Electronic Escapes

Shortly after the New Year, many Central New Yorkers begin to itch for a retreat to paradise. A call to a travel agent or airline remains the traditional relief, but wary travelers cannot always be certain they got the best deal, whether for plane tickets, hotel or car rental reservations. The expanding reach of the Internet, however, means more consumers can plan their vacations from the comfort of their snowbound homes. The travel industry is all over cyberspace, offering discount fares, trip tips and even preview photos of vacation spots. "The Internet is a multimedia access point to certain destinations," says Bill DiCosimo, manager of consumer Internet sales and marketing at AccuCom, a Syracuse Internet service provider. Cyber-savvy Central New Yorkers can easily book a flight to Paris or locate a bed and breakfast in Vermont, then browse the wealth of on-line information describing their destination. Any on-line activity takes time, but the advantage of scheduling a trip via the World Wide Web is that the details remain under your control. Travel agents usually require wayfarers to play by their rules, including traveling within a certain time frame, says John Haynes of Syracuse Research Corporation, which designed and hosts a tourism site for the Syracuse Convention and Visitors Bureau. Careful planners can voyage in cyberspace before taking an actual trip while keeping costs to a minimum.All-in-One ApproachesA number of Web sites bear all the necessary tools to arrange an excursion in one stop and free of charge. Sign up with Travelocity (http://www.travelocity.com), which contacts members by e-mail whenever the airfare for up to five chosen destinations changes. With booking capabilities for more than 400 airlines as well as car rental companies and lodging worldwide, Travelocity makes it easy to snatch a deal once it falls within a given budget. Once you've selected a specific flight, follow the step-by-step directions to make it happen. Note the flight and vacation dates, tap in your credit card number and wait for the Travelocity Customer Service Center to mail the ticket. Cruises Inc., Travelocity's cruise network, tracks maxi-saver rates for major cruise lines. Purchasing tickets on-line by passing your credit card number through cyberspace is quite safe, insists DiCosimo. "It is more dangerous to give a credit card to a waiter who walks in the back of the restaurant with it," he says. DiCosimo adds that browsers can tell you which sites are secure; Netscape displays a broken key at the bottom left corner of the window to warn travelers if a site is not secured. Travelers can also research and purchase an escape with Microsoft Expedia (http://www.expedia.com). Its Fare Tracker reports via e-mail each week the lowest rates for up to three round-trip routes selected by the user. One drawback to this service is that users are not informed if a fare drops and rises again midweek. Nevertheless, the site draws upon a huge reservation database and offers other useful services, such as currency conversion, video tours of popular destinations, driving directions and a chat room for trading travel advice. Internet Travel Network (http://www.itn.com) features Fare Mail, a service that notifies members when a rate drops to a fee within their budget. After recording everything from your personal information to air and car rental preferences, choose an itinerary by entering delivery and payment details and wait for a confirmation number. Also available: a weather forecast for your destination and summaries of the best frequent flyer plans.Out of the OrdinaryTravelers headed to common destinations benefit from a wealth of on-line information. Almost every major city sports a site that highlights entertainment possibilities, shopping meccas and sightseeing opportunities. Domestic travelers will enjoy Yahoo's domestic virtual views: Check out the traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, get tips and maps of the New York City subway system and locate schedules of Broadway plays at http://ny.yahoo.com; find out what's happening on Capitol Hill at http://www.dc.yahoo.com, which also furnishes exhibit information and tips on the best restaurants and shopping centers. Cities across the ocean come right to homes and offices as well. For instance, you can easily mark your travel itinerary with hot spots in Paris after surveying The Paris Pages (http://www.paris.org), which profiles popular cafes and gives visitors a chance to view museum masterpieces. Across the Channel, NetLondon (http://www.netlondon.com) links to theater schedules and a host of other attractions from Buckingham Palace to Harrod's. Yet the Internet is also a perfect place to break the mold and uncover other travel treasures. Although most of these more unusual vacations cannot be booked on-line, the sites describe exactly what potential adventurers will encounter and provide phone numbers to schedule such journeys. Would-be cowboys and cowgirls can saddle up for a dude ranch vacation at Waunita Hot Springs Ranch in Colorado. A group that already witnessed the fabulous view from Pike's Peak kept a journal of their travels and posted it on the Web at http://www.netside.com/~mcoker/waunita1.html, complete with pictures and a daily diary of their experiences. More daring sorts can reserve a space on a Peruvian Amazon Adventure (http://mgfx.com/amazonadventures) in preparation for hikes in the rainforest and immersion in Amazon culture. The site gives extensive information about what each of these escorted journeys includes and their cost. Or plan a romantic escape at Bed and Breakfast Inns Online (http://www.bbonline.com/listing.html). The guide includes descriptions and color photos for more than 2,000 bed and breakfasts. Locate a cozy inn by region or a distinctive feature such as mountaintop or oceanside. Don't forget to look at exactly where you're going, meet the hosts and discover just what is on the breakfast menu. Trade Syracuse's slippery roads for the powdery slopes by pointing your browser to GoSki (http://www.goski.com), which profiles more than 2,000 resorts worldwide. Find out what the seasoned skiers think about famous mountains, check conditions, tap into equipment reviews and determine if mountain regulations allow that new snowboard. After all, the flood of data offered on the Internet means fewer surprises once you've already unpacked your bags in a hotel room somewhere across the country.Sidebar OneRoad TripWhile many travelers just want to get where they're going, some delight in a scenic drive to vacation retreats. MapQuest (http://www.mapquest.com) offers door-to-door directions and mileage statistics, whether the route is across state lines or a cross-country expedition. Simply enter specific addresses and wait for a detailed list of highways and byways. More scenic routes can be found on Scenic Roads Registry, http://www.motorists.com/states/roads.htm, which includes a description of the splendors along the way. And don't fret over an unlucky vehicle breakdown: The American Automobile Association (http://www.aaa.com) publishes a list of approved mechanics nationwide so you won't get taken for an extra ride.Sidebar TwoTravel TipsMany Web sites offer useful pointers for tourists. Centers for Disease Control: Learn the health risks for traveling abroad at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/travel/html. Date and Time Gateway: Set your watch before leaving at http://www.bdsi.com/data. Healthy Flying: A former flight attendant gives tips for the ins and outs of air travel at http://www.maui.net/~diana. Travlang: Those unfamiliar with a language in a foreign country should check http://www.travlang.com The Weather Channel: Ask weather-related questions or simply check conditions at http://www.infi.net/weather/

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