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Parenting : Cover Story : Travels With Tykes : Family trips can be painless, even pleasant if you take kids’ interests and attention spans into account.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to The Times</i>

For families who find even the neighborhood supermarket a challenging day trip, the idea of planning a full-scale excursion can be overwhelming. Not only is money often an issue, but there is also the daunting prospect of shepherding children from place to place and keeping them entertained for days on end.

But family vacations can be fun--really. The trick is finding activities that appeal to both children and grown-ups, and gearing the trip to the personalities on board.

After years of trip-planning for a wide range of clients, Sam Meinel of Travel Syndicate, in Woodland Hills, focuses on making sure children will be amused and safe, and that money is spent wisely. “Everybody’s looking for easy , and value for the dollar,” she said.

Travel agents warn that the biggest vacation expense can be the cost of getting there. Air fare for a family of four adds up quickly. But even road trips can be costly. Food alone can at least $20 to $30 a meal, even for fast food.

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For families looking for something exciting and different but sensibly priced, there are close-to-home alternatives that promise as good a time as a full-scale trip. Some offer a novel mode of transportation--a train to San Francisco or a boat to Catalina--while others present a new landscape to explore.

Here are 10 relatively painless and reasonable family vacations that should be fun for everyone:

1. COAST STARLIGHT TRAIN TRIP TO SAN FRANCISCO: Imagine boarding a train at the Glendale Amtrak station at 10 a.m. and spending the day speeding up the coast. At 9 p.m., you arrive in Oakland, where a complimentary charter bus takes you to the Embarcadero in San Francisco. After a few days exploring the city, you’re back on the train, going home.

It’s a fun way to see the state without having to drive--or make time-consuming stops for food. Cost varies depending on the day of travel, but adult fare is typically $68 round trip; children’s fares are half price. Amtrak can also provide motel packages. Call (800) USA-RAIL for more information and reservations.

2. SANTA CATALINA ISLAND: Only 22 miles from the Mainland, Catalina feels farther away than a 90-minute boat ride. With 76 square miles of land and 54 miles of shoreline to explore, the island makes a great family vacation because there’s so much to do there--from quaint shopping to Jeep trekking to bison-watching bus rides.

Plenty of comfortable hotels are located in Avalon, Catalina’s main town. But adventurous families might try a yurt--a more rustic dwelling on a cove near Goat Harbor. Twenty-four feet in diameter, the wooden structures known as yurts feature a kitchen, fireplace, beds, gas barbecue, carpeting and a hot shower. Located on a private beach, they’re convenient to hiking and snorkeling and range from $65 a night during the week to $125 a night for four or more (up to six) on weekends. Transportation from Avalon to Goat Harbor costs $8 a person. For reservations and information, call the Catalina Island Conservancy, (310) 510-1745.

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Boat travel to Catalina is offered by several firms and runs about $34 for adults and $25 for children. For information about transportation and island accommodations, call the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, (310) 510-1520.

3. CAMPING: Camping is a low-cost way to visit beautiful places where children can run, explore and be wild. Families new to camping can rent the equipment, including tent, stove, lantern and sleeping bags, from camping outfitters; a week’s rental runs about $100. Chadi Juberail, of Recon-1 in Tarzana, suggests reserving equipment two to three weeks in advance in the summer.

Of the hundreds of places in California to camp, most are listed in several good resource books. “Camp California” (Prentice Hall, $4.95) gives information and reservation phone numbers for more than 1,700 campgrounds. The Official Guide to California State Parks is available for $2 by writing the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Publications Section, P.O. Box 942896, Sacramento, Calif. 94296. For general information and for California parks reservations, call (800) 444-7275.

4. NATIONAL PARK LODGES: National park lodges are affordable places that feel like a cross between summer camp and a nice resort. Most offer evening naturalist lectures geared to families, along with a variety of nature programs, hikes, crafts and science activities. Some require early reservations, but even the most popular lodges get last-minute openings. The federal Consumer Information Center in Pueblo, Colo. offers “A Guide to Your National Forests” ($1), “National Park System Map and Guide” $1.25) and “Lesser Known Areas of the National Park System” ($1.50). Write the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009 or call (719) 948-4000.

5. PALM SPRINGS: For those who like it hot, summer is a bargain in Palm Springs. Temperatures range from the low 70s to 105-plus, but hot-weather activities abound. The Palm Springs Aerial Tram runs to the Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness (elevation 8,516 feet), where 54 miles of hiking trails and a restaurant await. (Adults, $15.95; children 5-12, $9.95). The Palm Springs Oasis Waterpark offers 22 acres of water activities: 12 water slides and body- and board-surfing in a two-thirds-acre pool. The Children’s Museum of the Desert features hands-on science and art centers. Many area hotels radically discount their rates for summer. Call the city of Palm Springs’ free reservation service, (800) 347-7746, for information.

6. CAMBRIA: Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in northern San Luis Obispo County, Cambria is what Carmel was before it became a tourist attraction. Its colorful main street offers great shopping: toy stores, a toy-soldier factory and numerous art and antique galleries. The beaches are breathtaking, with sea lions playing and sunning offshore. Just a few minutes north is San Simeon, home of the famous Hearst Castle, where the tours are suitable for children 6 and older. A wide range of accommodations includes bed-and-breakfasts and kid-friendly motels. For more information, call the Cambria Chamber of Commerce, (805) 927-3624.

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7. SAN DIEGO: For climate, kids’ activities, the bays and the beach, San Diego is considered by many travel experts to be the closest thing to perfect for family vacations. There are fabulous parks: Mission Bay, a 4,000-acre aquatic playground, Old Town State Historic Park and the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. Sea World is there, along with the San Diego Zoo and the 2,100-acre San Diego Wild Animal Park.

Travel agents can provide packages that combine discounted tickets to many attractions with special hotel and motel rates. For information and a free San Diego Visitors Value Pack, contact the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, 401 B St., Suite 1400, Dept. 700, San Diego, Calif. 92101 or call (619) 236-1212.

8. DAY TRIPPING: Some families prefer to stay close to home or can’t take more than a day off at a time. For them, the ideal break might be a series of day trips with their house as home base. One day could be set aside for Universal Studios, another for the beach, others for Little Tokyo, Exposition Park, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Olvera Street and the Los Angeles Children’s Museum Downtown and the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

The trick is to save the days just as if you were going out of town. Otherwise responsibilities or intrusions might interfere. For information on Los Angeles attractions, call the L.A. Convention and Visitors Bureau, (213) 624-7300.

9. RIVER RAFTING: For thrills, fresh air and a change of pace, nothing beats river rafting. Trips range from a gentle one-day voyage on the Klamath River in southern Oregon to a seven-day adventure on the Owyhee in southeast Oregon. Some trips are geared to families with young children--age 4 and older--while others, in faster and possibly more dangerous water, are limited to teens and adults.

Outfitters provide everything from food to shelter for overnight trips. Some offer outdoor skills training, fishing, bicycling, jet-boat trips and hikes. Prices range from $62 for a child and $76 for an adult for a one-day trip, to $500 to $600 a person for a one-week excursion.

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For a free 1994 directory of backcountry outfitters, contact America Outdoors, P.O. Box 1348, Knoxville, Tenn. 37901; (615) 524-4814.

10. TRAVEL BY WAGON TRAIN: This unusual adventure isn’t expensive . . . once you get to Jamestown, N.D. There, the Fort Seward Wagon Train is celebrating its 25th anniversary. From June 25 to July 2, 200 people will dress in pioneer attire and take canvas-topped wagons pulled by horses or mules along a 100-mile trail beginning and ending in Fort Seward, an old U.S. Cavalry post north of Jamestown.

Participants are assigned basic chores--like chopping wood, building fires and cooking. After each day’s journey, families help set up camp and take part in arts and crafts, scavenger hunts and campfire songs. Cooking is done in open pits. The cost, which includes everything except the tent, sleeping bags and period clothes (which families must bring), is $260 for adults, $185 for teens and $135 for children 12 and younger. For more information, contact Fort Seward Inc., P.O. Box 244, Jamestown, N.D. 58402 or call (701) 252-6844.

Survival Tips for Family Trips

No matter how exciting the destination, traveling with children is a challenge.

Here are tips from parents, travel agents and experts on organization to make traveling more kid-friendly:

1. When packing for children, take clothes that mix and match, and don’t forget small backpacks, even for preschoolers. If you plan to carry luggage any distance, try lugging it around the house to test its weight.

2. Pack some new, dime-store quality toys for moments of boredom. Classics--such as the mini-Etch-a-Sketch, small dolls, playing cards and tiny race cars--work wonders. A compact tape recorder--with earphones--and some favorite travel music are a must.

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3. Ask school-age children to help make an official trip record by collecting postcards and hotel stationery in envelopes, and noting such details as weather and special family activities. Some children like being the map navigator--encourage it.

4. Bring plenty of snacks and juice.

5. Stop at parks and play areas; kids need fresh air and exercise.

6. Give children disposable cameras to capture the trip for all time.

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