(Tribune Media Services) -- It's only October but Sandra Arthur has her extended family's Thanksgiving gathering entirely planned out. And she's not going to spend a single minute in the kitchen.
A family gathers around a campfire for s'mores at one of YMCA of the Rockies' vacation centers.
That's because Arthur, her four siblings, spouses and their kids plan to spend the Thanksgiving weekend at the YMCA's Snow Mountain Ranch in Winter Park, Colorado (www.ymcarockies.com).
"We're coming from all over the country," says Arthur, who lives in Southern California, adding that everyone is looking forward to the snow. "It just makes it more fun than getting together at someone's house. There are no hassles. Everyone can relax." Another plus: it's less crowded than the summer."
Clearly, a growing number of families agree. They're planning to travel just as much over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, travel experts say, but instead of crowding into grandma's house and sleeping on lumpy sofa beds, many are meeting on cruise ships and at ski resorts, dude ranches, Walt Disney World, far flung locales like Costa Rica, Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands and the YMCA of the Rockies -- where lodge rooms cost just $80 a night. (Check out www.trustedadventures.com)
So many families are opting for exotic holiday getaways that companies like Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.com) and Backroads (www.backroads.com) have never offered, or booked, so many. Walt Disney World has special "magical gathering" packages, (disneyworld.disney.go.com/wdw/), especially for extended families vacationing together, a trend that has grown more popular each year.
"It's easier for families to plan holiday trips because everyone has the time off, says Jim Kackley of Thomson Family Adventures (www.familyadventures.com). "Kids have very busy summers and it's a juggling act to fit everyone's schedule with a family trip." It gets even tougher when college and work schedules are part of the equation.
"Arizona ranches report that holidays are their busiest time of the year," adds Colleen Hodgson, a spokesman for The Dude Ranchers' Association (www.duderanch.org). And "Thanksgiving is bigger than Christmas," according to Russell True, owner of the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, who notes that two extended families -- 110 people -- have been filling his ranch Thanksgiving weekend for the past eight years.
"Parents are giving their families trips instead of buying presents," said Backroads' spokesman Holly Woolward.
That's exactly what Ann and Tom Kent did when they took their kids and grandkids to the Galapagos Islands last Christmas to celebrate their 50th anniversary, a trip arranged by Thomson Family Adventures. "It was our gift to ourselves and our children," said Ann Kent, who lives outside Philadelphia. "We thought that would be more fun than a party and, of course, someone else did all the work for us! Christmas is usually such a hectic time."
The holidays also can be an emotionally tough time, especially when there's been a loss or a divorce in the family. Kathryn Waller, who books custom tours all over the world, said she arranged her own extended family's holiday cruise on Holland America after her father died.
"We wanted to create new memories," she said from her office in Savannah, Georgia. It wouldn't have been the same at home without him, she explained, and a cruise with activities for everyone proved a good bet for everyone. "It's a fun, easy way to be together," she said.
"The grandparents want to be with the grandkids, but not all the time. They don't want to listen to a temper tantrum!" Nor do they want to clean up the kids' messes or spend all their time in the kitchen, I'm told. On a cruise ship, they can build a gingerbread house, see Santa arrive by parasail, or sing carols together while someone else makes the beds, prepares the meals and baby sits when you want some adult time.
Sure a holiday gathering may be a good idea, you're thinking, but your family doesn't have the budget for a cruise or exotic trip. Nor will they ever be able to agree on where to go or what to do. That's why you've got to broach the idea with plenty of time to get everyone on board. The Kents, for example, planned their Galapagos trip for a year and were talking about it before then.
Sandra Arthur's family began working on their trip more than a year ago. "But we've been talking about it for years," she said. "It's been a long time in the making." (That's not to say you couldn't arrange a last-minute trip for this year, however, as long as you skip places that are high season for the holidays.)
Consider getting together for a few days in a favorite city or resort town driving distance from home. I know families that have taken over an entire B & B (www.bedandbreakfast.com) or booked a cruise from a nearby port so that not everyone had to fly. Ships leave from New York, for example, all year round. www.cruising.org can link you to a cruise specialist in your area. Always ask about extra amenities and discounts for booking a group.
Wherever you decide to go, be absolutely clear who is paying for what and that one family member is designated "planner-in-chief." Compromise is absolutely essential. Remember, this isn't your once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation. It's a holiday gathering to celebrate family. Focus on what you love about each other, not what drives you crazy.
Most important, says Sandra Arthur, stop talking and start planning. "You need to get together while you still can." E-mail to a friend