By Carolyn Graham
If it's last-minute travel and a great family travel deal you want, the Web is full of ideas, travel tips and sites devoted specifically to airfare, hotel and other trip bargains. Use the recommendations offered here to get started.
The year was 1979, and I can still remember my mom sitting in the passenger seat of our 1976 Lincoln. As chief navigator and reservation agent for our family vacations, she spent much of the car ride with a plastic coffee cup in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other, studiously poring over the huge Atlas Road Map and a copy of the Mobil Travel Guide.
In those days, there was no MapQuest, no Hotwire and no personal GPS devices. Our family travels were sometimes miscalculated adventures that occasionally landed us in some wily places. During one memorable spring break, my dad didn't realize that our trek into the wilds of Montana and Wyoming was occurring smack-dab in the middle of rodeo season. With no hotel rooms to be found, we ended up in a roach-infested motel in Cody, Wyo., where we all slept in our clothes and left before sunup.
Today, thanks to an endless stream of information as close as the nearest laptop, it's a snap to do what used to be nearly impossible: plan a last-minute escape for the holidays or find good vacation deals during peak travel times. Just remember to thank your favorite computer nerd every time you take a virtual tour of a hotel room, print your boarding pass at home or name your own price for a seven-night Caribbean cruise. Parents are now in the driver's seat when it comes to finding good deals on a variety of vacation options, from booking holiday ski getaways to planning spring break on Maui.
"I definitely feel like I'm getting the best deal that I can," says Jodi Binstock, a mom who travels frequently with her 7-year-old daughter, Logan. Binstock has booked trips for as far away as Poland (even last-minute) on her home computer. "I could never have done that without the Internet," she says.
Surf or Snow?
Of course, any parent playing the role of family travel agent should be aware that access to the Web's endless stream of information can be a double-edged sword.
"You have to have the time," says Binstock, who recently booked a Disney cruise for herself and her daughter through the American Automobile Association's membership-driven site aaa.com. "It's not a two-second thing."
If you've decided to plan a family escape for the holidays or during the next school break, then turn on the computer, decide where to go and the size of your travel budget. Set aside some time to surf through travel sites dedicated solely to family travel. You'll find a wide variety of suggestions on where to go, as well as tips on how to dig up those great deals. These sites will help you get started:
- FamilyTravelFiles.com - Offers an extensive assortment of travel articles and topics, and it breaks down getaway suggestions by state. The site's "Vacation Deals" link offers an array of gas promotions, printable coupons and resorts with free nights, such as the FDR Resorts in Jamaica, which is offering a Moms Fly Free promotion.
- FamilyTravelNetwork.com - This is one of the few that doesn't sell travel on its site, so the relatively balanced content here has a little extra cachet. The "Travel News" section is especially helpful, as are the "Travel Tips and Reviews." (See the tip on the new federal requirement that kids under age 14 be present to apply for a U.S. passport.)
- FamilyTravelForum.com - This subscriber-supported site is a great spot to surf for ideas on where to go and how to get a deal. Looking for something different for your next family trip? Check here for information about dude ranches where your little buckaroos can get lessons in ropin' and ridin' before they have to return to their readin' and 'rithmatic. Or perhaps you and your tween are ready for sailing lessons on a pristine lake. How about an eco-friendly vacation in which bird-watching or beach-cleaning are among the daily activities? This site offers a little bit of everything, even breaking down travel suggestions based on the ages of the travelers. The site's Tiny Travelers link, tinytravelers.net , is great for planning getaways with babies).
- Online Newspaper Travel Sections - It's always wise to double- and even triple-check all information before venturing into unknown territory, and a good source for reliable information can often be found within major newspapers' online travel sections. The Miami Herald miamiherald.com , for example, has a columnist devoted to last-minute travel ideas, and the Web site includes a feature called "Travel on Demand," an offshoot of cable TV's Video on Demand, bringing well-produced travel videos and tips to your computer screen.
- Travel Guidebooks - Guidebooks have long served as the Bible for itinerant travelers, and the titles these days are both extensive and specific. The guides' accompanying Web sites are often as helpful as the books themselves, and the information is usually pretty reliable (especially if it's a title that has been around for a while and is updated frequently). These books and their Web sites are especially useful if you're venturing into foreign countries. Frommer's frommers.com , Lonely Planet onelyplanet.com and Fodor's fodors.com all offer helpful resources and planning tools for domestic and international travel.
Click and Go
Once you've decided where to go, get out your credit card and start wheeling and dealing. Travelers will find hundreds of sites that offer great deals, but it's wise to choose one that has:
- secure transactions,
- email or fax confirmations, and
- reasonable recourse if your plans change or you encounter a problem with your transaction.
Wondering Where to Go?
In a survey, members of the Society of American Travel Writers selected and ranked the following as top U.S. destinations in 2005:
Most are also packed with other information that's specific to family travel. These sites are the best place to check into last-minute deals and ideas for quick getaways (Travelocity's last-minute travel packages are especially easy to find). But they all have their own quirks and perks, so find the site that best suits your needs.
I often turn to Expedia when I'm booking a big trip. It has a low-price guarantee and a "hurricane promise," which waives fees if a major weather event forces a cancellation. That comes in especially handy for travelers to Florida and Mexico.
If you don't mind adding a bit of mystery to your planning, Hotwire.com and PriceLine.com allow you to pick your amenities and locations for hotels, determine the price you want to pay, then wait to see the name of the hotel that you've been booked in once it's bought and paid for. That's a good option if you're flexible and aren't particular about specific hotel chains or airlines (I'm usually OK with it if William Shatner is).
But if you're leaving the country, the big domestic travel sites are a bit more limiting. Binstock turned to AirGorilla.com to make her Poland airline reservations, since her itinerary included air and train travel between European cities (which aren't available on Expedia or others). The good news is that she found a flight between Warsaw and Krakow for a shockingly cheap $44. She also was able to send emails to various hotels to verify that they had things she would need while traveling abroad with her daughter, who was a toddler at the time.
The vast variety of travel Web sites and other travel sources are filled with tips for saving money on a quick getaway. For example, RedWeek.com is a good source for condo and timeshare rentals that offer the conveniences of home (kitchens, sizable living spaces) in a resort setting - and at decent prices, too.
Once you know where you're going, you can always turn to the old-reliable travel guidebooks provided by AAA, Mobil and others. Local convention and visitors bureaus also have a wealth of information and can often help you set an age-appropriate itinerary of trolley tours, bay cruises, museum visits, special events or other activities.
Beyond all that, if you really want to, you can still take that family road trip with a map in your lap.
Carolyn Graham is an editor for United Parenting Publications and a member of the Society for American Travel Writers.
There are literally thousands of Web sites and books that can help you plan a family escape. In addition to the sites mentioned in our main article, these are also standouts:
- Destination360.com - Offers online travel guides to places throughout the world with a twist: all destinations include a 360-degree virtual tour.
- Farecast.com - This site relies on travel trends and other predictors to advise you on whether to go ahead and buy airline tickets to a specific city (the cities referenced are limited) or to wait because fares are expected to drop in price.
- Gadling.com - A travel blog with fun-to-read, firsthand accounts of virtually any locale, as well as some offbeat travel-related news items.
- RealTravel.com - Another travel bloggers' hangout with "featured blogs" and an area where you can add your own.
- Site59.com - This site, named for the last (59th) minute, is a good, one-stop shop for finding deals on last-minute packages and getaways. The site also offers ideas based on various areas of interests, if you haven't quite decided where you want to go.
- TheTravelZine.com - A noncommercial, online magazine created by a travel-loving Canadian couple, this site doesn't overwhelm and offers good travel-planning information.
- U.S. Department of State - http://travel.state.gov - A good resource for parents traveling abroad with children or for those who plan to pick up children to travel back to the United States.
Other Worthwhile Sources
- 300 Incredible Things for Travelers on the Internet, by Ken Leebow, 300incredible.com, 2nd ed., 2000. This book is a good place to start for planning and booking a vacation on the Web.
- Miles of Smiles: 101 Great Car Games and Activities, by Carole Terwilliger Meyers, Carousel Press, 2002. Seasoned San Francisco travel writer, Meyers has pulled together some great games to keep kids occupied during those long car trips.