The Internet beckons explorers. It's not only for those who want to navigate cyberspace. It's tremendously useful for the real-world traveler as well.
Online, you can book reservations for cars, airplanes, and hotels. You can also do what many travel agents do: gather information. With a little help you can find out about the guy who circled the globe in a 46-foot motor boat. Or chat with folks climbing Mt. Everest.
"It's really changing the research aspect of things," says Chris Privett, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), based in Alexandria, Va. The Internet "is a real advantage in terms of being able to communicate and plan the ideal travel experience."
The Internet is so vast it's sometimes hard to know where to start. Travel information is especially plentiful. So begin with a few general sites, then browse for more specific information.
If you know where you're going, the best place to start is with an online travel guide. Arthur Frommer's Outspoken Encyclopedia of Travel (www.mcp.com/frommers) has 6,000 pages of travel tips and updated bargains. Particularly intriguing are descriptions of the 200 locations in the world that make up 80 percent of vacation travel. Fodor's (www.fodors.com) lets you build your personal travel guide by showing only the restaurants and hotels in your price range.
If the offbeat is more your style, try Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com), which includes unusual information on just about anywhere, even Antarctica. Several electronic magazines - called e-zines - cater to the adventurous traveler. See the 21st Century Adventures Ezine for a look at Britain (www.10e-design.com/centadv). Do you have special eating requirements? Cyberspace can help you locate the world's best sushi bars (www.cis.unisa.edu.au/~cisjpm/Sushi) or vegetarian restaurants (www.veg.org/veg).
Not sure where you want to travel? The Internet has loads of information. A good place to start is with one of the Internet search engines, such as Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) or Infoseek (www.infoseek.com). They have special sections devoted to recreation and travel. Read about that man who traveled around the world in a 46-foot motor boat (www.circumnavigator.com) or those climbers scaling Mt. Everest (www.everest.mountainzone.com).
You can also use the search engines to look up your own topics. Try to be explicit with your search terms. If you want to find out about, say, staying in a French chateau, make sure to include all the terms (as in "French chateau stays").
Once you're researched your dream vacation, you can also make your reservations online. It's easier than it sounds and there's no extra cost involved. Nevertheless, few people do it. For all the hype surrounding online commerce, only an estimated 1 percent of airline reservations are made through the Internet. "For the travel agents, it's nothing more than a niche market," says George Newsom, president of PCTravel Inc. in Raleigh, N.C.
Mr. Newsom should know. His Internet-only travel agency suspended operations last month because it couldn't turn a profit. That's because airlines have begun to cap the commissions that travel agents receive for booking a flight online, sometimes as low as $15 a ticket.
Another problem: consumers are leery about using a credit card on the Internet (even though it's probably no more dangerous than, say, using it in a restaurant). If you're worried, the best way to take advantage of the Internet's resources is to look up the fares yourself then call your travel agent. (Of course, you can call your agent directly and probably get the same price. But the online reservations systems let you play around with dates and times to your heart's content - something travel agents don't always have time for.)
One of the leading sites is Travelocity (www.travelocity.com). It's affiliated with American Airlines' reservations system, the SABRE Group, but the site offers reservations for all airlines, not just American. Other sites to book flights include: Microsoft's new Expedia site (expedia.msn.com) and Yahoo! Travel (www.yahoo.com/Recreation/Travel).
Many of these sites have fare-tracking services that will automatically alert you by electronic mail when a new lower fare is offered. For example, if you think you'd like to vacation in Australia, the reservations engines allow you to enter the destination and alert you to airfare changes. It's like having your own online travel agent.
Expedia is considered an up-and-comer in the online travel world. It combines a reservation system with a travel guide. It features 360-degree panoramas of various destinations, such as the Arizona desert or Prague's Old Town Square. (Make sure you have an up-to-date browser.)
Booking hotel reservations? Look no further than TravelWeb (www.travelweb.com). Unlike travel agents' electronic reservation systems, this system is connected to hotel chains representing some 14,500 hotels in at least 133 countries. The company has signed a contract with Internet Travel Network to provide airline reservations as well.
Plenty more vacation information awaits you in cyberspace. It's the one place you'll travel without getting out of your chair.