Here's the deal: I want a room in Rome for the night of Nov. 4. I'd like to spend between $100 and $150 for a small place with some atmosphere, hopefully a somewhat romantic place, near the Via Veneto or the Spanish Steps. That's it. Simple, right? I figure the Internet can make mincemeat of a mission like this. I mean, how many smart people have been working for how many years on this thing?
I pour myself a little Chianti and fire up the computer.
What happens next is like one of those agonizing dreams in which you helplessly watch yourself move in slow motion trying to escape some torturous terror.
For two and a half hours, I search, and search, and search -- and come up with: a site whose categories aren't intuitive and aren't defined, so I waste time looking for "moderate" hotels when what I really wanted was "inexpensive"; a mapping misadventure that tries to locate Rome somewhere in Africa; a prolonged "Search for hotels" link that finally leads to "HTTP Error 400"; a hotel site that crashes my computer, twice; and woven through these, fruitless frothing hours waiting for pages to download and then surfing through lists that give me information about wonderful-sounding hotels but don't allow me to book them.
After all this and the bottle of Chianti, I eventually find three choice places, each of which -- when I finally reach the right informational page -- turns out to be unavailable for the night I need.
Inescapable conclusion: The Internet sucks.
Next morning: I call the travel agency I used to use and find that the phone number has been changed. Dial directory assistance and get a number in a different area code. Call and ask for the sophisticated, astute agent I always worked with. Person who answers says, "I don't know of anyone by that name who's ever worked here." Uppity whippersnapper. Tell her, "I want a room in Rome for the night of Nov. 4. I'd like to spend between $100 and $150 for a small place with some atmosphere, hopefully a somewhat romantic place, near the Via Veneto or the Spanish Steps. Can you help me with that?"
"Oh, no," she says, "we don't do international bookings anymore. Except for Mexico."
"Ah, can you recommend anyone who does?"
Next, I got the Italian Consulate in San Francisco to recommend me their favorite agencies.
Call the first agency, in San Francisco. Get a very forthright guy who says, "You want us to book a hotel for one night in Rome? One night only? Oh no, sir, we don't do that. Actually, we will do that, but it will cost you a $100 service fee, and I doubt you want to pay that -- it's almost as much as the room will cost. We will book a stay of many nights, or we will book a tour with air and hotel, but just one night -- it's not worth the work for us."
Right. Why didn't I think of that?
Call the second recommended agency, a large tour operator out of Sacramento, Calif. Woman who answers says, "Oh no, we don't do anything like that. We just organize large tours."
"Well, can you tell me the hotel you normally use?"
"Oh sure, we use the Accademia. Try them." Click.
I get the San Francisco Yellow Pages and scan the pages of travel agents, pick out one that specializes in Europe. Guy who picks up the phone chuckles heartily at my request. "Oh no, we don't do anything like that. Book just one hotel room for one night? Oh no, ha ha ha ..."
I drive to the local bookstore and pick up an armful of guidebooks: Lonely Planet, Frommer's, Fodor's, Cadogan, Rick Steves and Cheap Sleeps in Italy. Drive home. Total time: 30 minutes. Total cost: $121.50 -- about what I'm hoping to spend for a night.
I zoom like a finely honed search engine through the books and find three places that just about all my softcover confidantes think are really good: the Campo de' Fiori, the Pensione Navona and the Hotel Duca d'Alba. Total time: 30 minutes.
Armed and dangerous now, I sally back into the wilds of the Internet.
I go to Frommer's and type Pensione Navona into the search field. "Your search for "pensione navona" matched 0 of 3,583 documents. 0 are presented, ranked by relevance."
OK, that's helpful. Go to the Rome accommodations page, choose to list the hotels alphabetically, find the Pensione Navona in the list, click on it and get an agreeable description. But -- doh! -- there's no way to book the hotel from the Frommer's page.
I click on a link that says Book Lodgings and go to a page co-branded with PlacesToStay.com. Right at the top of the page it says: "This list shows ALL properties in Rome."
That sounds hopeful, but unfortunately, there's no search function. Why not? Why can't you search the stupid list by hotel name? Is this too much to ask?
So I scroll and scroll and scroll, feeling incredibly stupid, until the Duca d'Alba pops onto the screen. Click on it. Nice page with photo and essential info: 27 rooms, short walk from Forum and Coliseum, check in noon, check out noon, etc. Click on Check Availability.
Eureka! I've hit the jackpot! I've won the lottery! There's a double room available for 220,000 lire (about $95). Grab it before it disappears. I click on Make Reservation, fill out some forms to become a registered member, then reserve the room using my shiny new user name and password, and finally input my credit card info. That's it! You've got room!
Bring on the champagne!
I can't think of six and a half hours I've ever spent more fruitfully. Well, there was that one fishing trip where it rained all day and the only thing I caught was a rubber boot, that was close.
But this fishing trip caught more than a rubber boot -- it caught the Duca d'Alba!
Now, what have we learned from this?
1) The Internet is NOT a one-stop travel shop.
If you had unlimited time and patience you could probably, eventually, accumulate all the information you wanted -- just about when that roomful of monkeys was putting the last period on "Henry VIII." The Net's much-ballyhooed seamless integration ain't seamless or integrated. A truly seamless Net would allow me to research hotels by price, location and description, to map the location precisely, to choose a hotel and to book it on the spot, without all the backpedaling, starting over and dead ends I encountered. What's the problem here? Am I missing something?
I understand that guidebook publishers are not travel agencies and vice versa, but if booking travel online is one of the great potential uses of the Internet, one of the new e-honeypots, why hasn't someone built a site that does all this without the pain and patience-plucking? Wouldn't that be the killer travel app?
The Internet is supposed to make you feel empowered, but by the end of this epic expedition what I'm feeling is more like -- deflowered. Of course, like sex, the first time is probably the most unforgettable and in many ways the most complicated and difficult as well. Next time I book online, I'll skip the clumsy foreplay and go right to the sweet spot, and presumably, it should get better and better as I do it more and more.
2) The travel industry is turning upside down.
The conventional wisdom is that travel agents will do one of three things -- go out of business; embrace and exploit the Internet as an essential extension of their core business and expand their customer base accordingly; become experts in a particular niche and sell their services and expertise as consultants, making their money not just on commissions but more importantly on service fees charged either by the hour or by the job. I got a taste of this with the travel agent who said he could book me a room, but the service would cost me as much as the room.
It used to be that the reason people used travel agents was that they knew all the mysterious booking mumbo-jumbo that mere mortals weren't privy to; now the Internet has made us all travel shamans -- and so suddenly what the travel agent has to sell is not the booking chants and dances but his own (and his team's) intimate personal knowledge of the world. Of course this was always a part of the package, but today it's the primary part of the package.
3) Printed guidebooks are not going to disappear, at least not as long as I'm alive.
I find it much easier to make sense of a place by going through a guidebook page by page, section by section, than by the equivalent scanning online. Maybe this is a generational thing. Maybe my children will find it easier to scan a Web site than read a guidebook -- but for me, at least, I was able to organize my booking expedition only after I got the printed guides in my hands. Then I could look at the maps and at the descriptions of the different areas and leaf back and forth and figure out what my options were, where I wanted to be and what kind of place I really wanted to stay in.
4) A simple request is not.
Booking a hotel room in Rome for one night -- how difficult could that be? Well, how much is a day worth to you? Let us pause a moment to pay homage to the travel agents of yore, whose truly heroic efforts -- much maligned and for mostly measly commissions -- have never been properly appreciated.
5) Multimedia, mon.
For a mission like mine, the best plan clearly is to use a combination of all the sources available -- get recommendations from friends and colleagues (and a friendly travel agent, if you know one), buy guidebooks and see what they say, surf the Internet. Yes, this can take forever, so my advice is to figure out in advance just how much this all means to you. How much time do you want to spend on planning, how important is getting exactly the right romantic hotel in exactly the right close-to-ruins-and-shops neighborhood? If it's your honeymoon, it may be worth a week of work. But do the how-much-is-this-worth math and then stick with it. The Internet can easily become a huge whirling hurling time-suck. And remember, time is money.