Winter Forecast: Sun or Snow?

The school year is so new that the kids have barely gotten their teachers' names straight, much less told every tale on the playground about their summer adventures. But already visions of vacations are dancing in their heads.

"Mom, can we go skiing this year . . . please ," 11-year-old Matt pleaded the first week of school before there was even a hint of coolness in the air. Just thinking about skiing, it seems, makes homework less onerous.

Is a winter vacation worth the financial bite and the time? I think so. A getaway--even if only for a few days--allows everyone a breather from the stresses and strains that we all live with.

Away from the office and the car-pools, there might even be an opportunity to tune into the kids' world for a brief moment over breakfast on a sun-drenched terrace or riding up a ski lift. That's when I seem to have some of the best talks with my kids. Nothing necessarily heavy--just tuning into their frequency for a bit.

Assuming the bank account can take it this winter, which is it going to be: sun or snow? For many families it's no contest. "We'd never think to go to the beach in the winter. That's for August. In the winter, we want to get out in the snow and cross-country ski, toboggan and ice skate," said Vicki Bijur, a New York literary agent and mother of an 8-year-old son.

Bijur said that her family finds excitement in the snow without long-term planning. Heading to nearby slopes gives the change of scene they were seeking without the hassle of airline tickets or hotel reservations made months before. The same is true for Californians heading to Lake Tahoe for a few days.

Skiing is fun, but expensive--typically $50 or more per day per family member just for lifts, food and equipment. Nor is it always a relaxing experience, particularly for moms who seem to be the ones who keep track of everyone's goggles, hats and ski gloves.

"It's hard work," said Melanie Nangle, a transplanted Californian now living in Connecticut who talked wistfully about a winter trip her family took one year to Hawaii. "At least skiing forces you to be active," she added.

Still, Donald Wertlieb, the only non-skier in his family, said he finds a sense of peace settling down with a good book and a drink while his family is on the slopes.

"But those who ski don't get to relax," said Wertlieb, a child psychologist and chairman of Tufts University's Child Studies Department. "They go for the excitement and exertion. It's a lot different than sitting on the beach, although both are too expensive!"

Consider travel time too. Many ski areas (and some beaches) are within driving distance from home, making the trip more affordable but perhaps more stressful. But even if you're planning to fly, travel time likely will be shorter to the mountains than to an island destination.

Consider the kids' ages carefully. Are they too young to get much out of a ski experience? Will you be carrying all their equipment everywhere? Are they too old to be satisfied hanging around the beach with you? Wherever you go, once they're past second grade, they won't be happy just playing in the sand and jumping the waves. They'll want to race from snorkeling to beach volleyball to fishing.

As the kids get older, seek out a place where such activities are included in the rate. As for equipment, there's no getting around it: Skiing requires lots of gear, from parkas to boots.

Take the kids without your spouse for a few days if he (or she) has no interest in the sport. That's what Deborah Baratta does, leaving her non-skiing husband behind. Baratta, the co-founder of the family travel agency, Rascals in Paradise, sees families head for the slopes every season, particularly if they live in places where they never see a snowflake. "People want a change from what's happening where they are," she says.

Not always.

We live in winter-jacket territory with plenty of snow, but my crew immediately voted down my suggestion of a beach vacation this winter. See you in the lift lines.


Taking the Kids appears weekly.

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