The Family Reunion Planner
5 Surprising Places to Hold a Family Reunion
Think outside the box for locations that have something for everyone
A barbecue at the park, a party at a lakeside or farm, or a bash in a hotel ballroom — these spots feel familiar for a family reunion.
To get beyond these typical spots, think creatively. A big event could be a chance for family members to check off a bucket-list destination or step off the beaten track. Either way, you and your family get the chance to share exciting experiences, bond and make memories together.
“People are wanting to travel [and] are still spending the money,” says independent travel adviser Nicole Wooten of Travelin’ Goddess in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. “They’ve been at home all this time and they want to do things with their families.”
If you plan to drive to your destination, be prepared for high prices at the gas pump. If you’re flying, watch out for delays or cancellations at the airport. Taking those risks into consideration, try heading someplace a bit different for your family reunion. Several of these destinations invite family members into the outdoors and are all-inclusive, meaning the price includes lodging, food, activities and, in some cases, the cost of transportation.
1. Go west(ern)
Dude ranches are about more than cowboy hats and horseback riding. Today they offer a host of activities — from fishing, archery and golf to teen-friendly fun like laser tag and zip-lining to petting zoos, e-biking and spas for everyone.
While many ranches are located out West in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, you’ll also find options in Arizona, Arkansas and Texas. They cater to groups, and many specialize in family reunions. Adult all-inclusive rates range from less than $1,000 to $4,100 for a one-week stay per adult; children cost less.
“Dude ranches have something for anyone at any age — whether it’s toddlers getting to run around the lawn, kids who ride a horse or grandparents who can ... bird-watch,” says Bryce Albright, executive director of the Dude Ranchers Association. “There’s no real planning once you get there, and that’s a big draw.”
The Dude Ranchers Association lets you search for ranches nationwide by using criteria like type of accommodation, activities and even special events such as a family reunion or wellness week. At Elkhorn Ranch near Tucson, Arizona, children 5 and younger can’t ride horses, but they stay for free. To completely disconnect, Lost Valley Ranch in Sedalia, Colorado, has fresh mountain air, line dancing and fly-fishing, but it doesn’t have cellphone coverage or televisions in the cabins. (The lodge keeps two free phones on hand for making outside calls.)
Tip: Many ranches are a one- to two-hour drive from a major airport.
2. Set sail on a cruise
Think of a cruise as an all-inclusive floating resort that offers good value for a hassle-free vacation — with activities for all ages, various cabin options to fit different budgets, a cornucopia of food choices, and entertainment ranging from nightclubs to magic shows. And if you can’t swoosh down a waterslide, play laser tag or scale a rock wall, you can sign up for a cooking class, visit the library or get a massage.
Popular cruise destinations include the Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii and Europe. Some trips cost less than $1,000 a person, and on certain Norwegian Cruise Line ships, kids travel for free.Depending on what you’re looking for, some cruise lines, such as Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean, offer family-friendly ships. Others, like Princess Cruises, Viking Cruises and Virgin Voyages, have adults-only trips.
Wooten, who specializes in group travel, likes Carnival because its “ships are geared toward fun ... for all ages,” she says. “There’s entertainment on the cruise, so you don’t have to get off the ship for excursions. A lot of the cruise ships have the teenage club; some have a Dr. Seuss breakfast.”
Tip: Before booking, make sure everyone agrees on the cruise type and length, the port where passengers will board the ship, and the cost.
3. Explore the great outdoors
If you’re happy being in nature, consider visiting a national or state park. With more than 400 national sites and nearly 6,800 state parks scattered across the country, there’s plenty to choose from.
Parks often provide hiking trails, swimming, picnic areas, camp sites or cabin rentals. Even visitors who don’t hike can find many other low-key activities — such as ranger-led talks and panoramic viewpoints accessible by walking a few steps from your car — at many parks. National parks, including Crater Lake in Oregon, the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Yosemite in California, offer iconic lodges with accommodations, cafés and restaurants where visitors can relax and enjoy the scenery.
You might even hit multiple parks on one trip. In Arizona, for example, there are four other national park sites within three hours of the Grand Canyon. And in Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park is just 30 miles (about 45 minutes) from Yellowstone National Park.
Fees are low, but be sure to plan ahead because some national parks have an entrance reservation system, and summer is their busiest season.
Tip: Consider buying an $80 annual national parks pass, which is your entrance ticket to 2,000 federal sites. The pass is free for members of the military and their dependents and for fourth graders. For those 62 and older, an annual pass costs $20, and a lifetime pass is $80.
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4. Have a ball at a theme park
Amusement and theme parks appeal to the kid in all of us — making them especially popular destinations for family and group travel.
If you’re not up for riding a roller coaster, many theme parks offer entertainment, such as live music and theater, and have expanded their food and drink offerings to include healthy options, beer gardens and sit-down restaurants. Some parks also provide places to sit and relax. Carowinds amusement park in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, offers wooden rocking chairs and benches in a shaded arbor.
Some water parks and fun centers have been built indoors, making them your go-to choice on days when the weather is less than perfect. Water parks often include sprinkler and lazy river options that older adults can enjoy alone or with their grandchildren.
Florida’s Disney World is a favorite, but entrance fees can exceed $100 per day per person. More affordable outings can be found elsewhere, like Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; Hershey Park in Hershey, Pennsylvania; and Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. One of the best deals is Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, California, where tickets are just $15.
Tip: Most theme parks provide group and military discounts. Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California, offer discounted admission for residents of those states.
5. Discover a new country
Always dreamed of seeing Paris? Or visiting the ancient sites (or idyllic islands) in Greece? This might be the time to get together with far-flung family again by splurging on a trip overseas.
What’s more, international travel just became a little easier. The federal government recently lifted the COVID-19 testing requirement for all inbound air travelers, including returning U.S. citizens. Similarly, a number of countries, including Germany, Italy and Jamaica, recently dropped most of their coronavirus travel restrictions.
True, summer travel tends to be busy, especially this year, with so much pent-up demand. And rising demand means higher prices for planes, hotels and car rentals — but rest assured, there are deals to be found. Check travel websites like Expedia, Kayak and Travelocity for more affordable vacation packages. For deals on airfare, check sites like Google Flights and Hopper, or work directly with the airlines to negotiate a group rate.
In addition, the U.S. dollar is strong when compared with many worldwide currencies like the euro, which means you may get more bang for your buck in other countries.
Tip: Off-season travel in the fall and winter months is typically less crowded and less expensive.
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, her work also has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News and on the American Heart Association’s website.