Frequent weekend trips are small wonders Breathers: Mini-vacations can brighten spirits and help family relationships. There's less stress for adults and no time for kids to get bored.

Taking the Kids

January 28, 1996|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

In the past 18 months, the Zuckerman boys have slept on a schooner, mined for gems, fished for lobsters, rafted down a river, sung along with musical theater and explored an old fort, an ice cave and many science museums. And that's just on the weekends.

"One big vacation: You go and then it's over. With weekend trips, there's always something to look forward to. We go 15 or 20 times a year," says their father, Art Zuckerman, who runs a computer business in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Move over, couples and singles. Families have discovered the joys of mini-vacations, too. Despite full calendars of soccer games, swim meets and birthday parties, parents and kids now are racking up 64 million weekend trips annually, the U.S. Travel Data Center, the research arm of the Travel Industry Association, reports.

"It breaks our schedule, and we get away from the phone. It's really good for the whole family," explains Kate Day, a Seattle landscape architect. Ms. Day takes off on weekends whenever she can with her husband and two kids to ski, hike, canoe or simply see a place they haven't been.

The Zuckermans approach their weekends with the same zeal as they would a European tour, researching every destination ahead of time. "We love to travel," explains Art Zuckerman. "These trips get our juices flowing."

Other families opt for the same retreat. "Those weekends together at our cabin are the only time as a family we sit down and play games and read books together. Everyone is very mellow," says Palo Alto, Calif., orthodontist Lesley Samuels, whose family heads to Lake Tahoe as many weekends as they can. "The minute we open the door to the cabin," she says, "we all feel better."

Weekends are short enough for bitterly warring siblings to set their differences aside, temporarily at least. They're not long enough for kids to get bored either, even at some historic site. Also, because expectations aren't as high as for a big vacation, no one usually comes home disappointed.

That may be why new stepfamilies find that weekend trips provide an ideal vehicle for forging new relationships, while grown children say they also can renew old ties.

There's another reason parents are such enthusiastic weekend family travelers: It's easier to escape the office for a few days than for a week or more. "There's so much stress getting ready to leave for a long time," explains Dr. Samuels.

Not to mention the expense; a weekend trip is cheaper. The Zuckermans always travel by car rather than plane and go no farther than 250 miles from home. The Days camp when weather permits and otherwise tote an electric fry pan so they can cook some meals in.

The Zuckermans' budget tip: Seek out weekend discounts at city hotels.

Hilton Hotels, for example, offer BounceBack weekend deals that include continental breakfast for all members of the family and room rates discounted 20 to 50 percent (call [800] HILTON). Marriott Hotels announced a Two for Breakfast weekend getaway that includes breakfast for two each day, discounted dinners and room rates as low as $69 ([800] 228-9290).

Remember, there's no need to go far from home to chase away the winter blahs. A trip to the local motel-with-a-pool can be just the ticket. One Super Bowl weekend, for example, Fran and Terry Jones bundled up their two daughters and checked into a Holiday Inn less than an hour from their Indiana home. While Dad watched the game, the girls swam and Mom lounged with a book.

Hoteliers want to make it just as easy for families who are willing to hop on a plane for a weekend. Sheraton vacation packages can send a family to Arizona or Florida, among other places, with a deal that includes discounted airfare and car rentals as well as resort accommodations ([800] 555-4540).

Families even can check into a Club Med for a quick Thursday-to-Sunday vacation fix at the Sandpiper family village in Florida ([800] CLUBMED).

Before getting on the phone to the travel agent, however, stop and consider the kids' ages. While older ones will love the adventure a quick trip somewhere new offers, preschoolers and toddlers may become so distressed by a change of routine that the trip isn't worth the effort.

"If you are going for a weekend, go where the children's schedule won't be disrupted," advises Jill Waterman, a child psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. Stick to their nap and meal schedules and bring along anything that might make them feel more secure. Besides their favorite "lovey," a sheet from their crib and a nightlight from their room can work wonders.

Older kids, on the other hand, need more time to adjust on the other end -- when they get home, to decompress before school.

They, of course, will jump in the car and take off at any opportunity, especially if it means postponing homework.

"The more out-of-the-ordinary, the more special it seems and the better they like it," says Dr. Margie Hogan, a Minneapolis pediatrician and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Hogan didn't blink at packing up her four kids and driving all night to visit friends in St. Louis for the weekend. "Be spontaneous," she urges.

That's after making certain, of course, that the biggest party or most important game of the century isn't scheduled.

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