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The Perfect Vacation

Masterfile

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:

Where Should We Go?

The object is to spend more time smiling than stressing, so think about your family's needs. Will you get the most from a resort with kids' programs and lots of amenities? Or would your gang rather decelerate on a secluded beach? Only you'll know whether your preschooler would love building stick dams in a mountain creek or would rather go full throttle at a theme park. So spend an hour or so with your mate drawing up a wish list of possible places to travel to.

For help with planning, check out these click-worthy websites:

 

  • www.familytravelforum.comfor up-to-date info on the best travel deals, news, and contacts

     

  • www.tinytravelers.netfor answers to health and safety questions that may come up while you're on the road

     

  • www.fodors.comfor family-friendly hotels and restaurants, as well as links to possible destinations

    If your kids are young or you haven't traveled much as a family, you might try a one- or two-night practice run. This can help ease your children into sleeping away from home. "Travel can be scary for young kids," says Deb Cornick, publisher of the newsletter Have Children Will Travel. A quick trip will also clue you in on what you need to pack. And you may find out (before you book the beach house) that your 3-year-old is terrified of waves. Along those sensible lines, Linda Wilkins, a mom of five in Akron, Ohio, set up the new tent inside her home a few times before her family left on their camping trip.

    Though you're vacationing with your children, you don't need to plan kid-centered activities all day every day. Sometimes you'll simply follow your nose and your own interests. "Young kids mostly just want to spend time with you," says Cornick. So be creative. "If you want to go to the Smithsonian with your toddler, do it in small doses. Take breaks to picnic on the grass outside," she says.

    One way to strive for balance between time spent with your children and with your mate is to pick a destination that offers supervised activities for kids. Since the quality of childcare can vary, call ahead and ask pointed questions so you don't get stuck at a hotel that considers child-friendly activities to be a room off the lobby with a VCR. What you should definitely find out: the child-adult ratio, whether the staff is trained in CPR, how the ages are grouped, and what's on a typical day's schedule.

    Where Should We Stay?

    If you're planning to sightsee, consider choosing a home base  -- a condominium, cabin, or campground  -- where you can settle in and unpack your gear. From there, you can take day trips.

    When deciding whether to pay more for a place that provides meals and housekeeping, consider the value of your labor. Danon Middleton, a mother of three in Atlanta, has gone to Hilton Head, South Carolina, for a week every other summer since her sons were babies. She prefers a condo for its savings, privacy, and room to romp. But she and her husband have had to prepare all their meals. To ease the load, Middleton freezes meals at home and takes them in a cooler. She also stockpiles such basics as cereal, sandwich fixings, and drinks so that she doesn't have to spend the first day of vacation grocery shopping.

    Who Else Is Coming Along?

    Everyone's heard horror stories of vacations involving more than one family  -- old friends who've parted bitter enemies because the kids fought the whole time and house rules and routines clashed.

    On the other hand, Catherine Sweeney of Montclair, New Jersey, and her kids, Evan, 6, and Heather, 4, had a wonderful time when they rented a North Carolina cabin with her sister and her two children. "It was the first time I was able to finish a novel since my kids were born," she says. The four children kept one another busy playing, and she and her sister took turns supervising. "The situation worked because we know each other's kids so well," Sweeney says. For an extra hand and a little more free time for the grown-ups, you might consider hiring a babysitter to go along. But keep in mind that you'll be taking care of yet another person.

    Can It Be Easier On Everyone?

    Whether you're flying or driving, be sure to pack more diversions than you think you'll need.

    What works, say parents:

     

  • Little sticky notes (kids can draw pictures on them and stick them to the windows or the seat in front of them)

     

  • A small mirror (to make faces at)

     

  • Gel pens (to decorate little hands)

     

  • An inexpensive stopwatch (to time how long you've waited to take off or traveled between exits)

     

  • Binoculars (to look at planes or faraway road signs)

     

  • Sticker books and stickers

    Older kids might get a kick out of talking about what they see on the road into a portable tape recorder or looking for different license plates to see which one is the farthest from the state you're driving through. And babies and young toddlers can find even the most mundane things amusing  -- a roll of tape can last a plane trip.

    And don't forget the snacks. For short or long jaunts, whenever she travels with her 4- and 2-year-old daughters, Jennifer Geddes of New York City stocks up on little treats that she doesn't usually keep at home, such as M&M's (which she mixes in with cereal), individual boxes of animal crackers, or mini-bags of Goldfish crackers or pretzels. Lollipops are another distraction  -- and they take a long time to consume.

    A sanity-saving rule: The younger your children, the more stops you should make. Schedule in a 20-minute break every two hours, Cornick suggests. The key is to let your little ones feel free, so "find a park or an open space for them to run around in and try to avoid restaurants where kids have to sit down again." For shorter trips, travel at night or during your child's regular naptime.

    What Will We Do There?

    Even if you don't want to overplan, try to work out a rough daily itinerary so you'll hit a spot on every family member's wish list. (Young kids can circle pictures on a brochure.) Phone ahead for details; that way, before everyone's starving, you'll learn that the riverboat dinner cruise is by reservation only or the petting zoo has no snack bar.

    Save some lousy-weather activities (such as a stop at the aquarium) for the end. If it rains sooner, you can do them earlier, but at least you won't be killing time when it storms by shopping at the same stores you have at home.

    Are We Ready for Anything?

    Of course, you can't foresee out-of-season monsoons, ear infections, or the Children's Museum closing because the air conditioner's on the fritz. But you can bring indoor games, find out the location of the nearest emergency room, and look for a playground that has swings.

    A Disney excursion went awry when Catherine Kukla's daughter Emma, 5, became terrified on her first ride, threw up after another, and was scared of the characters. Despite this, their vacation still turned out fine. "Emma had a blast just being in the hotel pool," says the Dallas mom, who also sweetened the vacation by letting her daughter eat junk food and buy a few fun souvenirs. Whether you're a seasoned road warrior or a first-time family traveler, do your homework. With a little savvy and some careful investigation, both you and your gang can have a fulfilling getaway.

    Susan Brenna has written about health and education for Ladies' Home Journal, New York, and other magazines.

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