Advice for the Vacation Lorn

Everyone wants their family vacation to be a success, the best time they've ever had with their kids. After all, it's costing enough. But like all family gatherings, the trip, no matter how well-planned or how expensive, probably isn't going to be one Kodak moment after another. Real life is never that perfect, especially with kids. It wouldn't be nearly so interesting if it were.

But no one wants to return home feeling they've wasted their time and money on a vacation gone wrong. Rain when they expected sun, squabbling kids when they counted on togetherness. That's why I hear from so many anxious travelers. Let's hope some of their questions--and my answers--will help tip your trip toward more Kodak moments.

Take the newly single mom. The trip will be her first solo vacation with her daughter and she wants it to be terrific. Her travel agent recommended a busy Cancun resort hotel, one without any organized children's activities. What did I suggest?

Get a new travel agent. At a huge resort, this newly single parent could feel lost and lonely amid a sea of vacationing couples. If she wants an environment that guarantees some R&R; for her and pals for her 11-year-old, she needs a place that offers kids' programs.

A cruise would be a good bet. There would be plenty of on-board and shore excursions for both mother and daughter without the hassle of organizing outings on her own. And since several families typically are seated together, she'd be guaranteed some adult dinner conversation. The best part: It would be a new experience the two could share.

Another family planning a cruise asked if motion-sickness medicine is appropriate for a 2-year-old.

San Antonio pediatrician Brian Bates, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Drug Committee, notes that Dramamine liquid can be given to 2-year-olds. He cautions, however, to check with your pediatrician before sailing.

Do I have any other cruising advice for sailing with a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old?

Check before sailing to make sure that there will be baby sitters on board. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, guarantees available sitters, but not all cruise lines do.

A Maryland grandmother who e-mailed me is looking for a place to meet her daughter's family for a school holiday getaway. Correctly, she surmised, plane tickets at a decent price might be hard to come by, since families like to travel during such times. How could they find an interesting destination not too far from home?

For a novel experience, try a llama farm, or one where the farmers raise cattle, suggests Pat Dickerman, author of "Farm, Ranch & Country Vacations: In America" (Adventure Guides Inc., $19.95).

An old-fashioned resort also would offer plenty of activities for everyone in the group. Martha Shirk and Nancy Klepper's "Super Family Vacations" (HarperCollins, $16) suggests 150 different resort options around the country.

But that wouldn't necessarily do the trick for the New Jersey dad who sent me a list of places he'd tried that offer no activities or day care for his 2-year-old. Most resort children's programs don't accept kids younger than 3 or 4. If you're interested in organized activities, make sure to ask the age requirements before booking. That goes for ski areas too.

Snowmass in Colorado (telephone [800] 598-2005), Deer Valley in Utah, (tel. [800] 424-3337) and Mt. Snow in Vermont (tel. [800] 245-7669) have especially good programs for young children.

Beaches Turks & Caicos, an all-inclusive family resort from the Sandals chain, is a resort that welcomes the tiniest travelers in its children's center. (Call [800] BEACHES and ask about deals for kids.)

Windjammer's Landing in St. Lucia provides both a nanny for the under-4 crowd and daily activities for those age 4 to 12, at no extra charge. Even better, the accommodations are all in villas. Call (800) 958-7376.

Club Med's Sandpiper Resort in Florida has a baby club for infants as well as a mini-club that accepts 2-year-olds. Kids 4 months through age 5 stay free (some holidays excluded). Call (800) CLUB MED.

But for some families, a resort at any price is too expensive. One woman wrote asking where her extended family could rent villas or condos for their 1998 reunion. She surmised what savvy travelers know: the option to cook in the room can save big bucks. Perhaps together the family can afford to rent a staffed villa, complete with cook and housekeeper.

Hideaways International Travel Club is a company that brokers rentals around the world. You can get a four-month trial membership for $39 in the club, which includes help finding an overseas rental. Call (800) 843-4433.

Another even more economical option is to trade houses with another family across the country--or the ocean. You don't pay anything for the accommodations, and you might be able to trade cars too.

Two of the largest home exchange agencies are San Francisco-based INTERVAC (tel. [800] 756-4663) and Florida-based HomeLink International (tel. [800] 638-3841). For a fee, typically less than $100, your house will be listed in their directories along with more than 10,000 others. You use the directories to pinpoint where you want to go and to arrange the match yourself by writing to would-be exchangers around the world.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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