Family’s complicated. Travel’s complicated. Put those two together and you have a recipe for potential disaster — or at least for a getaway that hardly feels like a vacation at all.
But despite the stress-inducing potential of the formula, multigenerational family reunions are nevertheless a booming travel format: New research from home-booking platform HomeAway concluded that more than half (57 percent) of its users in the U.S., France, Germany, and the U.K. have attended a family reunion within the last two years, and most (60 percent) traveled more than 100 miles to get there.
So given the robust popularity of destination family reunions, it’s clear people are making them work — and enjoying them — under the right circumstances.
So what are the just-right circumstances for a family reunion that can be equally pleasing to all generations? Consider these tips that helped me plan a successful family reunion at a woodsy home in California’s stunning Lake Tahoe — with six adults and five kids, 10 and under.
1. Plan ahead.
When you’re planning a trip that spans multiple generations of family members, scheduling can feel like an impossible logic puzzle: You might have retiree grandparents, parents’ hectic work schedules, and kids’ school calendars. The trick to get people on board is to plan way ahead, setting a date at least a year out — as you might do for other occasions mandating travel and mass participation, such as a wedding.
Then, just stick to that date. You may not snag everyone in your extended crew, but you’ll get the best attendance — and make the fewest people nuts — if you stay firm and let people plan around an unmoving target if they can.
About six months out, my sister and I picked August dates in celebration of a milestone birthday for my mother (who preferred we didn’t make too much fuss over that occasion, and refer to the trip only as a "family reunion" instead) and slated all other plans for the late-summer and fall around it. Being rigid on the date was the only way to lock it in so our plan didn’t evaporate into the ether.
2. Book a house instead of a hotel.
The whole idea behind a family reunion is that it’s a rare opportunity to get everyone together in an intimate environment that allows for real bonding. So for that reason alone, it makes more sense to ditch hotel suites in favor of a rental home. You want intimacy, yes, but you also need to spread out in order that you’re not getting too much in each other’s grills — a sure-fire way to spark major friction.
In a house, you’ll likely have access to useful amenities like laundry — which is key in the clutch, and also a chance to streamline packing and save baggage fees. With my three-year-old twins, the laundry is truly endless, especially in sandy, s'mores-y environments like vacation — and that can be costly in hotels.
With a house, you also get a kitchen you can stock to your family’s personal preferences and dietary restrictions; you can also use it to warm milk, and other baby-friendly uses. Oh, and you can also stock a kitchen with your favorite…
(That’s it. Booze is the tip. You’re on vacation after all, so relax! Just don’t overdo it.)
4. Be together, but spread out.
We chose a house with four distinct areas: The grandparents luxuriated in a detached guest-house-like space with its own bath, the two sets of parents slept in sophisticated bedrooms upstairs, and all five kids crashed together in a two-bedroom basement suite, complete with game room. Basically, cousin-party heaven on earth.
5. Embrace a slower pace.
Have you ever tried to move five kids, including three toddlers, from point A to point B? “Herding cats” would be putting it much too mildly. Over-scheduling your itinerary with tons of sightseeing, especially when babies and toddlers are involved, can just be an exercise in futility and frustration. You’ll spend most of your time schlepping and nagging, and you’ll never get anywhere.
So instead, streamline your itinerary. Let the house be your, well, home base. Ideally, you’ll stay somewhere walkable to keep things easy when you do pack up and go.
And hey, bonus if there's a massively buzzy and rare solar eclipse phenomenon available for viewing literally right outside your front door during your trip!
6. Be flexible.
Even with an emphasis on togetherness, it’s healthy for everyone to do their own things sometimes as part of a mutli-generational trip. For instance, my kids still nap two hours in the middle of the day. My parents were happy to stick around the house to prep them for that down time and snuggle them to sleep, while freeing up my sister, my husband, and me to hit the Truckee River for a bit of kayaking.
Also try a choose-your-own adventure approach, where family members of varying physical abilities and attention spans are concerned. All three generations of my family were able to tackle a hike down to Lake Tahoe's stunning Emerald Bay. But only the older kids were interested in the famous castle-like Vikingsholm house tour at the bottom. My toddlers much preferred to splash in the lake instead. We all reconvened afterward for the hike back up.
7. Be budget minded (and sensitive about spending).
As families spread out, their financial means may also diversify — with some branches of the brood having access to more disposable loot than others. Beyond even the amenities, renting a house can actually be cheaper than a hotel scenario — especially for a large party that would otherwise require many rooms. You can split the cost among the group by dividing the total up on a either per-person or a per-bedroom basis.
How big’s your family? HomeAway, for instance, has 400 properties in the U.S. with a dozen bedrooms or more apiece. When you add up all that sleeping space and amortize that over the cost of your group, you’re likely going to come out with a figure that family members of various means can get behind.
8. Keep it short.
Let’s not get too crazy, here. According to HomeAway’s research, most family reunions last from one to three days. Better to head home wanting more treasured family time than to count the tedious moments until you can finally get back to the relative quietude and relaxation of your workaday life.
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