From her home in Leesburg, Julia Humphries, mother of boys ages 3, 7 and 9, plans family trips with great enthusiasm, often to her husband's chagrin.
He doesn't call them vacations. He calls a one-week trip "21 meals." A two-week trip is "42 meals," with the focus on the ordeal of laying out lots of cash at a table filled with what his wife admits are "messy, picky, boisterous eaters."
Ken Humphries has a point: Family travel can be a wallet-sucking, time-consuming, stress-inducing exercise in interpersonal drama. But it can also be a time of not just getting away but of coming together.
"Travel has become the new family dinner table," says Hank Phillips, president of the National Tour Association, an organization of tour operators. "Kids' schedules these days are as hectic as their parents' schedules, and trips become a key time for families to regroup."
How you plan the trip -- the pre-trip research and discussions, the rules you set, your reaction to problems -- are as important as the destination. Many parents are overwhelmed with choices, in part because the Web has made the options more obvious, in part because travel providers have created so many new choices in response to a fast-growing market. There are some logical ways to begin.
1. Set a Budget
It's better to enjoy a few happy days at a regional attraction than to spend an African safari fretting about how you're going to pay for it. Deciding what you can realistically spend not only removes stress but helps you narrow choices.
The average family's longest trip last year was 7.9 days and cost $1,005, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, a trade group. Those costs suggest that a number of families in the survey were bringing down averages in the traditional cost-saving ways: staying with relatives, camping or sharing a house with friends.
The theory is clear when you consider that even in the cheapest state in the union, a nearly eight-day stay for a family of four costs on average about $1,352 for meals and hotel rooms, according to an annual AAA study to be released later this week. On average nationwide, according to AAA, a hotel room for two adults and two kids costs $124.54 a night -- and that's assuming you don't mind crowding. Average daily meal costs for that same typical family traveling in the United States: $110.47, not including beverages, tax and tip.
That's an overall price decline of 4 percent from last year -- and a good thing, since gas prices are now about 14 cents a gallon higher than they were during last summer's historic highs. (A gallon of regular gas is now going for $1.87 a gallon on average, nationwide.)
A few cost-cutting tips:
* Choose a cheap state. Average prices for hotels and food vary dramatically by state, according to AAA. The three priciest areas for hotels and food are Hawaii ($497 a day), D.C. ($378) and Rhode Island ($306). The lowest three: Kansas ($169), North Dakota ($173) and Nebraska ($175).
* Seek out family deals. Many hotel brands offer family packages. Common deals include kids stay free, kids eat free, and buy one room, get an adjoining one at half-price.
"Ask hotels about bed-and-breakfast deals," suggests Tom Parsons, CEO of Bestfares.com, an online discount travel site. "Sometimes you'll pay an extra $10 to include breakfast, but if that gets you a buffet for four, you come out way ahead." Hotels have more gimmicks than experts can keep up with; Parsons suggests that when you call to book a room you simply ask, "What specials do you have for kids or families?"
* Join frequent-flier and frequent-stay programs. Frequent-stay points or airline miles can be cashed in for free rooms. If you have some of either but not enough for a freebie, you might have enough for an upgrade from a room to a suite, which could save you the cost of a second room. Alternately, if you can upgrade to the concierge floor, you'll not only get free breakfast but often free drinks and snacks as well.
2. Choose a Destination
* Brainstorm options as a family. It's always a good idea to ask your kids where they want to go. But that doesn't mean handing over control of the trip to them, experts point out.
"It might be better to decide the destination, then talk about things you each want to do," says Susie Kohl, author of five parenting books, including most recently, "The Best Things Parents Do." If the parents happen to want to go to their child's number one choice, fine, she adds, but don't follow their wishes "because they demand or you're intimidated."
Gail Gross, an author and family expert who hosts the PBS show "Let's Talk," suggests that parents choose two or three destinations that are within their budget, then let the children vote. Or ask the children to write down five things they'd like to do; the parents can choose a destination that fulfills at least one wish of each family member.
* Consider a travel agent. If a trip to the library, a Web search of tourism bureaus and discussions with friends have left you paralyzed with options, consider a travel agent. The American Society of Travel Agents allows you to search for agents not only by location -- which is not that important in these days of e-ticketing and instant communications -- but by specialty, and even a destination within a specialty. (Go to www.astanet.com and click on "For Travelers." The society plans to revamp its Web site next month.)
* Think creatively. Want your kids to learn something on vacation? Inexpensive options recommended by experts include historical sites, especially those that create a living history environment with actors in period costumes; nature talks and walks led by park rangers; and history lessons offered by cities, such as the night-time walks in the steps of our forefathers operated by Philadelphia's tourism bureau (for details about the night walk: 800-537-7676, www.gophila.com). Two living history options within a few hours' drive of Washington include Fort Bedford in Bedford, Pa. (814-623-8891 www.bedfordcounty.net) and Colonial Williamsburg (757-229-1000, www.history.org). Most national parks and many state parks offer special programs (see resources box on Page P2 for details).
If your budget is more expansive, check out what's new with tour operators, hotels, resorts and cruise lines. Many traditionally adult-oriented businesses are now catering to families, notes Emily Kaufman, whose Web site, www.thetravelmom.com, carries tips, articles and ads. Cruise lines, she says, are moving to capture the family market and parents' desires to buy learning along with their trip. For example, some cruise lines in Alaska offer lessons on wildlife and geography, she says. The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. has created a "river bonding" experience in which kids and parents join for old-fashioned fun like flying kites off the stern or listening to a storyteller share river lore.
3. Set Rules
Giving kids choices within whatever parameters you've set invests them in the experience, says Gross. But those pre-trip planning meetings are a good time to discuss not only what you'll be doing but what you won't be doing. Anticipate the things that could drive you nuts -- wet towels thrown into the luggage, constant whining about buying things -- and agree upfront how things will go.
Sometimes, you can avoid problems by anticipating them. For example, if a spending allowance is decided ahead of time, "parents aren't put in the position of having to answer demands continually," says Kohl.
Just because you've saved all year for something, and the anticipation of it kept you going through dreary days, don't expect it to be perfect. Unrealistic expectations are deal-killers, experts agree. That problem goes hand-in-hand with overscheduling.
Schedule some down time, says Phillips of the National Tour Association, and be flexible enough to add it as you go, if circumstances suggest it.
And when things go wrong, adapt. In fact, problems are opportunities for important life lessons, says Doug Kennedy, a professor and coordinator of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Virginia Wesleyan College, and the father of two young children.
"Some of the best travel experiences we've had came when things didn't go right," he says. "It teaches children to be spontaneous, to overcome adversity, to be ready for the surprises life brings."
A missed plane connection, for example, left him and his family in a Philadelphia airport overnight with only the clothes on their backs.
They ended up, he says, having one of the best times of their lives.