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Taking the Kids

Finding a Family-Friendly Agent

June 01, 1997|EILEEN OGINTZ

Don't whip out that credit card yet. Put down the glossy brochure for that expensive resort. Ask your travel agent the two questions that can make the difference between the vacation week from hell and a wonderful trip.

"Do you have kids?" you ask nonchalantly, while your child squirms beside you. "When was the last time you traveled with them?"

If the agent looks back blankly and eyes your child as if he were an alien, thank him or her politely and leave.

"It's like choosing a doctor or a lawyer. You have to feel comfortable that this person can help you," says veteran Los Angeles travel agent Susan Tanzman Kaplan, owner of Martin's Travel & Tours ([800] 999-5414) and former vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents.

After U.S. airlines placed caps on the amount agents could collect for booking tickets--which reduced many agency incomes--travel agents began seeking new revenue sources. No wonder so many say they want a piece of the growing family travel segment, whether they are experienced or not.

But this may eventually be good news for American families. The Assn. of Family Travel Specialists, formed in 1993, now counts 200 travel agents as members. In 1995, the 28,000-member American Society of Travel Agents began offering courses several times a year to certify agents as family travel specialists. But so far, only four agencies have completed the requirements and 35 others have taken the course, reports ASTA spokesman Steve Loucks. (Call [800] 247-0157 for subscription information about the Assn. of Family Travel Specialists newsletter, which provides travel information for consumers. Visit ASTA's Web site at http//www.astanet.com to find a list of specialists.)

Despite these efforts, many families tell me they can't find a travel agent who understands the realities of traveling with children: that being booked in a hotel a long walk from the beach won't work with a toddler or that a teen who can't find anyone his age will make everyone in the family miserable.

"You've got to check everything out yourself," New Yorker Ron Blumer said. Or get an agent who can. How can you tell if an agent understands the family market? Ask these questions:

* Have you taken any family travel courses or trips to family-friendly resorts and other destinations?

* Do you have family travel books on your shelves?

* Can you readily answer my questions about whether the raft trip is appropriate for a 7-year-old or the cruise for a toddler?

Here are several family-friendly travel agencies who know their stuff:

The 450-agency Travel Network chain offers "Have Children Will Travel" training to its agents and has developed a massive database on the subject. Another plus: Because of its size, Travel Network can offer good deals to customers. Call (201) 567-8500.

Family Matters Travel was started in Concord, Ohio, outside Cleveland, by Kathy and Chuck Hyppa because they love to travel with their two kids. They also teach local courses on planning family vacations. Call (800) 850-0831.

Kids Welcome Travel is run by moms Robin Applebaum and Barb Rivers in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka. They focus on resorts, hotels, ranches and cruise lines that offer quality children's programs. Call (612) 544-0054.

Traveling With Children is run by Dan Hallinan from Berkeley, Calif., and specializes in Hawaii, Mexico and Europe. Hallinan can arrange affordable condo or villa rentals. Call (510) 848-0929 or (800) 499-0929.

Families Welcome is overseen by mom Kathy Driskell from Ashland, Ore. Her agency arranges customized family trips in Europe and elsewhere. "We program to the kids' needs," Driskell promises. "Ask yourself what you want your child to learn on this trip." Call (800) 326-0724.

Grandtravel was started by veteran travel agent Helena Koenig after she became a grandmother. Koenig arranges upscale grandparent-grandchild tours around the world and does a thriving family celebrations business, arranging reunions and other multi-generational vacations for special occasions. Call (800) 247-7651.

Maupintour also offers grandparent-grandchildren escorted tours to Canada and Niagara Falls and family trips to Alaska, Cape Cod and the Southwest, among other places. Call (800) 255-4266 and ask about children's discounts.

American Wilderness Experience was started by Dave Wiggins, who has two sons. He has been booking family adventure trips for the 25 years, sending families to dude ranches, on raft trips, hiking and on ecotours to Costa Rica and elsewhere. Call (800) 444-DUDE.

Abercrombie & Kent has expanded its family offerings to include a holiday in Egypt, an Alaskan trip with a visit to a dog musher, an ecotour of Costa Rica and a barge cruise in Europe. Trips can cost more than $8,000 for a family of four. Call (800) 323-7308 for a Family Holiday brochure.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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