Buying A Few Traveling Stocking Stuffers

I love IOUs.

Not for money; I'm talking about IOUs I always wish the kids would hide in my Christmas stocking. I'd cash them in on our next trip.

Too bad my gang rarely gets my not-so-subtle hints. Not only are IOUs the cheapest gift they could find, but a welcome one, especially when we're traveling over the holidays. Maybe they'd owe me an extra two hours of sleep one morning. I'm guaranteed an afternoon of free baby-sitting for 7-year-old Melanie -- minus the usual ``Do we have to?'' Maybe the two older ones could promise an afternoon on the highway when I pick the radio station.

Okay, maybe I'm getting greedy. The point is no matter what your favorite travelers' ages, there are many thoughtful gifts -- some homemade, some purchased -- that can make life on the road a lot more pleasant. Just ask the family travel experts.

Know a traveling grandma or grandpa? ``They'd love a small photo album of the grandchildren, with a note from each reminding the grandparents to write to them,'' suggests Helena Koenig, the grandmother who started the Grandtravel agency specializing in intergenerational trips.

Funny socks are always welcome, too. ``Anything you can change when you're traveling is great,'' Koenig explains.

So is something to write about your adventures. Every traveler, no matter what age, would like a personal travel journal, especially when it's hand-made just for them, suggests Kurt Kutay, whose company Wildland Adventures sends many families on exotic trips. All you need is a blank hard-back notebook, pictures and maps of the upcoming trip. Glue in the pictures and -- presto! -- the perfect journal.

If making presents isn't your style, traveling grade-schoolers would like Rand McNally's Trip Tracker Journal that comes complete with stickers, markers and the chance to ``mood check'' every day whether they feel up/down/excited/bored or other. (The Trip Tracker is $16.95 in bookstores or from www.randmcnally.com. Add the little $2.95 ``Travels With Santa'' sticker book so kids can help Santa get on his way -- just the thing for a Christmas Eve car or plane trip.)

Another welcome gift for those interminable nighttime car trips: The headlamps that backpackers and climbers use to keep their hands free will keep the kids happy, says American Wilderness Experience's Dave Wiggins.

Campers in the family, meanwhile, would love to find the Leatherman Pocket Survival tool in the bottom of their stocking so on the trail they'd never be without a wire cutter/screwdrivers/can opener/pliers -- 12 tools in all. (Order both the $28 headlamp and $38 Leatherman from L.L. Bean. Call 800-221-4221 or www.llbean.com.)

For another kind of survival, Family on Board Catalog founder Brian Beihle hands out Lynn Gordon's card decks that promise 52 fun things to do in the car and the plane when he sees grumpy kids (and parents) in airports.
The cards might offer respite -- for a few minutes anyway -- from the when-are-we-going-to-get-there chorus. Some of the ideas are silly enough to work, especially with younger kids. Here's one I might try on our holiday flight: write down all of the colors of the rainbow and all of the geometric shapes you can think of. Now look around the plane and try to match your list. My kids, of course, would make this a contest. Winner gets the last piece of bubble gum! ($6.95 from Chronicle Books. To order, call Family on Board at 800-357-0212 or www.familyonboard.com.)

Once you've survived the trip, your favorite coffee lover will kiss you that first hotel morning for the tiny dual-voltage hot drip coffee maker that comes with two cups, promises family travel author Laura Sutherland, who wouldn't leave home without one. ``You can have fresh coffee without getting the kids up for breakfast -- and without room service prices,'' she says. Use the little gadget to make the kids hot chocolate or soup too. (It's $29.95 from the Magellan's travel catalog. Call 800-962-4943 or www.magellans.com)

While you're ordering from Magellan's, get the frequent fliers in your family the fleece-covered Bucky travel pillow, ideal for plane seats, adds Nancy Schretter, the founder of AOL's Family Travel Network. Schretter says her kids love them in the car as well as in the air ($24.85).
New moms, meanwhile, will thank you every time they take their baby or toddler to a restaurant if you send them the Sling Seat that instantly makes any highbacked chair a safe baby seat. It looks like a backward, well-padded diaper, fastening to the back of the chair. Even better, it's small enough to stash in a diaper bag and ideal if you need to keep the baby in one place in a hotel room for a few minutes, said Family Travel Forum's Kyle McCarthy, who says it was one of the best gifts her mother-in-law gave her. (It's $14.98 from the Lillian Vernon catalog. Call 800-285-5555 or www.lillianvernon.com.)

Moms of terrible 2-year-olds will be thrilled that their traveling companion is too busy to kick the seatback of the person sitting in front of them on the plane because they're playing the $9.99 Winnie the Pooh Smart Stick electronic toy from Tiger Electronics. Pooh's (not too annoying) voice prompts your child to locate specific body parts by pressing the appropriate part of him. ``Foot, that tickles!'' he says. The six-inch-tall ``Pooh'' is perfect backpack-size. Even better, there are no pieces to lose!

For those able to manage a few pieces -- 42 to be exact -- hand them a mini 3D puzzle of the Empire State Building ($5.99 from Milton Bradley) that's just a little more than a foot high and perfect for junior puzzle lovers, especially those headed to the Big Apple.

Whew -- I have something for everyone on my list. Now if only I could figure out a way to make at least a couple of those IOUs land in my stocking. Are you paying attention, elves?

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

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