Making a Break for it this Spring

Get ready, get packed, GO!

That's exactly what at least 170 million families are doing this spring, the Travel Industry Association says in its new research report. They'll be building sand castles at beaches, standing in line at theme parks and trying to keep warm in their tents at lakeside camp grounds.

``People feel good about their personal finances and about the economy,'' explains Shawn Flaherty, a spokesman for the Travel Industry Association, the research arm of the tourism industry. ``We're anticipating more kids out there,'' she says.

But parents packing for spring breaks tell me it's often more a matter of schedules than money in the bank. For many families, it's simply easier to coordinate a spring break than a summer one, when one child must go to summer school the first half of the summer and another must be home the weeks before school starts for football and hockey clinics.

Other travel experts attribute the especially strong travel season to the aftermath of the harsh winter of 1996: Many booked 1997 spring getaways in anticipation of more blizzards. They didn't cancel when the snow failed to materialize.

``This has been the wildest year for Florida I've ever seen,'' said Boston travel agent Carol Hannum, who suggested that families still wanting a place in the sun ought to book a charter package because other flights were booked weeks ago.

Cruise spokesmen advised giving up altogether, until summer or fall. ``I hate to say it but it would be very difficult to get a family on a ship now if they hadn't booked months ago,'' said Princess Cruises spokeswoman Julie Benson. How about Alaska this summer, instead? There's still space, she said.

But, you're thinking, that's not going to help if you need the break NOW. Whether you leave home or not, when the kids are off from school for spring break, you'll have to take vacation or hire an extra baby sitter. Here's how you can spend the time and money having fun instead of cleaning out the attic. You might even find a deal, if you look hard enough. A tip for parents of the not-yet-in-school crowd: Vacation in late April, May or before the end of June to save even more money. For the rest of you seeking fun in the sun instead of a week washing winter clothes, changing the oil or painting the garage, consider:

-- The springtime special at the luxe Cheeca Lodge known for its eco-smart children's activities, water sports and fishing in the Florida Keys. It's one of George Bush's favorite spots. Ask about the ``Family Fun'' package that includes unlimited tennis and golf and Camp Cheeca for 6- to 12-year-olds for $7 a half-day. Call 800-327-2888 and ask about swimming with the dolphins.

-- Families also can check out dolphins at the Hawk's Cay Marina on-site Marine Mammal Center, take a tennis clinic or explore the Florida Keys in a kayak. After April 6, a five-night stay (starting Sunday or midweek) for a family of four, including breakfast and use of water toys can be had for under $600. This includes the supervised Pirate's Club program for the 5- to 12-year-olds for $10 a child. Call 800-432-2242 and ask about extending the family package for $50 a night.

-- The all-suite Pointe Hilton Resort in Phoenix where, thanks to business no-shows, prices have just been slashed by nearly a third to $199 a night (Sunday-Wednesday). Rates on weekends are a third higher. The kids will love the 137-foot flume ride at the new Pointe Hilton Resort at Tapatio Cliffs and 130-foot water slide and Coyote Camp at its resort at Squaw Peak. Ask about the $79 introductory summer rates at Tapatio Resort. Call 800-747-7111.

-- In Mexico and the Dominican Republic, the all-inclusive Allegro Resorts ``Kiddie Kraze'' begins April 15 and allows, for each paying adult, one child age 12 or under to stay, play (in organized activities) and eat free. Cost for a week: Under $1,900, plus air fare. Call 800-858-2258. Ask your travel agent about available charters.

-- Starting April 1 on St. Croix, the 150-room Buccaneer offers a two-bedroom family cottage for less than $1,400 weekly plus air fare, including full breakfast for a family of four, snorkeling gear, beach toys and supervised children's activities for those out of diapers to preteens. Call 800-255-3881 and ask about special charter flights.

-- Ninety minutes from New York, Rocking Horse Ranch offers urbanites an all-inclusive getaway with horseback riding, thanks to ``the largest stable of saddle horses in the east,'' hiking, fishing and swimming in heated pools. Four-day, three-night packages average less than $1,000 for a family of four. Ask about spring break specials. Call 800-647-2624.

-- It won't be swimming weather, but the beaches are pristine and crowds nowhere to be found on Massachusetts's famed Martha's Vineyard. The beaches are open all year and hotel rooms can be had for as little as $45 a night. Try the Tisbury Inn at 800-332-4112 or the Harbor View Hotel at 800-225-6005.

-- In California, outside of San Diego, the Rancho Bernardo Inn is touting its two-night ``Family Ties'' package: $259 a night buys a family of four a suite, dinner both nights and four tickets either for Sea World or the San Diego Zoo. Call 800-542-6096.

-- Yosemite National Park lovers will be pleased to know that despite the winter's floods, there's still space at the Curry Village Canvas Cabins for $40 a night. There's no heat so dress warmly. For reservations, call 209-252-4848.

If roughing it isn't your style and there's no room at Yosemite's famed Ahwahnee Hotel, consider the decidedly upscale but affordable Tenaya Lodge in the Sierra National Forest, just two miles from the park's south entrance. There's an indoor heated pool, mountain biking and ``flashlight'' hikes at night. The kids can pan for gold and learn to rock-climb. Evening children's activities are offered. Rates for a three-night stay mid-week now are $109 per room. Call 800-635-5807.

Wherever you opt to go, be as flexible as possible about departure and return dates and times of flights. Try budget airlines and other airports in the vicinity where you want to travel. For example, if Miami is booked, try Orlando or West Palm Beach. Head to San Jose or Oakland when San Francisco-bound flights are full.

Consider flights after 7 p.m. or before 7 a.m.. They're typically cheaper, suggests Ned Booth, a spokesman for SABRE INTERACTIVE, the computerized system used to book more than 40 percent of domestic air tickets. (Many travel agents now use the SABRE system. Consumers can access it on the Web through the Internet travel site www.Travelocity.com. Look for the ``Hot Deals'' section on the Family Travel Network that also is designed for families.)

Be adventurous. The more open you are about trying a new (read that less well-known) destination and the better deal you'll likely find. Of course, there's one reliable, affordable standby that's bound to have space available and comes with meals: grandma's house.

Give her a hug for me.

(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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