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Electronic Explorer

More Ways to Make Reservations

November 10, 1996|LAURA BLY

When computer giant Microsoft launched its World Wide Web travel site last month, Chairman Bill Gates vowed the free booking service would reshape the way consumers plan and purchase their journeys by providing "real-time access to constantly changing information in an easy-to-use way." But despite some notable bells and whistles that set the service apart from a gaggle of online competitors, it'll be awhile before Microsoft's much-anticipated Expedia (http://www.expedia.msn.com) replaces a savvy travel agent--or a diligent traveler willing to do some legwork on his or her own.

Expedia's core element is its reservation service, which lets do-it-yourself travelers book flights, car rentals and hotels via Worldspan, a computer system used by travel agents. Expedia is geared primarily to leisure travelers--and, as such, streamlines the hunt for fares considerably. For example, most online booking services require travelers to select a flight in each direction before they price the entire ticket, a haphazard approach to nailing a bargain fare.

When asked to find the lowest fare, Expedia automatically picks and prices on a round-trip basis, which is typically the cheapest option. What's more, Expedia travelers don't need to know--or look up--the often arcane airport codes that correspond to their departure and arrival cities. A request for "Los Angeles," for example, would prompt Expedia to ask which area airport the traveler prefers; if price is the determining factor, the service can select the airport that offers the cheapest fare.

Another Expedia edge: Fare Tracker, a weekly e-mail service that sends would-be fliers the lowest published fares between up to three city pairs.

Of course, Expedia's fares are limited to those who pay to appear in the Worldspan database. Most start-up and low-cost carriers--including Southwest Airlines (http://www.iflyswa.com)--aren't represented. Charter and consolidator fares are missing too. Like its closest rival, Travelocity (http://www.travelocity.com), Expedia provides destination information (culled from Fielding and Moon guidebooks) and forums that let travelers exchange tips and advice. "News Point" includes travel-related news stories (updated weekly), weather reports and currency exchange.

But Expedia's scoop on about 300 international destinations and 20 U.S. cities is sketchy, at best. And any service that promises "real-time access to constantly-changing information" shouldn't include a listing for Washington, D.C.'s, popular C&O Canal barge rides without mentioning that last winter's Potomac River flooding has shuttered the operation indefinitely.

Another new Web-based booking service, while lacking the destination information of Expedia or Travelocity, includes several components that merit a look-see--most notably software that combs airline computers for cheaper fares even after a flight is ticketed.

Created by Associated Travel International, a Santa Ana-based chain of travel agencies, TravelBug.com (http://www.TravelBug.com) finds the lowest available fare and keeps checking every hour until departure time. If a fare goes down after a ticket is purchased--and the price difference is greater than the $50 fee many airlines charge for rewriting a ticket--an Associated agent will notify the traveler by phone or e-mail, says company President Thom Nulty.

TravelBug.com also offers airline departure, arrival and gate information and a selection of last-minute tour and cruise discounts--as well as a contest that gives away one free airline ticket every week.

Small bytes: Forget napkin folding. The Crystal Symphony's 103-day world cruise, departing from Los Angeles Jan. 17, will feature daily lectures and hands-on computer workshops ranging from PC basics to Windows 95 training. Too bad they haven't used some of that knowledge to create a Crystal Cruises Web site. Information: (310) 785-9300. . . . Carnival Air Lines' Web site (http://www.carnivalair.com) gives Net surfers unadvertised weekly discounts, including a companion ticket for 50% off the regular fare. The Fort Lauderdale-based airline offers service between the Northeast, Florida, California and the Caribbean.

Bly welcomes reader comments; her e-mail address is Laura.Bly@latimes.com. Electronic Explorer appears monthly.

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