You see them everywhere - in airport terminals, train stations, highway rest stops. The toddler with the backpack in the shape of a soft toy, the preteen with the portable electronic game, the young parents toting disposable diapers in carry-on luggage. Families are hitting the road in record numbers.
According to the Washington-based Travel Industry Association of America, family travel accounts for 72 percent of all vacation travel in the United States. "This generation of parents views vacationing with our kids as a very positive experience," reports Dorothy Jordan, author of the "Great Vacations With Your Kids" series of travel guides. "In a fast-paced world where both parents often work outside the home, families don't get to spend that much time together. So they look forward to vacation."
Hotels, resorts, and even cruise lines have responded to this trend with a vast array of programs and amenities. At most hotels, children under 12 can stay free in the same room with their parents, and many hotels and resorts also offer children's menus. Other inducements range from free packets of toys given to youngsters at check-in to elaborate, supervised programs with hefty price tags.
At Holiday Inn hotels, children not only stay free but can also order free meals from a children's menu. Radisson's Family Magic program includes a magazine for young guests and complimentary breakfast for four, as well as a discount on a second room. Embassy Suites offers childproof accommodations with covered electrical outlets and safety-latched refrigerator doors.
Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts' complimentary Kids for All Seasons programs range from bedtime milk and cookies and kid-sized robes at the Four Seasons Boston to kite flying, sand-castle building, and croquet at the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara, Calif.
The company's Washington hotel has Tea Time for Tots, with frozen candy bars and milkshakes.
Some all-inclusive vacations also include family programs. Several Club Med resorts offer children's activities that may entail horseback riding, snow skiing, and even scuba diving. At some clubs, kids can learn to be a clown or trapeze artist. Many cruise lines also offer supervised programs that keep kids busy every day with word games, dance parties, and talent shows.
Hyatt Hotels & Resorts pioneered hotel family programs when it introduced Camp Hyatt in 1989. Today, year-round at many Hyatt resorts, children from 3 to 12 can join in activities like whale watching on Maui or exploring nature trails around Lake Tahoe.
"We did lots of crafts," says nine-year-old Hannah Newman, of Barrington, Ill. When Hannah vacationed with her parents last spring at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale in Arizona, she and her six-year-old brother took part in Camp Hyatt. "We made candles and did sand paintings. And we played games like 'Heads Up, Seven Up.' " Prices at Camp Hyatt begin at about $25 a session, and a day-long roster of activities can average $80, including lunch and snacks.
Hannah recommends the experience. "I thought it was really fun," she recalls. "The counselors were very nice. At each session, there were about 11 other kids, and I made some friends. One girl lives near me in Illinois, and we've kept in touch."
But family travel experts advise caution. "When my son was little, we went to a Club Med," remembers Ms. Jordan. "But he didn't really want to be left alone, so the resort worked it out so that we could all take the circus classes together."
Laura Sutherland, author of "The Best Family Ski Vacations in North America" and other family travel guides, points out that good counselors are key. She visited two resorts on Grand Cayman with her eight-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. "At one resort, the facilities were lavish, but the counselor was so rigid, the kids didn't have any fun. At another, the physical plant wasn't as nice, but the counselors were terrific, so the kids had a great time. A lot also depends on the other children. If your child is the only one who shows up, it's not good."
And older children and teens may rebel against organized fun. "We went to the teen program the first night, but it was boring," remembers 17-year-old Kristen Krieger of Novato, Calif. Kristen and her 14-year-old sister, Lauren, cruised the Caribbean last year with their parents aboard Royal Caribbean International's Majesty of the Seas. "But we met some other kids there. After that, Lauren and I would just go to the pool or the disco and hang out with our friends."
When all else fails, book a hotel with a swimming pool. "It can be a lifesaver," says Ms. Sutherland. "Water and kids always work well together."