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.