The Family Reunion Planner
6 Family Reunion Disasters to Avoid
Smart tips to help minimize stress and maximize fun at your gathering
Larry Snider booked a hotel room in Boulder, Colorado, for his June 2019 family reunion and looked forward to seeing relatives who would be traveling from across the United States to attend.
It wasn’t until after he made the nonrefundable booking that Snider, 52, learned a cousin had booked a block of rooms at a discounted rate that would have saved him $250 on accommodations. The miscommunication affected other family members too.
“[The] misunderstanding … resulted in about half of the couples booking their own individual rooms,” Snider recalls. “This mishap caused the reunion to not get off on the best start. Relatives were a bit annoyed with the whole situation and there was a bit of tension.”
New data from Motel 6 finds that 57 percent of adults plan to attend a family reunion this year, traveling an estimated 80 miles to reunite with loved ones. With that many gatherings planned, it’s safe to assume that not everything will go according to plan.
From flight cancelations and lost reservations to bad weather, food poisoning and family disagreements, here are tips for keeping six potential disasters from ruining your reunion.
1. Food poisoning
Nobody wants a bad potato salad to be the one thing they remember from their reunion weekend. Every year, 1 in 6 Americans get hit with food poisoning, suffering symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Most incidents of food poisoning occur when food isn’t maintained at the proper temperature, according to Darin Detwiler, a food safety expert and professor at Northeastern University.
“A potato salad could be in the car for two hours before it’s served,” he says. “No one uses a food thermometer at a family reunion.”
Detwiler suggests prepping food at home and cooking it on-site, making sure to serve hot foods immediately and to keep cold foods on ice. Better yet, call in the pros.
“A professional catering company will deliver food when you need it, keep it heated or cooled to eliminate those risk factors,” Detwiler says.
2. Canceled flights
Planning to fly to your reunion? Go early, giving yourself a cushion of time so you don’t miss out on reunion activities, advises Jen Campbell Boles, founder of Explore More Family Travel.
“[Fly] in at least a day early until the airlines are staffed up,” Boles advises.
As of July 1, there have been more than 820,000 flight delays and 116,000 cancelled flights this year, according to the flight tracking company FlightAware.
It’s also a good idea to purchase travel insurance.
“Having travel insurance gives you the flexibility to be rebooked outside of the airline you are working with [and] could be the key to getting there,” says Boles.
3. Freeloading relatives
The cost for a venue, hotel rooms, catering, entertainment and matching family T-shirts or other reunion swag can add up. So, what about the cousins who showed up, wore the T-shirts, ate the food and enjoyed the festivities—but never paid? Psychologist Donna Marino suggests giving them the benefit of the doubt.
“Perhaps they forgot or didn’t have the money at the time,” says Marino. “Greet them as you would any paying family member … and say something like, ‘It’s so good to see you, I had no idea you were coming. I was just collecting everyone’s contribution to the event.’”
If your relatives still don’t hand over their fair share, Marino suggests weighing whether the relationship is more important than the money, adding, “Could there be something going on with them and they could really use their family right now? Could you sponsor them to be there? Be thoughtful in your response.”
You may also want to hire a travel agent or event planner to coordinate the reunion and manage the unpleasant task of collecting payment.
4. Bad weather
Boles learned firsthand about the importance of having a rain plan at her 2021 reunion. The family had booked a resort in Mexico with lots of kids club activities, but when it rained that whole week, there wasn’t much to keep adults busy.
“In hindsight, we should have found somewhere with more for adults to do indoors in case of inclement weather,” she says. “Luckily there was a big lobby where we could hang out together and play games that we brought and just relax.”
If the reunion is supposed to take place outdoors, ask the venue about alternate arrangements in case of foul weather, and remember to bring a range of activities for relatives of all ages in case outdoor games get rained out.
5. Family disagreements
While the hotel discount snafu caused some tension at the Snider family reunion, Snider says, “Everyone got over it pretty quickly and had a great time.”
Other families are less forgiving. If a disagreement—or an outright fight—breaks out over anything from current events to old family dramas, Marino suggests slowing down and showing respect.
“You can say something like, ‘I can see that this conversation has become unproductive, so I am going to step away,’” she says. “If it’s a conversation that needs to be continued, tell them, ‘I do think we should talk about this again when we’re both calmer.’”
Most important, Marino adds, is to be true to yourself and stay mindful of when you or the other person can no longer manage the emotions that are coming up. The ultimate goal is ensuring that, even when emotions are running high, family squabbles won’t ruin the reunion.
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6. Lost hotel reservations
No one wants to show up to a family reunion only to discover that the hotel has no record of their reservation. Staying with relatives who live nearby might be a backup plan, but Boles has a better idea: Call and confirm your reservation prior to departure.
“At the very least, make sure you have all confirmation emails saved to show the staff,” she says. “Having travel insurance can help in this situation to reimburse any costs for lost reservations when you can prove that you have a reservation.”
Once you check in, you can unpack, relax and look forward to enjoying the reunion!
Jodi Helmer is a contributing writer who covers gardening, health and the environment. She has also written for Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler and NPR.