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TRAVEL WATCH: JANUARY 17, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 2

E-Travel Is Still Waiting for Takeoff in Asia
By YISHANE LEE

Have Internet, will travel. That's the message scores of websites are promoting as e-travel takes off like a fleet of Concordes. On the Net, you can buy a plane ticket to any place in the world faster than you can pack a bag--and very likely for a price that would make your travel agent catatonic. In the U.S. and parts of Europe, the Net has already transformed the travel industry dramatically.

In Asia, however, Web travel may as well be time travel. Good sites are few and far between--and though they offer a range of services, from hotel bookings to currency conversion, these bells and whistles can't substitute for sheer efficiency. Finding a reliable website and booking a flight for when you want and at the price you want takes longer--and is far more frustrating--than dialing up a travel agent.

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It's true that change is afoot: American company ITA Software (founded by an M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Lab alumnus) will soon launch a much-anticipated website that promises to synthesize information for truly one-stop travel booking. But since it's unclear whether ITA's site will allow trips that start outside the U.S., don't toss out your agent's phone number just yet.

Part of the blame for Asia's tardiness in the e-travel game rests with the region's airlines. Sure, most have websites offering information like flight schedules and destinations. Some also offer online booking, but not for all of the cities they serve. For instance, Japan Airlines currently allows the general public to book only domestic flights--and you need a Web navigator that can read Japanese. Singapore Airlines' online booking service limits you to flights between the airline's home base and cities in Malaysia, Britain and Australia, as well as Hong Kong. That's no good if you're planning a weekend in Cebu.

It's also nearly impossible to find discount fares for intra-Asian travel. Outside of special package deals, airline websites typically offer the standard list prices. And specialized travel sites don't do much better. A recent check of popular U.S. sites like Travelocity, Expedia and Trip.com showed that the return fare for Hong Kong-Tokyo averaged $900 for an economy-class seat. My agent can get me on that plane for $540.

Name-your-own-fare websites that cater to American travelers willing to fly at a moment's notice don't have Asia on their radar screens either. Many auction travel sites (among them giant Priceline.com and copycats Onsale.com, Bid4travel.com and Travelbids.com) post U.S.-to-Asia deals, but so far, none that originate in Asia.

In Asia, at least, airlines seem to prefer that customers deal with an outside party. That way, airlines don't have to set up such large distribution networks or train so many staff to field inquiries, says Hong Kong travel agent William Cheng. It's the complicated nature of Asian travel that makes online booking time consuming--and potentially expensive. "There are so many little restrictions governing fares that you really have to know a lot," says Cheng, who adds that he hasn't seen a dramatic drop in business at his agency, Magic Globe Travel. Cathay Pacific spokeswoman Diana Fung says Asians prefer value-added service: agencies that book flights, recommend hotels and arrange visas. People who don't need such extras and for whom cost isn't a priority turn to the Net.

Meaning the business traveler. That's where sites like Worldroom.com and the Condé Nast-affiliated Concierge.com come in. These all-in-one travel sites offer not only online ticketing and hotel booking, but also local guides, travel news and dining recommendations. Sound familiar?

For online booking, Worldroom relies on the European site TISS.com (Travel Information Software Systems). TISS.com claims it canvases 50 million fares to offer discounts of up to 70%. With that kind of reach, it may be the best place on the Net for cheap Asia-only travel. Unfortunately, the best is far from perfect. Too often you'll type in a popular route, say Bangkok-Delhi, and TISS.com tells you it has no fares. Fiddling with your arrival and departure dates produces the same response--even though any travel agent in Bangkok could get you on that flight.

The absence of Japan from the site is a huge lacuna. And brush up on your geography before making a reservation: typing in Bali as a destination pulls up Balikpapan, Borneo, when you want Denpasar, Bali's capital. Better yet, familiarize yourself with airport names. TISS.com offers Baiyun as a China destination. Never heard of it? It's the name of the airport in Guangzhou--which Concierge.com helpfully points out.

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