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Couples can find time for two, even when they're on family trips


The Palm Springs hotel was beautiful, the weather perfect. We couldn't have picked a nicer spot to celebrate our anniversary. Except for one thing: the kids.

Of course, we hadn't really expected to have a romantic interlude with our trio in tow (though I had splurged on a second room). We were simply trying to squeeze some family time onto the end of a business trip.

Wistfully, I thought about how nice a romantic anniversary dinner would be. Then I got hit on the back of the head with one of the peanuts the kids were busy hurling at each other in the back seat. It had been a long day of driving for everyone. I was desperate for a break -- my husband more so. I felt guilty for wanting one.

"You shouldn't feel guilty. The kids want to get away from you, too," observes Jeff Fireman, a suburban Los Angeles pediatrician and father of two.

Northwestern University psychologist and marital counselor Karen Abram adds that it's important for kids to see that their parents' lives revolve around more than just being Mom and Dad. Research shows, she adds, that children's happiness is directly impacted by how well their parents get along.

"Parents need to put some energy into their relationship," she says. Vacations are supposed to be great for that purpose. But how are you supposed to manage any "couple time" on a family trip when the kids aren't old enough to be left alone?

Some families I know bring a baby sitter along on vacation (a teen-age cousin may be only too glad to oblige). "That way we can go out at night or during the day whenever we want to," one Las Vegas mother of two young sons explains. "It's the only way I get a vacation, too."

But there are other, cheaper alternatives. Tricia Gallagher, the mother of four and author of "Raising Happy Kids on a Reasonable Budget" (Better Way Books, $10.95) vacations with relatives on the New Jersey shore not far from her suburban Philadelphia home. "That way there's always somebody around to watch the kids. We get plenty of time alone -- I think we take it for granted," she says.

Other couples, like California travel author Laura Sutherland, who is the mother of two, have vacationed with friends and their kids for the same reason: The couples each get a night out. "You get baby-sitting and you don't have to worry -- or pay for it," she says.

Dr. Fireman suggests parents plan ahead before taking a break from the kids. For example, you could seek out a hotel with children's programs.

If your kids are little and you want a sitter, ask the hotel how it checks out the sitters it recommends. Do they have references? Are they hotel employees? Have they been screened for a criminal history?

Ask a hotel staffer who has kids for the name of his or her favorite sitter. If you're not comfortable with a hotel referral, ask 00 friends -- or even friends of friends -- who live in the area to recommend someone before you leave.

Make sure to budget for your time alone, too. Remember that it likely will cost more to get child care away from home. "Think of it as part of being on vacation -- like room service," suggests Dr. Fireman. "Every now and then, it's nice to pamper yourself."

That doesn't necessarily mean a luxury resort with morning-till-night kids' activities, either. Many destinations that are a lot easier on the wallet -- family camps, for example -- frequently offer some activities for kids. Enough activities, at least, so that you and your spouse can sneak in a couple of hours alone together, notes Ms. Sutherland, co-author of "The Best Bargain Family Vacations in the USA" (St. Martin's Press $13.95). Ask about what may be available when you book.

The wrinkle: The children's activities may not be as extensive as those you'll find at more upscale properties. That just means you grab whatever time you can. Take a morning walk together if that's when the kids are busy, suggests Ms. Sutherland. Make a date for lunch instead of dinner. Play tennis in the morning instead of dancing the night away. The point is to do something together -- not just sit on the beach and bury your face in a book (you can do that while your spouse watches the kids later).

Another tip from Ms. Sutherland: "Wait until the kids go to bed and then hang out for a while."

Even better, get a second room if you can afford it. Inquire about family packages. Matt, Reggie and Melanie, incidentally, were thrilled to have their "own" room.

L As for our anniversary, it couldn't have been nicer. Really.

When we arrived at the Hyatt Grand Champions outside of Palm Springs, we discovered Camp Hyatt was in full swing. The kids were as happy at the prospect of video games, arts and crafts and movies as we were about a quiet, relaxing meal (especially when we promised a late-night swim afterward).

The solitude didn't come cheap: $12 an hour for the three of them, plus $5 each for their dinners. But the thought of being beaned with a peanut at dinner put that out of my mind.

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