- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

The summer travel season is here, and while most families are looking forward to fun once they reach the beach house or mountain resort, many are dreading the multihour journey to reach their chosen vacation destination.

"I definitely think that travel can be part of the fun," says Dee Hoffman, head of Rockville-based Children's Concierge, a company that specializes in making vacations enjoyable for everyone in the family. "But it takes a lot of planning, and most parents just don't have the time."

Despite memories of past back-seat squabbles or airport-terminal tantrums, if parents have a good attitude about the trip, it will be conveyed to the children, she says.

"If you're dreading the trip or are not excited about it, the children will pick that up," Mrs. Hoffman says. She uses her background as a school psychologist and her experience ushering five children through countless trips to help families plan memorable visits to sites in the District and elsewhere.

"Get children involved in the planning of the trip from the beginning, and they will feel less like trapped victims when they are in the back seat of the car," she advises.

Car travel is the most common mode of transportation during the summer. Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA's Potomac branch, says past surveys by AAA and the Travel Industry of America have found that 85 percent of all summer trips are taken by automobile.

"Even when families fly, they are in a car on the way to the airport and then get into a car at their destination," Mr. Anderson says. "These days, the trip to the airport can take longer than the time in the air. That's the good news and the bad news of car travel. The good news is that it's familiar; the bad news is that it's inescapable."

Rising gasoline prices and competitive summertime air fares have not diminished America's century-long enthusiasm for car travel. Despite an increase of more than 50 cents per gallon in gas prices since last summer, Mr. Anderson says 86 percent of 1,300 respondents in a AAA survey said they planned to take a trip by car this summer a 4 percent increase over 1999 numbers.

"We translate that into an anticipated 237 million person-trips (counting each person in a car, not just the group) this summer," he says. "That means, this summer our highways will be filled with cars full of children whining and asking if they're there yet."

The Zen of travel

Teresa Plowright has to deal with car-weary children every day. Her family lives on a small island near Vancouver, British Columbia, and "getting my boys to Little League means a four-hour car ride," says the mother of three and experienced world traveler.

"More and more, I've become an advocate of making the trip part of the fun," says Mrs. Plowright, who is an on-line family travel expert for About.com. "There's a certain Zen consciousness where you make the journey itself the vacation rather than waiting until you get to your destination."

She recounts a recent excursion during which her family traveled a few days to watch whales along the Pacific coast.

"It was the first time that the drive itself was really fun, and that's because we made many short stops along the way. When we got home, I asked the children what was their favorite part of the trip, and they said getting there. We stayed in a house on the beach, saw whales and had a great time at our destination, but they loved our time together on the road."

That's the point of family vacations, says Kyle McCarthy, a New York City travel writer and editor in chief of Family Travel Forum, an on-line travel magazine. She also is the mother of an 8-year-old boy.

"For me, one of the virtues of car travel is that it gives me time to talk with my son," she says. "Life is so busy, it's really a gift to have uninterrupted time together with nothing else to do but catch up on our lives."

For that reason, she is troubled by the trend to sedate the back-seat crowd with mobile entertainment systems. Many vans come equipped with a television and VCR player that either mounts on the floor or comes down from the ceiling.

"Yes, it's work to entertain children, but that's the work of parenting, and parenting while on vacation should be more fun than parenting at home," Mrs. McCarthy says.

She urges everyone in the family to travel with a sense of adventure and a thirst to explore the unknown.

"Get off the main highways and explore the side roads. Make unexpected stops. See the Ice Cream Hall of Fame. That's what makes travel memorable," Mrs. McCarthy says.

Just fly with me

Though car travel is by far the most common form of vacation transportation, air travel has increased tremendously in the past decade as working parents have converted frequent-flier miles into flying family vacations.

"Children today are raised in dual-income families with parents who often have an opportunity to expand a business trip into a family jaunt," Mrs. McCarthy says. She cites industry figures that show that 32 percent of all business trips in the past five years have included children. That may be a soft number, she says, because "it's hard to accurately count frequent-flier travel."

Access to the Internet also has transformed travel, Mrs. McCarthy says. Inexpensive flights and instant access to information allow families to turn long weekends into minivacations in faraway locations. A vibrant and affluent senior population also has changed the face of family travel, with three generations often vacationing together.

Yet air travel, while allowing families to travel farther and faster than they can on car trips, also increases the stress level exponentially. Not only are families no longer in control of their transportation, but weary business travelers often are less than welcoming of pint-size seat companions.

"You can't count license plates in the air," says Peter Van Buren, a father of two who with his wife, Mari, has spent the past 15 years working and traveling abroad. The family currently lives in Korea.

The Van Burens have logged so many air miles with their two children, now 8 and 5 years old, that they began writing about their experiences on line (www.travelwithyourkids.com).

"A long international flight is terribly boring for children. There's just no place to go," Mr. Van Buren says. "I look at it as a pain-management issue. You have to address boredom, dehydration, the meal service and toilet management. The biggest single issue is that expectations are too high, or tolerance is too low."

Karen Davidson, a well-traveled Arlington mother of a 7-year-old son, agrees that commercial air travel is the worst choice of transportation for families, but she says the most stress comes from fellow travelers.

She and her husband, Brian, and their son, William, have traveled by boat, car, train and plane. She says the long delays, cramped quarters and tiny bathrooms on planes are nothing compared to the child-unfriendly attitudes of some business travelers.

Their son, who is a "great traveler," has never been the target of air rage, but she recalls a trip when a passenger was nearly removed from the flight because he repeatedly threatened families with young children.

"This guy turned around and threatened this family with a young child who was making just small child noises he wasn't even crying," she says. "Then he made eye contact with us and said, 'That goes for you, too.' It was scary."

Mrs. Davidson says business travelers often see a family with children and "expect the worst. It's amazing how rude people are. I say to them, 'My child is 2, how old are you?' "

Training wheels

Perhaps the most child-friendly mode of transportation is the train. Not only are children naturally drawn to trains, but Amtrak spokesman Steven Taubenkibel says families appreciate the flexibility to roam through the train and the room to stretch out.

He says train travel is experiencing a resurgence as families more concerned with comfort than speed choose an alternative to crowded airplanes and delay-fraught congested skies.

"Let's face it, train travel is not for someone who is interested in getting someplace in a big hurry," he says, "but it's a leisurely, spacious way to get where you're going, and it can be especially comfortable for families with young children."

More than 21 million people are expected to take a train ride on Amtrak this year, Mr. Taubenkibel says. More than 9 million people traveled by rail last summer most were families en route to vacation destinations, such as Orlando, which is accessed through Amtrak's Auto Train, which stops in Vienna and lets vacationers take their cars on the train with them.

"Summer travel is definitely our peak season," says Mr. Taubenkibel, who warns that it's almost too late to book space on popular sleeping cars.

This summer, Amtrak will debut its long-awaited high-speed Acela train, although the Northeast-corridor train will be booked quickly by business travelers drawn by its boasts of going from the District to Boston in six hours.

"Children love trains, and for them, the vacation may be the trip rather than the destination," Mr. Taubenkibel says. "There's a lot to do on a train. The complaint is usually, 'Oh no, we're there,' rather than 'Are we there yet?' "

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