Online travel is like real thing: Have fun but be wary
By John Pavlik
Special to CNN Interactive
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
(CNN) -- Travel is one of my favorite activities. Travel planning is not.
Finding the right flight at the right price, locating a good hotel or restaurant in an unfamiliar city and determining my sightseeing itinerary have frequently been exercises more in futility than in fun.
Technology is starting to take some of the pain out of my travel planning. The combination of the Internet and hand-held personal organizers such as the Palm Pilot help in several ways, including making travel arrangements, preparing itineraries and letting me travel lighter.
Competition city on prices
If you like bargains as much as I do, you will love travel planning on the Internet. Many airlines offer especially good deals through the Web to encourage travelers to book reservations online. It saves the airlines money because of increased efficiency and less need for human agents.
Consumer confidence may be the single biggest impediment to booking online. The first time I booked a flight entirely online was in February, to Amsterdam. It was a little unnerving.
I wondered whether I would show up at the airport and told the reservation did not exist. But Northwest sent me an e-mail within minutes to confirm my purchase, and I had no problem when I arrived at the airport.
If you are really flexible, you can also find bargains through the likes of Priceline, where as the site says you can "name your own price" for airline tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals and more.
There are catches: You usually cannot be very picky about exactly when you can travel, where you leave from, whether you stop en route and so on. Businesses may be trying to unload particular rooms, cars or flights. That is partly the reason the options might not be quite what you are looking for.
Also, be sure you are ready to buy as you surf Priceline for possibilities. You provide your credit card information at the outset, and if Priceline finds a flight that matches your requested itinerary and price, it charges the tickets to your card immediately.
I have successfully used Priceline for buying groceries -- with success defined as getting what I wanted and saving money. But I have yet to buy tickets from it. I have never been able to get the exact itinerary I wanted. And I would like to book with a 24-hour grace period before buying.
Online travel services such as Expedia and Travelocity let you make online reservations for everything from airline tickets to car rentals to hotel reservations. They can throw in Internet specials that may be 50 percent or more off the regular price. These two online agencies require you to register, though you can use them once as a guest.
I am registered with Travelocity and used it to get tickets to Phoenix for August. I entered my request with and without a Saturday night stay so I could compare prices. Travelocity promptly listed several alternatives that showed the Saturday night stay at $499 would save me more than $1,000.
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On the flip side, making travel arrangements through the Internet is not a panacea for avoiding travel-related headaches.
A few months ago I was going to a meeting in New Orleans, one of my favorite cities, and went online to find a hotel around the French Quarter. I found information on accommodations of all types.
I booked online at a place that looked beautiful in the picture and that was described as a "short walk" from the French Quarter, for $35 a night. When I arrived, the hotel looked good but the neighborhood looked as if it could have been trouble.
My room resembled a prison cell. It was barely bigger than the twin-sized bed and had no closet, nor even a place to hang my jacket. I forfeited my one-night deposit, walked to the French Quarter (the "short walk" was about a quarter-mile) and found a charming place a block off Bourbon Street for $60 a night.
The situation was redeemed -- the old-fashioned way. My conclusion: Do not use the information you get off the Internet in isolation.
Check multiple sources. And consider a source's objectivity. Is the source commercial -- promoting particular places or businesses? Or is it impartial -- independent of companies or special interests?
Further, is the information current and comprehensive? How is it collected? Is it put on the site unverified as provided by the parties listed, or is it independently reviewed and confirmed? How is it presented? Can a commercial sponsor pay to have its information presented first or in a special way?
Next time I book a hotel room online, I also will be sure to ask myself: Can I tell what the neighborhood is like? Can I see my specific room, or at least a similar one? Can I hang my shirts?
Directions even a guy can ask for
I really like the travel-light combination of the Internet and my Palm Pilot.
My Palm rescued dinner one recent evening in Manhattan. My two young daughters and I were walking on Broadway near West 90th Street to meet my wife at a Mexican restaurant.
All I remembered was that the place was on a street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, a few blocks north or south of West 90th Street. I did not want to walk around with hungry children in tow. What was a desperate father to do?
I pulled out my Palm, went online to a digital city guide called Vindigo, selected the cross streets and the category "Mexican restaurants," and got a listing of several listed by proximity to where we stood.
I pulled out my cell phone, called the one on West 85th Street and asked about the one distinguishing visual feature I could recall from a previous visit: Were there lots of Frida Kahlo prints on the wall? "Yes," was the answer. I called my wife and told her where to meet us, and all was well.
Vindigo is among the best examples of the digital city guides I have used. It offers details about restaurants, shops, movies and the like in New York City, and lets users add their own reviews. It also offers guides for several other major U.S. cities.
Many of the major travel guides sell or give free access on their sites to content from their travel books. You can download information directly to a hand-held device, saving packing space and weight from all those travel guides.
Many of these guides also offer the utility of printable online additions to their book editions. I have downloaded some of Fodors' "mini-guides" and found the Amsterdam guide especially valuable, providing details about places to visit such as Rembrandt's house and the lovely neighborhood of Jordaan.
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A mapping service is another useful online travel resource that saves packing space. There are several. One I have tried is MapQuest, which offers a half-dozen travel features, including maps and driving directions for the United States, Canada and Mexico. It has live traffic reports and city guides for numerous U.S. cities.
My wife and I became fans of MapQuest's driving directions when we traveled from our weekend home to an open house at a summer camp where our daughters will be going. Using my desktop computer, we entered our starting and destination addresses and promptly got a map and clearly written directions, which we downloaded to my Palm.
We followed the map and directions explicitly and, for what may be the first time in my life, I did not make a single wrong turn. What is not to like about that?
Dr. John V. Pavlik is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York and executive director of the school's Center for New Media. He writes frequently on new media technology, journalism and health communication. His latest book, "Journalism and New Media," is forthcoming in 2000 from Columbia University Press. Pavlik is married with two children; the family lives in New York.
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