Travel planning comes home on your computer


To some in the travel industry, the invention of the jumbo jet might be considered the beginning of high-tech travel. It allowed travelers to take a plane to Europe as easily as they would have taken a train from Baltimore to Boston -- in an even shorter period of time. These days, developments in computer technology are taking consumers to another level. With an emphasis on saving time and money and enhancing the travel experience, computer on-line services, consumer reservations systems and the "no-ticket" ticket are starting a new wave in high-tech travel.

Traditionally, consumers have used travel agents to make reservations and book tickets, or have called airlines and hotels themselves. They researched their trips through guidebooks, magazines and the occasional television program with views of scenic natural wonders in a particular destination. Forpeople who are computer literate, all this has changed.

"People want honest information," says Michael Dupuis, executive editor at Weissman Travel Reports, publisher of an electronic travel newsletter. "They don't want the glitzed-over tourist board's 'Come to Jamaica where everybody is happy' kind of information. They want to know that if you go to Jamaica, you'll see poverty, and everybody will want to sell you condos."

The Weissman Travel Reports electronic newsletter is just one of a number of different sources of travel information for people who have computers with modems, a market that, according to the U.S. Travel Data Center, is on the rise. In a recent survey by the organization, an affiliate of the Travel Industry Association of America, more than 34 percent of those polled say they are familiar with computer travel services.

Baltimore resident Erik Monti is one of these people. Instead of calling a travel agent or buying a guidebook for a recent trip to theCaribbean, Mr. Monti surfed the Internet for information -- looking specifically for tips on private beaches in Jamaica. "Conde Nast Traveler likes to promote they have the untainted spots around the world," he says, "but when you're posting to a newsgroup you can typically find out inside information from people who actually live there." He received four responses within a day.

The Internet, which is used by 32 million people, allows people to communicate worldwide. Want to know where to stay in Vancouver? Send a message over the Internet, and it's likely that someone in Vancouver will reply with the name of the city's best-kept bed-and-breakfast secret.

The Internet offers other services too. You can make travel reservations, find travel guides and even, Mr. Monti says, take a video tour of famous destinations, such as the Louvre in Paris or ski resorts in Aspen. To do this, users should look for travel newsgroups.

Online services like CompuServe, America Online and Prodigy provide basically the same travel features but are a bit more user-friendly. On CompuServe, users can type in "go travel" to open up a range of services, including ski updates from Switzerland, restaurant guides, hotel information and travel forums, where users from 138 countries compare opinions on destinations.

To access the travel services provided by America Online, use keyword travel. Users will find Traveler's Corner, which offers the Weissman Travel Reports electronic newsletter and Travel Holiday Magazine. There also is a travel forum that has bulletin boards where people can compare information. Users should also check out Bargain Box, updated weekly, which can offer some outstanding deals.

Both CompuServe and America Online offer Eaasy Sabre, a computerized reservations system owned by American Airlines. Through Eaasy Sabre, which is a pared-down version of the travel agent's computerized reservation system, consumers can check on airfares (all airlines that subscribe, anyway) and hotel and car-rental rates. Consumers may book the reservations through their computers.

But as easy as Sabre purports to be, complexities have limited its use. "Travel in itself is very complex," says CompuServe's Beth Sibbring of Eaasy Sabre. "There are tens of thousands of fare changes a day." The rates that Eaasy Sabre lists on the computer screen are often not as current as the information you can get by phone from an airline reservations staffer. And its hotel data frequently does not include weekend or seasonal promotions, which generally offer the best bargains.

Online services are not the only benefits for the traveler who has a computer. Software, such as Rand McNally's TripMaker ($49.98), can help travelers map out a destination, choose recreational activities along the way, and find directions to more than 640,000 miles of roads in 125,000 cities in North America. Broderbund's AutoMap ($49.84), is very similar to TripMaker in that it helps users plot a route and find attractions along the way. Both are available for PC and Macintosh.

Furthering the concept of computer software, Magellan, a Canada-based interactive media company, recently unveiled "The Traveler," which offers color graphics, audio and full-motion video to help travel purveyors like Universal Studios, Radisson Hotels and Air France, along with various destinations, showcase their products. "The Traveler" CD-ROM is free.

Even consumers without computers and modems can take advantage of new high-tech convenience-oriented developments. Southwest Airlines has launched "the ticketless ticket." Using ticketless, a traveler calls the airline, makes a reservation and receives a confirmation number (much like at a hotel). When travelers arrive at the airport, they show ID, relay the confirmation number and receive a boarding pass.

"Ticketless has the tremendous potential to increase convenience and decrease congestion," says Charles Zug, manager of business development for Southwest Airlines. The process primarily eliminates the need for travel-agency involvement since there is no ticket to be printed. Southwest offers ticketless at BWI.

Time-saving convenience is also a factor for Hyatt Regency, which recently unveiled interactive free-standing kiosks in its properties in Chicago and Atlanta that allow hotel guests to check in in less than 90 seconds. The kiosk also dispenses keys.

With all the emphasis on developing new technology, it may be surprising that even as awareness, as revealed by the U.S. Travel Data survey, is high, actual usage may not yet be near those levels.

"Many people are aware of what they can do through consumer online services but they're not yet convinced," says Philip Wolf, executive director of the Independent Travel Technology Association. "Most are not fundamentally changing their travel habits." Mr. Monti, 29, the Caribbean traveler and the founder of Butchers' Hill-based Charm Net, an Internet access provider, says computer-literate adults in their late 20s to mid 30s are most comfortable with using technology in all facets of life, including travel.

And even as today's biggest challenge may be to try to change travel habits of the more reluctant generations, inventors, computer programmers and travel-industry executives continue to search for new ways to enhance technology.

Clive Jones, an economic forecaster at San Francisco-based Economics Research Associates, is the author of a study called "Technology and Tourism: What Happens Next." In the near future, he predicts developments such as high-speed passenger ships geared for two- and three-day trips across the Atlantic; simultaneous voice-activated language translation; realistic simulation of high-risk recreational experiences, such as sky diving and river rafting; and a new jet-lag pill to eliminate traveler fatigue.

As the traditional notions of travel are constantly evolving with new developments in technology, the only group to get lost in the shuffle likely may be travel agents. "Rather than be a distributor of tickets, travel agencies must become a distributor of information," says Stanley Dalnekoff, president of New Haven Travel Service, in New Haven, Conn. "He who controls the information controls the power."

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