Hit the net Before You Hit the Road  by Michael Shapiro

Summer's almost here and the time is right for, well, getting away from it all. If you're about to wrap up a grueling year at the academy or have been putting in too many hours hacking away at work, summer is the time to hang it up and kick it back for a while.

But you know what they say: When you have the money to travel, you don't have the time and vice versa. Well, that's no longer true. Today, thanks to the Internet, savvy adventurers can travel to distant lands for less than ever, and even find ways to stay there on the cheap.

Beyond helping travelers save money, the Net is helping people travel with better, more up-to-date information. And it's helping them stay in touch with friends and family while they travel, which can also ease the budget--it's much cheaper to send e-mail than to try to connect by phone.

But enough jabbering--you're itching to hit the road, so let's get started.


Rather than going to a bookstore and buying a guidebook filled mostly with information you'll never use, why not use the Net to compile a personal guidebook? If you know where you want to go and are interested in some suggestions about what to see, try Fodor's Personal Trip Planner. Say you want to go to Santa Fe, N.M. Select the city from a list, click through categories like Where to Stay and Eating Out, then hit Create My Miniguide. You'll have a custom guide to Santa Fe, based on your interests.

If you want the Net's help in picking your next vacation spot, try Conde Nast's Concierge. You put in your interests, what you can afford and when you want to travel. Based on these and other preferences, the Concierge will offer a few suggestions for where to spend your vacation. For example, I told the Concierge that I'd like to go to Southeast Asia in June and that I prefer a temperature range of 70- 85 degrees. In a few seconds the Concierge responded that Bali would be an ideal choice and suggested a list of hotels in my budget. While you may not want to let a robot dictate your vacation plans, the Concierge is a good place to get ideas for your next trip.

Another superb site for destination information is excite's city.net. Click on the world map on the cover page to get to the country you're planning on visiting. When Lisa Johnson of San Diego learned she'd have to go to Bergen, Norway, on business, she had only a week to learn about the city and plan activities for her days off there. So she turned to city.net, where she found a wealth of information on Bergen and western Norway. Said her husband John: "No doubt right now she's on a fjord cruise using the information we pulled off city.net's page on Bergen tours. She's planning to take the 'Norway in a Nutshell' tour we got from city.net. Without the Net, there's no way we could have done in-depth research on such short notice, and it saved us the cost of a $20 Fodor's book that has more detail than we wanted."

Some established guidebook companies have made the jump to the Web, and millions of travelers are flocking to these sites before taking off on their trips. Lonely Planet and The Rough Guides , two guidebook companies that budget travelers have relied on for years, are among the best. These sites offer a tremendous amount of information, to the point where many travelers may opt to save a few bucks by printing out the information they need rather than buying the guidebook.

Richard Trillo of The Rough Guides doesn't believe the RG site, which includes the full text of some of RG's titles, will hurt sales. "Why would anyone want sheaves of computer printouts stapled together when they can get the beautiful book? Long live the book." Despite Trillo's faith in hard copy, many travelers (like the Johnsons, mentioned above) are already cherry-picking the best information from online sites. Others buy the book and supplement it with printouts from the Net.


OK, now you know where you're going and want to get there as cheaply as possible. In the old days, you could hang out at an airport hoping to get a cheap standby ticket. Unfortunately, those days are over, but by using the Net effectively, you can save a bundle on air travel.

For a quick getaway, consider last-minute discount fares like Net SAAver fares from American Airlines. Each Wednesday, American sends out dozens of eleventh-hour deals to cities in the U.S. and abroad. Typically, the domestic trips must begin the following Friday evening or Saturday and return anytime the following Monday or Tuesday.

Note: You can learn about Net SAAver fares at American's site or by subscribing to the Net SAAver weekly e-mail newsletter--see the site for details about subscribing.

Fares are typically less than half of standard low fares; witness a round-trip fare of $129 for travel between Chicago and Boston. During off-peak travel seasons, Net SAAver offers package deals on international routes like a six-day, five-night trip to London, including airfare, a first-class hotel, and breakfast each day, for $499. Other airlines, such as USAir, have similar programs. To save money on hotels, see Click-It! Weekends where similar last-minute deals are offered at Hyatt and other stylish hotels.

But not everyone can take off at the last minute. To find air schedules and prices, see Expedia or another major online booking service. Put in your travel dates and times, and Expedia will list your options. Then click on Best Fare Finder to search for the best fare on that route. To keep tabs on the best fares to the places you'd like to travel, sign up with Expedia's Fare Tracker and tell it which three routes you'd like updates on. For example, if you live in Seattle, type in Seattle-San Francisco, Seattle-Los Angeles, and Seattle-New York. Each week, Fare Tracker will send e-mail updates on the cheapest fares for each route.

For international air travel, the best bet is finding a consolidator. Sites such as Flifo and TISS have consolidator fares, but no site has them all. These fares are special discounted fares, offered "under the table," and cannot be included in the major computer reservation systems. They're perfectly legitimate, but the Net isn't always the best place to find them. Try the Sunday travel section of a good metro newspaper or a travel agent who's well connected with consolidators.

But don't overlook sites that can save you money on international travel. Cathay Pacific, for example, has periodic auctions through its Web site, offering tickets to the highest bidders. Cathay is planning to auction another 1,000 tickets this year, having staged three successful auctions last year. During last summer's auction, some of the winning bidders flew round-trip from New York or Hong Kong for under $800. Cathay encourages visitors to sign up for its Cybertraveler program, and occasionally sends e-mail updates offering special deals to these Cybertravelers. These deals have been challenged as discriminatory against those who don't own a computer, but so far, none of the challenges have succeeded. Other airlines have similar programs. For a list of links to hundreds of airlines, see Airlines of the Web. Finally, for ultracheap--or even free--international travel, consider flying as an air courier. Here's how it works: you give up your baggage allowance and travel with a carry-on bag. A rep from an air courier company meets you at the airport, checks in baggage under your name, and gives you your tix. Sometimes you have to meet a rep at the other end to release the bags, then you're free to go. Typically, you can stay up to 14 or 30 days, depending on the deal you work out with the courier company. To find out about courier deals online, see Air Courier Travel or the Worldwide Courier Association, probably the only budget travel site with a video clip of Robin Leach.

Sang Kwon, a student who flew to Thailand on a courier deal, found out about courier flights through a Yahoo! search, but wasn't sure at first if the fares were legit. "After seeing examples of some of the fares being offered, I truly thought it was a scam. So I investigated a bit more and found several articles written by netizens and travel publications concerning air courier services. I was thoroughly satisfied with my flight, especially knowing I paid less than half what everyone else on the plane paid for the very same flight."


As seasoned Net-users know, the Net is much more than the World Wide Web. While the Web is wonderful, it's pretty much a one-way medium. Sure, some Web sites have nice conference areas (Lonely Planet's Traveling Companions is among the best for hooking up with other adventurers), but the Web isn't the best place to get opinions from other travelers. Newsgroups and listservs are.

There are newsgroups out there for just about any interest. And thankfully, you don't have to wade through the thousands of groups to look for the right one. Just go to the Web site DejaNews, where you can put in your key words--for example, "camping AND Maine"--and get back a list of newsgroups where you can find out about camping in Maine. Then read the articles or post some questions of your own, and if you're specific and polite, you should hear back from fellow travelers.

When Ami Claxton wanted information about hotels in Rome, she first did some research on the Web, then turned to the newsgroup rec.travel.europe asking for comments about the hotels she was considering. Ami received about 20 e-mail messages from all over the world, mostly from people who had recently been to Rome. And many who responded offered tips about what to see and do while there. "The Usenet community is a fabulous source of information," she says. "Very often, people who wrote had just returned within the past month, so that the information was timely and relevant. It's also much cheaper than buying a guidebook or making international phone calls to people who may not speak English. These are just regular people (most times) who are trying to help you enjoy your experience. They have no financial stake in where you stay or visit."

But don't take opinions off Usenet as gospel. Somebody might like a place that doesn't suit you, or a proprietor of a cheap hotel could make it sound like a palace. So look for patterns, as Claxton did, basing her choice on several recommendations for the same hotel. Once she selected the hotel, she used e-mail to negotiate a discount. "Here are some reasons to give us a lower price," she wrote in her message. "We found you on the Web; we will stay for six nights during low tourist season; we are staying over a weekend; and we are very nice!" After going back and forth a couple of times, the hotel agreed to knock more than 20 percent off the rate previously quoted.


When you're on the road, especially on a long trip, the Net can be a virtual lifeline, offering updated travel information and keeping you connected with other travelers. When Jim Klima decided to travel through Africa and Asia, he turned to the Net's newsgroups and listservs (e-mail lists) for advice.

"Before leaving, I prowled every travel- related discussion group I could find to locate people who had actually done an overland trip," Klima said. "Since few Americans travel this way, using the Net gave me access to Europeans and Australians who had firsthand experience. I received very good feedback, both negative and positive, about overlanding in general and specific (trucking) companies in particular. It also gave me a splendid opportunity to query these people about what equipment and precautions I should take."

Note: To find listservs, see Liszt where you can find listservs that match your interests.

Once on the road, Klima used e-mail to get key information for his journey. "We used e-mail to ask Lonely Planet about release dates for new editions of the guidebooks for Pakistan and Central Asia and who the local distributors were in Nairobi and Islamabad. We got both in Nairobi, which really saved our butts--going into these areas blind would have been much more difficult."

When Klima and his wife became ill in India, they used e-mail to keep friends and family abreast of their return plans "which evolved as our illnesses did." Calling from India would have been expensive and impractical, he said, so they found a little long-distance shop that sent e-mail for 60 rupees (just under $2 a page).

As Klima and many others have found, the Net can be a great way to save some money. But the benefits extend far beyond finding good deals. Through online resources, travelers are finding they can get just the information they want, hear honest opinions from other travelers and stay in touch with the home front more easily. And they're finding that planning their trips, from finding rail schedules to getting advice about hostels, can be almost as enjoyable as the trip itself.


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