Image: Spring break fun
Eduardo Verdugo  /  AP
Two students dance in a hotel pool in Acapulco, Mexico, last month. Thousands of American students come to Acapulco during spring break.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/6/2008 9:43:59 AM ET 2008-03-06T14:43:59

There's spring, the time of year marked by fresh growth and new beginnings.

And then there's spring break, those few short weeks from mid-March to mid-April when families visit theme parks or grandma's house and college students whoop it up at beach parties and nightclubs.

How you mark the changing of the seasons is up to you. But here are some tips for well-mannered travelers heading out on the road this spring break season.

Getting there
During the busy December holidays, plenty of novice travelers get mixed in with seasoned road warriors. That plugs up the highways and makes the long lines at airport security checkpoints even longer. The same things happen during spring break. So give yourself plenty of extra time to get where you're going and give these inexperienced travelers a wide berth.

Be especially kind at the end of each week. That's when kids and their parents are apt to be cranky and when college kids and their friends are apt to be cranky, sunburned and suffering from major hangovers.

Being there
Spring break hot spots shift from year to year, but a fair number of destinations work hard to keep their towns on — and off — the list. For example, officials in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hope the beach once synonymous with spring break revelry will continue to get passed over by college crowds. But the folks in Cancun and Panama City Beach, Fla., go out of their way to welcome party-hardy crowds. So do resorts in Negril, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, Jamaica, where the “official” drinking age is just 18 years old.

Panama City Beach is looking forward to hosting between 250,000 and 300,000 college students this year with beach parties and nightclub events sponsored by the likes of Right Guard and Trojan. And beginning this weekend, the folks in South Padre Island, Texas, are expecting between 85,000 and 95,000 spring breakers.

Melissa Zamora, who works at the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, also spent a “memorable” spring break there as a student back in 1997. She says the influx of vacationing college students is a significant boost to the local economy. “While other destinations might be concerned with crowds and the criminal elements associated with round-the-clock partying, South Padre Island works diligently to make sure that our guests — and they are guests — are taken care of,” Zamora said. “If we're inviting them here, it's our responsibility to make sure they're safe while they're having a good time.”

That includes not only letting college students know they're quite welcome, but making sure families and those hoping to avoid a loud party atmosphere know what they might encounter during the spring break season. “Most spring break activity is generally concentrated on one area of the island,” says Zamora, but “we are very good at promoting the spring dates on our Web site and in various media. It's also up to local hotel owners to inform those booking rooms during spring break about the potential crowds.”

As in other cities that attract big crowds during a few weeks each year, many South Padre Island locals make a point of leaving town during spring break. But Zamora has noticed that many “Winter Texans” (retirees from northern states who spend winters in Texas) are staying behind to mingle. “They think its fun and rather rejuvenating. I've seen them hanging out on the beach and taking photos with the college kids. For some it's possibly a highlight of their stay to see all the crowds.”

Party — but mind your manners
Its one thing to roll out the carpet for students on spring break, but Zamora says the folks in South Padre Island do set limits. “It's a reciprocal relationship, like inviting someone to your own home. If they demonstrate poor etiquette, you take care of it right away.”

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If not, local law enforcement officials are ready to step in. In fact, they've been having regular meetings to get ready for this year's visitors, beefing up staff and working out how to make sure all “guests” adhere to local laws. For example, even though drinking is allowed on South Padre Island beaches, anyone caught drinking out of a glass container on the beach can be fined up to $500. “People don't know that, so we need to remind them,” says Jason Moody, the town's public information officer. It's the same story with littering (that can set you back $2,000) and public intoxication, which comes with a $261 fine and a mark on your permanent record.

“We do have quite a few of arrests for public intoxication,” says Moody, “but for our guests, our No. 1 priority is safety,” Moody said. “We want to make sure everyone is safe, that they enjoy themselves, and that they come back.”

You went where?
That's sounds like what any parent would want for a child going anywhere. But when it comes to adventures like spring break, it's a parent's job to be anxious.

“Don't pretend you don't know what your child is doing or where they're going,” suggests Cindy Post Senning. “Let them know that as a parent you have some anxiety about this and that you want to talk about it.” Senning, one of Emily Post's great-grandchildren and a director of the Emily Post Institute, warns against lecturing. “If you just lecture on all the perils of spring break you won't accomplish much. One they're old enough to go to college and on spring break, they should be old enough to be making other decisions. You have no choice but to trust them.” Instead, be sure to talk to your child about how and why they make choices, “and to remind them that they have control over what they do and don't do.”

You did what?
Of course, not every student's head is focused on booze and beaches during spring break. These days a lot of students spend their spring break doing volunteer work. Colby College student Emily Wilson is spending her week off in northern Maine visiting the Abenaki Native American reservations with five other students. She plans to encourage students there to graduate from high school and to “tell them about what college is like — and get to meet some really amazing people.”

And while many of her friends from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., headed off to New Orleans “to help with some of the mess down there ... [and to] work during the day re-building homes and party at night,” Amy Homewood is in Florida visiting her grandfather.

At least that's what she told me.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of "Stuck at the Airport," an occasional contributor to National Public Radio, and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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