They can be the most heartwarming—or the most chilling—words in the English language: Family Reunion. If the thought of organizing your extended clan for a long weekend away sends a shiver down your spine, relax. If you start early, do your homework, and take advantage of digital tools, you can pull off a multigenerational jaunt that will delight everyone from one to 100. Here, our all-you-need-to-get-started guide to planning the party of the year.
1. START THE CONVERSATION
At least nine months in advance, start talking to your extended family's "thought leaders"—the ones who typically make the decisions and do the heavy lifting at, say, Thanksgiving. Family-travel expert and former Family Vacations editor at About.com Teresa Plowright suggests that earlier is better when coordinating the schedules of many families. "People like to know 'Next June we're all getting together'—you just have so many work/vacation schedules for adults, seasonal jobs, sports programs for teens, etc." Especially if your family intends something ambitious, like an overseas trip, a popular resort, or a cruise, at least a year is advisable. For more casual affairs ("Let's rent a couple of beach houses!"), Plowright notes that a few months in advance might be fine. Before deciding on your reunion destination, it's best to put together three final options (including sample activities, meals, and a rough estimate of the cost) that the group can consider. (See "Pick the Perfect Destination," below.)
If you're the type who's reading this story and already taking notes, you're likely the one who is going to volunteer to do too much. Don't. As with any family get-together, a reunion will require delegating important tasks. Depending on the family dynamic, this might mean choosing a leader to coordinate the event while one person is the reservation-keeper, another is in charge of meal planning, another for activities. If all of this is starting to sound like work, well, it is. Like a well-run business, the reunion will require a staff that works independently and reports back to the group regularly.
3. MAKE RESERVATIONS
These days, of course, reservations can all be made online, which is mostly a blessing. But a slew of paperless reservations (flights, hotels, rental cars, and restaurants) made by a team of far-flung relatives can sometimes spell confusion. Use a reliable app such as TripIt or Google docs to store and share all your important dates, times, and ticket info. In general, you should get a head count and make lodging reservations six to nine months prior to your reunion; buy plane tickets four to six months in advance; book activities at your destination about two months in advance; double-check your head count one month prior to travel; and re-confirm all your reservations and any airport transportation and car rentals one week in advance.
4. PICK THE PERFECT DESTINATION
If your clan is the type to hop out of bed every morning itching to climb, hike, bike, and explore, "Escorted tours with all details handled and excellent lodgings can be a good idea," suggests Plowright. A number of adventure-travel companies offer "family adventure" packages aimed at multigenerational groups. Adventures by Disney is, no surprise, a favorite choice of many families.
"I've seen many multigenerational vacationers at ski resorts," notes Plowright. "It can be pricey, but the good news is that even if some of the family doesn't want to ski or snowboard, there are more and more non-skiing activities to enjoy."
"Families with grandparents along seem to be everywhere at Disney World," says Plowright. The park offers a wide—and ever-widening—range of activities, even for those who aren't interested in the rides.
"All-inclusive resorts offer plenty of activities during the day, plus kids' programs," suggests Plowright. "Families can decide to do some activities together and split up for other things and re-group at dinner." Whether you're a partier or just a fan of fine dining, swimming pools, and white-sand beaches, one of the most appealing aspects of the all-inclusive is that you can go for days without ever reaching for your wallet.
"Rent a big vacation home, or a few that are near one another, for a relaxing reunion," says Plowright. But remember if your reunion is "self-catered," no one person should be stuck doing all the cooking. Delegate a different cook—or group—for each evening's dinner.
"Think of a cruise as a floating all-inclusive resort," says Plowright, "with the same potential to be together or easily break off for separate activities." A cruise might just be the easiest reunion from a planner's point of view, with ample opportunities for age-appropriate activities, easy seating for meals, and special events such as private cocktail parties, photo sessions, and a fairly standard discount of one free passenger for every eight cabins. But because most cruises are not strictly all-inclusive, do keep an eye on extra costs—that glass of wine you raise to toast your grandparents may set you back $10.
5. DON'T FORGET THE SWAG
Order personalized souvenirs
Sending everyone back home with a family reunion T-shirt—or tote bag, baseball cap, or custom-made craft—can help keep the event alive in everyone's memory for a long time.
Prepare a family tree
No, you don't have to know exactly when your great-grandmother left Palermo, or what her father's name was, to cobble together a nice family tree to answer inevitable questions, like "Who is that dude and am I really related to him?"
Bring photo albums
Sure, you can—and should—trot out those dusty "analog" albums that everyone loves. But don't forget to collect and organize family photos digitally for future reference.
Take a group photo
Book a professional photo session through your hotel, resort, or cruise line. Pricey? It can be—but it's worth the quality of the photography, shot composition, and professional printing.
Make a music video
You may have to leave the tech to the teens, but it's way easier than you think to shoot and edit your own family's take on, say, "Uptown Funk." Trust us, the laughter will linger long after you've packed your bags and headed home.
Ask the kids to make name tags or dinner-table place cards
Pack craft paper and crayons and make the little ones feel like big shots by having them create name tags or place cards for themselves and the grownups. It's a colorful way to decorate your dinner table, and the sentimental value of those mini-masterpieces will only go up as the years go by.