The secret of a successful family vacation? Other than vast quantities of money, unlimited patience and followup psychotherapy? Preparation. Here are some books, Web sites and other resources that can help you get ready.
We started with piles of unsolicited travel guides sent to us by publishers. Then we stopped by Candida's World of Books on 14th Street in Northwest D.C. for some expert advice on other options, plumped our pillows and settled down for browsing. These drifted to the top of our favorites pile:
* "Exotic Travel Destinations for Families" (Santa Monica Press, $16.95), written by serious globe-trekkers Jennifer M. and Bill Nichols, begins each chapter with an extended family travelogue, plus photos, to help readers visualize the experience. We found especially useful the resource section at the end of each chapter that directs you to tourism offices and suggests books and movies about that country. Best used for picking a destination; once you decide, get another guidebook for more detail.
* "Fodor's Family Adventures" (Fodor's, $16.95), by Christine Loomis, lists outfitters by activity -- for example, cattle drives, dog sledding and RV adventures. Questions to ask the outfitter are provided for each category -- to encourage traveling families to find out ahead of time what exactly they are getting into.
* The "Fun with the Family" series (Globe Pequot Press, $12.95) has an edition for each of 30 states, with more to come. Judging from the Virginia edition, the series doesn't take you far off the beaten track. But if you're heading to a state you don't know as well as we know Virginia, this book will assure you don't miss a major attraction.
* The books in Fodor's series on U.S. and international cities, "Around [Name of City] With Kids" (Fodor's, $11), are just the right size for tucking into a purse or diaper bag. Numerous day-trip descriptions are accompanied by detailed information crucial for traveling with children, such as where to find food after a visit to the Atlanta Cyclorama or the State Capitol. A big high-five to the high-five lists that recommend the five best things in town.
* Our top pick isn't in the strictest sense a travel guidebook. But we think "Catch a Fish, Throw a Ball, Fly a Kite" (Three Rivers Press, $12.95), by Jeffrey Lee, is the perfect take-along Baedeker for the vacationing family. It provides illustrated instructions for teaching 21 "timeless skills," such as those mentioned in the title, as well as building a fire, making a sand castle, playing a blade of grass. Of course, you could teach your child any of these skills without straying far from home, but do you make the time?
At first glance, it seems absurd that the instructions for skipping a stone span 10 pages. Yet knowing a skill is not the same as knowing how to teach it. The step-by-step, non-condescending directions for this particular life essential cover grip, stance, spin and throw, troubleshooting and safety advice. Each chapter begins with a nostalgically sweet essay by the author.
Sometimes it seems there are as many travel Web sites as there are kids. Here are some sites we've found particularly helpful in planning or taking family trips.
* Amusement Parks. As of May 21, you can search for links to 450 amusement parks in the United States at www.ticketforfun.com. The International Association of Amusement Parks will soon begin adding links to 1,000 international parks.
* Campgrounds. You can book campsites in national parks and some state parks at Reserve America, www.reserveamerica.com, where you'll also find ideas for family adventures. For private campgrounds, with campsites and cottages, check Kampgrounds of America at www.koa.com.
* Children's' Museums. Find more than 200 children's museums in the United States and many more overseas at the Association of Children's Museums, www.childrensmuseums.org.
* City Travel. A parent-produced site, GoCityKids (www.GoCityKids.com) lists child-related activities in 13 U.S. cities, with more to come. Comprehensive info includes events calendars, shows, shopping, kid-friendly hotels and playgrounds. Best of all, you can narrow your search by age.
* Disney Plus. Disney produces the content at www.family.com/travel, but this site also includes non-Disney vacation ideas, plus travel tips. For first-timers planning a Disney trip, the tips at MouseSavers.com (www.mousesavers.com) can help make the process less daunting, and less brutal to the wallet..
* Dude Ranches. The Dude Ranch Association links with hundreds of choices at www.duderanch.org.
* General Help. Find age-appropriate destinations and handy lists of special events and festivals at Family Travel Files, www.thefamilytravelfiles.com. Site also reviews age-appropriate destinations.
* National Parks. Alphabetical lists of national parks, with links to each park and photographs, are found at the National Park Service site, www.nps.gov. You can also search by geographical area or topic, such as boating, dinosaurs, Civil War.
* Outdoor Recreation. A tremendous resource courtesy of the U.S. government, www.recreation.gov offers maps, info about trails and historic sites, national seashores, wildlife areas, scenic byways and more . . . Looking for a bike tour? At www.backroads.com, you can find a tour that allows you to trailer the toddler, while beginning cyclists participate with a one-wheeled bike that hooks to yours. Site also includes hiking, boating and a multitude of sports . . . Snow is the sole focus of www.kidznsnow.com, run by the private Kidz n' Fun, which offers ideas and destinations for sledding, skiing, snowshoeing and all other manner of snow activities . . . If warm water is more your thing, turn to Snuba International's www.snuba.com for info about snuba diving -- a kid-friendly scuba experience that uses diving gear but keeps the diver tethered to a boat . . . Nature in its many forms is the purvey of the Sierra Club. Check out their family trips, including some for grandparents and grandkids, at www.sierraclub.org/outings.
* Single Parents. Weekend packages and one-week tours for single parents traveling with kids are the specialty of Single Parent Tours, www.singleparenttours.com.
* Travel Agents. The American Society of Travel Agents not only vets its members but allows you to search for an agent by specialty, including family travel, at www.astanet.com.
* Family Travel Network, www.familytravelnetwork.com. Inexpensive vacation deals, tips and links to family-friendly travel agents. Free.
* Family Travel Forum, www.familytravelforum.com. Subscription-based newsletter, produced by a group of independent business professionals with family travel experience, with tips, links to other family sites and lists of family-friendly travel agents. $38 annually.
* Family Travel Times, www.familytraveltimes.com. Subscription-based newsletter free of advertising, with a focus on vacations that appeal to adults as well as kids. $39 annually, $49 for two years.
-- Catherine Baker