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Don't leave child care to chance

A caution to parents planning on quiet time together during a family vacation: You'll have to ask some specific questions of your hotel or resort before the vacation begins.

"Parents need to be aware that many resorts feel forced to say they offer a kids' program in order to stay competitive," said Frank Oliveto, the executive director of the Resort and Commercial Recreation Association, which is based in New Port Richey and is made up of a group of resort owners.

"You've got properties out there who hire a teenager from town to babysit in the evenings, and they're calling it a kids' program. Parents really need to ask in advance what the program consists of."

There are other considerations, too. Child-care laws vary from state to state _ and many states have none covering hotel child care, because it is a temporary arrangement.

And if children are not prepared for the experience, they may balk no matter what is offered.

Resort and hotel programs catering to children range from all-day ski clinics such as the one at the Smugglers' Notch Resort, just north of Stowe, Vt., to circus camps that teach children trapeze flying and clowning at Club Med resorts in the Caribbean, Mexico and Florida.

There's even night life for preschoolers: Children as young as 2 can join a pirate-theme party _ timed during parents' cocktail hour _ at Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands.

Expect to pay $20 to $60 a day for a child-care or camp program, and $6 to $12 an hour for a hotel babysitter, said Dorothy Jordan, the owner of Travel With Your Children, a New York firm that provides information for family travel to its members. (Jordan publishes the Family Travel Times, a quarterly newsletter. For information, call (212) 477-5524, or write to 40 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10011. A subscription is $40 annually.)

Jordan recommends that parents negotiate a 50 percent discount on the rate for a second child and even ask to enroll a third child free. "Usually, the hotel will allow it," she said.

It's important to book reservations for children's activities well in advance. It's also wise to get the specifics of the program in writing, Oliveto advised. "You want to know exactly what's happening each day," he said. "If they can't tell you, it probably means the program isn't very good."

But what if, despite the assurances, the child-care program isn't what you expected? "There isn't any recourse from a federal, state or local standpoint that I'm aware of," Oliveto said. Instead, he recommends complaining to the general manager of the hotel or resort and asking to be compensated with free or reduced lodging or meal costs.

Had we covered those bases before leaving for a family vacation last winter, we would have learned that programs at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe run only if a certain number of children sign up.

Parents are advised to ask resorts and hotels the following:

+ Do they conduct background checks on the child-care staff? When hiring a babysitter, Jordan recommends, ask whether he or she is bonded, which requires having a background check, and is insured. The resort association also recommends that child-care workers be at least 18 if they are supervised in a program, or 21 if unsupervised.

+ Is the sitter trained to handle an emergency?

Insist on a sitter who has taken the American Red Cross Child Care Course. The sitter should also have a Red Cross infant-and-child CPR certificate, and, if children will be swimming, a Red Cross lifeguard training certificate.

+ What is the ratio of children to caregivers? The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends no more than eight infants or 20 preschoolers or 26 school-age children for every two adults.

Because resort programs often include swimming or sports, and children are in unfamiliar surroundings, Barbara Willer, public affairs director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, recommends lower ratios. Camp Hyatt, at numerous Hyatt resorts around the country, takes children as young as 3 but maintains a ratio of four children to one adult.

+ Are children in a secure area? (Adults should have to show identification before they can pick them up.)

+ Are children divided into age groups?

+ Is the program flexible? "Find out if deciding to sleep late means your child will miss out on the day's activities, or whether you can pull her out for a little family excursion," Jordan said.

For some children, a vacation program will be just like another day in day care. Others might be reluctant to join in on even the best programs. Children may be unhappy because they spend too much time in child care. "You have to remember that this is their vacation, too," Willer said. "Ideally, they should spend some time with you."