During the past few months, I've merged with millions of computer users in cruising the Internet, the worldwide network of computers and data bases.
While there's information on just about any topic you can think of, the Internet is becoming rich in travel information.
Like most new users, I've become confused and lost; there are few road maps in cyberspace. But as I've become more comfortable exploring the Internet, I've come across some travel information that's both entertaining and useful.
Most of my computer travel has been on the World Wide Web, a section of the Internet that marries graphics and text in a novice-friendly way.
Through the web, I can reserve a rental car or book rooms at hotels worldwide, get information on visiting U.S. national parks or read the comments of individual travelers on everything from crummy airline service to finding a hotel room in Bangkok.
These days, commercial travel businesses are shifting into high gear on the web, lured by the prospect of an estimated 30 million Internet users. Business Traveler magazine estimates the web is doubling in size every two months, since anyone -- from a giant corporation to a computer-savvy individual -- can create what's called a web home page.
Such wide-open access is the Internet's beauty -- and its downfall. Some travel information is genuinely useful, but some is commercial hype. And there are few safeguards against wrong or misleading information.
So far, the travel information I've found by computer can't replace the comprehensiveness -- and portability -- of a good guidebook. And a knowledgeable travel agent or airline reservationist still can find a low airfare more quickly than I can.
Still, traveling around the web is addictive. You never know what you'll find -- or whom.
If you want to start exploring the World Wide Web, here are some basics:
* You need a computer with a modem (a device that lets your computer communicate via a phone line).
* You need access to the Internet, either through a commercial on-line service that has both Internet access and its own offerings (such as CompuServe, America Online or the new Microsoft Network), or through a company that simply provides Internet access.
* You also need software (such as Netscape or Mosaic) to navigate the web and take advantage of its graphics. But if you are entering the web through a commercial on-line service, that software is usually provided.
Once you're into the web, moving around is easy: Point the mouse to the highlighted text or graphic on the screen, click on it, and the computer takes you there.
Here are some interesting sites I've come across and their electronic addresses. (Blame the awkward style of the addresses on the computer language that underlies the Internet.)
Some of these sites are noncommercial -- run by individuals, governments or nonprofit groups. Others have been created by companies, or companies have paid to be included in a home page -- essentially an on-line ad. So, as always in the travel world, shop for information -- and consider the source.
Where to start
Two web sites -- Yahoo and the Global Network Navigator -- could keep travelers roaming in cyberspace for months.
Think of the Internet as a massive encyclopedia -- but one that's not in alphabetical order. Yahoo and GNN are ways to find the information you want, working as guides to the Internet and linking to hundreds of other web sites.
Yahoo: This is an excellent general index for all sorts of subjects, and it's a particularly convenient way to search for web sites on travel -- from foreign currency and hotel rates to tips on budget travel and on visiting Disneyland. Yahoo also gives access to some of the Internet's travel discussion groups (called newsgroups).
The electronic addresses for Yahoo's travel portion is:
Global Network Navigator: This is one of the Internet's first information clearinghouses and a good way to sort through the Web's layers of travel information. It has its own specialized electronic publications, including the GNN Travel Resource Center.
GNN is packed with practical tips for travelers -- health, visas, etc. -- and personal commentary:
Other travel-overview sites to explore:
Dr. Memory's Favorite Travel Pages is a directory of close to 1,000 travel-related sites compiled by Maryland businessman and traveler Bill Dell. It's a distillation, through one man's critical eye:
http://www.access.digex.net/(tilde)drmemory/cyber (underscore)travel.htm l
Rec.travel.library provides links to dozens of sites, many of them commercial (airlines, hotels) and to computer bulletin boards where people trade information:
City Net offers information on more than 1,000 cities worldwide, and includes restaurant reviews, hotel listings, phone numbers of visitors bureaus and more:
Travel Weekly, a travel-industry magazine, has a new web site with more than 500 links to travel businesses. It's an easy way to get to the home pages of discount-travel vendors and of airlines (with details on flights and fares), including Southwest Airlines, which has one of the more interesting airline home pages and hopes to start booking tickets on-line later this year:
Lonely Planet: Like many commercial web sites, they want to show you their stuff in the hope that you'll buy something -- in this case, the Lonely Planet company's guidebooks. But this home page has lots of practical information, comments from travelers and links to other Internet sites. And the graphics are fun:
Maui: A volunteer group runs MauiLink as a computerized community bulletin board. There's a wealth of information for visitors, too, on everything from surfing conditions and daily weather reports to background on Hawaiian culture and environmental issues:
Another good, although very commercially oriented source, for travel information on Hawaii is at:
U.S. State Department travel warnings: Get the text of travel warnings and information sheets on countries worldwide at this site. It's also a handy way to get various nations' visa requirements for Americans:
Centers for Disease Control: All the grisly details on tropical diseases and vaccination requirements for international travelers. The latest cruise-ship inspection scores can also be found here -- on how the CDC rates ships in terms of sanitation (of water systems, food preparation and general cleanliness):
San Juan Island: Almost everything you'd want to know about San Juan Island (and a bit on Orcas), from hotel and B&B; information to parks and beaches, local llama ranching and environmentalism:
For Washington State Ferries schedules and other tranportation information, go to the Department of Transportation's home page:
National parks: To get phone numbers and details of national parks throughout the United States, visit the National Park Service's still evolving home page (which includes a "park of the month"):
For even more detail on national parks, head to GORP (Great Outdoors Recreation Page):
National forests, North Cascades: For information on Washington's Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Gifford Pinchot National Forest and North Cascades National Park, go to the University of Washington's home page:
Once into the UW home page, click on the category "tools" and then on "parks and forest information." You'll likely detour along the way, since the UW home page gives access to plenty of goodies -- including the complete works of Shakespeare.