Sally Geisse was supposed to be in paradise -- a luxurious Hawaiian resort with Oh wow! swimming pools, lush tropical gardens and plenty for her children to do. But with a baby, a toddler and a 5-year-old crammed into one hotel room, it sure didn't feel anything close to heaven.
"Someone was always napping in my room," said Ms. Geisse, who lives in San Francisco. "And just getting to breakfast with the kids took 15 minutes. If we forgot the baby's bottle -- God forbid!" In retrospect, maybe a beachside condo, where the family could have comfortably spread out, would have been a better bet.
As Stephanie Bass discovered in Orlando, Fla., however, even plenty of room and a kitchen don't necessarily make for a perfect family vacation.
"In a hotel the kids all meet in the lobby," explained Ms. Bass, my neighbor in Connecticut. "Sure, we could make breakfast at the condo, but Jessie didn't have anyone to play with. She was miserable."
As summer vacation approaches, many parents are still grappling with which way to go: Splurge and book the gang into a resort with all the bells and whistles or opt for a more economical beach cottage, mountain cabin or condo. That's unless you're planning to pitch a tent or swap homes with someone. (More about those ideas in future columns.)
The decision is important wherever you go. "Families see the place they stay as key to the success of the vacation," explains Nancy Schretter. As president of America Online's new Family Travel Network, Ms. Schretter is monitoring the increasing electronic mail parents are exchanging on the subject.
Check the expense
The wrong place, parents say, can ruin the trip, not to mention the checkbook balance. The right one -- and that doesn't necessarily mean the most expensive -- can make the vacation the most memorable yet. How to choose well?
First, set the budget. Next, consider everyone's expectations. Shave a day or two off the trip, if necessary, to afford the place where everyone would most like to be. If the kids are old enough, include them in the discussion. Ask yourselves:
Is this a quiet trip for the family to kick back together, or do the kids insist that plenty of other kids, mega-pools and the latest sports equipment are essential to their happiness? Do mom and dad need some time alone together that a resort's children's programs would allow them?
How important is space in the equation? You'll get more space for your dollar at a rental condo or house.
If you want to be pampered, freed from all household chores and decisions, a resort would be the place for you.
"When you stay at a condo, you have to organize your own trip," says Dana Skruggs, a California lawyer who gives a thumbs up to both kinds of family vacations. "At a resort, you don't have to do anything."
Amenities are a big reason many families go the resort route. "If you want the snazzy wave pool, you won't have it at the condo," says Nancy Schretter. You also might not have children's programs or even a guarantee of kids in the vicinity, not to mention room service or a glitzy spa.
But talk to those who broker condos and villas and they'll gladly list all of the pluses for families.
"It's certainly nice to have your own swimming pool and garden and be a part of the local scene," says Claire Packman, who runs At Home Abroad, which specializes in renting country and seaside homes in Europe and the Caribbean. (Call  421-9165.)
For another European option this year especially geared to kids, check out the new program by Country Cottages, offering English cottages and homes near places associated with Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh and King Arthur, among others. Prices range from $589 a week for a farm cottage to more than $3,000 for a 16th-century manse. (Call  674-8883.)
"Families don't live in one room at home, so why should they have less on vacation?" says Rick Fisher, president of Condo Travel Associates. "Besides it's expensive to eat out every meal with kids." (Call  492-6636.)
It's expensive to send laundry out, too. Whether it's England or Montana, "Kids get clothes dirty. You want to be able to throw in a wash," adds Mike Thiel. Mr. Thiel is the founder of the 20,000-member travel club Hideaways International, which serves as a clearinghouse for vacation homes for rent, but also books some resorts. (Call  843-4433 to get the club's newly updated book, "Villa Vacations Made Easy." It costs $5. A trial membership costs $39.95. For a free North American Directory of Vacation Rentals, Townhouses, Villas and Condominiums, published by the Vacation Rental Managers Association, call  871-8762).
Can't decide? There's a small but growing number of family-friendly resorts that provide at least some villa-type accommodations along with the amenities of a hotel. Have your travel agent check family packages at Windjammer Landing on St. Lucia or Palmas Del Mar Resort in Puerto Rico, Amelia Island in Florida, Kiawah Island in South Carolina, Hawk Inn and Mountain Resort or Smugglers' Notch in Vermont. You want a place that offers kids' programs, laundry facilities, meals and condos rather than rooms.
"Super Family Vacations," by Martha Shirk and Nancy Klepper ($15, HarperCollins) includes 140 pages of family resort information.
Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053 or e-mail to eogintol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in coming columns.
Pub Date: 4/21/96