Abbey Allen had never been on a plane or even out of New England. But the suburban Boston teen didn't hesitate a minute when her friend's family invited her to Mexico.
``I wanted a tan,'' explained Abbey, who is 16. ``And I thought it would be more fun with someone else's parents because they wouldn't yell at you.''
``I was a lot more nervous than she was,'' said Linda Allen, Abbey's mom, who reported that the trip was even more awesome than Abbey expected. She returned plenty tanned, her hair expertly braided, with a sheet full of e-mail addresses and phone numbers for her new resort-made friends.
``I think Abbey grew up a little that week,'' confided Linda Allen, who paid for her daughter's trip. ``She had to make her own decisions. She came home more independent.''
The Littlefields, who had invited Abbey along as well as a friend for their younger daughter, were just as enthusiastic. ``Teens need their own space, and it was easier to give them that freedom with a friend along,'' explained Susan Littlefield. ``I'd do it again.''
So would I. Last summer, I became a confirmed believer in the bring-a-friend-along plan when Emily Thomas, 12-year-old Reggie's best friend, joined us in Europe from her suburban Chicago home. Her presence, I'm convinced, made the trip the grand success it was -- for us as well as Reggie. Instead of an oh-so-bored adolescent, we had two happy, often giggling young travelers only too glad to lead the way from museum to historic site.
``With two of them, they're exploring, not being dragged along. It makes all the difference,'' said Emily's mom, Rosemary Thomas, who has invited an extra child along on their family vacations as a companion for their elder daughter. Emily, I was glad to hear, is still waxing eloquent about what an amazing adventure she had with us.
Another plus: There are fewer sibling squabbles when a friend is along. ``It changes the chemistry,'' explains Thomas, the mother of four. And when there's a big gap in ages between the children -- as in the Thomas family and my own -- the friend ensures that the oldest will have far more freedom than otherwise. ``It makes it so much easier for everyone,'' said Thomas.
That's especially true for families with just one child, they tell me. ``We adults had more freedom, too,'' said Marie Forgach, who lives on Long Island and has taken friends along for her daughter Kim since she was in grade school -- from ski trips to Orlando to Spain.
Forgach explained she and her husband could go off to dinner or to a museum and leave the two girls alone together -- something she wouldn't have done had Kim been alone.
``It's nice to spend time with people other than your parents on vacation,'' agreed Kim Forgach, now a high school senior. ``I whined a lot less.''
And parents might get another child's very different perspective -- on the new places as well as their own family, enriching the experience for everyone.
The downside is that you'll invariably have less ``family time,'' observed Dr. Brett Laursen, a Florida Atlantic University professor and child psychologist who specializes in peer relationships.
``Friends may fight, just like sibs,'' he added. ``You've got to be prepared for that and give them time to cool off.''
That's exactly what Cassie Littlefield and Abbey Allen did, ultimately spending a day apart at the resort. ``But I only had to intervene once,'' said a pleased Susan Littlefield.
Of course the key is inviting the right child. ``You need to be comfortable with your friend's family,'' said Abbey Allen, who counts the Littlefields her second parents.
You want to be confident that the child is old enough to handle the separation from his family for several days or, in our case, weeks. I don't think I'd try it with anyone under 10.
``Have several sleep-overs first,'' suggested Forgach. ``You don't want a child who will need to call home every 10 minutes.''
You must be just as comfortable with the child's parents. How will they react if their child gets sick or hurt? That happened when Kim Forgach's friend was injured skiing. ``They were fine because they knew I treated their daughter as I would my own,'' said Marie Forgach.
Just don't forget to bring the friend's medical insurance information and authorization for you to get him or her treatment. You also want to know where to reach the parents the entire time you'll be gone. Do you have their work numbers? Their cell phone numbers? Contact information for grandparents?
Hammer out the financial arrangements ahead of time. Many parents -- us included -- ask the friend to cover plane tickets but pick up meals and lodging. Those headed to the slopes might expect the guest to pay for expensive lift tickets and lessons. Those going to the beach want to make sure they have appropriate snorkeling gear or the money to rent it. Is there adequate spending money?
Make sure your young guest has a say in the itinerary, just as your own kids would, suggested Laursen.
As important as the nuts and bolts are the intangibles: You want a child who will mesh with your family. You don't want to take a confirmed roller coaster hater to Disney World amid your thrill-ride lovers, for example. You don't want to take a picky eater to spend a weak with your the-more-exotic-the-food-the-better gang.
You do want a child who will obey your ground rules that you should, of course, carefully explain before leaving -- curfews, souvenir limits, family time, among others. That's usually not a problem.
Just ask Abbey Allen. She's saving her baby-sitting money, hoping for another invitation.
(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate