"How did we ever live without it?" is asked about every
successful technology, from the wheel to the telephone to the
Internet. The remarkable thing about the Net, however, is how
quickly travelers have embraced it. According to Forrester Research,
the online analyst firm, more than 26 million U.S. households are
projected to book travel online this year, spending about $23
billion. In less than a decade, the Net has gone from novelty to
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, today's column highlights the
online resources for which I'm most grateful. I've criticized some
sites; judging from comments I've received, a few readers feel I
haven't been harsh enough. But today I lay down my virtual sword and
heap deserving praise upon tools that make our travels easier,
cheaper and more fulfilling.
-- Online-only deals: The Web is ideal for distributing cut-rate
fares. When airlines, hotels and cruise lines have an abundance of
unsold inventory, they can sell it online at a discount. Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com/) lists most
airline Web specials and has been so successful at marketing
cut-rate fares that it was cited in a recent New York Times report
as part of the reason airline revenues are down. Another good source
for online bargains is www.digitalcity.com/travel,
which lists deals by departure city, such as a $58- plus-tax round
trip between Oakland and Burbank. Also see Southwest.com and
JetBlue.com for discount fares.
-- Maps and trip directions: Whenever I plan a road trip, I turn
first to MapQuest.com and plot my destination in the Trip Directions
section. In seconds, I get turn-by-turn directions -- they're not
always perfect, but they get me there. For location maps, I prefer
the precision of Rand McNally (http://www.randmcnally.com/),
a well-known brand that didn't roll out a credible Web site until
last year. Another nifty site is MapPoint (mappoint.msn.com). These sites
let you zoom in or out and enlarge the map for greater detail.
-- Online discussions: Thanks to the Net, I've had virtual pen
pals in Canada and Greece since 1996. I met both in Usenet, a vast
compendium of discussion groups, including hundreds of travel
discussions. To find Usenet groups, visit groups.google.com and search by
keyword, or drill down the "rec" category to find groups like rec.travel.asia. Usenet is just
one source of travel discussions -- Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree (thorntree.lonelyplanet.com)
is popular with adventurous travelers. Many business travelers
convene at http://www.flyertalk.com/.
-- Straight opinions: The Net has become the leading venue for
travelers to share opinions, from cruise reviews to hotel
evaluations. For hundreds of cruise critiques, visit http://www.cruisecritic.com/
and click "Community." Or see the member reviews at CruiseMates (www.cruisemates.com/articles/memreviews).
For restaurant advice, Zagat.com collates reviews from thousands of
diners. But Zagat now charges a fee: $14.95 per year or $2.50 per
month. Fodors.com has reader reviews in its hotels and restaurant
sections, all for free, while a relative newcomer called HotelShark
provides frank hotel assessments. But HotelShark hasn't reached
critical mass -- some hotels have no customer reviews.
-- Travel news on demand: Every weekday I receive a dispatch of
travel bargains and deals from Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel (sign
up for this daily e-mail at http://www.budgettravel.msnbc.com/).
It was Frommer's newsletter that tipped me off to an affordable
bicycle tour of Cuba last year. A site called TripAdvisor (http://www.tripadvisor.com/)
lists travel stories from newspapers and magazines alongside
excerpts from guidebooks. The site also posts reader reviews of
hotels and ranks them in order of preference. Finally, I often
search newspaper archives (such as those at sfgate.com) to find
stories about my destination.
-- Free destination advice: For a long journey there's no
substitute for a good guidebook, but for a quick trip the Net can
provide ample advice. Leading guidebook companies have extensive
sites, including http://www.lonelyplanet.com/,
http://www.timeout.com/ and http://www.ricksteves.com/
(for trips to Europe). Fodors.com lets you customize destination
information according to your interests. Guidebooks aren't the only
good source of advice -- online-only publications such as http://www.citysearch.com/ and
provide useful city guides.
-- Publish your travel impressions: The Net enables anyone to
publish travel tales and gives readers access to more travel advice
than ever. Not all of it is well written, but much of it is worth
reading. And you don't need to be a Web geek to publish online.
Sites such as http://www.igougo.com/ and http://www.virtualtourist.com/
let you publish travel stories and images. BootsnAll (http://www.bootsnall.com/) is
another good site.
-- Web-based e-mail: Web-based e-mail services have become so
widely available that I almost forgot to mention them. But they've
transformed how we communicate when traveling. Every day millions of
travelers log onto Yahoo Mail (mail.yahoo.com) or Hotmail (http://www.hotmail.com/) to read
and send e-mail. I prefer Yahoo because it offers twice as much
memory as Hotmail, allowing users to store more messages. Even if
you carry a cell phone, it won't work everywhere, but you can check
your mail anywhere there's a Net connection. But you don't need to
sign up with a free-mail service: Most leading online service
providers, such as AOL and AT&T, provide e-mail access through
their Web sites. For world wanderers, Web-based mail provides a
permanent point of contact. If I'm on the road and want to set up a
meeting with other traveling friends or colleagues, all I have to do
is log on.
For that, and so much else, I'm thankful.
TravelTech runs the first Sunday of each month. Michael
Shapiro is the author of "Internet Travel Planner" and creator of
www.nettravel.com. Contact him at email@example.com.