The dilemma is strictly 21st century: too many options and not enough time. And the stakes are high, because for parents a family vacation isn't just R&R—it's an opportunity for the family to be together and for the kids to learn something new, broaden their horizons. Of course, budget is a factor; balancing price and profit is the goal. So we did the work for you, calculating the costs of seven great weeklong escapes and then devising ways to economize. The numbers are based on trips for a family of four traveling from a central point in the United States, booked at least 21 days in advance. Rates are approximate (airfares in particular fluctuate from day to day) and do not include tips. Pick your pleasure.
Regular Price: $11,895 Discount Price: $8,535
Kids and cruises once seemed an unlikely combination. But families now know that traveling by ship is a way to visit several places on one trip without constantly having to pack and unpack—a big plus for parents whose children have yet to learn the art of folding. Besides, most cruise lines offer children's programs, and kids, of course, relish the freedom of life on board.
Royal Caribbean (800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com) cruises the Inside Passage of Alaska—an itinerary that combines spectacular views with an education in Native American culture and even the odd sighting of a bear or bald eagle.
What it costs: Brochure rates for the seven-day cruise in July, based on a family stateroom that can sleep up to six, start at $8,360 for a family of four ($3,180 per adult, $1,000 per child, plus taxes), which includes dining, entertainment, the Adventure Ocean "edu-tainment" program (an all-day kids' camp), and transportation to and from the Vancouver airport. Factor in $2,160 for airfare from Chicago. It's a good idea to pay an additional $360 for cruise insurance; also figure approximately $1,000 for shore excursions—one or two per port. After all, when will the family have another chance to pan for gold or visit a totem village?(Many passengers on Caribbean cruises save on the cruise line's excursions by booking shore trips independently or simply hiring a taxi for a day of sightseeing. This is not an easy option in Alaska.) Bar drinks and sodas add to the bill, although kids can get $15 unlimited-soda tickets. Total: $11,895 plus.
How to save: Travel agents specializing in cruises and businesses that book blocks of cabins can have substantially lower rates. They also offer helpful advice. For example: family staterooms may not be necessary, because a standard stateroom sleeps four. Best Price Cruises (800/672-7485; www.bestpricecruises.com) quotes $5,700 for a standard ocean-view stateroom on the same cruise in July, including airfare from Chicago and taxes. Total, with the shore excursions and the other extras: $9,235 plus.
Cruise prices are extremely season-sensitive. Alaska's high season is June through August. Parents whose children don't return to school until after Labor Day can cut costs by going late in the summer, when the weather is less predictable but there's a better chance of spotting wildlife. Best Price quotes $5,418 for a late-August booking and seems confident that the price will dip to well under $5,000 as the launch draws near. Total for late August: $8,535 to $8,953 plus.
Cruise LinesInternational Association www.cruising.org.Official industry info site with links, destination advice, and an agent-finder function.
Cruisemates www.cruisemates.com. Cruise hints, opinions, and planning help, in a virtual community setting.
A1SuperCruises www.a1supercruises.com; 877/787-8785. Cruise consolidator with special deals and discounts on all cruise lines.
All-Inclusives: A Done Deal
Regular Price: $6,484 Discount Price: $3,572
The term all-inclusive sounds like perfection—cultural experience be damned. A family beach resort with a kids' program, one in which participants can be kept busy morning till night while parents play separately, sounds just fine. So does the idea of never having to open your wallet.
How about spending the week of Presidents' Day at a Florida all-inclusive?Club Med Sandpiper (888/258-2633 or 561/398-5100, fax 561/398-5101; www.clubmed.com), a riverside family resort north of Palm Beach, has a children's program that's famous for, among other things, its Circus School, where kids can perfect their trapeze acts.
What it costs: The family total for a quad runs $5,922 (plus $170 for Club Med's required annual and lifetime initiation fees), including round-trip airfare and trip-cancellation insurance. Of course, there are always surprises. Sandpiper has several optional excursions, such as a trip to Disney's Magic Kingdom. The kids will insist on going: that's $325 for four. If Dad wants to play a few rounds of golf and Mom decides on a spa treatment, they'll spend $47 more. Drinks at the bar and endless sodas for the kids could also add significantly to the week's bill. And tack on $10 per lost beach towel for two children who can't remember which of the four pools they left theirs by. Total: $6,484 plus.
How to save: Club Med often has special deals (see Family Values, . Also—and this goes for any family vacation—think about a midweek departure and return. You'll save significantly on airfare.
ClubMed www.clubmed.com; 888/943-9415. Online descriptions of its locations around the world.
Beaches www.beaches.com; 888/232-2437.All-inclusive resorts in Jamaica and Turks and Caicos.
Worldwide Vacations www.worldwidevacations.com/family; 800/926-6836.Booking site featuring all-inclusives for families.
House Rentals: Do It Yourself
Regular Price: $4,888 Discount Price: $3,976
There are many advantages to renting a house on vacation rather than staying in a resort—total independence, the freedom to set your own pace, and most of all, the chance to really get to know a place instead of a processed version of it. You and your children shop in local markets, chat with merchants, and pick up a few new words—even an accent. While this type of holiday certainly involves more effort than a week at a resort, it shouldn't be too much work: rental villas or condos in the Caribbean, for example, usually include daily maid service and often a cook. Best of all, vacation rentals are usually a great deal. Because owners often put their houses up for rent directly on the Internet, they don't have to cover advertising costs.
A one-bedroom beachfront villa in Jamaica at Negril's Rondel Village (800/544-5979 or 876/957-4413, fax 876/957-4915; www.negril.com/rondmain.htm) comes with pool, Jacuzzi, satellite TV, and full kitchen, and it's close to many of the town's main attractions.
What it costs: For the week of President's Day, you'll pay $2,318 (less if your kids are under 10, since they stay free), which includes all taxes and transportation to and from the Montego Bay airport. Plan on $2,070 for airfare, $300 for groceries, about $100 for a few meals out, and $100 for horseback rides, paddleboat rentals, and snorkeling trips for the kids. The grand total: $4,888.
How to save: By booking your trip with wholesaler GOGO Worldwide Vacations (you must go through a travel agent), you can get a family package rate, including the villa and airfare, of about $4,000. You could also reserve a garden-view villa rather than a beachfront one (about $240 less). But your best bet is to take advantage of seasonal fluctuations: Caribbean prices plummet in low season—mid-April to mid-December. For a Thanksgiving vacation, GOGO's beachfront villa package price is $3,476 for the week. Total, with food and the extras: $3,976.
There are many large clearinghouses on the Internet that help you find vacation rentals; two of the biggest and best are www.cyberrentals.com andwww.greatrentals.com; both have worldwide inventories and searchable databases.
WIMCO Villas and Hotels www.wimco.com; 800/932-3222. The undisputed authority on high-end villas in the Caribbean, with limited offerings in Europe.
Barclay International Group
www.travelwithkids.com; 800/845-6636. Apartments, villas, cottages, and condos in Europe; last-minute specials.