A package vacation used to mean a rigidly regimented, often unimaginative itinerary with little choice or free time. You signed up, paid your money, and did what everybody else did when and where they did it. No substitutions.
Sheep -- that's what people who took package vacations were compared to -- and no independent-minded traveler would be caught dead being herded on vacation. Better to arrange everything yourself to get maximum flexibility far from any flock.
But a funny thing happened on the way to 2004. Harried Americans pressed for time to take, let alone plan, a vacation have come to realize there is an upside to letting someone else work out the details -- as long as we have substantial say over the where, when, what, and how much. Innovative travel providers, from tour operators to resorts, online booking agencies, and even cruise lines are finding ways to customize trips so that clients feel they are getting valuable assistance at a good price and are not signing on for a cookie-cutter experience.
Love to take a guided tour to Europe with the family but hate all that hotel hopping? On Butterfield & Robinsons' new Homebase family trips to Provence, Tuscany, or Switzerland (designed to accommodate even babies), you unpack just once, with optional day trips from your hotel. The company provides everything from nannies to car seats and cribs (so you won't have to schlep all the accoutrements of infancy) and downtime is yours for the asking.
Hungering to nurture your inner Julia Child, but traveling with the anti-cook? Wave your magic whisk on an Epiculinary Journey, and learn to perfect magrets de canard grilled over grape vines in Bordeaux, hand-tossed pizza on Italy's Amalfi Coast, spicy chili rellenos in New Mexico, California cuisine paired with vintage wines in Sonoma, or jambalaya in Louisiana's Cajun Country. While you are cooking up a storm, non-chefs in your party will be set up with golf games, city walks, or other activities. Then everyone feasts together on the fruits of your labors.
It's no coincidence that travel providers are coming up with particularly seductive vacation packages for families and those who want to immerse themselves in a special interest. The latest national studies of leisure travelers have found soaring interest in family trips and vacations where individuals can learn a new skill or pursue a passion. ''People are yearning to go and be -- not just go and see," said Judy Randall, president of Randall Travel Marketing, a travel and tourism research company in Mooresville, N.C.
Comprehensive surveys by American Express, the Travel Industry Association of America, and YPB&R/Yankelovich Partners, a national research and strategic marketing company, indicate that Americans' number one intended vacation activity is spending quality time with family and friends -- often in multi-household gatherings, a phenomenon YPB&R calls ''togethering."
Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., always on the cutting edge of profitable family travel trends, recently introduced the Magical Gatherings program, which provides personal planners and a private website to help large groups build consensus on dates, lodgings, dining, and other activities for a Disney resort vacation. The planners can mix and match activities to suit different ages and tastes in the group, perhaps arranging a private safari around Animal Kingdom amid giraffes, elephants, and other wildlife, with dinner and entertainment afterward; an educational nature outing for the junior set; or a family golf tournament followed by muscle-soothing spa treatments -- even for the children.
Those with special needs need not feel left out of the loop of package travel. On Wilderness Inquiry's 100-some guided worldwide adventures, neither age nor physical or mental challenges pose any barrier to friends or family exploring the great outdoors together. The nonprofit Minneapolis-based outfitter provides extra support staff -- such as sign language interpreters or personal care attendants -- at no extra cost to participants, to make sure everyone is on an equal footing on all trips, including upcoming canoeing adventures in Florida's Everglades and a hiking journey through Hawaii.
Gays and lesbians can rejoice at the first-ever cruise for alternative lifestyle families, setting sail from New York on July 11 under the auspices of R Family Vacations, which was founded by Rosie O'Donnell, the comedian, actress, and former talk-show host, and her partner, Kelli O'Donnell. During the one-week cruise to Port Canaveral (gateway to Orlando's theme parks), Key West, and Nassau, passengers aboard the fully chartered 1,120-cabin Norwegian Dawn will participate in workshops -- from insights into dealing with teachers in public schools to adoption issues confronting prospective parents.
In addition to the cruise line's own entertainment, R Family Vacations will bring aboard gay and lesbian comedians and singers. Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell and their four children also will be aboard -- as parents, not performers.
''This is a great opportunity for meeting other gay and lesbian families while having a fun cruise and getting valuable information for thriving as a family," said Gregg Kaminsky, programming director for the cruise and a cofounder with the O'Donnells of R Family Vacations. ''For many kids who aren't from New York or LA, this may be the first time they've been around other kids with two moms or two dads."
Kaminsky noted that the cruise is not just for gay couples and their children, but also gay and lesbian individuals or couples who want to vacation with their own parents or friends in a welcoming and supportive environment. R Family Vacations plans future packages to a dude ranch and ski resort.
Blue World Travel, which organizes cultural tours for African-Americans, has booked Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America (due out in July) for a one-week cruise through the Hawaiian Islands Aug. 8-15. Onboard activities include nightly lessons in urban line dancing, Chicago stepping, and salsa; black karaoke; speed dating for singles; marriage vow-renewal ceremonies with traditional African rituals; Bible study; and gospel services.
Those who believe that nothing learned means nothing gained from a vacation can find a package for any interest. Among some intriguing offerings:
Semana en Espanol's 10-to-17-day intensive Spanish-language programs in Oaxaca, Mexico, with trips to Oaxaca's famous craft villages, artisans' homes, and archeological sites, all conducted in Spanish.
Hidden Trails' multiday horseback riding adventures, including a jaunt through the beaches and redwood country of Northern California.
Art Adventures' watercolor workshops in New Orleans, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the Canadian Rockies, or Venice. Based at inns or apartments, with a combination of on-location work, studio classes, and constructive critiques (Beginners, have no fear!), the group also gets to know the host community.
In Oahu, Hawaii, Turtle Bay Resort's learn-to-surf packages, taking on the legendary breaks of the North Shore. (Or, take a seat on a kayak excursion.)
Zara Arts Internationals' escorted tours to the nation's culture capitals -- among them, New York, San Francisco, and Santa Fe -- for opera, theater, orchestra performances, and museum hopping.
There's even a package built around the Atkins diet. Auberge Mendocino, a French country-style bed-and-breakfast inn on the Mendocino, Calif., coast, offers five- and seven-night Atkins Diet Retreat ''Get-a-weighs," with health lectures, guided nature hikes, and Atkins-approved foods (Think protein, forget carbs.) at the inn and nearby restaurants.
Last-minute travelers take note. You too can more easily snare creative package deals thanks to recent enhancements in online travel websites. Improved search-engine wizardry on sites such as Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, and Site59 let you pick, with fewer clicks, a preferred combination of flights, hotel, car, and sometimes activities and dining discounts. Or, book a bargain package in a specific category, such as sun and sand, theme parks, all-inclusive resorts, skiing escapes, escorted outdoor adventures, or Vegas vacations. The websites also have expanded their international air-fare offerings to give consumers more itinerary and airline choices.
Well-healed procrastinators can find a snazzy dream trip with Abercrombie & Kent, often with less than a month's notice. Just go to the website (www.abercrombieandkent.com), click on Tour & Cruise Search, click on a destination that sets your heart aflutter, then click on availability for a chosen trip date. A recent search for trips three weeks ahead produced a red flag (wait list) for a nine-day Highlights of Egypt journey, a yellow flag (limited availability) for a 12-day excursion amid the architectural gems of Spain, and a green flag (go for it) for an 11-day Galapagos Islands nature adventure with a week aboard a yacht.
While vacationers taking pricey expeditions like those anticipate top-notch treatment, customers in the cheap seats may have equally high expectations these days. ''Especially with baby boomers, there's a strong prevailing affluent attitude, and not just among the truly affluent," said Peter Yesawich, president of YPB&R. ''Even the budget traveler fully expects excellent service, good food, and perhaps even a bit of luxury.
''A personal note from management, or room stationery imprinted with the guest's name are inexpensive extras that surprise and delight, and provide a huge payoff in customer satisfaction," Yesawich said. ''We call that 'downward nobility.' "
Judi Dash is a freelance writer who lives in Beachwood, Ohio.