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Ask Trip Coach: Family Reunions

By Brad Tuttle
April 3, 2010
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From choosing the ideal destination to deciding how to divvy up costs, consider this your go-to guide for planning a more-perfect reunion.

READERS' TOP QUESTIONS

How in the world do we decide where to go?
As with all things family, the key word is compromise. The goal is to find a place that will make 15 or (Lord help you) 50 very different people happy. First step: Include everyone. Throw out 10 possibilities in a group e-mail, rank them, and see what rises to the top. That's your winner.

Second step: Keep your eyes on the prize. This is a reunion, and the best destinations have broad appeal (see eight of our suggestions on the following page). A range of activities and distractions (golf, spas, hiking) is essential; the toddlers aren't going to want to play 18 holes every day, and Aunt Myrtle probably isn't up for scaling a rock face. The best options need to be budget sensitive. The most expensive part of any trip tends to be lodging, so consider destinations that allow you to tackle it creatively—sharing rooms, splitting up among hotels of varying star levels, renting one big house. Whatever you decide, establish a central place where folks can gather casually over coffee or corn on the cob.

Any suggestions on divvying up costs and duties?
Remember in The Godfather when the five families come together to work things out? Do that. Gather household heads and hammer out who's in charge of what and how everything will be paid for. Try to foresee complications (Who gets the master suite? Shouldn't they pay more?) and come to a fair arrangement ahead of time.

A suggestion for one of the murkiest areas: food costs. Have each family put $50 or $100 into a reserve that will go toward basics (ketchup, eggs, bread, ice pops, Diet Coke). Then, because we all know what too many cooks can do to the soup, put each family in charge of one night's dinner for the entire group, including shopping and paying for whatever's on the menu. Everyone else gets that night off.

Above all, be clear about little details, every step of the way. It may seem anal, but spelling everything out will help your group avoid confusion, resentment, and the very real possibility of somebody dropping the ball on something as important as making dinner.

How do we prevent tensions from flaring up and, at the same time, make the reunion actually fun?
If there's one golden rule for family reunions, it's this: Don't overschedule. One group activity per day, max. The goal is to create memories—the good kind. Since the kids will probably be the most entertaining part of the vacation, ask them to put on a talent show, host a dance contest, or act out every part in the circus. They'll have fun, and—most important for the adults—they'll be occupied for days. If you're staying in a place with a private gathering room, throw a party there. Fill tables with snacks and family albums. Seeing as you're on location, take advantage of your numbers (group rate!) to do something vacation-y: Charter a boat to a secluded island for a picnic, for example, or book a guide to take you on a hike in the rain forest near your resort.

PLANNING TOOLS

Facebook.com
Start your pre-trip conversation here. Post-reunion, use the site to share photos and relive memories.

Groople.com
Book dozens of hotel rooms and flights at once, often at a discount, and dig through tons of destination ideas and planning tips.

Ciaobambino.com
Find hotels where the rooms are baby-proofed, the properties have jungle gyms, and the activities won't be deemed lame by teenagers.

Familyreunion.com
Investigate locations, themes, games, food, budgeting, and any other reunion-related topics.

SANITY SAVERS
When your reunion starts to feel more like an endurance test than a vacation, try one of these four increasingly strong prescriptions.

Yoga It's amazing what 20 minutes of stretching can do to your outlook.

Cell phone Call a friend. Fake a call from "work."

Reality TV Watch families far more dysfunctional than yours.

Xanax With a doctor's prescription, naturally...

YOUR REUNION COUNTDOWN

1 to 2 years out Send out initial inquiry to see who's interested

9 months to 1 year out Discuss, settle on destination

6 to 9 months out Tally a head count, make lodging reservations

4 to 6 months out Buy plane tickets

3 to 4 months out Circulate info on possible activities

2 months out Book activities (ask for a group rate)

1 month out Get a final-final head count, adjust reservations

1 week out Reconfirm reservations, finalize plans for getting to airport

1 day out Pray for good weather

Keep reading

Road Trip: Southern California Coast

Maybe it's the movies. Or maybe it's the press. But to the world, Los Angeles can come off as a Zenned-out land of palm trees, celebrities, and perpetual sun. Meanwhile, for those who live here—all 10 million of us—L.A. is just the opposite, a hard-charging city where you're rarely alone. There are pockets of calm here and there, but the only way to feel as if you've really escaped is to get out of town. And that often involves stresses all its own. Head east and you won't clear the traffic until San Bernardino. Drive south and you'll be skipping between industrial parks and residential developments all the way to Orange County. But go north and stick to the coast: That's where you'll find your peace. One Friday afternoon, my friend Ellen and I leave town en route to Ojai. The small community 85 miles northwest of the city has long been a haven for art-savvy and New Agey Angelenos. Famous ceramist Beatrice Wood—a.k.a. the Mama of Dada—lived here, as did guru Jiddu Krishnamurti, who drew spiritual seekers from far and wide. Ojai's appeal is much less about what's new than what's not. While most Angelenos make the drive in a two-hour shot—keeping to the infinitely more boring inland Highway 101—Ellen and I choose the Pacific Coast Highway. As we clear the L.A. traffic, beaches open up on our left, and the ocean rolls gently in the midday light. Our first stop is Malibu, 40 miles from L.A. but worlds away. Sure, it's home to Hollywood executives, celebrities, and the real-life epitome of California beach culture, Gidget. But that's where the similarities end. Instead of strip malls and parking lots, Malibu has 21 miles of open beaches backed by the sun-soaked Santa Monica Mountains. I can already feel myself loosening up. We ditch the car and stroll along the newly reopened Malibu Pier. Jutting nearly 800 feet into the Pacific, it served as a lookout during World War II. As opposed to the often mobbed alternative in Santa Monica 12 miles south, this pier is nearly empty. Fishermen gather to drop lines into gray-green water. Stand-up paddle surfers glide over the gentle waves at the famousSurfrider Beach, next to the pier. For the first time in weeks, I'm not thinking about work, my kids, or anything even remotely stressful. After leaving the pier, Ellen and I take a detour on Kanan Dume Road and wind our way six miles into the Santa Monica Mountains to Malibu Wines(31740 Mulholland Hwy., Malibu, malibuwines.com, tasting from $9). We sidle up to a counter, where we're poured a smooth cabernet made from grapes grown in the 65-acre boutique winery across the road. Out front, tables dot a giant lawn, and two couples are picnicking. North of Malibu the landscape gets wild. Rocky headlands frame unpeopled beaches. PCH snakes by Point Mugu State Park, five miles of rugged coast and canyons that serve as a way station for the monarch butterfly migration in fall. Forty miles on, we roll into the old-school beach town of Ventura. The dinner rush at Andria's, a low-key seafood restaurant, is just starting, and we join the families in line (1449 Spinnaker Dr., Ventura, andriasseafood.com, entrées from $10). The batter on my fish is nice and light, and Ellen's fried clams are perfectly sweet. By the time we're back on the road, it's dark. We hang a right on Highway 33 toward Ojai, and I can barely see the California oak and pepper trees covering the hillsides. A light rain is falling when we pull into the Blue Iguana Inn, a 15-room boutique hotel with Mexican-pine beds and tile fountains (11794 N. Ventura Ave., Ojai, blueiguanainn.com, from $109). When we wake up, the bad weather has passed. In the morning sun, Ojai's naturally blessed location comes alive: a broad valley dappled with horse ranches and citrus groves at the base of the Topa Topa Mountains. Ellen and I spend the morning exploring the shops, restaurants, and galleries that constitute town (you won't find any drive-through fast-food joints; Ojai has banned them). That afternoon, we set out for Ojai Olive Oil, a small olive ranch outside of town (1811 Ladera Rd., Ojai, ojaioliveoil.com, free). Ron Asquith meets us when we arrive. The onetime executive bought the land 10 years ago with his ex-wife, Alice. He leads us inside a barn and shows us the stainless-steel tanks where they press their olives. In the tasting room, Alice introduces us to different flavors of olive oil. We test ourselves, moving beyond the standards: rosemary and mandarin, thumbs-up; garlic, not so much. Ojai is gifted with a forgiving Mediterranean climate, a boon for local farmers—which seems to be everyone. Even Boccali's, a pizza parlor, grows its own produce (3227 Ojai Ave., Ojai, boccalis.com, sandwiches from $10). Ellen and I split an Italian-sausage sandwich and a fresh green salad. At the farmers market, I overhear a lady say she comes there from Ventura because Ojai's produce is superior, and then Ellen and I spot Ron from Ojai Olive Oil and wave hello. We have the impression we know half the town—and in my fantasy version of a simpler life, we do. WHEN TO GO You're almost guaranteed sun in May through October. But even the winter months are mild, with highs in the upper 60s. WHAT TO PACK Board shorts, flip-flops, and totes for farmers market fare. GETTING AROUND Plan your L.A. escape and reentry around the rush-hour traffic, which peaks from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and again from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

What $100 Buys in...Minneapolis

$8 Rubber bands An eight-year fixture on the stationery scene, Russell+Hazel practically wrote the book on whimsical office wares, adding colorful patterns to everything from file folders to these supersize, 5/8-inch-wide rubber bands. Russell+Hazel, 4388 France Ave. S., russellandhazel.com. $22 Trivet The Swedish-American population in Minneapolis is one of the country's largest, which explains the city's bounty of Scandinavian goods, such as this playful, hand-felted-wool Dala horse trivet. Ingebretsen's, 1601 E. Lake St., ingebretsens.com. $2 Key chain With over 100 kinds of beaded, fringed, and feathered footwear, Minnetonka Moccasin has cornered the market on suede slippers since 1946. Our pick: the pocket-size, 2 3/4-inch mini-moc key chain (it comes in its own tiny box!), a subtle way to sport the style. Love From Minnesota, 178 IDS Center, 80 8th St. S., lovefrommn.com. $9 Honey Ames Farm owner Brian Fredericksen considers each jar of honey a snapshot of an area's botanical identity. Varieties are produced at his 17 Minnesota hive sites, and each is named for the predominant nectar-source plant; the Basswood yields floral notes and mint. Mill City Farmers Market, 704 S. 2nd St., amesfarm.com. $10 Bath soak A natural-products trailblazer since 1868, J.R. Watkins's southeastern Minnesota apothecary turns out chemical-free concoctions like this bath soak made from sea salt and lavender oil, packaged in sweet containers with old-time labels. Patina, 2305 18th Ave. NE, patinastores.com. $38 Wooden robot Twin Cities architect William Dohman took reclaimed wood from area construction and demolition sites to create his series of Block Bots—a nice alternative to today's high-tech toys. (This two-inch-by-four-inch model was an oak spindle in a former life.) ILikeYou, 501 1st Ave. NE, ilikeyouonline.com.

The BT Guide to Getting Online From Virtually Anywhere

Online Addiction Level: Low You get a kick out of tapping into your social network from unlikely locations, but you're not willing to invest in an arsenal of gadgets to facilitate constant contact. The Fix Before settling on your trip accommodations, search travelpost.com's database of hotel chains with free wireless networks. And once you've nailed down your itinerary, use JiWire's free Wi-Fi Finder to pinpoint hotspots near the places you're visiting and to find out how much each one costs, if anything (jiwire.com). Online Addiction Level: Medium You'd enjoy your cross-country road trip a whole lot more if you could blog about it from the middle of the interstate (in the passenger's seat, of course). The Fix Sign up for pay-as-you-go mobile broadband. Both Verizon and Virgin Mobile offer prepaid, no-contract packages that get you online through either company's 3G cellular network. Plans start at $10 for limited 10-day access, but you'll have to buy a network-specific USB modem (from $60) to get your laptop online. Online Addiction Level: Intervention-Worthy Your typical family vacation includes at least one all-out brawl over who gets to check their e-mail first. (So much for bonding!) The Fix Use a MiFi (novatelwireless.com) to maximize a subscription-based mobile broadband plan. (Think of it as a portable hotspot that can support up to five computers at once.) Depending on the carrier, you'll get the device free (Sprint) or deeply discounted (Verizon) when you sign up for service, for about $60 a month.

Are Paid Travel Membership Clubs Worth It?

ROAD TRAVEL: American Automobile Association The Deal Starting at $38, an annual AAA membership gets you free roadside towing and lock-out services, discounts of 5 to 15 percent at thousands of hotels, and offers like $30 off weekly rentals at Hertz (which, weirdly, tops Hertz's own #1 Club Gold membership perks). Worth It? What you're paying for is really the services, not the deals: We've found that many hotel owners are happy to float discounts comparable to AAA's even if you aren't a member. aaa.com. AIRLINE: Spirit Airlines $9 Fare Club The Deal For $40 a year, members have access to exclusive fares, sometimes for as low as a penny. A few recent samples: a one-way flight from Chicago to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for $16, or a Fort Lauderdale to Freeport, Bahamas, flight for a measly $9. Worth It? Only if you're going to take more than one flight a year—which is potentially a challenge. Deals are usually last-minute and off-peak, and Spirit serves only 40 cities (biased to the East Coast, the Caribbean, and Central and South America). spiritair.com. HOTEL: Tablet Plus The Deal Each week, Tablet Hotels, a booking engine for boutique and luxury hotels, offers its Tablet Plus members discounts of up to 70 percent at certain properties (example: $174 vs. $249 at New York's Bryant Park Hotel). Extra bonuses: spa vouchers, upgrades, complimentary airport transfers, and late checkout. Worth It? Sounds great, but the annual fee of $195 is a real stumbling block. It's even more insurmountable when you find out that Plus members' "exclusive" deals are exclusive for only 24 hours. tablethotels.com.

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