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Image: Playdates on the road
Courtesy Mariusz Majewski
Magda Majewska, seated, and Justyna Jakubas-Zawalska, standing, help children with art during a trip to northern Poland last summer. The families met on Couchsurfing.org and organized the weekend kid-oriented event, which drew about 70 travelers from all over the world.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 3/15/2011 9:59:13 AM ET 2011-03-15T13:59:13

Nina Sadjadpour knows the importance of a family vacation. But the San Francisco mother of two also knows the reality that often goes along with it: the kids fight, suffer from jet lag and can literally melt down from walking if you get lost.

“It’s not fun for the adults unless the kids are having fun,” said Sadjadpour, who has children ages 4 and 8.

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That’s why the 41-year-old marketing consultant hopes her family’s first big international vacation next year involves meeting up with another family through Tripping.com. Ideally, they will get together for playdates abroad, although Sadjadpour is also open to staying with a family she meets through the website, sharing meals, seeing kid-oriented sites or going on a hike together.

“I love the idea of seeing a friendly face on the other side, just being in a home and knowing where to go and what to do,” she said. “And the kids need to play and get it out of their system. Play is universal. It’s as easy as ‘tag you’re it.’ ”

Always time to play
Call it travel playdates. Today, more parents want to meet people with kids when they travel, and they’re connecting with locals using sites like Tripping.com, Courchsurfing.org, BeWelcome.org and Servas.org.

Families are also planning playdates on sites like PassPorter.com, CruiseMates.com, Twitter and on other family-oriented travel forums.

“Younger parents are more open to it and more interested in it,” said Kyle McCarthy, CEO of FamilyTravelForum.com, which offers trip ideas and advice for families. “We see even more of it with single parents.”

Some parents and kids stay in the homes of local families. Other travelers may work out arrangements online to meet for an afternoon or for dinner. Still other travelers plan events where dozens of family travelers spend a weekend together.

That kind of social mixing during a family vacation doesn’t jive with all travelers. Amber Johnson, a Denver mom who blogs about travel at CrazyBlogginCanuck.com, believes family trips should be just that: just family, no friends and no meet-ups with locals.

“We’re inundated with playdates and friends in our everyday lives, so when we do a family vacation, I want it to be just about our family,” said Johnson. “I am not closed off to meeting locals, but I want it to be more natural.”

Vote: Would you organize a playdate on vacation?

A welcome break
For Colleen Lanin, editor of the blog TravelMamas.com, those travel playtimes can be a good break on a trip. The San Diego mother recently met some of her Twitter followers and their kids on vacation to Keystone, Colo., and to Santa Monica, Calif.  It was a great way to find out where to go and where to eat, she said, and it was fun to talk to someone new — especially after days on the road together.

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“It winds up being one of the highlights of my trips,” said Lanin, who has two children, ages 3 and 6. “The kids love it; they’re social, too.”

Julia Popcowa, a Russian mother living in Poland, enjoys the concept so much that she organizes annual weekend events in Poland for any families traveling through the country. For the past two summers, about 70 members of Couchsurfing.com — families from France, Ireland, China and Germany — arrived for three days of hiking, kayaking, yoga and campfire songs together.

When they arrive, they’re strangers who met online, but often they become friends — as do the kids, said Popcowa.

“Children can find their way easily,” added Popcowa, who owns a chain of tea shops and speaks six languages. “It’s really very nice. The children are playing, and you can have some time to yourself.”

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Beyond backpackers and students
Popcowa, her husband and two children (ages 12 and 9) visited and stayed with families she met online when they traveled to Armenia, Algeria, Italy and Germany. They also hosted another 25 families over the past five years in their home, located near Warsaw. “It’s about meeting other people and finding out about the country and culture,” she said.

Jen O’Neal, CEO and founder of Tripping.com, was surprised by the number of families that joined her company’s website, which connects travelers and locals from 100 countries.

“We didn’t go after families at all,” O’Neal said. “We assumed it would be mostly backpackers and students, but a lot of families are very open to the world.”

For people staying with locals, Tripping.com attempts to address any safety concerns by encouraging people to rate other Tripping members and write brief testimonials of experiences they’ve had. The company’s employees also verify people’s identities by using face-to-face calls via Skype, in which a member holds up their passport and proof of address. If travelers hit problems on their trips, they can also send an emergency e-mail that goes directly to Tripping executives who will work to help travelers.

Catching the culture bug
Similar vouching and personal references are used at BeWelcome.org and Couchsurfing.org, but the vetting is primarily left to members. Servas, by contrast, sends its staff to conduct two-hour in-person interviews with people before allowing them to be listed as one of its 14,000 hosts for travelers.

Sadjadpour, the San Francisco mother, and her husband, Lee Mincy, are not worried about safety when they start meeting people through Tripping.com. She plans to gradually get to know them online or get to know foreigners by touring them around San Francisco and scheduling meetings for the kids to play.

That kind of cultural exchange is important to Sadjadpour, who traveled as a child, studied abroad in Spain and later worked in Europe and Asia.

“This is a terrific way to infuse our kids at a young age with the culture bug,” she said. “Maybe they will grow up and they will take off on their own.”

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Vote: Would you organize a playdate on your next trip?

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