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Fun Ways to Celebrate a 21st Birthday With Your College Student

Marybeth Bock, MPH

Now that Covid cases in the U.S. are falling and vaccination rates are rising, more people are traveling once again. Big events that were postponed last year are finally getting celebrated, including 21st birthdays — that milestone occasion that most of us consider to be a child’s true entry into adulthood.

Back when my friends and I were turning 21, the typical celebration involved a party at someone’s apartment, or a bar crawl in the town where you were living. It was strictly a friends-only night out, and no one thought to involve parents, even if they lived close by.

But just as parent-child relationships have evolved so much in the last few decades, so have 21st birthday celebrations. Many young adults opt to include one or both parents in some part of this milestone event. Perhaps it’s partly because parents often help foot the bill, but it’s also because of the close relationships that so many of us enjoy with our young adult children.

Looking for ideas for an intergenerational 21st birthday? Here are 10 fun ways to celebrate in the coming months.

1. Long Weekend Trip

Summer is the perfect time to hop in the car or grab a quick flight to a destination city. Some popular places for celebrating birthdays on the West Coast are Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Seattle.

If you’re in the middle of the country, hot spots include Chicago, Austin and Nashville, while many on the East Coast head to New York City, Miami and Charleston, South Carolina.

Great accommodation deals can be found on sites like Airbnb and VRBO; just be sure to check that properties you’re interested in allow for parties if you’ll be celebrating there.

2. Camping

These days, a camping trip can be anything from easily affordable rented tents, sleeping bags and cooking out over a fire to a “glamping” experience with yurts, comfy beds and gourmet food.

Whichever way you choose to go, a couple days of being out in nature and looking up at the stars at night is a great way to celebrate with friends and family. Check out your state parks website or Campspot for location ideas, and plan ahead because sites fill up fast.

3. Spa Day

If relaxation is more the vibe the celebrant is going for, a spa day is a wonderful choice, particularly for a smaller group.

SpaFinder is a helpful site where you can purchase gift cards to use at spas across the country and to purchase products as well. After the challenges of the past year, a day of pampering might be the perfect gift for your college student’s big birthday.

4. Dinner Out

There are dining options for every budget, and many restaurants will create a personalized multi-course meal for a special occasion like a 21st birthday, complete with commemorative menus to keep. Be sure to call a few weeks ahead and talk to a manager about how you can make the dinner a truly special event.

5. House Party

Celebrating in your own home or backyard gives you plenty of freedom to design the perfect celebration for your child and within your budget. You have control over every aspect and detail of the party, from theme to music to food and décor.

Consider options like hiring a caterer or a bartender, renting outdoor furniture or games, having a potluck where guests bring favorite snacks and drinks, or surprising your child with a taco truck or rented margarita machine. Fall down the party-planning rabbit hole on Pinterest for countless ideas.

6. Virtual Beverage Tasting

If you want to “gather” a larger group of people from many different locations, or you still would rather stay home in the comfort and safety of your own place, consider having a virtual wine, beer or cocktail/mocktail tasting over Zoom or FaceTime (which allows up to 32 people to hang out virtually).

Send out suggested beverage menus in advance and everyone can sip, socialize and toast the birthday VIP together — in fun outfits and hats if you've picked a theme.

7. Tricked-Out Picnic

Find a local park, beach or other scenic locale and set up a fabulous birthday picnic. Have guests bring blankets, towels, games and seating so that everyone can spend time comfortably relaxing.

Many vendors specialize in creating gourmet picnic baskets, so search online or start with this list of 30 places across the country from the blog Cheapism.

8. Party Bus

If you don’t want to worry about designated drivers, ride-shares or navigation, renting a party bus is a fun and safe way to move party goers from place to place, and the bus itself can serve as the party location, simply driving around to different scenic locations for photo stops. To see types of party buses and rates for your area, check out Busrates.

9. Theme Park or Sports Venue

Most amusement parks and sporting venues are back open for general admission to the public, so a day out at an amusement park, water park or sporting event is a sure bet to keep twenty-somethings having fun. TopGolf has locations all around the country and it’s a great time, even if you’ve never golfed before.

10. Resort Pass

You’ve certainly heard about staycations, but how about celebrating a 21st birthday with a daycation? Resort Pass is currently partnered with 600 hotels in 150 cities nationwide to offer customers a day’s access to their luxurious pools, spas and resort amenities. If you book a hotel cabana, you can bring in your own birthday cake.

Celebrating Responsibly

As with any social gathering happening right now, be sure to adhere to the county and state Covid-19 guidelines for wherever you’ll be traveling or celebrating. The CDC’s Traveler Resources are also helpful when planning your event.

And no matter if you as a parent are involved in part, all or none of your student’s 21st birthday celebration, discuss with them the importance of personal safety for everyone involved. This is a great opportunity for a refreshed conversation about binge-drinking, impaired driving and sexual consent.

Happy and safe celebrating — cheers!

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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