The New Zealand mom was stumped. "We're coming to the U.S. for two months this December for blessed vacation time," she wrote via e-mail. "Having only been to Los Angeles, we're curious where to travel, and travel agents don't seem to help much. Can you suggest a few places your family has enjoyed over the years? We are so looking forward to seeing a lot of America, and money is no object as long as it is guaranteed a good time."
Wow! Who wouldn't want that mandate for a family trip -- plenty of time AND money! Wouldn't you like to be invited along?
Considering the time of year and the ages of her kids (19 and 8), I offered some of my best picks -- skiing in the Rockies, exploring cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Boston that are packed with distinctive atmosphere as well as kid-friendly attractions, hotels and restaurants. Of course, no family trip to our shores would be complete without a stop in Orlando.
Where would you go? Where have you taken the kids that still makes you smile when you remember that trip? Let's see if we can work up the Perfect Family Itinerary to the United States, based on where you have happily traveled with your family. Write or e-mail me your personal don't-miss-this-place-with-the-kids! list. Make sure to tell me why these proved such good choices, and I'll publish them in an upcoming column. (Send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org and letters to Taking the Kids, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.)
Meanwhile, here are the answers to some other questions you've been sending as you head off with your families far from home.
First, I want to reassure the New Jersey mom that she's not crazy to take a 9-month-old to Europe, despite what her in-laws think. "My husband's biggest fear is that 9-month-old Emily will cry the entire trip to Germany," she wrote. "I'm worried about bringing enough bottled water to mix with her formula. How heavy will that suitcase be?"
It's not necessary to tote bottled water -- beyond what you'll need on the plane and immediately afterward. Bottled water is readily available in European cities as are diapers and baby food.
So what if the baby won't get any educational value out of the trip, as her in-laws keep reminding her. She and her husband will have lots of you-were-there-too memories to share when she gets older. Having the baby along will make them slow down, too -- always a plus when touring Europe. Even better, there's no better icebreaker than a cute baby to spur smiles and conversations with locals.
The key to a happy baby on the flight is plenty of food and toys to amuse her. She'll be safer and more comfortable in her car seat. You can purchase a half-price ticket for a baby on most airlines because, while not yet required by law, car seat use is recommended by the FAA, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Association of Flight Attendants. Just make sure the car seat is approved for use aboard planes. For the latest on the regulations, check on the FAA's Web site at www.faa.gov (click on the Office of Regulation).
What if you haven't purchased a ticket and take your car seat to the gate? "If there is no 'extra' seat for your baby to use, will the airline put it in with the luggage?" another mother asked. Yes, they'll check the car seat at the gate, as they would with any luggage that won't fit in the overhead compartment.
Then there was the query from the anxious mom well beyond the car-seat stage who is facing an all-too-common vacation dilemma. "Please help me!" the mom wrote. "I am searching for a way to please my whole family. My 16-year-old daughter wants to see Hollywood Boulevard. My husband wants to see Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon."
Just like at home, there's no way to please every member of the family all of the time. The trick is to structure a trip so that everyone gets to do at least some of what's on his or her dream itinerary. That goes for the family who wrote asking how to plan a cross-country-drive itinerary.
Once the budget and the dates are established, get all the family members to sit down around the table with a big map and talk about where they want to go and what they want to do when they get there. Let your kindergartner have a vote, too. No one likes to be dragged along on vacation, not even little ones. Get the kids to help research the trip, too, on the Web and in the library.
"My daughter is taking her 8-year-old son to Paris next month and has not been able to find a child's book about the country," one grandmother asked. "How do I find a list of pertinent books?" One good bet for any family heading to France would be Christina Bjork and Lena Anderson's "Linnea in Monet's Garden" (R & S Books) which chronicles the story of a little girl who travels to Paris to see Monet's paintings and the garden that gave him such inspiration.
Such stories, children's librarians and educators agree, can make new places much more real for children seeing them for the first time. My 8-year-old Melanie, in fact, was so taken with Linnea's adventure that she insisted we follow her route when we visited France.
Your school or local children's librarian should be able to steer you in exactly the right direction. Ask your child's teacher, too. They'll know best the appropriate reading level. Meanwhile, keep your letters and e-mails coming!