Nov. 27, 2008— -- It's holiday time and, for many of us, that means family visits.
Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we go -- unless the economy is in the tank, and grandma is an expensive plane ride away.
The American Automobile Association estimates that more than half a million people who traveled last year for Thanksgiving won't be making the trip this year. That's the first decline in travel since 2002.
This year, 31-year-old Heather Sorensen is going to be hosting friends in Portland, Ore. With her family back in California, she is planning on hopping online instead of on the freeway.
"It will be nice to be able to see my family without actually being there in person," she said. "I won't need to get in a car or buy plane tickets when I just want to connect with them."
When Heather moved 700 miles from Sunnyvale, Calif., to Portland three years ago, she knew she wasn't going to be able to see her family as often as she was used to.
She decided that video chatting would help close the gap. She started regularly using Apple's free iChat software to connect with her dad and sister, and anyone else who would get in front of the camera when they chatted.
"This year, I actually met my niece over iChat when she was born. It was great to see her moving around when she was just a few days old," Sorensen told ABC News.
Once upon a time, video conferencing may have seemed like science fiction, only reserved for Buck Rogers or the Jetsons. But, now, it's actually very simple technology that is probably already available on your computer and ready to launch, as long as you have a Web camera and Internet access.
Chatting online has been around since the beginning of the Internet, but it was mainly enjoyed by younger users who had free time to share acronyms (LOL = Laugh Out Loud) and emoticons ( :-) = Smiley face).
Voice chats quickly caught on with family, friends and business associates who found the technology to be a great way to avoid long distance charges when calling overseas.
Now, with the weak economy and cheaper video technology, video chats are becoming a popular way to keep in touch with loved ones stateside too. It's simple, fun and accessible for all.
Electronics giant Logitech says more than one in four Americans -- 57 million people -- participated in a video call in 2007. So, what are you waiting for?
Helen Jordon is a spunky 62-year-old community volunteer, artist, musician and proud grandmother from Omaha, Neb., who doesn't consider herself cutting-edge.
"I have a cell phone, but I don't text with it. Nor do I send photos on my cell phone. Call me old-fashioned," she said.
However, when she realized that video chats would help her stay in touch with her family, she was quick to embrace the technology.
As her family has grown up and spread throughout the world she has relied on her computer to keep tabs on them. First with e-mail, then a nicely produced family newsletter, and now with video chat.
Jordon's son Leland is a staff sergeant with the United States Marine Corps, living in Washington, D.C. Her daughter Ingrid, son-in-law Brandon and granddaughter Mabel live in Heidelberg, Germany.
Jordon and her husband Steve, a business reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, enjoy using iChat to keep in touch.
"A couple weeks ago we had a three-way iChat going, with Leland in his D.C. apartment and Ingrid's family filling us in on their lives in Germany. It was really fun," Jordon told ABC News.
When Mabel used to live an hour away in Lincoln, Neb., Jordon would make weekly visits for "Grandma/Mabel time." Now that 8-year-old Mabel is an eight-hour flight away, she enjoys any time she can get.
"They put the laptop on the counter when Mabel is taking a bath sometimes and I get to talk to her. Sometimes I can iChat with her at bedtime. It was sweet when she was showing me the space where her tooth had just fallen out," Jordon said.
Thanksgiving may be a purely American holiday, but, even with the time difference, there is still a way to check on all the trimmings in Germany.
"One year we did video chat with them while they were eating pretend turkey and we were cooking ours," Jordon told ABC News.
She remembers fondly one of the first video chat sessions she had on her iMac.
"We were having a farewell party for Ingrid, Brandon and Mabel, and, since Leland could not come from D.C., we had him on iChat for the whole party," she said.
Party goers were invited to "Talk LIVE with Sgt. Leland Jordon, USMC D&B, Washington, D.C."
"Almost everyone who was at the party got to talk to Leland except for one lady who had spent most of the party in the living room wondering why people kept 'playing with your computer. Isn't that rude of them?' So I showed her what was really happening, and she almost jumped out of her skin when I introduced Leland to her and he said 'Nice to meet you, Mrs. Jaecks!' It was great!," Jordon said.
Michelle Obama purchased a laptop earlier this year so then-Sen. Barack Obama could check in with his daughters via video chat before bedtime from the campaign trail.
As the business world encourages employees to use video conferencing instead of traveling, developers are motivated to improve the quality of the experience.
Many of the "chat" software available allows friends to play games, swap files, and even share the user's screen for -- the ultimate holiday gift -- tech support from a knowledgeable loved one.
"I have shared documents on iChat with people and it was nice, because we were able to see the document at the same time and comment on it," Sorensen said.
She also said that she likes the confirmation video provides. "Video chatting is way better than using the phone. It's great to see the person's expression when you tell them something special. And you know you have that person's undivided attention," she said. No multi-tasking allowed when Sorensen is on the line.
She also has some advice for those new to video chat.
"It's nice to use some basic chat protocol. You have to be mindful of your status," she said, referring to the settings that let your buddies know when you are free to chat. "Let people know you are busy or on a call and, that way, people won't think that you are just ignoring them. I also try and use text only chat during the work day for quick conversations. Video chat is fun and a great way to catch up, though it can be difficult to get off the line."
Most of the leading chat providers, like AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo and Skype, now offer video chat applications. Setting up an account is often free and a breeze.
All new Macs come with built-in cameras and free iChat software that is compatible with America Online's industry-leading Instant Messenger program.
More and more PCs also feature built-in cameras. But, if they don't, add-on cameras from companies like Logitech, cost anywhere from $40 to $100 and easily plug into an empty USB slot.
So, Mac or PC, there is no longer an excuse to avoid a virtual face-to-face holiday greeting.
Steve and Helen Jordon have decided to spend Christmas in Germany. Helen is going to stay a couple of extra weeks for some "Grandma/Mabel" time while Steve returns home to report on the business world.
Helen Jordon said she is excited for some reverse-iChatting, "I'm sure while I'm in Germany I will video chat with Steve in Omaha. Now that is weird to me! To be talking to my house from the other side of the Earth!"