Tips for savvy Web travel

A new book by a top travel journalist details the pitfalls and potentials of online travel planning.

Topics: Travel,

Ed Perkins has been observing and analyzing the travel scene for almost half a century. Within the travel industry, he is particularly well known for founding the widely respected “Consumer Reports Travel Letter” in 1986, and editing it until 1998, when he left to write two nationally syndicated newspaper columns and serve as consumer advocate for the Society of American Travel Agents.

In his career, Perkins has developed a reputation as one of America’s foremost consumer travel journalists, valued for his trenchant reporting, straightforward critiques and sensible advice.

In his new book, “Online Travel,” Perkins helps readers make full use of the Internet as a travel planning and booking tool. Of course, Perkins is not the first to plow this terrain. Amazon.com lists dozens of titles devoted to similar topics, including “Internet Travel Planner,” “Buying Travel Services on the Internet,” “Travel Planning Online for Dummies” and “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Planning a Trip Online.”

But Perkins sets his book apart by focusing on general travel strategies, rather than specific sites. As he writes in the introduction: “A book that merely catalogs and describes Internet sites is obsolescent the day the author submits a final manuscript. But the basics of travel planning and buying don’t change all that rapidly … If you know how to use a travel site — what to ask, where to ask it, and how to ask it — you can effectively apply that knowledge even to sites that weren’t out there when I completed the text of this book.”

Perkins organizes his book according to the way travelers plan and buy travel services. The first two chapters present the overview. Perkins first separates the vast array of online travel sites into seven helpful categories: portals that lead to other sites; airlines, hotel chains, cruise lines, etc. that are trying to sell something to travelers; travel agencies; sites providing information, but not trying to sell anything; government; consumer publications; and travel publications.

The second chapter looks at the wealth of information available on the Web to travelers wanting to research and plan trips. Perkins describes what you should expect from government-sponsored sites, those maintained by individual tourist attractions and artistic/sports venues, and sites produced by guidebook and travel magazine publishers.

Subsequent chapters focus on airlines; hotels; cruises; vacation packages; scams and deceptions; complaints and compensations; online and offline travel agents; and a grab bag of topics under the heading “the rest of it,” including overland travel, insurance, credit cards and phoning on the road.

For casual travelers, Perkins’ book offers seasoned explanations and common-sense advice. For frequent travelers, I think the most useful parts of his book are the chapters on airlines and hotel rooms.

The airline chapter begins with a concise explanation of how airlines set their fares: “They establish very high ‘full fare’ prices for Coach/Economy seats that carry no restrictions. They figure that business travelers will pay top dollar to be able to buy a peak-time seat on short notice and to be able to switch tickets to different flights at any time. Airlines sell seats they don’t fill with business travelers to vacation travelers for sharply reduced prices — well under half the full-fare prices — with restrictions that discourage business travelers from using them.”

Once you understand this system, you know the more restrictions you live with and the farther in advance you buy your ticket, the better deal you’ll generally get.

Perkins then goes on to outline his strategy for finding the best airfare. First, he advises readers to start with the airlines themselves. Their best deal is the benchmark against which you measure all other fares. (But first, you have to know what airlines fly the route you want to fly. Perkins recommends Wheels Up as “arguably the most useful” of the sites that match airlines and routes.)

After checking the airlines’ sites themselves, your next stop should be the online travel agency sites, such as Travelocity and Expedia These allow you to compare fares from various airlines; they also offer route alternatives (in cases where more than one airport serve the same destination) and low-fare e-mail alerts.

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The problem with these sites, as Perkins notes, is that not all of the airlines are listed in their databases. (It is worth mentioning here that Perkins’ book is published by Microsoft Press and that Expedia was originally created by Microsoft and is still partly owned by Microsoft. To his credit, Perkins does not focus egregiously or gratuitously on the Expedia site, but when there is a choice among many similar sites, Expedia is one that always gets mentioned.)

You should next check the sites of the low-fare airlines, such as Southwest, Frontier, Jet Blue and others (Perkins provides a list of 12 in his appendix), which may offer better fares on the same or similar routes and often are overlooked by computer reservation databases. Then, if you want to spend more energy and time on the search, you should check out charters, consolidators and reverse auction sites, such as Priceline.com.

In each case, Perkins details the risks of these alternatives — from inconvenient flight times, complicated check-in procedures to difficulties getting refunds. Finally, Perkins mentions alternatives for travelers with more flexibility than finances — sites specializing in last-minute travel discounts, round-the-world tickets, courier travel and “airhitching” (a variation of the old standby travel).

What I like most about this is that Perkins puts himself in the minds of travelers and walks them through the airline selection process, detailing the possibilities — and the potential problems — step by step.

Perkins’ chapter on booking hotels online is equally detailed and valuable. He begins by describing the different hotel chain sites (where you should be on the lookout for special short-term promotional rates), then proceeds to discuss the big-city discounters (where you’re likely to find great deals in midpriced hotels) such as Quikbook and wholesalers such as Hotel Reservations Network.

He next considers the pros and cons of budget motels, bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals and exchanges and other accommodation alternatives, from hostels to castles. He concludes with sage words about price-shopping pitfalls: Beware of prices that are quoted as “per person, double occupancy” — which means the actual room rate is double the quoted figure. For European hotels, check to make sure the value added tax is included in the quoted fare, and beware of differences in rating systems among countries. The United States, for example, has no standard rating system, so a “five-star” hotel in one place might be a “three-star” in another.

Perkins’ chapters on cruising, land travel and tour packages are somewhat less useful, partly because there are far fewer online options in these areas, but even these chapters are full of practical tips that leisure travelers in particular can profit from.

All in all, “Online Travel” is a concise and clear-eyed guide to making the most of Internet sites for travel planning and booking. There’s no hipper-than-thou attitude here, just good old unvarnished information and advice. While Perkins wisely tries to avoid the site-obsolescence pitfall by focusing on general strategies, he inevitably ends up referring to sites — and right now, at least, one of the greatest values of his book is the copious list of more than 600 Web addresses in the appendix, covering everything from accommodations, airlines, tour packages and transportation.

The content is clearly the crux of this book, but I must add that the design is amateurish and off-putting. The cover typeface, layout and photo selection make the book seem much less sophisticated than it is, while the inside pages use a background-color technique to set off chapter introductions and text blocks that seems hastily conceived and simply sloppy.

In this case, the present is far better than the packaging.

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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