A Family Reunion Planner for Every Kind of Family

Our travel experts brought loads of ideas—from low-budget to posh options—plus tips for how to deal with dreaded downtime and how to organize meals.

Outdoor party
Photo: Miki Duisterhof

Family reunions are as varied as the families that attend them. Some reunions are big, outdoorsy, expensive, frequent, spontaneous, or action-packed; while others are small, indoors, economical, once in a lifetime, thoroughly planned, or laid back. There's no best way or one-size-fits-all approach to a family reunion that suits every family or host.

With that in mind, we tapped our travel experts for their advice on pulling off a family reunion that best suits your family's size, interests, and budget. They offer tips for a wide range of reunion ideas—from an afternoon backyard BBQ to a week-long transatlantic cruise—to make your reunion fun and stress-free for your family and, most importantly, for you.

Getting Started

As you know, planning is the key to successful event, and a family reunion is no exception. There's a lot to consider, so here's to ensuring you cover all the bases.

Setting a Date

The sooner you set a date, the more time you have to plan the event and the more time your guests have to plan to attend. Setting a date a year in advance is by no means too early. Keep in mind that, if your invitation list includes families with school-age children, you may want to plan around the school schedule.

Who to Invite

When compiling your invitation list, consider everyone, ideally. After all, sometimes it’s the random second cousin you never thought would show up who ends up being the life of the party.

If you can’t include every branch of the family tree, “the general rule of thumb is that you should decide the parameters first―whether you’ll invite first cousins, second cousins, or beyond―then include everyone that falls under that umbrella,” says Scott Haltzman, a psychiatrist and author of The Secrets of Happy Families ($23, amazon.com).

How Long It Should Last

For an annual reunion, a weekend is generally an appropriate timeframe. For reunions that don’t occur as regularly, plan a few extra days for those who can stay longer, but keep this in mind: “The longer a reunion lasts, the more space you should have to spread out," Haltzman cautions. "I don’t recommend sharing a small cabin if it’s a weeklong event.”

How to Organize It

To decide which route to take in the early planning stages, pick a point person to communicate with from each nuclear family to avoid getting wires crossed. Before you decide on a specific plan, take an informal survey of what invitees are willing to spend, when and where they would like to meet, and how they react to your initial ideas.

After firming up your timeframe, invitation list, and family members' preferences, it's time to pin down exactly what kind of family reunion you plan to host. Our travel experts were full of ideas for a wide range of reunion possibilities, along with each's pros and cons, as well as great ideas for how to deal with downtime and meals.

A Home-Based Reunion

People enjoying an outdoor party
Rob Howard

A home-based reunion is ideal for small groups, families with elderly relatives, and families concentrated in the same geographic area. Everyone saves money with this style except for the host, who often gets stuck footing the bulk of the bill.

For a host who's unable to bear the cost, consider collecting cash before the event, or hold a raffle or a silent auction at the reunion with each family contributing something of value, whether it’s a homemade quilt or a framed painting. The host can then use the money collected to reimburse for decorations or rentals, replenish their pantry, pay the caterer, or enlist a service to help with the cleanup.

Where to Go

Ultimately, the best place to stage a home-based reunion is wherever someone is willing to host it. If that someone is you, take heart that not everything has to take place in your living room. Consider holding the event―in whole or in part―at a local park, pool, or event center. Before you commit, check for availability and find out if a reservation or permit is required as early as possible.

If planning an outdoor event―whether at a public park or in your backyard―keep a Plan B in your back pocket in case of inclement weather. This could take the form of an activity like bowling or a movie matinee, or an alternate location―such as an indoor entertainment venue like Dave and Buster's―that can accommodate a crowd with just a few days' notice.

Dealing With Downtime

Regardless if your reunion is an afternoon affair or a weekend-long event, some out-of-towners may choose to stick around longer. To accommodate these folks, or anyone who may need to escape the festivities for a bit, provide local maps marked with spots like coffee shops, walking trails, and bookstores. “It’s important to remember your limits as far as togetherness goes and to know that everyone needs his privacy at some point,” says Laurie Bisig, a Kentucky-based, family-travel veteran.

Organizing Meals

If a majority of guests live within an hour’s drive, consider a potluck. If you choose to cook most or all of the food, buy more ingredients than you think you’ll need. It’s easy to run out of food when you’re not used to cooking for 40, and who is?

If ordering in, tell the caterer or restaurant staff how many people you’re ordering for. They can assess how much food you’ll need for your-sized party.

An All-Inclusive Reunion

Cruise ship
Emily Nathan

If you want to host a family reunion but recoil at the prospects of planning and talking about money, an all-inclusive venue is for you. With this option, the host is relieved of tasks like arranging travel and paying expenses, because each family pays upfront for their own package, which often includes lodging, food, drinks, and child care.

The advantage of choosing this type of reunion is that it minimizes group decision-making. “At an all-inclusive resort, the group is not going to have to decide about where to eat, what to do for fun, and who’s in charge,” says Haltzman.

“If the activities end up being a disappointment, the blame lies on strangers,” adds Jeremy Greenberg, author of Relative Discomfort: The Family Survival Guide ($15, amazon.com).

On the downside, some family members may feel cooped up at an all-inclusive resort. In many cases, like on a cruise, families can’t tailor the length of their stay to their budgets or vacation time, according to Suzette Mack, a family-travel specialist based in San Jose, California. And for some families, the cost of these types of trips can be hard to swallow.

Where to Go

Cruise lines and beach resorts are often top-of-mind as all-inclusive options, and many provide special services for family reunions. For example, Carnival Cruise Lines offers free event-planning assistance before departure. They also accommodate private parties in lounges and dining rooms—from coffee, tea, and cookies to a two-hour cocktail party with hors d’oeuvres. If you book on Norwegian Cruise Line, they offer a free cruise for two for every 14 passengers and 7 cabins, among other group perks.

If your family is less obsessed with sun and sea, a deluxe dude-ranch trip can fit the bill. Case in point: The Red Horse Mountain Ranch in Harrison, Idaho, offers private cabins, meals, cocktail hours, horseback riding, fishing, and kids’ activities, along with reduced group rates.

While you have your map out, don’t count out international destinations, which can be cheaper and easier to reach than many domestic spots. Mack recommends the Riviera Maya—a resort district south of Cancun, Mexico—for its kid-friendly resorts.

Dealing with Downtime

At an all-inclusive, entertainment is largely provided by the cruise, resort, or ranch. To keep your group's participants on the same page, pick a few events during the trip that almost everyone will want to attend. Alternatively, create sign-up sheets for different events that your folks can attend together to help retain the reunion feel.

Organizing Meals

Fortunately, you can take this hosting task off your list completely, or almost. To get the most out of the all-inclusive venue's dining experience, consider mixing up the nightly seating arrangements so everyone gets to mingle.

A Great-Outdoors Reunion

Family telling a ghost story by a campfire
David Tsay

If you have a nature-loving, outdoorsy-type family, a camping adventure may be just the thing to bring everyone together. It’s low-cost, and everyone can choose lodging that fits their camping comfort level and budget—from pitching a tent, to a cabin in the woods to a glamping experience with all the perks.

This economical option has its distractors, though. “National parks tend to book six months in advance, so that requires early planning,” warns Mack. Another consideration is access, as many parks are several hours away from a major airport. And if bad weather strikes, you could face several long days of playing Go Fish.

Where to Go

If you can reserve a spot in time, national parks are a great bet, as most offer year-round activities for kids. The nationwide chain of KOA campground facilities is another affordable option. Most locations offer cabins, RV hookups, and no-frills campsites to suit any level of outdoorsmanship. Many also have swimming pools and other amenities on-site, and some even offer a full-service reunion-planning package.

An often overlooked option is a church-retreat or privately owned campground. For example, Encounter Cove Camp, a Baptist-run venue in Roach, Missouri, has abundant outdoor activities—cave tours, hiking trails, and parasailing—facilities to feed and house groups, plus more group-centered services and amenities.

You probably don't know that even the YMCA has reunion-appropriate destinations. The YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, to name one, offers hotel-style lodging and family cabins. They can also arrange campfires, meals, and activities just for your clan as well as other reunion extras.

Dealing With Downtime

You might think the great outdoors provides all the activities you'd need but, just in case, bring plenty of board games, puzzles, and books to carry you and your guests through any foul-weather days. To customize your group's experience, create your own conversation-starting party games.

Organizing Meals

For meals not provided by the facility, designate each family to provide a different meal for the whole group―whether it’s cooked over the campfire or trucked in from the nearest takeout joint.

A Destination Reunion

Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

A destination reunion is perfect for families that need a little extra motivation to get together, or for families who have trouble getting time off work and need the reunion to double as a vacation. The base price for this vacation will probably be lower than for an all-inclusive option, and families can tailor their accommodations or length of stay to their schedules and budgets.

The downside of the destination reunion is that more of the burden of planning travel and activities rests on you as the host. Another is that you’re on your own for meals.

Where to Go

Look for a destination with a wealth of entertainment opportunities for all types of interests. Mack suggests San Diego for its mix of family-friendly attractions—its world-famous zoo and Sea World, among others—great year-round weather, beach activities, and fine dining.

Even a resort that's not all-inclusive, like the Atlantis in the Bahamas, can be a good compromise because families can choose the features they want to indulge in. “Over the past few years, we have seen a marked change in the numbers of large family groups traveling together,” says Lauren Snyder, Atlantis CMO. “As a result, we’ve upgraded our connecting rooms and created a Family Olympics program for large groups, including events on the beach and trophies for the winning team.”

Consider choosing a location where you can navigate on foot, which simplifies the logistics and expense of carpooling, parking, and arranging designated drivers. Wherever you stay, be sure to book accommodations that have large communal areas where people can gather. For the best rates on multiple-room reservations, consider booking through a travel agent or a group-travel site like Groople.com.

Dealing With Downtime

Designate someone to bring a portable DVD player or a laptop and several family-friendly movies for times when the adults are content to “just talk” but the kids are dying of boredom.

Organizing Meals

Do some research in advance to find local restaurants that are friendly to large groups (and will accommodate separate checks!), and make some reservations. You don’t want to be stuck in a strange city trying to find a table for 40 on a Friday night.

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