Travel Web Sites: Just the Ticket

SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - The plane was going down. I was sure of it. As the 737 made its approach to storm-lashed San Francisco, a brutal gust of wind lifted one wing and yanked down the other. Luggage lurched in the overhead compartment while passengers gripped their handrests. Even the off-duty airline pilot next to me grew wild-eyed. And all I could think was, What moron booked this flight?

Oops. That moron was me.

This was the first time I'd skipped a travel agent and booked my own trip over the Web. Like the 9 million other households that booked their travel online in 1999, I love the idea of Web travel planning, which brings the world's offerings to your fingertips. Nothing beats the convenience of the Net's 24-hour reservations desk or the sense of complete control that booking online gives you. Unfortunately, there's no one to blame when things go wrong. The best-laid travel plans often go awry. And no one--not even the Internet--can predict turbulence. But while you can't control everything about your trip, there are things you can do to make online travel planning smoother and more successful.

Taking Off

With the number of Internet travel sites and services increasing each year, it's tough to know which sites offer the best deals and the most useful features. So we've done a bit of the legwork for you. We've whittled down the list of URLs to the best sites for booking flights and hotels, and we've uncovered the most helpful spots for researching a destination and planning your sightseeing. But how does booking travel over the Web compare to what an agent can do for you?

To test the Web's travel capabilities, I offered to go online to book travel plans for two PC World editors. One needed to get to Providence, Rhode Island, for her 30th college reunion; the other was heading with his wife to Spain for a friend's wedding, after a stopover in London to visit his in-laws. At the same time, I asked my own agent, Laurie Nibblett, to find the best deal her way. Laurie works for a small agency in Eugene, Oregon, and has been booking trips for me since 1991. To even the playing field, we researched fares the same day.

But this wasn't just a my-fare-beats-your-fare bragging game. With all the travel planning sites on the Web these days, the Internet has put the fear of God--or at least the fear of your browser--into traditional travel agents. The number of travel agencies in the U.S. has gone down by 15 percent since 1997, due to the popularity of online booking, according to Gomez Research. But I wanted to know if the Web was truly ready to replace a real travel agent in every task--from researching a destination and planning an itinerary to booking airfare, car, and hotel.

My verdict? The Web certainly can compete with a live agent in most areas, with a few caveats. The Web is great for finding cheap fares that an agent may not know about or have access to, or for planning sightseeing tours and other activities. But you should never depend on just one site for all your travel planning (at the very least you'll want to shop around to compare prices), and there are still times when you'll want to call on an agent instead of your browser. Booking international travel and other complicated itineraries online, for instance, sucked more hours out of my life than a visit to the DMV.

But there's no question the Net can do many things better--and more cheaply--than an agent.

Destination Unknown

Most of the time I know exactly where I'm going (travelwise, that is; if you're talking "life direction," I'm clueless). Whether it's a business trip or midwinter escape from the water-logged Northwest, my end point is usually set before I step up to the PC. But sometimes I don't know which locale suits my mood (or budget). Agents can recommend destinations, of course, but with travel sites bulking up their content, it's now easy to find travel ideas on the Web.

I start with Rough Guides to Travel Online (travel.roughguides.com), which covers an astounding 14,000 locales, from Ho Chi Minh City to Iowa City. The descriptions are concise, and I get an overview of locales by skimming the intros, then drilling down to meatier topics, like the best things to see and do.

When I just want to get away on a budget, I use Travelocity's Dream Map feature--a hoot to explore. Simply enter a departure city (in the U.S. or Canada only) and the amount of money you can blow on round-trip airfare, and Dream Map will list all the cities you can reach for that amount or less, at that day's fares. I typed in Eugene, Oregon and $300, and Dream Map came back with 16 destinations, from Seattle to Cleveland. Hmmm...I've always wanted to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Fare Fight

My two travel-happy editors, however, knew exactly where they wanted to go, so I focused on booking their flights. Off I went on my surfing spree, while Laurie tackled the challenge from her end.

I knew the domestic trip would be a breeze; the Web excels at helping you book straightforward, A-to-B trips. But I was leery of the overseas itinerary. The more complex your travel plans are, the more time it will take you to sniff out a good deal. That's the biggest drawback of do-it-yourself booking: You can get so involved in hunting the lowest fare that you end up burning hours like an Internet start-up burns money.

To save time, I stuck with the two travel portals ranked highest by Gomez Research, Expedia and Travelocity, as well as three others: Lowestfare.com and CheapTickets.com (both discounters), plus Trip.com (a travel portal that has extras like IntelliTrip, which lets me search the Web sites of 13 airlines in one click). Scads of other sites are out there, but I've found that if I use more than a few, I end up blowing too many hours chasing too-puny discounts.

To bargain-hunt on Expedia or Travelocity, I use their instant pricing tools:

Expedia's Quick Roundtrip Flight Search and Travelocity's Best Fare Finder.

(PreviewTravel, another top site, recently merged with Travelocity, which will probably have absorbed Preview's offerings by the time you read this.) These tools are easy to find and don't require a user name or password to do the quick searches. Of the two, I prefer Travelocity's Best Fare Finder. It doesn't make you enter departure and return dates, and it often suggests an alternate arrival airport to cut your cost. In contrast, Expedia makes you specify dates and approximate desired travel times before showing you itineraries or prices.

The first PC World editor, heading for her reunion on Memorial Day weekend, was flexible about her departure--I could send her out on a Tuesday or Wednesday, when fares are cheaper. She was also willing to use alternate airports to get a better rate--to leave from Oakland instead of San Francisco, and to arrive at Boston instead of Providence. And she had a Saturday night stayover, which always reduces the price of a ticket. (For other ways to finesse the lowest fares, check out "Tips for Bargain Flying" on page 164. )Once you've used Best Fare Finder or Quick Roundtrip Flight Search, head to the flight reservation area (only a click or two into either site), where you'll find a slew of other options that the rapid fare finders don't offer, such as the ability to specify airlines (to maximize frequent flier miles), and your preferred time of day for travel. Travelocity scores higher here, too. It presents all the data for each leg of your trip (Expedia makes you click to a different page to see plane changes), and it lists the type of aircraft you'll fly.

Bargain Hunting

After a half-hour online, the lowest round-trip fare I found for S.F.-to-Providence on these two sites was $364 on Continental, with one stop in Newark, New Jersey. Meanwhile, Laurie, my agent, was doing her own keyboard dance and came up with $384 on US Airways.

Not satisfied with these results, I extended my search, this time playing with departure and destination cities and dates--a real hassle on sites that make you back up to the itinerary form to enter new info, but a breeze on Expedia and Travelocity. I also visited the discount sites, LowestFares.com and CheapTickets.com. (For tips on purchasing travel through online auctions, see "The Price Is Right...Or Is It?" at www.pcworld.com/jul00/travel.)After another hour, I found a $319 US Airways fare on CheapTickets.com, flying from San Francisco to Providence on Wednesday and returning on Monday, with a stop in Pittsburgh each way. Only problem was, CheapTickets wouldn't show me a total that included its $8 fee plus all other charges and taxes unless I entered my credit card number first. That spooked me a bit, since I still wanted to browse before buying, so I moved on.

First, I went to US Airways' own site (www.usairways.com) to look for an equal or better price there. Sometimes airlines offer special Web-only fares to entice travelers to book through their site rather than through a commissioned travel agent. No go. US Airways quoted the price, including fees and taxes, at $334--$30 cheaper than Expedia and Travelocity's Continental fare and $50 cheaper than the US Airways fare that Laurie had found, but still not as low as I wanted. So I pulled out my final trick, Southwest Airlines. I always take a spin through Southwest's site (www.southwest.com) when I'm booking domestic travel. While Southwest doesn't show up on many portal searches, it often yields the lowest fares. No luck this time, though. The best deal that Southwest could offer was $384.

After two hours of online research, my advice to the editor heading to Providence was to book the $334 fare that I'd found on the US Airways site.

When it comes to overseas travel, you'll want to broaden your base of sites to include consolidators--companies that buy blocks of tickets on heavily traveled foreign routes, such as the United States-to-Europe--as well as deep discounters and lesser-known airlines that the travel portals don't usually include in their databases. That strategy paid off as I booked the second editor's trip.

He wanted to go from San Francisco to London, then to Madrid after eight days, and head home from Madrid after two weeks in Spain. To my agent Laurie, the itinerary seemed simple. Not to me. Multilegged journeys typically carry outrageously high prices on the Web, since online fare finders tend to assemble these trips by piecing together one-way tickets, which are always more expensive than round-trip fares. Want a shock? Expedia's cheapest fare for the S.F.-London-Madrid-S.F. trip was a whopping $1795, and Lowestfare.com quoted me $968. Ouch!

A better method for pricing multileg journeys online is to book a round-trip ticket for each leg. So I combined a San Francisco-to-London round-trip ticket with a London-to-Madrid round-trip ticket on separate airlines (the editor didn't mind returning from London instead of Madrid if it would save money).

Within 30 minutes I found a $580 round-trip fare from S.F. to London on British Airways.

I struck out trying to find a really cheap fare from London to Madrid on the standard airline sites. But at Airlines of the Web's site (flyaow.com/airlines.htm), which lists links to over 500 airlines worldwide, I found two European regional carriers, British Midland and EasyJet, by using my browser's Find feature to search terms like discount and UK.

I priced a London-to-Madrid round-trip ticket with EasyJet at about $88 (the site lists fares only in pounds, but I converted it using the converter I found at finance.yahoo.com/m3?u). The total? Just $668--less than the $968 Lowestfare price and less than the $778 fare Laurie dug up in about an hour. But there was a catch: The editor would have to change airports in London, since the EasyJet flight would go to Luton airport, not Heathrow, from which the British Airways flight would depart for S.F. Laurie's booking contained an interesting twist, though: It combined a round-trip United fare of $622 from S.F. to London, with an Iberian Airlines one-way flight from London to Madrid for $156. The plus?

The United flight let you return from a different city, so the editor could return from Madrid.

I'd never even thought about booking this way. So, armed with my new smarts, I returned to Travelocity and also hit a couple more sites: Council Travel (www.counciltravel.com), formerly a student-only agency that now caters to nonstudents as well; Bestfares (www.bestfares.com), a consolidator that charges $60 annually for access to its best bargains; and AirSaver.com (www.airsaver.com), another consolidator. Bestfares showed me a $498 round trip from S.F. to Madrid, with stopover privileges in London. Even with the $60 fee tossed in, the price was impossible to beat. But Bestfares doesn't let you book over the Web (you must call to close the deal) and doesn't give you the airline, flight times, or availability until you call.

I returned to Travelocity and found a great $583 fare on British Airways to London, that allowed a return from Spain. I then filled the London-to-Madrid leg with a $43 one-way flight on EasyJet, for a total cost of $626. Not bad for a high-season fare. But I'd squandered nearly 6 hours on the Web! I guess I won't be tossing Laurie's number out of my Rolodex after all.

In the end, the domestic trip was simple and a relative snap to book, even though I blew 2 hours doing it. I would never hesitate to turn to the Web for planning and booking that kind of itinerary. But the overseas deal ate up two afternoons of surfing. Bottom line? I'll still call Laurie to book complicated itineraries--multiple stops, trips that involve moving from place to place, that kind of thing. I'll probably pay more in the end, but the savings in time will be worth it.

Getting Grounded:Hotels and Cars

Unless you're planning to bunk in the airport lounge (for tips on doing so--I kid you not--skim The Budget Traveller's Guide to Sleeping in Airports at www3. sympatico.ca/donna.mcsherry/airports.htm), you'll want to book transportation and accommodations before you take off for your trip.

All the big-name sites let you reserve rental cars and a place to lay your head. But convenience aside, it's seldom wise to stick to one site alone for all of your needs. Using a travel portal like Travelocity to reserve a car is fairly straightforward, but you're still better off trying several sites to compare prices.

I priced a rental car for the Providence trip at Travelocity and Expedia.

Travelocity listed a weekly rate of $149 for a Payless rental. Expedia's lowest quote, from Dollar, was $154. If you need a car for less than a week, go to the car rental agency sites for daily rates. Otherwise, Travelocity has the greatest selection--it rummages through 59 rental agency databases, compared to Expedia's measly 13.

For traveling sans auto in Europe, riding the rails is the way to go. I priced BritRail passes over the Web (www.britrail.com) for the editor's time in England and even checked Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) to compare costs for train travel between London and Madrid, in case the editor decided he wanted to take the time to travel that leg by rail instead of by plane.

So-called full-service travel portals are seldom preferable because they rarely offer the best deals, and their selection is usually limited to the large chain hotels. You're better off visiting smaller sites that specialize in individual hotels and discount room rates. But beware: Booking hotel accommodations on the Web can be risky. Even when I found a low price, I couldn't be sure the seemingly charming, family-run hotel wasn't a dive or an otherwise questionable bargain. That's where another feature of the Web comes in handy: Usenet newsgroups. What better way to find out-of-the-way gems than from fellow travelers who (presumably) have no agenda in recommending a hotel? Unless I travel to a known locale or want to stay at a trusted chain, I usually head to rec.travel.bed+breakfast and post my query; for European travel, I find the rec.travel.europe newsgroups are best. That's how I found B&B NET (www.ukexpo.com/bnb), which listed scores of home-based bed and breakfast inns for the editor's London stay (just in case he preferred to maintain a little distance from his in-laws).

If you want to try and play it safe by staying at a chain hotel, the travel portals are a fine way to go. But they're not always the easiest to use.

Expedia made me check availability individually for each hotel I wanted to peruse--a major pain. Travelocity, however, showed me availability with an icon on the search list and always displayed prices on the first results page.

Booking an out-of-the-way hotel requires more initiative. Some of the general lodging sites, such as PlacesToStay (www.placestostay.com) and All-Hotels (www.allhotels.com), include B&Bs and discount hotels as well as chains. Hotel Discounts (www.hoteldiscounts.com) includes a lowest-rate guarantee (if you find a cheaper rate for the same hotel and dates, they'll refund the difference). At All-Hotels I found a room at the Oxford Hotel in London, a 19-room inn right across from Hyde Park, for $96 a night. You can also use a Web search engine to find city-specific hotel lookup sites. When I head to San Francisco, for instance, I use that city's edition of RoomFinders International (www.stayinsanfrancisco.com), which searches for vacancies from more sources than the travel portals do, such as rooms left available due to canceled tours.

Sights Unseen

I'd nailed down the essentials and got the editors headed to where they wanted to go, but I wanted to point my charges to some interesting sights and help them with logistics once they hit the ground. While I couldn't do that in person--PC World wasn't sending me along as tour guide--I could arm them with more information than most agents provide.

Unless you're booking a prefabricated tour--you know, the if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Tuscany kind of trips--don't expect much sightseeing advice from your typical travel agent. Agents come in handy for other jobs, but here the Web has it all over live agents. I felt like a travel titan after I dug up tons of information about things for my "clients" to do.

And it didn't take more than an hour for each itinerary.

Since there's nothing worse than being lost in a strange place right off the bat, I began by making maps and airport-to-hotel driving directions for my editors. MapBlast (www.mapblast.com) is great for this. Unlike the better-known MapQuest, MapBlast makes it a snap to pick an airport as your starting point by entering the airport's three-letter code. MetroPlanet (www.metropla.net) is also good; it stores mass transit maps for the world's major cities. I was able to print out maps of the London and Madrid metro systems in seconds by saving the images as GIF files, then opening them in a photo editor. A color printer is handy for this, since most maps color-code the metro lines.

For sightseeing, I start at Lonely Planet's Destinations (www.lonelyplanet.com/dest), run by the legendary Australian travel guide publisher. The writing's witty, the cited attractions usually include off-the-beaten-path locales, and the links to other Web sites are among the most unusual around. That's how I found Knowhere: A User's Guide to Britain (www.knowhere.co.uk), which divvies up London into over 80 neighborhoods, each with highlighted places to eat, things to do, and even places to skateboard (ah, whither my youth?).

For European travel, you can't beat Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com); sample itineraries and recommendations help you decide what is and isn't worth seeing.

And bookmark Whatsonwhen.com (www.whatsonwhen.com) to root out all kinds of events, from sports to music, across the globe. Just pick the dates you'll be in a city, then click the search button. That's how I steered the London-bound editor--who pined to see British sports hooliganism in action--to a soccer match taking place during the time of his stay.

An alternate approach is to use the phrase city guide name of city in a directory like Yahoo Inc.. That method helped me unearth a page of Madrid walkabout tours with stops at some of the city's most famous sights. It was harder to find info for the Providence-bound editor, but I managed to dig up something at Rough Guides about the great food in Providence's Little Italy.

But as with accommodations, some of the most valuable sightseeing advice you can get comes via word of mouth. By browsing travel-related message boards, you can get the same been-there advice that veteran travelers swap over brew in a County Cork pub. I go to Usenet's semi-anarchic newsgroups, where the exchanges are frank. "Petty thieves are a plague in the streets around the Prado and the Puerta Del Sol," warns a longtime tour guide about Madrid. Nice to know.

Another post recommends a Thames boat tour for the first day in London after an overnight flight. "You can eyeball the city from the river, but you'll be sitting down in case you're tired." For general advice I also like to try rec.travel.europe and rec.travel.usa-canada. Lonely Planet's newly reorganized messageboard called Thorn Tree is also invaluable (thorntree.lonelyplanet.com).

Still, don't limit your search to the Internet. For all its breadth of content--one moment you're virtually zipping through London, the next you're eyeing a bullfight in Spain--the Internet can be as shallow as a Britney Spears lyric. You'll want to supplement the sightseeing info you get on the Net with a good guidebook or two. Those from Frommers and Lonely Planet are my favorites.

(Frommers is owned by PC World's parent company, IDG.)Have Web Will TravelIn the end, the Web makes the grade for overall travel planning and booking.

For many mundane travel tasks, such as destination research and sightseeing planning, as well as straightforward, here-to-there itineraries and lodging, the Web's a smart pick; you can wrap up the job in the amount of time it takes some agents to return your phone call.

But for more complicated itineraries, I'd still call on a good agent. When you up the ante with sophisticated plans and routing, it's easy to get so bogged down in the details that you expend more time than the savings justify. You need to weigh the potential benefits against the time it'll cost to run down ultracheap deals.

Don't count on travel agents going the way of the dinosaur anytime soon. But as the Web matures and sites offer more, better, and faster features, their future may indeed be marked.

For additional tips, see www.pcworld.com/jul00/travel. Gregg Keizer is a freelance writer and nervous flier. Because he lives in a small Oregon city, he usually pays through the nose for flights, Web or no Web.www.unclaimedbaggage.comWe still don't know where lost socks go when they disappear from the dryer, but at least now we know where lost luggage ends up; but who would have thought it would be Alabama? Unclaimedbaggage.com sells everything from clothes to cameras--all booty from unclaimed or lost airline baggage--out of its warehouse in Scottsboro.www.festivals.comBeen wondering where you can find a juggling festival or the next Tulipmania flower festival? Click on the world map at Festivals.com to see what events are taking place when.

Agent vs. Browser: Knowing When to Pick Up the PhoneThough travel agents are feeling the squeeze from the Internet, PhoCusWright, an online travel research company, reports that only 3 percent of all travel was purchased online in 1999. While that figure is expected to rise, Laurie Nibblett (right), who works for an agency in Eugene, Oregon, says there are still times when clients should call on her instead of the Internet. Agents, for instance, have ways around airline reservation systems to find discount seats that are technically "sold out." But agents' biggest advantage, Nibblett says, is their knowledge: agents might, say, suggest you book your S.F. flight to Kenya through Amsterdam rather than direct, to save $1500. "All an airline is going to do is quote you their fare; but they're not going to suggest that [they'll] offer you [a cheaper fare] to change planes." Below are tips to help you know when to use an agent and when to use the Web.

Advantage, Web: You know what you want. If you've been there before and know the general price of a ticket, booking domestic trips on the Web is the way to go. Booking accommodations at a hotel chain is also easily handled online.

Advantage, Agent: You want backup. You're flying solo when you book on your own, while a good agent can be a strong advocate when things turn sour with a hotel or tour operator.

Advantage, Agent: You value your time. The Web's 24-hour convenience is hard to beat, but finding the best deal is time consuming. "You can also do your own taxes, or research your own law case," says Nibblett, "but these all take time."

Advantage, Web: You love the hunt. Part of the fun of using the Web to plan and book your own travel is the control you feel and sense of accomplishment you get when you do manage to track down an unbeatable deal.

Sites to Go

The web is filled with travel sites that do more than just help you book airfare. Here are some others to check out.

Adventure Travel

Adventureseek.com

Gorp.com

Outsidemag.com

Destination Research

Travelandleisure.com

Travelchannel.com

Dining & Entertainment

Citysearch.com

Timeout.co.uk

Zagat.com

Health/Safety

Cdc.gov/travel

Lonelyplanet.com/health/

Hotels

Leisureplanet.com

Hotelstravel.com

Travelbook.com

Travel Literature

Connectedtraveler.com

Exploremag.com

Salon.com/travel/index.html

www.sushi.infogate.de

You're in Stockholm and you've got a hankering for sushi. What are you gonna do? Hit the World Sushi Guide site to find the nori nearest you. It lists over 2000 restaurants in 700 cities, as well as a helpful glossary of sushi terms and ingredients.

The Web can be a nasty place. And we're not talking about all those triple-X-rated sites. Among its many travel-related hazards, here are four.

Tight restrictions: Virtually all discount tickets--meaning any ticket except full-fare coach, business, and first-class--are nonrefundable, and many of the cheapest discount tickets cannot be changed, even for a price. Tickets purchased through consolidators are often even more restricted; you may not be able to get a refund, for instance, even if a flight's canceled. Check the rules on a site before buying your ticket.

No reservations: Few sites will hold a reservation, and none guarantee the price of a ticket that's being held. Travelocity holds a ticket for 24 hours, as do some airline sites, but the price isn't set until you buy the ticket.

Travel scams: The National Fraud Information Center (www.fraud.org) that reports of travel scams, such as those offering phony vacation prizes, are increasing. Raw deals at online auctions, especially, are legion. Defend yourself with commonsense tactics, such as paying with a credit card and using an auction escrow service. And don't forget that anyone can slap together a site and list an 800 number, so stick to established sites that back their offer with guarantees and customer service.

Lousy service: Stuart Porter, a frequent traveler from the Fort Lauderdale area of Florida, found a cruise at an online travel agency, but when he reached the purchase page, he found he had to call or e-mail to finalize the deal. His e-mail wasn't returned, and he was put on indefinite hold when he phoned. "I hung up and . . . called my local travel agent, who booked the cruise while I was on the phone--same cruise, same price, better service."

Taken for a Ride: Pitfalls of Booking on the WebTravel off-season if possible. October and November are off-peak for most airlines, especially for flights to Europe and the Caribbean.

Subscribe to airline e-mail notification programs. This is a good way to find out about unpublished fares and time-limited bargains. Or visit WebFlyer's Deal Watch (www.webflyer.com/@deal/@deal.html) or Travelzoo (www.travelzoo.com).

Both sites compile deals from many airlines.

Be flexible with travel dates. It's cheaper to fly on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday.

Stay over saturday night. Prices for "excursion fares," the industry term for weekend stayovers, can be as much as half off the price of a regular ticket.

Be flexible with airports. Choosing a smaller alternative airport (Oakland instead of San Francisco, say) can save money.

Tips for Bargain Flying

www.cybercaptive.com

BEING ON THE ROAD is difficult for any e-mail junkie, but this site can help you stay in touch when you're out of touch by listing 4658 Internet cafes around the world.www.roadsideamerica.comTo liven up that cross-country road trip, check out this site, which lists 8000 wacky attractions, including the Jimmy Carter peanut in Plains, Georgia, and the Stonehenge knockoff known as Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska.

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