Thinking of a family reunion? One of the benefits is a free cruise for the group organizer.
Still, even a family group cruise can be hard to organize. If simultaneous thoughts of joy and horror emerge, that's normal. But a family reunion cruise might provide the perfect mix of family togetherness and still enough "me-time" for individual members.
Let's face it: Spending every minute of your vacation with the entire family can be stressful -- quirky Aunt Mary, cousin Bud who can't stop telling awful jokes, a diva with an opinion on everything, a perpetual grumbler, teenagers with iPods coming out of their ears, and children who believe they're the center of the universe.
The beauty of a cruise is that families can hang out or go ashore as a group one day, then blissfully split up the next day for quiet time or individual pursuits. The benefits of cruising for your reunion are obvious. But the task of organizing and booking a large group of people with different schedules and priorities can be daunting. So here are some pointers for the ambitious family member who agrees to take on the job.
Step 1: Start Planning One to Two Years Out Most cruise lines post schedules and prices up to two years in advance. Start early to investigate the best options. Two years out is great, a year or more is very good, and nine months is okay. Anything less is possible, but not advantageous.
Why? Most lines give their best price breaks to bookings made at least six months to a year in advance. Early booking discounts vary widely but can range from 5-25 percent or more. Some sailings also have special promotions or free air, particularly if booked well in advance.
Tammy Horos, manager of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, Charlotte, NC, says it's critical to start early to assure your family group can book a block of cabins in the same general location. That comes in handy for kids want to spend time with their cousins, or adults want to enjoy cocktails together on the veranda.
A family qualifies for group booking rates and perks when they use a minimum of five to 10 cabins, depending on the line. Many cruise lines give one free "tour conductor" berth (basically one-half of a cabin) to the group for a certain number of cabins booked. That also varies by line. Often large groups booking 20 or more cabins can get one free cabin for two.
The freebie cabin can go to the family group leader who did all the work, or the savings can be split out among the cabins. Some lines may offer alternative amenities in lieu of the tour conductor cabin.
Step 2: Appoint One Family Leader and Determine a Budget To consolidate the preferences and opinions of dozens of family members, it's important for the family to appoint one group leader to do the bulk of the work and to moderate family issues.
It might also help to select one or two others from differing groups in the family to assist. The first goal for this small group is to agree on a budget. What can most family members afford to spend? Keep in mind the cruise fare includes meals, most activities and entertainment, but cruisers still need to budget for extras like spa services, casino play, souvenirs, and drinks. And don't forget shore excursions, which can be costly, as well as airfare to get to the embarkation port.
Step 3 - Research Dates, Destinations and Cruise Lines The group leader and assistants should poll the family to determine the best sailing dates for all. Send the query by e-mail and follow up by phone. Ask for very specific dates or a range of dates that work. And ask which dates simply won't work.
Avoid graduation periods, holidays (unless the entire family always gets together over a holiday), and peak periods for air travel. For example, avoid a cruise out of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, or a cruise leaving from a city hosting a major sporting event like the Super Bowl.
Ask if family members want to cruise to the Caribbean, Alaska or Europe. For repeat family reunion cruises, ask if they would consider an "exotic" cruise to Asia, South America or the South Pacific. Caribbean cruises are generally the least expensive and least time-consuming. Alaska and European cruises have higher price tags, and any cruise sailing from a foreign port might require more flying time.
While awaiting feedback, the group leader can check cruise web sites, many of which are listed on the Cruise Lines International Association site (www.cruising.org). Peruse the online photos. Can you visualize your entire family, kids included, sailing on a specific line in the company of those other guests? What's the personality of the cruise line and how well will your family fit in?
Read about onboard activities, dining and shore options. Check whether the line seems to welcome children and has kids' facilities. Talk to other cruisers on online bulletin boards like CruiseMates.com about their family reunion experiences. Then, based on your projected budget and your research, develop a list of potential lines and itineraries to discuss with family members or your travel agent. Have a list of several lines and itineraries in mind.
Step 4 - Decide Whether to Use an Agent Planning a group cruise can be time-consuming. The group leader must communicate with the cruise line and the family members, meet deposit deadlines, often handle air arrangements, review documents to assure they're correct, and work with the cruise line on cabin selection, onboard amenity choices and dining arrangements.
Travel agents do all this too, and they generally don't charge for their services, since they receive a commission from the cruise line. You pay nothing, except maybe for issuance of airline tickets or special services. So why not let a professional handle the nitty-gritty? Contact a few agents, ask about their family reunion booking experience, ask about fees, and pick one you feel comfortable with. If you'd rather maintain total control yourself, most major lines will assist the group leader if he or she wants to go it alone in handling the arrangements.
Horos notes that "there are some nuances [within the booking process] that only the agent knows. We know where to look on the documents for confirmations that booking numbers are cross-referenced." Bottom line: If this doesn't happen, your dining assignments could be a mess. Family members might be assigned to tables in different parts of the dining room. Or one family group might be assigned to a late seating, the other to an early seating. Most families want to dine together onboard.
Step 5 - Compare Group Perks Your agent can find out what group perks you might be entitled to on individual lines. Or, the group leader can call the line's group department. For example, if you book at least eight staterooms on Carnival, you'll receive benefits like complimentary champagne and chocolates, or a private cocktail party.
Holland America's family reunion program (for five or more staterooms) includes special group pricing, one family photo per stateroom, a 20-punch soda card, and a choice of dinner for the entire family in Pinnacle Grill or free rentals of snorkel gear, swim mats and banana boat rides on Half Moon Cay, the line's private Bahamas isle. For families booking 10 or more staterooms, the line offers a head-of-the-family reward -- a free upgrade from an outside stateroom to a veranda.
Royal Caribbean offers group amenities but also sells add-on package options for family groups of eight cabins or more. For $50-$100 per person, the Royal Reunions package will include at least two private rock-wall climbing sessions, as well as amenities like personalized door decorations, a cake, special activities, photo packages, scavenger hunt, VIP in-room amenities and a reunion trivia challenge.
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