essential medications. That way, if your luggage is lost or delayed, you aren't left completely in the lurch.

7. Bring the baby essentials. Baby food, bottles, and sippy cups are not available on most airplanes or cruise ships, so be sure to bring plenty of these items with you. Pack a decent supply of diapers, but consider ordering additional diapers through amazon.com or drugstore.com and having them shipped to your destination in advance.

© LDS Living, January/February 2010. Photo by Sarah Brucker/sxc.hu.