Web Surfing For Safaris Or Cruises, Beaches, B&Bs...

The boss has been yapping at you, but you don't hear a thing. You've barely made headway on a project that's long overdue. And--gulp--isn't that your picture next to the word "stress" in the dictionary? Maybe you need a vacation more than you think.

Where do you go? To some far-flung tropical beach? A quiet bed-and-breakfast in the country? You just might want to fire up your World Wide Web browser for clues. The Internet is populated with thousands of travel-related Web sites, blanketing virtually every corner of the globe and representing airlines, hotels, car-rental agencies, cruise companies, travel agencies, and tourist offices. Whether you want to make reservations, research fares, or schmooze with travelers who've already been there, chances are the Net holds some answers.

MAPS AND FLIGHTS. Consider the possibilities: You can tap into scores of hostelry and transportation databases or get the skinny on frequent-flier programs, local customs, sightseeing attractions, and weather reports. For example, the Subway Navigator site (http://metro.jussieu. fr:10001/bin/cities/english) lets you download maps and display routes on public railroad systems in dozens of cities. At the Transportation Dept.'s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (http://www.bts.gov), you can check out the on-time performance of leading carriers on nonstop flights between U.S. destinations.

Kroll Travel Watch advisories (http://www.kroll associates.com/kts) cover safety and security tips and health-care precautions on more than 250 cities around the world, though the Web service is only open to subscribing businesses. Individuals can visit the site to view sample advisories, which can then be ordered by telephone (800 603-0409) and faxed for $6.95 each. At Royal Caribbean (http://www.royal caribbean.com), you can choose an itinerary with the help of an interactive "Cruise-O-Matic" questionnaire. Alaska Airlines, British Midland Airways, and Southwest Airlines allow passengers to reserve flights directly over the Net. A more general-purpose service such as Preview Vacations (http://www.vaca tions.com) lets you reserve airlines and tourist packages or download movies of such locales as Kauai's Na Pali Coast and the waters off Key Largo. All in all, you can pick up a lot of information without spending big bucks on guidebooks.

To some extent, anyone equipped with a PC and a modem has been able to fish around for travel data outside the Internet for a while. The major online services feature forums where people can swap travel tips or engage in live chat. Subscribers to America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy Services can make flight arrangements through such services as Eaasy SABRE from American Airlines, though it's not as easy as its name suggests. And PC users who purchase United Connection software ($25; 800 482-2696) can shop for the best fares across different carriers and get real-time arrival information on United Airlines flights. United plans to offer the service at its Web site in September.

Although the commercial online services have an impressive list of travel offerings, the breadth of help that's available on the Web is staggering--if very much a work in progress. For instance, while an increasing number of outfits are making it possible to book hotels and other services online, most prefer that people pick up the phone and complete the transaction the oldfashioned way. "There is still hesitancy in giving credit-card information over the Internet," says Lee Rosenbluth, president of Rosenbluth Vacations.

However consumers deal with the logistics, they need to exercise the same caution on the Web as they would if they were shopping offline. Much of what is being served up on Web pages is so-called brochure-ware--a cyberversion of materials travelers can request by dialing an 800 number. Unless you're going through a reservation system such as SABRE or United's Apollo that lets you seek out the cheapest fares, you may not always be getting the best deal. "A good travel agent brings a lot of value to the transaction by massaging the system, comparing fares, and bringing together air, hotel, and car into one package," says Scott Bittle, technology editor at Travel Weekly. "When you're in one of these [company] sites, you're only seeing their fares."

While touring the Web, you may also equal the frustration you feel while waiting for a delayed flight at JFK, O'Hare, or LAX. "You can spend 20 minutes hunting down information you can get in two minutes on the telephone," says David Vis, who builds sites at Reed Travel Group.

A decent place to start your Web travel expedition is on one of the many fast-improving search engines. But stay focused. Say you're considering a trip to Costa Rica. By typing just the words "Costa Rica" into Yahoo!, 171 listings pop up on your screen. But by adding the word "tour," the list narrows considerably, to 4. Similarly, if you don't have a clue which destination to visit but know the type of vacation you want to take--mountain biking, wine tasting--try using search words that might furnish appropriate tour sites.

Fortunately, several travel-specific sites are excellent jumping-off points. You can find some of them in Fodor's NetTravel ($22, Michael Wolff & Co., Random House), a fine reference for uncovering resources. On the World Wide Web, both Travel Weekly Online and Travel & Entertainment Network-Internet Operations (http://www.ten-io.com) provide lists of handy links segregated by category. You can also check out the vacation packages that are being peddled by such major agencies as American Express and Rosenbluth. Those seeking a decent discount on a hotel room might try pointing their browser to HD Hotel Discounts (http://www.hotel discount.com). Travelers can book a room in 13 U.S. cities at savings, the company claims, of up to 65% off the highest retail rates.

The Travel Channel Online Network (http://www. travelchannel.com) spotlights a new destination each week. For example, it recently featured Puerto Aventuras in Mexico, with a variety of links to Mexican Web sites and a listing of hotels in the area, along with advice on tipping, avoiding the water, and customs. In Travel Channel's facts and opinion section, writer Rick Steves contributed an excerpt on the Alps from his Europe Through the Back Door guide. Of course, if you aren't bent on flying off to Mexico or Switzerland, these stories won't offer much appeal. "The problem is that there are so many online magazines that self-select what they want you to know," says Laurie Berger, president of Content Inc., a travel Web consulting firm. As with other services, Travel Channel Online offers live chat and a bulletin-board section, but on a quick inspection the area appeared pretty thin. The Travelocity site, from SABRE Interactive and Worldview Systems, lets you search its archives to help get the scoop on places to visit.

PROMISES, PROMISES. Sometimes companies promise more than they can deliver, at least for now. As of Apr. 10, TravelWeb claims to have detailed data on more than 7,600 hotel properties. These include chains such as Hilton, Hyatt, Ramada, and Westin. But I didn't have much luck using the database. The company says you can select hotels by checking off features from a list (bar/lounge, safe-deposit box, concierge, 24-hour room service, etc.). I searched for an $80- to $225-per-night room in San Francisco and checked off 14 variables. The database found no matching hotels. Next, I ran the same search across the state of California. Again, zip. Finally, after eliminating three amenities--business center, free newspaper, indoor pool--the computer spit out two properties.

Indeed, booking a complete vacation over the Net is still something of a challenge. But before long, improved Web browsers, better Internet security, and speedier hookups will make it easier for almost anyone to plan trips via PC. So in between writing reports and poring over spreadsheets, you can point and click your way to reserving that much-needed getaway in Bora Bora.

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