If I had used a travel agent to plan our latest family vacation, I would have driven her crazy. "What do you mean, a dude ranch in Wyoming?" I can imagine her asking. "I thought you wanted a resort in the Caribbean." And I doubt we would have finally decided, on something of a whim, to spend 10 days in Paris and Provence. But it's easy to be mercurial when you've got a world of travel resources available at the click of a mouse.
Just as it's changing everything else it touches, the Internet is altering the way families plan their vacations. Not only has technology made travel planning more convenient, it has made it "easier for consumers to explore more options and to be more adventuresome," says Suzanne Cook, senior vice-president of research for the Travel Industry Association of America. A TIA survey reports that 33.8 million travelers used online resources for planning trips in 1998, up from 11.7 million in 1997.
I'm a part of that trend. In recent years, I've spent more hours than I care to admit in front of a screen arranging everything from a weekend in Pennsylvania Dutch country to a two-week stay in a seaside cottage in Ireland. ("There's our house," my nine-year-old cried out when she first spotted it. "It looks just like it did on the computer.") I've used the Net to peek inside hotel rooms, take virtual tours of resorts, check snow condition at ski areas, and get driving directions from my home to a hotel.
My most recent foray into travel cyberspace--the one that will end in France next month--began with the goal of booking a week at an all-inclusive Caribbean resort. Taking a guess at the Web address, I keyed in www.clubmed.com, and sure enough, Club Med's site appeared. After clicking on "village directory" and "good deals," I homed in on the resort that seemed suited to our family. I filled in a rate request form, and by the next morning, learned that a weeklong stay for the four of us would cost about $5,000, including airfare. At that point, I could have entered my credit card number, hit "send," and that would have been that. But curiosity got the better of me: Where else could we go for that kind of money?
ELUSIVE AIRFARE. I logged onto Sabre's Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), which along with Microsoft's Expedia (www.expedia.com), Preview Travel (www.previewtravel.com), and Internet Travel Network (www.itn.com), are the largest online travel booking sites. After you register, each lets you check air fares, arrange car rentals, book hotels, and even purchase complete vacation packages.
In less than 10 minutes I had compared fares to at least a dozen domestic and international destinations. To my surprise, Travelocity's "low-fare finder" came back with a $352 round-trip airfare to Paris, cheaper than to any of the other places I'd checked. But the next day when I logged on to buy the tickets, my bargain was gone. Entering the identical information I'd used before, the cheapest fare I could now find was $553. "Airline inventories are changing constantly," cautions Terry Jones, chief information officer of the Sabre Group. "When you see a great airfare, grab it."
Increasingly, some of the best deals in airline travel are available on the Web. Sites like www.bestfare.com offer deeply discounted consolidator fares provided by bulk resellers. What's more, airlines, eager to eliminate travel agent commissions, try to lure people to their sites with special prices. Most also offer last-minute bargain fares: They'll notify you by E-mail of low-priced tickets to cities you have specified.
Ultimately, I ended up buying our tickets to France over the phone, for $411 each. Then I moved onto the next, more engaging phase of my planning: figuring out what to do once we got there. My first stop was the French Government Tourist Office's site, which I located through the Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory (www.towd.com). France's site (www.francetourism.com) is somewhat bare bones, little more than an electronic version of a small guidebook. By contrast, the Irish Tourist Board's site (www.ireland.travel.ie), which I'd used to plan last summer's trip, is remarkably comprehensive. We were able to make reservations at bed-and-breakfasts, check out exteriors and interiors of thousands of cottages, view video clips of the country, even create a custom brochure for our family by clicking on the hotels, restaurants, and attractions we wanted to visit.
CALYPSO SOUND. Beyond official tourism sites, many guidebook publishers--Fodor's, Lonely Planet, and Rough Guides, to name a few--run Web sites that provide at least some of the information available in their books. (I found www.fodors.com most helpful.) Thousands of tour wholesalers and retail travel agents have also created Web sites offering a range of services. Another resource is online travel "magazines," sponsored by consortiums of hotels and tourist attractions.
Although it's wise to remember that their information may not be objective, some sites are quite useful. At one point, we considered going to a dude ranch and found several online magazines linking us to ranch resorts. We also flirted with the idea of Key West because one commercial site (www.keywest.com), with its pink and turquoise colors and calypso music blaring through our PC speakers, made the South Florida city seem especially alluring.
Of all the electronic resources I've used, the one I've most enjoyed is the ability to connect with other travelers. Online services, special interest forums, and travel booking sites run chat rooms and message boards where fellow travelers offer recommendations and share expertise. (Several sites, including Yahoo! and America Online, have message boards devoted specifically to family travel.)
Minutes after posting a query on Independent Traveler boards of AOL ("Suggestions for a family traveling to France?), responses started piling in from Francophiles around the world. "I'd head south," wrote George. "The weather in Provence is wonderful in April." A frequent visitor to Paris E-mailed me a guide he had written. And a woman with children the same ages as mine sent me Web links to the places she had searched while making arrangements to rent a gote, a rural vacation home. On one of them, www.ivacation.com, we found a house in the Provence village of Venasque that, after a few E-mails with the owner, we decided to rent for a week.
Finding a hotel in Paris was more frustrating. I visited about a dozen hotel booking sites, some run by large chains and others by groups of smaller, independent properties. The number of choices overwhelmed me. I ended up picking a 23-room hotel in the Marais district simply because I liked the photo of the stone walls in the breakfast room.
If there's a downside to travel planning on the Net, it's the almost limitless supply of information without an objective source to help you sort through it. I've logged more than 20 hours putting together this trip and there's more to do. I'll be online again checking out exchange rates, train schedules, and weather maps.
Of course, it's possible to plan a perfectly wonderful vacation on the Internet in a lot less time than I spent. But for me, part of the enjoyment of traveling is in the planning. Already, this vacation has been lots of fun, and I haven't left my desk.