Traveling with Grandma: 11 Ways to Enjoy the Journey

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Courtesy of Erik Torkells

Marilyn, the author's partner's grandmother, riding the ferry to Sausalito after a visit to San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace.

When my partner, Adam, was young, his glamorous paternal grandparents took him to New York City for trips that changed his life. They did what travel can do, which is make him see that the world is far bigger than where he was growing up. Now that he’s an adult — and living in New York City — he’s fortunate to be able to return the favor for his grandmother. Marilyn, now 86, had presumed that she would never again travel the way she and Adam’s grandfather used to.

My hunch is that our travels with Marilyn are part of a wider trend. Many Boomers who have been traveling for decades will expect to continue doing so as they grow older — but they may not be able to (or want to) travel on their own, calling on their children and grandchildren to accompany them.

Our own trips with Marilyn have been both fun and rewarding, but they are different from our trips without her — so I have some advice for anyone thinking of following in our proverbial footsteps.

1. Let them help plan. Parents are often urged to get kids involved in the planning of a trip: the more invested they are, the less likely they are to complain. That’s true with any travel companion: Who wants to be dragged around with no say? We’re just back from a trip to L.A. with Marilyn, and months beforehand, Adam bought her a couple of guidebooks and a map. Not only did she read them, she ended up bringing a pile of clippings from newspapers and magazines. She really wanted to see the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, so that was the first thing we did.

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2. Create an itinerary. Increasingly, I like to wing it when I travel — if I miss something, I’ll go back. For obvious reasons, older folks may not feel the same way, and at the risk of generalizing, they’re more likely to be unnerved by uncertainty. Adam and I bust our rears researching places Marilyn will like — the De La Cruz art collection in Miami; the Hennessey + Ingalls bookstore in Santa Monica; Marea and Corton restaurants in New York City; White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.; the Dan Flavin Art Institute in the Hamptons, N.Y. (all of which are wonderful, by the way). Then Adam emails around an itinerary — handy for all of us — and during the trip, we tend to review the next day’s plans at dinner. You don’t have to stick to the itinerary, though. After three days in L.A., we were all tired of driving, so on our last night we decided to eat in the hotel. I could be wrong, but I think Marilyn was happiest about that, having grown weary of hearing the driver and the navigator bicker.

3. Seek out personal or historical significance. One of the benefits of traveling with someone older is that you get to hear about what life was like back in the day. In the 1930s, for instance, Marilyn’s family used to visit her uncle in Miami Beach; in the 1970s, she and Adam’s grandfather were on great terms with a waiter, Julio, at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge. The stories bring the places to life for everyone.

4. Think through all the details. In San Francisco, we took a cab to the Cliff House, assuming the restaurant could call us one for the return ride. We forgot how unreliable San Francisco cabs are and how uninterested they might be in traveling that far from downtown. Adam and I could probably have figured out a way home, but with Marilyn we had far fewer options. We managed to hail a cab eventually, but since then we’ve planned every move ahead of time.

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5. Book adjoining rooms. Shutters on the Beach, in Santa Monica, put us in rooms that were linked by an antechamber. Being near each other made communicating easier — who wants to have to remember a room number? — and I imagine it offered a sense of security.

6. Follow their rhythm. Marilyn likes to get a late start, which isn’t my style, so I know now to plan on devoting morning hours to work and exercise. I also know that I will seem inconsiderate if I don’t join her in having a glass of wine at lunch. There’s a broader lesson here about getting along with travel companions, no matter their ages: make sure expectations are aligned, or at least out in the open.

7. Take it slow. Marilyn is spry, but she has limits. When we do walk, we tend to do it more slowly, which lends a different perspective — we see less, but we see more deeply. We take a lot of cabs: when she first started to visit us in New York City, we’d squeeze into the backseat, usually with Marilyn in the middle because she’s smaller. But we realized that, for her, looking out the window was a thrill in and of itself. And in L.A., she always got the front seat (and its better view). With age come certain privileges.

8. Serve up fresh meat. Adam and I have accepted that we’re not as interesting as we’d like to be, but sometimes we feel like we disappoint Marilyn. She has plenty of friends in Raleigh; she simply enjoys meeting new people. So now we arrange meals and activities with friends of ours. I used to worry that everyone wouldn’t have much in common, but it has never seemed to matter.

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9. Do something silly. One of my theories is that one reason many of us travel (myself included) is to have something to talk about. Even if it’s not a motivation, it’s among the dividends. That’s why, in San Francisco, I encouraged Adam to take Marilyn on a ride in a GoCar — tiny cars that you can drive around on self-guided tours. The two of them had a blast, and I have no doubt Marilyn took that story home with her. In a similar vein, my nephew recently gave me a rubber chicken that he insists I take pictures of when I travel. In L.A., Marilyn became a conspirator, reminding me to bring it out in various ridiculous situations.

10. Embrace Siberia. Like any good New Yorker, I’m touchy about where I’m seated in restaurants, especially expensive ones. I was displeased, to say the least, with the crummy little room that Providence, in L.A., shuttled us off to. On my way to the restroom, however, I noticed that the main room, while much prettier, was really noisy — and we never would have been able to carry on a conversation there. Two days later, at Pizzeria Mozza, we were seated in a dark little side room — and again, it saved us from having to play charades.

11. Learn by example. Perhaps because she thought she’d never travel again, Marilyn never complains. She reminds us how lucky we are, and how we shouldn’t take anything — or any trip — for granted. We should just live in the moment and enjoy every second of it.

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Torkells is an contributing editor and the founder of