02/08/00- Updated 11:46 AM ET


Published Feb. 8, 2000

In search of travel mates? Try the Web

By Kitty Bean Yancey, USA TODAY

Retiree Ronda Cox, widowed for two years, likes to roam the world, but friends can't always get away to join her.

Hook up and go

Seeking a fellow traveler? Some Web sites to browse:
arrowhttp://www.maiden-voyages.com/. The Travel Partners & Plans area contains detailed postings from women seeking trip companions.
arrowhttp://www.booksites.com/. Although the site is aimed at literate, erudite explorers, its Travel Board attracts more prosaic men and women, too.
arrowhttp://www.lonelyplanet.com/. The Thorn Tree's Travelling Companions branch hooks up the young and restless from around the globe.
arrowhttp://www.frommers.com/. The "Share a Trip" message board on budget-travel guru Arthur Frommer's site brims with missives from those seeking travel partners.
arrowhttp://www.sportsmatchonline.com/. Enthusiasts of pastimes from caving to cross-country cycling post messages seeking partners, students or league members.
arrowhttp://www.skimeet.com/. Skiers and snowboarders arrange to meet on the slopes, with or without romance.

Hotel owner Morris Blitt loves to take cruises but prefers knowing at least a few fellow passengers before boarding.

Contract-bridge player Karen Allison does lots of traveling to tournaments but despises paying double for a single room.

All three are logging on with their computers to plug in with potential travel partners. This genre of electronic personal ads is in its infancy but starting to catch on.

"I often room with people I've met online," says Allison, 58, of Jersey City and Toronto. She'll go to OKbridge (http://www.okbridge.com/) and post a message saying, "I'm going to a tournament and I could use a roommate."

Blitt, the 50-year-old features editor of CruiseMates.com, an online community for cruisers, used an America Online chat room in 1997 to see who was sailing on the Veendam with him and his wife. "We decided to have a pre-cruise party. Now it's something I've started doing before every cruise. No question, it makes the cruise better. As you walk around the ship, it feels more like a neighborhood, not like being with 2,000 strangers."

Blitt, who lives in Calgary and uses the festive online pseudonym "Kuki," also helps cruisers find roommates via Internet message boards (CruiseMates has one). There's a compelling reason for doubling up: to avoid the dreaded singles supplement, which can increase a solo traveler's bill 25% to 100%.

Cox, 63, is making travel plans again after nursing her husband through multiple sclerosis and a losing battle with lung cancer.

"I'm not fond of traveling alone," says the retired alumni activity director for Iowa State University in Ames. "For me, it's a matter of having someone to share the experience with."

A few months ago she bought a computer and came across postings for travel partners at Maiden Voyages, which caters to female travelers. She has found three prospects.

Cox has yet to take a trip with a mystery travelmate and plans to meet potential companions before traveling. "If it works out the way I hope it does, it's a marvelous way of reaching out and meeting people."

Not everyone has made a successful connection. Many who have posted messages seeking companions for everything from travel to golf to skiing say they've had no takers.

Mark Thompson, 22, of Cincinnati tried to help his mother when one of her friends couldn't honor a commitment to share a cabin on a dream cruise to Australia and New Zealand. He advertised on a few message boards but got no useful response before his mom found a last-minute cabinmate locally.

"One of the most enjoyable experiences in traveling is meeting new people," he says. "If you plan ahead enough, I think the Internet could be terrific."

It's not that there isn't a hunger for traveling companions in a nation in which 21% of voyagers are single, according to the Travel Industry Association of America.

"So many people don't travel because they don't have someone to go with," says Jens Jurgen, founder of the nearly 20-year-old Travel Companion Exchange in Amityville, N.Y., which has had success matching up travelers for trips. It boasts about 2,000 active members, who pay $159 for the first year of membership (800-392-1256).

Jurgen is thinking about expanding to the Internet, "but we have delayed our own Web site because in this business you really have to know who people are. Even prisoners are working the Web sites. People give false names. The Web is the way to go, but it will need better security."

So what about the fear that perverts and ax murderers lurk on the Internet?

"You can sort of get a feel for people," Blitt says.

"Some creep is not going to put down $4,000 to travel with you," Thompson says.

"You have to use a little bit of caution," Allison says.

She has visited the homes of fellow cat fanciers she met online, and she has hosted a bridge-loving Slovenian law student in need of housing during a shoestring trip to America. Nothing bad happened.

Those who make successful online matches don't start packing their bags when they come upon a likely prospect. First comes the getting-to-know-you phase, starting online and often continuing on the phone or in person. Once the tests are passed, the negotiations begin.

For Allison, it's "no partying in the room and no television. When I'm at a bridge tournament, my focus is on that. I find television annoying."

Cox is a "morning person" but was paired with a night owl when a cruise line matched her with another single. Now she'd rather pick her own roommate.

"I want to know that someone is fairly spontaneous and adventuresome, but not foolhardy, and that they have wide-ranging interests."