Image: Spring break in Cancun
Scott Gries  /  Getty Images file
Packing up the kids and looking for a family-friendly vacation spot over spring break? It's wise to do some research, says the Well-Mannered Traveler.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/2/2007 6:06:24 PM ET 2007-04-02T22:06:24

The spring break season traditionally starts in early March and winds down sometime in late April. It’s the time of year when hundreds of thousands of college students pile into cars and hop onto planes headed for beaches, ski slopes and anyplace where there are sure to be lots of other off-duty students and plenty of opportunities to party.

I’m sure many of you have been there and done that. A few you may even be able to remember some fun details about your spring break adventures. And some of you lucky ducks may just now be finishing up that last term paper and heading out the door for a week in Cancun, Daytona Beach or another spring break hot spot.

Everyone has a right to relax and cut loose, of course, but things can get ugly when vacationing families, couples seeking romantic getaways and business travelers just trying to get work done unwittingly find themselves in hotels and on city streets with hordes of scantily-dressed, hooting, hollering and hooch-downing young people in full party mode.

So what can you do to survive the spring break travel season?

The best advice is to research your destination and plan ahead.

There are plenty of stories about folks who think they’ve booked a quiet room at a storybook beach hotel who discover that their vacation coincides with spring break. The tip off?  The wrestling team in the room next door hosting nightly tequila-guzzling contests.

The spring break crowd congregates in hot spots that are anything but secret.

So, during March and April, if peace and quiet is what you want, be sure to avoid the spots on the lists of Top Ten Spring Break Cities that get published in travel magazines, newspapers, and on student-oriented Web sites.

In 2006, for example, Acapulco, Cancun, South Padre Island in Texas and Panama Beach City and Daytona Beach in Florida were high on the list. This year’s “in” spots are pretty much the same, although Daytona Beach is getting edged out by Miami’s South Beach and Fort Lauderdale is working hard to get off the list entirely.

According to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site, the city that was once famous for being “where the boys are,” is now where “well-heeled Europeans, sophisticated Northerners and laid-back Mid-Westerners come to relax and vacation.”

That ho-hum description is fine with the folks in Panama City Beach, which bills itself as the nation’s No. 1 spring break destination. About seven years ago, this city on Florida’s northwest coast decided it would embrace the party season with open arms. Now 300,000 ready-to-party students swarm the city each year during the spring break season.

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You may be surprised to learn that many families flock to Panama City Beach during spring break as well. And somehow everyone seems to get along. So I asked Bob Warren, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, to share some tips on what travelers everywhere can do to get along during the spring break travel season.

“When booking a hotel in a popular spring break destination,” he said, “be sure to look at the numbers.” Warren points out that if a hotel's site says you must be 18 or older to book a room, it’s likely that the hotel will be filled with college students during spring break. But if the minimum age is 25 or older, it’s a clue that the hotel probably caters to families and couples.  He also urges travelers to call a hotel directly or to contact travel agents, a local Chamber of Commerce or a Convention and Visitors Bureau and ask if a hotel is “spring break friendly.” “If you say you’re looking for a place where you can bring your seven-year-old, you’ll probably be pointed away from the party hotels.”

When it comes to fun in the sun, bars and restaurants, Warren and others point out that in popular spring break locations, the “wild and crazy” parties made famous by MTV are likely to be clustered on certain stretches of beaches and in specific districts in town. So families and others who want to steer clear of the wet T-shirt contests and the rowdy revelers should be able to do so.

Folks intent on avoiding spring breakers might also consider renting a condominium with its own pool and/or beachfront or seeking out a resort or hotel that advertises itself as adults-only. And it’s a good bet that spring breakers will screen themselves out of the higher-priced, family oriented resorts that offer day camps and organized activities for young kids.

But if you and your family should find yourself surrounded by partying spring breakers, Dallas/Fort Worth-based etiquette expert Susan Huston offers this advice: “If possible, try to plan your activities during the time they are sleeping. The kids play all night and sleep all day, so you can naturally avoid them during that time of day. If you can't, you could always ask for a room in the hotel away from the crowd of party people. You can also ask to be seated in a quieter area of a bar or restaurant. If by chance, you do have to deal with the party people, don't be rude to them. That will only make matters worse and you of course, being the adult are supposed to be the example. Just be patient.”

But what if the wrestling team next door is holding yet another tequila-drinking contest and you’ve used up all your patience?

Banging on the wall or throwing on a pair of pants and rushing next door to demand that they pipe down probably won’t work. Instead, call the front desk right away or go downstairs and ask to speak to the manager in person. It’s that person’s job to convince the wrestling team to take their contest elsewhere or to arrange for you to move to another part of the hotel or resort or, if need be, to find you a spot in another hotel entirely. If that doesn’t work, try that patience advice again and hope that the wrestlers will run out of steam. Then take it up with the manager on duty the next morning.

And next time, do your homework, bring some earplugs or, dude, get yourself invited to the party.

Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for USATODAY.com and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”

Video: Passport delays threaten Spring Break

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