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KIDS ON BOARD

Talk the talk, walk the walk before a vacation big or small

Chat about that upcoming family trip, build stamina on strolls of the neighborhood and work on manners.

July 09, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

THE big news in the travel industry -- along with the fact that air travel is approaching pre-9/11 levels and that many airlines aren't feeding passengers on domestic flights -- is that families are ditching the traditional week at the shore for more far-flung adventures.

A poll of American Express travel agents indicates that families are booking more outdoor, adventure-style vacations (62%), along with more international vacations (57%), cruises (49%) and family reunions (41%).

So it's not terribly surprising that there has been an explosion in the number of books devoted to family travel -- even Lonely Planet has one -- and similar websites. The emphasis varies; on www.travelforkids.com, for example, you can find kid-friendly routes and activities all over the world; www.travelwithkids.about.com leans toward local cruises, resorts and packages; on www.letravelstore.com, a special section under travel accessories shows cool stuff you can buy to keep your kids busy.

Some are written by parents. I recently visited www.clubmom.com/go/travel/travel-with-kids and was reminded of two important things: You should take more than one bathing suit per kid on any trip where swimming is a possibility (no one wants to put on a damp bathing suit); and one way to cut down on laundry and return luggage is to pack clothes that are just about to be too small or too ratty and then just toss them during the trip. (I have tried this last idea, but I tend to focus on packing super-bright colors -- orange, yellow, tie-dye -- so I can find my kids in a crowd.)

Even after years of traveling with kids, I inevitably find myself cruising the sites and books to see if there is a new magic formula to make travel easier.

But really, there is no formula. There is only training.

In our family, this has advanced to a sort of pre-travel boot camp that usually begins two months before a big trip.

During our trip to Ireland last year, we realized that not every town is a beach town, and so tag-along or tandem bikes are not always available. Also, Europeans don't seem to believe in training wheels. So in preparation for our upcoming trip to Amsterdam and Germany, Fiona ditched the training wheels and, at age 6, learned to ride a kid-size (as opposed to toddler-size) two-wheeler. Although we realize she is not quite ready to take to the bike-ruled streets of Amsterdam, we are hoping to get in a little park riding, so we are taking the kids on longer bike rides to get them (and us) in shape.

Likewise, we are taking our annual pre-trip walks, up and down our hilly neighborhood, no complaining allowed. It's a great way to break in any new shoes and talk about what we liked and didn't like on previous trips (boat rides and walking in the rain were surprisingly popular, which is why I bought some quick-dry shorts for us all this year) while building up stamina for those long city crawls. This is especially important now that both kids are too big to be carried for any distance unless a burning building is involved.

Round about now, we also start talking to the kids more specifically about what we will be doing -- the kinds of places we'll be staying, the sights we will see. This is a balancing act, because a child's perception of time is pretty hallucinatory; they think that any point in the future is, essentially, tomorrow. So if you're planning anything involving, say, a Disney resort or, as in our case, a really truly cool castle, you might want to keep it to yourself until the day before.

This year, we are a bit concerned about how Americans are being received abroad; we've heard reports good and bad. And although we don't want to get into too much detail about that with the kids, we are drumming a bit of national pride into them, telling them that we have to show the world that American children are much better behaved than some people might think.

We go out to restaurants a bit more to practice sitting still and eating things that do not come in nugget form or on top of a pizza. We talk about plane rides we have taken and seats we haven't kicked and ask them what they think will help keep them occupied during the flight. DVDs, books and coloring are their top three. And I need to get some of those travel cups with snap-on tops and straws.

Some people recommend taking lots of little wrapped presents to hand out as rewards, but having tried this once, I find it makes my kids more whiny and then we have a pile of junky toys to keep track of. Mainly we try to talk about the trip a little each day, because it's exciting and fun to do but also because now that they're a bit older, we want them to be thinking about their role in planning and execution. A three-week trip to Europe is a huge adventure and also a huge endeavor. Sure, it's important to take a change of clothes on the plane (for everyone), and we can't live without Ziploc bags or Luna bars, but even more important is creating a realistic sense of anticipation.

Even the best trip involves a lot of work. There are delays and rainstorms, things close unexpectedly and people can be grumpy one day or even sick. So it's good not only to talk about all the swell things you're going to eat and see and do, but also about what we're going to say if the food we ordered looks weird or how we're going to express our desire to go to that tower right now even though we agreed to go to a museum.

It's good to practice how we're going to act when we get mad or bored or tired and the line is really long. Because no matter how smoothly the trip goes, there will be long lines and times when each of us get mad or bored or tired.

Which is actually one of the few things you can absolutely plan on.

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