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TAKING THE KIDS

Family travel doesn't have to include two parents

June 15, 2003|Eileen Ogintz | Special to The Times

Arthur Friedman is a respected consultant with a doctorate, but after his divorce, the Massachusetts dad found himself doing some unusual things -- jumping on hotel-room beds with his kids, for instance.

"When it's two adults traveling with the kids, the kids go along as luggage," Friedman joked. "When it's just me and the kids, we're a team, and it's more fun."

David Knox, a professor and family therapist from North Carolina, was determined after his divorce to have something he could share with his son and daughter while on vacation, so they learned to scuba dive.

"You won't have the opportunity forever," said Knox, coauthor of "The Divorced Dad's Survival Book: How to Stay Connected With Your Kids." (Knox also has a Web site, www.heartchoice.com; click on "divorce" for single-parent tips.)

Knox is speaking from experience. His son and daughter are now adults and living abroad. "Vacations are the chance for unique experiences with the kids that no one else will give them," he said. "You need to take every second you can."

The key: Let the kids help decide where to go and what to do when you get there. Let them navigate too.

"We feel such a sense of accomplishment when we get there," said Friedman, who counts on his 11-year-old son to read maps and direct him. "Every parent ought to travel alone with their children. It's a real opportunity."

But, said Knox, it isn't necessary to wreck your budget. "You can have a lot of fun camping too," he said.

And you don't need to entertain them every minute. "It's OK to do nothing," Knox said. "What counts is the time together."

Not only can such times strengthen father-child relationships, dads and experts agree, but they can also make it easier to weather a crisis. New Yorker Ned Scharff, a corporate speechwriter, discovered that the wilderness was an ideal setting for those difficult talks with his two teens when his marriage was breaking up.

"Those important conversations don't just happen when you want them to," Scharff said. "They happen when the kids are ready. Being relaxed together, someplace where you're having fun, helps."

Seven million children younger than 18 have parents who are divorced, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of the kids who live with their moms will soon be heading to Dad's house for summer vacation. There are 2 million dads across the country who are raising their kids solo. Others, like Friedman, share custody. That translates into a lot of dads traveling solo with their kids, especially in summer.

The travel industry is starting to take notice. There's been a boom in programs that cater to single parents traveling with their kids. Here's a sampling:

* Beaches resorts, the Sandals all-inclusive family destinations in Jamaica and Turks & Caicos, offer "Single Parent Fun," which includes weekly welcome receptions for single parents as well as cocktail parties (during which the kids head to a movie). Beaches resorts eliminate the single supplement fee periodically. They also list summer deals with savings of up to 35%. Visit www.beaches.com.

* The Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado has a single-parent package that includes a massage, Camp Hyatt for kids, room service breakfast and milk and cookies at bedtime, starting at just under $350 per night. Call (970) 949-1234 or visit www.beavercreek.hyatt.com.

Outfitters such as the Sierra Club, www.outings.sierraclub.org; Backroads, www.backroads.com; Austin-Lehman Adventures, www.austinlehman.com; and Abercrombie & Kent, www.abercrombiekent.com, report that they've seen an increase in solo parents traveling with their kids. Contact any of these groups and ask about special promotions.

The Web site Single Parent Travel, www.singleparenttravel.net, offers tips as well as a list of trips designed for single parents. Order "The Single Parent Travel Handbook," by Brenda Elwell, from the site and get free shipping.

The prospect of traveling with other parents and kids is always a plus when you're traveling solo with yours. "It makes it more interesting," says Scharff, a fan of organized adventure trips. It also takes some of the pressure off parents regarding keeping the kids happy.

Sierra Club trip leader Mike MacFadyen, who often travels alone with his children, notes that other families seem to go out of their way to include parents who are traveling with their children.

For the same reason, Stephen Ranville, a Vermont businessman, always includes trips to see extended family on his vacation agenda when he's traveling with his son and daughter. His recent trips have included visits to see cousins in Pennsylvania, a New York City outing highlighted by a Broadway play, and a museum-hopping trip to Washington, D.C. This summer they'll be sharing digs on Cape Cod with extended family.

"My worst experiences have been when I pushed my own agenda and dragged [the kids] along," Ranville said. "Kids, like adults, are only going to be patient to a point."

Sometimes a little bribery -- like a couple of nights at a nice hotel -- might help get the kids on board with the plan, said MacFadyen, who lives in Alaska and has traveled around the world solo with his kids.

MacFadyen's 18-year-old daughter, Whitney, understands the importance of the trips she takes with her dad. "It's hard for teens to have a good relationship with their parents," says the high school senior. "On trips, you can escape that father-daughter relationship and be more like equals."

That sometimes means she gets to lead, as is the case in Spanish-speaking countries, where her ability to speak the language is an asset that her dad doesn't have. "I'm in complete control," she says happily.

Taking the Kids appears twice a month. E-mail Eileen Ogintz at Eileen@takingthekids.com.

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