SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - The web has become indispensable to my travel planning. But even the best travel sites still remind me of a meal at a Hong Kong dim sum parlor: Though the parade of dishes is impressive, some of the tastier items are hidden from view or totally unavailable, and some of what you get is not quite what you expected. "Travel Web Sites: Just the Ticket?" outlines some of the pitfalls as well as the benefits. Here are a few strategies I've learned in my own virtual peregrinations toward real-world travels.
Hug dead trees: Even when an entire guidebook is available on the Web for free, as the Rough Guides series claims to be, navigating from one screen of info to another can be awkward. Starting out with paperbound guides can help narrow your search for hotels, restaurants, and transportation. The Web may eventually lead to better options, but the books' suggestions should help focus your efforts.
Search in all directions: Finding something as straightforward as the seat map for a flight can end up being infuriatingly difficult. Persevere: If you suspect that it's on the Web, it probably is--somewhere. Keep multiple browser windows open to compare deals; they can differ wildly. By visiting the sites of hotel middlemen, I've gotten deals much better than those available at the likes of Travelocity--saving me hundreds of dollars a night in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Boston.
Chart your voyage: Though Web-based maps are notoriously inaccurate, they're better than nothing. Use them to help decide whether your hotel is near the action or 10 miles from nowhere.
Take roads less traveled: The best-known travel sites are okay if you're looking for a standard room in a chain hotel. But I've used the Web to track down obscure sites for everything from condominiums in Hawaii to lodgings in central Rome. Open yourself to serendipity by exploring multiple search engines and following links from the sites they tease out.
Study the pictures: Guidebooks rarely show you what accommodations look like; Web sites often do a fine job. I've booked rooms and condos on little more than shots of the views and decor--and eliminated hotels whose sites suggested an ambiance of unremitting gloom. So far it's worked, perhaps because I always assume the pictures put the prettiest possible spin on things. If all you see is a faded patio chair overlooking three plastic dandelions, then that's as good as it will get.
Think local: City-oriented sites can be maddeningly boosterish, but they do provide a currency that guidebooks just can't match, particularly when it comes to festivals and cultural events. The sites of local newspapers and alternative weeklies often do a better job with restaurant and drama reviews and can give you a truer sense of a town's spirit.
Try public utilities: Don't forget other people's computers--the ones in Internet cafes and (in some countries) post offices can be handy for keeping in touch. Also handy are local ATMs, still the most effortless way to change money, and, despite their fees, often the cheapest short of using a credit card.
Assume nothing: When you think you've latched on to the best deal possible, think again. I've often found significantly lower airfares on a given itinerary simply by restating my query slightly. And no one will tell you what information has been left out--like, say, Southwest Airlines' entire schedule, missing from Expedia Inc.
When The Phone Does It Better
Thanks to bitter experience attempting to redeem frequent-flier miles or get seat assignments online, I've given up on the airlines' sites for those chores.
A phone call almost always reveals options unavailable via the Internet.
And that's the real Web challenge: Figuring out when picking up the phone makes more sense than surfing for what you want, as it often still does. But as a veteran of the days when reserving a room abroad meant weeks of uncertainty as special money orders and hand-scrawled confirmations crossed in the mail, I'll take the electronic era anytime.
PC World Contributing Editor Stephen Manes is cohost of Digital Duo, a series appearing on public television stations nationwide. For program information, see www.digitalduo.com.