Family taking a group shot on embarkation day

Traveling in a group can be the death knell of vacation fun. It sounds like a great idea at first -- reunite with far-flung family and friends on neutral ground where no one has to host -- but the reality doesn't always live up to expectations. Differing budgets, activity levels and interests, as well as travel style clashes, can lead to more headaches than memories.

Cruises offer the best of all worlds for groups: They appeal to travelers of all ages, offer various levels and types of activity, and allow people with different budgets to still vacation together. Your group is contained in one place, everyone can set their own onboard agenda, and there's no need for National Security Council-level strategic planning just to choose the restaurant for dinner.

Advanced planning is the key to a successful group cruise. Based on his experience and that of other experienced group cruise planners, we culled the 10 golden rules of planning a group cruise.

    1. Appoint a group leader.
    2. Diplomatically choose your cruise.
    3. Book ahead.
    4. Put a travel agent to work for you.
    5. Communicate via e-mail.
    6. Establish a calendar of important dates.
    7. Decide in advance how to handle shore excursions.
    8. Fly to the homeport city a day early.
    9. Do your own thing.
    10. Come up with a plan to periodically regroup.
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1. Appoint a group leader.

Every group needs a leader -- the person who will do the majority of the preplanning research, send the invitations to the group, communicate pricing and determine how to book your cruise. In general, the leader takes the lead in organizing the trip and looks out for the good of the group, both before and during the cruise. In this way, the travelers making up the rest of the group don't have to repeat work, such as looking for cruise fares or remembering when payments are due, and there's no chaos surrounding several different people trying to organize group shore tours at the same time.

Sometimes this leader is self-appointed, perhaps the person who came up with the idea of going on the cruise in the first place. Other times, the group appoints a highly organized and willing volunteer to make executive decisions, communicate with the group and enforce deadlines. Either way, someone needs to take charge.

The perfect person to take ownership is someone who isn't a pushover but who is also flexible enough to thoughtfully consider other people's ideas.

The reward for your hard work as a leader? You could get a free cabin or shipboard credit if you have a requisite number of others booked in your traveling group.

Happy friends with glasses of champagne on yacht. Vacation, travel, sea and friendship concept. Closeup.

2. Diplomatically choose your cruise.

It's tricky finding the perfect cruise for a group of 10 or 20 people of different ages, abilities and interests. The first task of the group leader is to figure out how to choose the best cruise for the people involved, without making everyone unhappy.

There are several approaches to consider. You can choose a cruise you want to do and then invite friends and family to join you if they're interested.

Alternately, group members may agree to let the leader choose the cruise in exchange for not having to do their own research.

A third option is to come up with a few destination choices and let the group vote -- as long as everyone agrees to be O.K. with the majority choice.

The destination narrows down your choice of ships, and from the options available, you can select the ship that best suits the ages, interests and budgets of the passengers. For assistance on picking the right trip, see our primer on How to Choose a Cruise.

3. Book ahead -- and we really, really mean it this time.

Nabbing a cabin on the ship of your choice to a popular destination during high-season dates can be tough for a mere couple seeking out one bed, let alone for a large group needing multiple staterooms. Early bookings are a must for those who:

Plan to travel during the summer or school holidays.

Have a need for triples or quads or connecting or neighboring cabins, which are all limited in number.

Want the choicest cabins on the newest ships.

Have a very specific itinerary in mind.

Booking ahead also gives you plenty of time to organize travel arrangements, shore excursions, even group T-shirts, without needing to quit your day job.

booking with a travel agent

4. Put a travel agent to work for you.

You certainly can book your group (typically eight cabins or more) directly through a cruise line, but many group organizers recommend using a cruise agent who specializes in groups. Agents often have established relationships with cruise lines and access to discounts and perks that individuals don't. Plus, they can make recommendations on appropriate cruises for your group, as well as travel destinations and shore excursions, leaving you with less work to do.

Working with one dedicated person allows you to establish a relationship with him or her. If you book online, you can always call the cruise seller, but you might talk to different representatives each time.

Additionally, agents have access to cruise line-approved discounts that come as a result of high-volume bookings and also know what amenities are available to groups. These could include free berths, onboard credits, upgraded cabins, discounts for group leaders or other perks. Depending on the number of people in your party, you also could get free photos, cocktail parties or private meeting spaces.

The agent can also send individual invoices to the folks in the group and remind them of key deadlines so the group leader doesn't have to.

5. Communicate via e-mail.

If you merely rely on phone calls and informal chats, it's inevitable that some piece of info about the cruise arrangements will get misinterpreted, a deadline will be forgotten, or some other frustrating communication lapse will leave a member of your group pouting. Because of that, it's best to send out trip details and discuss plans via e-mail.

The same goes for corresponding with your travel agent. Communicating via e-mail can be more convenient than placing frequent phone calls and also gives you a written record of the communications.

Some groups -- especially those that are very large, like extended family reunions or school groups -- go so far as to set up special websites with logistical details, calendars of deadlines, links to the cruise ship shore excursion sites, etc. If you have the time and technical knowhow allows it, we say go for it. (It's also a good place to share photos when you get home.)

6. Establish a calendar of important dates.

Knowing how busy most folks are, your fellow travelers will appreciate receiving a calendar noting payment due dates, the "opening day" for booking shore excursions through the cruise line and deadlines for filling out passenger information forms online. It's also useful to send out e-mail reminders about upcoming due dates.

7. Decide in advance how to handle shore excursions.

Just as you want to set expectations for your group for the cruise itself, you want to set expectations for ports of call. Would your group be amenable to doing all excursions together? Or are there so many different ages, abilities and interests that people prefer to do their own thing, teaming up only when interests coincide?

Again, here's a place for the group leader to step up. He or she can tell everyone else what he or she would like to do, and others can choose to join in, or the leader can help them plan something else.

If a bunch of those in your group are planning to do the same excursion, book the activity in advance.

The same rule applies if you want to plan a special shore excursion just for your group. Some lines allow you to custom-design an excursion if your group has booked a certain number of staterooms, but it absolutely has to be planned in advance. Also, if you have a large enough group, you might be able to save money by booking a private independent tour, versus booking many spaces on a cruise line-sponsored excursion. If you plan to go this route, you will want to make arrangements prior to the trip.

View from a plane window

8. Fly to the homeport city a day early.

It's best to arrive the day before embarkation, not the day of, especially in the winter when weather delays could risk your on-time arrival. The trip would start on a sour note if a few from your group missed the boat -- literally. Reserve a few hotel rooms for the night. If four people share one room, you can divvy up the cost, making it reasonably priced for that extra day.

If everyone is leaving from the same airport, it might be easier for one person to book everyone on the same flight. If members of the group are coming from different areas, each person can be responsible for his or her own flight.

And, if you are arriving early, plan something special like a festive group dinner or cocktail hour, so the overnight stay feels less like a burden and more like the true start of your vacation. Bonus feature: The group leader can use this time to communicate the meet-up plan for the next day.

9. Do your own thing.

Countless groups advise the same concept: When on the cruise, do what it is you enjoy doing, when you want to do it. You're on vacation, after all; you should be able to sleep late if you want, laze by the pool all day or dance in the nightclub until the wee hours. They key is to create an environment where people feel comfortable declining activities in which they aren't interested without others taking offense.

10. Come up with a plan to periodically regroup.

Even if your group is committed to splitting up during the cruise, it's a good idea to regroup at least once a day. Because communication can be tough -- using cell phones during a cruise can accrue eye-popping roaming charges -- setting a specific time to meet up is helpful.

Walkie talkies can be useful. You can either bring your own, or see if your ship offers something similar to Disney's Wave Phones -- cell phones that only work onboard. They can be rented for a fee.

Another good way to stay in touch is via white boards, which can be magnetically hung on the outside of cabin doors. Members of the group can leave messages on each other's boards with dry erase markers.

Groups often use dinner as the regrouping time, sitting together at a big table in the dining room. Others even get together for happy hour in one of the cabins or a lounge first. There might be one special event that everyone could attend as one group -- a particular show onboard, for example, or a group-friendly shore excursion. And don't forget about arranging to meet for the requisite group photo ... just to prove you were all traveling together!