Don't whip out that credit card yet. Put down the glossy brochure for the too-expensive resort. Ask your travel agent the two questions that can make the difference between money well-spent on vacation and money wasted, between The Week from Hell and a trip so wonderful the memories will last a lifetime.
``Have you got kids?'' you ask nonchalantly, reaching for a crumpled granola bar in your pocket to pacify the too-noisy 7-year-old perched on the arm of your chair.
``When was the last time you traveled with them?''
If she looks at you blankly across the desk and eyes your child as if he were an alien, thank her politely and make a beeline for the door.
If, however, the travel agent launches into his favorite family vacation story, while handing your 4-year-old crayons and paper, you're probably in the right place.
``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 Kaplan, owner of Martin's Travel & Tours and a former vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents.
Kaplan, who gives a small gift to each child going on a vacation she booked, is proud that she now has begun handling travel arrangements for the grown children and grandchildren of the families she first sent to Hawaii years ago (call her at 800-999-5414.) ``It's a phenomenal market,'' she says.
No wonder so many travel agents say they want a piece of the ever-growing family travel pie, whether they've got the expertise or not. Experts explain that suppliers such as hotels, cruise ships and airlines pay the agents' commissions, not the customers.
Following the $50 commission cap two years ago on round-trip airline tickets, travel agents actively began to seek new revenue sources.
``Agents are looking for a specialty and family travel is a very recognizable niche,'' explains Donna Tunney, managing editor of Travel Weekly, the leading industry publication.
The Association of Family Travel Specialists, formed in 1993, now counts 200 travel agents as members. The 28,000- member American Society of Travel Agents has begun to offer 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 Association of Family Travel Specialists newsletter. Visit ASTA's Web site at www.astanet.com to access a list of specialists.
Despite these efforts, many families tell me they can't find a travel agent who understands the reality 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.
Don't forget the families who were promised children's activities only to discover their children were too young for the kids' camp. ``I might as well have stayed home,'' one frustrated mom confided at an Arizona dude ranch.
I've been there myself, not knowing until I've gotten to the departure gate with my three children that our seats are spread all over the plane on a full flight.
``You've got to check everything out yourself,'' New Yorker Ron Blumer is convinced. ``Sure it's hard, but it's the only way to be certain you'll get what you want. Travel agents don't seem to be terribly helpful to families.''
He'll never forget the travel agent who gave his family less than an hour to get through customs at a major European airport and make it to a different terminal for a connecting flight -- when they were loaded down with an infant.
``Our luggage made it, but we didn't and it was the last flight of the day,'' he said. ``We were down to one diaper.'' The couple have been on the lookout for a travel agent they could trust ever since.
How can you tell if an agent really knows the family market? Ask:
-- Have you taken any family travel courses or trips to family-friendly resorts and other destinations?
-- Have you got family travel books on their 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?
-- ``Nobody knows all of the answers, but they should be able to find them right in their office,'' says Travel Weekly's Tunney. If they can't, go elsewhere.
Go elsewhere too if the travel agent doesn't seem interested in learning about what you and your children like to do in your spare time, where you've vacationed in the past and how much money you've got to spend, adds Jeanie Andresen, who founded the Association of Family Travel Specialists.
Choose wisely. Your vacation dollars and happiness are too important to waste.
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 or visit the Web site at www.travnet.com to find a location near you.
-- Family Matters Travel was started in Concord, Ohio, outside of Cleveland by Kathy and Chuck Hyppa because they love to travel with their two kids. They also teach local courses on planning family vacations. ``We'll respect your budget,'' Kathy Hyppa promises. ``The task is to find a nice affordable place.'' 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. Each child gets a bon voyage gift. 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 (800-499-0929 in California.)
-- 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 offers upscale grandparent-grandchild tours around the world and does a thriving family celebrations business, arranging reunions and other multigenerational vacations for special occasions. Call 800-247-7651.
-- Maupintour also offers grandparent-grandchildren escorted tours to Canada and Niagara Falls and other trips recommended to families in 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 past 25 years and sends families to dude ranches, raft trips, hiking and on ``eco-tours'' to Costa Rica and elsewhere. Call 800-444-DUDE.
-- For those who can afford the best, Abercrombie & Kent has expanded its family offerings to include a holiday in Egypt, an Alaska adventure complete with a visit to a dog musher, an eco-tour of Costa Rica and a barge cruise in Europe. Trips cost upward of $8,000 for a family of four. Call 800-323-7308 for a Family Holiday brochure.
(Look for Eileen Ogintz's books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')
(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to email@example.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)
(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate