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Family-Vacation Snaps: Mom and Junior in Barbados, Dad and Daughter in Brazil

November 3, 1995

Robert Volpert is looking forward to the family vacation this year when he will raft along the Rogue River in Oregon with his three sons. So is his wife, Mary. She’ll spend that week at the Volperts’ home in Point Reyes Station, Calif. _ by herself.

``It’s what I like to think of as quality time apart,″ Ms. Volpert says.

Traditional American families are going on vacations that are looking a lot less traditional these days. Families that are together most of the year are now traveling apart _ fathers with daughters or mothers with sons or vice versa. Whatever the combination, splitting up at vacation time has become popular enough that some households have incorporated these trips into their family routine.

``The mandatory family vacation is no longer mandatory,″ says Dexter Koehl, an executive at the Travel Industry Association of America. ``You never heard about this in the `Leave It to Beaver’ days.″

While the trend is influenced by changing demographics and work patterns, some families say the major reason they are breaking up at vacation time is because such holidays make members more appreciative of one another and enhance the relationship between parent and child.

Even major travel companies like American Express say the trend represents a growing part of their family business; married parents vacationing with kids but without spouse grew to between 5 percent and 8 percent of the company’s family business in recent years from just 2 percent in the mid 1980s, says American Express marketing executive Rosalie Maniscalco. ``It used to be the whole family just booked a trip to Europe, but now more parents are traveling alone with their kids because they either want to teach them something or share a common interest.″

Sometimes that means leaving a son’s or daughter’s siblings behind, with bruised feelings. For Alistair Ballantine of Greenwich, Conn., the price of taking the oldest of his three sons, 11-year-old Alexander, on a tour through the Alaskan wilderness was jealousy on the part of the younger brothers, aged six and eight.

``I kept telling them he’s the oldest and they’ll get their turn,″ Mr. Ballantine says. He adds that while the separate trips each cost around $3,000, compared with the $5,000 it generally costs to travel as an entire family, ``it doesn’t make sense to take them together . . . It’s more complicated.″

As with the Ballantines, split vacationing has generally been costlier for families. The travel industry’s cheaper ``family″ package tours typically are available to groups of two adults and at least one child. But that’s changing, if only gradually. Club Med, for example, has a one-parent-plus-kids program that provides a price break of up to 20 percent. American Express says its agents will fashion, on request, an affordable vacation package for one parent traveling with kids.

A common reason for traveling apart is incompatible work schedules; Stuart Meck of Oxford, Ohio, for example, started vacationing alone with his 10-year-old daughter, Lindsay, only after the bustle of his wife’s law practice didn’t permit her to spend more vacation days with them. ``I think it’s great they have the opportunity to do that, particularly now since Lindsay doesn’t spend much time with her father,″ says Mr. Meck’s wife, Kathy Ellison. ``She spends more quality time with him on those trips than any other time of the year.″

Mr. Meck, who now takes trips alone with his daughter to Europe every year, says strangers are very nice to him when he is vacationing with his daughter. ``It’s a novelty,″ says Mr. Meck. ``A man traveling with a child is treated extraordinarily well, much better than a woman.″

For an older son or daughter who isn’t an only child, spending time with one parent _ and without siblings _ can be a moment of empowerment. John Backhaus, a 23-year-old architecture-school graduate from New York, recently traveled through Italy with his mother, a plastic surgeon. ``For once,″ he says, ``I felt like I was in charge instead of my mom always doing everything for me.″

Mr. Backhaus says his family started splitting up for vacations when he and his younger sister entered boarding school. These days, his sister frequently travels by herself, while he and his mother vacation in Asia, Europe and Florida. ``Dad sits around the house eating sandwiches,″ Mr. Backhaus says. ``He sees it as his role to make the sacrifice to stay home while the rest of the family has fun.″

Leaving a spouse behind can have its drawbacks for the traveler with younger children. Joan Shapero, a 47-year-old entrepreneur from Toronto, travels alone with her three children, aged 12 to 21, and finds she misses her husband’s help with disciplining their offspring.

``I’m more of a soft touch, and they tend to push more of my buttons,″ Ms. Shapero says. She recalls that on one vacation to Florida with her three kids, ``the middle one was obnoxious, the younger one was sick, and I almost threatened to send one of them home.″ But she goes on these vacations anyway because she invariably unwinds after a day or two and has a better chance of relating to the kids without her husband around. ``I give my undivided attention to them,″ she says.

Jonathan Lampert, a director at New York City’s Ackerman Institute, which specializes in family therapy, says: ``There’s something warm and cozy about having children to yourself without the other parent around.″

From the children’s viewpoint, it can simply be more fun. Says Mr. Volpert of California: ``The kids enjoy getting away with a few more things than if their mom was around.″ He adds: ``You know how it is, the kids don’t have to wear clean clothes everyday or comb their hair.″

For families inclined toward separate trips, therapists recommend touring rather than theme parks. The reasoning: Parent and child are likelier to bond if both are encountering unfamiliar scenery, people and customs. By contrast, says the Ackerman Institute’s Mr. Lampert, trips to Disneyland or Sea World put the vacation in a setting where ``kids are stimulated by everything but the parent.″

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