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Road test

| Sunday, Aug. 27, 2006

James Fitzpatrick says traveling with a group of friends can be the event of a lifetime.

Just as a disaster can.

"When you go, you have to realize that you could come back better friends than before or come back bitter enemies," says Fitzpatrick, of Wilkins, who has taken about six such trips in varying sizes and shapes.

And he says he would have no trouble doing so again. Fitzpatrick is part of a growing group of travelers who build their vacations around group outings with friends and family.

A decade ago, group trips took place "once in a blue moon," says Tracy Edwards, manager of travel sales for AAA-East Central in East Liberty. "But now they are common."

The numbers point out the way people are vacationing, says Allen Kay, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry of America.

Domestic travel figures compiled by his industry group show 33 percent of travelers are in groups of adults only, compared to 25 percent of adults and children.

"Pick up a travel magazine and see who they are advertising to," Kay says. "They are advertising adventure trips, spas -- things aimed at adults."

Putting together a trip requires patience, organization and a great deal of understanding, says Nadine Nardi Davidson, a Los Angeles travel agent who wrote a book called "Travel With Others Without Wishing They'd Stayed Home" (Prince Publishing, 1999).

But she sees more clients wanting to vacation that way.

Linda Madden-Brenholts, of North Versailles, has been on five such adventures -- and is planning a sixth.

"It is just great," she says. "We've had some pretty good adventures -- and something you can share."

'Good glitches'?

Author and travel agent Davidson thinks a simple bit of agreement is the basis of any group trip.

"You just have to have an understanding of how much time you are going to spend together," she says.

Ruth Venora, manager of Liberty Travel in Pleasant Hills, says cohesion is one of the best parts of group trips.

"Once you get there, it's more fun," she says.

But it also can include things like the intra-couple squabble Fitzpatrick witnessed that he says created "just an awful, awful time. I wanted desperately to go home."

Or it could lead to what Madden-Brenholts calls the "good glitch" that took place on a 2005 cruise to Alaska with her parents and family.

On that trip, a sister and brother-in-law wanted to make their participation a surprise and so booked passage individually. Their presence -- and the surprise -- were greatly appreciated, but dinner became a slight problem. There was no more space at the family table, so each night two members had to rotate into the seats set aside for the sister and her husband at another table.

"It was a glitch, for sure," Madden-Brenholts says. "But it was OK. We got to meet some new people, and that was good."

She has been on five group trips ranging from eight or nine family members to 22 friends and colleagues on a tour of Ireland. Her group trips also have taken her to Alaska, the Caribbean and Montana.

And never was there a bad time.

"Very often, we went our separate ways," she says of the large group in Ireland.

That is perhaps the key element to group travel, Davidson says.

"If you are not compatible travelers, you could have a terrible time," she says. "Some people are sleepers, and others are museum-goers. If you let each other function, things are all right."

Fitzpatrick agrees. On a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina with a group of close friends, he felt a great deal of pressure to go to the beach with the group. A fair-skinned Irish-American, Fitzpatrick does not get along well with the sun and wanted to stay away.

"But we were close enough and understood each other enough that I didn't feel bad about sitting on the deck," he says. "And neither did they, I think."

Maria Beal, of Monongahela, found understanding to be a vital element on trips to Riviera Maya, a resort area south of Cancun, Mexico. She has gone there twice in groups of four and six, and says individual freedom was important.

"A lot of times in the evenings, some people wanted to stay up later and others wanted to call it quits," she says. "And nobody felt bad or awkward about that."

Cruising to a good time

Travel planners say groups often go on cruises because it's easy to be together yet stay alone on a luxury liner.

Davidson, for instance, says cruise ships offer a wide variety of entertainment, food and activities to appeal to a broad range of people.

Joe Enciso, owner of Travel Square in Lower Burrell, agrees. Cruises offer sun and water without forcing vacationers to traipse to a beach, he says.

"Some people just aren't beach people, but they want to go away with their friends," he says. "There's no beach on a ship."

Venora says her company recently did a cruise for about 60 members of an extended family and their friends. And it worked, despite the wide range of ages.

Lynn O'Rourke Hayes runs a business at www.familytravel.com , headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz., that specializes in just that type of trip. She agrees cruises are one of the most effective forms of group vacations.

"It's a difficult thing," she says, talking about finding trips that keep the entire family happy. "You have high-energy kids and people in wheelchairs."

Other popular group vacation spots often are built around a kind of theme.

Venora, for example, says trips to Riviera Maya, Mexico, are well liked because resorts are places where a person can simply kick back on a beach. But there also are shopping areas and historic sites nearby.

Orlando, Fla., is attractive because of trips to Disney World, says AAA's Edwards. The Outer Banks still maintains its strength because of its Week-at-the-Beach legacy.

One-day trips have become popular with groups at Ted Falbo's Mountain View Travel in Latrobe, including jaunts to Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in West Virginia. He offers similar trips to New York City that leave at midnight Friday and return at 8 p.m. Saturday, giving a group about 12 hours to roam Gotham.

Kay, of the Travel Industry of America, thinks the popularity of group trips is being caused by the baby boom generation getting together with friends now that the kids have grown up.

"They are establishing a very important niche for themselves," he says.

Additional Information:

Organization is key

Travel agent Nadine Nardi Davidson, author of 'Travel With Others Without Wishing They'd Stayed Home' (Prince Publishing, 1999), offers these hints on arranging a group trip:

  • Have a clear understanding of how everybody looks at this trip and what they expect to do. Eliminate surprises.

  • Choose a coordinator who will act as a liaison with travel agents, hotels, airlines or other organizations.

  • No one gets serious until it's time to deal with money. That coordinator must establish deadlines when payments are required and not flinch from them.

  • Understand each other's budget outlooks. Some people look at a vacation as an opportunity to stay in a five-star hotel, while others look at overnight accommodations simply as places to sleep.

  • Restaurant reservations get more important as the number of diners increases. If there is a place everyone wants to eat, make reservations now.

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