Family Reunion Vacations

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When you get together not to impress one another but simply to share love and memories, you enjoy the finest rewards of travel

Grandma and grandpa haven't seen the kids in months. You haven't seen your siblings in nearly a year. The cousins hardly know each other anymore. It's high time to get the gang together. But grandma doesn't want to cook and clean for everyone. And the kids don't want to spend a week sitting around grandma's condo with not much to do. That's why millions of American families--some 16 million a year, according to the Travel Industry Association--are taking off on vacation with three generations and sometimes four.

Families are meeting for a long weekend or a week, gathering at beach and ski resorts Thanksgiving and Christmas, sometimes taking their holiday turkey along. They're crowding cruise ships and Disney World, even heading overseas to rental villas.

These post-millennium-style family reunions are a lot different than those afternoon barbeques in a park, so popular a generation ago. In fact, organized reunions are getting so popular that growing numbers of resorts now offer well-priced family reunion packages. When there's a big group and everyone's splitting the tab, reunions can even turn out to be a bargain.

One thing's for sure: the memories will be worth every dollar spent and all the (sometimes burdensome) planning--if only for the chance for grandpa to teach his five-year-old grandson to fish, for grandma to tell her granddaughters all about her wedding, for brothers and sisters to trade career tips and to reminisce about childhood vacations. Here are ten reunion ideas that are affordable to almost everyone and will embarrass the purse of no one.

A reunion cruise

Whatever time of year, cruises are great hits for multigenerational families because there are plenty of activities for all ages--even the preschoolers. Just as important, no one has to worry about organizing a single meal or washing a dish. Cruises are a good vacation value, too, when you figure your bed, your food, and all of your on-board activities are included.

Today, there are more cruise reunion options than ever, as most major cruise lines offer well-run children's programs and a greater number of short cruises. Cruise Line Inc., one of the largest cruise discount agencies in the country, handles many such family groups. (Call 800/466-9150 or visit cruiseline.com.) Among the cruise lines themselves, Carnival Cruise Line expects to carry 250,000 kids this year, more than any other cruise line, and half of its fleet offers itineraries of five days or fewer. That means a family can cruise for four days for roughly $450 per person or for a week over Thanksgiving for under $600 a person, including port charges. Third and fourth passengers in a cabin are just over $300 on either trip. For every 15 adults, you get a free berth. (800/CARNIVAL or carnival.com)

Disney Cruise Lines has an entire deck devoted to kids, including a nursery for infant cruisers, as well as adult-only areas. Disney offers seven-day trips to the Caribbean as well as three- and four-day options combined with a stay at Disney World. Forty percent of the passengers are multigenerational groups. Both trips are a good deal, starting at (for a small number of cabins, true) $829 per adult, $399 per child; expect to pay at least $200 more for a larger number of cabins. (800/WDW-CRUISE or disneycruise.com).

Whether or not you're a family of snow-lovers, mountain resorts are good choices for family gatherings whatever the season. In fall, there are hiking and mountain-bike trails to explore, golf, fishing, gondola rides to mountaintops, and more. In winter, besides skiing, there's snowshoeing, ice-skating, spas, and the chance to read the kids story after story by the fire. There are plenty of organized children's programs to choose from.

Examples? At Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado, kids 6 and under ski free and there's a Club Med there for folks who want an all-inclusive vacation. The savings on condo and house rentals are best early and late ski season, even cheaper in fall and spring when the kids can mountain bike and the adults can hike amid the wildflowers. (Crested Butte: 800/544-8448 or crestedbutteresort.com. Snowbird: 800/232-9542 or snowbird.com).

For all these western destinations, Rocky Mountain Tours can arrange bargain-priced ski packages including air (800/525-SKIS or sskithewest.com).

In the East, Smugglers' Notch Resort in northern Vermont offers AutumnFest packages starting at $780 for a family of four for seven nights, including golf, fishing, and canoeing. Opt for a long-weekend winter package and let the kids try snowboarding while mom and dad work on their skiing and grandma takes an art workshop. Everyone can join the karaoke and bingo parties (800/451-8752 or smuggs.com).

Canada cheaply

Families will find they save big bucks due to the strength of the U.S. dollar if they head north to the mountains in Canada. Skiing all over Canada is high-quality, with ski seasons in some places stretching into May and just as much off-season fun on golf courses, tennis courts, and mountain trails. Three-day stay-and-ski packages at Whistler Resort in British Columbia start at $190 per person. There are many affordable rental houses to share, too. Packages also can include air (800/WHISTLER or whistler.com.

For eastern Canada, Mont Tremblant in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains has five-night, four-day packages starting at $90 per person (tremblant.com). It's been voted the best ski resort in eastern North America by Ski magazine. And here, the kids are guaranteed to love the crepes and maybe pick up a little French on the slopes.

House rentals

As long as you've got enough bathrooms and plenty of space to spread out, renting a house together can be a great low-cost option for a family reunion vacation. The kids can bunk together. Adults can share the cooking chores and food costs. Plenty of heart-to-heart talks will be had around the table early in the morning over coffee or late in the evening nursing that last glass of wine. Even better, you might be able to afford to go farther from home by sharing quarters-t-- Europe or the Caribbean, for example.

The key is to choose your dates wisely so you miss high season. Go to the Caribbean for Thanksgiving, for example; Italy over spring break, or Cape Cod in early June. Call the visitor's center in your favorite resort town and ask for a realtor who handles vacation rentals.

The well-known travel club Hideaways International can set your extended family up in vacation digs from Florida to Maine, Colorado to California, often for as little as $800 a week. There are bargains in the Caribbean and Europe too (800/843-4433 or hideaways.com). Finally, find some bargain airfare to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Destination St. John can set you up in your own villa for a week of bliss overlooking the sea starting at $2,000. Many houses have pools and hot tubs (800/562-1901 or destinationstjohn.com).

Dude ranches & guest houses 

If your idea of a dream vacation is horseback riding, hayrides, fishing, horseshoes, and campfires, think about a ranch getaway for your reunion. If you can't swing a week, stay three or four days. At Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in the Ozark Mountains near Jasper, Arkansas, guests are welcome to help with the stock and kids are invited to feed, water, and help groom the animals. Weekly rates start at $850 for adults in spring and fall, $450 for kids age 3-7. There are additional family discounts for more than four people in a cabin (800/480-9635 or gohcr.com).

The Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera, 47 miles north of San Antonio, Texas, has been around nearly 50 years and offers everything from riding and kids' activities to tubing and fishing in the Medina River. All-inclusive rates for adults are $135 per night, $60 for kids (call 830/796-3312 or mayanranch.com).

Old West Dude Ranch Vacations, a division of the extensive outdoor travel Web site Gorp.com, books more ranch vacations than any other company and should be able to find one to suit your family's needs and budget (877/440-4677 or gorptravel.com).

Orlando bound

No destination will make the grandkids happier. And when the seniors have had enough of theme parks, they can snooze by the pool or hit the links. Holiday Inn's new FamilySuites a mile from Walt Disney World has special Grandtravel packages that include two-bedroom themed KidSuites and food discounts for grandparents. There are evening karaoke and bingo parties, a giant pool complex, and VCRs in every suite. Grandparents get extra food discounts (877/387-5437 or hifamilysuites.com). For cheaper accommodations, stay at Disney's All-Star Resorts starting under $100 a night for a room that will sleep four.

Family-friendly resorts 

Many resorts, some all-inclusive, some not, have been hosting multigenerational families for years and go out of their way to welcome big family groups.

Oglebay in Wheeling, West Virginia, just 60 miles from Pittsburgh, is a 1,650-acre year-round spot with everything from golf to gardens, shops to a children's zoo, tennis to a giant pool. There are four- and six- bedroom cottages starting at under $900 a week (800/624-6988 or oglebay-resort.com). Montecito-Sequoia Lodge (in California's Sequoia National Forest, near Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park) is open year-round as both a summer family vacation camp and a winter cross-country ski resort, offering top-quality family adventure. The resort specializes in planning reunion packages for families, with hiking, campfires, kids' activities, and snowshoeing and ice-skating in the winter. Fall getaways start at under $200 a night for a family of four, including two meals and activities. Summer Family Camp is more expensive (800/227-9900 or mslodge.com).

Then, too, Holiday Inn SunSpree resorts can be a bargain around the country and in the Caribbean, with many free kids' activities and meals, elaborate pools, mountain biking, or snorkeling; rates, depending on when you book, are just over $110 a night. Some, like the Holiday Inn SunSpree Rose Hall Montego Bay, offer all-inclusive packages. Go to: basshotels.com.

Club Med 

Club Med was among the first to offer all-inclusive family vacations, and they still do a great job at a reasonable price when you figure air is part of the deal. Club Med resorts are popular with multigenerational vacationers for the same reasons that cruise ships are--there's plenty for every age group to do and eat without worrying about paying for every Coke, boogie board, or craft project. There are designated family villages in Florida, Colorado, and the Caribbean.

Family groups with 20 adults are eligible for preferred group discounts. Seven-night deals are available from $500 per person There are long-weekend deals too. If you're flexible, you could probably find a package for a little under $1,000 per person, including air, less for kids. (800/CLUB-MED or clubmed.com).

Sailing boats and barges 

Ocean-loving families who don't mind roughing it a bit (sharing tiny bathrooms) can have the trip of a lifetime on a historic Maine windjammer, sailing along the craggy coast, having a lobster-bake on the beach, exploring tide pools and tiny fishing villages, and helping to hoist the sails or navigate. A family of 20 or more could take over an entire boat. Three-day trips, including meals, average $500 (800/807-WIND or sailmainecoast.com).

Finally, snare some bargain fares to Europe and you can drive your own barge along canals and rivers in France, England, Holland, Italy, Scotland, Germany, or Ireland. The kids can help ease the canal boat through the locks. The family can explore small riverfront towns and villages, shopping at local markets, picnicking in parks, or bike riding on country roads. Crown Blue Line operates more than 500 boats at more than 20 bases (888/355-9491 or crownblueline.com).

Swapping homes 

A home exchange can enable the family to gather without spending a penny for lodging. The practice of swapping houses for a week is becoming increasingly common around the country and abroad. Often, families can also swap cars and even pets. All types of homes are offered--from modest apartments to large country houses to houseboats. It's an opportunity to see what it would be like to live in another part of the country--or another part of the world. Some exchangers may even arrange for play dates with their kids' friends and dinner parties with neighbors. Some families remain in touch for long afterward. Join a home exchange program like Intervac (800/756-HOME or intervacus.com), which has more international listings than any other home exchange company. Memberships start at about $70 to put your offer on the Web (more expensive memberships include a listing in a book as well). Then it's up to you to contact other members to see if a swap can be arranged for the time of year you hope to travel. Some people get as many as 50 offers; others may contact dozens of families before finding a suitable match.

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