One of the most highly anticipated events of the year is the big family vacation. And then there are those much-needed weekend getaways. How these family outings play out often has a lot to do with the planning that goes into them (and the gear you pack). What follows is a guide to some of the Web sites and portable gizmos that can make your life on the road much easier and your vacation a much-needed recharge instead of an energy drain.
Essential Web Sites:
* When planning a trip, stop by Rough Guide's site. Publishers of the hugely popular travel books, the site reproduces much of their print content as well as more up-to-date info. It's a great way to get a thumbnail view of a travel destination, along with links for further information.
* Family.Com's Travel site is also a worthwhile place to visit. You can search by destination or by type of trip (day trips, theme parks, cruises, etc.) One of the best resources, We Were There, has stories from real families about their favorite vacation haunts. Also, Yahoo Travel is a good starting point.
* Roadside America is your ticket to all of the wonderful and wacky attractions that await you once you leave the interstate and venture onto America's highways. This site (based on the popular book of the same name) has updated info on all those roadside curiosities that have your kids yelling: "Let's stop there!"
* Travel with Kids is a regularly updated site loaded with tips on traveling with and entertaining children on the road. Also has links to cheap airfare, lodging, etc. and articles on how to get the most for your vacation dollar.
* You don't want to go anywhere without knowing what the weather's like. The Weather Channel's site offers up-to-the-minute weather information for the U.S (and the world), along with beach reports, ski reports, smog conditions, highway construction and lots of travel tips.
* Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers are cheap and easy-to-use these days. These handheld or laptop/Palm-peripheral devices allow you to access orbiting GPS satellites to track your every move in the car or in the outback. DeLorme's Earthmate ($180) hooks up to your laptop or Palm computer and allows you to follow your progress on digital mapping software that comes with the device.
* Rand McNally's TripMaker Deluxe 2000 ($30 after rebate) is an excellent trip planning tool. This Windows CD-ROM (sorry, no Mac version) allows you to plan your trip and then print out gorgeous customized maps with routes, sites, hotels, restaurants, etc. If travelling in an RV, you can also locate and mark all the services you'll need. The TripMaker is also compatible with NMEA-compliant Global Positioning System receivers.
* Many people may not know it, but there's a part of the radio spectrum set aside for family use. The FRS (Family Radio Service), at 462MHz to 467MHz, can be used by amateurs without a license to communicate up to two miles. Motorola's TalkAbout 250 radios ($125 ea., do just that. These little wonders are great for communicating with family members at theme parks, concerts, between vehicles, or just keeping track of the kids as they play down the street.
* Of course, it wouldn't be a vacation without the "Kodak moments." Digital still and video cameras allow you to not only capture the memories of your vacay, but to manipulate them like never before. Digital cameras like the Epson PhotoPC 800 ($450, allow you to take stunning hi-res shots and then upload them to your PC, Mac, or TV. On the computer, you can touch them up, alter them, email them to grandma, print them onto T-shirt transfers, you name it. If you like your memories in motion, Sony's line of Digital 8 video cameras offers unprecedented features and quality for the money. Their DCRTRV320 ($999) is amazingly easy to use, is backwards compatible with 8mm and Hi8 tapes and has a FireWire port for super-fast transfer to home computers equipped with this capability. It also doubles as a digital still camera, so it's like getting two cameras in one.
* Last, but not least, when you want to get your groove on away from the group or you want something to distract the kids in the backseat, try Creative Lab's new NOMAD II Digital Audio Player ($250). It not only has an MP3 player, so you can download music and audio books from the Net, but it also has a built-in FM radio and a voice recorder so you can leave notes to self like: "Next year, let's leave the kids at mother's!"
*** Real Families Tip: Keeping little ones quiet and contented on a long car trip can be a real challenge. If you don't have the Warner Brothers edition of the Chevy Venture with built-in video monitors, don't fret. A little creativity can go a long way. If "tell me a story" seems to be all that you hear from the back seat (after "Are we there yet?"), bring along a portable tape recorder and a pile of kids' books on tape. The always-entertaining Magna-Doodle or Etch-A-Sketch can also be lifesavers. Toy stores sell very cheap handheld video games that are a nice surprise to spring on the kids several hours into the trip.