Ed Perkins, the consumer advocate for the American Society
of Travel Agents and former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter,
answers some of the more common questions about researching and buying
travel on- and offline.
TRIP PLANNING AND DESTINATIONS
Q: Can I use the Internet to plan a trip?
A: Yes, at least partially. The Internet is great for facts and
figures: Thousands of destinations - regions, countries, states and
provinces, cities, and park systems - maintain websites. Those sites
are great sources for information you need: main features, activities,
climate and weather, local transportation, and much more. In fact, your
problem is likely to be information overload rather than too little.
But the Internet is seldom able to supply enough depth and detail
to allow you to prepare a complete travel plan. You will still probably
need good guidebooks and maps (which you can buy online). And you
should always speak with a professional travel agent before making a
Q: How about finding out what's going on at my destination?
A: The Internet is a great resource. Most tourist attractions maintain
Websites with complete schedule and price information, as do sports
teams, theaters and arenas, cultural programs, and such. Newspaper
sites let you access such local details as movie schedules, restaurant
reviews, church services times, and much more.
Q: Can I be sure of getting the lowest airfare on the Internet?
A: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Some really good airfare deals are sold
only on the Internet. They're usually limited and highly restricted,
but if you can live with those limits and restrictions, prices can be
very good. However, if you need to change your ticket or you make a
mistake, customer service is not a strong point of the Internet. You
can also buy discounted consolidator air tickets from some Internet
In general, however, the online price is about the same as you'd
pay if you buy from a conventional agency. And some sites that claim to
search for the lowest fares don't include those discount tickets in
their searches, which means they won't really get you the lowest fare.
Q: Can I use the Internet to find the best flight schedule?
A: Yes, usually. Many websites permit you to specify schedules and
search by minimum travel time rather than minimum time. However, some
sites exclude some important low-fare airlines from their searches.
Also, sometimes it is difficult to discern the flight itinerary or the
number of steps and length of layovers.
Q: How about seating?
A: The Internet is helpful but it doesn't answer all your questions.
The main domestic airlines' websites show their seating charts and
dimensions (if you know where to look), but most small US lines and
foreign lines don't provide that information. Also, some websites let
you pre-select seats when you reserve, while others don't.Â If your
ticket permits, you can usually pre-select a seat by calling an
airline's reservation site, and a knowledgeable travel agent can often
not only get you a seat but select one with a bit of extra room.
Q: Can I cut my costs by buying a package tour online?
A: Usually no. You generally pay the same price for a package tour no
matter where you buy it. Many wholesale tour operators (the people who
put tour packages together) maintain websites, but they don't cut
prices there. You can use the Internet as a source of information, but
a travel agent can give you as good a deal - plus, possibly, a few
perks or extras.
Q: How about special interest tours?
A: The Internet is a great locator and source of information. It
enables some very small niche-market tour operators to reach a national
audience. You'll find almost any imaginable kind of tour on websites
maintained by operators of special-interest tours. But prices are
usually no lower online than from other sources. And an operator's
website is hardly likely to let you know if the operator is financially
sound - information you can often get from a travel agent.
Q: Do the cruise lines discount on the Internet?
A:. Generally, no. Even though most of the big cruise lines
maintain elaborate websites, they typically don't cut prices online and
many don't sell online at all.
Q: So where are the cruise discounts available?
A: Lots of agencies - online and off - provide discount cruise pricing.
The Internet is a great way to get an idea of what's available and the
price. But offline sources can usually get the same discounts as you
find online and may be able to provide insights on the cruise company
and its ships. Cruise specialists can give you firsthand knowledge of
the line and help you select cabins, dinner seating and shore
Q: Is the Internet a good place to find hotel deals?
A: Again, sometimes yes, but not always. Several hotel discounters have
websites. And several chains offer Internet-only specials (although
they're often duplicated by parallel non-Internet promotions). But
Internet discount prices aren't always the best you can find.
Chain-sponsored promotions are often better, as are deals offered
through just about any agency. Your travel agent can also help you
select a quality hotel in a convenient location.
Q: What about other accommodations - rentals, B&Bs, and houseboats?
A: The Internet is great way to track down unconventional lodgings.
You'll find hundreds of sites that cover vacation rentals, for example,
ranging from large worldwide agencies to individual apartments. Ditto
B&Bs, houseboats, rental boats, and such. But the main benefit is
in finding the place you want: Prices are usually the same no matter
where or how you buy.
LAST-MINUTE DEALS AND AUCTIONS
Q: Is the Internet a good source for last-minute bargains?
A: Yes, in many cases. The Internet provides an easy way for suppliers
to unload airline seats, cruise cabins, and hotel rooms that might
otherwise go unsold, at very attractive prices. The Internet is the
only place you'll see some of the best last-minute deals, but others
are available just about everywhere.
Q: How about those auctions that get so much publicity?
A: They're fine, but only if (1) you're willing to let the
Internet-based agency select the airline or hotel for your and (2) you
really know where to set your bid. Apparently, they work better for
high-priced hotel rooms than for air tickets.
Q: Are there any drawbacks to those deals?
A: The obvious ones. You usually find the best prices only a few weeks
to a few days in advance - often leaving insufficient time to arrange
your schedule. Selection of destinations/cabin classes/flight
times/locations may be limited. In many cases, once you buy, you're
stuck, with few if any refund options.
1. Perhaps the most important is that the Internet can respond only
to the questions you ask. If you don't know what to ask, the Internet
can't give a useful answer.
2. A related problem is Plan B deficit. Except within very narrow
limits, the Internet can't suggest an alternative if your first inquiry
doesn't turn up a satisfactory answer.
3. The Internet is a fertile field for deceptions and misleading
information. Just because a site labels a price as discount doesn't
mean it's really discounted. Ask 10 sites for the lowest price for an
identical service and you can get as many as 10 different answers.
4. The Internet is also full of misleading promotions. For example,
some sites list absurdly low airfares, with the condition that you buy
a week's hotel accommodations through the same site. Obviously, the
hotel rate is padded enough to cover the real cost of the airfare.
5. Some sites can't handle such routinely available deals as senior and AAA discounts.
6. If you run into difficulty, you could have a tough time trying
to get an online agency to straighten out your problem - in fact, you
may not even know its location.
If you're accustomed to making all your own travel
arrangements, the Internet can be a powerful tool. It can increase the
scope and reach of all your efforts, and allow you to check hundreds of
options. But to make the Internet work for you effectively, you have to
know what to ask and where to ask it. If you don't, you can spend
endless fruitless hours that ultimately produce unsatisfactory results.
Even if you know what you want, Internet research can be
time-consuming. But just because you prefer some outside assistance and
counsel with your travel arrangements, you needn't ignore the Internet.
It can be a good place to do your homework - along with the more
traditional guidebooks and other references.
No matter how you buy travel, the more homework you do, the better
consumer you'll be. And the Internet is a great place to start your