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TAKING THE KIDS

Family vacations that let others do the dirty work

If trips with children feel too much like home without the amenities, here are some ways to give yourself a break.

May 04, 2003|Eileen Ogintz | Special to The Times

Lazy mornings spent reading on a beach ... leisurely lunches by the palm-shaded pool ... moonlit walks with your significant other. Too bad family vacations are never as they appear in commercials.

Instead you're racing down the beach with a toddler, searching for a bathroom. You're gobbling down hot dogs. You're falling asleep at night before your teenagers do.

Face it: Taking the kids on vacation is a lot of work, especially for moms.

One mom I know calls family vacations "home without the dishwasher." I know what she means.

On vacation we're paying big bucks to relax, but we still have to feed the gang, make sure they have clean clothes, arrange activities, mediate disputes and nurse stomachaches and sunburns. The unfamiliar locale adds extra challenges, especially for parents with young children who may not acclimate easily to new surroundings.

The good news is that there is a growing number of family vacations that leave the dirty work to others. All you have to do is relax and focus on having fun with the kids, whether you like to camp, stay in five-star hotels, climb mountains or sightsee. These types of vacations are also ideal for single parents, grandparents and parents like me who find themselves traveling solo with their kids. What a relief to know there will be other kids, adults and those who can help with child care, meals and planning itineraries.

Companies such as Backroads, www.backroads.com, report an increase in bookings. For Backroads, business has jumped 20% in the last year.

"Family vacation is a priority," said spokeswoman Julie Snyder, who notes that Backroads' most popular trips are to national parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Canyon.

With Mother's Day coming up, there's no better time to focus on vacations that are guaranteed to give everyone in the family a break. That means no cooking, no navigating, no planning excursions or entertaining the kids all day long (unless you choose to).

These adventures don't have to cost a bundle or require a trip across the country, either. Here are some ideas:

* The next time you're planning a trip to New York, Boston, San Francisco or Washington, D.C., consider calling Dee Hoffman. The former school psychologist runs Children's Concierge, www.childrensconcierge.com, which will customize a kid-friendly itinerary for your family based on everyone's interests -- right down to activities for the kids to do in the car or hotel room. Hoffman will suggest restaurants and hotels, and arrange guides and sitters. Prices start at $120.

"The idea is to make it easier for sightseeing families, so even young children can connect with what they're seeing," Hoffman said.

* Gather the gang for an effortless family reunion courtesy of Boston-based Elderhostel, www.elderhostel.org. Nearly all of the 2,500 cultural and educational institutions Elderhostel works with can accommodate a family group of approximately 20 people -- from exploring colonial history in Williamsburg, Va., to studying the geology of the Grand Canyon. If you don't have a large group, consider one of the 50 multigenerational Elderhostel trips being offered.

Elderhostel continues to offer popular programs for grandparents and grandchildren. These adventures are designed for those 55 and older to share with their adult sons and daughters, and with kids ages 9 to 18. Most are in the United States, including a chance to combine musical talents at a New England prep school campus or retrace the Lewis and Clark expedition. Elderhostel arranges lodging, meals and activities for costs starting at $500 a week.

* Be pampered when you cruise with the kids or grandkids on the luxe 350-passenger Radisson Diamond, www.rssc.com, which recently extended its Caribbean season through July. Seven-night cruises from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., start at $1,598 per person, including shipboard tips, liquor and wine. A child traveling as a third guest in a stateroom sails for free, and counselors will be aboard to entertain the youngsters.

* For a different kind of sea adventure, choose a Windjammer Barefoot cruise, www.windjammer.com, where one child may cruise free with two parents, or for half-price with one adult. Counselors will teach the junior sailors about the ship while you laze. Four-day cruises start at less than $400.

* Explore Harry Potter's England and Wales with FamilyHostel, www.learn.unh.edu/family hostel, sponsored by the University of New Hampshire. Excursions are designed for children ages 8 to 16 and are led by university faculty and local experts.

Families will travel on a steam train, explore dungeons and castles, check out movie locations and spend time with local families. Prices, including airfare from Boston, meals, accommodations and activities, are $3,195 for adults, less for the younger travelers.

* Less expensive FamilyHostel adventures are offered closer to home, including the chance to help at an archeological dig near the Grand Canyon or travel as the pioneers did by covered wagon on an Oklahoma ranch. Domestic trips start at less than $100 for adults and even less for children, but they don't include airfare.

* When getting the trip exactly right matters more than the price, let the experts at a well-known travel company such as Tauck Bridges, www.tauckbridges.com, Abercrombie & Kent, www.abercrombiekent.com, or Butterfield & Robinson, www.butterfield.com, manage the details. These companies have built their reputations on leading well-heeled travelers on far-flung adventures, but they also report great interest in family trips closer to home.

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

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