Planning a family reunion? Cruises offer something for every relative

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The day Jennifer Stevens and her family were supposed to tour Mayan ruins, it poured. But even in wet weather, the shore excursion during a family reunion cruise became one of her favorite memories from the trip.

Stevens' grandparents, who loved cruising, had organized the Princess Cruises trip in late 1990s for about 20 relatives. The tour guide in Mexico gave them ponchos made from black garbage bags, and she and her family made the best of it.

"Even when we have barbecues now and we use black garbage bags, my uncle will put it over his head, and he's like, 'Look, I'm going on a tour to the Mayan ruins,' and we still all bust out laughing when we all come together as a family," Stevens told USA TODAY.

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Cruises are popular options for family reunions, offering passengers a way to streamline planning, travel as a group, and bond through unique activities and experiences, even if they don't go as planned.

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Stevens' family had so much fun that they went on two more reunion cruises in the years that followed.

On a cruise ship, she said, her relatives were able to choose from a range of activities, from bingo to seeing a show to sunbathing, all while sailing to different ports.

"There was enough variety for everybody that they didn't get bored, as opposed to sitting in one resort in one location," said Stevens, 49, who is based in the Hudson Valley, New York, and is an executive assistant in a children's hospital.

Linda Terrill, founder of The Luxury Travel Group, an affiliate of Brownell Travel, said that with multi-generational travel, shore excursions in particular offer something for everyone.

"The teens can go on, for instance, a kayaking adventure," she said. "Grandma and Grandpa can do anything from stay on the ship to doing more cultural-type excursions, or they can go all together."

Terrill also noted that larger lines have "great children's programs and teen clubs" for those traveling with youngsters.

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Why is cruising a good option for family reunions?

Perhaps more than other kinds of travel, cruising is conducive to quality time.

Charity Jackson took the opportunity to disconnect from life back home when her father's family took its biannual family reunions to sea in 2013 and 2019, with roughly 65 people.

"We've had a lot of fun on cruises as a cousin group without the cell reception because, you know, your parents can't call you to see where you are," the 29-year-old digital marketing manager said.

Charity Jackson with her grandmother, Annie Coats Jackson, during a family reunion cruise in 2013. The relatives wore matching T-shirts.
Charity Jackson with her grandmother, Annie Coats Jackson, during a family reunion cruise in 2013. The relatives wore matching T-shirts.

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During the Bahamas cruises with Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line, the ships became a backdrop for family time: they dined and drank together, had beach days, and even had a family reunion roast where Jackson said she "slayed."

When Ricky Yahn and his wife, Lindsey, went on a 2019 Disney Cruise Line sailing to the Caribbean for a reunion with her family, he found the ship provided a nice mix of togetherness and freedom.

If the family had chosen to go to a specific city, they might have had to map out each activity or risk not spending as much time together, he said.

On the cruise, they had a set dinner together every night, for example, but "there was also enough freedom built in that we could all kind of do our own thing," the 38-year-old college basketball coach said. The limited confines of the ship also meant more frequent run-ins than might happen in another setting.

Multiple family members might end up going to the same show unexpectedly, Yahn said, or bump into one another on the pool deck, creating impromptu opportunities to hang out.

For those concerned about spending too much time together, Jackson said, she found it easy to get space without causing a fuss. "I think sometimes with your family, you don't all get along, and I don't get along with everyone in my family," she said.

If she got into an argument with a relative on land, she noted, she could go back to her room or get an Uber to take her somewhere else.

"But if I'm on a cruise, I can just literally walk away and say, 'Well, I just want to do something else that's different than this and fun,' " Jackson said. "So, I'm not going to my room sad, but I'm also, like, going to a comedy show or the casino or to another area of the (ship), and it's less drama."

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How to plan a family reunion cruise

Before booking a family reunion sailing, Jared Feldman, owner of travel agency Jafeldma Travel, said travelers should make sure "the entire extended family or multi-generational family is comfortable with cruising as an option."

He also stressed the importance of designating one or two relatives to serve as leaders who will corral the rest of the family and handle logistics and communication.

Feldman noted that some cruise lines, such as Princess, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, are particularly popular with families.

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For those looking to book a group rate, he said, cruise lines generally require either 16 passengers or eight cabins to qualify. "So, when you're talking about a family reunion, that's a pretty low bar to satisfy," he said.

Group rates generally afford travelers a lower cost per passenger than regular fares, according to Feldman – if they lock in early.

For those working with a travel adviser, Feldman said, as soon as a family expresses interest in having a reunion on a cruise, he reaches out to the cruise line to reserve a handful of staterooms across different categories at a variety of price points. From there, guests can pick the type of room they want, and the selection of cabins is customizable.

Stevens, for instance, shared an interior room with her sister during their first reunion cruise. "I remember the room was so small that we could barely move," she said. "You couldn't open the door and take a deep breath at the same time." They upgraded to a room with a balcony on the next sailing.

On another reunion cruise, Stevens recalled, she watched the New York City skyline disappear as the ship pulled away from land and her father pointed out where he had worked in the World Trade Center before 9/11. Her grandparents and her father have since died, but the reunion sailings remain special shared experiences.

"Those are precious memories," she said.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Family reunion cruises offer convenience, quality time