Trying to save money on a family vacation?

Look for hotels that allow kids to stay free in their parents' rooms - as many U.S. hotel chains do. Some also offer free meals to children or free breakfast buffets for all guests, a big savings for a family.Ask about weekend rates in downtown hotels oriented to business travelers; there can be substantial discounts.

Check with an airline or travel agent about a hotel/fare package to destinations such as Hawaii or Southern California. It can be cheaper than buying both separately. Some include a rental car, too, or theme-park admission.

To beat the summertime costs when airlines and hotels boost their rates and everywhere is more crowded, consider taking kids out of school for a few days in spring or fall and combining those days with a weekend for a short getaway. Check with teachers first, and have the kids write a report on their travels.

Flying solo

Many children fly unaccompanied across the country in summer to visit relatives. Some young teens are mature enough and assured enough to manage airports and connecting flights on their own. But some teens and younger children need help.

For a fee of around $30 and up, most airlines will escort a child or teen to his or her connecting gate and to the people meeting them at their destination. Traveler's Aid also can help in some cities.

Contact individual airlines for their policies and fees. For more information get a copy of "Kids and Teens in Flight," available free from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Phone 202-366-2220.

Keeping kids car-happy

The big advantage of taking a driving trip with kids, instead of a plane, is that you can stop and let them run around outside when they get cranky.

The disadvantage: It takes a lot longer to get somewhere. A two-hour plane trip may be less painful than a two-day drive.

For those going by car, here are some save-the-family-sanity strategies:

- Time the driving around a young child's nap times; if you have a baby and she or he conks out early, drive in the evenings.

- Always use seat belts; don't put young children in the front-passenger seat if it has air bags; use a car seat for younger children (it's the law in all 50 states). Take along your own or check on what the car-rental company has available and what it costs.

- Take toys, games and a grab-bag of little gifts to reward good behavior. Story tapes can provide hours of distraction. And be ready to do some distracting yourself with songs and word games.

Happy plane trips

Keeping a baby or young child happy on a plane demands some ingenuity. Some strategies:

A youngster may sleep better, and will be safer, when strapped into her child safety seat (which in turn is seat-belted to the plane seat). Children under age 2 fly free on domestic flights when held on a parent's lap, but some airlines such as United offer a 50-percent discount for a plane seat purchased for a child under 2 (so that a safety seat can be used).

When choosing airplane seating, try to reserve the bulkhead area of the plane where more leg room is available. Get an aisle seat so you can easily walk with your child along the aisle or take him to the restroom. Avoid seats near the restrooms or galleys since they're often noisy and make it hard for kids to sleep.

Pack snacks - lots of them - since airline food may literally be peanuts or not quickly available when your child is hungry.

Take chewing gum to help a child swallow to compensate for the change of air pressure (and possible ear pain) at takeoff and landing. Younger children may find nursing a comfort: Swallowing liquids can help minimize equalization problems.

Take games, books and a portable cassette tape deck with story tapes to keep a child amused.

And take extra clothes for kids and you in your carry-on luggage: accidents do happen.

ID for international travel

If you're a single parent, grandparent or family friend traveling abroad with a child under 18 - or a teenager traveling alone - be sure to have a letter of permission or other documentation from the parent that authorizes the trip.

Many countries require it as part of their efforts to block runaways or abductions in child-custody disputes. Some U.S. travelers have been turned back at Mexican or Canadian border stations or endured delays while officials check a child's status. Border officials won't question everyone, but to avoid problems:

- Carry identification for yourself and your children (passports if you're going beyond Canada or border areas of Mexico).

- If you are a single parent, carry copies of legal documents such as custody rulings.

- If you aren't the child's parent or legal guardian, carry a letter from the parent or guardian authorizing you to travel with the child. Include travel dates and flights and contact numbers for the child's parents or guardian. The letter may need to be notarized, depending on the destination country's rules.

To check various countries' entry requirements, contact the U.S. State Department's Office of Overseas Citizens Services, 202-647-5225, to get the embassy phone number in the United States to phone.

It's even easier to get the phone numbers of foreign countries' embassies in the United States through the State Department's Web site, (http://travel.state.gov).

Safety on the road

Before a trip, go over the standard "stranger-danger" rules with your children. And work out with them what to do if they get separated from you during a trip (such as calling 911, approaching another family, or an employee at a store or theme park for help).

Make sure older children always know the name of the hotel where you're staying. A piece of paper with the parents' names, hotels and phone numbers can be pinned into a preschooler's pocket.

Pitch a tent

Tent camping is one of the most economical family vacations. It can be a lot of work for parents, but kids usually love it.

Books

There's a mini-industry of books aimed at traveling families. Among those to consider:

- "Gutsy Mamas: Travel Tips and Wisdom for Mothers on the Road" (by Marybeth Bond, Travelers Tales, $7.) This guide offers practical tips on traveling with children from babies to teens, plus thoughtful comments on mothering styles in different countries and how to help your child get the most out of a trip.

- "Around the World Atlas" (Rand McNally, $14.95) is aimed at 7-to 12-year-olds to help them get a grasp on where places are in the world - and where they are. Text blocks offer quirky details about places.

- "Travel with Children" (by Maureen Wheeler, $11.95, Lonely Planet): This book by the co-founder of Lonely Planet Publications, one of the biggest and best budget-guidebook series, encourages and tells parents how to go off the beaten track with their children. It includes practical tips on Third World travel; advice on health; how to keep children involved; how to minimize culture shock; plus personal anecdotes by author Maureen Wheeler and comments from her two children.

- An excellent series of destination guidebooks written for young travelers (over age 8) is the "Kidding Around" series to various U.S. cities.