06/07/00- Updated 07:53 PM ET


Kids help plan vacations online

By Laura Bly, USA TODAY

When the Crandon clan makes a cross-country trek to sample some of the USA's scariest roller coasters this summer, they'll book their plane tickets and hotel rooms through a travel agent.

But for the inside track on amusement parks they plan to visit, the suburban Los Angeles family is relying on its resident coaster fan and Internet expert, 15-year-old Phil. He has scoured such Web sites as ThrillRide (http://www.thrillride.com/ ) and Ultimate Rollercoaster (http://www.ultimaterollercoaster.com/) for advice. He has checked out admission fees, hours of operation and a front-seat video of the new Millennium Force coaster at Cedar Point (http://www.cedarpoint.com/) in Sandusky, Ohio. And when the trip is over, he'll post photos to his own site, http://www.cjcoasterphotos.50megs.com/.

Phil Crandon isn't the only Web-savvy kid wielding a significant influence on family vacations. In a recent Yesawich Pepperdine & Brown survey of youngsters 6 to 17, nearly 60% of those with Internet access said they use the Web or online services to "look up stuff on travel," while only about a third of their parents did so.

"Young consumers are very active online, and often become the designated family researchers for travel. While their parents are still trying to figure out e-mail, they're instant messaging and checking out price comparison sites for the best deals," says Forrester Research analyst Ekaterina Walsh, who notes that an estimated 11% of wired teenagers 16 to 19 have purchased travel online.

Aware of that interest and potential economic impact, an increasing number of travel Web sites are pitching to youngsters as well as - or instead of - their parents.

The "Just for Kids" section of the Arizona Office of Tourism site (www.arizonaguide.com/extra/kids/kidsindex.shtml ) features a history tour, state map and coloring book (Hint to budding artists: Saguaros are green). Arkansas State Parks' kids site (http://www.arkansaskids.com/) uses cartoon character "Resource Raccoon" to promote a series of interactive games; junior naturalists who complete the series get a discount on their family's next state park stay.

San Francisco's popular science museum, The Exploratorium (http://www.exploratorium.com/), lures young would-be visitors with more than two dozen "online exhibits" (most of which require installation of such software as Shockwave, RealAudio or QuickTime VR).

The "Kids&Teens" area of the online cruise magazine CruiseMates (http://www.cruisemates.com/) offers ship reviews and such been-there, done-that advice as "a true teen's perspective on packing." (Bring a camera and lots of film, writes 15-year-old Erin, "so you can take pictures of all the beautiful 'attractions' you'll see, especially if they want to dance with you.") The site even includes a "let's meet on board" message board where young passengers can hook up with others traveling on the same ship.

Kids "know they have some say in the vacation decision process" and are using the Internet to help "choose a place that will be fun for them - and rule out ones that would be horrible from their perspective," says Nancy Schretter, founder of America Online's Family Travel Network (keyword: FTN). Her service, which expands in July to the Web, will include separate areas geared to teens and younger children.

But not all sites are eager - or able - to target young travelers as a specific market.

Some are wary of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits sites from soliciting information from children without parental permission. Others argue that when researching a trip, kids prefer the same sites their parents use.

Still other sites, particularly those aimed at families, find that persuading kids to take an interest in the annual summer getaway can still be a challenge - no matter how high-tech the setting.

"It's tough enough to get teens to do their homework. To get them to write about a family vacation can be pretty difficult," notes Kyle McCarthy of the Family Travel Forum (http://www.familytravelforum.com/).