Image: Mule riders at the Grand Canyon
Jeff Robbins  /  AP file
A mule train winds its way down the Bright Angel trail at Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. National parks are popular choices for family gatherings, particularly for families who enjoy outdoor activities like swimming, hiking or boating.
updated 5/9/2007 2:18:24 PM ET 2007-05-09T18:18:24

Ahhh, summer: a time for lying on the beach, taking a road trip, grilling in the backyard -- and, often, going to a family reunion. Whether you love catching up with long-lost cousins or dread the inevitable cheek-pinch from your Aunt Edith, family reunions are a staple of the summer months -- and with many modern families scattered all over the country or even the globe, reunions are increasingly taking on a greater significance.

Because individual members often have to fly or drive long distances to be together, many families are opting to upgrade their reunions from an afternoon at Granny's house to a longer getaway -- like a weekend in the mountains or a few days at the beach. For folks who like to travel, it's a double bonus; you get to catch up with your relatives and explore a new place at the same time.

Of course, planning a vacation for 20 or 30 of your nearest and dearest relatives can be a logistical challenge. That's where our practical tips can help. Read on to learn more about picking the perfect destination, finding the right accommodations and booking travel for large groups.

First Steps
Allow yourself at least six months to a year to plan your reunion, especially if you have a particularly large group or if you're booking flights, cruises or vacation rentals. You'll get more choice and lower prices if you book well in advance.

Your first step is to nominate a group leader to take charge of planning the reunion. Key tasks include researching a destination, booking accommodations, collecting and managing funds, keeping the group informed, and planning activities. For larger groups, you'll probably want to put together a committee to split the duties.

Slideshow: Caribbean way of life Once you've picked a leader (or several), you'll need to survey the whole family and make a few basic decisions. How big will your group be? How far is everyone willing to travel, and how much will they be able to spend? If your family is on a tight budget, you may want to consider a short, convenient getaway, like a weekend at a nearby park. If you've got a gang of globetrotters, you can think bigger -- like a Caribbean cruise or a week on the beach in Mexico.

You'll also need to decide on a date. If you have a lot of children in your group, you may have to travel over weekends or school holidays -- but keep in mind that prices may go up during these periods, especially at beach destinations and amusement parks. The group leader should pick three or four different dates and send them around to the whole family for voting, then choose the one that works best for the most people.

Slideshow: Marvelous Mexico Coordinating a reunion is a daunting task, but there are several Web sites that can help. Both TripHub and Triporama provide comprehensive trip planning features that allow family members to discuss accommodation options, vote on trip dates and R.S.V.P. for the reunion. Meanwhile, trip leaders can post activity schedules and share the latest news about the reunion all in one convenient place -- a much more efficient strategy than phone trees or long e-mail chains.

Where to Go
When choosing a destination for your reunion, keep in mind your family's budget, interests and age range. You'll want a place that has activities for all ages, and that is affordable and convenient enough for everyone to get to. If you have a lot of family members arriving by air, for example, you may not want to pick a resort that's three hours from the nearest airport.

Beaches and national parks are popular choices, particularly for families who enjoy outdoor activities like swimming, hiking or boating. Groups with a high proportion of young (or young-at-heart) travelers may prefer an amusement park destination like Orlando or Anaheim. And don't rule out a big-city getaway -- an urban cocktail of museums, zoos, parks, shopping and nightlife can keep even the most diverse family entertained.

For more ideas, check out our destination communities and member trip reports.

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Where to Stay
Do you love the idea of your whole family bonding in one big house or lodge, hanging out on the front porch and cooking meals together? Or does the very thought of sharing bathrooms and staying under the same roof as your in-laws give you hives?

When choosing your accommodations, keep in mind just how much family togetherness is right for your group. Renting one big house for everyone may be the cheapest option, but it may not be worth the tension and stress if your family isn't used to spending long periods of time together. You may want to consider renting individual cabins or condo units instead -- that way everyone gets a little privacy, but you still get the money-saving option of buying groceries and preparing your own meals.

However, rentals aren't for everybody. If it doesn't feel like a vacation to you unless someone else is doing the cooking, your family might do better at a resort or hotel, or on a cruise ship. These are also good options if certain members of your family are seeking amenities like gyms, pools, room service or kids' programs.

In addition, be sure to consider any special needs your family might have. Great Aunt Mildred can't get around without her walker? Skip the three-story manor house with tons of stairs. Cousin Billy is allergic to milk, wheat, peanuts, soy and 12 different types of fruit? A self-catering vacation rental might be your best bet.

One final word of advice: don't force togetherness. If different members of your family have different needs or budgets, there's no reason that you all have to spend the night in the same place -- remember, you can always hang out together during the day.

Booking Your Trip
Because booking travel for a large group can be complicated and time-consuming, you may want to consider consulting a travel agent. Some resorts and hotels have reunion coordinators that can also be a big help with your planning.

If you'd rather go it alone, there are a couple of useful Web sites dedicated to group travel booking. Groople stands out for its excellent hotel booking engine, which ranks properties based on popular family reunion amenities like pools, meeting rooms and pet-friendliness. Unlike most booking sites, there's no dropdown menu to limit the number of rooms you can book at once (we put in requests for as many as 50 rooms), and in many cases you can reserve right away without having to wait for your request to be sent to the hotel. Groople also allows users to book flights and car rentals.

Like Groople, the aforementioned TripHub has booking engines for hotels, flights and cars, though there are limits on how many reservations you can make without having to send a special request (up to four cars, eight hotel rooms and/or nine flights).

No matter how you decide to book, don't forget to ask what group discounts might apply.

Handling the payments for your travel arrangements can be the most stressful part of booking a trip, since the reunion leader often ends up hounding the rest of the family for cash or even getting stuck with the lion's share of the bill. Groople provides a good solution by allowing you to reserve a block of hotel rooms and then have everyone pay individually.

(Unfortunately, since Groople's other booking engines are hosted by outside companies like Expedia and Avis, this option isn't available for flights and car rentals.)

Another alternative is simply to have everyone book their own travel arrangements -- this takes pressure off the group leader and allows greater flexibility for individual family members. Keep in mind, however, that you may miss out on group discounts if everyone books separately.

If you do decide to book everything at once, the group leader should keep a detailed list of who owes what and how much each family member has paid. When collecting money, give family members clear payment deadlines that are well in advance of when the total bill is actually due -- that way you have plenty of time to chase down any procrastinators.

Activities
Once you've booked your trip, the next step is to decide what to do once everyone arrives. Try to strike a balance between organized activities and down time -- maybe you'll all take a morning hike together but have a few free hours after lunch for shopping, golfing, napping or just catching up on all the latest family gossip.

Family-Reunion.com has tons of fun ideas for activities and games to help break the ice and encourage family bonding. Have everyone bring along their favorite photo albums, home videos and other family memorabilia for sharing and reminiscing. And of course, don't forget to take a group photo of everyone during the reunion!

After Your Trip
Even after your trip is over, you can still share the memories with your family for years to come. Post your best pics on photo sharing sites like Shutterfly or Flickr, or have someone make a scrapbook of mementoes from your trip. And don't forget to write a trip report about your experiences for the whole family to enjoy!

The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.

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