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'Sorry Grandma, we can't stay,' plus other tips for happy trips

It's advice based on experience: A pool is a must. Pack for a week and keep them well fed.

September 12, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Like every aspect of parenting, traveling with kids is a learning experience. (A moment of respectful silence for the sanctimonious second-grade teacher who came up with that term, the secular equivalent of offering up your suffering for the poor souls in purgatory.) This means some measure of failure is inevitable and your only hope is that next time around you will make different mistakes.

My husband, Richard, and I take a few moments at the end of every trip to review what we did right and what we did wrong. We realize that most of life doesn't fit tidily into an itinerary. Weather, traffic, the exchange rate, our children's ever-changing attitudes toward cheese sandwiches ("I thought you liked them." "Not on that bread; on the other bread.") -- so much is beyond our control.

Still we almost always come up with a list of things we would do differently next time. An annotated version might include:

* Stay in one place as long as you can. Nothing wears everyone down more than packing and unpacking the bags and the car. Our best trips involved a few days in hotels or apartments at either end of the trip and the bulk spent in one rental house or cabin. Even if it means extra driving time, a home base is much easier than trying to scrape all the Legos and Polly Pockets and bathing suits and sandals and underpants together every two days.

* Don't stay in someone else's house. I'm sure there are exceptions to this -- possibly Grandma's house or a sibling/friend with similarly aged children and a stainless-steel house with drains in the floors -- but I have yet to encounter one. There is a reason God invented accommodations that rent by the day, and that is so you don't have to worry about your child tearing through Uncle Sid's prized comic book collection or banging on Grandpa's piano first thing in the morning. Yes, staying with friends and relations may seem like a bonding experience and a way to save money, but unless you have older or angelic young children, remember Benjamin Franklin's observation that houseguests, like fish, start to smell after three days.

* Choose the hotel/rental with the swimming pool whenever possible. For some reason, children do not consider it a vacation unless a pool is involved; neither the ocean nor a lake seems to count.

* Always pack for a week, whether for a weekend getaway or a month in Europe. No matter how many shirts you pack for your children, you will run out of clean ones more quickly than you imagined and will wind up washing clothes in the sink. Fortunately, T-shirts and shorts purchased during travel count as souvenirs, much as food consumed during flight has no calories. (How could it? You're in the air!)

* If you are asking yourself if you should take the stroller, take the stroller. If nothing else, you can use it to push the backpack around.

* Do not expect scenery, even on a really cool train or tram ride, to hold your children's interest for long. Do you remember those gorgeous childhood drives through the Great Smoky Mountains? Of course you don't; you were too busy reading "Archie" and "Rima the Jungle Girl."

* Feed the children early and often because sometimes places you think will have some sort of cafe -- ferries, beaches, restored castles -- won't. You can have another piece of gum and pretend it's food but the kids can't. You'll wind up feeding them out of snack machines, which is never pretty.

Speaking of food, here is something we always seem to forget: Apples and oranges travel very well; grapes and bananas do not. Trail mix with chocolate chips is a bad idea because chocolate melts, but bagels and cream cheese seem to have an almost universal appeal and are quite sturdy.

* Spare yourself. Despite the children's passionate declarations and the best intentions, their toy-stuffed backpacks quickly become just one more thing the adults have to carry. The only thing they really need on hand are a few books, some crayons and something to draw on, which you probably have in your purse anyway. Stick the rest of the toys -- the ones they'll play with in the room or on the beach -- in the luggage.

* When traveling internationally, three weeks is ideal. Anything less than two weeks is not worth it unless you're flying business class or better.

* Double-check reservations, even if made by a travel agent. When we arrived late at a hotel in Milan, Italy, we found the reservation had been made for a single adult. Imagine our, and the concierge's, surprise.

* Leave the last day of the trip open for the actual departure. Don't try to jam in another site on the way to the airport.

* Give yourself a tiny vacation from your vacation. Do not go to work the day after you return; send the kids to school or camp or the neighbors and take your time unpacking and sorting through the mail. Enjoy the silence and the real comforts of home. It will give you time to make up your own next-time-around list.

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