Today's Family Vacations: Pack Up the Car, Pick Up, and Go

IT'S April, and one might assume that families have already made summer vacation plans. Some surely have, yet the majority are probably still warming to the task, according to one travel industry watcher.

"The family vacation process is short," says Michael Pina, a spokesman for the Washington-based Travel Industry Association of America. "Most are planned within the same month as the trip."

Families can afford to wait because by and large they travel by car. Eighty to 85 percent of all American travel, Mr. Pina says, is by automobile, compared with about 15 percent by plane, and less than 1 percent for all other forms of transportation, including bus and train.

Using a car not only lets people pick up and go when and where they want, it's economical. The latest study indicates the average cost of an American family vacation is $1,043.

Millions, of course, continue to hit the road for the ocean or beach, the perennial favorite destination for American travelers, who also flock to amusement parks. Educators may be comforted to learn, however, that travelers show a growing desire for something beyond relaxation and recreation. This, plus the affordability factor, have combined to make historic sites more popular.

"Historic sites have gone from nowhere 10 or 15 years ago to the No. 2 destination for family trips," says Peter Mason, the spokesman for the annual Better Homes and Gardens family travel survey. "Visiting historic sites doesn't cost you an arm and a leg, and when you get back, everybody's actually learned something."

One trend that the industry continues to watch is adventure travel, especially the "soft" variety, meaning camping, hiking, biking, skiing, and other outdoor activities that are more mainstream than "hard adventure" activities such as whitewater rafting.

About 98 million Americans have taken adventure trips in the past five years, Pina says. Camping is the top choice and one families with children under 18 years of age are most likely to do together.

An emerging trend that appeals to certain families, mostly with teenagers, is volunteer vacations. "It's been a growing travel trend for adults and it's just starting to take off for families," says Laura Sutherland, a travel writer well-versed on the family travel business (see story, below).

These volunteer experiences range from house construction for Habitat for Humanity to trail maintenance in a state or national park to turtle-tagging for a marine research project. Ms. Sutherland says parents like these vacations because they teach the value of helping others. "They tend to be a rougher style of vacation, though," she says, sometimes with spartan living quarters.

While some choose to rough it, others find the family-friendly accommodations of hotels and motels increasingly attractive.

All-suite hotels have begun to take off, says Kathryn Potter, a spokeswoman for the American Hotel & Motel Association. "Suite chains are a huge area of growth for the lodging industry," she says. "There are about 20 chains now, and 15 were probably introduced last year," she notes.

One reason suites are hot is their appeal to business travelers and families too. Suites cost more but then they offer family travelers more, such as a sitting room with TV and often a foldout bed so that the family can stay in one unit.

It isn't just suite hotels that have an eye on the family market. Traditional-style, luxury hotels have been rolling out the red carpet for young visitors for a while, led by the Camp Hyatt program. The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts were just selected as the No. 1 choice by readers of Family Fun magazine. One mother was impressed when the milk with a complimentary snack was delivered in a bucket of ice. But with an average room costing $435 a night, this is not a realistic option for most families. The good news is that attention to children and their families is trickling down to hotels and motels of just about every price range.

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