Over the past five years, there's been a quiet revolution in booking vacations and business trips, as millions turned to the Internet for travel ideas and bargains. Expedia.com, which launched in 1996, now ranks as America's seventh-largest travel agency, with more than 11 million visitors a month, and founder and CEO Richard Barton is his site's model customer. He blanketed U.S. cities prior to Expedia's spin-off from Microsoft in 1999 and presided over the company's launch in France. With his wife, Sarah, he has rambled the world on personal business such as a medical research trip to Bali (Sarah is an M.D.) and a bike trip in France's Burgundy region.
But Barton's idea of travel changed dramatically two years ago when Sarah gave birth to their son, Will. "Traveling is a much bigger event now," he says with a chuckle. "It's almost like a military operation. You have more stuff to take with you, and you have to plan entertainment and food for every moment of the flight."
Fortunately, however, researching and booking a family trip has never been easier, thanks to resources available online. "The Internet is an unbelievable tool," says Barton, who has observed a surge in multigenerational trips and Americans traveling within the U.S. rather than overseas. Based on professional as well as personal experience, he offers five strategies for using the Web to plan trips with children.
1. Take time to browse. Before the Internet surge, booking rooms in a major hotel chain seemed like the best way to assure a certain level of quality in family accommodations. But now investigating kid-friendly options like condos, hotel suites, and home swaps is a breeze. "I can't get a good night's sleep when Will is in the same room," says Barton, "so we do the research to find a one-bedroom suite or some other setup where he can have his own space." Older kids can get involved in researching potential vacation spots online, looking at photos, taking virtual tours, and helping plan an itinerary. Even before Barton became a parent, he made sure that his site featured a family travel section of articles, ideas, and special offers.
2. Micro-manage your flights. Departure times, seat selection, and duration of layovers can make or break your experience if you're traveling with young kids. Expedia.com allows you to search for flights using criteria such as price, time, duration, or carrier and also lets you book particular seats. "Our main concern when traveling with our son is changing time zones," Barton notes. "His internal clock is sensitive, so we try not to exceed three time zones ahead or behind, particularly on short trips." For timely tips, consult Expedia's "What to Expect in Air Travel" guide.
3. Skip the lines. International travel can require not only current passports but also visas and immunizations. Many sites on the Web allow you to research these requirements; one of them, www.governmentguide.com, asks a series of relevant questions and then presents a list of pertinent official U.S. government sites. A new feature on Expedia.com goes a step further: Not only can you research the requirements, but you can download the visa and passport forms and send them directly to Express Visa Service, Inc., a company that handles processing from start to finish.
4. Look into packages. If you know precisely the elements you'll need on your trip -- flights, car rental, and hotels -- you can book them together as a package, saving money and time. If you're flexible about travel dates, last-minute packages can save you up to 60% off regular fares. Also, consider using the Web to buy advance tickets for popular local attractions, tours, and live entertainment. Once the trip is booked, send your online itinerary with relevant telephone numbers to family and friends.
5. Stay connected. A reputable site will have several ways to make contact with customer service -- e-mail, a physical address, and an 800 number -- in the event of a problem. Don't hesitate to get in touch if you have questions or want to confirm the details of your trip.
Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2002 issue of Child magazine.