Besides all the British history and French art, 16-year-old Natalie Romanoff learned a lot about an entirely different subject on last summer's trip to Europe -- her dad.
``I thought being together so much would be tedious,'' confessed the Virginia high school student. ``I don't hang out with him at home. But I really enjoyed seeing him in a totally different light. I got to know him a lot better.''
``It was a great time re-tuning in to our kids before they went to college,'' agreed Peter Romanoff, Natalie's dad, who especially enjoyed the evenings spent together, recounting their day's adventures. An extra plus: seeing London and Paris through the young and excited eyes of his two teens.
The trip was even more special, father and daughter observed, because their ``tour group'' comprised three dads and four teens (rather than their entire families). ``My mom would have pushed everyone to do more and go to museums all the time,'' said Natalie, who liked sleeping in on vacation as well as hitting the sights. ``You don't have to see everything. You don't want the trip to be rush, rush, rush,'' advised Peter Romanoff. ``Plan according to what the kids want to do.''
It looks like they'll have plenty of other junior travelers with whom to compare notes. Spurred by the booming economy, more than 1.5 million families with kids and grandkids will be heading to Europe and Britain this year, according to the European Travel Commission, which promotes tourism for 29 European countries here. And with the the dollar as strong as it is (less so in Britain), it can even be a bargain, especially with high gas prices making driving vacations in this country much more expensive. ``It's as if Americans are getting a 20 percent or more break on everything they spend in Europe,'' said Neil Martin, a spokesman for the European Travel Commission.
(Visit the commission's Web site at www.visiteurope.com for general travel information and links to individual countries. For passport information, http://travel.state.gov or call 800-688-9889 and press 5 on the automated menu. Virgin Atlantic, which offers more kids' amenities than any other airline flying overseas, has some well-priced Spotlight on Family packages starting at under $950 per adult ($450 for kids) from New York ($1,100 for adults from L.A., kids less) for flight, transfers, four nights hotel, theater and other tickets. Call 888-YES-VIRGIN or www.virgin.com/vacations.
Since it's clear from your e-mails a lot of you are at least thinking about Europe, here's how parents who have been there have made forays to foreign shores spectacular vacation successes.
1. Nix the groans before they start about a vacation spent in museums and churches. For months before their three-week trip to Europe last summer, the Rachlins invited friends to Sunday dinner at their suburban Boston house to talk about trips to the European cities the Rachlins planned to visit. ``It was a lovely slow dance to the trip,'' said Joan Rachlin. ``People would sit at dinner and relive their own memories.'' Illinois grandmother Irene Sheahen took a different tack, presenting each grandchild with a fistful of francs the Christmas before their summer trip to Provence. ``That sure perked their interest right away,'' she said.
2. Pack light. ``Everyone I know comes home complaining they took too many changes of clothes,'' said family travel author Laura Sutherland, who has traveled extensively overseas with her two children. Remember, you'll be traveling by train, ferry, bus, and schlepping your bags as well as the kids isn't any fun. Bring dark, patterned clothes that won't show the dirt. They'll also help older kids to ``blend in'' more with the local kids, Natalie suggested. Don't forget a jacket or fleece. Assign children (of grade school age) a small rolling suitcase or duffel and challenge them to manage their own gear.
3. Home base. It's much easier on everyone to park yourself in one place for several days or weeks and make day trips, especially with young children. ``Don't stay anywhere without a refrigerator,'' said Peter Romanoff, who opted for apartments in London and Paris, saving big bucks on breakfasts. ``When you stay in a neighborhood, you don't feel like such an outsider, even if you're only there for a few days,'' Natalie added.
Rented houses are especially good bets for big extended families like the Barrons, who included grandparents, parents and five grandchildren. They had such a good time in their rented Italian villa -- the kids loved shopping at local markets -- that they're trying England this summer. Grandpa Frank Barron Jr. is again footing a big chunk of the bill. ``It's cheaper for so many of us and 10 times more relaxing,'' the retired Georgia businessman said. (Try At Home Abroad at 212-421-9165.)
4. Parks and beaches are just as important as cathedrals. ``Parks were the key,'' said Joan Rachlin, whose family typically ate a picnic lunch in the park. ``We'd bring the soccer ball, and the kids usually found a pick-up game. They were some of the nicest times we had.''
The Robinsons alternated days at the beach with sightseeing. ``That was a formula that worked wherever we went,'' said University of California professor Forrest Robinson.
5. Get off the tourist track and let the kids absorb the culture in their own way. ``Go to the back streets,'' said Natalie Romanoff. ``You'll figure out that the kids are really like you.'' (Send e-mails to email@example.com with tips and memories from your kids about your Europe trips. I'll use some of them in an upcoming column.)
(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate