Ah, the family vacation! What fertile memories contemplation of this annual ritual conjures up: a moving garbage dump, incessant choruses of "Are we there yet?" (begun three blocks from home), sibling assault and battery, pit-stops every 15 miles and . . .
As humorist Robert Benchley put it: "There are two classes of travel -- first class and with children."
If the above describes your last family vacation, take heart. This summer, traveling with your children can be such a pleasure you'll look forward to the adventure. At least according to Dorothy Jordon, founder and managing director of Travel With Your Children (TWYCH), a New York-based resource center dedicated to encouraging family togetherness through travel. Toward this noble end, the TWYCH center publishes a monthly newsletter, Family Travel Times, designed to simplify the task of planning great family vacations.
"Traveling with kids is not only not impossible, it can be fun," says Jordon, who began TWYCH after 17 years in the travel business that included operating a travel agency specializing in sports vacations, authoring the Official Student Travel Guide to Europe and Israel and editing the quarterly newsletter The Informed Traveler.
"Children add a new perspective to your travel. First of all, children make friends more easily than adults do. They're not intimidated, so they open up a whole new world.
"I think you also do things very differently when you travel with children because you can't plan to do as much as you would without them. The result is that you're much more selective about what you're going to do. Your vacation is going to be much more leisurely because children slow you down."
The mother of two young sons (now 5 and 8) does acknowledge, however, that "traveling with children, especially the smaller ones, can be difficult, which is why when vacation looms in front of us it can be a little frightening."
With more than 60 percent of all mothers of children now working outside their homes, Jordon believes "family vacations have become almost mandatory" for preserving sanity and unity. "After all, when else do we spend quality, relaxed time with our children?"
One reason family vacations have such bad reputations is that in the past, parents usually found themselves "making do" at hotels and resorts that tolerated children (barely), but certainly didn't encourage their visits or provide the necessary accommodations and services.
The baby boom -- and the resultant lucrative market -- has changed all of this. "The travel industry." says Jordon, "is finally starting to realize that people travel with their children."
But, she adds, "No matter how much we love our children, when we're on vacation, we also need time to be people, not just parents." Which is why she tracks down destinations for family vacations that offer supervised facilities for children to play with other children.
"One of the things that lots of families do, that is not necessarily wrong, it's just different from the way I feel, is that they think the only time they can be away from their kids is at night. I firmly believe that children need the company of other children as much on vacation as they do at home."
One of the more liberating flights of fancy that occurs after reading a few issues of Jordon's newsletter is the idea that family vacations do not have to be limited to Orlando, Fla.'s Walt Disney World (the No. 1 family attraction with 22.4 million visitors last year, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions).
"Disney World is a great family vacation, but it's not the only family vacation," says Jordan. "The more I speak to people the more I discover that they're going on the same vacation all the time."
How about a family sea cruise? (TWYCH publishes a specific guide, Cruising With Children, that details more than 35 cruise lines and more than 90 ships that offer family accommodations, including children's activity programs, children's meal services and baby-sitting.) Says Jordon: "On the right cruise, the allure and romance of sea travel is there, even with the children."
An adventure vacation? Consider, for example, the Family Trek in Nepal: 19 days with stays in Katmandu and a trek through the Himalayas with porters to carry the gear (or kids).
Or the Kenya Wildlife Safari for Families. Or Sobek Expeditions Inc., which offers families rafting and native festivals in New Guinea, exploring in Machu Picchu, a trip to the Galapagos Islands and a family Patagonia Overland exploration of fjords and ice, vast lakes and granite peaks.
No, you are not hallucinating.
"You can really do any vacation you want with your children," insists Jordon, with three caveats: "You have the right attitude, you can afford that vacation, and you do your homework beforehand. You must plan the vacation."
The right attitude, Jordon explains, means "that you plan to enjoy this vacation. For example, if a parent calls me and has a young child and is planning to take a trip to Mexico and then spends the first 10 minutes on the phone telling me how concerned they are about the water supply and the child coming down with stomachaches, I'll tell them perhaps they should wait to go to Mexico when their child is older. If you have a lot of fears before you even go, you're not going to relax.
"I think the more you can involve the children in the planning process, the more successful a family vacation it will be. The best way to plan a vacation is to start with the needs of your youngest child and work your way up.
"There is no such thing as the best family vacation," she says. "The best family vacation is the one that works best for your family."
Family Travel Times, published monthly, $24 a year by Travel With Your Children, 80 Eighth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10011. (212) 206-0688. Sample issue, $1.