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A package from Punta Cana Surf Adventure left enough time for some relaxation during a quick weekend break.

Heather Greenwood Davis/The Globe and Mail

My sons’ education is ruining my vacation plans.

If you have kids in high school, you know what I mean. A missed day can produce homework sweats and a missed week can be nearly impossible to catch up on.

It’s been a game-changer.

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Until recently, we’d whisk the kids out of school to take advantage of cheaper flights or their dad’s vacation schedule without much worry. These days, we’re at the mercy of PA days and long weekends.

Quick trips of three or four days are becoming the norm but planning those days feels like a chore all its own. When you’ve only got a few days to get in adventure, relaxation and opportunities to pry into your kids’ private lives, there isn’t time to waste on activities that let you down. For the family’s primary travel planner, the pressure can be overwhelming. It all feels more “got to get it right” than it used to.

Which is why I was keen to test out Airbnb experiences. The latest offering from the home-sharing site – available in more than 1,000 cities around the world – focuses on giving you options to fill the time at your destination of choice. Think of it as an online travel concierge with access to more than 25,000 choices – all local vendors in the area you’re visiting who have applied to and been selected by Airbnb for inclusion. You don’t even have to rent a property through Airbnb to book an experience. The appeal was clear: Instead of spending my nights Googling, comparing sites and weeding through reviews of potential tour operators, I could rely instead on vetted (by both Airbnb and consumers), local, unique experiences all in one spot.

Airbnb

Airbnb

Airbnb Experiences range from a lunch in Tuscany, top, to a tour of Havana, middle, to a celebration of truffles in Florence, bottom.

Airbnb

When I asked on Facebook for feedback on Airbnb experiences, most people raved, singing the praises of everything from photography tours to croissant walks to craniosacral therapy sessions.

But not everyone was thrilled. A few people mentioned food tours that weren’t well executed, guides that were less than stellar and opportunists selling “tours” that a savvier traveller would recognize as ridiculously overpriced and unnecessary.

Our trial run during a recent four-day trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic could’ve gone either way. There weren’t a ton of experiences on offer for Punta Cana and the ones that were there had only a few reviews. That’s likely because Airbnb only rolled out the concept in the DR in November, and vendors are still being on-boarded. Because the reviews we found were detailed and positive, we decided to take our chances on two experiences: a surfing adventure with Punta Cana Surf Adventure on Macao Beach and a private day-long excursion to Saona Island.

The verdict: We loved it.

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The Davis family enjoyed a 2.5-hour surf package in Punta Cana.

Heather Greenwood Davis/The Globe and Mail

Our 2.5-hour surfing package (US$99 a person) included transportation to and from the beach, a meet-and-greet with owner Saskya Carrasco, private one-on-one instruction in the water and snacks.

And though our private Saona Island trip was more expensive (US$165 a person) than it would have been to book into a bigger tour, we had the luxury of working around the schedule of those larger groups (as many as 70 people in each) that flood on and off Abanico Beach at set times. Our guide, Melvin Duran, was also able to pop us over to a more private beach, make sure we avoided the long buffet lines and whisk us away if things got busy.

In both cases, our guides also provided insight into the everyday life in the DR. It felt more like hanging with a talented friend abroad than an impersonal tour. It meant that although our time in the country was short, we still had the kind of interactions and local learning we seek out on our bigger adventures.

Quick trips aren’t always a complete escape from reality – both boys spent some time completing homework while we were there – but this trip was a reminder that there are tools out there to help make sure our family adventures continue.

The writer’s trip was subsidized in part by Airbnb. It did not review or approve the article prior to publication.

A few tips for your own four-day family getaway

  1. Don’t overdo it: Two activities – one active and one fairly laid back – were all we picked for our four days. That left us time in between to explore on our own, relax in our rental or find some solo downtime.
  2. Split up: I didn’t surf. The boys were gung-ho, and I was fighting jet lag, so I tagged along as official photographer and got some quiet time for myself while watching them play.
  3. Stay close to home: If you’ve only got a few days to spare, it makes no sense to waste most of it on a flight. Look for options that feel far enough from home to be a vacation, but close enough to keep flight time to a minimum.
  4. Choose the experience provider that works best for your family: Airbnb isn’t the only company that will pair travellers with activities. Booking.com offers guests who purchase accommodations through the site access to “Booking Experiences” – exclusive discounts from partners and front-of-the line access to events. Urban Adventures (from Intrepid Travel) pairs the New York Times’ 36 Hours series with opportunities to try something new. And companies such as CityPASS offer savings when visiting several of a city’s most popular attractions. Know where you want to go, but want a local guide who can work on your schedule? Consider Canadian-founded Tours By Locals which operates in more than 150 countries.
  5. Go beyond the obvious. Look for opportunities that feel unique and intimate. On social media, readers shared their favourites with me. Tamara Gruber of We3Travel.com suggested a photo tour in Fes, travel educator Tracey Friley of passportpartyproject.org loved her trip to France’s flower market with a local florist, and photographer Shiri Barnett of shirilara.com picked up ramen-making skills in San Francisco.

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