For those who plan ahead for vacations, frustration is not part of the baggage

A few days before Christmas, Sue Tober got on the phone and finalized most of the reservations for her family's three-week trip out West. They're going next August.

"I started planning as soon as we got back from vacation last summer," says Ms. Tober, an accountant who lives in Portsmouth, N.H. She booked her first reservation, for Yosemite National Park, an entire year ahead. The Tobers' complete itinerary now is tidily stored in a file on their home computer -- seven months before they'll even pack a suitcase.


That's not as crazy as it sounds. By now the summer is already booked at Yosemite, a park spokesman reports. Many resorts will sell out for next Christmas by the end of March. And unless you're very lucky, it's already too late to get your first choice for spring break.

"Most people are so caught up in their hectic day-to-day lives that they don't plan that far in advance," says Theresa Detchemendy, president of the San Francisco-based family travel agency Rascals in Paradise -- call (800) U-RASCAL. "Then they're disappointed and frustrated."


To get the best rates, the best rooms and, at peak times, the preferred destinations, there's no way around it: You've got to plan ahead. This is particularly true when you're talking about such popular but isolated destinations as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, which gets hundreds of inquiries for every available hotel room in prime season. Consider that each day the Grand Canyon staff fields nearly 90,000 requests for reservations and information.

"It's important that people know everything here is done a year in advance," says Maureen Oltrogge, a spokeswoman for the Grand Canyon National Park, which likely will be busier than ever this year as it celebrates its 75th anniversary. People book mule trips into the canyon two years ahead. Her tip: Call in the winter months. (For information on all the national parks, call the National Park Service in Washington; [202] 208-4747. Another resource: the newly redesigned National Park Foundation's Complete Guide to America's National Parks. It's $17.95 and is available at bookstores or by calling [800] 533-6478.)

I know how you feel: You don't know what you're doing for dinner XTC

tomorrow, much less what you'll want to do next August or next Christmas. But I'll bet you've got some ideas of things you'd like to do -- and can afford. Your children have even more thoughts on the subject. You may have a job that requires you to take vacation at a certain time or at least to plan for your absence. The airlines are tantalizing you with their latest bargain fares. Your college roommate is begging you to come visit.

So go ahead. Take advantage of these winter evenings and weekends to start planning. Whatever you decide to do in the end, the planning will pay off. You may discover that your kids' idea of fun is a lot different from what you think. You may stumble on some bargains. At the very least, you won't be stuck -- as was Maureen Oltrogge one summer -- without a hotel room anywhere in the vicinity. "We slept in the van," she said.

Most important, you'll have some fun with the children exploring new places without even leaving your family room.

"In the winter, you want to think about long days and happy times. People get as much pleasure out of planning as out of going," suggests Barbara Mars, who with her husband owns the West Coast's largest travel bookstore, the California Map & Travel Center in Santa Monica. (You can order from their 8,000 titles by calling [310] 829-6277.)

Whether you're considering a big trip or a simple week at the beach, some advance planning can make the trip a lot better all around. Just ask educator Lucinda Lee Katz. When her family headed to Washington, they winged it. "And we spent a lot of time in the hotel room calling places and trying to figure out what we were going to do," says Ms. Katz, director of the University of Chicago Laboratory School.


Even more disappointing, they couldn't get tickets to some of the places they most wanted to see, like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"When you've planned, you can give the children the best of the activities the area has to offer, and you're not fighting about what to do. It takes away the stress and the feeling that you're not in control," says Ms. Katz.

A subsequent, better-planned family trip to Israel was a great success for just that reason. "I learned along with the kids," said Ms. Katz, who is Chinese-American. "It all made us closer as a family."

Instead of taking it on as one more chore you don't need, try making vacation planning a family project. Play to the kids' interest, be it city buildings, exotic fish, rocks or historical characters.

Have your older children write for information on the spots you're considering. Chicago author Joanne Cleaver remembers helping to plan one memorable cross-country trip when she was 10: "I got mail every day for three weeks," recalls Ms. Cleaver, whose new Midwest travel book, "Twain, Plains and Automobiles," will arrive in bookstores this spring.

"It was really exciting," she recalls, "and then I knew what to expect ahead of time."


The anticipation alone can be positive for children, explains University of Chicago child psychiatrist Bennett Leventhal, who frequently travels with his kids. Just like adults, children can focus on a future trip to help them get through a difficult task ahead: a big school project, perhaps, or finals.

"It will give them something to talk about," he adds.

The Tobers, meanwhile, are happily counting down to August.