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SUMMER'S OVER, SO WHERE TO TAKE THE CHILDREN NEXT?

Close your eyes and conjure up your favorite vacation fantasy-of-the-moment.

London at Christmas.

A cruise with all the bells and whistles.

Hiking the Canadian Rockies.

So what if your next vacation is months away? So what if you've blown your vacation stash for the next year?

Judging by your letters and e-mails, you're at least thinking about where you'd like to take the kids next. And that doesn't cost a penny!

Here's a sampling of what's on your mind:

Q: Would an Alaska cruise be a good bet for a single mom and her 9-year-old son or is that good only for the 55-plus crowd?

A: Cruise ships are a particularly good bet for single parents because not only will the organized activities give you a break, but you won't have to worry about the details of getting from Point A to Point G, or even eating dinner alone. Alaska cruises, like those in the Caribbean, now offer organized children's programs and are drawing more families than ever in summer, particularly multi-generational families traveling on Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Princess ships, among others.

The drawback to Alaska for a single parent on a tight budget, says Candyce Stapen, author of "Cruise Vacations With Kids" (Prima Publishing, $14.95), is that the shore excursions -- essential to get a sense of the wilderness -- are expensive and easily could tack an extra $1,000 or more onto your vacation tab.

"Alaska isn't like the Caribbean where you can get off the ship and happily hang out at the nearest beach," she explains.

Her advice: Opt for a Caribbean cruise instead. Not only will it be cheaper, but you'll find more kids and single parents on board.

Q: My husband and I are considering taking two boys ages 12 and 14 to London and Paris over Christmas break. We talked with a friend who said her trip with teens to Europe was a disaster. Should we go alone?

A: Definitely take the boys! You'll get an entirely different perspective on London and Paris with them along. As my readers know, I devoted summer columns to recounting our adventures -- with two 12-year-olds along -- in France and Britain.

Here's the trick: Get the teens involved in planning the trip and allow them to have a big say in the itinerary. Let them surf the Web. Start with the www.visitbritain.com or www.franceguide.com. Which play would they like to see in London? Which museum (if any) in Paris? Remember, their agenda might not be the same as yours, but they'll invariably lead you to places -- and experiences -- you wouldn't otherwise have found.

Q: Can you refer me to a book with more kid-friendly vacation "listings"? There is such a need for this!

A: There is a growing library of family travel books as well as Web sites. On the Web, try familytravelforum.com or, on AOL, the Family Travel Network (where you can read my previous column). Globe Pequot's new "Fun With the Family" state guides ($12.95) are written by parents for parents and offer hundreds of options for traveling families in 26 states, from Oregon and California to Indiana, Ohio and Florida. These books, I find, are a particularly good for day trips, whether you're home or looking for something to do when visiting grandma's house.

Budget-minded families, wherever they live, will find "The Best Bargain Family Vacations in the U.S.A." (St. Martin's Griffin, $14.95) a good investment, with more than 250 affordable kid-friendly vacation spots around the country, including small, locally owned places that are true "finds."

Q: Just wondering if you would have any information about taking a family vacation to Canada. We have two children and live in Wisconsin.

A: Whether you head to cosmopolitan Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal, the Canadian Rockies or craggy coasts of Nova Scotia, you'll find Canada a good family vacation bet right now because of the wonderful sights and the favorable exchange rate. Figure that a $100 hotel room will cost $65.

Another plus: You'll get the flavor of a foreign country, either French or English, depending on which part of the country you visit, without taking the kids across the ocean.

Call (800) 577-2266 or visit www.canadatourism.com for more information.

Q: My son is taking a trip with his grandmother. Is it necessary to send a medical release form with them? Where do I get such a form?

A: Whenever I take a child who isn't mine on a vacation, I always ask the parents to send along a notarized letter authorizing me to get their child medical care. I send the same kind of letter along with my kids when they're traveling or visiting friends or relatives out of town. The letter should include insurance information as well as a copy of the child's' immunization record. (When was his last tetanus booster?)

Luckily, I've never had to use the letter but it's comforting -- for me as well as the other parents -- to know in case of an emergency, I have all of the information I need at hand.

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