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The Travel Agent in Your PC


Before the birth of their first child last year, Chris Kenton decided to take his wife, Linda, on one last free-spirited vacation. Kenton, the president of a Bay Area tech marketing company called Cymbic, wanted to put together his own itinerary rather than buy a cookie-cutter tour. Even just a few years ago, that likely would have meant a call to a travel agent.

But Kenton used the Internet to book his Hawaiian vacation, a complex holiday that covered two islands, two hotels, a rental cottage, two rental cars, and inter-island flights as well as flights to and from San Francisco. He arranged all that in three hours, using a handful of travel sites. The result? A $3,800 dream vacation that went off without a hitch. "I was able to preview every part of the trip," he says. "I knew exactly what to expect when I got there after seeing it online, and everything met my expectations."

Nowadays, more folks are donning the virtual travel agent hat. That's a big change from the early days of online travel planning, when multiple-leg itineraries were difficult to arrange on slower computers. But with faster Web connections and better-designed pages, booking online is a snap.

That's not to say it's a one-click experience. Travelers will be sorely disappointed if they expect to find a single site that can help them arrange every aspect of a custom vacation. Nor is there one established method to finding the lowest rates and fares. For instance, while engines such as SideStep.com and FareChase.com pull in fares from several sites and provide side-by-side comparison, they may miss new sections of a site offering special packages.

Although bidding site Priceline.com may claim to deliver the best prices, some travel experts dispute this. Edward Hasbrouck, author of The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace (Avalon Travel Publishing, $17.95), says fares on that site are no better and are often higher than what you could get from a travel consolidator such as Hotwire.com and OneTravel.com. Consolidators sell cut-rate tickets or accommodations without naming the airline or hotel. That way, carriers and hotels can fill seats or rooms without compromising their own price structures. Priceline also uses consolidator fares; the difference is that the consolidator rate is the starting point in Priceline's bidding process, says Hasbrouck.

If travelers prefer to buy tickets at the published fares--an option that allows them to pick the carriers and the routes--they should check general travel sites, such as Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, and Orbitz. Hasbrouck, however, recommends that they use these sites merely to find prices. They should then go directly to the airline Web site, he says, where they can buy the ticket at the same fare or sometimes lower. And they can often get bonus frequent-flier miles.

While your finger must do a lot of clicking, no one disputes that the Web is an invaluable tool that has revolutionized travel booking and research. Witness the path Kenton took to arrive at his itinerary. He and his wife envisioned a 12-day vacation that would allow them to see the islands of Oahu and Maui. While they wanted to enjoy the luxury of hotels, they also pictured themselves off on their own in Maui. Finally, they wanted to end their trip with a stay at the Halekulani, a gem of a hotel right on Waikiki Beach.

Kenton started shopping for round-trip San Francisco-Honolulu fares at Travelocity and Expedia. He also checked Hawaii travel specialist Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays. But he found that the fares on these sites either cost more than those on airline sites or didn't fit his schedule. He ended up booking at American Airlines Vacations (aavacations.com), a subsidiary of the carrier, because it offered a flexible package deal. "They let me book a flight to Honolulu but get a car and a hotel in Maui," he says.

From Honolulu, Kenton needed to get to Maui, 45 minutes away by plane, and back. For the inter-island flights, Kenton used the Hawaiian Airlines site. Next, he started searching for the perfect rental cottage by the sea in which they could spend four of their eight days in Maui. A search on Google.com found about 50 sites featuring bed and breakfasts and private homes on the island. Most of them had pictures, rates, and availability dates. The Web pages also allowed Kenton to check the surrounding areas for such things as population density, kinds of beaches, and proximity to restaurants. He decided on a bungalow in lush and secluded Hana on the northeastern tip of Maui that he found through Web site Hana Alii Holidays (hanaalii.com).

For the final portion of their vacation, Kenton searched for sites that offered stays at the Halekulani. No sites carried the hotel except for the Halekulani's home page, so he used that to book a four-day stay. He then went to Avis.com to reserve a rental car on Oahu.

One thing Kenton didn't do on his online odyssey was book a kayaking trip. He looked at some sites but said he wasn't comfortable with the information he received. So he opted to wait for the locals' recommendations. For detailed information on specialized topics, such as good kayaking outfitters, it's best to post a query with online newsgroups, says Hasbrouck, because people in such groups are often savvy about the topic. You can easily find links to these groups through America Online, Google.com, and other search engines. Another option is to search for sites of travel agents that specialize in certain kinds of trips, such as painting tours of Tuscany or bike trips in Vietnam. Then e-mail your questions to these specialists.

Although the Web's vacation planning tools have multiplied, it's not the best medium for arranging all holidays. For instance, the cheapest place to buy international tickets remains the offline "bucket shops" that purchase big chunks of seats from airlines. "Ironically, these tickets often have fewer restrictions than the discount fares you can find online," says Hasbrouck.

As for cruises, some experts say the best way to book one is to talk to a travel agent. Why? They know the demographics of specific cruises, something that might not be clear from the descriptions on the travel sites. Bill Marbach, vice-president of sales at hotel discount site Lodging.com, says that travelers are often leery of booking a $2,000 or $3,000 package, such as a cruise, based solely on online data. "People want more info," he says.

A final caveat: Because you don't deal with a specific person, sometimes it's harder in the virtual world than in the real world to find someone to talk to when glitches, such as emergency booking changes, arise. Refunds and charges for changes can be problematic--so ask before you book. But if you're like Kenton, the ease and control you get from being your own travel agent is worth the risk. He's already planning his next jaunt to Hawaii, and he knows exactly where to look.

Corrections and Clarifications

"The travel agent in your PC" (BusinessWeek Investor, Feb. 25) incorrectly referred to consolidator OneTravel as Travelone. The correct Web site is onetravel.com.

By Alex Salkever


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