SF Gate

 

Superior sites on the Web for deals, dos and don'ts
 
Michael Shapiro
  Sunday, December 1, 2002

"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 near necessity.

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 (http://www.hotelshark.com/) 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 http://www.digitalcity.com/ 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 michaelshapiro@yahoo.com.