Searching the Web for the Best Family Travel Deals

Connie Richards spends hours in front of her computer every day. But the Michigan homemaker isn't writing a novel or crunching numbers. She's planning vacations.

And how. In the last year, she's planned trips online for her husband, a trucker, and their two children to Florida, Hawaii, Las Vegas and California. Richards, in fact, has gotten so proficient at surfing the Web for travel deals that all her friends now routinely beg her help with their vacation planning.

``I'm addicted,'' Richards said, laughing. ``I like being able to talk to people online who have already been with their kids where I want to go with mine.''

``Families seem a lot more comfortable looking for information about travel online than they were a year ago,'' observed Kyle McCarthy, founder of the online newsletter and travel magazine familytravelforum.com, where traveling families routinely trade tips about this hotel or that ski area.

By the end of this year, 44 million households -- 17 million with kids under 18 -- will be online. Thirty million of them will be researching travel and 14 million forking over their credit cards to pay for a whopping $13 billion worth of plane tickets, hotels, cruise packages and adventure trips.

Families with kids will account for more than 40 percent of those who are researching travel online, and 35 percent of those booking, reported Henry Harteveldt, the senior travel analyst for Forrester Research, the leading online marketing research firm. That doesn't count the fast-growing number of Web-surfing grandparents looking for vacation options to share with their grandchildren. I hear from them every week -- via e-mail. (You can e-mail me your travel questions directly at eogintz)

Everyone, it seems, is turning to the Web to plan vacations. The travel industry association reports that Internet travel planning has jumped an astonishing 1,500 percent in the last four years. And though many more people continue to look rather than book online, experts expect that to change. ``By the year 2004, travel will be the No. 1 area for online spending for personal use -- over $32 billion,'' Harteveldt said.

Connecticut businessman Craig Mengel, for example, locked up his family's entire trip to London and Paris online, from air tickets to hotels to theater tickets. ``It takes a lot of time, but I feel like I'm more in control this way,'' he explained.

Dr. Trip Browning couldn't agree more. He's convinced he got a far better deal online for his family's upcoming cruise than from the travel agent he'd called, saving hundreds of dollars. Even better, the busy Texas physician was able to do his vacation planning at his convenience, late at night and on the weekend. ``I can go to a lot of different sources and don't feel like someone's trying to sell me on one place,'' he said.

Still, online family vacation shoppers warn, it may take a phone call or two to reserve the terrific little hotel you found where they promise to love every kid, no matter how bratty. ``The down side is some of these places don't have the capability yet for you to book online. But it's a very fast phone call because I've gotten all the information I needed on the Web,'' said Barbara Shwom, a Chicago professor.

No wonder these new-style family travelers, juggling frenetic schedules and looking for the most bang for their vacation buck, represent such a growing online community. Cheaptickets.com, the discount ticket booker, said nearly 40 percent of its $250 million sales last year came from groups of three, many presumably families. Expedia.com, where you can find Taking the Kids, reports that 25 percent of its 4 million-plus users every month are families with kids under 18. ``Our family area is one of the most popular on the Web site, drawing some 200,000 people a month,'' reported Expedia marketing director Suzi LeVine.

Even youngsters are getting into the action. ``Kids are more active players in vacations than ever before,'' said Nancy Schretter, founder of AOL's Family Travel Network, where you'll also find Taking the Kids. ``We hear from a lot of teens who want to know if this cruise or that place is good for them,'' ``We hear from kids who want help with their homework,'' added William Greer, founder of gorp.com, the leading online resource for adventure and outdoor travel.

Some travel Web sites, mindful of their influence in vacation decisions, have begun to solicit these junior travelers' opinions. The American Automobile Association's Web site (www.aaa.com), for example, asks kids 6-13 what made their last vacation a winner. www.Cruisemates.com has junior cruise reviewers and a message board discussing cruising from a teen perspective. (How do you meet new friends on board?)

In many cases, kids are the savviest Web surfers in the house. The majority of youngsters 12-17 surveyed last summer for Yesawich Pepperdine & Brown's Portrait of Family Travel reported using the Internet or an online service to look up travel information -- a higher percentage than parents. One out of every four teens 16-18 who are online -- 1.4 million kids -- are researching travel, Forrester Research said. More than 600,000 of them have actually booked, presumably using parents' credit cards if they're under 18.

Some families are even finding the computer the ideal vehicle to get the kids excited about an upcoming family trip. Eleven-year-old Nathaniel Keller, for example, and his mom Barbara Shwom spent a pleasant winter Sunday morning in front of their computer searching for just the right indoor Wisconsin water park. ``Now we just have to invite a friend -- so I don't have to spend all the time in the water,'' said his mom.

Here are five other Web sites to help with online family-vacation planning. You'll find Taking the Kids at some of them.

1. www.travelwithkids.about.com offers links to dozens of sites specializing in everything from discount flights to home swaps.

2. www.gomez.com rates the top travel Web sites for consumers.

3. www.family.com, Disney's Web site, carries Family Fun's travel reports as well as information culled from more than 100 regional parenting papers. Families can exchange travel information, too.

4. www.smarterliving.com enables you to get weekly e-mail notices of all the fares available from your local airport.

5. www.tennisresortsonline.com reviews dozens of tennis camps and resorts and offers opinions by those who have been there.

(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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