Traveling With Toddlers And Teens

A wide age gap between kids makes planning tricky

While I've long enjoyed traveling with my daughter, now 14, family getaways have gotten more complicated since my second wife and I had two boys, now 5 and 2. If men are from Mars and women from Venus, teenagers and toddlers hail from different galaxies. That can make vacation planning a huge challenge. Thanks to the rise in stepfamilies, often including kids of widely disparate ages, it's a predicament faced by millions.

Yet the travel industry hasn't kept pace with this trend. While lots of hotels offer kids' programs (page 190E12), many don't cater to the over-12 set. And lodging can be a problem. "There are far too few connecting rooms," says Peter Bates, president of travel consultant Strategic Vision in Coral Gables, Fla., whose four kids range from 15 to two months.

Add the tensions that often permeate relations between stepparents and stepkids, and family trips can become horrors. But done right, they could be the highlight of your family's year. The secret: "Plan, plan, plan," says Dr. Jeannette Lofas, head of the Stepfamily Foundation in New York (212 877-3244, www.stepfamily.org).

To schedule around the kids' camps and our jobs, my wife and I start planning summer travel in early spring. It helps to convene a family meeting early on. "Involve the children, and find out what they're interested in seeing and doing," says Kyle McCarthy, editor of Family Travel Forum, a newsletter that also helps parents plan trips (www.familytravelforum.com).

Choosing a destination is the first and trickiest issue. Pick a spot with broad appeal. We found just that last summer at Yellowstone National Park, where my young boys and teenage daughter were equally enthralled by the bubbling mudpots and other wonders. Beach resorts are another option, and if your youngest is past preschool, consider adventure travel. Family raft trips run by the Sierra Club take kids as young as 5 down such rivers as the San Juan, in Utah's canyon country. Everyone's on the same journey, but teens can peel away in inflatable kayaks.

SPREAD OUT. In a city, divide and conquer, says Kaleel Sakakeeny, executive travel editor for Boston-based Parents' Plus publications. In Boston, you might take preschoolers to the Children's Museum, while your better half accompanies worldlier siblings to the Museum of Fine Arts. Splitting up is also a way "for parents to have some one-on-one time with their children, and for stepparents to begin forming a bond with new stepchildren," says Dr. Emily Visher, co-founder of the Stepfamily Association of America (800 735-0329, www.stepfam.org).

Regardless of where you go, you'll need space to spread out. Connecting rooms are a good option, and Hyatt offers a second room at half price to families. Services such as Family Travel Forum can help you find such hotels. Or check out all-suite hotels.

You could just head for a resort that caters to families. Ski areas are a good bet--and not just in winter. Or consider a cruise (table). Several offer programs for children 3 to 17. Tyler Place (802 868-4000), a bucolic resort on the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain, sets aside a dining room for adults, while kids--divided among nine age groups--eat with their peers. "It's a magical formula," says Marian Howie, whose four children range from 17 to 2. The short break from the children makes for "a terrific vacation" for parents. Howie and her family visit Tyler Place every summer. True, it's not constant togetherness. But even close-knit families need some breathing space.

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