Thank heaven for little wheels.

These days, you'll find them on everything from backpacks to duffel bags, as well as those ubiquitous boxy suitcases no well-equipped business traveler seems to leave the office without. Increasingly, traveling families -- including mine -- swear by them too.

``With the kids holding on to their own luggage, I've got a hand free to hold on to a kid,'' explains Brian Beihl, a New Hampshire dad of three who checked out more than a dozen kinds for his new Family on Board travel products catalog.
``Having everyone in the family in charge of their own suitcase is great for lowering the stress level of being in an airport,'' adds Northern California mom Saskia Amaro.

And being in hotels, too, agrees Nancy Schretter, who as head of AOL's Family Travel Network travels frequently with her two daughters. ``The kids aren't arguing over who has more room in the suitcase. They each have their own space.''

And a new toy. For young children, the suitcase wheels turn a boring chore into a sure-to-please game. The kids will be too busy rolling their suitcases or backpacks along to remember they're bored/hungry/too tired to walk another step -- most of the time, anyway.

Washington, D.C.-based United Flight Attendant Susan Irick lets her 3-year-old daughter Brittany roll her small carry-on right to the gate, just like mom. When Brittany gets tired, Irick adds, she simply hooks the bag right onto the stroller.

Personally, I'm delighted to avoid being the family pack mule as we trudge from gate through airport to rented minivan to big hotel parking lot. The kids have become experts at pulling their own bags off the luggage carousel (they've marked them with big luggage tags and brightly colored ribbons for quick identification), hooking their backpacks to their suitcases as I hook my laptop to mine. They usually beat me to the door.

``Kids want to travel just like mom and dad,'' explains Michelle Pittenger, a spokesman for the Luggage and Leather Goods Manufacturers of America. And as increasing numbers fly, it's no wonder luggage makers and catalogs are marketing wheeled luggage designed for children, starting at under $50.

L.L. Bean product developer Bart Bartholomew, in fact, got his idea for the Maine-based catalog's successful kids' luggage line seeing so many children in airports accompanying mom or dad on business trips. Also a big family seller: Bean's Adventure Duffel-on-wheels that comes in more than a dozen colors. (The kids' suitcase is $69; the duffels are $89. Call L.L. Bean at 800-221-4221 or www.llbean.com.)

For his Family on Board catalog, Brian Beihl opted for Kelty's new kids' line. I like the ``Rolling Sojourner'' duffel ($105) that has side pockets and a small, zip-off mesh backpack perfect for carrying a child's must-have gear onto a plane or in a restaurant. (Active parents might like Eagle Creek's suitcase on wheels ($245) that comes with a detachable daypack. Call 800-793-2075 or www.familyonboard.com )

Beihl advises parents to look for luggage that is guaranteed by the manufacturer and well balanced. ``A child should be able to handle a 50-pound or more bag if it's well balanced,'' he said. My 7-year-old certainly has without a problem.

Just as important is a rugged fabric that will resist tears and repel moisture. The Lands' End Catalog, for example, sells wheeled luggage made of seven-ounce nylon backed with vinyl. Parents or kids could happily use the mini-carry-on ($175). I liked all the outside pockets. (Lands' End also offers a kids' three-piece non-wheeled luggage set for $99.50. Call Lands' End at 800-356-4444 or www.landsend.com.)

The oh-so-cool Kipling line, distributed by Tumi Luggage and popular with fashion-savvy kids for their backpacks, has just introduced a mini wheel-away ideal for junior travelers. Kipling's wheeled backpacks and duffels also appear to be good bets. (The bags start at $159. Visit www.kipling.com for more information.)

The parents I talked to didn't have trouble limiting each member of the family to one small suitcase-on-wheels -- as long as they weren't planning a ski trip.

``Just prioritize what you need and bring an extra collapsible duffel for souvenirs,'' suggests Saskia Amaro, who has managed for weeks at a stretch overseas. She'll purchase secondhand sweaters before the trip so that she can leave them at her destination. Another tip: Opt for fleece pullovers rather than sweatshirts. They're warmer, dry fast and aren't as bulky.

``Plan to wash along the way,'' adds Schretter. Packing mix-and-match clothes in dark colors helps. So does not getting upset that the kids won't look spanking clean most of the time. They wouldn't anyway, no matter how much you packed.

Even better, the kids won't be as picky about their clothes as at home, said Susan Irick, who knows just how finicky a 3-year-old can be about her outfit-of-the-day. ``They understand their options are limited to what you've brought.'' And what the older ones have packed themselves. You might want to double-check their choices, though. We arrived for a big 50th anniversary party last summer only to discover my teen-aged son had remembered his dress clothes but forgotten his good shoes: He wore dirty, damp sneakers to the party.

But no matter how well your family packs your snazzy wheeled bags, don't count on wheeling them all on board. (The luggage manufacturing association's Web site at www.llgma.org lists each airline's latest carry-on rules as well as packing tips.) Because there are no industry-wide standards, the Federal Aviation Administration explains, it's not unusual for the same bag to be OK for carry-on the first leg of your flight but, as has happened to me, deemed too big for the connecting flight.

All you can do is keep your fingers crossed that the bags arrive when you do. Happy wheeling.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times

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