Deb Dumais celebrated her 50th birthday last July with several of her closest friends. For 20 days. In Tuscany.
It's the latest trend in travel, according to Judy Randall , president and CEO of Randall Travel Marketing , a travel and tourism research company in North Carolina: groups of friends and family traveling together, rather than individually or as part of a traditionally organized group tour.
"It's really driven more by time poverty than by anything else," Randall said, pointing out that people in the United States not only get less paid vacation than workers in other countries, but also don't use up the time. Vacationing with friends is a way to "kill two birds with one stone," she said. "The shared experience makes it more pleasurable."
"I had never been to Europe," said Dumais, a special education teacher with the South Shore Educational Collaborative who lives in Hull. She and her friends, who call themselves The Lipstick Club, had wanted to take such a trip for years, ever since a Ouiji board game "told them" they'd go to Italy together someday, she said.
In 2005, with her 50th birthday approaching, Dumais decided the time was right. After a lot of independent research, she decided to rent a villa in the Tuscan village of Panzano , in the heart of the Chianti wine region, and booked it through a California-based company. Then she invited her friends to join her there.
"Five of us . . . went together, and then two more friends joined us," she said. After 10 days of shopping and touring in nearby Florence and Siena , that group left and a second group of friends arrived and stayed for 10 more days of exploring the region, searching out local hot springs, and just relaxing. They even attended the Pistoria Blues Festival and heard Bob Dylan perform.
"It was just beautiful," Dumais said. She had been worried, at first, about how she and her American, multigenerational, all-female group would be treated -- her husband, Paul, stayed home with the dog -- but "for the most part, we were just so blessed with gracious, lovely people," she said. "I felt so globally connected. I came home and I felt like my heart was filled."
Bill Sutherland, vice president of travel for AAA Southern New England and a 27-year veteran of the travel industry, said that while Italy is still AAA's top group travel destination, many tours are forming around themes and interests rather than specific destinations.
"Small, river-cruise- type experiences in the US -- the Columbia River, the Snake River , through the Napa area -- are also very popular," he said. "Also, if people are interested in cooking or wine, it's those folks who get together and it works out great. There is a trend toward getting together collectively with other friends and renting a 10-bedroom villa, for example, with everyone having a common experience."
Multigenerational travel, with people of different ages traveling together, is another growing trend, Sutherland said, and more and more empty nesters are packing up and hitting the road -- or the open sea.
"We're seeing a lot of group travel on cruises," he said. "One of the reasons for that is obviously a cruise experience affords an opportunity for everyone in the group to do something that might be of interest to them."
That was one of the reasons Daria Kapalka agreed to plan her daughter Kristy's wedding to William Kammerer Jr. on a cruise ship last September. "She had been cruising with us for five or six years," Kapalka said of her 24-year-old daughter. "She got engaged on a cruise to St. Martin."
Kapalka, 50, a registered nurse who lives in Wilkes-Barre , Pa., did much of the planning herself, though she relied on a travel agency to help with some of the details. "We basically just started to do some research on it," she said. "Not all cruise ships will marry you at sea." Princess Cruises fit the bill; their Caribbean Princess ship even had a chapel, so the wedding party didn't have to leave the ship for the ceremony.
The ship departed from Fort Lauderdale , Fla., and about 22 close friends and family members joined them for the weeklong trip, 18 of them from the Wilkes-Barre and Scranton areas. "Sixteen or 17 of us wanted to go as a group to the airport," Kapalka said. "We had to rent a U-Haul to bring all of our luggage."
The party started well before the wedding. "Before we sailed, in August, we had a get-together at our house, a pre-cruise cookout," Kapalka said. "We . . . had a ball." And it didn't end when the cruise did. In addition to a reception in Wilkes-Barre for those who didn't go on the cruise, Kapalka held "a picture party" after they returned, so guests could share wedding photos and memories. "We've been staying together as a group, just because of this cruise," she said. They enjoyed the experience so much they're planning another Caribbean cruise for September, this time with about 40 people, to celebrate a cousin's 30th birthday.
This wasn't the first group trip Kapalka has organized. She especially enjoys going on cruises, she said. "If you go to the shore and you're staying in a condo for six or seven days, you're on top of one another the whole time," she said. "On a cruise . . . you always have somebody, and not necessarily the same person all the time, to go and do things with. It works out well, especially with a larger group."
Small groups of friends who travel together may enjoy a greater degree of spontaneity, as long as they're willing to be flexible. When Roselyn Harper decided to visit her daughter, Tracy Harper Shelton , in Japan in 2002, she took three friends with her. Shelton, a teacher with the Department of Defense Dependents Schools , acted as tour guide for the group, who still travel together.
"I had only been in Japan for a year and I had not done much sightseeing," Shelton, 36, recalled. "I took them to the community center that plans trips and we asked for suggestions." The group spent time in Kyoto, and Shelton took them on a tour of Tokyo. "That first trip they spent so much money on souvenirs that one member could barely afford to go home."
Many small groups use the Internet to plan their vacations, rather than relying on a travel agency or buying a traditional group package where they may not know the other people on the trip. According to a Travel Industry Association of America survey, 78 percent of American travelers -- about 79 million people -- used the Internet to find travel or destination information in 2005, up from 65 percent the year before. Websites like expedia.com, orbitz.com, and sidestep.com can make building an itinerary easier because each traveler can find his or her own flights and research hotels, rental cars, and activities.
Shelton, her mother, and their friends take a casual approach to preplanning. "We don't," Shelton said. "We just pick places when they get here." When she moved to Germany a few years ago, another group trip was planned. Everyone bought their own airline tickets, but they left the bulk of the scheduling up to Shelton. "Again, we had no idea what they were going to do," she recalled. "I knew who to go see, though."
She gathered information from local travel agents for bus and train trips, and, once the group arrived, took them back to the airport in Frankfurt to confer with travel agents there. "An agent showed them how he could get them on a cheap flight to England in two hours, and then booked their bed-and-breakfast hotel and a tour," she said.
They caught the last-minute flight and made plans to return to Germany for another visit, scheduled for next month.
And the group has grown: Shelton had a baby in December, and little Emma will be joining them for a couple of day trips. Even with a baby in tow, "Day trips are a piece of cake," Shelton says. "We're going to Baden-Baden for the day, and then we'll go to France for dinner."
Lylah M. Alphonse can be reached at email@example.com.