Every two years, Joann Higgins organizes a huge, weeklong family reunion that's so successful nearly 100 relatives gladly plan their vacation around the gathering, plunking down plenty for the privilege.
They have cocktail parties and grand dinners. There are activities all day and evening for the kids, as well as the 80-year-old grandmothers. Everybody gets VIP treatment while paying bargain rates.
Ms. Higgins, a school aide from Brentwood, N.Y., insists this reunion is no big deal to arrange. Her secret: Hold it aboard a ship and let the cruise line do all the work.
"A cruise reunion is totally hassle-free. It's the ultimate vacation," says Ms. Higgins, the veteran of seven reunions on Carnival Cruise Line's Caribbean-bound ships.
"I love being with my family," she explains. "At home we're always rushing off to work and the kids' activities. On the ship, wherever we go, we meet up with someone in our group and have a good time. It's the ultimate vacation."
Whether they number a dozen or 100 people, growing numbers of families agree and are opting for shipboard vacation reunions, cruise lines and travel agents report.
Families like the ease. "The cruise lines take care of everything, -- from plane tickets to banquet orders. And the atmosphere is light and fun," explains Scott Davis, a Los Angeles travel agent and himself a veteran of a shipboard reunion.
They like the child care. "I'd do it again in a minute," said Michelle Boegel, an Oshkosh, Wis., nurse and mother of three young children. She cruised for four days with her extended family on a Premier Big Red Boat last spring. "Because the kids were taken care of, the adults could spend time together," she explained.
And they don't have to wreck the family budget to do it. "For $4,000, the five of us get to fly to Florida, go on a four-day cruise and see all the relatives," said Bill Schmidt, a Washington state forester whose family is planning a reunion cruise this summer.
Mr. Schmidt added that his teen-age sons were thrilled at the notion of eating all they wanted 24 hours a day. The adults in the group, meanwhile, were just as delighted to be able to get together without any one family having to play host to the entire crowd.
Choose your ship
As good as it sounds, though, the cruise reunion isn't foolproof. The trick is to pick the right ship for your family.
Peter Hill, for one, was miserable cruising with his wife's family because Carnival's children's programs didn't work for their family. Not only was their toddler too young (activities start at age 2), but there were no provisions for in-room baby-sitting either. The couple had presumed on-board child care included baby-sitting.
That made the late-seating dinners his mother-in-law arranged especially difficult, except for the nights when he found a Carnival staffer willing to skirt the rules and watch the kids. With young kids, he suggests, eat early to avoid tantrums in public places.
"I was hoping to have some free time," said the Boston chiropractor glumly. "But the kids were with us all the time."
That's why it's important to make sure the family's designated reunion planner asks lots of questions before booking. Some cruise lines, Norwegian among them, will guarantee a baby sitter for an extra fee. Organized programming, however, might not be available at all for the preschool set. On Royal Caribbean ships, for example, kids typically must be 5 to participate.
"Just hearing that they have children's programs is not enough," says Ron Bitting, former president of the National Association of Cruise Only Agencies. Ask as many questions if the kids in the group are older, suggests Mr. Bitting.
Look for basketball courts, tennis courts, health clubs. One Royal Caribbean ship, Legend of the Seas, even has a miniature-golf course. Find out exactly what kinds of activities are offered for teens. Are there shore excursions? Sports clinics?
Consider the ship's itinerary carefully, too. Opt for more beaches and less shopping if there are a lot of kids in the group. Don't overdo the number of ports either. Three or four in a week are plenty, advises Los Angeles travel agent Scott Davis.
Here's another travel-agent tip: A standard cabin that is smaller than 175 square feet may be too crowded for a family of four. Look for cruise lines that offer more spacious cabins such as Princess' newer ships, Celebrity or Holland America. Plan early to get the best cabins as well as the best prices.
Sound out relatives
Mr. Davis suggests sending a short questionnaire to everyone involved in the reunion 18 months before the trip to see when they want to go, how much they want to spend, and whether they'd prefer a weeklong cruise or a shorter one.
Avoid Christmas and Easter sailings if you can. They'll be the most crowded and expensive. Thanksgiving is a good bet, though. So is summer.
Once a family has picked the dates, seek out a travel agent who is a cruise expert to find the best deal. See if the family might qualify for a group discount or amenities on board, such as a party or shore excursion. Ask about third and fourth passenger sail-free options. Sometimes, ships also offer kids' free deals or two-for-one deals.
Remember, the earlier you book, the better the deals. Joann Higgins already has nailed down the details for her family's spring 1997 reunion cruise. "We've got 50 people going already," she says. "I think it's going to be the biggest one yet."