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OFF-SEASON TRAVEL WITH THE SMALLER SET

Patrick Malone was just a week old when his parents took him on his first fall getaway to New Hampshire.

He's now 16, the oldest of four. "And we've been going up to the Inn at East Hill Farm in October ever since," said his mother Nancy Malone, who lives in Quincy, Mass. "It's so beautiful in fall, and there's so much going on at the farm. The kids still love it."

They horseback ride and boat, fish, play tennis and swim in an indoor pool. Younger kids feed the goats, collect the eggs for breakfast and gather for story hour and arts and crafts. Call (800) 242-6495 or www.east-hill-farm.com.)

These days, though, the Malones, like many families, plan their fall break around school schedules. That's why those of you with younger kids may be the luckiest family travelers around these days.

Sure, you have to tote diapers and strollers. You might have to manage a tantrum or two. But you also have the freedom to travel when most of us parents of older kids can't -- in fall and early winter or just after the New Year's break.

You don't have to wait for months to get those precious summer and spring-break weeks off. And you'll get bargain rates everywhere, from Europe to tropical and ski resorts, snaring the best rooms and paying less to fly there.

Nor will you have to fight the crowds. "Parents of babies and toddlers should take advantage of off-season travel as much as they can," said veteran family traveler Laura Sutherland, who toured Europe with two babies under 2 and whose most recent book is "Tropical Family Vacations" (St. Martin's Griffin, $16.95).

"I thought 4 months to 7 months of age was the ideal time to travel," Sutherland continued. "They slept in their strollers easily, and we could do what we wanted, and they just came along for the ride.

Beach vacations are ideal for toddlers. San Francisco-based Rascals in Paradise, which specializes in family travel, can steer you to a kid-friendly resort within your budget. Call (800) URASCAL or www.rascalsinparadise.com. The Web site www.familytravelforum.com has a special "tiny traveler" newsletter you can order.

Sutherland's beach tip: Dig a big hole in the sand, fill it with water and plop the delighted kids in their "baby pool."

Of course, be sure to choose a vacation spot that will guarantee you a break from the little darlings -- for a few hours, anyway. Some certain-to-please spots that are good off-season deals:

Vermont's Smugglers' Notch Resort has AutumnFest packages expressly for young families with daily morning care (including lunch) for the kids -- so mom and dad can go canoeing, play tennis or antique hunt -- and afternoon activities to share with the kids, including visits to the resident goats and sheep. Four-night packages start at $575 for a studio condo unit. Most of December and for a week in February, skiers can get free child care for their babies and toddlers.

Disney Cruise Line offers the first organized day care at sea for cruisers just 3 months old. Parents pay $6 an hour for the part-time care. Those 3 and older join the huge array of organized shipboard activities at no extra charge, from character breakfasts to dress-up to kids' dinners. Book by Oct. 31, and kids can fly free between Jan. 4 and March 4. The new seven-day cruises start at $829 for adults, $399 for kids 3-17 and just $99 for the younger diaper set. Call (800) 511-1333 or www.disneycruise.com.

The Franklyn D. Resort and new FDR Pebbles soft adventure hideaway in Jamaica assign families vacation nannies when they arrive. They'll baby-sit, feed and bathe the kids -- even take those 2 and older to the organized kids' activities, from goat races to French lessons. Kids under 16 stay and eat free at the all-inclusive resorts. Come to the Franklyn D. Resort by Oct. 26, and moms pay only for their first and last night's stay. (Dads pay $280 a night.) Bring the grandparents in January, and they stay free in a two-bedroom suite with you. In winter, adults can get an air credit of $450 each on a six-night stay. Ask about other air and land discounts. Call (888) FDR-KIDS or www.fdrholidays.com.

Club Med has baby clubs for those as little as 4 months at Sandpiper in Florida and Ixtapa in Mexico and Petit Club programs for toddlers and preschoolers at 11 family clubs around the world. Baby Club Med costs an extra $154 a week. Save half off kids' land packages certain weeks this winter and check the Web for other deals. Call (800) CLUB-MED or www.clubmed.com.

Wherever you go, be forewarned that you may not find many other children the same ages as yours. But younger ones won't even notice the lack of vacation buddies a bit -- not when they've got mom and dad as playmates.

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