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The Perfect Vacation


How to plan the best one for your family (or at least sail through all the inevitable snafus)

You think you've got your vacation all worked out. You've found attractions to thrill kids and adults. Then it's time to leave home.

The first half of our ten-day trip to the Smokies proceeded gloriously. My sons, 8 and 10 at the time, went crazy for white-water rafting (on a wonderfully mild river), and our cute waterfront cabin came outfitted with inner tubes, porch rockers, Lyle Lovett CDs  -- all we needed for blissful afternoons.

When we got to our next stop, however, I wanted to burn the guidebook. Back when the elderly proprietors could still get around their ranch, 20 years before, it was probably delightful. But we arrived to find cabin rooms full of dead spiders, a fetid lake, crumbling stables, and a dinner table that bore the smears of many meals past. Not that the kids cared  -- they had horses, a pool, and pancakes (the only edible food on the menu). But my husband and I were miserable. So much for the homily on our cabin wall, which proclaimed, "If Maw Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy."

I've now decided I have one choice: to plan smarter. Since our summer stumble, I've discovered that travel experts and road-tested parents agree on an interesting contradiction. To make the most of your time off, they say, you need to be an organizer at home and a free spirit on the road. (Now they tell me.) So plot your routes and sightseeing to the max, but be willing to stop for homemade ice cream at the local farm stand.

There are some long-standing rules among veterans of family travel. Whether you prefer a full-service resort or a secluded cabin, choose a destination that provides activities for all age groups, so even the grown-ups will feel they've had their fling. Then make sure you stick to a normal eating and sleeping schedule. Above all, do less rather than more  -- the idea is for everyone to relax!

To get your family-vacation planning started, now's the time to ask yourself these questions: