You've never been anywhere near the place. Before you plunk down that hard-earned deposit for a week's stay, don't you wish you could talk to someone who has vacationed there with kids?
So what if you don't actually know anyone who fits the bill -- as long as you've got access to the World Wide Web. There's a growing number of family travel Web sites. These not only will help you connect with a family who has been where you're going, but will also give you the inside track to plan your best trip ever, saving some bucks along the way.
As more parents grow comfortable using the Web -- more than 30 million Americans now use online services, surveys suggest -- more are turning to their computers for help planning vacations.
Online travel bookings tripled to $827 million last year and are expected to surpass $4 billion by 2000, according to a new report from the Travel Industry Association of America, the national nonprofit lobbying arm of the travel industry. That doesn't even count all those surfing the Web for information, which increasingly includes women.
Susan Wyland, editorial director of Disney's popular Family .com site, notes that nearly 40 percent of Web users are now women. In many families, moms are the ones doing the vacation planning, Wyland says.
"Families don't have a lot of time to plan vacations, and they know they can get the most current information on the Web," adds Nancy Schretter, who oversees America OnLine's Family Travel Network, now drawing close to 1 million users a month.
Just as important, a few strokes of the keyboard and you can get customized information, from the most family-friendly B&Bs; (www.inns.com) in New England to kids' activities in major cities (www.citysearch.com) to the best air and hotel deals (www .bestfares.com).
Start with a general search for the place you hope to visit, suggests Stuart Schaefer, the Webmaster at Boston's Computer Museum. (Visit the Computer Muse- um Network at www.net.org).
You can also search by activity. For example, if you're considering a family outdoor adventure, www.gorp.com will tell you the gear you need, where to find an outfitter and how to get your kids to go along on a hike without whining.
Take a virtual visit to the national parks at www.nps.gov and search for the best family hikes at many parks. You can also find out where to avoid the crowds at www.nps.gov/pub_aff and link to publications for a list of lesser-known areas.
Be forewarned that all of this Web browsing can be time-consuming. My favorite part is that you can do your vacation research whenever you want -- for example, after the kids are in bed. Rev up your search engine:
* Disney's Family.com offers a substantial family travel area including Road-Tested Vacations from parents who have been there, travel tips from Family Fun magazine and local calendars of family-oriented events.
* The Family Travel Network on America OnLine is the largest online site devoted to family travel. Trade tips with other traveling parents and learn about family bargains, from skiing free to cruises to city hotels and air fare.
* You can take a virtual vacation to Hawaii, Mexico or the Florida Keys, among other places, or read two years of Taking the Kids columns. You can also link to dozens of sites for more information on everything from children's festivals around the country (www .festivals.com/children/index .cfm) to island adventures (www .where2stay.com/islands/family .html).
* The Family Travel Forum newsletter Web site (familytravelforum.com) was designated by Yahoo as a top new site. Come here to post questions, scope out such off-beat destinations as Morocco and Tibet or get the savvy family traveler's guide to the best Miami hotels or French chateaux that welcome visiting families. The information has been fact-checked. There's a list of family-friendly travel agents and links to sites providing everything from passport information (http: // travel.state.gov) to health tips (www.cdc.gov/travel/travel.html) to weather (www.intellicast.com).
A tip from the forum's Kyle McCarthy: Always double check the information you're getting from commercial Web sites to make sure it's accurate and up-to-date.
* The new Parents.com, Parents and Child magazines' site, offers a family destination finder where you can search by type of trip as well as place. Do you want to be at the beach or a ski resort? Even better, you can immediately determine whether a resort has kids' programs for your age child and kids' menus.
Go the bulletin board to trade travel ideas with other families. There are "deals of the week," and pressing family travel questions answered by Travel Mom (who happens to be this family travel columnist.)
* The Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) site at www.astc.org will tell you the children's and science museums close to your mother-in-law's house and link you and the kids to those hands-on museums around the country and world. Take a virtual tour before you get there!
* The American Zoo and Aquarium Association site at www.aza.org can help you plan times to talk to the animals, too. The ASTC travel guide also offers a state-by-state and international guide, complete with tips on visiting science museums with kids. (E-mail a request for the free list to infstc.org or write the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), Department VAC, 1025 Vermont Ave. N.W., Suite 500, Washington, D.C. 20005.)
One travel tip: Buy a family membership at one of the 210 listed hands-on museums for $45-$85 and get in free to all the others for a year. It could cost you almost that much to visit one museum.)
Now if only we could figure out a way to make real family trips go as smoothly as virtual trips. E-mail me at eogintol.com and tell me the sites you've found most useful for planning family trips.
Pub Date: 3/15/98