Getting Away for the Holidays

Martha Melvoin loves her in-laws. She just didn't want to spend $3,000 for her family to fly across the country to share a too-big holiday dinner with them.

Instead, she and her husband Jeff took their boys out of school a few days early and jetted off from Los Angeles to Hawaii for Thanksgiving week.

``As the boys get older, we've got to fit in vacations when we can,'' explains Melvoin. One son is going to Washington, D.C. at spring break with his sixth-grade class; both boys are busy all summer with camp and sports.

``This was perfect timing,'' she continued. Even better, there were still some low-season bargains.

``Every once in a while,'' she said, ``It's OK to do without the big turkey. We need this time together.''

A lot of families clearly agree. Ski resorts, cruise lines and tropical destinations say they've never had been so booked for Thanksgiving or the Christmas holidays.

``I hate to say this, but we've had to turn people away,'' says Dave Wiggins, whose American Wilderness Experience sends families to ranches for the holidays. ``They called too late.''

Good luck finding a hotel room in New York, dinner reservation in Colonial Williamsburg or room at the Las Vegas casinos. Even the Sierra Club's family Hawaii camping trip sold out.

Steep holiday prices aren't keeping families home. A record 70 million Americans are expected to travel over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, the AAA reports. No wonder there are lines out the door at FAO Schwarz and lines to go up the lifts at ski areas from Maine to California.

The crowds -- and the aggravation they cause -- aren't dissuading anyone, though.

Take the Rosensteins. They typically ski at Christmas. This year they're going to Taos at Thanksgiving. After some deaths in the family, no one wanted to face what would have been an especially emotional gathering this year.

``The ski resort is feels very homey but without all the work,'' said Lizanne Rosenstein, a former New Yorker now living in San Francisco.

Dr. Henry Gault's family found it was the only time all of them could manage a vacation together because of work commitments the rest of the year: Thirty-four of them, from a 5-month-old to his 80-year-old aunt are coming from Florida and Ohio, New York and Maryland, taking a cruise together. Ironically, his mother, who initiated the trip because she felt the family didn't see each other enough, died a few weeks ago.

``She would have wanted us to go,'' said Dr. Gault, a Chicago child psychiatrist.

An added bonus: The first night of the trip is the first night of Hanukkah.

Jewish families, in fact, say they frequently schedule Christmas vacations to avoid being overwhelmed by a holiday they don't celebrate.

``We just like to escape,'' said Kate Schweiger, who lives in Pennsylvania and now travels every Christmas with her husband and 6-year-old son.

Newly blended families say they go away to forge new traditions -- and avoid arguments at home. But now those who want to be with their relatives also are clamoring for more.

``You do the family thing but families want their holidays to be more multifocused now,'' explains AAA spokesman Jill Mross. She was no different, combining a trip to see her family in south Florida with some beach time together with her own family.

``The kids are out of school. Employers are more flexible and people can grab a few extra days. They're going for it,'' says American Society of Travel Agents Spokesman James Ashurst. Hot spots include cruise ships, Mexico and Las Vegas.

Of course, the economy helps. People feel more comfortable splurging, travel industry observers say. Don Lansky, spokesman for the large cruise discounter Cruise Line Inc., says families already have started booking for Christmas 1998.

The Beaches resorts in the Caribbean, the family offering from the Sandals group, was 100 percent booked for both holidays before Thanksgiving and could have sold 60 percent more rooms. ``We were happily surprised,'' said a spokesman.

``The numbers are growing every year,'' said Melissa Gullotti, a spokesman for Mount Snow in Vermont. Some families now come both for Thanksgiving and Christmas, she said.

``You sleep in, take a few ski runs and have a great dinner you didn't have to cook,'' she said.

``I just can relax a lot more in the country where the snow is white, not black,'' joked Jay Fluck, who lives in Rhode Island but wouldn't miss his Christmas in Vermont. ``It's a totally different environment and a tremendous break.''

Any harried working parent will tell you how badly they need that. They certainly don't want to spend their precious few days off cooking, hosting hordes of company, or sitting around at the grandparents' house.

``We're such a mobile society now that when we do go back home it's not the same,'' explains Dr. Bennett Leventhal, chief of psychiatry at the University of Chicago.

In some cases, the grandparents don't want them either. They'd rather take the whole family on vacation so they don't have to cook or make extra beds.

That's not the case in the Melvoin family. They'll be spending Christmas together.

Dr. Leventhal, by the way, is going to Mississippi with his family as he does every year -- to help in his in-laws' store. ``It doesn't matter where you are,'' he says. ``It's being together that's important.''

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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