How to Plan a Stress-Free Family Reunion Trip

It’s the day before Thanksgiving.  Are you on your way to a nice ski resort, beach town, or vacation rental somewhere right now to reunite with your family?  Or are you squirreled away in your study, blogging and surfing so you don’t have to think about who’s coming tonight or tomorrow — or who’s already taking up too much space in your house?  Maybe your family travel plans didn’t work out — or you didn’t even try going somewhere special with your relatives because none of you could agree on where to go, to do what, and when.

Is it hard to plan a great family reunion trip?  It’s definitely a challenge — but it can be one of the most enjoyable things you do all year.  So if Thanksgiving is a lost cause by now and you think it’s a minor miracle that you and a few other members of your family even managed to show up on a relative’s door (or vice versa), remember, there’s time to plan a great reunion trip for Christmas — one that won’t lead you to your mother-in-law’s bathroom cabinet in search of Xanax.  Read on.

Get an Early Start.  Find out who’s interested in a family reunion, and if they can get time off for Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year’s. You might consider setting up a Facebook page and inviting family members on to discuss their availability.  Once you set a date, do everything you can not to change it, both to 1) avoid hassles with making changes to reservations, and 2) reinforce that this reunion trip will be taking place, no matter how much the cynics in your kin are doubting it.

One-near certainty: not everyone will be able to make it.  Anticipate four out of five relatives being able to join in.   Remember, that’s a lot better than 0 out of five if your uncle convinces you to shoot down the whole idea just because he’ll be in Vegas for Christmas.

Decide Who’s Invited.  Lay ground rules early on about invitation of friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. to a family reunion.  Smaller families may be able to invite this “extended family” without hassle; larger families, probably not.

Decide Where You’re Going.  This is probably the trickiest part.  Who decides where you go?  The composition of your family helps dictate what you pick.  If the average age in your family is under 30, you’re looking less at a cabin in the woods than at a place where there’s plenty of entertainment nearby.  If half your family is from the Midwest, they might jump at the idea of a couple of apartment rentals on the beach — no matter how cold the water is.

The average age in my family is about 50 years old, and most of them are Irish (as in straight from Dublin and Galway), so… we usually end up in Reno, Nevada in front of a lot of slot machines.  Top o’ the Christmas morning to everyone!

Delegate.  If you’ve come up with the idea for a family reunion trip, then you’ve already contributed a great part and should expect family members, young and old, to help coordinate.  Go back to your reunion Facebook page and identify who can make what reservations, logistics, etc.  Since everyone has web access, no one should stick the “local” family members with most of the work.

Be Patient with the Armchair Travelers in Your Family.  Some of your relatives may be such homebodies that they aren’t even going to realize they need a pet-sitter until a couple days before they leave — or they might not even remember to ask a neighbor to keep an eye out for their house while they’re gone.  Identify who in your brood is more headcase than suitcase, and give them some tips so they don’t bail at the last minute and disappoint their kids — or yours.

Don’t Expect Everyone to do Everything Together.  Part of the beauty of planning a family reunion at a place other than one of your houses is that everyone has a different place to explore.  If you book some cabins at a ski resort for the week, for example, don’t be surprised if some family members skip out on supper to have some more time on the slopes.  If everyone is having a good time, then family reunions will lose their groan-inducing capacity and you’re more likely to see your happy relatives next year, and the year after that.   So don’t take down your Facebook family reunion travel page after the holidays — and be thankful that we have so many different, beautiful places to go with our loved ones.


Kazakhstan: An Undiscovered Gem for the Stressed-Out Traveler

There are a lot of misperceptions about Kazakhstan, a large, landlocked country in Central Asia.  Most people hear “-stan” at the end of the name and figure it’s an extension of one of those countries that you wouldn’t be caught dead in, much less choose for a vacation destination.  Wrong… Kazakhstan is a delight, a place worth the verrry long plane ride and the few words of Russian you’ll need to make your way around the city.  Love peace and quiet?  Hate tourist crowds? Want good value for your travel money, and to meet wonderful locals who are some of the nicest hosts in the world?  Want to discover a place after Europe, East Asia, and the tropics are getting their “been there, done that” feeling?  Try Kazakhstan.  Yes, it is cold, as I found out in the snow flurries of early October, and there’s no Hop-on Hop-off bus service (yet) — all the more reason to gear up and stay warm by taking a brisk walking tour.  Just don’t be like me and take 500+ photos in one day.  But, do enjoy this virtual tour.

The Central Mosque

The Central Mosque in Astana

The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation beckons across the river in Astana

The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation beckons across the river in Astana

Astana has much of the glitz of a casino city -- without all the temptations to gamble.

Astana has much of the glitz of a casino city — without all the temptations to gamble.

The Khan Shatyr megamall stands tranquilly on the steppe, disguised as a yurt.

The Khan Shatyr megamall stands tranquilly on the steppe, disguised as a yurt.

Inside, the inspiring structure and upscale shops offer some serious (retail) therapy.

Inside, the inspiring structure and upscale shops offer some serious (retail) therapy.

Here's Ms. Nara herself, dressed for some 37-degree October weather.

Here’s Ms. Nara herself, dressed for some 37-degree October weather.

Need a beautiful place to be alone together?  There's plenty of that in Astana.

Need a beautiful place to be alone together? There’s plenty of that in Astana.

Almaty, Kazakhstan's more cosmopolitan city, is a site of domes, white buildings, and pretty blue skies.

Almaty, Kazakhstan’s more cosmopolitan city, is a site of domes, white buildings, and pretty blue skies.

Want a great aerial view of the Himalayas, without taking the hike of a lifetime?  Take a flight from Delhi to Almaty instead.

Want a great aerial view of the Himalayas, without taking the hike of a lifetime? Take a flight from Delhi to Almaty instead.

Holiday Travel? No Need to Unravel… How to Beat Air Travel Stress this Coming Season

Many of us don’t like to think about the holidays the week after Halloween — there are still some leaves on the trees, after all, and summer is still vivid in our minds, and we have so much to do… and in a few weeks everything will be happening so fast.  There are plenty of sources of anxiety as the year slowly winds down: concerns about violent weather and flu season wreaking havoc on your plans; worries about not being able to afford the gifts this year that loved ones are hoping for; having to visit a relative you don’t necessarily like; seasonal depression (either your own or affecting someone you love); or bad memories of past holidays.  Don’t let worries about 16-hour flight delays, lost luggage, exorbitant hotel costs, and other holiday travel headaches get you down faster than your clock falls backward.  This is a great time to think about making the most of your holiday air travel — especially if you’re still finalizing your plans.  Here are some recommendations.

Expect a delay at (or before) the security checkpoint.  Thanks to the tragic shooting of a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official yesterday at LAX, we can expect screening delays at American airports of anywhere between 10-30 minutes for the foreseeable future.  It’s too early to tell if U.S. airports will start to implement screening stations just to get into the airport (think Ataturk Int’l in Istanbul or Sheremetyevo in Moscow), which would be a huge expense and probably be met with a lot of public resistance.  At any rate, if you’re traveling within or from the U.S. this season, don’t expect TSA agents to be full of yuletide cheer… and don’t be surprised if there are more random personal checks before you even line up near the conveyor belts.

Lay over in fair-weathered cities, even if it takes you out of your way.  Does it sound ridiculous to lay over in Houston or Atlanta when you’re traveling from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine?  It won’t if you avoid a storm that shuts down Chicago, Denver, or Detroit for 12+ hours.   If you’re going somewhere that doesn’t have much direct flight service, choose a layover city that’s unlikely to be affected by weather delays (and remember, going a bit out of your way will add nicely to your frequent flyer miles).

Shop for gifts at your destination.  These days, it’s become popular to mail holiday gifts to your destination ahead of you rather than pack them in checked luggage (with airlines charging upwards of $75 per extra checked bag)  with risk of items being damaged or stolen (mainly by airline baggage handlers).  But mailing big boxes to your destination can be time-consuming before you leave, and can cause some confusion if you’re sending to a hotel rather than the home of a family member or friend.  A great alternative?  Do your holiday shopping once you arrive at your destination.  It gives you something very practical to do to escape 1) the claustrophobic environment at an in-law’s or sibling’s home, or 2) the temptation to sit around the house for six hours straight (with people you actually do like) and eat or drink way too much.

You might be worried that “all the good stuff will be gone” from the stores if you wait to shop until a couple days before a major holiday.  Keep in mind that with so many people buying online these days, stores run out of stock less frequently than they used to. Also, the holiday season is very short this year, since Thanksgiving is so late in November, so you’ll be in good company milling around malls at the time that Santa is starting to go hoarse.

Stay at a business hotel. Hotels in major cities often cut their rates around the holidays just because there aren’t as many people traveling for work (does your company send you to Minneapolis or Toronto to meet with new clients on 12/23 or 12/31?).  Yes, business hotels aren’t as festive or homey as the places down the street with wisps of mistletoe between the chandeliers, but if you’re on a budget, you’ll certainly appreciate not paying $200 per night — and there’s probably some decent eggnog down in the bar next to the conference center.

Deal with a cancellation or delay using every means possible. In instances where your flight is canceled and you’re told by the airline to “wait” for instructions or further information, I strongly advise taking a triple-tiered approach if you’re desperate to get where you need to go.  Get in the nearest ticketing line to find out more about your predicament and options — and at the same time, phone up the airline’s customer service and use your handheld device to go on their website as well.  Sound aggressive or redundant?   I’ve done it several times throughout my travels and avoided getting stranded in Dublin, Zurich, and Buenos Aires.  (And if you’re curious — in Dublin the airline website approach worked, in Zurich the airline phone hotline attendant solved my travel woes, and in Buenos Aires the handsome porteño at kiosk 5 had me successfully on my way.)

Be prepared for the unexpected: standing out on the tarmac in the rain or snow.  Why is it that, more and more often, we’re checking in at gates where we’re bussed off to our plane sitting 75 feet from the runway?  This seems to be a particular problem in Southern Europe and North Africa, and means you can get stuck in the rain or snow outside the terminal if there’s a delay.  In Rome early last month I stood out on the tarmac next to the plane for almost a half hour — at the tail-end of a thunderstorm — because the guy driving the bus from the gate didn’t get good instructions on when the plane was ready to board.  Some of us (including me) were sorry that we’d shoved our jackets and hats into our checked luggage so we could have more space for our duty-free purchases in the cozy airport.  Learn from us, and be prepared for a “runway rendezvous” in the cold, just in case.


Keep your warm clothes on hand in case of unplanned delays in unexpected places, and you won’t be as bitter as last year’s fruitcake by the time you land