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KICKING OFF THE SUMMER TRAVEL SEASON

You're not even out of the driveway before the kids demand to know how soon they'll be able to swim. The back-seat bickering starts before you turn the corner, while your spouse fields "one last call" from the office.

You fill the gas tank (with liquid gold it seems, judging by the tab) and get on the highway just as the youngest declares he needs a bathroom break and the oldest says he can't go another mile without food.

Aren't summer vacations fun?

Wherever you go -- national parks or theme parks, the beach or the city -- you'll meet other parents and kids who, just like you, are struggling to have a good time. These families will be vying to see the same museum exhibits, ride the same roller coasters and splash in the same pools.

Another bit of so-so news is that gas prices have stabilized but are still very steep.

"We may see less cross-country trips and more people looking for vacation options closer to home," says Automobile Club of America's Jerry Cheske.

Before you think about turning the SUV around and burying your head under the covers for a week, remember why you're taking the kids on this road trip. It's not for R and R (though it would be nice to squeeze in a little); it's to strengthen those all-important family bonds and make some deposits in that family memory bank. The 4-year-old discovers fireflies. His 6-year-old sister braves her first roller coaster. Your teen gleefully thrashes you on the tennis court. The baby takes her first steps down the beach.

Too bad there's so much more involved than just those Kodak moments.

No one said family vacations were going to be easy, or that getting there would be a piece of cake. Just like having kids, traveling with them can be messy, unpredictable and expensive -- but it also can be more fun than you'd ever imagine.

As we head into the family-travel season, we present the tried-and-true Taking the Kids list of what you should bring along to ensure happier road trips.

1. Insect repellent. When the mosquitoes are swarming around the picnic table, you don't want to have to race off to buy some.

2. Beach towels, so you can stop and swim when everyone is desperate for a break. Keep the bathing suits and the sunscreen handy, too. Throw in some beach toys for the little ones, and bring net bags to stash the kids' shell collections.

3. Booster seats for preschoolers who weigh 40 pounds or more and have outgrown their car seats but are still too small to be safely restrained with seat belts. Traffic accidents remain the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 14, in part because most kids aren't properly restrained. Also, remember that kids under 12 shouldn't sit in the front seat of a car equipped with air bags.

4. A cell phone. It's especially handy in case of emergencies, like a flat tire at midnight, or when the family gets separated in a theme park.

5. A cooler where you can stash snacks, drinks and sandwich fixings. Not only is it easier and healthier to picnic along the way, but it's also cheaper. Let the kids help decide what goes in the cooler. Don't forget water bottles for each member of the family.

6. Maps for the kids so they can help navigate (and help convince dad he's taken a wrong exit when he refuses to ask directions). Laminate their maps at the nearest copy center so that they can trace your route with a marker.

7. Band-Aids. You always need them when you don't have them. When the kids get bored, toss them an extra box and let them play hospital with their dolls, action figures and stuffed animals.

8. Masking tape. Not only can the kids use it to make a design on the car seat, but they can also mark their turf to prevent encroachment by their siblings.

9. Summer stocking stuffers. When the going gets rough, a new package of glow-in-the-dark crayons, Matchbox cars, stickers or CDs can keep the peace for a couple hundred miles. Don't forget extra batteries for the CD players and electronic games.

10. Disposable cameras and travel journals for the children. Insist they take a photo and write down something funny that happens each day.

11. Your pediatrician's phone number and the kids' immunization records. "There can be delays in treatment, unnecessary tests and sometimes serious errors as a result of lack of access to information available to the treating emergency physician," says Dr. Deborah Mulligan-Smith, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Pediatric Emergency Medicine.

12. Bring flashlights so that the kids can keep playing in the dark.

13. A deck of cards. The kids can play in the car and then build a house of cards at the hotel.

14. Fleece pullovers and blankets. They'll keep the kids cozy, and they dry quickly. Keep rain gear handy, too.

15. Cherry lollipops, red licorice, bubblegum -- any type of candy but chocolate, which will melt. Sometimes there's nothing like a little sugar to bring out the sweetness in all of us.

Write to Eileen Ogintz at Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611. Send e-mail to eogintz@aol.com.

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