That ideal vacation may take some extra planning this year

School books are about to be replaced by travel guides as a main feature in many homes. The summer vacation season is a prime travel season for families, and trips to the mountains, lakes, resorts, and beaches are about to enter the planning stages. While Europe is still a very popular destination for people taking advantage of the slightly weakening but still-strong dollar, destinations in the United States are already reporting heavy bookings.

``I planned a month in advance to go to the Rhinebeck area in upstate New York,'' says Diane Stoler, an agent with Garber Travel in Brookline, Mass. ``I had a real hard time getting a room.''

Planning a month -- or more -- ahead of time seems to be one of the important strategies for this year's domestic travel season. Other strategies for renting cars, making airline reservations, and selecting vacation spots that cater to various family needs are useful to consider.

If you're thinking about flying to your vacation spot and want to take advantage of one of the new low-cost excursion fares, don't plan to go anywhere until July or August, unless you already made reservations a month or two ago.

``Discounts of 40 to 50 percent are quite common,'' says Jeanne Epping, president of Santa Cruz (Calif.) Travel. ``Even discounts of 50 to 75 percent can be found.'' But as only about 20 to 25 percent of the seats on any one plane are usually sold at these rates, reservations may have to be made at least two months in advance, particularly if you're looking to fill four or more of those seats, she adds.

The strike by United Airlines pilots has left that airline operating at just a fraction of its normal capacity and has only added to this problem, notes Jergen Krenzien, of the Paul Klein Travel Service in Chicago. Even though other airlines have tried to take up some of the slack, ``to get any kind of 30-day advance purchase excursion fare is going to be extremely difficult now,'' he says. ``And it will be more difficult to get a seat the longer the strike goes on.''

In this situation, Mr. Krenzien says, it's a good idea to ``plan ahead and be flexible. Be willing to leave on a Tuesday instead of a Monday, for example.''

Most families, after arriving by plane, will rent a car, unless relatives or friends greet them. There are some changes on this front, too, but they are more favorable. Although Hertz and Avis still get the lion's share of the business and have been cutting rates, some of the other, smaller companies, like Budget, National, and Alamo, have been giving the big guys a run for their money, to the benefit of all consumers. As a result of this ``car rental war,'' prices are down as much as 30 to 40 percent from a year ago, Ms. Epping says.

Most sizes of cars are generally available, she adds, but if you're looking for a model to meet specific family needs, like a station wagon or van, try to call the rental companies or the travel agent as soon as you can.

Daily rental rates may be cheaper, but one rate has not gone down: drop-off charges. If you rent a car in one state and leave it in another, expect to pay drop-off charges that could match or exceed what you paid to rent it.

There will also be drop-off charges for leaving the car in different cities in the same state, but these should not be as high. And in some areas, there may be little or no charge. For example, if you rent a car in San Francisco and leave it in Los Angeles, there may be no drop-off charge, since the company should have little problem finding customers who can drive it back.

If a family is taking along small children, there may be times when the parents want to go off by themselves or visit something only they and perhaps older children would appreciate. At some resorts, this is no problem, says Cathy Sudeikis, vice-president and general manager at Travel Gallery in Overland Park, Kan.

When you're studying the brochures for these places, she says, ``look for something that says `planned children's program,' not just `children's activities.' '' At the former, she notes, there are supervised activities, crafts, games, and short trips planned specifically for small children. The latter may be nothing more than a set of swings and a large sandbox.

It's also a good idea to see if children can stay free in the parents' room, or at reduced rates in a suite. Most of the resorts contain this information in their literature, or you can find it in one of the travel guides for various states or regions. The Mobil Travel Guides are among the best at this. There are seven of these books, covering different regions of the country and each priced at $7.95.

Besides information about accommodations for children, the guides give price ranges and general information about restaurants, hotels and motels, resorts, entertainment, and things to see and do in each area.

Some of the more popular destinations for vacations this year, the travel agents say, are the Northwest, upstate New York, New England, the Ozarks, and the lake areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin. So you can look for less-crowded areas or, heeding the rest of the advice here, be flexible and make plans and reservations as early as possible.

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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