Families surfing for travel tips On-line: Now you can use your PC to plan and preview your vacation.

Taking the Kids

April 14, 1996|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

When Debra Schepp was planning her family's trip to Disney World, she relied on advice from complete strangers rather than a travel agent. And the trip couldn't have worked out better.

Ms. Schepp, who lives in Maryland, didn't leave her house to get the information she needed. She simply sat down at her computer. Using a commercial on-line service, Ms. Schepp was able to trade messages with other parents who had already been there, even culling suggestions on which hotel would be the best bet for her family. Via their computer, meanwhile, the two Schepp children, ages 10 and 8, previewed all of Disney's attractions, deciding which were must-sees.

"It was a lot more exciting for the kids than using a guidebook," said Ms. Schepp, "and we were really prepared when we got there. We didn't waste a lot of time."

Keep in mind that Ms. Schepp knows her way around the Internet better than most of us, who struggle to navigate through the ever-changing and complex World Wide Web. With her husband, Brad, she co-wrote the just-published "Kidnet: The Kid's Guide to Surfing Through Cyberspace" (HarperPerennial, $12).

Children in lead

Slowly but surely, growing numbers of parents, often led by their computer-savvy kids, are recognizing the potential their PCs hold -- both to learn about new places and to plan trips to visit them. They're using computers with their children at the library and at home, buying an array of CD-ROM atlases and computer games designed to teach the kids about geography. (Watch for a review of some of the best in a future column.)

Now, as the Internet rapidly becomes more mainstream, families have begun to experiment with on-line services and the Web, searching for the family-specific travel information they need to make the most of their time together and their vacation dollars.

They're making plane reservations, checking out kid-friendly museum exhibits, researching faraway cultures and, most important, getting the skinny as Debra Schepp did from families who have gone before them.

"I can get much more current information than from books," explained Marcy Juran, a Connecticut graphic designer, who became a true believer when she learned how to obtain still-available Olympics tickets. "If it hadn't been for the Net, I would have assumed there was no chance," she said. "Now we're going to Atlanta!"

The new Odyssey Homefront study, the largest national survey tracking the home-computing market, reports that 11 percent of U.S. households, more than 10 million, are now on line. Nearly half of the at-home Internet users have kids 18 or under.

"This summer we're going to see massive numbers of families using the Web to plan their vacations," predicts Addison Schonland, whose Net Traveler Survey researches the way people use the Internet around the world to access travel information. Mr. Schonland noted that last year, more than 25 percent of Internet users already were turning to the Internet for travel information and the numbers are continuing to rise.

The developers of the just-launched Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) are betting on that. Besides allowing you to book plane reservations on-line, the new service offers the most comprehensive travel information anywhere on the Web.

There's plenty for families. They easily can access information about the latest kids' attractions and activities in the area they're planning to visit. They can ask other traveling parents for advice -- and offer it themselves. They even can order (for $9.95) a customized family travel guide to a destination, with a current list of the kid-friendly events scheduled during their visit.

Kids, meanwhile, can trade their own travel tips with other kids on WOW!, the much-talked- about multimedia on-line service for families just unveiled from CompuServe. It's the first on-line service that offers content and graphics designed for children.

Parents using WOW! will have plenty of travel information themselves -- including Travelocity and promised easy access to the Web and all it offers.

Beginning in June, an interactive National Geographic will be available on WOW! too, with travel tips as well as geo-educational programs for children. (To use WOW! consumers must have Windows95. The cost for the service is $17.95 a month. Call [800] 943-8969.)

Using the Web with the kids to get travel information can be time-consuming and very frustrating, as I've learned recently. The commercial on-line services can be slow, and you may need to search several Web sites before finding the information you need.

One tip from the Schepps' book: Head to City.Net (www.city.net) with the kids for all kinds of tourist information and pictures for thousands of places.

Look for trusted names

Another tip from Boston University education professor Charles White, an expert on using computers to teach social studies and geography: Look for names on the Web you know and respect, such as the National Geographic Society or the Smithsonian.

"You can waste a tremendous amount of time, there's so much junk," concedes Mr. White.

Still, it's worth the trouble, he believes.

"Kids need a lot of practice investigating and answering questions," Mr. White explains. "Helping kids to use the Internet to do something like plan a trip is a great way to accomplish that."

It's also a great way to get kids more involved in the trip. Take 12-year-old Noah Dinkin. He usually let his mom do all the vacation planning. But before the family's recent trip to Key West, Noah took to the Internet to check out the place.

"Noah got so excited once he realized he could have an impact on what we did and where we went," said his mom, Marcy Juran. "He wasn't just having to go along anymore."

Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053 or e-mail to eogintol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in future columns.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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