Traveling on the Net a Testing Experience

SYDNEY (05/09/2000) - If there's anything guaranteed to test the reliability of the systems you take for granted it's traveling.

These days it really is easy to book a trip using one of the Internet travel sites. But have you ever changed your plans mid-trip? None of the Internet sites that I regularly use had any facility to re-arrange flights and accommodation easily -- if at all.

Its not surprising that the Net doesn't let you do some of those changes - the airlines themselves had no end of trouble making changes and then having that recognized at my next visit to an airport check-in.

It seemed that no-one had a problem de-booking and re-booking my flights. The problem seems to be the paranoia about whether the airline is getting its required payments. So there I stood, booked on the right flight, while the check-in staff madly made phone calls to see if they could let me on board without taking more money and if so, exactly how much money?

American Airlines took the prize this trip. They finally decided after fifty minutes of discussion that I could catch this flight, but they wanted US$70 extra. I didn't really care about the money, I was just trying to get to the next city. Even though I was holding a $7,000 round-the-world business-class ticket.

The point was moot -- by the time they'd calculated the price the flight had departed. They'd rather have an empty seat than lose $70. No wonder they can't let you use the Internet for anything but up-front ticket purchase.

Hotels weren't a lot better but the Holiday Inn in San Francisco at least made it easy to cancel and re-book my room. I didn't have the heart to explain to the desk staff that my surname and first name had been juxtaposed by their Internet booking program. "Welcome to San Francisco Mr Ian". Whatever.

When it comes to actually using the Internet while traveling it is no wonder that Internet cafes are staggeringly popular with the backpack brigade. On balance I think I'd have to recommend using a Net cafe instead of fighting the phone systems in your hotel rooms. You'd think that with the arrival of the 21st century, hotels would know that most of their guests, not just their business travellers, probably have an Internet-enabled device with them.

The problem began with an up-market hotel in London that required you to own the peculiar U.K. telephone plug. After sourcing one of those, which I'll definitely lose before I return to the U.K., I discover that the in-house phone system is so bad that 14K bits per second is the best connection I can expect.

And of course, hotels persist in charging fantasy numbers for the use of their phone systems -- 200 pounds (US$306) for 20 minutes of Internet access. I'm not joking.

At least over in e-Ireland they use ordinary phone connectors and only charged me a fiver for the same amount of online time I'd enjoyed in London. But why is the phone next to the bed while the power is next to the desk? If anyone had walked in on my Internet session I'd have had a lot of trouble explaining exactly what I was doing on the bed with cords wrapped around various limbs and a laptop perched on my chest -- while swearing at random.

Of course, by the time I got to Phoenix, I expected the good old U.S. to be Internet-aware and traveller-friendly. Close but no cigar. Standard phone connectors. Phone near one of the tables but not near the desk. Power reachable. Working on the coffee table wasn't so bad after my previous gymnastics. But how come they charge me $5.00 to call a 1-800 toll-free number?

Exactly what service is the hotel charging me for providing?

Last hotel stop was San Francisco, and they had obviously visited Dublin and copied the room layout. Back to power and phone cords stretched across the room and me in the middle of the bed trying to read a laptop screen upside down. At least the 1-800 calls really were free this time. Not even a 'service' charge.

Now all this hassle could be easily fixed by any savvy hotel chain that cares to take the time and effort, and afterwards they should be able to rely on very loyal custom from anyone who needs to stay in contact while they are on the road. Any takers?

Finally, this road trip made me realize how inadequate my laptop and e-mail software are when asked to perform remotely. You've just got to have Web-based everything if you're on the road. That way you can use any damn gadget that you are offered that has a browser.

Being tied to my laptop for access -- and slow access most of the time -- is seriously frustrating. Particularly with hotel phone meters running. Before the next trip I'm moving everything I need to Web-based access. I probably won't use the Web for everything all the time, but when you are on the road, it's Web or die.

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